Scene Stealers: An indie trilogy winds up, and another tired superhero reboot is born

Who would have thought in 1995 when director Richard Linklater made the talky, quiet character study “Before Sunrise” that it would spawn two sequels and help to highlight a sea change in commercial film production.

Columbia Pictures financed the $2.5 million-budgeted film, which features Ethan Hawke as a young American tourist who spends one romantic night getting to know Julie Delpy’s Celine, a French woman, as they stroll around Vienna amidst a stirring mutual attraction. The film was a modest success, grossing twice that and getting favorable reviews.

The unlikely sequel “Before Sunset” picked up nine years later and features the same couple spending an afternoon together in Paris; their lives and priorities very different from before. As the clock ticks down to Hawke’s impending flight back home, it becomes likely that his character Jesse will throw caution to the wind and begin a real relationship with Celine. “Before Sunset” was released by Warner Independent Pictures in 2004, a time when many major studios had an indie arm, and received an Oscar nomination for best adapted screenplay.

In 2013, the new “Before Midnight,” opening Friday at Liberty Hall, showcases a very different theme than its predecessors, and is released during a tough time for traditional film distribution. The idealistic longing and romantic attraction Jesse and Celine had for each other has morphed into a modern-day portrait of a couple in love trying to navigate the tricky waters of a long-term relationship with kids and career issues.

The film was completed under heavy secrecy in Greece late last year, and debuted to rave reviews at the Sundance Film Festival in January. Within days after its premiere, a bidding war was settled, and Sony Pictures Classics (which, along with Fox Searchlight, is one of the last consistently successful big-studio indie distributors around) had the rights to something truly unique: a third picture in a micro-budgeted, character-driven “franchise,” so to speak. My early prediction is that “Before Midnight” will garner more money and Oscar nominations than “Before Sunset” and that the reputation of the whole trilogy will be elevated by the end of the year.

Of course, by the time “Before Noon” comes out in another nine years, indie movies may be exclusively available online and on VOD.

• • • If it feels like Seth Rogen and Team Apatow have ruled the modern comedy for quite some time now, that’s because they have. The quick-witted, self-deprecating stoner manchild from 2007′s “Knocked Up” has become a staple in broad Hollywood comedy, in everything from “I Love You, Man” to “Pineapple Express,” where Judd Apatow players Jason Segel and James Franco play the parts, respectively. Both of those actors are on hand for the apocalyptic comedy “This is the End,” playing hyper-absorbed versions of themselves, and it’s part of what gives the film its edge.

At the same time, it’s also responsible for lessening its ultimate impact. Since Rogen and pal Jay Baruchel made a 2007 short film with a similar premise, Rogen and most of his friends have become very famous, so the full-length movie adds an extra layer of parody onto the premise, brutally sending up celebrity ego. “This is the End” is at its funniest and most biting because of the willingness of its stars to viciously poke fun at their own public images. The self-absorption even goes so far that Rogen, Franco, Craig Robinson, Danny McBride and Jonah Hill film an extemporaneous sequel to “Pineapple Express,” which is actually really funny, while another scene recalls the Michael Cera-Jonah Hill bedtime bonding session from “Superbad.”

As “This is the End” progresses, though, and its central conceit eventually grows tired, the script falls back on easier jokes and a hokey ending. The movie swings wildly from downright hilarious to disappointingly lazy during its 100-minute running time.

Still, there’s something particularly satisfying about the idea that a nerdy, frustrated teenager with a drug-addled imagination (Rogen) can grow up to be a movie star and make the movie he used to giggle about with his friends — one with giant demons that sport oversized phalluses and spit fire. That kid had no way of knowing that 1) he would actually get to make that movie and 2) he would be rich and successful by then, so the mere fact that "This is the End" works as well as it does most of the time is a testament to Rogen’s comedic talent.

• • • By now, you are probably wondering why I’ve buried my “Man of Steel” review so far down in my column. The answer is easy: It’s by far the least interesting release of the week.

Director Zack Snyder re-imagines DC Comics’ Superman with producer Christopher Nolan with an emphasis on his tortured soul, but a script that can’t stay consistent. As commanding as he is as Jor-El from Krypton, there’s too much of Russell Crowe flying around on a giant lizard and barking platitudes before the movie kicks into gear. And as effective as he is, Kevin Costner’s Pa Kent spends his entire portion of the movie giving advice that Clark Kent (a brooding Henry Cavill) will eventually ignore in one of the many super-sized fight scenes during the film’s last hour.

Snyder and screenwriter David S. Goyer obviously took the criticism that Bryan Singer’s “Superman Returns” received about not having enough action to heart, because almost every plot point in “Man of Steel” happens during an action scene. That, a complete lack of humor, and Hans Zimmer’s overbearing score, make “Man of Steel” a bludgeoning experience.

As long as they perform well at the box office, superhero movies are here to stay. But the stories they tell of these noble, misunderstood heroes are so strikingly similar that they can be draining. It’s a cumulative effect.

“Iron Man 3” played with the template enough, had terrific chemistry, and a good amount of distracting humor. “Man of Steel,” however, is like “The Dark Knight” trilogy drained of all its moral complexity and vibrant storytelling. What’s left is an oppressive movie filled with a blaring seriousness, inconsistent production design, mundane conflict, heavy exposition and a huge amount of super-destructive action that leads to nothing.

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