Maggie’s Plan (2015)

Yet another film — I feel like I see one every few months, but maybe I just like to seek them out — that fits neatly into the burgeoning romcom subgenre of New York-set films about middle-class intellectuals trying to find love. Many of them star Greta Gerwig; Maggie’s Plan is no different. That said, and I suppose a range of opinions may be available, but I think Gerwig is great, an intensely likeable screen presence whose delivery energises even the most familiar material. Here, the film follows the usual roundelay of attachments — Maggie is a teacher who falls for social anthropologist John (Ethan Hawke), who’s having trouble in his marriage to the frosty Georgette (Julianne Moore) — but it doesn’t insist on marriage or even romance as the way forward. That in itself makes it worthwhile, quite aside from all its excellent comic performances (Julianne Moore remains a force of nature).

Maggie's Plan film posterNEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director/Writer Rebecca Miller; Cinematographer Sam Levy; Starring Greta Gerwig, Ethan Hawke, Julianne Moore, Maya Rudolph, Bill Hader; Length 98 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Tuesday 12 July 2016.

Boyhood (2014)

Sometimes films come with such a weight of critical expectation that you can’t help but be a bit disappointed by them, and I confess the first time I saw Richard Linklater’s latest film, the one in which he has famously returned to the same actors each year over a 12-year period, I was a little unsure as to whether it was really all that interesting or original. For certainly, the concept is not unusual — a number of projects (primarily documentary) can attest to that. And yet, for its two-and-a-half hour running time, it exerts a real fascination, albeit one that’s difficult to quite pin down. It’s the same feeling you get from looking back at old photo albums, and in many ways that’s what Boyhood feels like: it feels like nostalgia for a life you’ve not even lived (and in that respect, it’s not unlike Marcel Proust’s grand novel À la recherche du temps perdu, “In Search of Lost Time”). As such, it’s the most refined expression yet of director Richard Linklater’s fascination with time and its passing — something he touches on in almost all his films, most notably the trilogy of Before films which follow the same characters over the course of almost 20 years.

Whether the film reminds you of your own childhood is rather dependent on where you grew up — personally I found a lot of the detail rather alien to my own upbringing. Being set in Texas, there’s a fair amount of to-do related to guns and religion that just didn’t feature at all for me, and needless to say the specific pop-cultural references are a generation removed, though that didn’t stop me from smiling at a lot of it (a Britney recital by the protagonist’s sister, a young girl singing High School Musical songs, the changing technology of video gaming, et al.). A lot of the pop culture is very cannily integrated in fact, almost commenting on the progress of people’s lives. For example, I liked the way that the music which is played by the boy’s father Mason (Ethan Hawke) becomes progressively more stuck in the past as he grows older.

It’s this kind of accrual of small detail that I found most affecting, and a lot of that comes from the way the film is structured as a series of little vignettes conjoined not by the weight of narrative expectation as by the very fact of time passing. As Mason Jr (Ellar Coltrane) grows older, this detail starts to become referential not just to pop culture but to his own life, as we get a sense of the way Mason Jr is developing. Because of the way it’s filmed, we don’t get to experience all those milestones, and there’s a certain amount of blurring of time between the passing years — it’s sometimes only from slight changes to hairstyles that one realises a year has passed, as the family deals with some of mother Olivia’s poor relationship choices, or Mason Jr’s desultory summer jobs. In fact, Patricia Arquette’s work as Olivia is some of the best acting in the film, although Linklater’s daughter Lorelei as Mason Jr’s sister Samantha also lights up the first half of the film, when Mason Jr just seems a bit mopey.

If there’s a drawback to the film, it’s that some of the dialogue seems a bit self-aware (in a way that anyone who’s seen Waking Life will be familiar). Some of the scenes too might come across as overly melodramatic (one stepfather drunkenly lashing out, or a Mexican restaurant manager thanking Olivia for her wise advice), but within the flow of such a long film, these events provide some tonal variation. Indeed, if on my first viewing I found that heartfelt speech in the restaurant, or Mason Jr’s final words delivered while staring off into the middle-distance, to be a bit cheesy, the second time they seemed rather to be among the film’s most affecting moments. This is because even if the script can get a bit sententious, the way it’s delivered by the actors is just perfect: the look in Arquette’s eyes when she is thanked, sitting next to her two grown children as they fuss and moan like stroppy teenagers, is what that scene is all about, just as it’s in Mason Jr’s coy glances at the girl he’s sitting next to during that final dialogue scene (PS I don’t think there are any spoilers, per se, to this kind of filmmaking).

As a film, it could easily be “Girlhood” or “Motherhood” if edited differently — maybe even “Fatherhood”, although Ethan Hawke’s dad takes most of the film to come to terms with his responsibilities. It says a lot about what it is to grow up in America in the 2000s, without resorting to manufactured melodrama or tub-thumping over various tabloid-favourite hot topics. It leaves me with a sense of optimism, both for the future of film and for these specific characters, and I look forward to seeing it again.

Boyhood film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Richard Linklater; Cinematographers Lee Daniel and Shane Kelly; Starring Ellar Coltrane, Patricia Arquette, Ethan Hawke, Lorelei Linklater; Length 166 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Haymarket, London, Friday 25 July 2014 (and at Cineworld West India Quay, London, Monday 14 July 2014).

Before Midnight (2013)

The third in a series of films about the same two characters, Before Midnight is a worthy successor to Before Sunrise (1995) and Before Sunset (2004), a trilogy which will no doubt be remembered as among the highest achievements of director/writer Richard Linklater. However, at the same time, it’s definitely the most bitter of the three, with another nicely-judged ambiguous ending that leaves open far more than it resolves.

By this point in the series, it should be clear there’s little plot to recount exactly: Jesse and Céline, now in their 40s, are on holiday in Greece with their children (a son from Jesse’s earlier marriage, and two girls they’ve had with one another), staying at the home of respected writer Patrick (played by cinematographer Walter Lassally). Over the course of their final few days there, they talk to each other, touching on the feelings they’ve developed over the past nine years and what the future holds…

If the focus is still squarely on these two, it also widens the scope to include a small circle of friends they’ve made in Greece. As a couple, their story is now set beside several others, at different stages in their relationships: young lovers enjoying their first extended period of time together; an older married couple who have become comfortable with one another; and the elderly writer Patrick and his friend Natalia, both of whom have lost their partners. It’s also framed by the Greek countryside, its ruins and its long literary legacy. That historical propensity for tragedy is briefly touched upon, but it is only fully developed in the final third of the film, during an extended and brutal scene of argument in a hotel room.

Following meandering but sweet-natured conversations in a car and on foot around the sun-dappled Peloponnese, the first two-thirds of the film gently weaves in some of the threads that get unpicked towards the end, primarily Céline’s job offer from a government agency and Jesse’s concerns about his teenage son Hank growing up fatherless in Chicago. There are misunderstandings on both sides, but it’s fair to say that both characters have become more set in their character traits: Céline is obsessive and neurotic, while Jesse’s egotism continues to lead him into broad generalisations that he won’t step down from. By the final third, he’s engaged in some pretty epic ‘mansplaining’, from which Céline flinches in anger on several occasions.

And yet even if these still aren’t characters I’d probably connect with in real life, the extended time with them in this film (as in the past two) has meant we have a pretty good sense of them as a couple. The arguments will seem familiar to anyone in a relationship, so it’s anyone’s guess as to which direction these disagreements will lead their lives. Suffice it to say that there’s a clear sense of two people who’ve rehearsed similar arguments over the years and become set in their ways; in this respect, the acting is again wonderfully acute and sensitive to these two people. There is so much subtlety in every gesture and movement on the part of both Hawke and Delpy that at times the constant buzz of conversation even seems a bit superfluous.

Like the first two films in the series, this is a film that has provoked much discussion afterwards and will no doubt continue to live and grow with me. My gut reaction now may be influenced by some of the overt rancour on show, but I suspect that when I watch it again I’ll be able to pick up other nuances. For whatever I’ve indicated, there’s still plenty that’s joyful — about the filmmaking, about the writing, even about these characters — in amongst some of the more bitter flavours.

CREDITS
Director Richard Linklater; Writers Richard Linklater, Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy; Cinematographer Christos Voudouris Χρήστος Βουδούρης; Starring Julie Delpy, Ethan Hawke; Length 109 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld West India Quay, London, Sunday 23 June 2013.

Before Sunset (2004)


FILM REVIEW || Director Richard Linklater | Writers Richard Linklater, Ethan Hawke, Julie Delpy and Kim Krizan | Cinematographer Lee Daniel | Starring Julie Delpy, Ethan Hawke | Length 77 minutes | Seen at Ritzy, Brixton, London, 2 August 2004, at Curzon Soho, London, 29 August 2004 (and at home on DVD, Tuesday 18 June 2013) || My Rating 5 stars masterpiece


© Warner Independent Pictures

There’s a lot to like and admire in Before Sunrise (1995), but in retrospect it comes across as merely a prelude to this second film in the series, which returns to the same characters nine years later. Both Jesse and Céline have moved on in life, and meeting again in Paris, it feels like so much more is at stake for them. This has the effect of sharpening the feelings we are left with at the film’s close, which again like the first is very much ambiguous.

The film itself comments on this ambiguity, by having Jesse address the question at an author’s talk that starts the film (he has written a novel about the events of the first film, and is on a European book tour). In fact, at several stages the characters show an awareness of these very fictional structures within which they exist. However, this never comes across as unduly precious or pretentious, because the film’s focus remains sharply on this specific time and place, and on their conversation.

Stylistically, this is emphasised by constructing the film to take place in ‘real-time’. There’s a brief prologue showing empty locations anticipating the couple’s conversation (just as the first film ended with those empty locations where they had been, presumably a nod to Antonioni’s L’eclisse). However, from meeting at the bookshop by the Seine, via meandering walks around the streets and parks of Paris, followed by a boat ride and a car ride, there are no (obvious) ellipses. Most of the shots are Steadicam tracking shots following the two, so there’s an even clearer sense of geography in place — it feels as if you could go to Paris and reconstruct their walk yourself.

Best of all are the characters themselves, Continue reading “Before Sunset (2004)”

Before Sunrise (1995)


FILM REVIEW || Director Richard Linklater | Writers Richard Linklater and Kim Krizan | Cinematographer Lee Daniel | Starring Julie Delpy, Ethan Hawke | Length 97 minutes | Seen at home (DVD), June 1997 (and more recently on Sunday 16 June 2013) || My Rating 3.5 stars very good


© Columbia Pictures

With Before Midnight, the third in the trilogy, coming out in cinemas next week, I wanted to re-visit the story so far. This first film is from 1995 and introduces the series’ protagonists Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Céline (Julie Delpy). It turns out that it’s set on 16 June (1994), making my timing in re-watching it rather auspicious. While fashions may have changed in 19 years, this story of two earnest young people in their early 20s finding love while on holiday is still immensely charming.

That date of course is not arbitrary: it is set on ‘Bloomsday’, which is to say the date on which James Joyce set his novel Ulysses, another story taking place in a single city over the course of a single day. It’s a nice little tip of the hat, though looking for further parallels would probably be stretching things, as Before Sunrise is primarily a romantic film about two people getting to know one another. It’s that journey which forms the entirety of the film — the way they connect with one another via conversation — starting on the train where they meet and then wandering around Vienna, from where Jesse is imminently flying out back home to the States.

What’s charming about the film is that it doesn’t try to be anything more melodramatic or forced, it just wants to follow the natural rhythms of their conversation in the course of their wandering. Through what they say, the two reveal themselves to each other and to us: Jesse is embittered by a recent failed relationship, while Céline is impassioned about social justice and the state of the world. Some of their discussion brings to mind a certain kind of cynicism and ennui familiar from the 1990s, while a lot of it is just the natural earnestness of 20-somethings who still have their lives ahead of them, and want to change the world, or at least make their mark.

Continue reading “Before Sunrise (1995)”