Sunday, June 30, 2013

Double Take: Before Midnight (2013) and Monsters University (2013)

Film criticism is, at its core, subjective. Different films affect each of us in different ways, based on our experiences and our emotional state at the time. That's why the reviews that critics - both professional and, like myself, amateur - are helpful, but can't be taken as the final word. There are films that the critical community has been nuts about, but I've never loved as much as they have: I'm in the vast minority that doesn't think The Social Network is a bona-fide cinematic masterpiece, for example. And there have been films that the critical community has reviled that I actually rather like (slut-shaming aside, I rather enjoyed What's Your Number?, namely thanks to Anna Faris and her chemistry with Chris Evans).

All of this is to say that reviews are opinions. None of this is anything new, of course, and it doesn't really need to be said; it should be obvious. But I've spent this much space talking about it because two films I've seen recently, Monsters University and Before Midnight, impacted me in ways that were deeply personal. Part of this is because both are parts of franchises that I have a particular fondness for: MU being a prequel to 2001's Monsters, Inc. (and also being a Pixar film), Midnight being the third entry in the Before series that is, without a doubt, one of the most stirring and heartbreaking franchises ever. But each one of them hit upon some memories in ways that I was not expecting.

Monsters University

College was not an easy time for me. Not that I think it's necessarily easy for anyone (if anyone calls it the easiest years of their lives, they're likely lying), but it was an emotionally turbulent time for me. A part of that was that I was attending a high-stress school: the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, a school that carries a lot of weight in its reputation. I came from a poor school system in a small rural town, and while there was an impressive amount of diversity on campus, it didn't take long to realize that my socioeconomic background put me in a minority among the other undergraduates. Early in MU, when young Mike Wazowski (voiced by Billy Crystal), fresh-faced and full of excitement to be attending his dream school, is told that he "doesn't belong here," I immediately recognized the sting of those words.

In general, MU doesn't live up to the rich imagination that Monsters, Inc. showed 12 years ago. The plot involves how Mike and Sully (voiced by John Goodman) became friends, and, in the spirit of all college movies, there's a jocks vs. nerds competition, a crusty dean (voiced with menace by Helen Mirren), and the usual collection of odd monsters. However, unlike it's predecessor, the film doesn't present these old motifs in any new way; even the monsters themselves are less imaginative than to be expected from Pixar at this point. There's still humor aplenty (Charlie Day gets a few brilliant non-sequitars in as loosey-goosey Art), but much of the film settles for being merely charming.

At this point, though, we might have to expect that the winning streak Pixar began with Monsters, Inc. and (in my book, at least) ran through Toy Story 3 - with the slight "misstep" of Cars, a film that's really sort-of underrated - has come to an end, and the company is now content to coast on its old glories rather than present truly innovative animation. But with expectations lowered, the film is a charming trip down memory lane. For me, in particular, it tapped into a nostalgia I was not expecting to revisit. Well done, Pixar.

Before Midnight (*mild spoilers ahead*)

The A.V. Club's Scott MacDonald recently asked if Before Midnight, the third film to follow the romance of chatterboxes Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy), skipped the most important part of a relationship: how is it that these two, 18 years after they first met, could still have so many new anecdotes to share with each other? And how could they not want to cherish silence when they get the opportunity?  My response is that every relationship is different: it makes sense that Jesse and Celine would still be so talkative, because that's been presented as their personalities (other obvious responses: this is only a part of one day in their relationship, and the age-old "it's a movie, for chrissake").

But this argument doesn't deflate the main purpose of the film: we've twice before spent an extended period of time with these two, when they were first meeting in their twenties (1995's Before Sunrise) and their reconnection in their thirties (2004's Before Sunset), but now, in their forties, we're seeing life take its toll on them. Jesse is struggling with the fact that he is not consistently present in the life of his son from his previous marriage, who still lives in the United States. Celine, meanwhile, gets an offer for her dream job, though she's unsure if she wants to take it. These tensions build until they reach a breaking point, turning the film's second half into a brutal, bruising argument between the two. They clear the air, but at what cost?

As I said above, every relationship is different. But what makes the Before films so magical is that, if you look closely, you can see yourself in them. I was first introduced to the films at the age of 15, when I rented Before Sunrise from a Movie Gallery in town (there's a dated reference for you). I was instantly enthralled; it perfectly tapped into the boundless, hopelessly optimistic romanticism that I was deeply entrenched in at that age. To me, there was nothing more romantic than meeting a stranger, talking endlessly, and falling in love. Jesse and Celine became my benchmark for what true love looks like. Before Sunset, though more melancholic, gave me the same sense: true love lasts, even if you've been separated for years. If you truly love that person, then the chemistry will always be there, ready to be re-invigorated. And nothing's more romantic than conversation.

Before Midnight comes to me now at the age of 23. I have no illusions that that makes me some sort of wise sage on life and relationships; I still have plenty of experience left ahead of me. And I'm certainly not the same age as Jesse and Celine in this film. But what's different between my 16-year-old self and my 23-year-old self is that I've been in serious relationships (I had been in relationships by 16, but those were of the high-school, "I have a crush" variety; I'm sure you all know what I'm talking about). In this film, I recognized the level of comfort that Jesse and Celine have reached with each other. They're no longer discovering (or re-discovering) each other the way they had in the earlier films. And when they began to fight...oh man, I've had that fight. Not that exact fight, mind you, in terms of content, but the knock-down, drag-out, clear-the-air, say-regrettable-things fight that you really can't go back from. It was harrowing on film (director Richard Linklater did a phenomenal job in staging it), but what really made it a knock-out was that recognition, and all the ugly and uncomfortable memories and emotions it brought up (a true sign of how effective it was: in discussing this very sequence last night, the mere thought of it caused those old feelings to resurface just as strongly). Worse still, here I was, watching this couple that was the paragon of True Love, fighting, arguing, and generally being nasty to each other. It would've been shattering to my younger self, but even now, given the experiences I've had, it was still heartbreaking to see these two like this.

There's no indication that this is the last film in the series; just as with the previous two, it could go on, but if this were the last time we dropped in on these two, it would make a plenty compelling and outstanding collection of films. Hawke and Delpy's dynamite performances (especially Delpy's, which, in a just world, would score her an Oscar) have carried this franchise into the ranks of one of cinema's best; I, for one, wouldn't mind seeing them again. As an ending, though, this will more than suffice.

Monsters University: B+
Before Midnight: A+

P.S. I realize I wrote a ton about Midnight and not as much about MU; needless to say the latter inspired much more in me than the former. Not to mention a lot of my college experiences that informed my feelings toward MU were directly related to the relationship experiences that informed my Midnight thoughts. And so it goes.

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