Friday, April 08, 2005

Film reviews: Before Sunset, Melinda and Melinda

There's a great chapter about visual perception in Malcolm Gladwell's new book Blink. Gladwell describes a study of the way people watch movies, in which the researchers used instruments to map the movements of people's eyes as they watched Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. They found that people followed the conversation in remarkably consistent patterns, constantly shifting their focus between the characters in order to read on their faces the subtext of what they were saying as well as the emotional interplay taking place between them. I thought of this study as I watched two interesting and dialogue-rich films recently.

The writers of Before Sunset, Richard Linklater, Ethan Hawke, and Julie Delpy, seem to realize how enthralling and dramatic a conversation can be, because they built the entire movie around one. The film's two characters, played by Hawke and Delpy, first appeared in a 1994 movie called Before Sunrise, and this sequel begins with their unexpected reunion nearly ten years later. I haven't seen Sunrise, but Sunset quickly introduced their story and had me entranced by these characters, and in suspense about where their conversation will lead. The movie lasts only around 80 minutes, but both actors are on screen for almost the entire time, and even without the beautiful scenes of summertime Paris the quality of both actors' performances provides plenty of visual interest.

I watched the movie yesterday on DVD, and immediately wanted to tell other people about it, so I took my DVD player to the TV lounge in my building. A bunch of other people there watched and were just as captivated as I was - at first I worried they might be bored, because no one said anything, but I soon realized they were hanging on every word.

Another film I saw recently was Woody Allen's latest, Melinda and Melinda. The idea here is that a single story can become either a tragedy and a comedy, depending on the talents and inclinations of the playwright. Interestingly, Allen skips over the original story and drops us right into the tragic and comic transformations conceived by his two playwrights. He actually pulls off the slightly gimmicky premise pretty well, though the audience I saw it with in South Beach laughed a bit more at the tragedy than the comedy. I would attribute this to Will Ferrell, the lead actor in the comedy, who is even more lame than usual as one of Woody Allen's standard good-naturedly neurotic New Yorkers.

On the other hand the lead actress, Radha Mitchell, is really effective in both the tragedy and the comedy, and her performance alone might make it worth seeing on video. I found it made a neat sort of puzzle trying to piece together the original story, and picking out the many similarities between them. Melinda is definitely a cleverly constructed film, but I would rate Before Sunset as stronger and more compelling.

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