God, I loved this movie. Even with about 20 minutes of the most vicious, realistic argument between a couple I have ever seen onscreen, I found this to be a heartbreakingly beautiful, funny, and romantic film about relationships.

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If you’ve seen the previous films, Before Sunrise (1995) and Before Sunset (2004) — and if you haven’t, WATCH THEM IMMEDIATELY — you know that these are the talkiest movies you’re likely to see. In each one, Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) wander around the streets of beautiful European cities talking — talking to flirt, talking to catch up with each other, talking as part of a relationship. I feel as if my own love life has grown up alongside them, and that each film captures something fragile and amazing (and a little geeky) about flirtation and love. The films get better and better for those of us who love talking and listening. Flashy they’re not; those viewers who require vampires or car chases or superheroes should just skip them.

Considering that this is just a film in which two people talk, how is it possible that I walked out saying, “How did they do that?”

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The film’s success rests on what Delpy can do with a difficult role. Why difficult? Because Celine is the more “difficult” in their relationship. Jesse has settled into the position of being affable, even-tempered — the mensch. But for Celine, his equanimity comes at a cost to her. He downplays or laughs at her worries, which makes her feel worse. It’s not fair, of course, to say that this is Delpy’s movie; this is a film about a relationship, and in this one Ethan Hawke has finally won me over to his acting.

What makes this film so remarkable is not simply that Delpy and Hawke inhabit those roles and ALL THAT DIALOGUE so effortlessly, but that their characters are so utterly believable — so much so that you find yourself taking sides, and (in my case, anyway) changing my mind about which one is more sympathetic or more “right.”

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Now, being a talky type myself, I’ve never been afraid of an argument with my partner. Not that I’d want to rehash some of the doozies we’ve had. But I figure that arguments are part of the nature of the beast in relationships. Better have a lot of little earthquakes than long silence and then a huge doomsday fight. I’ve never understood those people who say about their exes, “We never had a single fight until he/she just left me.” Mm hm. 

All this is to say that Celine is the one who keeps the little earthquakes emerging in their relationship. And I can see that some viewers will find her grating or neurotic. But I found her to be utterly realistic — neurotic, yes, but also exactly the partner that would have been formed by their relationship.

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Delpy is so good that it’s hard to believe she is not Celine. Neurotic, yes, but also wise to the whimsies of her longtime partner, and self-aware enough to know that it would kill her to let him get away with spinning out his whimsies without a response.

Watching them bob and weave during little moments — in their romantic moments, as they walk through beautiful parts of the South Peloponnesian peninsula that are as well-nigh close to heaven as you can imagine; but also in their horrible moments, as they full-on fight in their elegant hotel room — you witness something amazing: the real ebb and flow of real-life couples. That’s what amazed me more here than a complex car chase or martial arts battle: this is true choreography.

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Jesse calls Celine “the mayor of Crazy Town” in one of their uglier moments. When he says it, you almost believe it — even as the very sentence construction grates on your nerves as if it were your husband calling you crazy. Is there anything more tired than the “you’re crazy” ad hominem part of the couples argument? Which makes it even more impressive is that your sympathies bob and weave as they argue with each other; you see exactly why Jesse’s so frustrated, and Celine so touchy.

Yet just as with their previous film, it concludes with an amazing moment. It’s the simplest of narrative moves, yet so affecting that I can honestly claim that this is a truly romantic film. Like the final scene in the previous film, Before Sunset, it evoked emotions in me that I just couldn’t have seen coming.

If this film doesn’t pick up serious screenplay prizes and acting awards for Delpy — well, I’ll be confirmed in my belief that those prizes are bullshit. Again.

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Bernie is about one thing: the pleasures and eccentricities of small-town life. Is it a great film? It doesn’t matter. I can guarantee you’ll watch it again in the years ahead — because you enjoy every single minute. If it falls down in one way, it sometimes felt as if director Richard Linklater (Slacker, Before Sunset, School of Rock) veered a little too much toward mocking small-town types, as if the point was less to document the delights of that life than to collect those funny-looking butterflies and put them in a glossy case for big-city folk to look at.

I’ve been to this restaurant (in Bastrop, TX). The banana pudding is excellent. And yes, the entire place is lined with wood paneling and taxidermied animal heads.

Bernie tells the real-life story of assistant funeral director Bernie Tiede (Jack Black), a sweet and closeted gay man who’s pretty much the most beloved man in Carthage, TX. His cosmetic work preparing the recently deceased for their open-casket funerals is loving, careful, flattering. He sings like a bird in the church choir and has a way with all the L.O.L.s (little old ladies). He helps people with their taxes and directs (and stars in) all the musicals at the community theater. When he befriends the meanest and richest woman in town, Margie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine), he does so because he’s such a people person. Margie is so entranced by his kindness and attention that she falls a little bit in love. And then she turns mean and possessive.

Why is he so loyal to her? Because he’s a really nice man, and because he’s trapped by the golden handcuffs of her wealth, which pays for an awful lot of expensive travel and pedicures.

My favorite part of the film isn’t the terrific acting by Black and MacLaine — both of whom are great — but the interviews with real-life Carthage residents who provide all the social context, character analysis, gossip, and local color about life in a town of less than 7,000 people. Perched on porches, or in feed warehouses and cafés, the locals offer up commentary that propels the narrative forward and reminds you where the story’s going.

At some point Bernie cracks after Margie berates him one too many times. He shoots her four times in the back with an armadillo gun, hides her body in a box freezer, and proceeds to spend a whole lot of her money helping out everyone he can.

These interviews (and the ways they’re staged) are just great — using local Texasisms and strong accents that flow so fast & furious that you’ll try to remember them for future use. Explaining how mean Margie was, one woman says, “Her nose was so high up she would drown in a rainstorm.” Another offers: “Honey, there were people in this town who’d have shot her for $5.” Describing his distrust of the bombastic, self-promoting local district attorney, one resident says, “I wouldn’t let him work on my car.” Best of all is the tirade spit out by one guy, during the film’s final credits, about the rubes who live in the next town over. Or the denial by another woman that Bernie possibly could have been gay: “Our Lord always wore sandals and never got married and had 12 male disciples … and nobody ever called them queer.”

But sometimes these interviews just feel, well, a little rehearsed — as if Linklater had seen some TV footage or an in-print interview with this resident, and asked them to reprise it for the film. Maybe it’s because I loved this commentary so much that those moments when it feels practiced detracted from my enjoyment so much.

Don’t get me wrong: it doesn’t ruin the film by any means. When Bernie enters regular rotation on one of those basic-cable channels, I’ll tune in every time. It’s a film made by someone who loves those accents, those Texasisms, those eccentric faces who hold forth with astute summaries of their neighbors’ characters.

But on those occasions when the film starts to feel as if Linklater had made it so his big-city friends could get a big guffaw out of those over-decorated dens with endless taxidermied animal heads … well, let’s just say, in the parlance of the state, that dog won’t hunt. 

And that’s my only objection.

Busy here again, and my post on The Artist is just not writing itself. Apparently if you love something that much, one’s own words about its deliciousness cannot seem but dreary and pedantic. So for today I’m going to tell you to see Weekend, Andrew Haigh’s beautifully brilliant and radical film about two men who encounter each other.

There’s a very sweet story here about their attraction to each other, especially because we see all of it through the eyes of the lovely and perennially self-deprecating Russell (Tom Cullen, above left), who sees in Glen (Chris New) the possibility of something more serious. As much as Russell’s shy, admiring glances almost break your heart for their eagerness and caution, the film’s radicalism comes from its portrayal of a weekend-long gay relationship — sex, drugs, disagreements, personality clashes, and, most of all, their different ways of being gay in a broader culture deeply squeamish with gay sex.

It’s perhaps closest to Richard Linklater’s Before Sunset (2004) — that talky and fraught encounter between Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke — but Weekend is so much more stunning. It simultaneously takes for granted that two men might wear their political commitments and identities differently, and also brings to the forefront how debates over gay marriage or queer sex speak utterly and pervasively about any given man’s soul and what he wants in an ideal world. It’s spectacular and quiet, and might be my favorite love story of the year.

Early on, Glen asks Russell to retell how they met each other at the bar. Russell can barely lift his eyes as he describes seeing him across the room, and “I thought you were out of my league, or whatever.” What league do you think you’re in? Glen asks. “Third division,” he responds. This exchange somehow breaks my heart even to remember it, and captures that horrible combination of magic and nails-on-chalkboard of those early days of a relationship. Their story is a gay story, not packaged prettily for straight people and not shy about showing you the sex. It’s radical and wonderful and beautiful — spectacular.

Movies to cry to

27 June 2011

from Yôjirô Takita's Departures

Here’s my rule: I don’t want to put any movies on this list that feel like cheap manipulators. Did I cry during The Notebook? Well, of course, and the whole time I felt as if I’d been used. In fact, I have a list of films I refuse to see because I anticipate that those tearjerkers will merely make me feel jerked around (Titanic, etc. — and despite the promises of my Dear Friend I can’t bring myself to watch Love Actually).

That said, readers of Feminéma know that I emote at the movies all the time — why, only recently I’ve mentioned having unexpected outbursts during Summer Hours, Killer of Sheep, and The Beaches of Agnès. (What can I say, but that I feel movies truly, madly, deeply?) Let me explain that this list emerges not from an eagerness to weep, but rather the firm belief that some of the best films draw tears without making you feel cheap — in fact, I’d watch these movies again this minute if I had the chance — and without making you determined never to watch them again (ahem: Breaking the Waves. Never, ever again). The tears they provoke seem to spring from something honest and human. Inspired by a comment from Tam (and borrowing shamelessly from the list she offered) this is a preliminary attempt to think about when, and how, outpourings of sentiment at the movies seem authentic as well as pleasurable.

Alan Rickman and Juliet Stevenson in Truly Madly Deeply

Weeping ritually with Departures (Okuribito, Yôjirô Takita, 2008). A beautiful film about a young man who finally gives up on his plans to be a musician and returns to his hometown to start working — mostly by accident — as someone who ritually prepares dead bodies for burial. It’s funny and surprising for many reasons, and you start to wish someone will display that much care with your body when you die.

Weeping for lost chances with 84, Charing Cross Road (David Hugh Jones, 1987). I’ve already discussed this film, which is oriented around the long, beautiful, eccentric correspondence between a New Yorker and the London bookstore clerk who supplies her with good reading material. Books, letters, and a quasi-romance between Anne Bancroft and Antony Hopkins — weeper heaven.

Soulful, stiff-upper-lipped: Anthony Hopkins in 84, Charing Cross Road

Weeping out of pride for your fellow humans with Harlan County, U.S.A. (Barbara Kopple, 1976). I have a whole post a-brewin’ about labor, but suffice it to say that this might be the most amazing documentary you’ll ever see — about a strike by coal miners in Kentucky who express eloquently their rights as workers in America. It brings tears to your eyes for what we’ve lost: a sense of pride in labor and the strikers’ certainty that employers are not always right. Oh, how far we’ve fallen as a nation since 1976.

Harlan County, U.S.A. and their proud signs

Weeping for reality with The Return of Navajo Boy (Jeff Spitz & Bennie Klain, 2000). Another documentary. Sometimes my students make statements that reveal that they don’t think Indians exist anymore. This documentary about the most-photographed Navajo family in history — people typically photographed in “traditional” clothing, making blankets or some other goddamn “traditional” Indian thing — is about their real lives and the difficulties they face when most Americans refuse to believe they are anything but cardboard cutouts, much less a people whose history is always changing.

The Begays talk back to John Wayne in Return of Navajo Boy

Weeping for love with Truly, Madly, Deeply (Anthony Minghella, 1990). Back to narrative film with this amazing tale of a woman missing, terribly and deeply, her dead boyfriend — when suddenly his ghost returns to her. She’s so happy to see him, except having a ghost for a boyfriend turns out to be more of a problem than it might appear at first.

Weeping for nostalgia and happiness with Up (Pixar, 2009). Criminey. Who would’ve thought, walking into a big 3-D Pixar summer release, that within 5 minutes you’d have lost weight from the weeping? Loved everything about this movie, and I’d see it again this minute, but next time I’ll have a stockpile of kleenex close by.

Why does Up kill off the fabulous Ellie so early in the film? Dang.

…and Tam also recommends The Winter Guest (Alan Rickman, 1997), which I haven’t seen yet.

Honorable mentions, for their massive tear-jerking capability primarily in the very last scenes:

  • Before Sunset (Richard Linklater, 2004).
  • Three films by Ang Lee: Sense and Sensibility (1995), Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), and Brokeback Mountain (2005). What can I say but that that guy is crazy good at drawing big tears out of me.
  • Lost in Translation (Sofia Coppola, 2003).
  • Toy Story 3 (Pixar, 2010).

Note that I’ve left off all the overdetermined tearjerkers: An Affair to Remember (1957) because of that cringe-making scene from Sleepless in Seattle (1993); all those dude weepers that I don’t quite get, like Good Will Hunting (1997), Field of Dreams (1989), and Brian’s Song (1971); and a couple of films like Dancer in the Dark that are just too goddamn much.

I know we’ve got a whole set of cheap stereotypes about women weeping at the movies. But the best films make us cry because we can’t help but feel with those characters. Admit it: you love it.

Sense and nonsense

4 April 2010

When Liz Lemon decides to adopt a child in “30 Rock,” she radically cleans up her apartment to impress the adoption people — even to the point of getting “rid of all my Colin Firth movies in case they consider them erotica,” as she tells Jack Donaghy.  (Jack nods knowingly, “That man can wear a sweater.”)

Erotica indeed.  There are few guiltier girlie pleasures than a great kiss in a great love story.  The kiss in the first “Twilight” film has been viewed millions of times on YouTube; even semi-cult favorites like the end of BBC’s “North and South” have hundreds of thousands of hits.  One can find dreamy montage videos of love scenes posted by fans of virtually any show — from “True Blood” to “Queer as Folk,” “Bride and Prejudice,” “How Stella Got Her Groove Back,” and virtually anything with George Clooney.

But to be provocative, I’m willing to argue that 1) George Clooney has a long career of making films in which the attraction between characters doesn’t quite make sense, and 2) fans have a long history of accepting slightly nonsensical love stories because the kisses are so good, the stars are so pretty to look at, and because we want to believe that love and passion are somehow nonsensical.  I think we should pause to fully appreciate those love stories that make sense.

Take, for example, one of the best Clooney films: “Out of Sight,” with the oh-so-perfect Jennifer Lopez (oh Jen, how far you’ve fallen since 1998).  Stuffed together into the trunk of her car as Clooney escapes from prison and J-Lo waits for a chance to arrest him, they have an improbable conversation about movies: “Bonnie and Clyde,” “Network.”  Most of this scene permits Clooney to demonstrate his skills in hamming it up.  But there’s suddenly a moment when she takes the conversation seriously as they talk about Redford and Dunaway in “Three Days of the Condor.”  “I never thought it made sense,” Lopez says, turning to Clooney. “You know, the way they got together so quick. I mean, romantically.”  (Ahem: she’s right.)  It’s brilliant:  that very line is the shortcut that allows “Out of Sight” to get Clooney and Lopez together far more quickly than makes any kind of sense.  It jump-starts their mutual attraction; they’re both so gorgeous that dream sequences must suffice till we see their characters finally undress for real.

The movies are full of love stories that simply pair up our beautiful leading men and women as speedily as possible.  But c’mon, people, we can do better.  Taking a quick look at great kissing scenes in the history of film, we quickly see that it doesn’t make sense that Greta Garbo falls in love with ridiculous Melvyn Douglas in “Ninotchka,” Ingrid Bergman with Cary Grant in “Notorious,” or Helena Bonham Carter with Julian Sands in “Room With a View.”  Pleasurable, yes; but baffling in the light of day.  So here’s my list-in-progress of love stories that are so gratifying because they make sense:

  1. Pride and Prejudice.  Apologies for the obvious, but Colin Firth has a full six hours to cease being horrible, pine gratifyingly for Jennifer Ehle, and prove he’s worthy of her; Ehle learns some humility and that you can’t always tell a book by its cover.  Accept no lame Keira Knightley substitutes.
  2. Before Sunset — and considering my distaste for Ethan Hawke, this love story’s got to be good.  If the talkiness and the awkwardness of “Before Sunrise” somehow managed to work on you ten years earlier, it’s downright magical with the wary older versions of Hawke and Julie Delpy.
  3. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Clementine and Joel, perfectly flawed characters whose imperfect brains are bound up with each other despite those last few months (and brainwashing).
  4. LA Confidential.  Russell Crowe’s Bud White wears his heart on his sleeve such that Kim Basinger sets aside her Veronica Lake persona to show him the real Lynn Bracken.
  5. Brokeback Mountain.  Again, apologies for the cliché, but the lovely contrast of Jake Gyllenhaal’s eager personability with Heath Ledger’s tragic, laconic Ennis del Mar has to be one of the only opposites-attract stories that makes sense to me. 

There’s got to be more. Tell me.