Boyhood

July 28, 2014 at 4:32 pm | Posted in 2014 | 1 Comment
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I love many things in movies: being able to laugh, simple escapism, cool CGI, great acting, a surprising plot, stunning visuals, a pitch black story… Yet, what I love most is a film that can tell me the truth.  Richard Linklater (“Dazed and Confused,” “School of Rock”) has evolved into a director who has become masterful at exploring truth with stunning nuance.  In his brilliant series “Before Sunrise,” “Before Sunset,” and “Before Midnight,” he explores the growth and changes in a couple by revisiting them every 9 years.  Should this series continue over the course of these actors lives, it may yet become the single most important piece of art in film.  Here, he does something equally as profound. Filmed over the course of 12 years with the same 4 core actors (Patricia Arquette, Ethan Hawke, Ellar Coltrane and Linklater’s own daughter, Lorelei), “Boyhood” is the story of growing up in America today. If, in a hundred years, people want to understand what it was like to grow up right now, in this moment, this movie captures it perfectly. We follow Mason (Coltrane) from age 6 to 18 as his family, friends and communities shift and change around him. Filmed throughout Texas, the movie is full of characters and situations, large and small, that all seem completely real. The families, communities, values, how they talked and what they did for fun all rung true to me. Over the course of the film, we watch a boy evolve into a young man, both as an actor and as a character. Coltrane’s work during the first part of the film was awkward and stilted (at times I could see him glance off screen at the cue cards) but, somewhere around age 12 or 13, he suddenly grew into the character.  By the end of the movie, he was giving a heartfelt and nuanced performance. In addition, the relationships grew as the film went on. There was a point near the end, where he and Hawke are talking, when I was really struck by the fact that these two guys genuinely care about each other. What was so clearly acting at the beginning had evolved into a genuine, caring relationship. Near the beginning of the movie, we hear a college professor talking about Pavlov and classical conditioning. Near the end, Mason tells his girlfriend (in a funny and insightful moment) that we have all been conditioned to respond to the sound of our inboxes. If there is a theme to this film, it seems to me that that is it: how does life condition us to become the people we are? What are all the forces, big and small, that shape boys into men? Here, we get to see the long, very ordinary path, that creates the young man who Mason becomes. In those final moments, he is fully realized as a character.  I feel like I know him and understand why he is this person. This is a story with no major drama.  There are no explosions.  There is no real peril.  No story arc beyond that of life lived. Yet, I was touched almost to tears in the final few scenes because it felt like a family, and this boy, had shared their lives with me.  What more could I ask for from a film than that?

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Life Itself

July 13, 2014 at 8:20 pm | Posted in 2014 | 1 Comment
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At some point, while watching this film, it suddenly dawned on me how it could possibly have earned a near perfect 96% on Rotten Tomatoes; in the end, how could it not?  All of these critics new Roger Ebert, some for many years.  How can you not be moved watching a man you knew die?  In the beginning, I had thought this would be a film about Ebert the critic.  I wanted that film. I have read his reviews more than any other person’s.  I watched his show for years.  I always trusted him because I trusted that I knew his writing well enough that, whether he loved or hated a film, I could tell from his reviews if I would agree with him or not.  And, often, I felt like he spoke exactly my language.  Or at least the language I wanted to speak.  He was not a cynical critic, though he could be an indignant one.  He judged based on who a film was for and not based on some universal sense of “good.”  I am not so generous, though I wish I could be.  However, this is not really a film about that man, though we spend time discussing his career and there are some truly wonderful and funny moments, particularly in the scenes of his relationship with Gene Siskel.  As I said, in the beginning, I had thought this would be a film about Ebert the critic.  In the end, it was a film about Ebert the man.  Both he and his wife, Chaz, are honest and vulnerable to a degree that is disarming.  Much has been said of his reputation but it is hard not to love the man you see on that screen.  He, his family and friends, face the end of his life with such dignity and bravery that it would not be possible to be unmoved.  Director Steve James (best known for the stunning “Hoop Dreams”) knows to give space and let people speak for themselves.  At the beginning of this film, Ebert is shown saying, “the movies are like a machine that generates empathy.  It let’s you understand a little bit more about different hopes, aspirations, dreams and fears.  It helps us to identify with the people who are sharing this journey with us.”  Like great narrative films, this documentary does that in a simple but profound way.  To have a heart at all would be to leave this film feeling a deeper connection to this man, indeed, to all people and to life itself.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

July 13, 2014 at 7:43 pm | Posted in 2014 | 1 Comment
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When it came out, I referred to “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” (2011) as a moment in cinematic history. It wasn’t that I particularly liked very much of what the film had to offer but I was so completely drawn in by the magic of Caesar. This time, I wasn’t so stunned by the effects but, fortunately, I didn’t need to be because the story as a whole was much stronger. Though the live action humans remained the weakest part of the film, the apes dominated most of the movie and were so beautifully portrayed that the film had real depth. I am quite sure the time is coming when Andy Serkis (Gollum in “Lord of the Rings”) will receive an Oscar nomination for his work. CGI is detailed enough now that it can capture the underlying actor’s emotions and he was able to create a fully realized character in Caesar, full of fear, hope, doubt, vulnerability, pain, love and joy. His relationships with his family, his tribe and the humans were all complex, multi-layered and believable. The central conflict of the story was also a complex one, mostly without good guys and bad guys but simply scared and worried people/apes with competing and conflicting interests. A couple of characters were stock villains (one ape & one human) but you can forgiven them that for needing to move the tension along. Director Matt Reeves, who until now has been known almost exclusively for the “Felicity” TV series, shows an eye for framing the scene, taking some of them to the point of too much without ever quite passing that line. The film remains a fun, summer action film while also delving into deeper emotions in a way few such films ever do. As such, I think it’s one of the best blockbusters I’ve seen in a while.

Snowpiercer

July 6, 2014 at 5:59 pm | Posted in 2014 | Leave a comment
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Set some 18 years into the future, Snowpiercer imagines a world frozen over and dead after an attempt to reduce global warming goes awry. Nobody is left alive except for a thousand humans living on a giant train that is continually circumnavigating the world. An odd premise, to be sure, but one worth exploring, particularly when presented by Korean filmmaker Bong Joon-ho. Bong gave us his take on horror/monster movies with his brilliantly odd, “The Host” followed by the creepy and powerful “Mother.” This is his first film in 4 years and his first English language film but he’s lost none of his edgy weirdness. Where this film works, it does so beautifully, and where it fails, which is also does, it only does when Bong tries to overreach. Visually, the film is stunning, with scenes of snow-covered wastelands rushing past and with each car on the train having it’s own richly layered aesthetic. Like “The Host,” this film has an odd sense of humor some may find unsettling but that I found both biting and absurdist, as in the inexplicable presence of a sushi bar in the middle of one car. The best characters here were all played by women, including Ko Ah-sung (the young protagonist in “The Host”) as a clairvoyant drug addict, Alison Pill (“Scott Pilgrim Vs the World,” “Milk,” and the tv series “The Newsroom”) as an amazingly demented school teacher, and the ever brilliant Tilda Swinton (I don’t need to list her films, do I?). Swinton steals every scene she is in and the film is the most fun when she’s on screen. Beyond just the prosthetics she uses to mask her face, she transforms her body language and her voice to sound something like an off-her-rocker Margaret Thatcher. The men in the cast cannot hold a candle to these women and subsequently struggled to hold my interest. They are an adept enough crew: Chris Evans, Jamie Bell, Ed Harris and John Hurt  (whose character’s name is Gilliam, which I am sure is a homage to Terry Gilliam, whose movies are so heavily influential to this one). Yet, for all of that skill, there is little they can do with characters so grounded in the mundane. Where the film flounders a bit is in trying to create an emotional weight that feels out-of-tone with the absurdity of the earlier half. Toward the end, Evans’s character has a monologue about the horrors he has seen/done that, I think, is supposed to be disturbing but felt phony. When the film embraced it’s ridiculousness bravely, it soared both as a metaphor and as a visual feast, right through to it’s baffling ending. When it tried to get contemplative and weighty, it went off the rails. Fortunately, I found more of the former than the latter in this innovative story. Let’s hope more filmmakers are willing to push the blockbuster genres into new territory.

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