The further you get into a festival like SXSW, the more you want to truncate the reviews. It's sadly something I would have rather liked to avoid, considering all these movies I saw yesterday deserve full reviews, but frankly I just don't have the time. Add to that the factor of Daylight Savings Time and lack of sleep, and you get summaries like this. I realize though that there are a lot of film fans who would love to be here, so I'm not complaining at all. It's been a good year so far at South by Southwest, and I've been very pleased with all the movies I've seen so far.
You normally want to have that mediocre-to-bad movie as a kind of reality check in festivals like this. But I haven't seen one yet. Everything's been good to great, and last night I saw a movie that if it doesn't wind up on my top ten this year, well, then this will have been a far better year than I thought it would be. Anything's possible.
So. Coffee in hand. Phone is charging. Let's do this.
Craig (Pat Healy) is broke. He just got fired from his crappy job as an auto mechanic. He's a writer, but he hasn't written anything in a while. And he's just gotten an eviction notice because he's $4500 behind in the rent, and he, his wife (Amanda Fuller) and newborn could well wind up on the street. He's debating how to tell his wife all of this, alone in a bar when in enters a high school friend that Craig hasn't seen in 5 years. Vince (Ethan Embry) seems to have had it a bit rougher - he's spent some time in jail - but at the moment he seems to be doing better than Craig is. But not much better.
Meanwhile, Colin (David Koechner) is in that same bar, celebrating his wife Violet's (Sara Paxton) birthday and freely throwing money around. Craig and Vince make their way to their table, and what seems like a good-natured fun bet turns more complicated. For Craig and Vince these bets become an opportunity to get out of their respective financial slumps. But Colin and Violet have something more sinister in mind. CHEAP THRILLS asks what would you do for a little security? And the answer is, apparently, anything you can.
Pat Healy, so loathesome in COMPLIANCE, is more sympathetic here, but that darkness is under the surface, ready to burst forth. It's a difficult, terrific performance, and Healy walks a tightrope between the audience feeling pity for him and utter disgust for what Craig is willing to do. Ethan Embry's Vince is just as desperate, and Embry brings a rough physicality to the character. He's great, playing a deceptively simple man who isn't afraid to do what it takes. It's obvious Craig is no match for Vince physically, so Craig has to outthink him when things come down to the wire. Sara Paxton plays Violet as a sultry manipulator, and with only a few words of dialogue she manages to get all these men to do her bidding. She's quite good in a role that relies more on quiet deliberation.
David Koechner is incredible in CHEAP THRILLS, and gives the most surprising performance. It's never said how Colin comes by his wealth, but he flaunts it at every opportunity, knowing what it does to Craig and Vince, and subtly puts them in his trap as things escalate. As the night grows longer, and Craig and Vince become more willing to sell their souls, Colin tightens the screws on them both. At first blush Colin is a lovable doofus, not unlike the other characters Koechner has played through the years, but underneath the surface is a sly puppet master who knos how to push the right buttons in these two men. It's revelatory work by Koechner. He's stunning.
There's a ton of subtext in CHEAP THRILLS about the economy, capitalism, how poor people are manipulated by the wealthy into going against their own best interests, but it's not buried very deep. If the movie didn't work on a pure storytelling level all of that would be for nothing, but E. L. Katz and writers David Chirchirillo and Trent Haaga skillfully navigate these uncomfortable waters and bring matters to a slow boil. Like the frog in the pot, by the time Vince and Craig know to jump out, it's already too late. CHEAP THRILLS is also remarkably funny, and one can't help but laugh at these guys even as their actions make us wince.
This is E. L. Katz's first directed feature film (fans of Fangoria may recognize the name - he's been a writer about all things horror over the years) but it certainly doesn't feel like it. He ramps up the tension like a pro. I don't know the status of any kind of release date for CHEAP THRILLS, but this one will have to make its way to theaters. It's comedy served jet black and full of razor sharp wit. This movie cuts to bleed. A hell of a directorial debut for Katz and I can't wait to see more of his work in the future.
I loved V/H/S. Not all of the segments in the anthology worked, and I'm certainly no huge advocate for the found footage motif of filmmaking, but for me V/H/S was a sordid, filthy, horror feast. I loved how forbidden the movie felt - like this was definitely not something we were supposed to be watching. V/H/S is quite rough around the edges, and there's obviously better segments than others, but I'm a fan. I love the idea of hungry independent directors and artists playing with genre conventions and telling stories like this. This franchise (and man, I hope this is a franchise) is the exception that proves the rule.
V/H/S/2 is better in every way to its predecessor. Yes, the connective story (directed by Simon Barrett) remains the weakest one, as a private investigator and his assistant break into a house full of videotapes to find out what happened to a missing college student, but you can tell that the filmmakers are building a mythology around these movies that works. It's not delicate what they're doing, but Barrett, director Adam Wingard, and the other filmmakers at the Collective and Bloody Disgusting are definitely building up to a franchise that horror fans will embrace. If there's one thing I miss from the original movie is that V/H/S/2 is slicker in presentation - I love the improved camerawork, for certain, but that feeling of taboo is a little more tempered this time.
No matter. Everyone steps up, and there isn't one bad segment in the movie. In particular I loved how in all the segments the entire conceit is changed and the filmmakers are willing to bypass the limitations of found footage if it gets in the way of the story the directors want to tell. First we get Adam Wingard's story, "Clinical Trials," as a young man testing out a new mechanical eye discovers that he's seeing things that he shouldn't be, and Wingard builds to an appropriately scary climax. Then Eduardo Sanchez (the professor emeritus of this sort of thing) and Gregg Hale give us "A Ride In The Park", which may be the singularly most original take on the zombie genre in many years. It's funny, gory, and even sad at times, and gives us a viewpoint that really deepens and enriches the genre, even with all the glut of zombie movies in recent years.
Gareth Evans and Timo Tjahjanto's "Safe Haven" is easily the most terrifying segment of the movie, as a camera crew goes into a compound for a religious cult and experiences the cult's end-of-the-world prophesies first hand. It's utterly brilliant, and as the segment escalated, I was gripping my seat. If there were any segments that gave me that Lovecraftian feeling of dread and forbidden imagery that the first one did at times then "Safe Haven" is it. Horror fans will rejoice.
"Safe Haven" may be the best one, but my favorite was Jason Eisener's "Alien Abduction Slumber Party", an 1980s kids' movie that goes horribly wrong. Eisener doesn't paint these kids with a Spielbergian gloss - they're about as raw as any kids on screen as I've seen in a while - but Eisener gives "Alien Abduction Slumber Party" that sense of danger that those children's films like Fred Dekker's MONSTER SQUAD and Richard Donner's THE GOONIES had. But Eisener is well aware that he's making a pretty hard horror movie, and doesn't pull any punches. Plus it has probably one of the more innovative uses of the found footage motif that I've seen yet, even if it does end on a shot that will make most animal lovers squirm.
I want a V/H/S movie every year. I want to see more horror filmmakers give this a shot. As I've said, if found footage dies on the vine, I really wouldn't care one way or the other. But I want this franchise to keep coming, with fresh talent (and even some master filmmakers getting involved - I imagine the economy of making these segments really frees up these filmmakers' creative voices, and who wouldn't want to see our best filmmakers make a balls-out horror movie like this?) challenging this genre and doing great work. So far these movies have been the province of male filmmakers and I'd also love to see women involved. Can you imagine what a filmmaker like Kathryn Bigelow could do with this material? Keep it coming, guys.
Richard Linklater's BEFORE Trilogy has to be in the conversation of best film trilogies of all time. It just has to be. These movies have such a place in my heart - I love Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) now to the point that I could simply listen to them all day debating house decorating arrangements. Delpy, Hawke, and Linklater gives these characters such life - a life that is so rarely seen in cinema these days. Their conversations feel about as truthful and real as conversations I have with my own wife. It's fascinating watching Hawke and Delpy navigate their dialogue, and how a moment can turn on a dime from wistful nostalgia to the here and now, and all the problems that come with it. There's such joy in the spoken word here. The audience feels like something of a voyeur, watching these people's lives unfold, and we feel the same emotions that these characters do.
BEFORE SUNRISE was all about young love, and the conversations between Jesse and Celine were full of wonder, optimism, and that spirit that only youth unfettered by real experience can bring. In BEFORE SUNSET that optimism is tempered by real life and all the complications that it brings, but it's still very much alive in them. When BEFORE SUNSET ends, with that wonderful line "Baby, you're going to miss that plane," there are so many possibilities, and the fact that Linklater, Hawke, and Delpy decide to take the unexpected route makes BEFORE MIDNIGHT feel as honest as the originals.
Indeed, in BEFORE MIDNIGHT, Jesse did miss that plane, and for the past nine years he and Celine have created a life together. Jesse divorced his American wife to live in Europe with Celine, leaving his young son in his ex-wife's custody. Jesse and Celine have twin daughters, and together with his son Hank (Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick) they take a vacation in Greece, but as BEFORE MIDNIGHT begins it's Hank's final day with Jesse before he flies back to the States and his mother. Hank's departure affects Jesse deeply - he knows that he loves Celine and the girls with all his heart, but he still feels regret that Hank is caught in the middleof a pretty lousy situation. He doesn't regret staying that day in Paris, but there's no pat easy conclusion for any of this, and Jesse feels like he is missing an integral part of Hank's life.
Meanwhile, Celine is contemplating taking a new job now that the girls are older, but she also feels that she has been put in a position that she never expected to happen. She's a housewife now, everything she swore that she wouldn't become in those days of her youth. Celine is a fiercely emotional woman, and finding herself cleaning after two little girls when she should be out there saving the earth feels reductive to her. Not that she doesn't love her children - she adores them. But both Jesse and Celine know that those days of walking around Vienna, adrift in the simplicities of young love, are long over.
These thoughts and emotions come to a head when Jesse and Celine are given a night away from the kids, and old resentments and feelings come bursting forth. The arguments and conversations that Jesse and Celine have feel so real that at times I remembered conversations I've had with my own wife about the place we were in our lives at the time. What's wonderful about BEFORE MIDNIGHT is that while Jesse and Celine could serve as templates for any man and woman in a marriage, they are still unique characters. In this world that Linklater has created, they are living and breathing people with real problems. BEFORE MIDNIGHT resonated very strongly with me. Linklater knows that there are no real climaxes in life - things slowly build to moments, but there is still life after those moments and Linklater, Delpy, and Hawke never forget that.
As with the other films, it's the rich conversations these characters have that provides so much of the thrill. This time, it's not simply about Jesse and Celine but their families and friends as well, and they all have a voice in how their lives have turned out. One scene at a dinner table, as the characters talk about art, their own families, and their own stories is just a joy to listen to. Good conversation in movies is quickly becoming a lost art these days, and it's so refreshing that Linklater, Delpy, and Hawke cherish every word of their creations. It's not mindless rambling or pretentious discussion just to hear themselves talk. Every conversation has an underlying story going on, and watching the subtle reactions of Hawke and Delpy as each emotion is felt makes the movie just as rich as its predecessors. In fact, this is the best both have been in these characters, and it feels organic and real.
When BEFORE MIDNIGHT ends, those characters do not, and while fans of these movie will definitely contemplate what will happen next for these wonderful characters, if this was the final movie in this series, I wouldn't complain. I have the feeling it's not, though. As Linklater, Hawke, and Delpy continue to journey through their own lives, and we through ours, I think that Jesse and Celine still have quite a bit to say. If the current trend continues, the next BEFORE film will be in 2022, with Jesse and Celine hitting 50. What will their lives be like? What will our lives be like? Linklater is telling universal truths here, but they are truths that are not obvious to anyone until they've lived them. The story of Jesse and Celine is our story, and like my own life, I wonder what happens next. I hope to be watching Jesse and Celine together for a long time - and yet, life is what happens when we make other plans, and that's certainly true of this series. As the camera slowly pulls back, and we exit this masterful, wonderful film, one can't help but wonder what's next. I wouldn't have it any other way. BEFORE MIDNIGHT is one of the very best movies of Richard Linklater's career, and the first hands-down great movie of 2013.
Thanks for reading.