"Before Sunrise" and "Uncut Gems" are this week's picks.
A quick rundown of the week's entertainment news:
- Disney announced it would be releasing its live-action "Mulan" film onto Disney+ as a $30 rental. Single people got pretty mad about that! Families generally seem to think it is a good deal. It's a little weird to put it on a paid service and then ask people to pay (a lot) more for it, but whatever. I'm mostly on Disney's side here.
- Nia DaCosta ("Little Woods," the upcoming "Candyman" reimagining) has been selected to directed "Captain Marvel 2." Cool! DaCosta will be the first Black woman to direct a Marvel Cinematic Universe film and the second woman of color behind Chloe Zhao, director of "The Eternals" (which will be released … eventually? Who knows. Thanks, pandemic).
- The trailer for Charlie Kaufman's new movie, "I'm Thinking of Ending Things," was released Thursday, and it looks like a Charlie Kaufman movie, which is to say it looks sad and weird and unsettling. Can't wait! It stars Jessie Buckley, Jesse Plemons, Toni Collette and David Thewlis, and it'll be out Sept. 4 on Netflix.
- On Sept. 3, Ridley Scott's long-gestating HBO Max sci-fi series "Raised by Wolves" will drop. The trailer for the series premiered Wednesday, and it looks absolutely wild. Not that I would expect anything less from the creator of "Alien" and "Blade Runner."
Let's get on with it.
"Before Sunrise" (1995)
HBO Max, rated R, 141 minutes
In recommending "Before Sunrise" I am of course also recommending the rest of the "Before" trilogy — "Before Sunset" and "Before Midnight" — as well. But we have to start somewhere, and that place is the beginning, before Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) meet on a whim in Vienna and spend an evening falling for each other.
What's great about the "Before" trilogy is the films never try to be bigger than they are. They don't try to say anything about the world. In fact, they seem to believe the world is unknowable. Instead, the characters focus on what they can understand and change, which is each other.
"Before Sunrise" nails the first hours you spend with someone you know is special to you. Those hours feel like years. By the end, you hardly remember a time without that person in your life. They're a dividing line, like B.C. and A.D. It also nails the feeling of trying to find yourself while young. Your opinions are steadfast until they aren't. You go from flirty to argumentative to sincere in a matter of seconds. In some ways, Jesse and Celine's conversations are a sparring match with no clear winner because winning isn't the point. The act of sparring with an equal is.
That's all "Before Sunrise" is, by the way: conversations. They go to a cafe and talk. They go to a carnival and talk (and dance). They ride a train through rustic fields and talk. They walk along the streets of this foreign city and talk. There's no action to speak of here, no screaming matches or fisticuffs. The tension, such as it exists, comes from the inevitable: We all know this can't last. Jesse has to go home to the U.S., and Celine has to go home to France.
But oh, what conversations they are. Richard Linklater does some of the best work of his career here — he even predicted what would make things like TikTok and YouTube so successful — and Hawke and Delpy's chemistry is unmatched. Hawke has gotten his due as one of the world's best actors, but Delpy is usually forgotten about. That makes me sad. She's incredible here, bursting with warmth and sneakily great comedic timing. It doesn't take long before you forget these are actors and not actual soulmates.
A lot of mumblecore movies came after this one, a lot directly inspired by it, but none came close to matching "Before Sunrise" and its magic.
"Uncut Gems" (2019)
Netflix, rated R, 135 minutes
It's always funny to me when an arthouse-adjacent film goes mainstream, either by way of landing on the Netflix front page or by its ostensible subject matter.
In the case of "Uncut Gems," the cause was both. It was promoted heavily by Netflix once it landed on the service earlier this year, and it had a lot of ingredients that would appeal to more casual moviegoers: Adam Sandler in a dramatic-yet-still-comedic role and a story revolving around sports betting, with performances from sports figures including NBA legend Kevin Garnett. I don't blame these viewers for trying "Uncut Gems" and disliking it, as many of them seem to do (at least based on evidence from my social media feeds).
I wonder when these people realized this movie was not going to be for them. Perhaps it was right after the film's spacey, hazy intro, when the camera zooms out of Howard Ratner's (Sandler) asshole while he's getting a colonoscopy. If not, maybe its when he's jumped, stripped naked and stuffed into the truck of his own car by his brother-in-law, Arno, while watching his daughter's school play. Maybe it's earlier, when the Safdie brothers utilize the Robert Altman-esque audio style of having every character talk over one another the whole film, giving the viewer the sense of being in a crowded room while sacrificing crystal clarity.
Unlike "Before Sunrise," "Uncut Gems" is all tension. As Howard's gambling debts get him deeper and deeper into trouble, he scrambles to find a way out, and his methods carry more risk. By the time the film's climax arrives, with Howard watching Garnett and the 2009 Boston Celtics, his life perhaps riding on the outcome of a single parlay, you physically feel it in your gut. There's not much plot here; Howard makes self-destructive decisions, then makes more of them until his world collapses on top of him.
This movie aligns with all my interests. It's no surprise it was one of my top five films of last year. It's great! Sandler gives maybe the best performance of his career (or maybe second to "Punch-Drunk Love") and should have been Oscar nominated for it. Julia Fox and Keith Williams Richards are incredible in their first-ever acting roles. I haven't even mentioned that Lakeith Stanfield and Idina Menzel and Eric Bogosian are in this movie, or that The Weeknd makes a cameo where he almost gets into a fight in a nightclub.
But I do understand why casual watchers don't feel the same way. If you're expecting big set pieces or nonstop laughs, you're going to be disappointed. I seen a lot of tweets saying something to the effect of "When does 'Uncut Gems' stop being boring/get good?" To those people, I say perhaps the movie just isn't for you, and that's OK. Personally, I think every scene is interesting, but your mileage will vary.
I encourage you to give it a shot, though. Like the Safdies' previous film, "Good Time," "Uncut Gems" is a character study of a guy caught in a spider's web. The thrills come from watching him fight for freedom for as long as he can.