Sunday, February 3, 2019

BEFORE MIDNIGHT (re-review) - #859

It’s not time that they’re lost in, but perception.”


And perception is key to this review of Before Midnight, the closing chapter of the Richard Linklater’s Before Trilogy. I reviewed this film enthusiastically upon its release in 2013 [read it here], but I have not re-read that piece since re-posting it to this blog. Thus, I come to Before Midnight fresh, hot on the heels of watching and reviewing the first two entries (Before Sunrise and Before Sunset), building my impressions as I go. If I contradict my previous self in this outing, it’s to be forgiven, the product of time passing, personal change, and different perceptions based on where one sits at any particular moment.

Jesse and Celine, as embodied by Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, certainly sit in different places than we have seen them before. The kids of Before Sunrise searching for a meaningful life have found one. They are in what is probably a common-law marriage with children--twin girls from this union, and a son from Jesse’s former marriage. She is a successful environmental activist, he is a popular novelist. The movie finds them on a vacation in Greece, hosted by an elder statesmen of literature, sharing the time with three other couples. Before Midnight is the first movie of the Before Trilogy to open up and give us not just glimpses of Jesse and Celine interacting with others at length, but interacting with other people without each other. It breaks the mold, to a degree, but as with all the choices made across the three films, this is done with purpose: we have to see them come back together. The presence of others in their lives isn’t necessarily driving them apart, but there has to be a certain reminder of what it means for them to be together alone.


We probably should have braced ourselves for the melancholy at the jump. Before Midnight opens with Jesse dropping his son at the airport, sending him back to America and his mother. The child can only visit in summers and on holidays, and Jesse’s melancholy over the situation sparks a slow-burning argument about what he and Celine may want. She is faced with a potential job change, a step up in the political world but a surrender of sorts, since it will take her away from the small but effective campaigns that do a lot of good when they work. But, is Jesse’s suggestion of spending more time with the son really a suggestion that they uproot everything and move to America?

It’s the seed of what will become an argument in the second half of the movie. The first half shows them socializing with the other vacationers. The group is almost like a capsule of the Trilogy itself, with a young couple, another middle-aged couple, and then an older non-couple, a widower and a widow who show two sides of a future where you outlive your spouse. The discussion careens through these points of view, covering not just relationships, but technology, dreams, and memory. It’s happy times, with just an undercurrent of the animosity that will fuel the film’s second half, when Jesse and Celine go off on their own for a romantic night that turns into anything but.


But first, we see them walking from the villa to the local hotel, a glimpse of the couple we have come to know, chatting and laughing and sharing ideas. They revisit old themes, like death and time. There’s a lot of talk about time, how it’s too slow when you’re young and too fast when you’re old. And how one marks its passage, how we measure the events of our lives. In some sense, the important happenings are still stretched out on the same continuum that Jesse proposes in Before Sunset, with the audience being blessed with the macro view, knowing that Celine isn’t entirely right when she says they have not changed at all, but also not entirely wrong. We’ve watched in a way they cannot.

There is an increased familiarity that informs Before Midnight: our familiarity with the characters and their familiarity with each other, but also the relationship between the performers and the filmmakers. There is a comfort here, and known tropes to fall back on, but also an even more natural rapport. Linklater and his actors are infusing their years together into how they portray the same level of time having passed between their avatars. Everything just feels right. Maybe Celine really is correct. There’s a consistency to their union we appreciate...

(l to r) Hawke, Delpy, & Linklater, ca. Before Sunset

...and that they doubt. If this is a couple’s midlife crisis, consistency is at the heart of it. Not just the boring or reliable stuff, but a consistency of mistakes, of character flaws, of foibles. Long-term couples always advise younger lovers that the secret to a relationship’s success is hard work, it’s not all magic. Before Midnight is a portrait of that. It’s actually kind of exciting to watch, mostly because we so rarely see this kind of relationship on screen. (Though Bergman comes to mind.)


It’s almost impossible not to watch Ethan Hawke’s Jesse at this stage and not think of his similar character in Boyhood [review]. The rock-and-roll dad who still wants to be cool, and thus appears unreliable, who lives separate from the child, but who means well. On that front, we also must consider Julie Delpy’s character in her own films, 2 Days in Paris [review] and 2 Days in New York [review]. She brings a lot of the same anxieties to that role, but amplified to the point of being alienating. In those movies you wish the couples would split; in the Before Trilogy, you wish they’d stay together.


If they do, it’s still up to you. Before Midnight keeps the conceit laid out at the beginning of Before Sunset. How you decide the fate of Jesse and Celine depends on what baggage and beliefs you bring to the table. In this case, though, it’s not really a question of how romantic you are, but how much do you believe in true love, in a deep connection. Jesse practically says it himself in his casual reference to the Bee Gees. At the same time, I once again wonder how much of this was planned from the start. If it wasn’t, credit to Linklater and his collaborators for finding the clues he and Kim Krizan left for them in Before Sunrise. Remember that time travel concept Jesse uses to convince Celine to jump off the train with him? It’s ripe to make a return. Before Midnight seemingly ends, but really, it takes us back to the start, to the initial “will they or won’t they.” It’s time to take another jump...or get on separate trains.

It’s all down to your perception. And how you interpret the way Jesse and Celine have shared with you their own perceptions of the time they spent together. There is no right answer, no one single timeline from here, but one for each person partaking in the experience.



BEFORE SUNSET - #858


Confession: I didn’t see Before Sunset during its theatrical run, it was a couple of years before I finally gave in and checked it out. I had dismissed the notion of a sequel to Before Sunrise [review], being in my early 30s and still full of strange and precious ideals about story, I had rejected the idea that the magic could be recaptured or that we needed to know if Jesse and Celine ever saw each other again. It wasn’t until the graphic designer working on my graphic novel with Joëlle Jones, 12 Reasons Why I Love Her, gave me a DVD copy and insisted that I give it a try that I finally did. And was pleasantly surprised.

I mention this in part because how Jesse (still played by Ethan Hawke) answers the questions about the book he wrote fictionalizing the events of Before Sunrise sounds a lot like how I answer questions about my books. Specifically, the “did they or didn’t they” ending being a litmus test for how romantic you are. I give the same answer about the ending of 12 Reasons Why I Love Her.


Clarification: I am re-watching each movie of the Before Trilogy and writing about it afterwards. Thus, when I wrote my Before Sunrise review, I had not yet watched Before Sunset, and so when I wrote that each moment of that movie was every moment of the series, I had no idea that Jesse says the same thing, also in the scene discussing his book, in this entry. What can I say, we share a wavelength.

And the Affair to Remember [review] comparison? Fitting that the reunion of Jesse and Celine echoes the “did you or didn’t you” of the final scenes of the Leo McCarey film, though with a much lighter touch...before moving on. In Affair it was the end; in Sunset, the start.


Before Sunset is the very definition of a middle part of a trilogy. It’s a bit darker, a bit more serious. It feels incomplete, acting as the connection between the kick-off and the finale. And like most second parts, many fans are going to argue that it’s the best. For all the reasons cited.

Richard Linklater gets this. He’s not setting out to make a crowd-pleasing affirmation of Before Sunrise’s goopier potentialities. Before Sunset has a level of sincerity about what it means to be in one’s 30s that underlines how sincere its predecessor was about capturing the airiness of being in your early 20s. They’ve had a whole life to live, to fail, to lose or hang onto their romantic notions. Amusingly, Jesse is more hopeful now, and Celine (Julie Delpy) is a politically driven realist. Where their paths diverged somehow caused him to increase his belief, and for her to tamp her romance down. Then again, he is also in an unhappy marriage, so maybe by being so grounded he can appreciate feelings that are less so. I mean, there is a definite irony to her being jaded by romance, when he suffered the true disappointment; yet, her failure to carry through has arrested her emotional development. She is not sure she can ever again feel the way she did during their Viennese dalliance.

Though, even as she points out, Jesse has arrested himself. He has chosen to stay in that moment, regardless of how much his life charges on. The impetus for their reunion in Before Sunset is that he has written a novel about their one night together, and the book tour has brought him to Paris. This adds a fun metatextual layer to the movie. They are fictional characters that, at least for a brief period of the movie, are grappling with fictional versions of themselves. More importantly, though, it brings up the question of perception: his version of events vs. hers.


Or, perhaps more precisely, it questions the quality of a particular witness or narrator: how does their retelling of Before Sunrise change based on what they prefer to hide or celebrate. Of course, those alterations are based on what they feel and what they wish to suppress or keep secret--a tactic that spills over into how they represent their current life. Both begin with a desire to present their best face, forgetting that they are with the only person who is really capable of unmasking their pretenses. And they only have a couple of hours to get the job done. He has to leave for the airport at 7:30.

Fitting into the collegiate preoccupations both Jesse and Celine had in Before Sunrise, Before Sunset uses their ill-fated first reunion as a way to ponder questions of faith, the “what if” scenarios suggesting a different path for the wannabe lovers. Sure, they would have been different if they had seen it through, but not necessarily for the better. Is it possible that they needed to shed their youthful ideology in order to really be together? Would they have lasted if they had run with that first blush of emotion and not gathered the life experience that would give them the tools and tenacity to commit? Probably not. And thus, it is befitting that Before Sunset fails to end with a grand declaration, fading out instead on a quiet recommitment to love.


In terms of style and approach, not much has changed here, though it’s clear that budget and nearly a decade of work under their belts has improved all skills. The camerawork is cleaner, the look of the film more polished--but that could be an uptick in technology giving all indie filmmakers a leg up. Lee Daniel shot both movies, as he has many Linklater efforts, including Dazed and Confused [review 1, 2] and Boyhood [review], so I imagine the two had quite a rapport by this outing. Daniel also has a lot of documentary credits on his resume, which suggests certain skills he certainly could apply here.

Luckily, this progression helps rather than hurts. If the first film has the scruffiness of youth, this has the sheen of success, the characters showing off at a time when they can and when making sure everyone knows you’ve accomplished something matters. It can’t be the same every time...and as we’ll see, it won’t be.



Saturday, February 2, 2019

BEFORE SUNRISE - #857


My first thought in rewatching Before Sunrise was to wonder if they had a plan all along. Back in 1995, were writers Richard Linklater and Kim Krizan already looking ahead to 2013, imagining their decades-spanning Before Trilogy, and laying tracks for the relationship to come? Because it’s hard not to flash forward to the third chapter when Jesse and Celine’s relationship is experiencing friction while watching how it originally came together. [Link to my original Before Midnight review; link to my 2018 re-review.]

It’s all right there in the first scene. Celine (Julie Delpy) is reading  book on the train, and a German couple arguing forces her to retreat to another empty seat on the car. This puts her across from Jesse (Ethan Hawke), a fellow reader and another solo traveler. The bickering gives them a reason to chat, and Celine shares a factoid about how when men and women grow older, they physically lose the ability to hear each other; Jesse then wonders if that’s how couples manage to stay together, evolving to a state where they contentedly tune each other out. The problems of the old become the meet-cute of the young.


To examine this, to leap ahead in time, is to actually indulge in Jesse’s own winning argument for convincing Celine to leave the train: imagine yourself in twenty years, married with children, and you have no idea if one of those men you met but did not hook up with would have been more exciting than your boring, familiar husband. Jesse offers himself as the predictive answer, proposing that Celine see this excursion as a time travel experiment. And in a sense, this relationship will be timeless. Jesse and Celine are of this moment, and this moment is every moment, a time capsule that remains relevant even as it updates itself. This is version 1.0, and in nine years we will get 2.0, and nine more 3.0. Added layer for me: they meet on my birthday, so I probably feel the time more than any of you.

The future and mortality are running themes of the conversations in Before Sunrise--a movie that is, conceptually, one long chat, as the two young lovers stroll Vienna and get to know one another, the audience falling for the pair as they fall for one another. These morbid thoughts aren’t really surprising. Is there any stage of life where one feels a more pronounced obsession with death than in one’s youth? Is that not the whole point of Romantic poetry? One of the best things about Before Sunrise is how unashamedly young it is, how Linklater and Krizan lean into the grand ideas that possess a growing mind, no matter how silly or pretentious they may be. Thus we can forgive Jesse for his self-regard, surface-level “big” thinking, and sheer punchableness, his gray T-shirt and leather jacket, his grunge goatee. It was the early ’90s, after all. He looks like a version of Chris Cornell if Chris Cornell were a glass of milk that someone put ice cubes in and the ice had melted.

This paragraph is a placeholder/palate cleanser because I’m pretty proud of that image and I want you to take a second to really imagine it.


There’s a beauty to the writing here in how perfectly imperfect these two are for one another. The script could have simply relied on the cliché division between Europeans and Americans, that she is more sophisticated and worldly and he’s an accidental tourist waiting to happen; instead, it goes deeper into that divide to look at their personalities. Despite her fatalism, Celine is open to the world, ready to accept the proclamations of a grisly palm reader or the improvised street poetry of a homeless Lord Byron; Jesse is the know-it-all American male, too aware of the angles to enjoy the shape of them. It’s what leads to their only real conflict. Yet, we may also surmise that it’s no conflict at all, that he likes her daffy indulgences, and she appreciates how he preens for her. She’s smart enough to see that he needs to be seen as smart himself, confident enough to call him stupid, and enough of a romantic herself to take the compliment. One of the best scenes is watching her bust his ego by making fun of their first kiss. Credit to Hawke, he seems to get this guy, because he quickly turns the bruised feelings into self-aware laughter.


Both performances here are easygoing, natural, and unaffected--perfectly in sync with the ultra-indie shooting style (nothing fancy here, just the actors, the camera, and the city). Hawke is more prone to acting, including demonstrative hand gestures and fidgety business, but it fits how Jesse himself is performing. On her side of things, Celine is more laid back, perhaps less invested, but again, that fits her personality. She’s open to whatever happens, he’s intent on making it happen.

It’s a charming little dance, staying just on the right side of mawkish for most of the narrative to allow for the filmmakers to go whole hog at the end, stamping Before Sunrise with an Affair to Remember-style ending, where a promise is made to prove this is more than a one-night stand by returning to the spot where they parted in six months time.

Only for us it would it would be considerably longer than that before we’d find out if that promise remained unbroken.



Tuesday, January 29, 2019

MIKEY AND NICKY - #957


Mikey and Nicky is utterly and completely a film of the 1970s. It’s a portrait of people on the edge of society, people who have discarded morals and ethics for the post-1960s freedom the decade promised, Baby Boomers without responsibility embracing the shaggy aesthetics of a decade with no direction. Mikey and Nicky is in love with the mythical New York City that regular people probably abhorred, since they were poor and victimized by politics and crime, but a New York City that gave us Travis Bickle, punk rock, and, hell, Studio 54 and Basquiat.


Mikey and Nicky is a distinctly masculine movie made during a particularly masculine artistic era, and so all the more impressive that it’s helmed by the legendary Elaine May, a comedian turned filmmaker, who here wears her star John Cassavetes like a serial killer skin suit, adopting his style and technique but maintaining her external vision in order to completely deconstruct the kind of toxic masculinity that fueled and intrigued him. He’s a great artist in his own right, but it’s marvelous to consider how Cassavetes submits to May and lets her tear down the male construct he both praises and excoriates in his own movies. (And to be fair, we can’t discount Cassavetes’ collaborations with Gena Rowlands, and how he also gave the screen over to women; I don’t mean to paint him as a macho apologist.)

“Toxic masculinity”: it’s not a 1970s phrase, but one of the 2010s. But it’s worth considering Mikey and Nicky through a modern lens as it finally lands on Blu-ray, because it’s a movie that is timely and relevant in the #metoo era.


Story wise, this thing is pretty simple. Nicky (Cassavetes) is a small-time hood with a price on his head. Desperate to get out of town before he is whacked, he contacts his friend Mikey (Peter Falk) to come liberate him from the hotel where he’s holed up. What follows is a night of debauchery, confusion, and anger, as the two hash out their disagreements in the haze of stale sweat, staler cigarette smoke, and Mikey’s fear. Through their interactions, we begin to get a picture of who each man is. Nicky is a hard charger, living in the moment, and afraid to slow down; Mikey is a deeper soul, more attuned to his responsibility, but possessed of his own darkness.

For Nicky, all his sins are coming back to haunt him, and this atonement scares him. His toxicity is so pronounced, it’s literally eating him from the inside, his ulcers gnawing at his guts. Faced with his potential death, he knows he should make amends and do the right thing, but he can’t muster the courage. He nearly goes to his wife and kids to say goodbye, but he chickens out.


The best Nicky can do is visit his mother’s grave. He’s a mama’s boy. Mikey is a daddy’s boy. He holds on to the watch the old man gave him as a symbol of paternal approval. We could parse how this has formed these two gangsters: one nervous and delicate, the other more solid but also more coarse. Nicky is used to being doted on and getting his way. He treats women as if they owe him something, and really, both these guys treat the whole city that way, too. It’s a great example of white privilege to see them go into a black bar and expect to do as they please. It’s a tense scene, where May allows things to get real. This is a moment when the world does not regard these crooks as they regard themselves, and that could produce consequences. Here Nicky is an instigator, an unblinking prick, and Mikey the peacemaker.  Papa’s little man consistently taking care of the mother’s pride.

Just as their characters do, Cassavetes and Falk contrast one another as performers. May casts to type, to a degree.  Columbo inspires trust, whereas Cassavetes is the artist whose manic energy likely made squares nervous. Falk seems like he is the system, Cassavetes can only buck it. They are tremendous together, I could watch them for hours, just like I could watch Leonardo DiCaprio and Jonah Hill misbehave endlessly in Wolf of Wall Street [review]. You sympathize with Nicky because Peter Falk knows how to play the man getting hurt--the bruised feelings after they visit one of Nicky’s mistresses, the dismay at his broken watch--you feel for the guy, but yet you also you don’t want to stop watching Nicky’s antics, either.



Elaine May, who both wrote and directed Mikey and Nicky, is a sharp satirist, so even though “toxic masculinity” and “white privilege” weren’t in the parlance of 1976, she’s aware of the concepts and what exactly she’s digging into. Her skill as a humorist means she can empathize even as she criticizes. She kind of likes Mikey and Nicky, and she kind of feels sorry for them. Of course, she reserves her deepest sympathy for the women they visit, as well as her pity. This is nowhere more intense than the fallout from Mikey’s cruel joke on Nell (Carol Grace), his sometime lover, whom he belittles and curses. In her response, we feel how she is the dual victim of male desire and societal judgment. Carol Grace delivers real heartache, and so, of course, May has to upend that and dump it on Mikey. His support of Nicky’s crass manipulation earns him deep humiliation.

Elaine May at work

As the night wears on, when the men are left unto themselves, that’s when the real tea starts being spilled. Since this is a gangster movie, there has to be at least one double cross, and Mikey’s motivation may prove as murky as Nicky’s. Because what is revealed is they aren’t really close, they aren’t pals and are barely colleagues. Mikey challenges Nicky to prove he’s ever his friend when he’s not in trouble, citing real putdowns and slights. You can take the boys out of the playground, but you can’t take the playground out of the men.

Thus, when dawn comes, it’s not really a new day. It’s the end of the narrative, and a time of comeuppance. Did Mikey and Nicky learn anything? Probably not. Guys like that can only persevere...or die.

The only new day is for Mikey and Nicky itself, which looks amazing on this new 4K transfer. The picture is clear and precise without losing any of that ’70s New York grime. Well worth a fresh look now that it’s on Blu-ray.


This disc provided by the Criterion Collection for purposes of review.