Oscar Nominations are in!

My Dad and I do this little game every year, a sort of “side pot” before the Oscar nominations are announced. We gather our Intel and try to guess what the nominations will be for the ‘major’ categories. This year, I guessed more correct than he did, so there’s a small victory for me. Continue reading

Sentimental Looks at Upstream Color, Once, and Before Midnight

(Moderate to few spoilers below…)

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…the middle of a story. There’s always going to be more to the story. No movie exists as a complete story. Like the way we choose to live our lives, no story ever ends without opening the door to a fresh beginning, a new perspective. Call it a lesson, a moral, or a “meaning”, but however you name it, recognize it as a start, never an end. Even death, depending on your beliefs, leads to some kind of new beginning.

Or, if not a start, at the very least, a midpoint.

I’m going to draw from personal happenings for a bit, to show you where I’m coming from, then we’ll take a peek at two movies from 2013 so far, as well as a stage musical, which reflect the idea that visual entertainment has the potential to be a completely emotionally fulfilling experience for specific people — well, some movies are, and should be remembered as such — as is the case with stage musicals. And it’s okay that my “emotional” movies don’t match yours. Really, I could care less if they do. But find something to grasp in at least one movie a year, and I guarantee you will find yourself thinking just a little more clearly about your own existence as you reflect.

THE PERSONAL

In recent months, I broke up with a girlfriend after almost 1.5 years together. We’d had a whirlwind “Hollywood romance” — met at a wedding, spent weeks conversing via phone calls, texts, and emails, courting each other from opposite ends of the country until two months later, when she moved to LA to live with me and start the next chapter of her life out West.

We lived together harmoniously for a while, but as happens from time to time in relationships, communication deteriorated and I ended things. More details aren’t necessary for you 😉

We remained friendly as she moved out; she even watched our/my cat while I was away on a job, and I sometimes allow my mind to drift to memories of her, of us, during the good times, the comforting times, as I think is natural and, frankly, an O.K. thing to do — to think of happy times no matter who with. Some people call it nostalgia, but whatever the label I truly believe it’s possible to replace a current feeling or emotion with one from the past, however temporary, in order to feel that sensation anew. You may do this with a smell, or a taste — grandma’s cooking, for instance, or the smell of your first day of Little League as a kid — the leather glove, fresh cut grass, and the small clouds of dust when sliding into third. Memories are important, and sometimes more vivid through the senses than they were on the day the memory was created.

That’s what movies are: they’re memories created and replayed again and again for our enjoyment or amusement or reflection.

Soon after she moved out, our communication faded. I took a job in New York City for several months, navigating writing, the day-job, and a small semblance of a social life. I never thought I’d love “The City”, but I came away with a fondness I’d only experienced through the wonderful visions in Woody Allen movies. For the relationship’s end, the distance perhaps was a necessary step towards moving on and recovery for both of us.

UPSTREAM

One of the first movies I’d seen in NY was Upstream Color. I could write a lot of words — a lot — describing this movie and it’s plot to you, and you would still very likely be confused: A young woman is abducted and held captive for an unspecified amount of time, forced to recite Emerson’s book “Walden” while she’s robbed of every dime. When she’s released, she has no memory of the event, and tries to start life with a fresh face, an uncertain past, and a new perspective grown out of something she can’t quite place. You know, sometimes movies are more than a plot, more than a set of characters.

upstream_color_xlgI LOVED this film — despite the slowed pace, despite the lack of a substantial amount of dialogue, and despite the complex description. After all those “despites,” why did I like the film so much? Further, what’s it to you? After all, who gives a whoot what this chump’s opinion is?

Well, I connected with Upstream Color in a unique way, a very personal way — a connection that has become more and more rare in my filmgoing experiences the past few years. Only a handful of films connect for people, or at least connect in more than superficial ways. For example, for me The Usual Suspects hit the bulls-eye when I first saw it on a pure storytelling level, encouraging me that the way you tell a story can be as fascinating and pleasurable as the story itself. It’s the experience that makes it worth the ride for the audience and the storyteller. The Usual Suspects encouraged me to seek a career in filmmaking. Without that movie I would not have flown to California, moved to LA, or met my friends and collaborators within the film and TV industry.

Upstream Color struck me as an introspective story that encourages viewers, demands self-reflection and debate. The movie pushed me to consider myself, as well as the characters, as I pondered meaning in my own life as well as the meaning to the characters’ journeys. What is it to know the secret of life? How are we effected when we meet someone new who might be just as lost as we feel? The young woman in the film can’t trust anyone, has a hard time forming a bond, and yet she meets a young man willing to speak to her.

He’s not the nicest guy, is very direct and even rude, but he listens, and as they talk and grow connected they — and we — start to believe in something more than a chance meeting here. As I left the theater (alone, sometimes the most ideal way to experience a movie) I thought of my recent experiences — the lonely nature of a fresh start, the inter-personal connections I sought to help me remain open to new possibilities, the importance of listening and communication, and the beauty in a simple smile that represents so much happiness in one single instant.

There is a soft redemption at the end of Upstream Color — by that I mean characters spinning helplessly, feeling unjustifiably ashamed, redeem themselves of their shame, their former ignorance, and become centered, realize their potential at long last. My personal crusade to find that center was strongly evident while leaving the theater, as if a window was suddenly open and a breeze woke my senses to a fresh take on reality.

Gaining perspective suddenly became the most important aspect of communicating for me — with friends, family, romantic interests, and people I barely knew.

ONCE – A MUSICAL INTERLUDE

A short time later, still in NY, I was lucky enough to ONCEmusicalsnag an extra ticket from a new friend to a stage musical version of ONCE. Based on the movie, this production resonated on a deep level thanks to a largely audience-inclusive set, a cathartic experience for anyone who has been in love, felt a deep connection with another person, or just plain experienced “feelings”.

I’m not ashamed to admit that I shed several tears more than once (ha!) during the musical. Maybe it was the song “Falling Slowly”, maybe it was the startlingly realistic situation of the characters in a live setting. But I think it was really the re-surfaced memories, the nostalgia, that flooded my sinuses. The musical reinforced a familiarity with love, the notion and truth of love, that I and likely every other human needs a reminder about once in a while — like a jump-start to the heart. There’s also the fact that I saw this musical during a blossoming personal romance, and I realize now that a show, a performance of a familiar story, can truly bring to life memories and dreams such that you may have never realized. Whenever I spend time with the person I saw the show with, there’s already a sense of shared history, of nostalgia, that I hope I recall for a lifetime.

Whatever the source of my tears, the musical played a large part, and I hope it resonates for you, too (if you can’t make it to the Big Apple, rent the flick).

BEFORE…AND DURING

There are few films which tug at the emotional strings of my memories or desires more than Richard Linklater’s Before… series (Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, Before Midnight).

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The third and most recent film inspired this piece you’re reading. The movie is an achievement in all ways, being the glimpse at a relationship in a new stage of advancement for two characters, familiar not only because we’ve seen them in two prior movies, but also because they’re incredibly three dimensional — just like the rest of us humans! — and fleshed out. Three movies will open that kind of character development for you.

In Before Sunrise, Jesse and Celine met as twenty-somethings. Young, energetic, ready to take on the world, they discovered romance in Vienna, and hoped to meet again a year later to continue the relationship and honor fate.

Before Sunset brings them together again — nine years later in Paris — and both characters now have more perspective, a distance from their younger, more idealistic selves. Jesse is married with a child, and has written a book supposedly inspired by the events nine years earlier. Celine is more involved with social issues, environmental issues, and proud of her independence. They rekindle their relationship, amazingly, and mutually fall in love all over again.

Right there, in two movies — two 90-minute experiences — we’re shown how a story is never truly complete, a story never really ends. That is proven with the release of Before Midnight. Again nine years later, our couple, now with twin daughters, are vacationing in Greece. They live in Europe, and this becomes the center of their arguments as Jesse wants to consider moving to America to be closer to his son. They struggle, they laugh, they argue. Discussions that evening circle back to past events and encounters, their courtship and romance, and their fears of the future both with and without each other. The very concept of their future together is brought into question as a hypothetical scenario by “future Jesse” in perhaps one of the sweetest, romantic moments on film in the last twenty years.

With all three Before… movies, we are handed raw and emotionally resonant stories — at least, they felt that way to me. I’ve briefly had encounters like that portrayed in Before Sunrise — discussions and meetings with a fresh face and perspective, something more than a spark of possibility between me and another person. I think you have, too. You might be like me, pondering the hope or even desire to have an encounter like the one between Jesse and Celine of Before Sunrise. It’s nice to play that scenario, painted with false nostalgia, in my mind, but also emotionally draining when I realize it never quite turned out like it did in the movies.

Likewise, their experience in Before Sunset seems ripe for the wanting, a desirable sequence of events as a heart-fire is rekindled, a rewiring of emotions after experience and perspective dictates your point of view. A relationship that provides newer, better context and meaning. Lifelong meaning.

But Before Midnight also showed the full scope of a relationship — the negativity, the arguing, the bitterness, the love, the upkeep and maintenance a lot of people ignore, and the adaptation people need to go through to come out stronger on the other end. I felt the need to burst out of the movie and personally rewire my own experiences — not necessarily with any one person, but in general, to start over various events and occurrences, a nostalgic time traveler improving his memories not only to revisit the moments worth remembering, but also to tinker with those moments that left me with cringe-worthy emotional bruises.

Late in the movie, there is an explosive argument between Jesse and Celine about sacrifice made versus a sacrifice resented. Choices are inevitable obviously, and on the table is a big one: whether or not they should relocate to America so Jesse can refresh — restart, trigger — his relationship with his son.

The discussion that ensues is harsh, angry, and raw — at one point Celine is topless during the fight, a spot-on visual for her entire personality while Jesse remains clothed and guarded. The argument is uncomfortable, intimate, and yet more honest than some of the puppy love moments in Before Sunrise, and certainly a more unique and refreshing take on an extended relationship than any “Hollywood” movie.

Before Midnight is a fantasy, a familiar dream we as an audience would rather imagine and put away than pursue. Which is a shame, because those parts of relationships — the insulting bits, the parts where we really don’t think we know how to love any more — lead us back to the good pieces; we simply repaint the canvas of bad memories with a brighter brush, a refreshing stroke.

For myself, Before Midnight struck a personal note, a reminder that I refused to acknowledge those harsh moments for the good they could bring in previous relationships. I dislike conflict, generally, and arguing almost makes me sick. I have a difficult time shifting my perspective in various scenarios especially when it’s needed most. Before Midnight showed me that every dream, every fantasy, has a shadow, but if you tough it out and dive right at that shadow, you will move past it.

Because in the end, there is no end, just…
(see start of post)

Movies of 2012…a review of the favorites

2012 is a good year for films. Believe it or not. There’s been a little something for everyone.

And for me, these were the stand-outs. Below is a semi-top-ten list, cheating a bit with number 8. I am on the fence about top lists, especially in a year like this because of so many good choices and, honestly, I might not feel this way forever. But for now, here goes!

10. Beasts of the Southern Wild – A wonderful fairytale-like movie with a fierce heart, this was a true experience of unexpected catharsis, and excellent photography that never feels forced. Fairytale elements felt as natural as the rain.

9. The Intouchables – A steadily entertaining and uplifting movie, in the vein of In America. This was a perfect, cozy sort of film that’s fun to watch and be absorbed in for a quick two hours.

8.1. The Raid: Redemption – Wall-to-wall action with stunts galore. Not for everyone, but fulfills in every way for fans of martial arts movies. I caught this at SXSW in a sold out crowd — the best way to watch ANY movie, home systems be damned!

8. Cabin in the Woods – I’m a fan of meta-movies, Joss Whedon, and Bradley Whitford. The first time I saw this was at SXSW sitting beside my brother on opening night, with a Q & A afterword. Now, the Q & A experience definitely bumps up a filmgoing experience, and a sold-out crowd/premiere does as well, but upon rewatch the film holds up, and I’m glad I got to share the premiere experience with my brother.

7.1 Moonrise Kingdom – Wes Anderson is back and going strong. Every shot well-composed, which we knew would happen, but the storytelling is also greatly fun and enjoyable throughout. Kudos!

7. Looper – Great experience in a twisty, expertly made film revolving around time travel, discovering your own destiny, and then trying to dodge fate just a little bit. Expert storytelling from Rian Johnson.

6. Django Unchained – Tarantino strikes again. While I feel like there could’ve been some minutes clipped from the closing act of this movie, there is a great joy in listening to the rhythms of Tarantino-speak, and Leonardo DiCaprio gives what’s perhaps his most impressive performance in a good while.

5. The Perks of Being a Wallflower – Charming and touching, yet also sad and nostalgic. I’m sure this movie will have a personal meaning for many viewers, for me it brought back a few memories of high school, navigating adolescence in moments good and bad, with friends and mere acquaintances. This may not win a lot of awards, for whatever reason, but in my opinion this was a very great film.

4. Zero Dark ThirtyA well-crafted film, handled with a precise style of objective storytelling by Kathryn Bigelow. I was intrigued from the opening moments of darkness all the way through the final 45 minutes. Also, Jessica Chastain is getting a lot of praise, but Jason Clarke deserves all the attention he can handle. Between this and Lawless, that dude is going places.

3. Cloud Atlas – Fascinating. Truly wonderful. This is an exploration at how collaboration can bring an almost impossible film project to life. Six stories, intertwined thematically, and by characters, music, locations, sound, visual transitions…intricate and meticulous, and above all each story holds an entertaining, passionate, dramatic value.

2. Lincoln – Remarkable study of not only a man but a process, a time period, and a government system that is as strong as the peoples’ ideas. There’s a clear dramatic question, and all we’re required to do is watch as the characters pull in votes, one by one. I saw a reviewer call it a “procedural,” which feels accurate. Also, the entire cast is excellent, and surprising: Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field, Tommy Lee Jones (very Oscar Worthy), John Hawkes, James Spader (hilarious)…the list goes on.

1. Argo – Buildup is huge, and the tension of the last half-hour is extremely palpable. Ben Affleck keeps it all together quite amazingly, and I’m now on board the Ben Affleck as director train. This is the film I most want to watch again out of the past year, and has stuck with me as an example of the best film of the year.

These movies also impressed me as an audience member, and are worth mentioning: The Master, Holy Motors (what happened?), The Avengers, The Grey, Silver Linings Playbook, Lawless, Do-Deca Pentathlon, Jeff, Who Lives at Home.

And these I’ve heard good things about, but haven’t yet seen. Les Miserables, The Sessions, Anna Karenina, and Amour.

Hope you enjoyed your year at the movies!