Skip to main content

Now I know why Sylvia Plath put her head in a toaster.

Before Midnight
(2013)

Richard Linklater’s career has skewed from resolutely indie beginnings (Slacker) to disappointingly unselfconscious studio fare (a remake of Bad News Bears) taking in experimental posturing along the way (Waking Life). He always seems to have something on the go, much of which I’ve enjoyed (and a few I haven’t). As such, he appears to have a not dissimilar work ethic to Steven Soderbergh but puts himself into his pictures in a manner that wouldn’t even occur to the ‘bergh. While I’m not always up-to-date with Linklater’s pictures, I have made time for each of his Before trilogy and its been consistently interesting to catch up with his protagonists as each new near-decade passes.


These aren’t films without their flaws. For one thing, it’s still difficult to watch Ethan Hawke in anything and not have in mind the goofy Dead Poets Society kid. While Hawke may not be a whole lot like Jesse (I really don’t know) the mannerisms are his, and he carries them from film to film like great weight around his shoulders; he’s not really as cool as he’d like to be (it helps his credibility therefore that he has ploughed a non-Hollywood furrow). Additionally, if existential angst and philosophical daydreaming are perfectly realised in the stretched realities of Linklater’s A Scanner Darkly and Waking Life, in these films they rarely rise above the level of energetic student discourse. It doesn’t make the discussion less interesting (one thing the films get right every time is the creation of conversation) but, particularly as time goes on, the same framing of conversations begins to sound increasingly on the affected side.


In context, that may suit parts of Before Midnight. In which we find Jesse and Céline (Julie Delpy) as a couple of a decade’s standing on holiday in Greece with their twin daughters. Previous romantic encounters have given way to a fully-fledged relationship, and with it love struck reverie has been replaced by the disaffected realisation of the multitudinous flaws each has. They resent that there is no time to be themselves or to reflect on the ideas that once were so essential.  Each becomes a projection of the dissatisfactions of the other and, where before we delighted in their conversations, now we are drawn to the chunks they tear off.  Jesse is weighed down by self-regarding guilt over failing to spend time with his son by his ex-wife (he lives in America), while Céline is increasingly intolerant of what she sees as Jesse’s selfishness and the growing feeling that she may no longer love him.


As per before, Linklater shares scripting duties with Hawke and Delpy. Their shared experience of parenting has informed Before Midnight, and the discontent that may be bred within the family unit is laid bare unstintingly. Their conversation is an altercation waiting to happen, first located on an extended car journey, then at a meal with friends where they are staying, and finally in and around a hotel earmarked for the final romantic night of their holiday (but which becomes anything but). Whether or not this represents the last legs of the partnership or they are able to salvage something from the wreckage, no punches are pulled in exchanges that range from petty to cruel to tearful. 


The expansive philosophical discourses of previous films are now brought down to earth by the accusation of pretentiousness on Jesse’s part (not by Céline, but from cheerful Stefanos played by Panos Koronis). Quite understandably, since the premise of Jesse’s prospective fourth novel sounds quite dreadful. When Jesse and Céline have the chance to pick up the flights of philosophical inquiry they one relished, it doesn’t ring true. One might argue that this is partly because they are going through the motions (Céline opines that she now barely has a minute alone to think during the day, and that’s usually on the toilet). But it also feels like an attempt on the filmmakers’ parts to nurture something of the appeal of the earlier installments, even thought the very environment (in both temperament and age) that fostered such thought has now gone. The dinner party is a particular failure here; not enough is made of the contrast between the fresh young couple Céline and Jesse once were and too much of the “wise” insights of Patrick (Walter Lassally may be a great cinematographer, but he’s a lousy actor).


There’s a greater problem, which may just be me, but I wasn’t able buy into the idea that Jesse and Céline have been a couple for all these years. All I could see was Hawke and Delpy pretending to be a couple that have been together for all these years. They lack a lived-in vibe; even estranged, we need to be able to see familiarity between them that has developed into Céline’s brittleness and Jesse’s standoffishness. The two actors are fine – great even – getting to know each other, but the conceit just doesn’t quite play here.


Nevertheless, the protracted hotel bedroom argument, moving from going-through-the-motions beginnings of lovemaking to no-holds-barred verbal fisticuffs, is riveting viewing. Only occasionally does staginess or studied moments intrude (the double returns of Céline to the room, as without a conversation there is no movie). I might complain that there is a tad too much emphasis on Céline being unlikable, but it is quite easy to see how Jesse’s ingratiating perpetual teenager side would inspire her ire (his time machine gambit may be designed to show his freeform invention, but it is as uninspired as Celine’s intentionally infuriating bimbo impression).


Before Sunrise didn’t really impress me all that much. I saw at the cinema on its release, and it was likeable but very slight. That didn’t change on revisiting it with the release of Before Sunset. In contrast, Sunset was a genuinely great movie. It managed to distill all that was nascent and half-formed in its predecessor, becoming something genuinely affecting and deeply romantic in the process. Midnight probably falls somewhere between the two. As a two-hander it is more impressive than either at times, but at its centre I struggle believing these two are in the place the film sets them. As expected, the trio are non-committal about a third follow-up. I have a feeling that, if it happens, the barbs of Before Midnight could give way to an aching regret and melancholy. And Celine and Jesse in their 60s might be more interesting still. Within such a context my doubts of “Were they ever a couple at all?” might sit more comfortably.


***1/2

Popular posts from this blog

This risotto is shmackin’, dude.

Stranger Things Season 4: Volume 1 (SPOILERS) I haven’t had cause, or the urge, to revisit earlier seasons of Stranger Things , but I’m fairly certain my (relatively) positive takes on the first two sequel seasons would adjust down somewhat if I did (a Soviet base under Hawkins? DUMB soft disclosure or not, it’s pretty dumb). In my Season Three review, I called the show “ Netflix’s best-packaged junk food. It knows not to outstay its welcome, doesn’t cause bloat and is disposable in mostly good ways ” I fairly certain the Duffer’s weren’t reading, but it’s as if they decided, as a rebuke, that bloat was the only way to go for Season Four. Hence episodes approaching (or exceeding) twice the standard length. So while the other points – that it wouldn’t stray from its cosy identity and seasons tend to merge in the memory – hold fast, you can feel the ambition of an expansive canvas faltering at the hurdle of Stranger Things ’ essential, curated, nostalgia-appeal inconsequentiality.

Haven’t you ever heard of the healing power of laughter?

Batman (1989) (SPOILERS) There’s Jaws , there’s Star Wars , and then there’s Batman in terms of defining the modern blockbuster. Jaws ’ success was so profound, it changed the way movies were made and marketed. Batman’s marketing was so profound, it changed the way tentpoles would be perceived: as cash cows. Disney tried to reproduce the effect the following year with Dick Tracy , to markedly less enthusiastic response. None of this places Batman in the company of Jaws as a classic movie sold well, far from it. It just so happened to hit the spot. As Tim Burton put it, it was “ more of a cultural phenomenon than a great movie ”. It’s difficult to disagree with his verdict that the finished product (for that is what it is) is “ mainly boring ”. Now, of course, the Burton bat has been usurped by the Nolan incarnation (and soon the Snyder). They have some things in common. Both take the character seriously and favour a sombre tone, which was much more of shock to the

Is this supposed to be me? It’s grotesque.

The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent (2022) (SPOILERS) I didn’t hold out much hope for The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent being more than moderately tolerable. Not so much because its relatively untested director and his co-writer are mostly known in the TV sphere (and not so much for anything anyone is raving about). Although, it has to be admitted, the finished movie flourishes a degree of digital flatness typical of small-screen productions (it’s fine, but nothing more). Rather, due to the already over-tapped meta-strain of celebs showing they’re good sports about themselves. When Spike Jonze did it with John Malkovich, it was weird and different. By the time we had JCVD , not so much. And both of them are pre-dated by Arnie in Last Action Hero (“ You brought me nothing but pain ” he is told by Jack Slater). Plus, it isn’t as if Tom Gormican and Kevin Etten have much in the way of an angle on Nic; the movie’s basically there to glorify “him”, give or take a few foibles, do

All the world will be your enemy, Prince with a Thousand Enemies.

Watership Down (1978) (SPOILERS) I only read Watership Down recently, despite having loved the film from the first, and I was immediately impressed with how faithful, albeit inevitably compacted, Martin Rosen’s adaptation is. It manages to translate the lyrical, mythic and metaphysical qualities of Richard Adams’ novel without succumbing to dumbing down or the urge to cater for a broader or younger audience. It may be true that parents are the ones who get most concerned over the more disturbing elements of the picture but, given the maturity of the content, it remains a surprise that, as with 2001: A Space Odyssey (which may on the face of it seem like an odd bedfellow), this doesn’t garner a PG certificate. As the makers noted, Watership Down is at least in part an Exodus story, but the biblical implications extend beyond Hazel merely leading his fluffle to the titular promised land. There is a prevalent spiritual dimension to this rabbit universe, one very much

Whacking. I'm hell at whacking.

Witness (1985) (SPOILERS) Witness saw the advent of a relatively brief period – just over half a decade –during which Harrison Ford was willing to use his star power in an attempt to branch out. The results were mixed, and abruptly concluded when his typically too late to go where Daniel Day Lewis, Dustin Hoffman and Robert De Niro had gone before (with at bare minimum Oscar-nominated results) – but not “ full retard ” – ended in derision with Regarding Henry . He retreated to the world of Tom Clancy, and it’s the point where his cachet began to crumble. There had always been a stolid quality beneath even his more colourful characters, but now it came to the fore. You can see something of that as John Book in Witness – despite his sole Oscar nom, it might be one of Ford’s least interesting performances of the 80s – but it scarcely matters, or that the screenplay (which won) is by turns nostalgic, reactionary, wistful and formulaic, as director Peter Weir, in his Hollywood debu

The Illumi-what-i?

Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (2022) (SPOILERS) In which Sam Raimi proves that he can stand proudly with the best – or worst – of them as a good little foot soldier of the woke apocalypse. You’d expect the wilfully anarchic – and Republican – Raimi to choke on the woke, but instead, he’s sucked it up, grinned and bore it. Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is so slavishly a production-line Marvel movie, both in plotting and character, and in nu-Feige progressive sensibilities, there was no chance of Sam staggering out from beneath its suffocating demands with anything more than a few scraps of stylistic flourish intact.

If that small woman is small enough, she could fit behind a small tree.

Stranger Things Season 4: Volume 2 (SPOILERS) I can’t quite find it within myself to perform the rapturous somersaults that seem to be the prevailing response to this fourth run of the show. I’ve outlined some of my thematic issues in the Volume 1 review, largely borne out here, but the greater concern is one I’ve held since Season Two began – and this is the best run since Season One, at least as far my failing memory can account for – and that’s the purpose-built formula dictated by the Duffer Brothers. It’s there in each new Big Bad, obviously, even to the extent that this is the Big-Bad-who-binds-them-all (except the Upside Down was always there, right?) And it’s there with the resurgent emotional beats, partings, reunions and plaintively stirring music cues. I have to be really on board with a movie or show to embrace such flagrantly shameless manipulation, season after season, and I find myself increasingly immune.

Get away from my burro!

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) (SPOILERS) The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is beloved by so many of the cinematic firmament’s luminaries – Stanley Kubrick, Sam Raimi, , Paul Thomas Anderson and who knows maybe also WS, Vince Gilligan, Spike Lee, Daniel Day Lewis; Oliver Stone was going to remake it – not to mention those anteriorly influential Stone Roses, that it seems foolhardy to suggest it isn’t quite all that. There’s no faulting the performances – a career best Humphrey Bogart, with director John Huston’s dad Walter stealing the movie from under him – but the greed-is-bad theme is laid on a little thick, just in case you were a bit too dim to get it yourself the first time, and Huston’s direction may be right there were it counts for the dramatics, but it’s a little too relaxed when it comes to showing the seams between Mexican location and studio.

Your Mickey Mouse is one big stupid dope!

Enemy Mine (1985) (SPOILERS) The essential dynamic of Enemy Mine – sworn enemies overcome their differences to become firm friends – was a well-ploughed one when it was made, such that it led to TV Tropes assuming, since edited, that it took its title from an existing phrase (Barry Longyear, author of the 1979 novella, made it up, inspired by the 1961 David Niven film The Best of Enemies ). The Film Yearbook Volume 5 opined that that Wolfgang Petersen’s picture “ lacks the gritty sauciness of Hell in the Pacific”; John Boorman’s WWII film stranded Lee Marvin and Toshiro Mifune on a desert island and had them first duking it out before becoming reluctant bedfellows. Perhaps germanely, both movies were box office flops.

Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls… dyin’ time’s here!

Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985) Time was kind to Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome . As in, it was such a long time since I’d seen the “final chapter” of the trilogy, it had dwindled in my memory to the status of an “alright but not great” sequel. I’d half-expected to have positive things to say along the lines of it being misunderstood, or being able to see what it was trying for but perhaps failing to quite achieve. Instead, I re-discovered a massive turkey that is really a Mad Max movie in name only (appropriately, since Max was an afterthought). This is the kind of picture fans of beloved series tend to loathe; when a favourite character returns but without the qualities or tone that made them adored in the first place (see Indiana Jones in Kingdom of the Crystal Skull , or John McClane in the last two Die Hard s). Thunderdome stinks even more than the methane fuelling Bartertown. I hadn’t been aware of the origins of Thunderdome until recently, mainly because I was