Written by Gabrielle Zevin and directed by Hans Canosa (the two previously teamed up for their only other feature credit, the indie drama "Alma Mater"), "Conversations" follows a night in the life of a man and a woman - their names are never revealed - who meet at the wedding of his sister, her old friend. As the evening rolls on, we discover that they knew each other long ago, and after drifting apart, they welcome a chance to rekindle the old flame. Then reality sets in, with significant others and the matter of the Atlantic Ocean (she's English, he's American) threatening another drift before dawn. They talk, and talk, and talk.
Helena Bonham Carter and Aaron Eckhart play the couple, and their performances are as rich and wonderful as we would expect from such names. And yet even with such power in the leading roles, the movie fails to bother with them. Canosa is focused entirely on his filmmaking trickery that he never stops to bother with the characters, who, despite such detailed performances (both actors bring a much-needed nuance to their roles), wind up being remarkably boring souls who whine for a while, then get romantic, then whine some more, and that's about it. Zevin's screenplay, which seems desperate to duplicate "Before Sunrise" and "Before Sunset," is all too weak; she aims at themes of forgotten lovers and second chances, but the story is ultimately too lightweight to deliver any true impact.
But technically? Canosa deserves mention. The film is essentially one long version of the split screen sequence in "Rules of Attraction," only without the delightful payoff. The entire evening is shown in two halves, his and hers, running simultaneously. We get two shots of the same scene at the same time, thanks to two cameras capturing the same moment from different angles. Just imagine the amount of work that must have gone in to not only arrange the set so the cameras wouldn't see each other (or the crew, or the lights, etc.), but to also synchronize every second of footage in editing. Quite a feat.
Most impressive about the film is how it seems to play out in real time - we don't get a single jump-forward in the timeline of the evening. And yet we get the entire night in the course of one movie. Like Jacques Tati's masterpiece "Playtime," it's "accelerated real time." We go from dusk through dawn without any cuts, and it feels right. Granted, Canosa's no Tati, and he uses a few cheats, mainly by showing us two separate moments at once (preparing to leave the hotel and actually leaving the hotel, say), or by speeding up and slowing down a take. And then the movie begs attention to itself with self-important dialogue: "Time really can't move in two directions," or "The illusion of effortlessness requires a great effort indeed," which pulls us out of the story entirely.
In fact, the film pulls us out of the story so often that we're barely ever in the story in the first place. Canosa, who also edited the film, repeatedly draws attention to the entire movie-ness of the thing. At times, he's hoping to add depth to the characters, showing us on one of the two screens not what's happening now, but what's happening in the minds of the man or woman: a flashback here, an alternate view there. Several scenes feature multiple, varied readings of the same line of dialogue, as if to show us the many different ways people can interpret what others are saying, or to show us where the conversation could otherwise end up. But this gimmickry never enhances the characters. It merely reminds us that they are just characters, not people.
And that's the problem with "Conversations." Canosa is so wrapped up with flashy cinema trickery that he doesn't spend time molding the story into what it should be, a touching, thoughtful tale of former lovers growing up and growing apart. The cast is certainly willing to give it their all, but Canosa's too busy worrying about lighting or cross-cutting or digitally lining up frames in the editing room. This leaves the film as both a notable curiosity and a storytelling failure.
Note: Hart Sharp did not send a final retail disc to be reviewed. The screener disc received looks like a final copy, with all content intact, but it should be noted that any problems mentioned may not reflect what you will find in stores. This is why DVD Talk doesn't like getting screener discs.
Video & Audio
Problem number one: the film looks pretty lousy. The film was shot on digital video and manipulated later, and when time speeds up or slows down, there's a ton of digital artifacting, jagged lines, the whole mess. Considering such problems occur on half the image but not the other, I will assume this is an issue with the source itself and not the transfer. Presented in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen.
Problem number two: the stereo soundtrack is not in sync with the movie. And by "not in sync," I mean you get to hear the soundtrack from about 60 minutes later in the movie than the scene you're watching. Meaning the last hour of the film has no soundtrack. Big oops. So I suppose you'll be listening to the just-fine 5.1 track instead. Why a talk-heavy movie like this needs Dolby Surround is beyond me, but hey, at least it sounds OK. (Is this an issue with the screener and not the final version? Probably. See why we don't like screeners?) Optional English and Spanish subtitles are included.
Canosa talks a lot - and I do mean a lot - about the split screen process in his commentary track. So much so that the other extras seem ridiculously redundant.
"Director's Demo" (4:33) is Canosa's test footage of the split screen process (featuring other actors), introduced by Canosa, who spends lots of time talking about split screen.
"Why Split Screen" (4:09) has Canosa talking more about split screen. This and the demo intro were apparently shot on a camcorder in Canosa's spare time.
"Made on a Mac" (20:07) has Canosa taking even more about split screen. This time, he has Kwesi Collisson, one of the film's producers, at his side, filmed giving a demo in front of an audience. While the intent is to discuss Apple's involvement in the editing process, most of the time is filled up by showing scenes (the same scenes used in "Why Split Screen") from the film on a giant screen. Sometimes we just get to watch Canosa and Collisson watch their movie! And then they talk about split screen.
"Interviews with Helena Bonham Carter and Aaron Eckhart" (22:47) finds the two chatting together at the Telluride Film Festival. For a while, they actually get to talk about character and story and life at film festivals, giving spirited answers to banal questions. ("What helped you prepare?" That sort of thing.) It turns out that they're being interviewed by Canosa for EPK purposes, which makes the "What's the director like?" answers a bit weird. And then, yes, they must talk about split screen.
The disc loads by playing a handful of previews that you can skip over - and an anti-piracy PSA you can't skip over. Grumble.
All features are presented in 1.33:1 full frame, with footage from the movie properly letterboxed.
Those interested in the technique of moviemaking should Rent It, but don't expect to be thrilled by anything other than Canosa's stunts.