Sundance calls itself a discovery festival, and its mythology is all about launching new talents into the public eye. But this year, the pre-festival excitement was all about follow-ups: Before Midnight, Richard Linklater’s quietly filmed capstone to the trilogy (so far) begun by Before Sunrise and Before Sunset, and Upstream Color, the long-awaited second film from Shane Carruth, whose Primer took the Grand Jury Prize nine years ago. In the face of high expectations, both Midnight and Upstream managed to surpass them, although opinion on the latter was decidedly more split.
In Midnight, which takes place nine years after Sunset, Ethan Hawke’s Jesse and Julie Delpy’s Celine are vacationing in Greece with their — spoiler! — two daughters. Conversation, as always, ensues, but this time Linklater lets others speak, notably in a long afternoon lunch around a table filled with others, from a young pair to two elderly widows. Novelist Jesse is still full of cosmic bullshit, but it’s a higher level of bullshit, and once the clatter of friends and children is cleared away, the two face up to problems normally obscured by the hubbub of daily life. Not just a great film in itself, Midnight raises the level of its predecessors by making them part of an ongoing chain, a true love story that goes on long after the happily ever after.
As for Upstream, I knew nothing about its plot going in, and I rank seeing it cold as one of the most transcendent experiences of my moviegoing life. Nonetheless, the film is effectively spoiler-proof, since understanding it fully enough to give things away is a condition only additional viewings will allow. Broadly speaking, the film centers on the relationship between Kris (Amy Seimetz), a victim of a hypnotic con man who steals all she has to give, and Jeff (played by director Carruth), a disgraced broker barely hanging on to his off-the-books job. But that doesn’t begin to scratch the surface of a film powered by an ecstatic lyricism rivaled only by the creation sequence in Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life. Engaging emotions first and intellect after, Upstream is less a brainteaser in Primer’s vein than a movie to be built up, torn down and built up again. The film’s theatrical release is scheduled for April 5, but Carruth, who is handling distribution, is having trouble booking a Philadelphia date.
James Ponsoldt’s The Spectacular Now, which won a combined acting prize for stars Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley, is a teen movie without varnish, letting us see the real scars on Teller’s face and the metaphorical ones beneath. Like Ponsoldt’s Smashed, it’s a portrait of alcohol addiction and the point in a relationship when hanging around with a habitual drunk stops being fun, but the performances are more vulnerable, the story less tidy.
Substance abuse figures in Crystal Fairy, one of two collaborations between Michael Cera and Chilean director Sebastián Silva. Shot in 12 days while their other joint project, Magic Magic, was delayed, it’s a fittingly loose account of a psychedelic fool’s errand, a voyage to the coast masterminded by an insistent and petty Cera, who’s decided it’s the perfect place for a mescaline trip. On the way, he and three reluctant friends — played by Silva’s brothers — join up with Gaby Hoffmann’s damaged free spirit, whose carefree nudity and lackadaisical grooming habits repulse rather than entice. Anyone who’s been on a similar journey will recognize the types instantly.
Magic Magic is stranger and darker, centering on American expat Alicia’s (Juno Temple) abrupt slip into madness in the company of some of the world’s most self-centered people. (Cera is one of them, clearly aiming with these two films to blow up his nice-guy image.) Silva called Magic the “real movie” of the two, and it’s obviously more scripted and solidly structured, but they function as distant companion pieces or light and dark sides of the same coin.
Comedy standby (and, yes, Maxim cover girl) Lake Bell makes an unsurprisingly funny and remarkably sharp debut as writer, director and star of In a World ..., a film about father-daughter competition in the realm of movie-trailer narrators that also functions as a romantic comedy and feminist social criticism. (Among other things, she takes aim at the scourge of the speech mannerism known as vocal fry, or what she calls the “sexy baby” voice.) It’s not going to set the world on fire, but In a World ... is as charismatic as, and perfectly aligned with, the sensibility of its creator.