Before Midnight by Richard Linklater

Before Midnight by Richard Linklater

Before Midnight continues the story of Jesse and Céline nine years after the events of Before Sunset, they are now a couple with twin daughters spending the final day of a summer holiday in Greece.

For the first time after the first two films, in Before Midnight we finally get to see Jesse and Celine actually in a relationship. Ethan Hawke in an interview on KCRW’s The Treatment recalled a behind-the-scenes story of how the steadi-cam operator got upset shooting a scene in Before Midnight where Jesse gazes upon a young girl in a bikini, stating that Jesse would never do that to Celine. That is key. We feel like we know Jesse and Celine deeply. These characters mean something to us, whether we value how real they seem or romanticize their relationship from the last two films.

I’ll give you an example. From having watched Jesse and Celine converse for two films now, I love that I am familiar with all their little ticks and peccadilloes. I know Celine hides her face with her long hair when she’s uncomfortable and that she hates it when Jesse interrupts her romantic fancies with realism. I know Jesse likes getting his money’s worth and often changes the subject when he doesn’t want to talk about something. These characters mean something to us, whether we value how real they seem or romanticize their would-be relationship from the last two films. The things they do and say have a more profound effect on us as an audience. Richard Linklater understands this and uses it to his advantage.

Never does it feel like Hawke or Delphy are acting. They just are these characters. I don’t know if it’s because they’re the writers of their own dialogue, their mutual camaraderie with each other and director Richard Linklater or all of the above. There’s a magic that’s still present after all these years. I use the word “magic” because I can’t pinpoint its mechanics. But when Jesse and Celine get talking, it feels like it’s happening right before me.

The conversations are the spectacle. On the surface, the characters are just telling interesting stories or giving their 2 cents on a given topic, but the conversations are designed with multiple arcs, callbacks and continually suggest and build character. The group dinner scene is a lot of fun as we see several characters converse with Jesse and Celine for the first time. It was a change in format and I found myself wanting to chime in and give my two cents on various topics. The climatic hotel scene is an impressive dialogue set piece, and it accurately captures how couples fight. They’re both fighting to stop themselves from having the last word, but can’t help saying it anyway.

If you haven’t seen the first two, I’d suggest go seeing them first. Before Midnight does work as a standalone film, but watching it standalone will cut off the journey of these two characters. By default, this third film would just mean less. This is a good third movie. I cannot help but see all three films as one story now. I almost don’t want to see a fourth film.

Unlike a lot of love stories where it concentrates on the pursuit of love, Before Midnight refreshingly focuses on the means to sustaining a relationship. It’s never tonally bitter or cynical. The film celebrates love by just presenting the simple truth, which includes the full spectrum of the sour, bitter and sweet. I love that Richard Linklater is using these iconic characters to say something profound about love, relationships and life in your forties. It’s a risky move considering where the second film left off, but he accomplished it beautifully and delivered a earnest message. I was scared, touched and at the end I felt like I saw two old friends and learned something.

 

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A Royal Affair by Nikolaj Arcel

A Royal Affair by Nikolaj Arcel


A Royal Affair is set in the 18th century, at the court of the mentally ill King Christian VII of Denmark (played by Mikkel Følsgaard), and focuses on the romance between his wife, Caroline Matilda of Great Britain (played by Alicia Vikander), and the royal physician Johann Friedrich Struensee (played by Mads Mikkelsen).

It’s an exciting story and it’s very well told. At times, I found myself rooting for Caroline and hated King Christian VII. And then when doctor Struensee is introduced, I was rooting for him and Caroline. In the end, all three characters start to develop a triad relationship and King Christian started to become more likable so I rooted for all three of them. It perfectly shifted perspectives at different points of the story and we come to understand the personal meaning behind each character’s actions.

Mads Mikkelsen brings a firm masculine presence to Struensee. He carries a wisdom, which isn’t telegraphed through a typical scene where his character would recite intelligent things in front of the queen as she dilates her pupils impressed. No, it’s acted out in with his body and the way he carries himself. It’s easy to see why the king is charmed by him and why the queen falls in love with him. He is too good of an actor to be wasting his time playing young Hannibal Lecter in an American TV series. Hannibal Lecter is done, that character is just not scary anymore. Please make more movies like this!

Alicia Vikander has very expressive eyes. She communicates the repressed restraint of Queen Caroline Matilda, who is living in her own personal hell where she’s forced to live in constant abuse. She does a good job aging Queen Caroline from an innocent girl to a woman who eventually learns to be a queen. There’s no old age make-up, it’s purely in how she communicates the age from the confidence that one gains from life.

The unsung performance is Mikkel Følsgaard as King Christian VII of Denmark.  I read that King Christian VII has mental illness. They do not really go into that here but he does seem quite insane. On one level it is disturbing to watch because I can see anyone acting as psychotic as he does if one was the king and can do no wrong. But Mikkel Følsgaard communicates that deep down Christian is probably a scared boy that does not know what to do with his power.

If it were up to me, the film deserves Best Actor, Best Actress and Best Supporting Actor for its three leads.

A Royal Affair is well-shot with good production values and beautiful art direction. The film feels very romantic. The dance scene between Caroline and Struensee is sexy. There is a genuine sense of jeopardy because you feel their passion for each other, but like the characters, the audience doesn’t know where their love can ever go. That makes every moment so much more valuable.

One of the best movies I’ve seen so far this year.

Sidewalls by Gustavo Taretto

Sidewall (Medianeras) by Gustavo Taretto

Martín and Mariana are slightly damaged people who live in buildings just opposite one another. Martín, works as a web designer and is a phobic in recovery process. Little by little he manages to step out of the isolation of his one-room apartment and his virtual reality.  Mariana is an architect who just broke up after a long relationship. Her head is a mess, just like the apartment where she takes refuge. Martin and Mariana live in the same street, in opposite buildings, but they never met. They walk through the same places, but they do not notice each other. Both are afraid of the outside world. While they often don’t notice each other, separation might be the very thing that brings them together.

The film opens with a Manhattan-like montage showing the many buildings in Buenos Aires, a monologue from Martín (played by Javier Drolas) describes how architecture is the ultimate human expression and a mirror-accurate reflection of how we are – disorganized, contradictory, chaotic and disconnected. Martín states that his entire life is in his apartment: he works, sleeps, eats, has sex (with himself) and entertains himself there. He blames architects because they have designed the outlines of his life. Modernity has made our homes so comfortable that being outside and interacting with other people now seem daunting.

The characters are quirky but realistic. We are presented with their inner monologues along with animations visualizing their inner thoughts. It is never quirky for the sake of being quirky. Let’s just say if Zoe Deschanel suddenly manifested in this movie, she would have been quietly escorted out by Latino security guards. No seriously, Martín and Mariana’s quirks come from a real damaged place of hurt, heartbreak and a loss of faith in people. Something that felt really real for me was how Mariana likes to lean on a specific spot in her apartment -a wall besides the 5-step walkway up to her bedroom area. It does not look particularly comfortable or anything special, but she leans there and uses it like a place of safety. That hit me on a personal level.

Sidewalls provides a precise portrayal of isolation and loneliness and underneath asks some challenging questions. Why is all this interconnectivity setting us apart? How can someone feel alone on a subway full of people? Is love the answer? It might be the answer, but it’s goddamn hard to find amidst all this interconnectivity. Suffice to say, Martín and Mariana do get to meet potential lovers and it is interesting to see how they play out and how it affects the two protagonists. There are many whimsical moments and I smiled through most of the film. It gets a bit dark at times too. Mariana purchases a mannequin and interacts with it in all sorts of ways and I hoped that her condition wouldn’t worsen into anything darker. For that, I think actress Pilar López de Ayala has the meatier role. After this film, I think I have a new crush.

I liked what the film had to say about urban loneliness. I liked and cared for these characters and wanted to see them together. It’s a nice charming gem of a love story. I would have wanted to see more interaction between the two characters, but maybe that’s a good thing. It left me wanting more.

Mr. Nobody by Jaco Van Dormael

Mr. Nobody by Jaco Van Dormael

Life is full of choices. Every choice you make leads you onto a different set of choices. You never can possibly know what the best version of your life can be. That’s scary, after all, how do you make your life a worthy one?

A family is broken. A father and mother bring their son Nemo to a train station. Nemo is presented with a choice: should he board the train with his mother or stay with his father? Nemo ponders on this. The film proceeds to play out all the possibilities, showing twelve different lives of Nemo’s life spawning from this one choice.

The film functions on dream logic. We move from the physical into the imaginary, the metaphysical and dream states. It sounds confusing, doesn’t it? Yet the most noteworthy accomplishment is that each transition  is completely intelligible. Director Jaco Van Dormael constructs an inner logic for the audience. As the story progresses and branches out into new stories, we completely know where we are at and it all makes perfect sense. This all makes me realize one thing. This story could not have been told in another medium other than film. It incorporates every bit of film language possible: crosscutting, time transitions, spatial transitions, camera focal length etc.. Even a goddamn crane shot had a legitimate narrative reason for being there. And damn, that impresses me.

It’s not overly cerebral either. Nemo’s potential paths are centered around three women: Anna (played by Diane Kruger), Nemo’s potential one true love, Elise (played by Sarah Polley), a woman that Nemo loves but does not reciprocate and  Jean (played by Linh Dan Pham), as a woman who loves him but Nemo does not care for (this one really broke my heart). Much of the film is an examination of love and happiness. There’s a scene where the teenage Nemo rejects Anna’s invitation to swim with her on the beach. Anna leaves and we see them later as adults bumping into each other in a train station awkwardly years later. Nemo then ponders why he rejected her that day. And the film proceeds to play the alternate scenario, where he tells Anna the truth: Nemo does not know how to swim and did not know what to tell her.

I am a Jared Leto fan (I like his band 30 Seconds to Mars as well). Sometimes it’s possible to like an actor for his choices and he is certainly that case. It’s admirable that he takes smaller roles in art film projects that he respects rather than milk his looks to be famous (which he can totally do). He was great in Requiem For A Dream and Chapter 27 and also the most heartfelt part in Alexander and Lord of War. This is a challenging role and he takes it head on. He plays a convincing 117 year old man and it is fun to watch him play Nemo in the various versions.

Other noteworthy performances are Sarah Polley, who in one version is suffering chronic depression from an unhappy marriage, which she played very dimensionally. Watching her made me think how easily one-note the role could have been. Also Toby Regbo and Juno Temple as the teenage versions of Nemo and Anna falling in love was very endearing and they really sell the innocent sweetness of first love.

One bit I take issue with was the use of “Where is my Mind?” by The Pixies, which is eternally attributed to Fight Club, a film in which Jared Leto is in. There could been other songs to put in that scene. However that’s a minor complaint at best.

This film was released in 2010 and I saw it at the Hong Kong International Film Festival. Though in my opinion, this film is not talked about enough and definitely needs to be seen by more people. Mr. Nobody took me away. It broke my heart, touched me and made me ponder about life’s ironies. By the end I left the theater reflecting on my life and how I should live it.

I recommend everybody see it.

For Lovers Only by Michael Polish

For Lovers Only (film)

For Lovers Only bb Mark Polish

A reporter chances upon a former lover while on assignment in France.

Have you ever strolled with your girlfriend down the street in the perfect mutual moment and wished somebody photographed the both of you at the right angle and turned it into a postcard? That’s what this film feels like from beginning to end.

For Lovers Only is a completely intoxicating assault on the senses. They completely capture the intimacy of human touch; someone stroking your hair, nibbling your ear, the saliva strings between kisses, stroking their fingers across your back while clamping their legs around you in a deep embrace. It’s every picture-perfect chocolaty moment that any hopeless romantic would love to experience.

Stana Katic looks divine; her beauty makes me want to cry. Suffice to say, she gives a good performance. Mark Polish is fine but his performance is hidden beneath his sunglasses. Together they both make a believable couple and most importantly create the mutual overwhelming rush of passion. Also noteworthy is the film’s sensuous soundtrack, of which I listened through the film’s closing credits.

Romantic as it is, the Polish brothers also present an insightful examination of love. Relationships are spatial and temporal, and we are confined by how close we are and how much time we have. It’s always in moments of ecstasy where time zips by, you begin counting the seconds before the moment is gone. For Lovers Only incorporates this into its film language, most notably in its montage sequences.

Here we see how love amplifies everything up to eleven, how everything becomes life and death (which justifies the dreamy black and white cinematography). And how there is only one person for you in the entire world, right before you wake up and snap out of it. Through the sweet and the sour, we realize Sofia and Yves are intertwined in this moment of passion because of their past relationship and by the romantic excitement of their chance encounter. It’s suddenly romantic when they’re reminded how they are so used to each other. But does familiarity make a lasting relationship? That becomes the film’s central question, but they leave it up for the audience to answer themselves.

In the end, unlike the typical Hollywood romance, this film chooses the emotional journey of love over the final result of whether love is obtained. For Lovers Only is a bittersweet dark chocolate of a film and I recommend every romantic couple have a 89-minute affair with it. And for that, it seems appropriate to recommend this for Valentine’s Day as well.