Before Midnight (2013)

Directed by: Richard Linklater Written by: Linklater, Ethan Hawke & Julie Delpy

Before_Midnight_posterThis review of an “older movie” is of the third part of a trilogy. This is a trilogy, in which the three instalments are intentionally filmed many years apart, should really be appreciated as a whole, and as such readers not familiar with the first two films should not continue for the sake of avoiding a key spoiler.

 One of the first films I saw in my transition to identifying as a “film person” was Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise, the story of a young, not-quite-couple exploring Europe and developing a deep sense of connection in a single night together. Thematically, the film could be said to be about the idea of finding “true love.” The “right person” can come at the wrong time, forcing lovers to live in the moment and not worry that their future may not be as perfect as the present.

If one thinks of the trilogy thematically, Before Midnight is its logical conclusion. The first film tells the story of a love that can only last for a moment, while this third film reintroduces the lovers as a married couple of several years. If, however, one thinks of the previous Before films not in terms of their themes, but in terms of their character, the premise of Before Midnight is a bit more surprising. What captured my imagination about Before Sunrise was that it was a largely action-less and even plot-less film. It simply featured two characters, Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Céline (July Delpy) having a very long conversation. The conversation was varied and animated, and I left the film with a new understanding of what I could find entertaining. Two years later I saw Before Sunset a film, that aside from being set 9 years later, changes little from Before Sunrise formula. Upon seeing that film I thought “wow, Linklater did it again.”

Who knows if Linklater could have done it yet again? The fact is, when it came to Before Midnight he opted not to. While the film’s middle certainly resembles its prequels, its beginning and end are uniquely focused. Jesse has married Céline despite the fact that they live on different continents, and Jesse was already married with a son. Again, thematically, this was the logical place for this third Before movie to go (perhaps, some might argue, it was the logical place for the second movie to go). The first film is about a neither-mature-nor-immature young couple who know that they can’t be together. The third film re-introduces them in their forties, when they are supposed to be, and largely are, mature, but are caught up in the fallout of one of their rare (arguably) immature decisions.

If cinema is an escape from reality, the first two Before movies were an escape from reality and cinema. It wasn’t like other movies: it could be smart without having to have some sort of important theme. Before Sunrise, for better or for worse robs viewers of that quality. The magically written conversation, of the first film, we’re told, is not some magical quality that Hawke and Delpy’s characters possess, it is a product of their love, a love that becomes very hard to sustain when they actually act on it.

Before Midnight is not without it’s Before moments, be they Delpy’s impression of a “bimbo” or her painful kitten story. The film also ends on a Before-like note, with the protagonist connecting through an acted-romantic interaction. This last scene, however, lacks the vivacity of the playful moments in the earlier films, because of how tied up it is in the movie’s unifying theme. Perhaps this review has come across as negative, but I don’t think it has to be read that way. All I’m saying is that despite sharing qualities of its predecessors Before Midnight is a substantially less magical film. And since it is a story of lovers struggling with the loss of new love’s spark, I suppose that it achieved what it set out to.

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Mission Impossible: Fallout (2018)

Written and directed by: Christopher McQuarrie

MI_–_Fallout.jpgOccasionally I push myself to challenge my biases and go see an action movie. Sometimes, maybe it’s a mood thing, I somehow find myself enjoying them. Mission Impossible: 6 was one such movie. I now find myself trying to figure out what was appealing about it. Part of it no doubt was that protagonist Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) was accompanied by two less macho sidekicks (Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames) and Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg)), making it endearing in much the same way as Disney animated movies.

The sidekicks as individual characters, however, are not all that memorable. Dunn is a good-kind-of-misfit in the work and is part of a couple decent gags, but there’s not much to write home about him. Stickell meanwhile is charming and a subtler misfit, but again, he’s nothing to write home about. Luckily, these characters are not the be all and end all of the film’s comedic elements. Mission Impossible 6 is, of course, ridden with fight scenes. While many of these can be described as performances of traditional action ambition, I could not help but get a whiff of comedy out of some them. There is one scene in which Hunt and CIA Agent Walker (Henry Caville), fight an enemy target in a bathroom. The fight seems easy at first, but when it is disrupted by some immature, passerby men, the enemy suddenly regains form. What proceeds from there is an extended sequence in which a high stakes, high tech fight is somehow carried out with fists and a urinal pipe.

The subtle comedy of Mission Impossible 6 is complimented by its surprisingly high dialogue to action ration (at least in its first two thirds) as well as an absurd sequence in which plot twist after plot twist is thrown upon each other (eventually its gets absurd, but it’s largely an engaging moment). None of this is enough for me to describe Mission Impossible 6 as a comedy, but comedy is certainly an ingredient in the Mission Impossible stew.

And ingredients, are what I think makes this movie work. It’s a film that offers a little bit of something for everybody, and even if those somethings aren’t always top notch, they give the film an engaging enough texture to make is exiting for those who might be bored by other action flicks.

Mission Impossible 6’s little-bit-of-everything approach is largely effective, but it creates odd results as well. The film’s villains are described as anarchists, and in the opening scene, one rants at Hunt & crew with delirious, but moral conviction, insisting they share his manifesto with the world. The idea that these characters are idealists is repeated throughout the film, yet it’s never fully developed. Meanwhile, Hunt & co. ignore their ideals, treating and discussing them as purely evil beings. It is as if the film’s writer thought: a lot of viewers want to see complex and sympathetic villains, but a lot more viewers just want a tradition good-vs-evil smash-off. The result is that the film caters a bit to both crowds. As I said, this approach works: the supposed complexity of the villains no doubt left me a bit more engaged by the evil, even as the logical part of my brain was left frustrated by the fact that the villain’s motifs were never properly elaborated on or made truly sympathetic.

The character of Hunt is similarly written as complicated-but-not. An early tension in the film is that Hunt values the lives of his friends even when doing so could compromise his mission. This supposed idealism puts him at odds with the CIA. While this detail comes across as potentially interesting when raised at the beginning and end of the film, it also feels phoney as it never really describes Hunt’s character. He comes across as a largely generic, calmly calculated, cool-with-violence action hero.

Mission Impossible 6 is, in short, a bit fraudulent. I use that word as an observation not an insult. It is undoubtedly very good, but parts of its quality comes from the fact that it poses as a “smart movie.” It is not ,ideas wise at least, a deep work, but it goes to show that sometimes even hinting at having ideas can make your movie effective. At the same time, it leaves me longing for a Mission Impossible like movie that could be as ambitious about its themes as about its stunts.

Breathless (1960)

Directed by: Jean-Luc Godard, Written by: François Truffaut

À_bout_de_souffle_(movie_poster)“What does <dégueulasse> mean?” is the final line of new wave classic Breathless. I won’t say more about the line’s context, in the hopes that you’ll forget it and appreciate it anew when you watch the film. However I will tell you that dégueulasse is the French word for vomit. That’s right, a film you’ll probably watch with an air of pretentiousness ends with the line “what is vomit?”

One of Breathless’s trademarks is its plethora of “What does _ mean?” lines. The film stars two characters Michel Poicard (Jean-Paul Belmondo), the ant-hero protagonist and Patricia Franchini (Jean Seberg) his love interest who speaks French with a heavy American accent. Patrica’s “What does __ mean?” lines are of course comic, but they also get at one of Breathless’ deeper ideas.

Atypical, a dramedy about a teenage autistic boy, features an episode in which his girlfriend tells him she loves him. The boy, however, is unable to reciprocate without coming up with a precise definition of “feeling love” and determining if he meets the criteria. The implication of the episode is that neuro-typical people aren’t faced with such dilemmas, as they are able and happy to understand emotional concepts on an instinctive level. Of course, the neuro-typical/atypical binary is not absolute, and the desire to break down the human experience into component parts can exist in all sorts of minds. Breathless is interesting because it is not, at least not explicitly, a film about neuro-diversity. Nonetheless, its two characters question everything from what love means to what crime means to what vomit means. This questioning does not render them emotionless robots: Michel displays a regular playful joie de vivre, and Patricia displays ambition, frustration and guilt. It does, however, give their emotions an uncanny, misplaced quality to say the least.

Breathless, one could say is a stylized film. It is a noir with protagonists who hide behind dark sunglasses and clouds of cigarette smoke. The scenes are shot in front of a range of interesting backgrounds, including some dystopia-lite neon in its final moments. Nonetheless, Breathless’ undeniable aesthetic character does not mean its dialogue should be written off as empty, unrealistic filler. Rather, what Truffaut’s script seems to do is take extreme, but relatable human impulses (romantic indecisiveness, poor sense of priorities, escaping darkness through playfulness, and the desire to question everything) and bring them all out at once.

Another important line in the film comes when an author, in a great press-scrum-scene, states his ambition is “to become immortal and then die.” Put differently, the author’s ambition is to escape reality and return to it once more. This is in a way, what Breathless’ viewers are exposed to: a world that is a bit too-rule free to be realistic, but is still recognizable. Breathless may not allow viewers to acquire immortality, but it provides a plausible idea of what it could feel like.

Rife with references to classical music, literature and philosophical questions, in the midst of a existentalist story, Breathless is an archetype of what many of outsiders think of as French art, and an entertaining one at that. It offers viewers a chance to see the writing of one of France’s leading auteurs, and the direction of another (a glimpse at his skills before his works became more niche). It’s by no means a safe recommendation for all viewers, but if you’re looking to make a casual film fan more adventurous it’s a great gateway drug.

Support the Girls (2018)

Written and directed by: Andrew Bujalski

Support_the_GirlsIn one sentence Support the Girls is a story about a Hooters (known as “Double Whammies” in this story) told in the absence of the male gaze (not literally given who the writer/director is). This premise alone is enough to make it an interesting work. The film’s protagonist is restaurant manager Lisa Conroy (Regina Hall) and much of the movie follows her adventures: handling a break in, supervising a servers’ kid (Jermaine Le Gray) and dealing with the restaurant’s abrasive owner (James Le Gros).

One of the film’s strengths is its cathartic performance of empathy. Given the film’s setting: a niche place in the service industry aimed at profiting off of male lust, one might expect Double Whammies to treat its staff horribly. Lisa, however, “supports the girls” as most evidenced when she insists a customer leave after he makes a “joke” about one of the servers being fat. As fans of the character Juan from Moonlight or Gabo in A Fantastic Woman well know, a well placed empathetic line, underlined by unstated social commentary, can really make a scene or even a movie.

On the flip side, Lisa’s empathy is inevitably limited by her circumstances, and perhaps by her sense of duty, as someone in a management role. She is involved in two firings over the course of the film, and while she handles these about as well as she can, this shows the limits of making a manager your hero. This is not to say that all movies should be tailored to have the perfect ideological message, but rather to get at a more apolitical criticism I have with the film.

Perhaps this is not a problem if you go into Support the Girls without expectations. In my case, however, the film’s premise led me to expect a film with the intensity of a low-end comedy, made better through being more principled and being more politically self-aware. I was disappointed however, to find that despite all its chaos, the first ½ to 2/3 of Support the Girls somehow comes across as understated. This is why I think it’s a shame that Lisa’s empathy wasn’t even more radical. A scene in which a manager offers a reference letter to a flawed employee is just a scene. A scene in which a manager actually comes up with a way to keep an even more flawed employee on staff, by contrast, would substantially liven up the film and its supposedly chaotic universe.

Support the Girls ultimately embraces its chaotic potential in it’s final third. And while it’s final two scenes are not as chaotic, they nonetheless complete the film in a satisfying way. I can’t say too much about it, but it gets at how the Hooters/Double Whammies industry really is a universe of its own.

Support the Girls tells stories about characters that might otherwise not be told, and might certainly not otherwise be told in as respectful a light. Are there ways it could have been more radical? Yes. By centreing its story around a manager it maintains a distance from Double Whammies actual workers. Of course, this approach has its benefits (particularly in the penultimate scene). Still, I can’t help but wonder what the film could have been like if it embraced its zany potential.

Madeline’s Madeline (2018)

Written and Directed by: Josephine Decker

Madeline_s_Madeline[1]One of the core tales of modern cinema is Fellini’s 8 ½ . The film has two defining characteristics: one is that it’s the story of an ambitious and troubled filmmaker, struggling to depict his life on-screen in intricate details. The other is its moments of surrealism. 8 ½ has spawned a number of imitations, and the latest may be Madeline’s Madeline.

Decker’s new film is a bizarre story, one that can’t be understood without at least some interpretive effort on the audience’s part. It’s main cast include 16 year-old Madeline (Helena Howard), her drama teacher Evangeline (Molly Parker) and her mother Regina (Miranda July). Madeline is a gifted actor with ambitions to go to Julliard or NYU. She also appears to suffer from an unspecified form of hallucinatory mental illness. The illness is never named, so while it may be something specific that some viewers may be able to identify, it’s functional role is simply to render Madeline disoriented and vulnerable.

It’s hard to say much more about the plot without giving things away. It is essentially a collage of comic jabs at drama-class activities and uncomfortable scenes in which what exactly is real is left entirely ambiguous. What I can say, however, is that amongst the “weird” movies I’ve seen, Madeline’s Madeline stands out as one I’d feel comfortable recommending to mainstream viewers. Even if not it’s entirely clear how its whole plot fits together, each scene is logically coherent and consists of accessible and energetic dialogue and colorful imagery.

Perhaps the best way to explain the notability of Madeline’s Madeline, however, is to look at its relationship to 8 ½ . The similarities are evident in the piece of theatre it centres around, however the differences are notable as well. While 8 ½ speaks to ego and loss-of-control, as an auteur tells his own tale, Madeline is not the director of her own story. Instead she is subject to the creative vision of Evangeline. This difference in turn creates a new similarity with the 8 ½ -subgenre as Madeline’s on-stage relationship with Evangeline comes to mirror her relationship with Regina. It can also be said that while 8 ½ speaks to the impossibility of making a story of one’s own life, Madeline’s Madeline reminds us that it is even harder to tell the story of others.

At 1h 34 minutes, Madeline’s Madeline is rather concise relative to 8 ½. This is a trait I generally like in movies and I indeed preferred Madeline’s Madeline to 8 ½. The former film, much likes its modern adaptation Synecdoche New York, dragged on, but in fairness it had to to make its point. Madeline’s Madeline ‘s ending ,meanwhile, was comparably abrupt, leaving me with a blinked-and-I-missed-it feeling. If Madeline’s Madeline has a weakness than, it’s that its concision leaves it without the memorable identity that films like 8 ½ and Synecdoche, New York have. Overall, however, this sacrifice is worth it. Maybe Madeline’s Madeline has a mind-blowing coherent thesis and perhaps it’s just an extended drama class activity. Either way, it may be the most lively and engaging movie the 8 ½ cannon has ever produced.

Heart of a Dog (2015)

Written and directed by: Laurie Anderson

Heart_of_a_Dog_posterI’ve come to discover in the last year that I don’t like documentaries very much. I don’t mean that quite literally. I’m sure most people have interests that can be well described in the cinematic medium: and just this summer I learned a lot of from Three Identical Strangers and been struck by the warm cultural uniqueness of Mr. Rogers as told in Won’t You Be My Neighbor. Nonetheless, I’ve found that what makes a documentary most memorable is when it abandons the ambition to educate about “objectively” important subject matters and opts instead to celebrate the gaze of its auteur. That quality was what made Agnes Varda and J.R.’s Faces Places one of my favorite films of 2017, and it is also what I enjoy in Laurie Anderson’s Heart of a Dog.

I knew little of the film before I rented it. I’d been told it was a tribute by the filmmaker to the life of her dog, and it appealed to me as the kind of thing I’d want to see even if it wasn’t “great.” Those who know the film will realize of course this description is entirely inadequate. Anderson demonstrates that she easily could have made the film I expected. Her celebration of Lolabelle the rat terrier is not a mere product of mourning, but is based on what were clearly very accute observations of her multi-talented dog over the course of its life time.

Anderson tries to enter into the consciousness of her dog and does so convincingly, but the film is really an exploration of her own mindset. It starts psychoanalytically with her describing a dream she has in which she gives birth to her dog and goes on to explore her feelings around the passing of her mother, a friend/artist and post-9/11 America. While these ideas can feel tenuously connected at time, Anderson manages to be relatively educational voice, while relaxing viewers a soothing and articulate manner (a style of speech she, humorously and perhaps unwittingly, describes as condescending in one particular moment of the film).

As the film proceeds and its focus on death becomes more explicit, Anderson touches on Budhist teachings about how death should be handled as spirits proceed to the Bardo (an afterlife realm where the dead transition into non-existence). If I have one qualm with the film, it is in this moment that it begins to lose its pace: rather than jumping from one loosely connected anecdote to another, it focuses on budhist teaching.

The film ends after concluding a thought introduced in one of its early moments. It is a logical ending, though it’s not a work that reaches an obvious conclusion either. Since Heart of a Dog ends up being a work about death acceptance, and it teaches that the dead should not be called back once in the bardo, it is perhaps prevented from taking a more melodramatic conclusion as it ends. This makes sense of course, though it is perhaps disappointing that viewers are not given one more chance to see Lolabelle. It is also worth noting that the film ends with a dedication to Anderson’s husband Lou Reed (who makes a brief, unrecognizable cameo as a doctor in the film), who died shortly after the film was made though it’s hard to say whether any part of the film is (or could have been) specific to mourning him.

In all Heart of a Dog is an eccentric personal project, but one that works outside of the head of Anderson because of its commitment to being educational. It may not be for everyone, but given that it’s concise, covers a range of subject matter, and of course features a dog, many viewers should at least give it a try.

 

Hulk (2003)

Written by: James Schamus, Michael France and John Turman

Directed by Ang Lee

Hulk_movie.jpgTwo of the key motifs in Ang Lee’s 2003 adaptation of The Hulk are Frankenstein, and the Star Warsian idea that anger is but a sub emotion of fear. Superficially, perhaps these ideas do not sound like much: Hulk is green, Frankenstein’s monster is green, “big deal.” However these motifs set up Hulk to be a superhero film like no other.

A common recipe for superhero films is giving their hero(es) sass, arrogance, a pinch of situational comedy and of course a healthy does of action scenes. The incredible thing about The Hulk is it succeeds as movie not by slightly retinkering this formula (à la Deadpool) but by discarding it entirely (granted, The Hulk predates the modern Marvel Cinematic Universe). This approach may explain why the film did not do well at the box office. Indeed, the scenes of pre-Hulk adult Bruce Banner (Eric Bana) are a little slow. Nonetheless, Hulk’s uniqueness is ultimately a rewarding experience. With Marvel movies now coming out at a one-after-another rate, its easy to become cynical about superhero movies and feel like if you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all. The Hulk, however, truly feels like a standalone idea for a story: one that simply happens to feature a mutated, superpowered individual.

The Hulk features five main characters, each with a unique motive and a different relationship to Bruce Banner, a young scientist who becomes the film’s titular hero/monster. The most unequivocal villain is Glenn Talbot (Josh Luas). His lack of complexity, however, is well juxtaposed with his ultimate pettiness as an adversary. He’s a Draco Malfoy-esque bully, and is ultimately subject to a comic-book-homage gag (director Ang Lee occasionally framed the scenes to resemble comic book panels). Yet another adversary is General Thunderbolt Ross (Sam Elliot), a character who can be heartless, but because he acts in the roles of soldier and protective father he comes across less as evil than as set his cold-ways, adding a level of mystery and tension whenever he speaks.

The third adversary, meanwhile, is its most compelling and confusing. Nick Nolte stars as a janitor whose behaviour at times mirrors the cold protectiveness of the General, at times is purely sinsiters, at times is radical and at times is purely affectionate. In so far as The Hulk is Frankenstein, Nolte is Victor. His character’s psychology is too allover the place ever to be fully coherent, but in the context of the film it works: perhaps because we are implicitly seeing him through the monster (Hulk)’s eyes, and not through his own.

The main cast is completed by Betty Ross (Jennifer Connelly). She is introduced as Bruce Banner’s still-friends-ex-love-interest. In most superhero films, the story would no doubt follow Bruce Banner’s attempt to achieve self-actualization and win her back. The Hulk, however, avoids this predictable path, for a subtler relationship of affection. Betty and Banner empathize with and act on behalf of one another throughout the movie, despite a constant spectre that their relationship could be further damaged by Banner’s angry side.

Through these five characters The Hulk sets up a series of compelling emotional clashes that I found far preferable to the dearth of action scenes the film omitted. Where the film does use action, it does so to advance its dramatic message. We see The Hulk in action just long enough to see what he can do: enough to show why the General dehumanizes him, and enough to see why pain inevitably claws at his and Betty’s understanding relationship. The film’s action-emotion balance is also, again, at the heart of its themes. Frankenstein is a story of two misfit characters, doctor and monster, who despite being individually sympathetic figures end up pitted against one another. The monster’s story is made specifically tragic because he is largely a victim ,not of his actions, but of how his appearance leads him to be perceived: a problem that ultimately pushes him in a more violent direction. This is the story of The Hulk a hero who unequivocally does not want to be one, as it seems his superpowers can only lead to him being perceived as a supervillains.

Meanwhile, the anger is fear motif, factors into this Frankenstein story. The emergence of Hulk is a cruel cycle, in which a character terrified of parts of himself, is made to feel vulnerable to the world, and as such, lets the angry part of his self come out and deeper cement his fear. This motif does come at some costs. When we first see Banner get angry it feels awkwardly sudden (up to this point he is a sad-eyed mild mannered character, who is never described as angry, only “emotionally removed”). This is not to say, the motif was not overall effective, however, the script and or direction should probably have been tinkered to either show Hulk’s anger earlier in the film, or to make it more clear that it’s a sudden consequence of his being mutated.

Thematically, in short, Lee’s Hulk in a good piece: it would translate well as a short story, stripped of all the (already limited) graphic action scenes it boasts. The film, however, is also strong visually, combing simple but colourful, Americana backdrops (in contrast to the generic urbanity of many superhero films), intentionally unrealistic animations of molecular biological reactions and of course the comic book panels (which, though sometimes an afterthought, do help nail home the film’s commitment to individual emphasizing character personality over chaotic action scenes). I realize some viewers and critics felt it lacked Hulk smashes, but I can’t help but feel such cravings got in the way of their appreciating the far stronger blow of Banner’s Frankensteinian pain.