Tag Archives: Before Midnight

Maudie (2017)

Sometimes our hobbies can unexpectedly turn into our professions. Maudie is the story of Maude Lewis (Sally Hawkins; Layer Cake), a woman with who, due to damage from childhood arthritis, is deemed unable to take care of herself and lives with her aunt, painting for own enjoyment. Tired of being bossed around by her aunt, she answers the ad of Everett Lewis (Ethan Hawke; Before Midnight), a local fish salesman, looking for a live-in maid to clean his tiny 1-room house. The film covers her path to becoming a famous artist whose art is sold all over the country.

Our introduction to Maude is almost repulsive. Because the character is based on a real person, her portrayal receives extra scrutiny. Is she getting the respect she deserves? Hawkins is committed to the performance, but, given the character’s serious physical ailment, the film’s approach is manipulative, capitalizing on her appearance for the audience’s sympathy. This is only exacerbated when she leaves her aunt to become a live-in maid for Hawke’s character. We’re supposed to root for her independence and view her aunt as a villain, but the director (Aisling Walsh) hasn’t yet provided a reason to dislike the aunt. Sure, she may be overprotective, but Maude leaving to live with a complete stranger who doesn’t even have a separate room or bed for her doesn’t seem like the right alternative. This exploitation of her condition makes the early section of the film unintentionally uncomfortable.

Hawkins does her best in the role, but it ends up being very reductive.

The romance between Maude and Everett begins in an equally concerning manner. It is immediately clear that the leads are going to become a couple, but their relationship begins as borderline abusive. Everett, as her employer, berates her constantly and belittles her by saying she is less valued than the farm animals. Hawke depicts him as gruff, intellectually limited, insecure about himself, and quick to anger because of it. Everett doesn’t view respect as necessary for his employee and is deliberately condescending. He is even physically abusive when Maude voices her opinions. Everett is hinted at having had a difficult childhood from being raised in an orphanage and some of his behavior may be typical for the time period, but it adds traces of Stockholm Syndrome to their courtship. It makes their eventual marriage seem like less of a true fit for Maude than her only option given her poor situation.

Maude’s eventual rise to success is heartwarming. She starts taking more control of her relationship with Everett and helping him manage his business until her recreational paintings get noticed by her husband’s clients. Her art soon earns more money than Everett’s fish and their roles swap with him taking on the housework so she can devote her time to painting. This is where his affections for her become more explicit and their relationship starts to look like a true partnership. Finally, the often-cloying direction becomes less bothersome. Hawkins portrays Maude with such an innocent spirit that her accidental success in spite of her modest goals is a welcome event. The real-life character is endearing, but Walsh’s coercive manipulation and the suspect inception of Maude’s relationship add an inadvertently problematic tone that lingers over all aspects of the film.

2/5 stars.

Maggie’s Plan (2016)

Filled with professional intellectuals and set in New York City, Maggie’s Plan initially comes off as a misplaced Woody Allen comedy but soon reveals itself to be a much kinder film than most of Allen’s body of work. Maggie (Greta Gerwig; Frances Ha) is a university faculty member intent on having a child, regardless of her current relationship status, until she enters an unexpected relationship with anthropology professor John (Ethan Hawke; Before Midnight). Unfortunately, John is married to Georgette (Julianne Moore; Still Alice), a needy and career focused fellow professor at a different school. As a result of their affair, John divorces Georgette and marries Maggie which leads to the child Maggie had been hoping for. After a few years of marriage, it becomes clear that Maggie and John are no longer working out, but instead of leaving like a sane person would do she creates the titular plan. Maggie notices that he still spends hours talking to his ex-wife and realizes that Georgette was indeed right for him. Together the two women create a scenario for Georgette and John to meet and hopefully rekindle their feelings for one another.

In a film with otherwise solid acting, Moore delivers one of the most hamstrung performances of her career. She has proven herself consistently reliable in a wide range of roles from an adult film star in Boogie Nights to a professor in Still Alice, but here she crashes and burns underneath a repulsive accent. Where is she supposed to be from…England? France? Germany? Is it just a speech impediment? Depending on the specific scene it could be any of those choices. Director Rebecca Miller (The Private Lives of Pippa Lee) was likely aiming to make Georgette appear more sophisticated but the gimmick is entirely unnecessary. Moore’s acting alone would have been convincing enough, but saddled with an accent that would make Tommy Wiseau jealous, her delivery detracts from an otherwise well-written character.

I have absolutely no idea where Georgette is supposed to be from.
I have absolutely no idea what accent Georgette is supposed to have.

Conversely, the character of Maggie is always enchanting. Her attempts at almost Machiavellian manipulation are softened by Gerwig’s performance as she imbues Maggie with a well-intentioned naivete. Maggie is not scheming to absolve herself of latent guilt about entering a relationship with a married man, but rather she’s genuinely trying to create what she perceives as the best outcome for him. Even as things go awry, she never blames anyone, never holds grudges, and instead compensates by taking charge of other people’s responsibilities. As she sacrifices her own desires to help others, it becomes clear that Maggie’s problem isn’t that she is too controlling, it’s that she cares too much about others.

Her empathy, even at her own expense, carries the film. The other characters are each selfish in their own way, but Maggie never has any personal goals beyond a strong relationship with her daughter and every scene with her toddler further exemplifies her affection for those around her. Just as a mother restructures her life for the betterment her child, Maggie adapts herself to take care of her loved ones. She doesn’t always have the most logical methods, but her heart is in the right place as she suffuses the film with her blissfully unaware charm.

4/5 stars.

Best Movies for Valentine’s Day

Well, it’s that time of year again, so here are some movies to watch with your significant other. Or by yourself. No shame in that. You can view this as “Best Valentine’s Day Movies” or more accurately “Best Romance Movies”, a genre that is too often overlooked because of the swaths of formulaic rom-coms you have to filter through to find the hidden gems. Fortunately, I’ve done that work for you.

In the Mood for Love

The overwhelming atmosphere of romantic melancholy of In the Mood for Love will envelop you to the point you never want to leave. While not a fast movie by any means or a film of action, it draws you in through the looks in the eyes of Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung. The restraint in the direction and acting make this film. Unlike other movies that rely on melodramatic professions of love in the rain to get a point across (guess what movie I’m talking about here), this movie uses a tension that suffuses every frame. The hues of red, the ornate textile patterns, and the sultry sound of Nat King Cole’s voice coalesce into something greater than any other romance I have ever seen. There is something in the air and the conflict between desire and duty, passion and propriety, are entrancing. Likely my favorite movie ever, romance or not.

[Available to stream on FilmStruck]

The Before Series (Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, and Before Midnight)

The Before series captures so many aspects of romance. The first movie, Before Sunrise, is about the initial spark of love. The infatuation that comes with connecting with someone on a level you didn’t think was possible. Before Sunset, picks up 9 years later with the characters reuniting. This movie still contains the connection of Sunrise, but adds in the regret that comes with age. What if things had worked out? Where would they be now? Do they still have a chance together after all these years? Finally, Before Midnight takes place another 9 years later. Unlike almost any other film franchise, the Before series has improved with each iteration. Each new movie retains the allure of the previous while adding new complexities and Before Midnight takes this to a new level. It is the funniest, best written chapter but also expands into new territory as it explores the difficulties of long term relationships. Your own personal ranking of the films may vary, but you’ll never regret spending time with Jesse and Celine. Here’s to another film 9 years after Before Midnight. I don’t know how they could improve on it, but that’s also what I said after Before Sunset.

[Available to stream on Amazon]

3-Iron

Director Kim Ki-Duk is well known for the extreme violence of his films. 3-Iron represents a departure from that trend. The story follows a young man who breaks into people’s houses while they are out of town that ends up rescuing an abused housewife. She becomes his partner in (mostly harmless) crime. The two move between empty houses each night, never taking anything and instead doing household repairs or chores in exchange for their uninvited stay. They never speak a word and their relationship slowly develops through the actions they take to look out for each other. The movie has an otherworldly, almost ghostly quality to it and indeed the latter half of the film shifts into the ethereal. If you follow the film to where Kim wants it to go, you will be rewarded with a haunting, understated romance.

[Available to stream on Amazon]

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

Director Michel Gondry and screenwriter Charlie Kaufman were at the height of their careers with Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. The film is about a couple that decides to have their memory of each other erased after a messy end to their relationship. Gondry’s arts-and-crafts practical effects make the transitions between the real and surreal found in Kaufman’s writing seamless and allow the characters to explore their true desires. Eternal Sunshine succeeds based on its ability to convey the emptiness that can be left by someone. Erasing their memory may have removed the dissolution of their relationship but it couldn’t fill the hole left by each other’s absence. The film shows the lengths people will go to preserve their memories of love, even if they come with memories of heartbreak.

[Available to stream on Amazon]

Notting Hill

Yes, it’s a Hugh Grant film, but you know what? It’s the best Hugh Grant film. Grant is at his most likable here as the average guy owner of a used travel book shop who mistakenly bumps into and starts a relationship with a world famous actress (Julia Roberts). Is it a little cheesy? Yes, but the schmaltz is sincere and always endearing. The interactions between Grant and Roberts are sweet and the problems they face, despite the crazy scenario, are eminently relatable. Notting Hill is a statement that, no matter their station in life or related complications, all relationships are just a connection between two people, in this case, “just a boy” and “just a girl”.

[Available to stream on Amazon]

About Time

Also written by Richard Curtis and this time directed by him too, About Time features many of the standard Curtis tropes, but with a slight sci-fi twist. Domnhall Gleeson plays the Hugh Grant character, but is able to put his own goofy charm into the role. At the age of 21, Tim (Gleeson) learns that the male members of his family can travel in time. His initial actions are what you would expect of a man his age. He goes back in time again and again to undo the mistakes he makes as he dates Mary (Rachel McAdams). But soon About Time transforms into something more. It shifts its focus from romance to family. There is a reason the movie isn’t called About Love. Curtis expands his scope to examine the value of familial bonds, the consequences of actions, and the joys overlooked in everyday life. If you are a stickler for plot holes, you will hate this movie. About Time sets up and then proceeds to ignore every one of its rules about time travel. I can’t fault Curtis for this though. He understands that sci-fi was never really about aliens or space ships, it was about using a premise to explore emotions not encountered in regular life. If you can look past the plot holes and instead look to the emotions experienced by the characters, you’ll find a deep, surprisingly life-affirming adventure.

[Available to stream on Amazon]

Chungking Express

Chungking Express, also by In the Mood for Love director Wong Kar-Wai, approaches love from a different perspective. Composed of 2 stories of Hong Kong cops coming off of breakups, the film is looser and more improvisational. Unlike the characters of In the Mood for Love, these people are in their early twenties and the film’s style reflects their point in life. Their future is uncertain, but hopeful. Wong’s signature longing is still present here, but more optimistic and sprinkled with affectionate humor. The characters may not know what is in store for them, but they’ll keep trying for love regardless.

[Available to stream on FilmStruck]

Brooklyn

The newest entry on this list, Brooklyn, is a period romance about finding a sense of belonging through a relationship. Eilis (Saoirse Ronan), an Irish immigrant, moves to the US only to find herself horribly homesick until she meets Tony (Emory Cohen), a young Italian-American. The two have instant chemistry and their magnetic performances make you root for the characters as their relationship faces struggles. John Crowley directs his actors to gentle, intimate interactions. In particular, Eilis’s articulate educated speech contrasts with Tony’s stumbling dialogue for adorably awkward moments. Their soft-spoken demeanor combined with the polite manners of the time make for an incredibly charming courtship.

[Available to stream on HBO Go and Amazon]

Top 10 Films of 2013

[BS Note: This list was originally written in early 2014]

With the Golden Globes behind us and the Oscars coming up this weekend, it is a great time to celebrate some of the year’s best films. 2013 was a great year for film-making it was difficult to bring this list down to ten entries, but these are the films that resonated.

10. In a World…

Lake Bell (No Strings Attached) makes her feature writing and directing debut with In a World…, a comedy about a vocal coach, Carol (Bell), failing to find a place in the male dominated voice-over industry. Bell smartly mixes humor with the realities of attempting to break the glass ceiling, elevating the film from lighthearted comedy to sharp societal commentary.

9. Gravity

Gravity, like other films on this list, is about survival. Sandra Bullock (The Blind Side) plays a medical engineer on her first trip to space when a catastrophe occurs. Enough cannot be said about the way this film looks. The computer generated visual effects are stunning and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki’s (The Tree of Life) long takes with precise direction from Alfonso Cuarón (Children of Men) make the Gravity a gripping thrill ride in space.

8. 12 Years a Slave

It would be easy to look at the story of 12 Years a Slave and think that it is Oscar bait. A film based on a true story about a free man kidnapped from the North and sold into slavery in the South? The Academy should love that. But the movie is directed by Steve McQueen (Hunger, Shame) and he has no interest in the sentimental. The films depicts the horrific realities of life as a slave. What is most frightening is how common these acts were. Each brutality is accepted as a part of the natural order. The film’s traumatic imagery ensures that this period of US history and the film itself will not be forgotten.

7. Her

Set in a slightly futuristic Los Angeles, Her follows Joaquin Phoenix (The Master) playing Theodore Twombly, a man who writes heartfelt letters on behalf of strangers unable to do so. He is separated and lonely until he falls in love with an artificial intelligence named Samantha played by Scarlett Johansson (The Avengers). Director Spike Jonze (Adaptation) uses Samantha’s lack of a body to emphasize the emotional connection craved by Theodore. He lives in a crowded city but feels isolated from the people around him. The film shows each phase of their relationship and how Theodore changes as it progresses. Her succeeds by making a romance with a disembodied voice feel remarkably human.

6. The Hunt

The Hunt is probably the most aggravating film of the year. In a good way. Mads Mikkelsen (Casino Royale) plays a kind, well-liked preschool teacher falsely accused of a terrible crime. The film follows him as he is ostracized out of every part of his small town. Because of the nature of the accusation his former friends and colleagues immediately abandon him. Innocent until proven guilty? Not for this crime. His descent continues as the film shows just how easily even the strongest relationships can shatter when someone cries wolf.

5. The Place Beyond the Pines

The Place Beyond the Pines is really a triptych: three stories linked by one key event. The first story is about a stunt motorcyclist turned bank robber played by Ryan Gosling (Drive). The second is about the cop that tries to catch him played by Bradley Cooper (Silver Linings Playbook) and the third is about the sons of the two. Directed by Derek Cianfrance (Blue Valentine), the film is at its best during small moments. The character interactions have a raw intensity that make them feel honest and real. The film shows that each action has its consequences and how each generation deals with the aftermath of the pervious.

4. The Past

The Past is a companion piece to Asghar Farhadi’s previous Oscar-winning film A Separation. Both films are about a divorce, but The Past is about characters dealing with the ramifications of their previous actions. It is a film that presents a relatively simple situation, a long separated couple finally filing the paperwork for divorce so the woman can marry her new boyfriend, and peels back layer after layer revealing the complicated, morally ambiguous chaos underneath. Farhadi manages to do this without creating “good” or “bad” characters. Everyone acts in a realistic, understandable way but also commit tragic mistakes that make the situation even thornier and his even-handed direction causes your sympathies to shift with each new revelation.

3. All is Lost

All is Lost is a demonstration of how great acting can carry a film. Robert Redford (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, All the President’s Men) plays a nameless man on a solo voyage through the Indian Ocean whose boat springs a leak. His performance, under the direction of J.C. Chandor (Margin Call), expresses feeling through subtle actions. A grimace or sigh conveys the struggles of the protagonist more than most voiceovers in other films. Despite containing no dialogue and only a few spoken words, it commands attention. The continued determination and resourcefulness of an elderly, but experienced sailor in the face of possible death make the film a tense and affecting adventure.

2. Inside Llewyn Davis

With Inside Llewyn Davis, the Coen brothers (No Country for Old Men, True Grit) have made yet another excellent film containing their signature dark humor and sardonic wit. Starring Oscar Isaac (Drive), the film has something unusual for the Coens: sincerity. The film is about a folk singer, Llewyn Davis, who wanders from gig to gig trying to find a record deal. He is mean to most of his friends and dismissive of other singers as sell-outs, but his quest for artistic purity gives the film an earnestness that elevates it above most of the Coen brothers’ works. Despite him being more or less detestable, the film creates empathy for the character because he is unwilling to compromise his beliefs even if that means he is never successful.

1. Before Midnight

The experience of watching Before Midnight is like reconnecting with two friends you have known for decades. Friends that will squabble, joke, and ramble about anything and everything. But that’s the best part: listening to them talk. Set 9 years after Before Sunset and 18 years after Before Sunrise, the Before series continues its tradition of charmingly garrulous dialogue, yet it surpasses its—already excellent—predecessors by confronting the struggles of long term relationships. The warmth of a perfect connection from the previous films is still present but so are the cracks of reality that affect even the best relationships. This allows the film to continue to feel new and fresh while retaining the affection built up in earlier installments. The series, like love at its best, has grown stronger over time. Before Sunrise is great, Before Sunset is even better, and Before Midnight is incredible. It is, in my opinion, the best example of a sequel done right and easily the best film of the year.

 

Honorable Mentions: Enough Said, Nebraska, Captain Phillips, The Wolf of Wall Street.