Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise and Before Sunset

Several months ago, I stumbled upon the film Before Sunset (2004) on TV. Although I normally have no interest in this type of romantic drama, I was aware that Richard Linklater’s duology Before Sunrise (1995) and Before Sunset had developed a cult following and had garnered high critical acclaim. So, I watched about half an hour of the film, which seemed to be playing out in real time. I found myself drawn into the conversation between the two characters Jesse and Celine, as they spoke about their lives, feelings and opinions, just as any two close friends would if they were meeting after many years. It was a rare and wonderful thing to see that kind of realism play out on screen. Although I couldn’t stay through the entire film, I resolved to watch both films in sequence one day.

In April, I watched Linklater’s Me and Orson Welles and thoroughly enjoyed it. At that time, I read that he was about to release a 3rd film in the ‘Before’ series, titled Before Midnight during the summer. The film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and over the past several weeks has accumulated a torrent of positive reviews. It is among the highest rated films on both Metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes this year. Naturally, I remembered my earlier promise to myself and so I finished watching both the films today.

I loved both of them. As I had sensed during my earlier half hour viewing of the 2nd film, the casting and chemistry of the two actors -Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy – is what makes the films so appealing. They have clearly infused a bit of themselves into the characters and in fact, both actors co-scripted the second film Before Sunset with Richard Linklater and went on to receive an Oscar nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay.

The first film is the more straight-forward and lightweight of the two – a young American man chats up a French girl on a train headed for Paris via Vienna. After spending a few hours talking in the dining car, he convinces her to get off with him at Vienna, where he has to catch an early morning flight back to the US the next day. She agrees after some hesitation and the rest of the film shows them exploring the city while getting to know each other. Over the course of the evening, it becomes clear that they are attracted to each other, not just physically but also intellectually and emotionally. It is very easy for the viewer to empathize with the earnestness of their love as well as the rapidly forming undercurrent of tension as their time together comes to an end. The film ends with them parting at the railway station with a daring decision not to exchange contact details, but instead a promise to meet each other again 6 months later at the same place. Whether they do or not was essentially left to the imagination of the viewer, depending on the viewer’s own leanings towards romanticism or cynicism.

In fact, this is exactly what Ethan Hawke’s character Jesse Wallace says at the start of the 2nd film when he is at a bookstore in Paris promoting his book which is essentially a fictitious rendering of the events of that night. At the end of the session, he realizes that Julie Delpy’s character Celine is standing off to one side. It soon becomes clear that they were unable to keep their appointment 9 years earlier. Jesse has a few hours before he has to rush off to the airport, so the two of them walk through the streets of Paris, trying to catch up on their life events since that night in Vienna. With both characters older and more worldly-wise, their conversation has a much greater emotional depth to it than in the first film. Both are in relationships, but it seems that they are more free and playful with each other than they probably are with their respective partners. As Jesse’s departure to the airport draws closer, there is once again an undercurrent of tension, this time due to their feelings of loss and regret from the unanswerable question of what might have happened, had they not missed that appointment at the Vienna station. This film also has an open-ended conclusion, once again leaving cynics and romantics to create their own closure. Somehow, given the current circumstances of both the characters, one can only imagine that the future will probably be complicated, whichever path they choose.

As the credits started rolling, I felt a deep poignancy that Jesse and Celine could never return to the simple pleasures of that first meeting in Vienna. While the first film ended on a hopeful upbeat note, I felt so uncertain about the fate of these 2 soul mates at the end of the 2nd one.  Would they go back to their respective lives and continue to yearn for each other? Or would they break up their respective loveless relationships and get together? Even if they did so, what would be the chances of their relationship becoming a success? After all, they had only spent a total of about 24 hours together over a span of 9 years. So many unanswered questions. I wonder how many will get resolved and how many new uncertainties will get thrown up in Before Midnight


J.J. Abrams takes Star Trek firmly into the light

When Star Trek: Nemesis opened in theatres about 10 years ago, it quickly ended its run with a paltry earning of USD 67 million worldwide, with USD 43 million coming from the US. On television, the highly regarded spin-offs Deep Space Nine and Voyager had ended their runs in 1999 and 2001 respectively. Although the TV latest spin-off Enterprise was in its 2nd season, there was a feeling that the life of this beloved franchise was coming to an end. Indeed, by 2005, the Enterprise series was cancelled and there had been no new feature films since Nemesis, with Jean-Luc Picard, aka Patrick Stewart having moved on to the X-Men franchise.

Around this time, i.e. 2005-06, a 40-something film/ TV producer named J.J. Abrams was coming to the end of his successful spy series Alias and was getting a lot of TV viewers excited about his new genre-bending TV show Lost.

Mr. Abrams’ first feature directing effort was Mission: Impossible III in 2006 which met with mixed reviews, but its screenwriters Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman (who had also written for Alias) were approached by Paramount to write a new Star Trek feature film and it was no surprise that their producing partner J.J. Abrams was roped in to be the producer of the movie. Once Abrams saw the script he was inspired enough to sign on as director as well.

The rest is history, as Star Trek opened in the summer of 2009 to fantastic reviews and the best box office performance in the history of the franchise (even accounting for inflation since the release of the first Star Trek film in 1979). The anticipation for the sequel has been very high and 4 years is considered a bit of a stretch by today’s standards. The excitement was further ramped up in the past few months with the announcement that Abrams would direct the forthcoming Star Wars: Episode VII for Disney, the new owners of Lucasfilm. This has probably cemented his place in Hollywood history as perhaps the only person who will have directed both a Star Trek and a Star Wars film.

Star Trek Into Darkness opens ‘James Bond style’ with a thrilling action sequence which eventually segues into the title credits. The opening serves to reintroduce us to the key characters and their personalities – Kirk’s devil-may-care attitude and boundless self-confidence, ‘Bones’ McCoy forever trying to cling to his sanity in the midst of the mayhem that seems to erupt wherever Kirk goes, Spock with his irritating insistence on following rules and logic, the incredibly charismatic and emotionally rock solid Uhura, supported by Sulu, Scotty and Chekov. I have to say that Abrams and team have come up with a novel way to introduce the Enterprise ship in the film, which is really saying something considering how many movies and TV shows that starship has been featured in, over the past 4 decades.

The opening is followed by an interlude during which Benedict Cumberbatch is introduced as the mysterious Starfleet officer John Harrison. I thought that this short section featuring a young couple and their daughter added some real emotional depth to the film; a lazier set of writers could easily have bypassed this setup and gone straight to Harrison’s terrorist attack on Starfleet.

The terrorist attack sets in motion the rest of the story which proceeds at breakneck speed; in fact, in real time I think the rest of the story plays out over a period of just a day or so. The Enterprise sets off in pursuit of John Harrison and we have a brief encounter with the Klingons (no doubt they will be the main adversaries in the next sequel). Eventually we discover that there is much more to John Harrison than meets the eye and that the Enterprise is also under threat from another, equally dangerous enemy.

As with the Avengers last summer, the writers have done an outstanding job of infusing just the right amount of humor and entertaining dialogue among the characters, in order to give audiences the necessary breathing room in between all the action. Speaking of action, it really is a non-stop roller coaster ride; there are a number of breathtaking set-pieces, the best of which for me was Kirk trying to get across from the Enterprise to another spaceship nearby.

Long time Trek fans will appreciate some parts of the storyline which references key events in one of the earlier Star Trek films (I can’t say more without revealing too much). The Star Trek reboot of 2009 succeeding in taking this franchise outside its traditional fanbase and I believe that this sequel will expand the footprint even further.

All the actors are in fine form and by now, very comfortable in the skins of their characters. British actress Alice Eve is a new entrant into group and it was nice to see Peter Weller (of RoboCop fame) back in a significant big screen role. For those who are not familiar with Benedict Cumberbatch’s body of work in film (check out his supporting roles in Amazing Grace, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and War Horse) or on TV (Sherlock), Star Trek into Darkness will no doubt elevate him to the status of a globally recognized character actor/ lead actor, much in the same vein as Patrick Stewart and Michael Fassbender.

I wonder how the inevitable sequel will perform without Abrams at the helm, but for the moment I’m going to sit back and watch how the film performs as it rolls out across the world over the next few weeks. Although it’s still early days, Star Trek Into Darkness is already my front runner as the best film of the summer!