BEFORE MIDNIGHT



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Before Midnight is the third in the series of films (the first two being Before Sunset and Before Sunrise) about Jesse and Celine, two young people who first met almost twenty years ago while bumming around Europe.  All three films have been directed by Richard (Slacker) Linklater and the last two written by Linklater as well as the two stars Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy. 
The first part of the movie is made up of a series of conversations, especially two lengthy ones by Hawke and Delpy, but also one with the now married couple and a group of people who gather for a lunch, in which nothing much happens except that everyone talks.  These conversations are directed as a series of long takes and move in a relaxed, leisurely manner.  The acting is stunning in many ways.   Hawke and Delpy are so comfortable in their roles and so believable in their relationship, the most surprising thing about the film is probably that the two aren’t married in real life.  The most unbelievable aspect of it all might be that the two still have so much to talk about after being married as long as they have.
The second part of the film is a long argument the two have in a hotel room that has been rented for them as a present.  At first the two try to bow out of the generous gift, which might actually be a major foreshadowing of what was to come.  Though the two have been getting along far better than many couples do after being married the length of time they have, they do seem to have a strange aversion to being alone, really alone, like without the children or friends around to distract them.
And when they get to the argument, boy do the two argue.  It’s not quite Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, but it’s not nice either.  The only problem for me is that I never quite bought it.  In fact, what I thought somewhat odd is that while the earlier conversations, the ones the two had while they were getting along, all had the feeling of photographic realism and were delivered with a compelling naturalness, the argument in contrast seemed more forced and fake to me, there not because these two would argue, but because the writers wanted them to.
This falseness begins with the timing of the argument itself.  It doesn’t really come when an argument might come.  It comes with all the precision and obviousness of a well oiled formulaic movie.    You can see it arriving structurally, rather than emotionally.
And the argument itself is one of those you’ve seen so often before, made up of clichés and overly familiar conflicts without any original or clever insight given to any of it.  What also doesn’t help is that it’s also one of those arguments by a couple in which they almost never really argue about what they are arguing about, but constantly get off subject and go down a side road (you know when Celine complains about having to take care of everything when she comes home from work and that when Jesse says that since he is home all day he is responsible for the children before Celine gets home, that they are not really talking about whether they equally share chores at home, that there is something else going on that they aren’t talking about). 
Delpy’s Celine makes a, what was to me, very telling reference to a movie about a married couple who visit the remains of Pompeii and the couple’s coming upon a man and woman, clinging to each other, frozen in time because they got caught so quickly by the volcanic eruption.  This is the movie Voyage to Italy starring Ingrid Bergman and George Sanders and directed by Roberto Rossellini.  The reason it is so telling to me is because Voyage to Italy is basically one long argument by the married couple, but it’s an argument that never makes any sense, never has any real context.  You never really know what they are arguing about and it’s all so vague and unclear (Sanders was constantly calling home upset because he just didn’t know what was going on).  And it’s a tough movie to get through, watching people argue and never knowing what they are arguing about, people yelling at each other without it all going anywhere.  And that is what Celine and Jesse’s argument felt like to me, almost a serious reenactment of the classic Monty Python routine, The Argument Room. 
At the same time, the way the argument is constructed might have had an intriguing method to its madness because it leads to a very original and even profound resolution at the end.  Celine walks out on Jesse and Jesse runs out to find her and what he basically tells her is that they are arguing in many ways not because of anything specific, but because they are unhappy.  But it’s not really each other who is making the other unhappy.  They are existentially unhappy, filled with the ennui and malaise that is part of the human condition.  And he knows, therefore, that breaking up won’t solve their issues.  As Jesse says, they will always be unsatisfied to some degree, there will always be something wrong for no other reason but that they are humans.  So he asks her to make a leap of faith, to accept the fact that they will never ultimately resolve these issues, and to decide to once again be distracted from it and simply decide to continue the relationship no matter the hurtful things they have said to each other.   It’s a close call ending, but in many ways a deeply moving one.

BERNIE


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The fun and often entertaining Bernie is one of those truth is stranger than fiction films, a story based on odd, but real life events that no one would have heard of if someone hadn’t made a movie about it (you know, like Conviction and The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio).  It was written by Skip Hollandsworth and Richard Linklater (who also directed) and Linklater certainly lets his Texas roots show by cleverly and with affection (as well as more than a drop here and there of condescension and superiority) in his playing up of the redneck citizens and the very, very Lone Star values that reside in the small town of Carthage, Texas.  The title role is played by Jack Black.  I always think of Black as the actor you use when you can’t get Philip Seymour Hoffman or Paul Giamatti (I can come up with no other reason for Peter Jackson miscasting him in King Kong).  But though Black never really becomes Bernie and plays him as a bit of a cartoon, this is definitely one of Black’s best performances (it probably helps that Bernie himself was probably something of a cartoon).  Bernie is the nicest guy in the world: deeply religious, a brilliant casket salesman, director and star of the local community theater, and friend to all, especially the older ladies in the area (or as many of the characters remark, probably gay, but celibate).  But this mini-Da Vinci of a Renaissance man finds his match in Marjorie Nugent, the Wicked Witch of the East (Texas) who treats him like a pet dog she constantly abuses (and like an abused pet dog, Bernie keeps coming back and licking his mistress’ hand).  As a result, something happens that shocks one and all, no one more so than Bernie himself, though the humor of the story rests on the idea that in the end, shocked or not, no one really wants to do much about it.  The story is told in a serious mockumentary style.  The plot itself is interspersed with interviews of people who were there.  Many of these interviewees are actors, but most are the actual people that lived in Carthage at the time.  Most of the actors blend in almost seamlessly with the locals, especially Rick Dial (who played a similar role in both The Apostle and Sling Blade).  The big exception is Matthew McConaughey, the local D.A.  It’s not that his performance is bad, it’s just so different and over the top and, well, actorly from everyone else’s naturalism, that he sticks out like a Sunday ham.  Even Shirley McClaine as the wicked witch plays the part as if she were to the suburban tract house born.  Pinched face and without a hint of Hollywood glamour, she gives a performance that is often called brave (no make-up or cheesecloth over the lens for this veteran of Hollywood movies co-starring David Niven, Jack Lemmon and Meryl Streep).  But in the end Linklater and Hollandsworth never go deeper than skin.  By the time it’s all over, one’s not quite sure why the film was made and it feels like a joke without a punchline.  Even a trial sequence seems so wasted, nothing of any significance happens during it, one wonders why Linklater bothered to shoot it and waste money on extras.  But you probably won’t be disappointed; it’s genial and quirky and all the other twelve points of indie film law.

THE SHOW MUST GO ON: Reviews of Broken Embraces and Me and Orson Welles


Pedro Almodovar is one of my favorite filmmakers working today, so I am sad to say that Broken Embraces simply didn’t work for me. It’s lush and melodramatic (at times) and has a wonderful, Hitchcock like music score (by Alberto Iglesias), but the story was just a bit too much of a mess. It’s about a movie director Mateo Blanco (Lluis Homar) who was blinded in a car accident, an accident that also killed his lover Lena (the lovely Penelope Cruz). The events leading up to this crash revolve around a triangle with Lena’s husband who was also producing the film Mateo was directing with Lena as the star. When Mateo and Lena ran off together, Lena’s husband stopped the film and Mateo thought it was lost forever; then in a deus ex machina ending (not satisfying emotionally for me), Mateo’s assistant reveals she had the film all the time; all the sturm and drang over Lena’s death for nothing. There’s also a subplot concerning the gay son of Lena’s husband that has no pay off, gets in the way and just confuses the situation (the gay son also starts out as an effeminate mama’s boy and then reappears years later as an ultra-macho tweeker, a change never explained or commented on). The sexy Penelope Cruz, who is wonderful here, is the main reason to see the film; at the same time, since she is the catalyst and the character that drives the action, she may actually not be in it enough. There is an odd ending; Mateo is editing the film he and Lena were working on when she died. It seems to either be inspired by Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown or actually a recreation of a scene from the movie (I don’t remember Women… that clearly); this little scene is the best part of the movie and proves just how good the original Women… was if it can have the same effect years later with a different cast.

Me and Orson Welles is a real hoot most of the time, even though it doesn’t quite work as well as it might. The main problem is the Me in the title, a 17 year old high school student, Richard Samuels, played by Zac Efron (who is getting a little long in the tooth to play this age that convincingly anymore). In addition, he’s probably the most unconvincing 17 year old I’ve seen in some time. It’s not his fault. The authors Holly Gent Palmo and Vincent Palmo, Jr. are brilliant at bringing every real person in the cast alive, but fall short when it comes to the fictional characters; not just Richard, but also Sonja Jones, played by a too skinny Claire Danes. Both seem constructs of the writers, mainly there to get the job done more than to exist in their own right. Richard, on a fluke, gets cast in Orson Welles’ legendary production of a fascist Julius Caesar. He’s supposed to be one of these reactive characters (formerly called passive) through whose eyes and reactions the audience knows how to feel about everything going on. But Richard never seems to react to anything; he takes everything in stride as if he’s been a member of this acting troupe for years; nothing surprises him, nothing throws him off course (until he starts losing Sonja to Orson). It’s hard to say whether this is Zac’s fault or not; he walks through the role with a certain blankness to his face, but I’m not sure the authors really helped. Danes has a different problem; her character never really makes sense. She’s suppose to be an ice princess who refuses to bed anyone in the cast unless she can get something out of it (she beds Welles because he promises to introduce her to Selznick); but suddenly, she just ups and beds Richard for no discernable reason. Is she a wise woman who is using her femininity to get what she wants, or is she an idiot who doesn’t understand being a slut is just that: being a slut—the authors are unclear. The additional problem here is that since Sonja does meet Selznick in the movie, but we know from history she never went anywhere, she comes across more as an idiot. Well, enough about that. I’ve gone a bit overboard there, because in spite of these two characters, the film is still a must see. The main reason is Christian McKay as Welles, who not only looks like the young Orson, but fully embodies both the monster and artistic genius at the center of his personality. This is where the Palmo’s excel. Their creation of Welles is almost as monumental an achievement as the original persona himself. They even go more than one better by also creating very believable renditions of other real people, like a callow Joseph Cotton, a tortured George Coulouris, a fun Norman Lloyd and a fusty John Houseman (played by an almost unrecognizable Eddie Marsan, the driving teacher from Happy Go Lucky). The period detail is excellent and the recreation of the production of Caesar is also a remarkable achievement (here, kudos to director Richard Linklater). For awhile, based on the rehearsals, I was wondering what was so special about this Shakespearian production. But come opening night, the full force of Welles’s vision is revealed and makes one wish one could have been there to witness the whole thing. Linklater even effectively recreates the death of Seneca the Poet, a scene often thrown away in many productions of Caesar, but in Welles’s version became a key part of the production, showing what can happen when fascist rule breaks out. The movie may falter at times, but it’s more than well worth seeing.