Saturday, August 16, 2014

Boyhood


In the summer of 2002, Richard Linklater began one of the most ambitious movies in film history. In his home town of Houston, Texas, Linklater started shooting an unnamed movie starring Ethan Hawke, Patricia Arquette, his own young daughter Lorelei Linklater, and then 7-year-old Ellar Coltrane. Each year for the next 12 years he got the cast and crew back together for a handful of shooting days to tell the story of the boyhood of Coltrane's character Mason, from the ages of 6 to 18. And that's what we get, following Mason from 1st grade into his first days as a college freshman. I don't know if it's the best movie of Linklater's underappreciated career, but it seems from the media attention like it will become his signature piece. Boyhood is being hailed by most as a masterpiece, one of the great movies of the decade or of all time, and currently has an absurd 99% approval rating on the critical aggregate site RottenTomatoes.com.

We first see Mason laying in the grass outside his elementary school looking up at the beautiful blue sky. We follow him as his mom Olivia (Arquette) picks him up and they drive home, while mom complains that his teacher told him Mason hadn't been turning in his homework and had broken the pencil sharpener. Mason counters that the teacher never asked for the homework, so he didn't know to turn it in. And he was just trying to sharpen rocks to add to his arrowhead collection, if it could sharpen pencils, why not rocks? We later see Mason and his sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater) fight in the back seat, fight at the table, and even see Sam tell her dad Mason Sr. (Hawke) that she was sorry their weekend had to be ruined because Mason Jr. had to be there. As the kids grow up they move around a lot, mom goes through a couple of marriages, eventually Sam gets to an age where she'd rather go to a party than go camping with dad and brother. This particularly leads to some hilariously awkward exchanges with then 15-year-old Sam about sex, and 12-year-old Mason about dad's girlfriends. But dad and Mason also bond over s'mores, and Star Wars, swimming and music as well.

The movie is full of smaller moments like this. In fact, it's almost only made up of moments like this. During its 164 minute epic length run time, Linklater gives us a series of life moments. They're not all big speeches or scary incidents. Sure, there are talks about the nature of life and thoughts on the magic all around us in our world, as well as fights and drunken step fathers and all that, but nothing is played to the back of the room. It's all very intimate and insular to Mason's life. After all, life isn't made up of the big moments, but of a series of small moments with occasional spikes in emotion. As I was watching, like Olivia, I expected more, I expected better, I expected bigger. It wasn't until the end credits rolled that I really understood what it was I'd just watched, which was a truly extraordinary movie. I realized how many times Linklater and his cast, especially his two still growing stars, could've stepped wrong and didn't. Could've hit false notes and didn't. Could've gone for the big Oscar moments, but didn't. Linklater doesn't even give us milestone markers like "1 year later" or "age 14" or whatever, and the movie is better off for it. We realize we're in different times through changed hair cuts or subtle signs of growth (Samantha's braces at one point), and it was startlingly fascinating to see both the kids and adults grow older over the course of the movie.

The acting all around is simply superb. Ethan Hawke, working with Linklater on their 8th collaboration, is terrific as the semi-flaky dad who grows from having his kids put Obama signs in peoples yards to marrying a woman whose family give Mason a Bible with his name on it and a shotgun for his 15th birthday. Linklater doesn't make fun of these conservative folks either. When the old man brings out a shotgun, my theater certainly had a huge laugh, but we then see the old man (and Hawke) teaching the kids how to be safe, and to shoot, something which both kids obviously have fun doing. Patricia Arquette can be a tremendous actress when given the right material (Scorsese's Bringing Out the Dead immediately comes to mind), and here she has the best role she's ever had, bringing warmth, love, intelligence, emotion, and even believably having truly shitty taste in husbands, except for the one she had kids with. And although star Ellar Coltrane is getting the most headlines, and he's terrific, he has a natural ease onscreen and wonderful chemistry with each and every one of his co-stars. I can't let this review go by without mentioning how terrific I thought Lorelei Linklater was as Samantha. From a child singing Britney Spears songs to annoy her brother, to a young adult complaining that she won't be eating lunch because the peach schnapps flowed a little too easily last night. It's great, un-showy acting from everyone.

A central idea like this isn't as unique as you might think. The famous British Up documentary series has followed a group of 14 people every 7 years starting in 1964's 7 Up, with 56 Up being released in 2012. Legendary French filmmaker Francois Truffaut did a series of 5 films based on the character Antoine Doinel, from 1959's 400 Blows to 1979's Love on the Run, each time played by actor Jean-Pierre Leaud. And there's also Satyajit Ray's famous Apu Trilogy, though that followed a characters growth played by different actors in each movie. There's even Linklater's own Before Trilogy, with Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy as young intellectuals falling in love and us following them on just a few brief times over 1995's Before Sunrise, 2004's Before Sunset, and 2013's Before Midnight. But we've never seen a movie like Boyhood where the aging and growing up over 12 years is all done right before our eyes in a single movie with the same actors. Because of labor restrictions, you can't sign a contract for more than 7 years, so there were no contracts in this movie. Ellar Coltrane or his parents could've just decided they didn't want to participate anymore and quit. Richard Linklater has said this was simply a risk he had to take to do the movie he wanted. Lorelei Linklater has said she lost interest in the middle years of filming and only continued because her dad was the director, before regaining her enthusiasm over the final years. Richard Linklater even said he had talks with Ethan Hawke that if he died during the 12 years, Hawke would've taken over as director and finished the project.
I've been saying for years that Richard Linklater is one of the great American filmmakers working right now. From his meandering first film Slacker, which was a seismic shift in American independent cinema, often pointed to as the leader of the 90's indie movement, to his follow up Dazed and Confused to Hollywood movies like School of Rock or experimental movies like Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly. And he's always had a way with actors. Jack Black should have an Oscar on his shelf for the work he did in 2011's Bernie, which also was one of the shifts in Matthew McConaughey's career towards acting respectability. Linklater has now made what will likely mark his career as THE Linklater movie. Although I'm probably more partial to the Before movies and Dazed and Confused, Boyhood is certainly a master at work again and I'll be extraordinarily surprised if it's not one of the 2 or 3 best movies of 2014.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Orange is the New Black

Orange is the New Black, coupled with the tremendous House of Cards, gives Netflix now two masterpiece shows to stake its claim as a powerhouse studio in the making. I called House of Cards one of the best TV shows around a few months ago, and I may like Orange even better. It is, by my account, flawless. Sure, maybe I'd cut 15-20 seconds off of Regina Spektor's great opening theme song, but that's just because I wanna get to the show already! While a show set in a women's prison may lead some to expect certain things, this show blazes its own trail. One way it does that is by being one of the funniest shows on TV. At least once in every episode, something made me have a big belly laugh. Creator/executive producer Jenji Kohan (Weeds) also lets us into the hearts and minds of these women so that we get plenty of drama as well.

Each episode has flashbacks to help us fill in the stories of most of our main characters. This approach is pulled off perfectly by the series' directors (which include many TV veteran filmmakers as well as names like Andrew McCarthy, Allison Anders, and Jodie Foster) so that each episode is semi-dedicated to one character. Main heroine Piper (Taylor Schilling, who deserves any and every award she's given) is a focus of each episode, but her friends, enemies, and others also get their day in the sun, with sometimes funny, often heart breaking stories of how they ended up in Litchfield Minimum Security Prison. My favorites include Russian hardass Red (Kate Mulgrew), who doesn't soften so much as we begin to see where she came from and forgive her harder edges, same goes for Miss Claudette (Michelle Hurst). There's the transgender prison beautician Sophia (played by real life transgender actress Laverne Cox), peppy driver Morello (Australian Yael Stone, whose Boston/Jersey accent is simply a marvel), annoying Bible thumping former meth head Pennsatucky (Taryn Manning, grossed up with rotting teeth), Alex Vause (That 70's Show's Laura Prepon) who is the reason Piper is in prison to begin with, and many, many more characters astutely written and impeccably acted, making for a cast that can contend among the best acting TV has ever seen. Special mention must also go to Pablo Schreiber's performance as George "Pornstache" Mendez, one of the most gleefully hateable characters I can remember. Not because he's a cardboard cutout villain, but because of the humanity Schreiber injects into this asshole that is a type of guy we've all known in our lives and didn't like.

The 13 episodes of both seasons absolutely flew by, and I eagerly await S3. The word I keep coming back to when thinking about Orange is the New Black is flawless. Even when I try to look for cracks in the armor, all I can come up with is that if you're weirded out by girl-on-girl stuff you probably won't like the show. But they don't hide that. Before we're even 30 seconds into the first episode there's a glimpse of Piper and Alex making out in the shower. So they let you know up front. And even though it's a "prison show", it's not OZ, or even Shawshank Redemption when it comes to violence or getting a prison wife or anything like that. This is minimum security, generally non-violent offenders type of prison. So it's a whole different feel than any other prison thing we've seen before. And I'll say again, a flawless show that's among the best I've ever seen.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Sunshine

A movie like Danny Boyle's Sunshine is incredibly frustrating. Its premise is a great one: the sun is dying and a crew of astronauts and scientists are sent to detonate a bomb inside the sun, thereby reigniting it and saving humanity from a slow decent into fatal cold. The problem is that Boyle is a crap filmmaker, and continually undermines the possibilities that this movie had. The crew is aboard the Icarus II, their mission the absolute final chance for Earth, as the previously sent mission aboard Icarus I went missing before being able to detonate its bomb. So many philosophical themes could've been explored. So many tense situations could've been had after our heroes catch the distress beacon still going from Icarus I. What happened? Why? How? These questions are answered, but very unsatisfactorily, much like the rest of the movie.

The Icarus II is populated by a truly stellar cast, with Cillian Murphy's physicist Capa being the closest thing to a main character. Murphy is better in the role than the movie deserves, and the rest of the cast follows suit. Rose Byrne as the pilot Cassie is gorgeous and heartfelt and just a wonderful bit of work from the underappreciated actress. Chris "Captain America" Evans is straight forward and no nonsense. Biologist Michelle Yeoh is also gorgeous and does especially good work when seeing her oxygen producing garden going up in flames. And the rest of the group is equal to these stars, with the ever reliable Cliff Curtis being his usual brilliant self.

The problem ultimately becomes that Boyle has no interest in exploring the psychology of the pressure a group would be under if they were the last hopes for the human race. Although the issue is brought up, it's quickly sideswiped by Boyle's hackitude in letting the issues play out. He's gotta put us, ultimately, on an Alien like picking off of the crew for various stupid reasons, none of which work dramatically. And Boyle has some nice visuals, not even all of them are stolen from Soderbergh's Solaris remake, which makes it again disappointing for the viewing experience.

**SPOILERS**
If you are upset by spoilers, stop reading now

What happens is that they change course to try and pick up the bomb from the Icarus I, because two bombs are better than one, right? So they find and dock with the abandoned ship, with intentions to grab some of their oxygen as well. But Boyle turns things into a ridiculous slasher movie mentality by having the Icarus I captain Pinbacker (the typically genius Mark Strong) sabotage things and inflict chaos on the dwindling crew members. Why? Who the fuck knows, since Capa finally succeeds at detonation and saves the day. The stakes were high already, it's the saving of the human race. Why do the last 30 minutes of the movie become a horror flick? It doesn't work in the context of the movie, it doesn't work within the context of itself (Boyle can't even get it right regardless of how badly it fits with everything around it), and it not only doesn't add anything to the movie, it knocks it so far down that the movie can't get back up.

Boyle also makes the mistake of not resolving his stupid bullshit before he tries to go for some poetic visuals and moments with Capa. So we can't get lost in the moment because we expect Pinbacker to magically pop out at any moment (his ability to be certain places has proven he has magical powers in addition to his superhuman strength, not sure where that came from). This is such an awful miscalculation on the part of a filmmaker that it wrecks what he had left of a movie and it never recovers. From the previous Boyle's I'd seen (Trainspotting, The Beach, and Slumdog Millionaire) it was obvious that any success his movies had came from the acting and was in spite of Boyle. But not even Slumdog was so ruined by Boyle's true hack-dom as a filmmaker.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

X-Men: Days of Future Past

Days of Future Past is/was one of the great storylines in all of X-Men comics history. Considering how The Dark Phoenix Saga was absolutely butchered by the third entry in the X-Men movie series, I was more than a little worried about how this would turn out, even with the return of Bryan Singer to the director’s chair after the hack Brett Ratner ruined X-Men 3, and the well-meaning but boring and uninspired direction by Matthew Vaughn in X-Men: First Class. But Singer proves again that he’s the right filmmaker for this franchise. Even the returning First Class cast all do superior work as actors under Singer’s direction, and the epic time travelling tale of Days of Future Past is handled remarkably well, especially considering the sheer number of characters Singer must juggle.

Naturally, there are many changes that were made in the transition to the big screen. Most people probably want to see Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine be the one to go back in time, though I would’ve loved if it was Ellen Page’s Kitty Pryde who went back, as it is in the comics. She’s fantastic and infinitely watchable in her small role in these movies. But as Wolverine is sent back in time to the 1970’s to help stop the development of mutant killing machines known as Sentinels, it makes sense that his healing ability aids in the torturous journey back. Singer wisely shoots many things like the paranoid 70’s thrillers from Sydney Pollack or Alan J. Pakula, but he’s never indebted to them or too reverent as he was to the original Superman movie when he made Superman Returns back in ’06 (the reason he didn’t direct X-Men 3). Many of the actors get their room to shine, especially Michael Fassbender as the young Magneto. But as a comics nerd growing up, it’s just awesome to see Bishop and Colossus and all my childhood favorites on screen, even if the only new characters to get any significant time are Peter Dinklage as Sentinel designer Bollivar Trask and a really fun few minutes with the lightning fast Quicksilver, who they even hint at is Magento’s illegitimate son (as he is in the comics).

But really I think the star of this movie is Bryan Singer. The way he juggles the future and past storylines, giving everyone at least a few moments to shine (although honestly, couldn’t every movie use more Ian McKellan, even movies he’s not in?) and unleashing some truly spectacular action sequences, the jail break and the raising of the stadium being the most impressive. But also the relentless attacks from the future Sentinels and letting us not be confused even though there are characters throwing around teleportation portals as both escapes and ingenious attack measures. Singer masterfully holds all the puppet strings in place and delivers what is, I think, without a doubt the best movie of the X-Men franchise.

The Amazing Spiderman 2

The Amazing Spiderman 2 continues on the previous entries habit of getting Spiderman absolutely right. Though grounded in reality, the world is a little over-the-top, the one liners are occasionally too much and make Peter Parker seem like an arrogant young kid (which he is), but the action is fantastic and the villains have a way of having some pathos that they don’t always do in other superhero universes. Emma Stone deserves special mention as making her Gwen Stacy the model on which all “girlfriend in a superhero movie” roles should be, as she’s smarter than Peter (Andrew Garfield, fantastic again) and bails him out at least as many times as he saves her. A damsel in distress she is not. Ultimately, The Amazing Spiderman 2 has too many villains, too many throwaway moments (or moments that should’ve been thrown away), and is a little too long. Still, it was a blast and worthy of standing alongside Spiderman 2, the only great entry in the Tobey Maguire/Sam Raimi movies.

With, by the end of the movie, having 3 villains, it becomes too much. But Paul Giamatti is hamming it up with a ridiculous Russian accent that made me smile in his 5 minutes or so of screen time as Rhino. Dane DeHaan does some nice work as Harry Osborn, spoiled little rich kid who finds out he’s dying from a genetic disease and has to go about finding out how to stop the disease. Eventually he becomes the Green Goblin, one of Spiderman’s most iconic foes. It’s too bad that he’s ridiculous to look at and listen to once the villainous transformation takes place, but he does get a game changer of a villainous deed that is handled as well as anything has any moment in any comic book movie yet. The main villain of the piece, the one I wish had had more screen time, is Jamie Foxx’s terrific obsessive fan turned dangerous enemy, Electro. I liked the consequences shown for when a villain is able to have the almost God-like ability to control electricity. Imagine New York City completely blacking out because of this uncontainable and uncontrollable lust for electricity that Electro has. This movie imagines those type of consequences.

Andrew Garfield, who I first noticed in his extraordinary work in Terry Gilliam’s extraordinary movie The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus, is simply a perfect fit for this role. Even at 30, he still is passable as a high school senior and college freshman. He plays Peter wrestling the demons of what it means to be Spiderman and whether he’s actually ultimately doing good or bad for the city. He shows the physical toll being a superhero would take on your body and mind. But he also plays the humor and the light heartedness of Spiderman as well. And the chemistry that he and real life love Emma Stone have is what really carries the movie’s core along. I can’t wait to see where director Marc Webb goes with the series from here.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Django Unchained


Quentin Tarantino has a thing for revenge. He's had it in his movies before (like Pulp Fiction and Jackie Brown), he's built entire movies around it (Inglourious Basterds, Kill Bill vol 1 and 2) and he's now added another to his list in the western revenge saga Django Unchained. The story of a slave, Django (Jamie Foxx) who's freed by a bounty hunter named Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz, who won his second Oscar for working with QT again after Basterds) and subsequently fights to get his wife (Kerry Washington) from the plantation owning Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio). Throw in Candie's hateable house slave Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson) and a whole mess of violence and language and anachronistic music and you've got yourself a good old fashioned Tarantino flick. How you feel about Tarantino flicks in general will likely determine whether you like this movie or not.
While I've criticized QT in the past for being a filmmaker who can't get out of his own way, somehow it worked better for me here than it has recently. The overwritten dialog, unnecessary text overlays, cartoonish characters, and padded runtime. None of it bothered me this go round. I think a big reason for that is the actors we've got this time. Sam Jackson has proven himself before to be the one actor who truly makes QT's dialog sing like it should. But Waltz shows again (after being the brightest bright spot in Inglourious Basterds) that Tarantino has found himself another great singer. Jamie Foxx and Leonardo DiCaprio acquit themselves very well, even if they don't quite take it up to the level Waltz and Jackson are operating on. Jackson, having by far the toughest role to play, somehow comes off as the least cartoonish of the bunch. His Stephen is hateful, insubordinate, whip smart, and has decided if he can't be anything more than a nigger to his white owner, he's gonna be the best nigger a white man could ever want. Looking out for that white man above anything or any other person, skin color be damned. Somehow Jackson makes Stephen proud, pathetic, dangerous, and occasionally hilarious. It may be the best work of this great actor's career.

So, I used "the N word" in that previous paragraph. Tarantino has been in hot water in the past for the use of the word in his movies (specifically in Pulp Fiction and Jackie Brown) but got in a whole other firestorm of controversy for its use in Django. People didn't seem to care quite as much about whether black people were locked in a hot box in the Mississippi summer heat, or have their heads bashed in with a hammer for the gladiatorial entertainment of aristocratic white folks, or whipped within an inch of their life because they broke an egg, just for God's sake why's he gotta use "nigger" so much? I'll say this about the subject: it was appropriate for the time in which the movie is set, and I guarantee you can put on a Jay-Z or Tupac or damn near any other rapper's album and hear the word as many times as you do here, in half the time. Tarantino doesn't use it flippantly, he uses it provocatively so that we have to confront the hateful word and its use against our fellow human beings. Even in this exploitative genre film, QT doesn't make it all style and no substance. There's some exploration of real stuff here, just wrapped up in a crowd pleasing revenge flick is all.

So anyway, Django is Tarantino's best movie since Jackie Brown, and I hope he stays in top form with his next one.

Moonrise Kingdom

Wes Anderson's movies are so meticulously created, on a visual level, that sometimes live action actors feel almost out of place in his frame, to me. It's one of the reasons his The Fantastic Mr. Fox was such a good movie, because he didn't have actors bringing their warmth and humanity onto the screen with anything but their voices. Strangely, it is the warmth and humanity brought to this movie by the two young leads, at the time 13-year-old's Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward, that make this movie so successful. That's not to say the all-star cast (Bruce Willis, Ed Norton, Frances McDormand, Tilda Swinton, Bill Murray, Harvey Keitel, Jason Schwartzman) don't also bring their A-game and add to the proceedings, but it's the kids who really make it work.

The story concerns Sam and Suzy, who run away together on a tiny island in New England somewhere in 1965. They've met over previous summers and now decide they can make it on their own as long as they have each other. Both are "problem children", he's an orphan, she's got anger issues, and are both outcasts who find solace in the other. It's an awkward and sweet and surprisingly frank look at just barely pubescent love. Anderson's stilted and peculiar dialog just seems right coming out of these kids mouths. The adults go looking for them and blah blah blah, it's a simple love story, told wonderfully. I love that Anderson continues to not make long movies, as seemingly everything coming from major filmmakers these days has a 2+ hour runtime, while Anderson keeps it here hovering around 90 minutes.

Like all of Anderson's movies, it's a visual marvel, no matter how unrealistic it is. Anderson doesn't care about realism in his world creation, so why should we? Just be happy he's given us these pretty pictures to look at, competent adult actors and wonderful child actors to add in the mix and off we go to happy land.