Publicist’s orders: I’m only allowed to write a capsule review of Richard Linklater’s unexpectedly sublime Before Sunset, the first great American film of 2004. Once I recovered from the shock of how poorly Ethan Hawke has aged—his face has lost all its buoyant, boyish elasticity, and his teeth look badly cared for—I was better able to adjust to the gauzy summer light with which director of photography Lee Daniel bathes the film. I never liked the cinematography, yet it doesn’t interfere. Sunset belongs to Julie Delpy’s Celine the way Before Sunrise belonged to Hawke’s Jesse. More radiantly beautiful now than she was nine years ago, Delpy (she co-wrote the script with Hawke and Linklater) comes into her own with a monologue about a gun-obsessed New York cop, a stunning scene in the back of a chauffeured car where her disappointments and anger gradually stream forth, and a bit in which she channels the spirit of the late Nina Simone. Of the handful of lapidary performances by actresses in leading roles this year—think of Toni Collette in Japanese Story, Anne Reid in The Mother, Catalina Sandino Moreno in Maria Full of Grace—Delpy may take her rightful place among them.
For every surprise such as Before Sunset, conversely there must be a major letdown. Sad to say, the director’s cut of Donnie Darko diminishes rather than enhances Richard Kelly’s 2001 film. The newly added special effects increase neither our understanding nor appreciation for Donnie’s plight, and what’s worse, the effects just look like effects. As for the 20 minutes of reinstated outtakes, only one new scene struck me as worthwhile. This arrives at the very end. Katharine Ross, who plays Donnie’s psychiatrist, wakes alone in her bed as if from a dream, and then we have a montage of various characters stirring from sleep, some peacefully, some not. As for the rest of the footage, it’s obvious why it was trimmed in the first place, in particular all the nattering on about Watership Down. The most unsatisfactory aspect of the original Donnie Darko, the expectation that its troubled protagonist will have a revelatory encounter with the time travel author Roberta Sparrow, doesn’t receive its due here either. Instead, Kelly inserts screens that “explain” passages from Roberta’s book—a cop-out. At 133 minutes, the film feels overlong and diluted. Nonetheless, Jake Gyllenhaal’s intuitive, witty interpretation of Donnie remains intact, as does the priceless rejoinder, “Why are you wearing that stupid bunny suit?” followed by “Why are you wearing that stupid man suit?” There are the pleasures of Mary McDonnell, Beth Grant, Drew Barrymore, and that heartbreaking little wave in the final scene with McDonnell and Jena Malone. The re-release, however, doesn’t seem necessary. It impresses me as crass opportunism—Newmarket can separate several million dollars from the movie’s considerable cult following, most of whom won’t object to their beloved film being cheapened.
Not to sound totally sour on the experience, I did enjoy being right about calling Kelly’s number as a frustrated Busby Berkeley. Look at the “Sparkle Motion” sequences—the way he frames the choreography and lights the girls’ silver lamé, Flash Gordon-ette gowns. At the press conference on May 29, Kelly promised “more music” in his next movie, “maybe even singing and dancing.” McDonnell was generous with her fans at the post-screening gala reception. She and I talked about the scene where the psychiatrist meets with Donnie’s parents, and how Rose Darko dislikes the idea of her son’s drug dosages being increased, yet goes along with it because she doesn’t know how else to help him. Just watching McDonnell hold court with well-wishers was its own reward. “Have you spoken with Mary?” I asked a young blond hipster who was standing near me. “She’s very approachable.” He must have thought I said, “How you hugged Mary?” because a second or two later he walked over to her with arms outstretched. And hug him, she did.
Kyle MacLachlan has so rarely performed in light comedy (can you think of another?) that his adroit impersonation of Cary Grant justifies sitting through Touch of Pink. The movie isn’t much more than a multi-kulti sitcom, and Jimi Mistry’s deer-in-the-headlights performance as a bland, 30ish gay Muslim living in London doesn’t help. The young gay men in Touch of Pink are all from the same cookie-cutter, save for skin tone, so the debuting writer-director Ian Iqbal Rashid illumines no uncharted terrain. Mercifully, there’s MacLachlan. His spectacularly dry line readings, his vocal cadences that approximate Grant’s, and his willingness to ride atop an ice sculpture while clad in Gunga Din safari attire make Touch of Pink more memorable than it deserves to be. Suleka Mathew, playing Mistry’s frightened, defensive mother, has a couple of good moments, notably when her son’s lover takes her out on the town, gets her tipsy on champagne, and they waltz all the way home.
Marketed as innocuous, sentimental fluff about a man and his dog, Bruce Weber’s A Letter to True encompasses an ocean of high and low. Alternately cozy and challenging, the film makes me regret that Weber doesn’t make movies more often. The documentary ranges over subjects from Dirk Bogarde at Provence to rednecks splashing into mud puddles to androgynous Elizabeth Taylor look-alikes, persons with AIDS, Haitian refugees, mangled veterans, the Vietnam War photography of Larry Burrows, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, so-called “cats for peace,” and Jimmy Durante songs. Whenever the movie threatens to go terribly askew, Weber’s impeccable taste in jazz standards saves the day. At one point, for instance, he announces that, “Like the rest of us,” his dog so-and-so (he owns several in addition to True) “is still recovering from the effects of September 11.” No sooner had I silently uttered, “Bullshit!,” Weber cues Blossom Dearie’s superb 1958 recording of Rodgers and Hart’s greatest song, “Manhattan,” to accompany a mostly black-and-white montage of dog-walking in New York. There’s a bit of Ground Zero footage, yet Weber doesn’t dwell on it (he never dwells on anything); still—even though I have that particular Blossom Dearie CD and have listened to it hundreds of times—I don’t think I’ll ever hear the closing phrase “I’ll take Manhattan” in quite the same way again.
Weber’s dogs live better than most humans. We first see them running and swimming along high color saturation shots of a sunshine-imbued Montauk beach. They have their own massage therapists, fur groomers, and oh yes, they go surfing; in one certifiably nutty sequence, Weber acknowledges the canines’ status as sex substitutes: amid white-green waves cresting, swimmers caress golden retrievers as passionately as lovers.
A Letter to True manages to be stringently anti-war and pro-veteran, to find more relevant political content in old Lassie movies than I would have dreamed possible, and to pay tribute to Jonathan Demme for making The Agronomist (a film I vehemently disliked) while making a stronger, more affecting statement on Haiti in the space of five minutes than Demme accomplished in ninety. The highest point arrives too soon. Weber relates the memory of a photo shoot with Dirk Bogarde, and as Bogarde boozily reminisces about his years in Provence, the soundtrack soars with Ella Fitzgerald’s transcendent interpretation of Billy Strayhorn’s “Something to Live For.” A few viewers might have been happy to remain at that level of elegance, without going into the muck to which Weber later subjects us. I would’ve. Give me Julie Christie reading Rilke any day over the puddle-hopping white trash farmboys whom Weber’s eye fancies. We need them both, A Letter to True charitably reinforces. – NPT
May 30, 2004