Before Midnight (2013)

2018 #205
Richard Linklater | 109 mins | Blu-ray | 1.85:1 | USA & Greece / English | 15 / R

Before Midnight

The third film in co-writer/director Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy catches up with couple Celine (Julie Delpy, also a co-writer) and Jesse (Ethan Hawke, the third co-writer) in middle age, after years of being together, with two kids (plus his kid from a previous relationship) and a host of problems bubbling under the surface.

Linklater got a lot of attention for shooting coming-of-age drama Boyhood in real-time over 12 years, but for my money he’s used a similar technique to much better effect in this trilogy. It’s a different way of handling it, of course: Boyhood was filmed across all 12 of those years, following the characters closely as they grow and change; whereas the Before films drop us in for a crucial few hours once every nine years, thereby offering a more concentrated experience of time on screen, but covering so much more in what’s discussed and implied about the time in between our visits.

The first two films — 1995’s Before Sunrise and 2004’s Before Sunset — are marked by an unreserved romanticism. Midnight is notably different, abandoning that lovey-dovey-ness and replacing it with a powerful examination of the tension in a long-term relationship. In some respects, it’s all the better for it. That’s in no way a criticism of the previous films (I still think Sunrise is first among equals), but it’s realistic that, as time goes on, people change. They can’t be young-spirited and full of the joys of first love forever. Well, they could, but it wouldn’t be life and relationships as most of us know it.

Jesse and Celine

Their interpersonal turmoil is all the more affecting because we’ve connected with these characters on and off in real-time for a couple of decades. Consequently, I can’t remember the last time I went on such an emotional rollercoaster. It’s not just realistic, but brave, to choose to swing the film in such a quarrelsome direction, rather than just show them rekindle old passions (again). It leads to an entirely different effect: the first two leave you feeling warm and fuzzy; this is more like being punched in the gut. And yet I wouldn’t have it any other way. Rather than feeling out of place when put next to its forebears, Midnight feels like a necessary addition.

My original reviews of Sunrise and Sunset from 2007 (linked earlier) are both marked as 4 out of 5, but I don’t stand by that. I watched them again before Midnight and would unequivocally give them each 5 stars. I wouldn’t want anyone to read all three reviews and think I’m rating Midnight as better than its predecessors. As a trilogy, they’re all almost equally good. I say “almost” because the hard-hitting emotional realism of this one is kinda depressing, while the unabashed romanticism of the first two is lovely. Maybe how you are as a person dictates which of those ends of the spectrum you prefer, because the dramatic shift in tone does not presage a shift in quality. Put another way, on a qualitative level I think they’re all 5s, but I love the first two that bit more because they’re nicer… but perhaps less real. Either way, together they are one of the greatest trilogies ever made.

I really hope they do a fourth one, though. Maybe it’s just because I want to spend more time with these characters, but I also feel a little that the series might need balance. As I’ve said, the first two are so of a piece, the third isn’t, so perhaps there’s room for one more ‘act’ to even that up. Or, hey, why not just make another one every nine years until the inevitable? (Now I’m just getting greedy.) Ethan Hawke has observed that Sunrise begins with Celine and Jesse watching a couple in their 40s arguing and Midnight is about Celine and Jesse as a couple in their 40s arguing, so maybe it’s an apt place to stop. But he also says that all it takes is for one of them to have an idea that excites the other two and they’d do it again, so perhaps we can look forward to Before Midday in 2022 after all.

5 out of 5

Before Midnight placed 2nd on my list of The 26 Best Films I Saw in 2018.

Review Round-up

Over the last ten-and-a-bit years I’ve prided myself on reviewing every new film I see. Well, at the start it was less pride and more just how I did things (and most of those early ‘reviews’ were only a couple of sentences long), but as I’ve maintained it for so long I’ve come to pride myself on it. However, of late my backlog has reached ridiculous proportions, and is only expanding.

But I’m not giving up just yet, dear reader — hence this round-up. There are some films I just don’t have a great deal to say about, where all I’ve really got are a few notes rather than a fully worked-up review. So as in days of old (i.e. 2007), I’ll quickly dash off my brief thoughts and a score. Hopefully this will become an irregular series that churns through some of my backlog.

In today’s round-up:

  • The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1965)
  • Under the Shadow (2016)
  • Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows (2016)
  • Dazed and Confused (1993)


    The Spy Who Came in from the Cold
    (1965)

    2016 #167
    Martin Ritt | 112 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | UK / English | PG

    The Spy Who Came in from the Cold

    John le Carré’s famed story of crosses, double crosses, triple crosses… probably quadruple crosses… heck, maybe even quintuple crosses — why not?

    The storytelling is very slow and measured, which I would guess is not to all tastes — obviously not for those who only like their spies with the action and flair of Bond, but even by Le Carré standards it’s somewhat slight. That’s not to say it’s not captivating, but it lacks the sheer volume of plot that can, say, fuel a seven-episode adaptation of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Quite how the forthcoming miniseries from the makers of The Night Manager intends to be more than a TV movie… well, we’ll see.

    There’s also some gorgeous black and white photography, with the opening sequence at Check Point Charlie looking particularly glorious.

    5 out of 5

    Under the Shadow
    (2016)

    2017 #12
    Babak Anvari | 84 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | UK / Persian | 15 / PG-13

    Under the Shadow

    Be afraid if your doll is took — it could be the Iranian Babadook.

    Honestly, for all the creepy quality on display in this UK-funded Iran-set psychological horror, I don’t think labelling it as something of a mirror to The Babadook is unfair. It’s about a lone mother (Narges Rashidi) struggling with an awkward child (Avin Manshadi) while a malevolent supernatural entity that may be real or may just be in her head attempts to invade their home. Where the Australian horror movie invented the mythology for its creature afresh, Under the Shadow draws from Persian folklore — so, same difference to us Western viewers. The devil is in the details, then, which are fine enough to keep the film ticking over and regularly scaring you, be it with jumps or general unease.

    The Babadook may have done it better, and certainly did it first, but Under the Shadow remains an effective chiller.

    4 out of 5

    Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles:
    Out of the Shadows

    (2016)

    2017 #29
    Dave Green | 108 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA, Hong Kong, China & Canada / English | 12 / PG-13

    Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows

    This first (and last? We’ll see) sequel to 2014’s Teenage Mutant Michael Bay Turtles ends with a cover of the theme from the original animated series, just in case you weren’t clear by then that it’s aspiring to be a live-action version of that particular cartoon.

    For one thing, there are appearances by a lot of popular characters who are primarily associated with that iteration of the franchise. For another, parts of the film have a very “rules of Saturday morning cartoons” feel — people thrown from a plane are immediately shown to be opening parachutes; all of the villains survive to fight another day; that kind of thing. They’ve clearly made an effort to make it lighter and funnier than its big-screen predecessor. The downside: they’ve gone a bit too far. The tone of the screenplay is “kids’ movie”, which isn’t a problem in itself, but Out of the Shadows retains the dark and realistic visual aesthetic of the first movie, plus enough violence and swears to get the PG-13 all blockbusters require, which means the overall effect is a little muddled.

    While it’s not a wholly consistent film, it does work to entertain, with funny-ish lines and kinetic CGI-fuelled action scenes. I must confess to ultimately enjoying it a fair bit… but bear in mind I was a big fan of the cartoon when I was five or six, so it did gently tickle my nostalgia soft spot.

    3 out of 5

    Dazed and Confused
    (1993)

    2017 #53
    Richard Linklater | 102 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | USA / English | 15 / R

    Dazed and Confused

    Writer-director Richard Linklater has said that with Dazed and Confused he wanted to make an anti John Hughes movie; one that showed teenage life was mundane and uneventful. So here’s a movie about what it’s like to hang out, driving around aimlessly doing nothing. Turns out it’s pretty mundane and uneventful. And most of the characters behave like dicks half the time, which isn’t exactly conducive to a good time.

    Despite that, some people love this movie; it’s often cited as being nostalgic. Well, I can’t say it worked that way for me. Indeed, I’m kinda glad I didn’t know those people in school…

    3 out of 5

  • Bernie (2011)

    2015 #53
    Richard Linklater | 96 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

    BernieI seem to vaguely remember dismissing Bernie as just ‘Another Jack Black Comedy’ back whenever it came out (in the UK, that wasn’t until April 2013), and essentially forgot about it until earlier this month when it came up on the A.V. Club’s 100 best films of the decade (so far), at #38, which made it sound a very worthwhile watch for multiple reasons. Having seen it, however, I don’t think I’d rank it as one of the (half-)decade’s best. That’s putting an unfair burden on it, though: it’s a movie I’m glad I’ve seen, and certainly one with a good many points in its favour.

    Black plays the eponymous Bernie Tiede, a mortician in the small town of Carthage, Texas, whose dedication to his job and friendly disposition, both far above and beyond the call of duty, soon find him at the centre of the community and beloved by its people. When the town’s renowned miser dies, Bernie forms a bond with his even-miserlier bitch of a wife (Shirley MacLaine), becoming about the only person she gets on with. They go on expensive holidays, dine at fine restaurants, and soon Bernie is managing her affairs. But she becomes increasingly controlling, making demands on his time that he struggles to meet, and treating him as wickedly as she does everyone else. One day, Bernie shoots her dead. When his crime is discovered, the people of his small town initially refuse to believe he did it; when it’s proven he did, they clamour for him to be released anyway.

    By-the-by, this is a completely true story.

    Bernie brings gifts(If you’re observing similarities to Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil there, you’re not the first: the magazine article that inspired Bernie, published around the same time as that book’s film adaptation, is called “Midnight in the Garden of East Texas”.)

    Co-writer/director Richard Linklater — who, as we know, often likes to mix up real-life and fiction in the way he produces his movies (cf. Boyhood; the Before trilogy) — tells this story in a docu-drama style, mixing talking head interviews with dramatic recreations. Many (most) of the interviewees are real-life Carthage residents, presumably giving their real recollections and opinions. It fits this narrative to a T, lending veracity to the unbelievable-if-it-weren’t-true story. They’re also amusing — not in a “laugh at the small town folks” kinda way (though there’s an inherent element of that for us as outside observers, let’s be honest), but in an honest-to-goodness “this is what real life’s like” fashion. This irreverence is how many people really react to and discuss momentous events, and in this case that gels with the tone of what happened.

    No doubt spurred on by the fact he’s portraying a real person, Black gives a strong performance. It’s a comedy one, undoubtedly, but far more restrained than he normally offers. It doesn’t suggest a Robin Williams-esque versatility — I don’t imagine Black’s suddenly going to be popping up in serious parts all the time — but it is worthy of note. MacLaine does a lot with a little, her character’s vicious nature conveyed at least as much through glances, sneers, and a particular way of chewing food as it is through words and actions.

    McConaissanceThe local attorney seeking Bernie’s prosecution is played by man-of-the-moment Matthew McConaughey. I don’t know when we’re meant to deem the start of his “McConaissance”, but I’m not sure this really qualifies as part of it. Not that he’s bad, but it feels like the kind of played-straight comedy Southerner I’ve seen him do a few times now; indeed, it’s how he comes across in real life, from what I’ve seen. It fits the role like a glove, but doesn’t make for a remarkable performance.

    Bernie is one of those stories that you’d never buy if it weren’t true, which makes it perfect fodder for the movies. Native Texan Linklater clearly understands the mindset of those involved and is the right kind of quirky-but-mainstream filmmaker to bring it to the screen. One might argue it doesn’t show suitable reverence to the fact a woman is dead, but the involvement of so many real townspeople suggests it’s got the level and tone bang on. It’s no true-crime mystery, nor the funniest comedy, but it is a tale so engrossingly bizarre that it begs to be heard in full. The real-life post-film ending — Bernie was released from prison last year on the condition he lives above Linklater’s garage — only adds to that fascination.

    4 out of 5

    Boyhood (2014)

    2015 #27
    Richard Linklater | 166 mins | Blu-ray | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

    Oscar statue2015 Academy Awards
    6 nominations — 1 win

    Winner: Best Supporting Actress.
    Nominated: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actor, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Editing.



    BoyhoodOriginally titled 12 Years, until 12 Years a Slave came along, that’s the thing Boyhood will always be most famous for: it was shot from 2002 to 2013, for a few days each year, with the same actors developing and ageing in real time, to tell a story of childhood like never before.

    It’s focused on Mason Jr (Ellar Coltrane), who lives with his mother, Olivia (Patricia Arquette), and older sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater) in Texas. Their dad, Mason Sr (Ethan Hawke), works in Alaska and turns up once in a blue moon. As the years roll on, we follow the family as Olivia gains and loses husbands, Mason Sr finally grows up and settles down, and the kids battle along in the wake of their parents’ lives. Of course, as they get older, they begin to face and have to deal with issues of their own.

    It’s quite hard to give a plot description of Boyhood because, in many respects, it has no plot. I mean, how would you succinctly summarise the narrative of your entire school-age childhood? That’s the scope of the film’s canvas and, in tune with real life, various elements fade in and fade out over that time. The kind of childhood these kids have is not uneventful by any means, but nor is it especially dramatic. That said, your opinion on the latter will vary depending on the kind of upbringing you had.

    Nonetheless, writer-director Richard Linklater strives to keep things almost unrelentingly normal. Okay, there are abusive relationships — things get a little extreme with her second husband — but even that doesn’t go as far as it could have. MomhoodNo one gets in a shocking accident or develops a fatal illness or dies suddenly; no one is seriously bullied or mugged; no one is arrested or imprisoned; no one is made homeless; no one gets pregnant… the list could go on. Every time you second guess that — every time you think, “oh now we’re going to have something big” — the film just rolls on with normality. Just like real life does, in fact.

    Indeed, it’s so resolutely focused on the everyday that it even skips major-but-normal events in the characters’ lives. Neither of Olivia’s new marriages or divorces are shown on screen; for her third, we barely even see her fall for the guy, and we don’t see them separate. Mason Sr gets married and has a third kid entirely in gaps between scenes: we first meet them picking up Mason Jr and Samantha for the former’s 15th birthday, when they all clearly already know each other. Interestingly, most of the stuff we see that’s close to being definable as a “major” event occurs quite early on — in the early-middle of the 12 years’ filming, in fact. Did Linklater get drawn down a path of bulking up the drama, then decide to pull it back in? That sounds plausible. The stuff closest to being Big Drama is around what must’ve been the third/fourth/fifth year of filming (roughly speaking), and by the eighth/ninth/tenth we’re skipping over stuff and playing catch-up. At times it feels weird to just jump past events that are so important, but that seems to be what Linklater wants — a film focused on the literally everyday.

    Remember these?Even while Linklater aims for a kind of universality, this is not just about any childhood, but about childhood in the noughties — or as the Americans like to (uglily) call them, “the aughts”. Some have called it “a period film shot now” and there’s a definite truth to that. The noughties-ness isn’t made explicit, but it’s an ever-present factor. The passing of time and issues of the era are conveyed almost exclusively through background details: politics (the Iraq war, the Obama campaign), culture (Harry Potter surfaces multiple times, the best films of summer 2008 are listed), technology (GameBoys, Xboxes, Wiis; CRTs, flatscreens; the ever-evolving iMacs and iPhones), the fashion (haircuts and clothing, particularly when Mason goes all Alternative in his high school years), the music (though the vast majority of it seems pretty obscure, so good luck with finding a grounding through that). It’s those details that ground the film so much in the ’00s and early ’10s, as well as present-day societal factors, like the string of broken marriages, the lack of financial security, the good-natured suspicion and humour with which our sympathetic leads view the Bible-lovers that Mason Sr ends up married in to (can you imagine an American movie about good ol’ family values from a previous era having its leads all but declare themselves atheists?)

    It conveys the passing of time with equal subtlety — sometimes it transitions to a new year so inconspicuously that you might not realise it’s changed for several minutes. This, I think, is part of the point: it’s one long story, not “now it is 2005, now it is 2006, now it is 2007…” For a film shot across a decade when the technical side of filmmaking changed so dramatically, it has a remarkably consistent look. That each sequence does blend seamlessly into the next is a minor miracle. If you watch out for it, or put images side-by-side (as in the trailer), you can see a change in look from the heavily-filmic early stuff to what I presumed was digital photography in later years, and even then changes as digital improves. Screen siblingsHowever, it was reportedly shot entirely on 35mm, so something else must explain the changing picture quality. Perhaps that there were two cinematographers, presumably working at different times. However, as I say, during regular viewing the picture shifts are remarkably subtle, there to be spotted by cinephiles and PQ nitpickers, while going unnoticed by the general audience.

    A greater feat of consistency comes from the cast. Experienced pros like Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette unsurprisingly give excellent performances, though we surely must acknowledge that it’s a colossal achievement to stay in character when you’re only filming for a few days every year for so darn long. Their characters evolve, too, but in highly plausible ways. Arquette, in particular, starred in the TV show Medium during Boyhood’s production — that’s 130 hours of TV over six years, playing the same character all the time. That she also managed to track Olivia through that period may in part explain all the awards she’s been garnering. Personally I felt Hawke edged it in the performance stakes, but maybe that’s just because Mason Sr undergoes a more obvious change.

    As for the kids… well, it depends how much they have to convey. Samantha is always a bit of a… well, “bitch” would be too cruel; but she’s cast in the role of “annoying sister”, and while she comes across as a real person, she’s an annoying sister to the audience, too. Mason Jr grows up to be a little bit pretentious — ‘philosophical’ in the way certain teenagers always are, and which you sincerely hope they grow out of or they’ll become a Certain Kind of adult. ManhoodSome will find him irritating as he progresses through his high school years, again in the way the real-life variety of said teenagers are; others will just find it truthful. All of the acting feels incredibly ‘real’, to the point one just assumes it was all improvised. Apparently that’s not the case — according to Hawke, it was all scripted, with the exception of an amusing-with-hindsight scene in which Masons Sr and Jr discuss the potential for a Star Wars 7.

    It’s only as the film comes to a close that some kind of sense of what it all signified comes in to focus. For one part, there’s Mason and his new college friend philosophising in the final scene: to paraphrase, “life isn’t about seizing the moment, it’s about the moment seizing you”. Put another way, all we have is now; however important it may be to learn from the past and plan for the future, they’re gone and not coming back or ahead and going to happen anyway — if you don’t appreciate now, it’ll all just disappear. I felt the more telling scene came a few minutes earlier, just before Mason Jr actually leaves for college: looking at her son about to head off on his own, Olivia breaks down, recalling the repetitiveness and transitory nature of her life — all the divorces, all the struggles to do right by her kids. It’s so much more meaningful because we’ve lived through it with her — we’ve seen it as just a string of moments too; we’ve noticed how it can seem repetitive. “I just thought there would be more,” she wails, echoing the sentiment of… all of us? I’d say if that moment doesn’t resonate for you, you must be one of the lucky ones.

    Boyhood is unquestionably an achievement of filmmaking. The commitment to craft a story over such a long period of time is admirable; the skill with which it has been achieved is remarkable. The end result is one that won’t work for everyone. Looking to the futureIf you like your fiction to be about something exceptional or extraordinary, Boyhood is decidedly the opposite. Linklater has put something of the universality of childhood on screen, however. In no way can the life of Mason Jr be interpreted as a median of everyone’s experiences, but that so much within that is so relatable shows that, however different things may appear, there’s an awful lot that’s the same.

    Even more importantly, the film conveys the briefness of our lives. It’s like a film adaptation of Allen Saunders’ quote, made famous by John Lennon: “Life is what happens to us while we are making other plans”. You have to watch out for where your time’s going, or twelve years can race by in under three hours.

    5 out of 5

    The 87th Academy Awards are on Sky Movies Oscars tonight, with red carpet coverage from 11:30pm and the awards ceremony starting at 1:30am.