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.

 

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.

Warm Bodies by Jonathan Levine

Warm Bodies by Jonathan Levine

 

 

In a post-apocalyptic zombie world, R (played by Nicholas Hoult), a zombie who is trying to cling onto his humanity, rescues human Julie Grigio (played by Theresa Palmer) from an zombie attack. The two form a relationship that offsets a sequence of events that might transform the entire lifeless world.

When Twilight first came out in 2008, there was a common critique going around that the day-walking glittering vampires depicted in the film were not true vampires. It was an interesting point that I had no answer for at the time, but it got me thinking a lot. Is it okay to change the rules for a movie monster? If vampires can walk during the daytime, does that negate the established rules for a vampire? If zombies can sprint after you, are they still technically zombies? And more so, within in it’s own narrative goals, does committing to the traditional definitions of a movie monster even matter?

Warm Bodies settled this question. We’ll come back to this later…

It is artful how much humanity they were able to inject into Nicholas Hoult’s lead zombie character R. They use every cinematic trick in the book including close-up reaction shots, going into his thoughts and dreams and even a witty dry voice-over device. Furthermore, R does something at the beginning of the film that would have easily lost the audience to care about him but yet the film still had me rooting for him and his romance with Julie.

I never could have imagined a love story being played from this angle. This film is very aware of this and proceeds to guide the audience by drawing from recognizable story tropes such as teen romance, zombie horror, apocalyptic science fiction and a fairy tale aesthetic. In this stir fry chop suey fashion, there is a genuine love story running as a thorough line but the story tropes are tossed around for laughs. It’s a fun experience as you see the film’s play on these different story tropes. I.e. “Oh, it’s the musical montage where they fall in love. Oh, he just did the thing that will make the girl go away! Oh, that’s how he’s going to win her back!”

On a side note, Rob Cordroy is funny as the comic sidekick. As this film is meant to be a parody of Twilight, it’s kind of funny how Theresa Palmer looks like a blonde Kristin Stewart.

So finally, does committing to the traditional definition of a movie monster matter? No, it does not matter. The key is setting up your monster to suit the goals of the story. In this case, it’s humanizing the lead zombie character and making us believe that someone might fall in love with him. The film takes its time to set up its own rules and slowly supports its goals like a well-written thesis paper. The creation of the Bonies (the zombies that are “zombie-er” than the “normal” zombies) is a smart idea and it fits rather neatly with providing a more evil, scarier embodiment to act as the antagonist. Yes, these filmmakers changed the rules, but justifiably so.

In the end, it works. I laughed plenty of times. It’s smart, knows its audience and very clear on it’s goals. Sitting in the theater, I heard separate ‘girl laughs’ and ‘guy laughs’ from different parts of the theater throughout the screening. And that’s a key thing about Warm Bodies, the tone is so mathematically tweaked to a tee that both the girlfriend and boyfriend can enjoy it as a date movie together. There is something fun to enjoy for everybody. Yes, even the horror purists too.

Rust and Bone by Jacques Audiard

Rust and Bone by Jacques Audiard

Put in charge of his young son Sam, Alain (played by Matthias Schoenaerts) leaves Belgium for Antibes to live with his sister and her husband as a family. Alain’s bond with Stephanie, a killer whale trainer, grows deeper after Stéphanie (played by Marion Cotillard) suffers a horrible accident where she loses her legs.

I have struggled with writing about this movie for months now. I have accepted the fact hat this review just simply won’t do the film any justice. So I’m going to just go straight into it…

Marion Cotillard and Matthias Schoenaerts both give great performances. I don’t know if it’s because I find Marion Cotillard really attractive or if she’s just really engages me an actress, but in every one of her scenes, I feel like I’m watching someone suffer right in front of me. This is probably what people were describing back then when Marlon Brando broke out with method acting in A Streetcar Named Desire.

Matthias Schoenaerts plays Ali like a brute animal that wants to communicate but doesn’t know how to show his soft side. The way Ali fathers his son Sam is upsetting yet very engaging to watch. It dispels the idea that a lead character doesn’t necessarily have to be likable as long as he’s watchable. We can see how he is trying to be better, even though he can’t help but be himself.

Ali and Stéphanie are one of the the most memorable onscreen couples I have seen in a while. These two characters cannot be anymore different from each other and yet I believed their relationship. It feels so real the way the two leads play it.

The film is gritty, poetic and even elusive at times. It hit a very deep note inside me and that makes it very hard to talk about the film’s inner workings. It made me think of how love between two people really is very dependent on need, circumstance and timing. Ali’s animalistic alpha male nature is the exact thing that feeds into Stéphanie’s trauma from the tragic loss of her legs. He is so straightforward about having sex to the point where he almost doesn’t even notice she is legless, which in turn is what begins to make feel Stéphanie normal and even beautiful again. This slowly lifts her out of depression and she regains meaning in her life and supports Ali’s animal nature (in the form of underground boxing), which is the exact personality trait that always gets him in trouble.

Against the film’s gritty raw palette, the unfolding of their relationship was very touching and deeply romantic as I felt what every action and reaction means internally and externally to both characters. When two people fall for each other, it feels like they’re creating their own private internal world together. This movie made me feel like I am watching that world slowly being created between these two people. I liked being inside their idiosyncratic world. Even though the actual situation would seem depressing, on the contrary, it’s executed with such vivid detail with so many poetic truthful moments that it made me feel all warm and fuzzy inside. One noteworthy poetic moment was a scene where Stéphanie revisits her workplace and regains meaning to move on from her injury as she watches a killer whale through a tank.

Some have said that the ending feels abrupt. I did not feel that way. The melodramatic emotions all properly build powerfully underneath throughout the movie till it wells up and completely geysers its way to a satisfying finish. It did not feel like a jump at all. Some can say it was a hokey cheesy way to end the movie and that can be a legitimate critique but it worked for me. Rust and Bone punched my gut, turned me into a sap and left me speechless.

It’s one of the best films I’ve seen in 2012. I tremendously enjoyed it and recommend it to anyone. I need to see The Prophet now.

Womb by Benedek Fliegauf

Womb (film)

A woman’s consuming love forces her to bear the clone of her dead beloved. From his infancy to manhood, she faces the unavoidable complexities of her controversial decision.

There is a dark intensity to Eva Green’s face. I always thought this since Casino Royale, and it’s well utilized in the film. Rebecca is a character who simply cannot let go of her grief and move forward with her life. In some other film, there would be a new man who’s romantically available for her (she’s Eva Green after all) but the film does not even go there. She embodies a unrelenting stagnant pain under a quiet demeanor, and trying to move forward by progressing backwards. The love story takes a while to set up but is truly touching, and feel Rebecca’s loss when Tommy is taken away from her. Oddly that’s two science-fiction films she’s done this year that were pretty good.

Set in a unspecified barren location and minimally populated setting, Womb strongly operates in a fairy tale-like setting. Nature acts as a character in the film. There are numerous wide shots of the ocean with the actors as little specks off looking off into the ocean. The scenery evoked a looming feeling of nature, possibly to imply that nature is bigger than all of us.  Eventually it made me think about how man prehistorically came from the sea.

It’s impressive how Womb immerses the audience into its world. The outside world beyond the town is never shown. It’s a world where cloning exists but we never cut away to some cloning protest in a religious country elsewhere or spend too much time watching a news anchor give Basil Exposition on TV. The workings of the world are shown through scenes within the town where parents discuss whether they should allow their kids to play with clone kids (“copies”, a sort of slur for clone). That’s something really artful about Womb. It slowly gets creepier and creepier as the story progresses, especially when Matt Smith shows up again as the new adult Tommy. There is a scene where the new young Tommy (played by Tristan Christopher) and Rebecca playfully wrestle, Tommy pins down Rebecca and Rebecca just eyes him lovingly in a romantic way. You dread the idea of incest. I found myself really afraid for the new Tommy as the slow-burn tension arises to him finding out the truth. After all, what is the meaning of his existence? He’s her son but treated like her love underneath.

Womb proposes some challenging questions about cloning, but it does not run too far with it. It stays with its story and characters and moves towards its inevitable conclusion. It doesn’t tap out and give up on its own convictions. It does not end up being a piece of anti-cloning “issue-tainment”  and it remains a tale about someone not being able to let go of a loved one.

Perfect Sense by David Mackenzie

Perfect Sense by David Mackenzie

A chef and an epidemiologist fall in love just as a global epidemic begins to rob the world’s population of their sensory perceptions.

Perfect Sense presents the idea of the apocalypse in a more personal (and lower budget) way. What are the sensations that make up your life? What does each sense mean to you? What triggers a happy memory? A sad memory? As each human sense fades away one by one, human joys and memories fade away, society crumbles, the way we connect goes away and people start to lose touch with humanity. Or do we really lose joy and memories at all? Are we capable of surviving through it?

The disease in the film is quite ridiculous if you think about it. That does not matter. It’s working as a metaphor and we see how the epidemic affects the world. In another movie, they would focus on solving the origin of the epidemic and save mankind before all our senses go away (like Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion). Perfect Sense focuses on the apocalypse through the relationship between its two protagonists Michael and Susan (played by Ewan McGregor and Eva Green) and how they’re reacting to the situation. Their professions allow us to peek at what’s going on in the outside world. Michael’s job as a cook deals in giving people sensation but restaurants have become obsolete after people lose their sense of taste. We see how his restaurant deals with it. Susan’s job shows the science side of the investigative process of the epidemic. However, the melancholic  gloom in the film gives you the feeling that they’ll never really know.

The romance between Michael and Susan is not random. It’s more than he is handsome and she is gorgeous. What makes it romantic is that Susan’s scent was the last thing he smelled on the night they both completely lost their sense of smell. The movie doesn’t over-punctuate that to make it cute. No, what I appreciated about this stroke was that the collapse of the world pushes them together into a genuine connection. Michael and Susan both fight against the loss of their senses together, trying to enjoy what they can out of life.

Ewan McGregor gives a very natural performance as Michael who starts off as a disconnected person and later comes to appreciate life.I always thought there was something naturally dark about Eva Green. There’s something brooding beneath her cold stare (even when she was Vesper Lynd in Casino Royale) and I’m glad director David Mackenzie utilized that to tell this story. I’m about to review Womb next and I’ll probably have the chance to elaborate more on Eva Green later. I liked this romance and how it developed in the context of the story. There’s a scene where the couple reveals their deep dark secrets to each other that was rather noteworthy.

You can practically watch this back-to-back with Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia. (I’m saying this for comparison’s sake, I would not suggest this as a double feature. Unless you like your gloom, then carry on.) Perfect Sense accomplishes what good science fiction does – it made me think about the human condition. I thought about the limits of man, what we are capable of, how we wake up to appreciate the little things after they have been taken away from us and how the human spirit strives to survive even in the worst hopeless moments.

And yeah, I really do not want to lose my eyesight, hearing, sense of taste, smell or touch. Not even if Eva Green was my lover. Well…

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.

Midnight in Paris by Woody Allen

Midnight in Paris

Midnight in Paris by Woody Allen

I’m a loyal Woody Allen fan. My favorite Woody Allen films include Crimes and Misdemeanors, Deconstructing Harry, Everyone Says I Love You, and Stardust Memories. Even the so-called bad Woody Allen (I didn’t think Curse of the Jade Scorpion or Anything Else was terrible, I thought they were still funny) films manage to entertain me. I like that he’s disciplined and a no-nonsense writer and director.

I’m currently battling the cliche of whether I should make a Top Ten List of 2011. I wasn’t going to write a review for Midnight in Paris as I saw the film months ago. But watching Hugo and seeing it’s attempt at trying to enchant me reminded me of how Midnight in Paris did it so much better. Hugo did it with the use of space, but Midnight in Paris does it with space and character. This movie truly enchanted me. So I figure instead of writing a top ten list, I’ll just write reviews of the films that I liked in 2011 instead. So on with my thoughts…

If there’s anything Woody Allen does well, it’s casting (also to the credit of Allen’s longtime casting director Juliet Taylor). He find the right people to do the job through spotting the distinct characteristics in actors and susses out their aura to tell a story. This is the best use of Owen Wilson in a role that I have seen. I never knew what was unique about Owen Wilson till now. And here’s what it is: Owen Wilson embodies a sense of wonderment (“Wow, look at that.” “Gosh, that’s amazing!”) and he  acts as an avatar for the audience in experiencing Paris’ beauty. Yes, of course, we know Paris is beautiful and enchanting but it’s through his energy that the viewer can feel enraptured by everything around him.

That also said, I also think this was my favorite Adrian Brody performance as well. This was another actor that I never could tell what his strength was, but too like Owen Wilson, he shines in Midnight in Paris. I know of Salvador Dali and seen enough of his photographs to know his physicality and the specific way he stares at people. I do think Brody captures that precisely in this small role. It’s also refreshing to see Rachel McAdams play a bitchier character. If there’s an award for best ensemble cast, Midnight in Paris  should take the cake. Also noteworthy performances were Kathy Bates as Gertrude Stein, Tom Hiddleston as F. Scott Fitzgerald and Corey Stoll as Ernest Hemingway (who recites all his dialogue in Hemingway-like prose). Through the scope of Owen Wilson’s Gil Pender, who is currently writing a novel about nostalgia, every artist’s appearance is a delightful joy. It’s like crashing an old costume party and meeting all your idols.We see how he’s excited to be amongst these people and as the audience is seduced to wanting to hang out with the Lost Generation as well.

Paris is a major character in the story. The opening montage of Paris evokes a similar stroke Allen did in the opening montage in Manhattan. It captures the energy of the city and it embodies a personal love for the place. We see the streets, the restaurants, the book stores, the cafes and we imagine what we would do there if we were there. The film takes it to almost a jokey tongue-in-cheek level since you have the First Lady of France (Carla Bruni, whom I also like her music) as the local French tour guide.

The film charms you and you can’t help but fall into it and be whisked away to a fun joyful place. This is easily going onto my favorite movies of the year and now officially one of my favorite Woody Allen pictures.

What else can I say? Woody Allen, give me a hug!

Related Reviews
Blue Jasmine by Woody Allen
Woody Allen: A Documentary by Robert B. Weide