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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Lady Bird (2017)

Written and directed by: Greta Gerwig

In my time watching film with a more critical eye, I’ve slowly developed the habit of Lady_Bird_posterobserving the relationship between film’s and their trailers. Many audiences will go into Lady Bird knowing it is highly acclaimed, and that its protagonist is a bad-girl of sorts who celebrates her 18th birthday by demanding “camel lights, a scratcher, and a playgirl” at her local convenience store. Lady Bird, however is not a simple comedy that entertains audiences through the hair-brained antics of its wild-child protagonist. Instead, the film is ambitious in its realism. Lady Bird (Saoirse Ronan) is charismatic and daring, perhaps a teenage (and human) version of Kevin Henkes’ children’s book character Lily, but she is not a rebel without a cause either.

            Lady Bird’s can almost be split into two halves to it. Each half features a best friend (Beanie Feldstein and Odeya Rush) and a boyfriend (Lucas Hedges and Timothée Chalomet). Rather than having a plot and a subplot or two, the film simply has a main plot coupled with a number of subplots that are unafraid to peter out. For example, we meet Lady Bird’s older brother, Miguel (Jordan Rodrigues). We see some of his quirks and struggles, and are exposed to the underlying tensions in his and Lady Bird’s sibling- relationship, yet he never fully crystallizes into a main character. While certainly not understated, Lady Bird’s plot structure draws on the pacing and emotional weight of everyday drama. In doing so it manages to be emotionally engaging in a way that feels somewhat novel for Hollywood.

            The success of Lady Bird’s realism perhaps can be tied to the screenwriter’s trust in our ability to take its character’s struggles seriously, even as the piece’s stakes are lowered. For instance, we know that Lady Bird struggles with math. The film clarifies that she is not at risk of failing, but rather in B- territory. This revelation does not take away from Lady Bird’s frustrations, it simply colors them. More importantly, the film’s main plot relies on an antagonistic relationship between Lady Bird and her strict, financially-anxious mother (Laurie Metcalf). Lady Bird, however, doesn’t do anything dramatic to get revenge on or sever her relationship with her mother: rather, she explicitly says on multiple occasions that she understands her mother’s thinking, and knows her mother loves her. This subtlety allows a broad range of viewers to identify with Lady Bird, and contrary to what one might assume, it does not make her story feel any less dramatic. Many of us live “boring” lives that inside our own heads are nonetheless compelling dramas. Lady Bird’s success comes from its committed attempt to bring that kind of drama to the big screen.

            Lady Bird has broken Toy Story 2’s record for number of critics’ reviews its received on Rotten Tomatoes without garnering a single negative submission. While it may not be a singularly great movie, it is notable for the lines it sits on: it straddles the fence between realistic and whimsical, between dramatic and understated. Whether its Kyle Scheivle’s performative idealism, Sister Sarah Joan’s (Lois Smith) piousness-with-a-sense-of humour, or Julianne Steffan’s nickname, chances are you will at very least find a character or two compelling in Lady Bird