Friday, February 27, 2009

DVD of the Week: Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired

In the 1970s, Roman Polanski’s career was at its zenith with classics like The Tragedy of Macbeth (1971) and Chinatown (1974) but his personal life was in shambles. His wife, model-turned-actress Sharon Tate had been brutally murdered by the Charles Manson family. To make matters worse, on March 11, 1977, he was arrested in Los Angeles and charged on multiple counts of unlawful sexual intercourse with a minor. In February 1978, he fled the United States and has never returned.

Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired (2008) is a documentary that re-opens the case and examines the subsequent investigation, interviewing the lawyers representing the case and the victim herself. It also examines the media firestorm that surrounded Polanski and the case. The doc spends time introducing all the major players involved in the case – the attorneys and the judge – and then proceeds to take a look at how it all played out with tons of archival footage.

Wanted and Desired paints a fascinating, complex portrait of Polanski – the controversial filmmaker and the devastation left in the wake of his wife’s murder. It also helps set the stage for the court case, which unfolded in a very unconventional fashion and in a way that neither attorney could have predicted. Judge Rittenband, who presided over the case, was easily manipulated and liked to be surrounded by celebrities. He comes across as somewhat incompetent and out of his depth.

While Wanted and Desired does create some empathy for Polanski and provides possible motivation for his actions, it also demonstrates that, at times, he was his own worst enemy. This doc is a fascinating look not just at Polanski, but the byzantine machinations of the U.S. legal system and how justice is rarely blind. It doesn’t excuse what Polanski did but puts it into historical context and shows how the judge’s personal views impacted the case, changing the filmmaker’s life forever.

Special Features:

There is an audio commentary by director Marina Zenovich and editor Joe Bini. She says that it took five years to get the film made: two to get financing and three to actually do it. She also talks about the challenge of merging Polanski’s life and the court case. Zenovich points out that it was hard getting archival footage from the 1970s because much of it had been either taped over or lost. Bini talks a lot about the structure of the doc. – for example, where should they start the story? This quite a chatty track as Zenovich and Bini talk about how they put this film together.

Also included are five deleted scenes that feature the current L.A. District Attorney and his thoughts on Judge Rittenband. Prosecutor Roger Gunson returns to Rittenband’s old courtroom. He also shares some of his memories of the case.

There are “Extra Interviews” with various attorneys talking about the case then and now, including the possibility that Polanski may come back to the U.S. They also discuss the possibility that he might be pardoned.

“Friends and Colleagues Talk about Polanski” feature several childhood friends and people who have worked with Polanski on films in the past. They talk about his rough upbringing during World War II and his time spent in film school in Poland. They take us through various periods in his life. Naturally, Mia Farrow talks about making Rosemary’s Baby (1968) and speaks fondly of working with Polanski.

“Writers of Polanski” features three journalists talking about Polanski, the man and his career.

Finally, there is “Will He Ever Come Back?”, a question posed to various people in the doc. Not surprisingly they almost all say no for a variety of reasons.

Monday, February 23, 2009

My Own Private Idaho

They say that the best stories are right in front of our eyes. No one is more aware of this idea than filmmaker Gus Van Sant. In his first two motion pictures, Mala Noche (1986) and Drugstore Cowboy (1989), Van Sant skillfully legitimized everyday existence on film by presenting fascinating explorations into street life. Coming from a well-to-do middle class family, he became interested in the street life of Portland that he saw as "a secret world I knew nothing about." These films never exploited or romanticized their rather seedy subject matter, but viewed the characters impartially, leaving it up to the viewer to make a value judgment. Both films, however, were based on other people's work — a warm-up for Van Sant's next film, My Own Private Idaho (1991). This feature is arguably his best effort to date because it is his most personal project, a labor of love that shows a filmmaker at the apex of his powers.

Idaho is an ambitious blend of Shakespeare's Henry IV and the lives of Portland street hustlers. The film focuses on the adventures of two social outcasts. Scott Favor (Keanu Reeves) is a modern-day Prince Hal, a rich kid from an affluent family slumming with street folk as an act of rebellion against his father, the mayor of Portland. It is only a few days until he turns 21 years old, at which point he will inherit a lot of money. His close friend, Mike Waters (River Phoenix), is a gay, narcoleptic street hustler prone to lapsing into a deep sleep during times of stress at the most inopportune moments. Mike is the son of a mysterious waitress, (we only catch glimpses of her through his grainy, Super-8 reminiscences) and this results in a desire to track her down. It is a quest that takes both hustlers from the streets of Portland to America's heartland, as symbolized by Idaho, and finally a trip to Italy. But the film and Mike keep returning to "both the literal Idaho of his early years and the utopian Idaho of rooted love."

Early drafts of the screenplay were set on Hollywood Boulevard in Los Angeles with working titles like Blue Funk and Minions of the Moon. Then, Van Sant read John Rechy's 1963 novel, City of Night and decided to change the setting to Portland. Idaho's screenplay originally consisted of two separate scenarios: the first was called Modern Days recounting Mike's story and a second one that updated the Henry IV plays with Scott's story. Van Sant realized that he could blend the two stories together a la the "cut up" technique used by writer, William S. Burroughs. In essence, this method involves various story fragments and ideas mixed and matched together to form a unique story. The idea to combine the two scenarios formed in Van Sant's head after watching Orson Welles' Chimes at Midnight (1966). "I thought that the Henry IV plays were really a street story," Van Sant once said in an interview. "I also knew this fat guy named Bob, who had always reminded me of Falstaff and who was crazy about hustler boys. It was then that I decided to combine the stories." Van Sant gives the Bard's dialogue a streetwise twist to produce amusing situations where high culture meets low culture. The effect produces a kind of absurdist feel to the proceedings and reinforces the timelessness of Shakespeare's prose by giving it a modern facelift. Van Sant got the idea for Mike's narcolepsy from a man who was a guide of sorts when the director was gathering material for the film. According to the director, he always looked like he was about to fall asleep.

Van Sant ended up renaming the screenplay My Own Private Idaho — derived from the B-52's song of the same name which he had heard numerous times while visiting Idaho in the early 1980s. At first, no studio would touch the script because of its potentially controversial and off-beat subject matter. After Drugstore Cowboy received such favorable critical raves and awards, studios started to show some interest. However, they all wanted their own versions made and not Van Sant's, so he was back to square one. This frustration prompted the filmmaker to attempt the feature on a shoestring budget with a cast of actual street kids filling out the roles. Fortunately, New Line Cinema, the same production company behind the very successful A Nightmare on Elm Street franchise, were in the process of branching out into producing "art house" films and decided to back Van Sant's vision with a $2.5 million budget.

Once the financial backing was secured, Van Sant faced the problem of whom he wanted cast in the two central roles. He decided to send the script to the agents of Keanu Reeves and River Phoenix, figuring that their agents would reject the script. He assumed that these up-and-coming actors would probably not want to take a chance with such an unusual film. However, Reeves' agent was amicable to the project, but Phoenix's agent wouldn't even show the screenplay to the young actor. Not to be deterred, Van Sant got the idea for Reeves to personally deliver the film's treatment to Phoenix at his home in Florida. Reeves did so over the Christmas holidays, riding his motorcycle from his family home in Canada to the Phoenix family ranch in Micanopy, Florida, outside Gainesville. Reeves was no stranger to Phoenix, having worked previously with River on Lawrence Kasdan's I Love You to Death (1990). Once Van Sant got by their agents and talked to the two actors he realized that they were up to the challenge. Reeves and Phoenix had their doubts about such a risky venture but decided to take the plunge and made a pact to do the film.

It is easy to understand the actors’ apprehension in getting involved with Van Sant's film. How would Hollywood react to these two "rising stars" appearing as hustlers in a "gay" film? For Phoenix, it was the perfect project to experiment and to grow as an actor. It was also the perfect role to shed, once and for all, his "teen idol" image and the baggage that accompanied such a perception. Van Sant never saw his film as a story about gay street life, but rather "about an area of society—prostitution—that's not defined in terms of gay or straight." Originally, the screenplay was rather nebulous in its view of whether Mike was gay or not. It was Phoenix who decided to make Mike gay and this change only strengthened the character and improved the film.

Idaho is Van Sant's own unique spin on the road film. The motion picture opens and ends with Mike on the road — a deserted, picturesque stretch somewhere in Idaho. In both scenes Mike delivers a monologue, a Kerouacian ode to the road before passing out in a narcoleptic fit. There is something about this road that induces Mike's seizures. Perhaps it is his observation that when looked at in a certain way (with the visual aid of an iris lens) the road seems like "a fucked-up face, like it's saying, 'Have a nice day.’” Mike's narcolepsy is an important motif in the film. It is the first image we see, appearing highlighted in a dictionary. His black outs act as a portal that allows us to enter Mike's world: the private Idaho of the film's title which offers us glimpses into his dreams, his aspirations, and gives us clues to his past. Mike’s narcoleptic escapades are comprised of fragmented, "visionary" footage: fast moving clouds in vast, blue skies; salmon jumping up stream; and old, scratchy, 8mm film of Mike's trailer park past. These images were amassed by Van Sant and his cinematographers, Eric Alan Edwards and John Campbell who, at first didn't really know what to do with this abstract footage, but Mike's fractured past provided the ideal vehicle for these scenes.

Mike's fractured past is actually a microcosm of the overall structure of Idaho which blends all sorts of styles of filmmaking. Again, this approach harkens back to Burroughs' "cut up" technique as the film shifts from the surreal, with a scene that involves the covers of male porno magazines coming to life, to a parodic, mock documentary style where anonymous hustlers recall horror stories of their first dates. Van Sant even imparts a kind of dreamy, romanticism to the film with beautiful vistas and rolling landscapes captured via time-lapse photography. All of this never becomes too conceited which is due in part to Van Sant's direction and the actors’ (in particular, Phoenix) ability to impart a certain amount of humor — whether it is through Phoenix's comic asides, referring to Idaho as "the potato state," or Van Sant's inversion of cliché images and the use of music to simultaneously pay homage and parody the idea of the open road. Imagine William S. Burroughs rewriting Jack Kerouac's On the Road and you get an idea of the tone that Van Sant is trying to establish.

Like Austin filmmaker Richard Linklater, Van Sant's films mix professional thespians with non-actors effortlessly. The rather eclectic cast (that features 1960s cult actor and Andy Warhol regular, Udo Kier; Red Hot Chili Pepper bassist Flea, and director of Winter Kills, William Richert) fill out their respective roles admirably, but the film really belongs to River Phoenix. Mike is clearly the heart of the film with Scott's story taking up very little screen time. With his narcoleptic flashbacks, we see most of the film through Mike's eyes. As one critic described him, "at once pathetic flotsam, passive dreamer, and true visionary." He yearns for love and eternal friendship from Scott in an incredibly touching and tragic scene where the two are sitting by a campfire on the road to Idaho. Mike tries to articulate his feelings for Scott when he says, "I love you and you don't pay me." Mike conveys a feeling that Scott could never imagine, let alone feel. This scene, which Phoenix rewrote with Reeves input, includes incredible character defining dialogue and "provides countless clues to the interior depths" of Mike's character. This scene is the highlight of the film and really showcases Phoenix's formidable acting talents. Keanu Reeves, as in most of his other films doesn't really act, but rather reacts to what other characters do as this scene so adequately demonstrates. While Phoenix suggests so much by doing so little, Reeves remains what one critic described as a "reactive slate." Reeves reportedly was not comfortable with this aspect of the film as he said in an interview, "I'm not against gays or anything, but I won't have sex with guys. I would never do that on film. We did a little of it in Idaho and, believe me, it was hard work. Never again.”

Phoenix delivers an intelligent performance by giving life and depth to the character of Mike. He clearly enjoyed Van Sant's relaxed approach to his actors which drew such good performances from them.
“Gus is very open to collaboration. He doesn’t direct in a show-and-tell style but instead asks questions and brings it out of you like a good psychiatrist might. He allows you to be responsible for your role. Directors can be very frightened of collaborative things with actors. When we talked, we cut a deal where I had complete creative control. I was curious because I had a lot of input and he was very open about my suggestions. So this collaboration became my apprenticeship with Gus.”
To fulfill his end of the deal, the young actor put hours of research into his role. "I spent quite a few hours on the streets in Portland between eight and four in the morning," Phoenix remembers. However, he may have immersed himself too far into the role as Van Sant commented, "he seemed to be changing into this character." One of the film's cinematographers, Eric Allan Edwards also noticed a change in the actor. "He looked like a street kid. In a very raw way he wore that role." And it shows in the way Phoenix looks in the film with a combination of messed up hair, bedraggled clothes, and "bruised good looks." His rumpled appearance and mannerisms make one think of James Dean's tortured teen, Jim Stark in Rebel Without A Cause (1955). Like Dean, Phoenix can suggest emotion from simple movements and gestures. Idaho enabled Phoenix to shed the pretty-boy/Teen Beat image that had dogged him throughout his career and portray a character that could really exist. His performance in Idaho, with its willingness to take chances, ranks right up there with some of the great performances of our time and makes one realize what a talent has been lost in his death.
Van Sant's film received largely positive reviews. Film critic Roger Ebert wrote, "The achievement of this film is that it wants to evoke that state of drifting need, and it does. There is no mechanical plot that has to grind to a Hollywood conclusion, and no contrived test for the heroes to pass.” Vincent Canby, in his New York Times review, praised the performances of the two lead actors: "The performances, especially by the two young stars, are as surprising as they are sure. Mr. Phoenix (Dogfight) and Mr. Reeves (of the two Bill and Ted comedies) are very fine in what may be the two best roles they'll find in years. Roles of this density, for young actors, do not come by that often.” In his review for Newsweek, David Ansen praised Phoenix's performance: "The campfire scene in which Mike awkwardly declares his unrequited love for Scott is a marvel of delicacy. In this, and every scene, Phoenix immerses himself so deeply inside his character you almost forget you've seen him before: it's a stunningly sensitive performance, poignant and comic at once.”

J. Hoberman, in his review for the Village Voice, wrote, "While Phoenix vanishes with reckless triumph into his role, Reeves stands, or occasionally struts, uneasily beside his, unable to project even the self-mocking wit of Matt Dillon's star turn in Drugstore Cowboy.” However, Time magazine's Richard Schickel wrote, "What plot it has is borrowed, improbably, from Henry IV, and whenever anyone manages to speak an entire paragraph, it is usually a Shakespearean paraphrase. But this is a desperate imposition on an essentially inert film.” In his review for The New Yorker, Terrence Rafferty wrote, "Van Sant has stranded the actor in a movie full of flat characters and bad ideas, but Phoenix walks through the picture, down the road after road after road, as if he were surrounded by glorious phantoms.”

My Own Private Idaho didn't break any box office records or win any Academy Awards, but it has endured. For a film that made so many studio executives nervous, Idaho doesn't go for the shock value of its subject matter. Van Sant presents his hustlers as real, three-dimensional characters with humanity and the capacity for tenderness and humor. What could have become exploitive trash in the hands of a lesser talent, becomes a touching, poetic quest for family and identity that aspires to a level that most films only dream of attaining.



SOURCES

"A Brief Life." Premiere. March 1994.

Fuller, Graham. “Gus Van Sant: Swimming Against the Current.” Even Cowgirls Get the Blues and My Own Private Idaho. Faber & Faber. 1993. 

Friday, February 20, 2009

DVD of the Week: My Name is Bruce

Over the years, actor Bruce Campbell has cultivated a sizable fan following based predominantly on the three Evil Dead films he made with Sam Raimi. In the 1990s, he tried to make a bid for mainstream success with small roles in The Hudsucker Proxy (1994), Congo (1995) and McHale’s Navy (1997) – none of which were commercial or critical successes. In the 2000s, he’s been relegated to mostly direct-to-Sci-Fi Channel fare like Alien Apocalypse (2005) and cameos in Raimi’s Spider-Man films. Campbell’s had more success with personal films like Bubba Ho-Tep (2002), which he made independently with Don Coscarelli (of Phantasm fame). He’s also tried his hand at directing with Man with the Screaming Brain (2005) and, recently, My Name is Bruce (2007).

This new film pokes fun at Campbell’s status as a B-movie icon. He plays a version of “himself” or, at least an extension of his Ash character from The Evil Dead films to a certain degree. Bruce is a washed-up alcoholic actor relegated to schlock like Cavealien 2. He’s hit rock bottom with zero prospects until one of his biggest fans, a nerdy teenager named Jeff (Taylor Sharpe), kidnaps him in order to save the small mining town of Gold Lick from the wrath of Guan-di, the Chinese god of war and protector of the dead. The population of the town is rapidly dwindling at the hands of ol’ Guan-di and it’s up to Bruce to redeem himself and save the day.

Campbell seems to be having fun taking the piss out of how he’s perceived, which he already did in his novel, How to Make Love! The Bruce Campbell Way. He gets to play a real cad who’s sexist, vulgar, a coward, and basically acts like an overgrown child, insulting everyone around him. Campbell’s also not afraid to make fun of himself and look silly, often being the butt of jokes.

As you would expect from this kind of film, there are all kinds of references to Campbell’s past films with several long-time collaborators like Ted Raimi, Tim Quill, Dan Hicks, and Ellen Sandweiss popping up in minor roles. Raimi even gets to play three different characters, much like he did back in the Evil Dead days. The dialogue is pretty cheesy and the jokes painfully obvious, especially in the scene where Bruce dances with the town beauty, Kelly Graham (Grace Thorsen).

My Name is Bruce probably won’t convert too many new Bruce Campbell fans but it should keep his current fanbase happy. The production values are pretty good for a low-budget independent film and are definitely an improvement from his first directorial effort. The problem with this film is that, at times, it becomes exactly what it is trying to parody: a cheesy B-movie starring Bruce Campbell. Maybe that’s the point but the end result is not as good as Bubba Ho-Tep but certainly not as bad as Alien Apocalypse.

Special Features:

There is an audio commentary by Bruce Campbell and producer Mike Richardson. Campbell points out that the entire film was shot on his property in Oregon and they built all of the town of Gold Lick from scratch. He points out all of the intentional goofs in the Cavealien 2 film within the film. Campbell also points out all of the people in the film whom he’s known or worked with over the years. He talks about his public persona and how it mixes with his actual life in this film on this entertaining track.

“Heart of Dorkness” is an hour-long making of documentary that starts off riffing on Apocalypse Now (1979). Dark Horse Comics wanted to branch out into independent films and approached Campbell who agreed only if he could direct and star. To cut costs and be more efficient, Campbell hired actors and crew members that he had worked with on other films often going back many years. This is an entertaining and informative look at how this indie film was made.

“Awkward Moments with ‘Kif’”: features two useless bits of the film’s associate producer engaging in pointless banter with another crew member.

“Bruce On…” sees the actor pontificating about film budgets, talking about the dangerous wildlife near his home, and jokes about DVD extras.

Cavealien 2 Trailer” is a pretty funny, intentionally cheesy faux trailer for the movie within the movie.

“Beyond Inside the Cave: The Making of Cavealien 2” parodies those fluffy making of promotional featurettes that populate most DVDs with the cast and crew talking up a film that is obviously crap.

Kif is back in “Kif’s Korner” as he talks about the faux DVD and poster art he put together for the film.

Also included are several galleries – poster art (of all the fake films), a gallery for various movie props, and one of movie stills.

“The Hard Truth” is the E! True Hollywood Story-style profile of Bruce that is shown briefly in the film. This is pretty amusing stuff.

“Love Birds” documents the “romance” between two actors who play rednecks in the film.

Finally, there is a trailer for My Name is Bruce.

Rounding out the impressive amount of extras are several Easter Eggs buried throughout the menus and a mini-comic book adaptation of the film.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Before Sunrise

Few people saw Before Sunrise when it was released in 1995 but those who did really loved it. In its own subtle and unassuming way, Richard Linklater’s film flew in the face of most romantic films at the time. It refused to be dated by obvious, trendy popular culture references and music. It featured an honest dialogue between two twentysomethings who meet by chance on a train and decide to get off together in Vienna. Before Sunrise would also mark an interesting change of pace for Linklater. With Slacker (1990) and Dazed and Confused (1993), he had worked with rather sizable ensemble casts but with this film it was essentially two characters and the occasional people they encounter.

Before Sunrise opens with Jesse (Ethan Hawke), an American taking a train to Vienna where he plans to fly back home after a disastrous summer trip around Europe. On-board he meets Celine (Julie Delpy), a French student headed for Paris to resume classes at the Sorbonne, thanks to a loudly bickering German couple that causes her to move and sit across from him. In a sly, self-referential nod to the format of Linklater’s to Slacker and Dazed and Confused, which adhered to a 24-hour time frame, Jesse tells Celine about a reality show he would like to see that would consist of 24-hour-long episodes documenting a day in the life of an average person. It sounds like something one of the characters in Slacker would pitch.

Jesse and Celine get to talking in the dinner car and enjoy the experience so much that they agree to get off the train together in Vienna and spend the night walking around the city getting to know each other, taking in the sights. They also encounter several intriguing people along the way, like the two guys who invite them to their play Bring Me the Horns of Wilmington’s Cow, which, of course, is an amusing reference to Sam Peckinpah’s Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974). The description of their play sounds quite interesting and every time I watch the film I kinda wished that Jesse and Celine had checked it out. It’s a funny, throwaway scene that appears early on and adheres to the amiable, structure established in Slacker of protagonists going from encounter to the next with no real rhyme or reason.

There’s a great moment early on when Jesse and Celine are in a record store listening booth listening to “Come Here” by Kath Bloom. It’s obviously a romantic song and you can see Jesse thinking about making some kind of romantic gesture but stopping himself because it would be way too corny. As Linklater has pointed out in an interview, there is a wonderful awkwardness about this moment that is true to life and something you don’t see much in romantic films.

Celine seems to be obsessed somewhat with death. She takes Jesse to a graveyard populated by unknown people who washed up on the banks of the Danube River. She points out one grave of a 13-year-old girl, the same age when she first saw it. Celine speaks about how much it impacted her at the time and how it still resonates with her. It’s a nice, poignant moment that reveals a lot about her character. A few minutes later, we learn how Jesse is much more jaded about love and life in general – perhaps as the result of coming from divorced parents and recently being dumped by his girlfriend. At one point, he tells Celine that he views life like “I was crashing a big party.”

 Jesse and Celine kiss on the same Ferris wheel made famous in The Third Man (1949) when Orson Welles delivers a famous monologue. It is Before Sunrise’s only obvious, touristy moment. There are so many wonderful little interludes in this film, like when Jesse and Celine are sitting at an outdoor cafe and she gets her palm read by an old gypsy lady who tells them that they are stardust. It’s a funny moment but when the lady first takes a look at Celine’s hand she tells her that Celine has to resign herself to the “awkwardness of life.” It’s the one decent observation among the cliché observations that she tells Celine. After the palm reader leaves they laugh about it but the scene underlines the romantic nature of Celine and the cynical worldview of Jesse.

Celine speaks fondly of her grandmother and how she sometimes feels like an old woman and Jesse replies that he sometimes feels like a 13-year-old boy stuck in a dress rehearsal, taking notes for when he has to become an adult. I remember feeling like that in my twenties; in that transitory state between college and joining the workforce. You don’t quite feel like you belong anywhere and Linklater nails it with this exchange between Jesse and Celine.

One my favorite scenes in the film is when Jesse and Celine happen upon a street poet. Instead of just asking them for money he asks them for a word. He composes a poem for them with the word inserted somewhere. If they like it they can give him some money. He recites a wonderful little poem that is romantic and filled with evocative imagery. Again, this scene reinforces Jesse and Celine’s different views of love. She finds the poem romantic and spontaneous while he says that the street poet probably just inserted the word into a pre-existing poem that he had already written.

By today’s standards, with the proliferation of technology like cell phones and virtual meeting places like MySpace and Facebook, the way Jesse and Celine interact in Before Sunrise is positively old school and dates the film in a good way. For example, in one scene Jesse and Celine talk about past relationships over a game of pinball in a nightclub. Pinball machines are rarely made anymore and not as common as they used to be a decade ago. Linklater grew up in the 1970s when pinball was all the rage and as someone who has fond memories of them, I love how they are used as a piece of business for Jesse and Celine to do while they talk about their ex’s.

What makes Before Sunrise such a great film is that it avoids the sappy clichés that are so rampant in most romantic films. Despite the Generation-X marketing of the film, complete with a Lemonheads song in the trailer, Before Sunrise also avoids that pitfall by not using any contemporary “alternative” music or excessive usage of pop culture references that have mired and dated lesser films. This was a conscious concern for the cast as Delpy said in an interview, “We wanted to avoid any pop culture references and just show individuals attempting to communicate and care for someone else.”
The seeds for the film had been planted long ago. According to Linklater, he had been thinking about Before Sunrise for five years. It would be a film about two people, because, at the time, he had never really dealt with male-female issues or romance. The film was based on an encounter Linklater had in 1989. He met a woman in a toy store in Philadelphia and they spent the night walking around the city together, conversing deep into the night. Originally in the screenplay, who the two characters were and the city they spend time in was vague. He realized that because the film was so much a dialogue between a man and a woman he knew that it was important to have a strong woman co-writer – Kim Krizan who had small roles in Slacker and Dazed and Confused. He wanted to write a script with her because he “loved the way her mind worked – a constant stream of confident and intelligent ideas.”

Linklater wanted to explore the “relationship side of life and discover two people who had complete anonymity and try to find out who they really were.” He put Jesse and Celine together in foreign country because “when you’re traveling, you’re much more open to experiences outside your usual realm.” He and Krizan talked about the concept of the film and the characters for a long time. Then, they worked on an outline followed by the actual script which was written in 11 days.

Before Sunrise is filled with great conversations about sex, relationships, dreams, death, religion, and life in general. Imagine My Dinner with Andre (1981) if the two characters from that film had actually left the restaurant. There are conversations in Before Sunrise that you swear you’ve had before — they are that good. It doesn’t hurt that the film contains only two protagonists and this enables Linklater to take the time and explore their personalities. “In both Slacker and Dazed and Confused, the audience was literally plopped down amongst the characters and you never really got to know them that well apart from their momentary interactions and behavior with each other. So I wanted to make a movie about a unique relationship while still conforming to a character-driven narrative where their personal thoughts are continually verbalized.” The structure of Before Sunrise lies in the characters themselves. The narrative is propelled by their decisions and their actions. Linklater was careful in who he chose for the two main roles which went to Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy. The director didn’t care what they had done before, but instead based his choice on his impressions based upon meeting the two actors.

 When Linklater first considered casting Hawke he thought the actor was too young. Linklater saw him at a play in New York City and reconsidered after talking to him. To his credit, Hawke amends for his self-conscious hipster from Reality Bites (1994) – something I can’t fault him for entirely as I’m sure he played the character as it was written. With Jesse, Hawke plays a much more developed, three-dimensional character that he obviously had input on how he was going to portray him. Hawke’s character actually suggests some depth and personality than merely turning into a philosophizing, ‘70s sitcom quoting machine like in Reality Bites. Initially, Jesse comes across as Linklater’s philosopher character at the beginning of Slacker with his crazy idea for a reality show, but over the course of the film he falls under Celine’s spell. She manages to get pas his cynical exterior with her earnest romanticism. Hawke does a nice job of hinting at the romantic that lurks beneath his facade only to emerge in the subsequent sequel Before Sunset (2004).

Linklater met Julie Delpy and liked her personality. She is simply wonderful in her portrayal of Celine. Before Sunrise is, without a doubt, my favorite performance of hers. She plays Celine as a smart, funny independent woman but with insecurities and self doubts that only make her even more endearing. It doesn’t hurt that she’s beautiful, truly the Botticelli angel that Jesse describes her as being. As she remembers, “Although my character was very much my romantic side, I also had to be strong while dealing with this American man.” Delpy was concerned that her character would be reduced to some “cliché-ridden feminine mass,” but Linklater never lets this happen. This is due in large part to the fact that he wrote the screenplay with Kim Krizan to give the film more balance. “I certainly thought that since the film is so much a dialogue between a man and a woman,” Linklater explains, “it was important to have a strong woman co-writer and a strong woman in the production.” Delpy has incredible chemistry with Hawke and it feels genuine. The way they look at each other, especially when the other one is talking, you can see, over the course of the film that their characters are falling in love.

Before Sunrise received overwhelmingly positive reviews from film critics. Roger Ebert gave Before Sunrise three out of four stars and described Julie Delpy as "ravishingly beautiful and, more important, warm and matter-of-fact, speaking English so well the screenplay has to explain it (she spent some time in the States).” In her review for the New York Times, Janet Maslin wrote, "Before Sunrise is as uneven as any marathon conversation might be, combining colorful, disarming insights with periodic lulls. The film maker clearly wants things this way, with both these young characters trying on ideas and attitudes as if they were new clothes.” Hal Hinson, in his review for the Washington Post wrote, "Before Sunrise is not a big movie, or one with big ideas, but it is a cut above the banal twentysomething love stories you usually see at the movies. This one, at least, treats young people as real people.” In his review for the Los Angeles Times, Peter Rainer wrote, "It's an attempt to make a mainstream youth movie with a bit more feeling and mysteriousness than most, and, in this, it succeeds.” Marjorie Baumgarten, in her review for The Austin Chronicle, wrote, "Before Sunrise represents a maturation of Linklater's work in terms of its themes and choice of characters.” Finally, in his review for The New Yorker, Anthony Lane wrote, “Just once, for a single day, Jesse and Celine have given life the short of shape and charge that until now they have found only in fiction, and may never find again.”

At one point Jesse tells Celine, “I feel like this is some dream world we’re in,” to which she replies, “It must be like I’m in your dream and you’re in mine.” This is what Before Sunrise is – a cinematic dream world that we can lose ourselves in every time we watch it. Linklater captures a specific moment in time for these two characters – one magical night where they make a true connection that they will never forget. Interestingly, Before Sunrise ends like Dazed and Confused, in the early morning with Jesse and Celine rejoining the real world after spending all night together. Near the end of the film there is a montage of places that they shared together – it’s a visual summary of the film and also a sad reminder of places that they will never be again. Before Sunrise ends on a melancholic note with feelings of longing for what could have been. It’s a very unusual way to end a romantic film but it is keeping perfectly in tone with the rest of the film.


SOURCES

Donahue, Christina. “Love in the Aftermath.” Film Threat. April 1995.

Griffin, Dominic. “Slack Jawing.” Film Threat. April 1995.

Hicks, Alice M. “Richard Linklater Conducts His Vienna Nocturne.” MovieMaker. Issue #12.

Linklater, Richard and Kim Krizan. Before Sunrise. St. Martin’s Griffin. 1995.


Thompson, Ben. “The First Kiss Takes So Long.” Sight & Sound. May 1995.

Friday, February 13, 2009

DVD of the Week: Valentine's Day Edition: Zack and Miri Make a Porno

While many cite Clerks (1994) as the best thing Kevin Smith has ever done, for my money Chasing Amy (1997) will always be the highlight of his career. It is the one film where he achieved just the right mix of his trademark raunchy humor and heartfelt romantic sensibilities. It is also, to paraphrase Holden, the film’s protagonist, when Smith finally had something personal to say. Since then, like Silent Bob tells Holden, he’s been chasing Amy.

Smith came sorta close with Jersey Girl (2004), but the tabloid spectacle that was Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez obscured what was an honest attempt on Smith’s part to articulate his feelings about parenthood. This time out, with Zack and Miri Make a Porno (2008), he’s really swinging for the fences by recruiting several of Judd Apatow’s regulars, including Seth Rogen and Elizabeth Banks, which is kinda ironic as Apatow has popularized Smith’s formula with films like The 40-Year-Old Virgin (2005). Sadly, the promotion of Zack and Miri was marred by controversy over the presence of the word, “porno” in the film’s title, and its theatrical release wasn’t handled as well as it could have, resulting in disappointing returns at the box office. The film now has a second chance on home video.

Zack (Seth Rogen) and Miri (Elizabeth Banks) are platonic childhood friends who live together but as of late they’re hard up for cash. Faced with mounting bills and the threat of getting kicked out of their crappy apartment, they decide to make a porno film. So, they go about recruiting a crew and auditioning a cast. They decide to use Star Wars as their model only they call it Star Whores but complications arise that force them to rethink this concept. Zack and Miri try to convince each other that having sex with each other (on camera no less) won’t change their friendship but we know that of course it will change everything.

Seth Rogen, with his stocky build and knack for laid-back vulgarity while still remaining likable, was born to star in a Kevin Smith film. He can obviously handle the raunchy dialogue but is also up for the romantic stuff, especially when Zack has to deal with his feelings for Miri. At first, he’s kind of aloof but eventually the significance of what happened sinks in. Elizabeth Banks is his ideal foil, matching him in the raunch department, but she also brings an endearing sweetness that is engaging. She also conveys a sexy vulnerability that is very attractive. There is a genuine chemistry and authentic sense of intimacy between her and Rogen that hasn’t been evident in Smith’s films since Chasing Amy.

Zack and Miri Make a Porno is easily Smith’s best film since Amy, which, upon retrospect isn’t saying much (Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back anyone?). It features a fantastic soundtrack (with the likes of Primus, The Jesus and Mary Chain, Blondie and Pixies among others), a solid cast (including Smith regulars, Jason Mewes and Jeff Anderson), and, most importantly, is funny and entertaining.

Special Features:

The first disc includes 45 deleted scenes running a staggering 94 minutes! Basically, almost every scene in the film has extra footage, most of it improvisation from the cast. Some of it is good, some of it doesn’t work and you can see why this stuff was ultimately cut out.

The second disc starts off with “Popcorn Porn: The Making of Zack and Miri,” a feature-length look at how this film came together. Smith says that he got the idea for making Zack and Miri right after Chasing Amy and was to feature the three main actors. But it didn’t become a reality until after Clerks II (2006). Smith saw The 40-Year-Old Virgin and wrote the film with Seth Rogen in mind. Fortunately, he was a big fan and agreed to do it. This is an excellent, detailed look at all kinds of aspects of making this film with the kind of quality that we’ve come to expect from Smith’s DVDs.

“Money Shots: A Series of Webisodes” consist of 22 mini-featurettes that total over 47 minutes and first appeared on the Internet, providing a behind-the-scenes look at the film. Smith and co. don’t take these segments too seriously and have fun with them.

“Comic-Con 2008” features Smith and the main cast from the film doing a Q&A session at the San Diego Comic-Con. He is his usual congenial and funny self as is every one else as they joke around with each other in what is possibly the funniest extra.

“Gang Bang: Outtakes, Ad-Libs and Bloopers” features the cast riffing and ad-libbing until they break character and crack each other up.

Finally, there is “Seth vs. Justin: Battle for Improvisational Supremacy – Part 1.” Seth Rogen and Justin Long riff off each other in one of the scenes from the film and see who can make the other breaks character first.