Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Review: Before Midnight

Who we were isn't lost before we were us
Indigo is his own
Blue always knew this

Tori Amos - Your Cloud

There's something that fascinates me about pulling off the perfect cinematic trilogy. It's a tough nut to crack.

With Before Sunrise, Before Sunset and now Before Midnight, Richard Linklater has cracked it. It's a wonder he pulled off even one enduring classic built entirely around two characters having a conversation. Instead, together with co-writers & stars Delpy & Hawke, he has delivered three films, each as lovely as the other, enriching rather than diluting what went before and demanding repeat viewings. Like any great trilogy, the first made a lasting impact on the popular zeitgeist, the second stuck to the template but upped the stakes, and the third changes the way we view the former, while faithfully playing out the characters and narrative we've come to love. Brilliant work, Linklater.

But Before Midnight is more than just a brilliant final instalment in a great, unlikely trilogy. It's also a harrowing / humorous dissection of a full-bodied relationship, and one of the best grown up films you'll see this year.

Every relationship is defined by the perceptions and participation of both parties. Things are only ever how we choose to see them. Jesse and Celine (SPOILER ALERT) are now officially together, with kids, and see their relationship very differently. What does it take to make it last, and is it worth trying? A preface between Jesse and his son casts a shadow of domestic responsibility over the enchanting encounters of the first two films. Yes, they made the choice we kind of hoped they would, despite the complications they would entail. Now those complications must play themselves out in the real world (or as real world as a family holiday at the Greek villa of a famous writer can be). There's no literal ticking clock here like in Sunrise and Sunset; The clock that ticks is in the unspoken tensions between Jesse and Celine. Or perhaps only in Celine's head. Or perhaps, as Celine would insist, fate. Whatever the cause, the metaphysical clock is set in motion to decide if Jesse and Celine will have a happily ever after. 

In a way,  for all its indie-kids romantic origins, Before Midnight is the anti-rom com. This is about the work it takes to keep the pieces of any relationship in place, and the terror that strikes when the bond is called into question. Relationships can't be all long walks and profound talks in beautifiul cities. Any choice you could have made, no matter how magical, will ultimately require work. And sacrifice. 

This time round, Linklater allows a number of ancillary characters to join the conversation in the middle section of the film, adding their perspectives to the question of love in the modern age - can it last? Is there any point in expecting it to? Wouldn't relationships be easier if we just take off the pressure and accept the expiry date? Only one party offers a differing view, but she makes a compelling case. Either she has been very lucky, or the others are doing it wrong. Or philosophise around their own fear of failure.

Both leads are brilliant, fleshing out characters they created nearly two decades ago, and replacing the awkwardness and uncertainty of the first two films with years and years of shared subtext, layered into the long takes and free flowing naturalism. It's hard to understand how well the actors have to know their characters, and each other, to work in so much complexity without losing the in-the-moment authenticity. 

But it's Julie Delpy who gives one of the unmissable performances of the year. Celine has always been the more complicated character - even their host, Patrick, tells Jesse he is the only great writer he knows who has a partner more interesting than he is - but, in Midnight, she is not in a great place. The mundane responsibilities of motherhood, and the intense devotion she feels for her family, leave her tired and she is keeping score of every sacrifice she makes for the sake of her relationship with Jesse that takes her further and further from the independent intellectual she always planned to be. She loves her family but fears losing herself to them, especially to Jesse. From domestic logistics to gatherings of friends to vicious arguments, Delpy plays it all with a constant swirl of resentment, bitterness, wit and devil-may-care independence simmering beneath the surface.

Delpy & her co-writers aren't scared to take Celine to dark places - we feel her frustrations, but also how she traps herself in her own contradictory rhetoric and impossible expectations. She's a woman who, in fighting for autonomy, insists on being unknowable, too easily plays the victim, denies her own insecurities and refuses to admit her overwhelming need to be loved, to be appreciated and, likely most embarrassingly for her, to be attractive and desirable, despite age crystallizing her bitterness, pessimism & melancholy into a temperament she knows she wouldn't put up with. But that is why Celine is Celine and Jesse is Jesse. The very things she criticizes in him are the things she needs from him. For all her complaints, even she does not know what she really wants. Overwhelmed by the frailty and frustrations of their relationship, she cannot imagine how it could last, or be worth the trouble, and sets about finding enough faults to end it before it can disappoint her.

The power in Delpy's performance is that she never succumbs to easy melodrama or playing Celine for laughs (although she is very funny). She believes in Celine, even as she lays out her fears and flaws for us to criticise. 

Jesse is still much the same carefree, pretentious kid he's always been; trying to reconcile his romantic views of life with the unsolvable complications his choices have left him with. If he seems happier and more carefree than Celine, she would insist it is only because he is more willfully naive, and selfish, but he ultimately emerges as a heroic romantic; with his eyes wide open, but his heart open wider. The same boy who plucked up the nerve to ask Celine to get off the train with him in Vienna is now the boy who'll keep asking her to spend her life with him, no matter how many times it takes.

Ultimately, Midnight is a brutally honest study of the moments we choose to save or break a relationship. The truth is, in those moments it can go either way. Celine implies it is fate, but the film suggests it has a lot more to do with choice. The things we break we often break out of fear. It's tempting to feel that if something can fall apart, it was never made to last. As if being breakable is reason enough for it to be abandoned. But we are all breakable. And it is precisely in fighting for each other in the breakable moments of our relationships that the strongest bonds are formed; the moments when we can transcend our fears, insecurities & selfishness to create something we decide will last with another person as breakable as we are. Love is losing ourselves. That is the point. And selfless love will hold us together if we let it. 

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

American Film Institutes Top 10 Films of 2013

Good list. Good year for cinema.

12 Years a Slave
American Hustle
Captain Phillips
Fruitvale Station
Inside Llewyn Davis
Saving Mr Banks
The Wolf of Wall Street

To be honest, American Hustle feels lightweight to me (sight unseen), but the NY Film Critics anointed it Movie of the Year, so I guess I should start adjusting my expectations.

It's a pity some of the fantastic indie fare, like Before Midnight, Mud, Before Midnight, Blue Jasmine and Before Midnight didn't make the cut, but how great is it seeing The Coens, Mr Scorsese, Spike Jonze, Alexander Payne & Steve McQueen dominate (not to mention Paul Greengrass and Alfonso Cuaron)? 

They save their list by nodding Fruitvale Station over The Butler. Smart move.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Review: About Time

There are three things you may have noticed about About Time:

1. It is a Richard Curtis movie

2. It is a time travel movie
3. It is a Rachel McAdams romantic-type movie.

While it succeeds admirably at point 1, it fails miserably at point 2, and I would like to make a case for point 3 meaning something far meatier connotations than it currently does. (And, yes, amazingly points 2 & 3 have co-existed before).

Point 1:

Being a Richard Curtis movie, it is of course charming, cutely eccentric, unashamedly sentimental and just potty-mouthed enough to remind you it is British, and therefore less shallow than an American movie. For this reason alone, About Time will do quite well. 

Are they not adorkable?

Point 2:

As a time travel movie, it's pants. If you're interested in the philosophical nature of time travel scenarios, the unforeseen consequences of altering past decisions or the worrisome establishing of multiple timelines (and you should be), About Time will drive you bananas. Curtis is not so much interested in time travel so much as ruminating on how to spend our limited time on earth wisely. 

Curtis makes some lovely observations about family & how to live an ordinary life well and, perhaps, he's on to some poignant points.It's just a pity he's not into tight plotting or space-time continuum logic. Perhaps I've been spoiled by too many great episodes of Fringe and Community, but when time travel / alternate realities are introduced to the plot, it is to be taken seriously (preferably with gloomy, mind-bending results). 

Curtis doesn't, and he makes this clear upfront by the whimsically casual way he Bill Nighys time travel into the story. Sure, when it comes to magic realism, the less exposition, the better, but forgive me for wanting to be at least slightly baffled by the unforeseen implications of tiny shifts in time. I'm pretty willing to suspend my disbelief and overlook plot holes for time travel conundrums, but there need to be some solid ground rules / internal logic. Curtis stays light on internal logic, favouring a more freewheeling approach instead.

Tim's time travel abilities leave little in the way of undesired consequences, but much in the way of magical fun & male wish fulfillment. It's kind of a straight-forward Erase / Rewind situation, with a few arbitrary twists and bugs (sperm logic, anyone?) thrown in for some plot tension. 

But who cares? It's not the point. You're not watching a Time Travel Movie, you're watching a Richard Curtis movie. Since the point of the movie is kind of not over-thinking life, but just enjoying it, I suppose a similar approach is to be advised for the film itself.

Point 3

Yes. This is the second time travel romance that Rachel McAdams has made. How bizarre. This one makes the other one seem more legit from a time travel point of view. But I'd probably still want to watch this one again before that one. 

It is very bizarre that Curtis seems intent on presenting Rachel McAdams as some kind of frumpy, quirky, smart, loner girl. Yeah, no, vintage dresses, hipster glasses, brown hair & a weird obsession with Kate Moss do not the lovely McAdams into an outsider frump make.

I really wish the description "a Rachel McAdams movie" would carry with it more weight and thrill of anticipation. She's really a much better actress than her agent seems to think. Someone please give this woman a good script. I'd really love to see her play a murderer, or a vile politician, or basically any character not impossibly adorable and lovely. At least half the time.   

But more to the point, McAdams is lovely and huggable as ever in About Time. Domhnall Gleeson is equally charming and together they have a sweet chemistry. Though all the meet-cutes, chat-cutes and grow-cutes would appear to indicate that Tim and Mary are soul mates of sorts, just one single tiny fight would have gone a long way to making their relationship more believable. More problematically, it is unforgivable that Tim never bothers to mention his gift / condition to Mary. Especially since he does little with it but trick his way into her life, heart and pants. 

Really, it kind of fails as a romcom, cause it's ultimately much more of a father-son movie, which bring me to my conclusion.


Taking the film for what it is, here is what is great about it:

  • Bill Nighy 
  • The father-son bits of the story 

Curtis makes a strong case for the importance of (eccentric, accepting, British, tea drinking) families, and presents a touching, incredibly sincere (if underdeveloped) father-son relationship. Again, Curtis is painting in broad strokes of father-son relationships generally (as neither character is developed enough to really delve into the relationship specifically) but, in its final stretch, Curtis' script and film find a sincerity and depth nothing else in the film touches, and emerge with easy sentiment marginally defeated by an authentic delivery of earnest longings. If only Curtis could give us a more workable plan for spending less time at work and more time with teenage sons (standing in a cupboard and clenching your fists likely won't work for most of us). 

All in all, a somewhat lazy, but quite charming & uncommonly meditative Richard Curtis outing. Probably great for first dates. Even better for father-son dates (although, if you already do those, you probably don't need to see this).