The “spoiler” situation with respect to Richard Linklater’s Before Midnight is a particularly tricky one, because for those passionately invested in the saga that began with 1995′s Before Sunrise and continued in 2004 with Before Sunset, even the most bare-bones description of what the new film is about, which must disclose, by necessity, what’s become of Celine (Julie Delpy) and Jesse (Ethan Hawke) since we last saw them, will be giving something away. Those people are advised to treat the rest of this review as a SPOILER (although there will be a limited number of specifics disclosed below), be content simply to know that Midnight is as wonderful as its predecessors–although in somewhat different ways–and find a cave to live in until Sony Pictures Classics releases the film in theaters later this year. (A note, on the other hand, to newcomers: it’s worth watching the other 2 films before seeing this one, because there are many echoes and references that gain in impact if you know the entire series.)
All right? For those who are left, here’s the big reveal: Celine and Jesse stayed together after their day in Paris 9 years ago, and although they’re technically not married, they live as husband and wife, raising children (twins!) together. And so, Before Midnight isn’t a romance, in the way Sunrise and Sunset were, although it has its share of wonderfully romantic moments. It’s a film not about getting together, but about staying together, a far more difficult feat to pull off both in art and life.
The setting this time is Greece, where novelist Jesse, along with Celine, the twins and Jesse’s son Hank (Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick) by his first wife, are among those invited for a summer at the home of a famous writer. (Their host is played by the great cinematographer Walter Lassally, whose credits include Tom Jones, several of James Ivory’s films, and–most notable here–Zorba the Greek.) This day takes place at nearly the end of the vacation, and begins with Celine and Jesse taking Hank to the airport, where he’s flying back to Chicago and his mother, a fact that will reverberate throughout the picture. After that errand, Jesse and Celine have a meal with their host and fellow guests, take a walk through the town, and–as always–talk.
And–as always–what talk! Midnight, like the other films in this most unusual franchise, is written by Linklater, Delpy and Hawke together (although only Linklater and Kim Krizan were credited on Sunrise) in a collaborative effort that shouldn’t be confused with improvisation. For much of the film, Linklater simply sticks a camera in front of his actors and lets them debate, argue, remember, joke, spew and woo one another, and even though each sequence is quite extended by the standards of ordinary movies, the 108 minutes pass like half an hour.
The subject matter, though, is different now. Both Celine and Jesse are 41 years old, parents, and for all intents and purposes spouses. They feel their age, both physically and in their regrets and resentments, and in their increasing determination to fulfill goals they’ve had for years, even if they’ve rarely said them aloud. They have to face the possibility that despite all they feel for each other, these goals could take them in different directions. Also, after 9 years together, they know each other’s failings and frailties in a way those two people who’d only known each other for hours never could. They can push each other’s buttons like no one else, with a unique ability to draw blood–and also to heal.
For those who’ve seen Sunrise and Sunset, and especially for those of us who’ve known these characters and followed this story for almost 20 years, there’s amazing power in this conversation. Watching Delpy and Hawke age reminds us of our own advancing years, our own disappointments and frustrations. There’s a profundity to the series matched only by Michael Apted’s documentary Up series, which has followed the same group every 7 years from childhood to middle age–but the Before series has the advantage of being crafted by artists.
Speaking of “acting” with respect to Delpy and Hawke seems almost beside the point here. Between the time they’ve spent with these characters and the fact that they’ve helped create and shape them over the years, if Celine and Jesse are greatly different from their performers in real life, it would come as a great surprise, whether fairly or not. In any case, whether what they’re doing on screen is inhabiting these characters or performing remarkable impersonations, their portrayals have great power.
Before Midnight has been described as the last of a trilogy, but dealing as it does with the concerns of real life, there could undoubtedly be enough material in 10 years for another day, or night, on another dazzling location, with Celine and Jesse. This much is certain: they’ll never run out of subjects to talk about.
Magic Mike never really makes clear what it intends to be, but it’s awfully fascinating to watch.
Written and directed by the prolific Sebastian Silva, who had two films at Sundance this year (the other was the well-received Crystal Fairy), and who is best known for his art-house success The Maid, Magic is set in Silva’s native Chile. It concerns a small group of college friends: locals Agustin (Agustin Silva, brother of the filmmaker) and his sister Barbara (Catalina Sandino Moreno), and American exchange students Sarah (Emily Browning), who is Agustin’s girlfriend, and Brink (Michael Cera). Their school is on semester break, and the quartet is heading for Agustin and Barbara’s lake house, located far from Santiago. Before they leave, they’re joined by Sarah’s cousin Alicia (Juno Temple). Like many aspects of Magic‘s plot, the reason Alicia has come to Chile is foggy, although she appears to have been sent from home because of unspecified problems she’s been having. Alicia is jumpy and uncomfortable with new things and people, she arrives without having slept since leaving the US, and she’s not happy that she has to join her cousin on this isolated trip.
Things get much worse on the road, when Sarah abruptly announces that she has to go back to Santiago–supposedly to take an exam again, although things Alicia overhears (unless they’re hallucinations) suggest a much more personal reason for the detour. Sarah insists that Alicia remain with the group, and she’ll rejoin them later. Alicia becomes progressively more dissociated and paranoid, unable to sleep and tormented by the noise of birds (they sound like bats) flapping outside her window. She’s right to think that Barbara has little use for her, and while Agustin is kind, Brink has lots of issues of his own. He’s the kind of guy who tries to mask his insecurity with arrogance and bursts of supposedly funny minor-league sadism, and his erratic behavior is the last thing Alicia needs.
Just how unbalanced is Alicia? That’s the question that hovers over Magic Magic, as she starts to hear and see things that aren’t there and responds badly both to alcohol and a half-serious attempt at hypnosis. It seems at any moment as though she could harm herself or anyone else in the house, and Silva establishes a nervous, sometimes blackly comic tension. (The photography, by the great Christopher Doyle, a veteran of Wong Kar Wai’s films, and editing by Jacob Craycroft and Alex Rodriguez, help greatly.)
The screws tighten very effectively, but then in the last act, Magic Magic suddenly turns to peasant supernatural rituals, as it heads toward an inconclusive ending that explains nothing. One can make a theoretical argument for what’s going on–the fear and disconnection Alicia feels toward reality and toward the group, which often speaks Spanish to each other, accidentally or deliberately excluding her, is what the rest of the group feels toward these villagers (who speak in Indian dialects) and their belief in magic–but dramatically, the movie dies on its feet, its intensity adding up to neither a horror movie nor a psychological thriller, nor for that matter anything else comprehensible.
For a long while until that, though, Silva keeps pulling rabbits out of his hat. Temple’s characteristic vagueness as an actress pays off well as Alicia seems as likely to be revealed as a maniac as she is a victim. (The very busy Temple had 3 movies at Sundance, with roles as well in Afternoon Delight and Lovelace.) Cera, also a star of Silva’s Crystal Fairy, is remarkably effective as someone who’s turned his terrors and resentments (mostly about sex) into weapons against everyone else, calculatingly using his words and actions like so much ground glass.
It’s hard to recommend Magic Magic in the end, because the film has to be declared unsatisfying and even annoying as a complete viewing experience. It is, however, exactly the kind of movie film festivals are meant to feature, a display of striking talent that almost, if not quite, comes together as something special.
There’s a tendency to compare any slow-moving, beautifully-photographed drama with an abundance of natural imagery to the films of Terence Malick, but that’s unfair to the very particular surreal spirituality Malick brings even to his more insufferable projects. In the case of AIN’T THEM BODIES SAINTS, the more apt comparison is probably to Robert Altman’s Thieves Like Us, even though that film is set during the Depression rather than the early 70s. Bodies, though, mostly lacks both Malick’s strange artistry and Altman’s genius for details of character.
The couple in Bodies rarely shares the screen. After a prologue sequence establishing that Bob (Casey Affleck) and Ruth (Rooney Mara) are criminals who are very much in love (Ruth is pregnant with their baby), and the events of the shootout that separates them, Bob goes to jail and we cut forward more than 4 years. Ruth now lives with daughter Sylvie in a house purchased for her by next-door-neighbor and storeowner Skerritt (Keith Carradine, his presence a reference to Thieves, and his name perhaps a nod to Tom Skerritt’s role in Altman’s MASH), although Skerritt’s reasons for supporting Ruth are never quite clear. Deputy Wheeler (Ben Foster) looks on Ruth adoringly, but makes no overt move on her, aware that her heart is with Bob.
The film’s events are set in motion when Bob escapes from prison. Everyone assumes that he’s headed for Ruth and his daughter, and a trio of mysterious gunslingers show up in town shortly afterward. After that, it’s a matter of waiting for Bob to make his tortuous way to Ruth’s house, a destination he doesn’t reach until most of Ain’t Them Bodies‘ running time is done.
Ain’t Them Bodies Saints fits into a subcategory of action film that infuses the genre with heavy visual and thematic weight, like John Hillcoat’s The Proposition and Lawless, Andrew Dominik’s The Assassination of Jesse James… and Killing Them Softly, and Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive. Seemingly every shot in Bodies is gorgeously photographed by Bradford Young (of Pariah and Middle of Nowhere) in the light of sunset or dawn, or a replica thereof (the interiors, too, are usually in near-darkness). Young won a special award for cinematography from the Sundance jury, and deservedly so. The production design by Jade Healy is exactly judged (just look at the shelves of Carradine’s store), and there’s a lovely, unusual score by David Hart.
There isn’t, however, a great deal of drama. Apart from the ultimate outbreaks of violence in the final reel, everything in Bodies seems to be on “mute,” as Bob bides his time on the outskirts of town, and Ruth ruminates about what would be best for her and Sylvie if and when Bob returns. The movie has more reverie than story, aside from Wheeler’s hesitant steps toward Ruth, and the movie largely concerns itself with moody shots of landscape and murmured conversations. (There’s a reason why none of the recent films noted above were particularly successful with audiences.)
Mara is, once again, an extremely strong presence on screen, and she has the benefit of the script’s most developed character. Affleck has experience in this kind of film from Jesse James, and he’s comfortable playing second place to the overall visual style, while Foster and Carradine give minimalist performances.
Patience for Ain’t Them Bodies Saints will vary with viewers’ tolerance for films that value mood over story and pace. It’s a beautifully crafted work, admirable but for its insistence on being admired.