Monday, August 18, 2014

TIME IN A BOTTLE: BOYHOOD


 
 
Is Richard Linklater’s Boyhood "one of the most extraordinary movies of the 21st century?" Possibly. A.O. Scott of the New York Times certainly thinks so. Is it one of the best movies ever made, as a friend of mine gushed only moments after having just seen it on its opening weekend? Who knows? We usually let 40 or 50 years pass before we start talking of such things. Do such declarations even matter at this point, the film having been alive in the American marketplace only just over a month? Probably not, unless you’re in the business of predicting the Oscars. But both remarks seem to be indicative of the sort of rush to hyperbole Los Angeles Times film critic Kenneth Turan spoke of when addressing his own shrug of a response to the movie. I am not for a minute suggesting either response is in any way insincere or disingenuous, just perhaps a little too well-suited for a culture that wants even a sprawling, uniquely expressed film like Boyhood to be packaged in neat, digestible bites.

Unfortunately, in his Los Angeles Times article Turan remained maddeningly coy about the details of his dissenting opinion on Boyhood, and far more articulate about the less interesting topic of standing alone in the critical community against the stiff wind of near-unanimous praise. His most cogent commentary about the film was the suggestion that much of the praise being heaped on Boyhood might be partially explained by a critic’s desire to validate his/her own practice. "We yearn to anoint films and call them masterpieces," Turan wrote, "perhaps to make our own critical lives feel more significant because it allows us to lay claim to having experienced something grand and meaningful." This may be true on occasion, for critics and for viewers, though it is surprising to hear Turan calling into question the veracity of other people’s responses, however much more comfy-chair is his tone than the one Armond White took in skewering the film’s "think-alike idolators," especially after Turan essentially refuses to elaborate meaningfully on the foundations for his own dissatisfaction.

So, what makes a masterpiece? As Sam Adams points out in a very thoughtful piece on the effect of the film’s welcoming within the critical community, masterpieces are not the result of a 100% score on Rotten Tomatoes. They are instead the result of careful scrutiny which, in the spirit of Linklater’s film, is only possible with the passage of time. "Criticisms, and the extent to which they illuminate the fascinating imperfections beneath those masterpieces’ surface," Adams writes, "only make them stronger." To that end, part of the journey into the culture undertaken by Boyhood, a movie which expresses the elusiveness of time and experience in a way quite unlike just about any other movie which has addressed the subject, is yet to come—that’d be the part which happens in our heads and our hearts as the movie takes hold of our imaginations and becomes a milestone in our experience as viewers or, of course, fails to do so.


I saw Boyhood the day before yesterday, and I’ve never been happier to not have to turn around and crank out 750 words on a deadline about a movie. Frankly, two days later, I’m still a whole lot more overwhelmed by it than I thought I would be. Any words of mine regarding the movie’s marvelous qualities of sociological, ethnographic, psychological and, of course, temporal consciousness would likely be superficial and add nothing to the general chorus of hosannas that have already been expressed far more eloquently. Nothing I could say about the movie’s central structuring conceit would likely be any more illuminating than what you’ve likely already read— the movie is an almost-documentary observation of Mason (Ellar Coltrane), a strictly fictional character, filmed over 12 years, his years from age six to 18 compressed into a way of seeing and experiencing life that would be difficult for anyone to believe could work as fully well in the viewing as it does. (Linklater’s pitch meetings to the money men must have had Orson Welles and Robert Altman saluting from beyond the grave.)

Even so, it is a remarkable thing to witness the evolution of this dreamy boy child (we first see him staring at clouds, then sitting between his house and a fence, whiling away his days doing nothing) into a slightly underachieving young man, his sleepy eyelids in constant battle with the alertness, the size of the eyes themselves. It’s fascinating to watch him learn to react (and recede from reaction) as his friends and family try to fashion him into something he barely seems interested in; to experience how he holds our interest even if we may occasionally feel the urge to shake him into something like a less complacent state of being; and to see his own personal way of processing the world, of taking it in and appreciating it for what it is, take shape, find expression.


Even the movie’s flirtation with heavy-handed melodrama, particularly in regard to Mason’s mother Olivia (Patricia Arquette) and her continuing misfortunes with men, don’t feel so egregious or miscalculated in light of the screenplay’s lithe sidestepping past the various opportunities to indulge in obvious emotional manipulation—possible affairs, possible pregnancy, possible unexpected tragedy—the story might seem to afford. Arquette is given the remarkable opportunity to live and breathe the sort of woman who might, in many other films, be merely a receptacle for the fears and the frustrations of the protagonist, or those of the director. But as Wesley Morris points out in his review of the film, one of the remarkable things about Linklater’s Boyhood is how much welcome room it makes for Arquettte’s singularly poignant portrait of single motherhood.

The film marks the passage of time in the faces of its actors, of course, but also through the way it indicates, without a jarring jump-cut sensibility, how Olivia (Patricia Arquette) extricates herself from the influence of her abusive, alcoholic husbands (the second one entirely off-screen); how the landscape of her countenance, changing in its way right along with her son’s, illustrates her deepening concern and love; by the telling presence of technology, of how Game Boy screens and televisions morph into computers and smartphones and, of course, the unseen grid of social media; of the political landscape of Texas after the turn of the century; and by the deft massaging of all these elements into scenes that don’t seem edited as much as molded together.


And perhaps most of all, I appreciate how the movie affords us the glimpse into the evolution of Mason Jr.’s dad, Mason (Ethan Hawke), who in his first scenes registers as a callow slacker who naturally tries too hard to ingratiate himself into his role as a weekend dad, who tries too hard to hold on to the signifiers of his youth as badges of personal honor. As time dissolves on, Mason trades his bitchin’ GTO—the car his son perhaps none too secretly covets—for a minivan and a new family to ride in it and, as a result of the accumulation of experience and, no doubt, marrying into a family of Texas Christians, becomes a more conservative version of himself than he would have ever allowed to be possible. (At one point his daughter Samantha—played with equal parts grace and lack of experience in front of a camera by Linklater's own daughter, Lorelei—worries that her dad might be becoming one of those "God people," and all he can do is glance back at his wife and newborn baby with a shrug and a chuckle.) A great indicator of the movie’s own state of grace is that it never tries to score points off the path Mason Sr. has ended up taking, but instead accepts him and the unstated conflict between his past and current versions in much the same way it does Mason Sr.’s in-laws, who aren’t demonized for presenting the younger Mason with a personalized Bible and a 20-gauge shotgun as birthday presents.

But as Mason Sr. ages into the sort of gravitas that allows him a true connection with his son, as one experienced adult, with the lines on his face to prove it, to an emerging one, so too does Hawke, whose own aging on screen is every bit as rewarding in its emergent hardiness and solidity as Coltrane’s. I don’t know that Hawke has ever been as effective, as affecting, in any role—and that includes the three Before pictures he co-wrote and starred in for Linklater and with Julie Delpy—as he is in his final scene with Mason Jr., assessing his own life and his shortcomings, and even the meaning of an improvised life, in the presence of this young man who’s about to step out on his own and start making his own mistakes. The weight Hawke brings to the part, combined with the way Linklater has allowed us to see them grow together, gives the moment a clarity and heartbreaking believability that just isn’t accessible to more conventional portraits of parents and their children, and throws into relief how much Boyhood becomes as much about what it means to bring up a child as it is about being one.


Another point made by some of Boyhood’s detractors, as pointed out in Sam Adams’ essay, is that much of the praise heaped upon the movie is the result of progressive, white, male film critics seeing themselves in or projecting themselves onto the character of Mason, a strange thought considering the gender and race of some of the movie’s strongest and most articulate supporters. Much to my relief, Linklater’s Boyhood is not my boyhood. I didn’t spend time, nor did I feel encouraged to spend time ticking off all the ways in which Mason’s story stood in for that of all (white) boys—it’s not a portrayal that is designed to invite easy, superficial comparisons that will reassure or otherwise validate a certain demographic and its experiences. (Okay, I did occasionally thumb through the Sears-Roebuck catalog for its erotic qualities.) And the near universal positive response to the movie might be a clue that Linklater’s intent, to fashion an unusual way for audiences to experience a life, a bit of time caught in a bottle, is pushing its way past more routine expectations, that Boyhood might be built on the much more simple desire to look back fondly and say, "Yeah, that’s me."

I love how Linklater lets the movie sprawl and find its own shape outside of prescribed methods of editing, how he allows it to trickle through the timeline and make room for the sorts of detail that would get sifted out of a more strictly and traditionally dramatic approach. Nothing much beyond the course of everyday experience happens in Boyhood—the movie has also been criticized in some quarters for not being dramatic enough, for being a too generalized portraiture of growing up. Yet the movie captures with alarming sensitivity the way youth, and the way people move through it toward maturity, makes each decision seem momentous, important, far-reaching, when precisely the opposite may be true. I just had one of those conversations with my own daughter, who is beginning high school this year, and I was fascinated to watch the little flickers of conflict and understanding and confusion dance across her face as we considered together this new phase in her life. The sort of moment we had during that talk was the sort I found reflected back at me in Mason’s tentative, increasingly curious conversations with his parents, the sort of personal connection, the coalescing of a movie’s worth of these sorts of observations— which might end up on the cutting room floor in a more conventionally mounted production—that brought Boyhood into a deeper realm for me.



Somewhere during the second hour of Boyhood I began to register the sense of being alive to the movie in a way that hasn’t happened very often in my experience with movies, and for much of the back half of the film I felt near tears, though I wouldn’t have been able to say why—it was certainly not due to any sort of manipulative tactics Linklater or his actors were employing. I remained in this sort of heightened state of awareness as Mason moved through anticipating college, experiencing the joys and disappointments of his first serious romance, graduating high school and taking the first steps out into a larger, scarier world full of possible achievement and just as possible failure, onto the precipice of his first fully realized philosophy of where his life has brought him, into young adulthood. As the movie ended, I sighed with a sense of relief, satisfied that I'd been able to see Linklater’s vision through, that I had been properly moved by the movie’s emotional and psychological achievement, that my own resistance to the film, perhaps brought on in part as a reaction to the boatload of celebration that greeted its release, had been overtaken by genuine appreciation for it. I sat back and laid my head on my wife’s shoulder and, perhaps sensing something was up, she asked me if I was okay. At that point I burst into uncontrollable sobs, from which it took a while to make a recovery. I’ve felt somewhat overwhelmed by the movie since, and only after a couple of days did I feel like I even wanted to try to think about what was happening underneath my reaction.
 
Tears are, in my experience, a very unreliable way in which to gauge the merit of a movie, or of any work of art-- any hack can push the right buttons and make someone in the audience cry, and you can often find yourself blubbering at something even as you’re kicking yourself for falling for an emotional ruse. But what I began to sense in the second half of the movie, the reason I was beginning to feel so raw, came to a head during the scene between Mason and his dad in the club. As they talked, I remember thinking to myself, "This is what’s it is like." The thought came not as a way of validating Linklater’s approach to realism. I was thinking to myself, this is what it’s like to have a son. At which point I realized the nature of the gift the movie was in the process of giving me, in its sensitivity to character, of course, but also through the structure which allows us the privilege of seeing a time-compressed portrait of a life being lived, a person being changed, a journey toward the unknown, toward pain, fulfillment, toward death. In Boyhood I was being given a chance to feel what it might have been like to live life with my own son, Charlie, who was stillborn on August 11, 1997 and buried on this day 17 years ago. Watching this movie, I felt I had access to insight into the companionship and connection a father has with his son, the way they relate, the way they bristle against each other, the way they test each other, the way they can ease into each other’s company. It was splendid, unexpected, and way more than I was prepared to handle in the moment. And if I ever have the chance to congratulate Richard Linklater on his movie, it will be in the context of being grateful for him having created an opportunity for me to experience, in a particular fashion, something I never thought I would.
 

Is Boyhood the greatest movie ever made, an enduring masterpiece? Who cares? Its sublime everyday poetry, its generosity, its empathy, its curiosity, its window onto the true fleetingness and intangibility of time, these are the qualities that actually mean something. Boyhood is extraordinary right now. When we’re older and grayer and ostensibly wiser, there will still be plenty of time to discuss matters of greatness.

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Friday, August 15, 2014

PROFESSOR DEWEY FINN’S OSTENTATIOUSLY ODD, SCHOLASTICALLY SCATTERSHOT BACK-TO-SCHOOL (OF ROCK?) MOVIE QUIZ




As you may have noticed, things have been somewhat quiet on the SLIFR University campus this past school year. How quiet? Well, the last quiz had a timely Christmas theme, and almost nine months later Yours Truly, headmaster of all he surveys here at our little learning boutique, still hasn’t submitted his own answers to it. (I’d promise to rectify that soon, but it’s more likely to take me until this coming Christmas to get those answers together—which isn’t a bad idea for a holiday post, now is it?) It may seem like the SLIFR U staff has been on vacation, but it’s not exactly true. But yes, despite how it may look, our hardy educators have been bunkered down in offices, conference rooms and the moldy basement of the SLIFR U cafeteria trying to come up with new ways to invigorate academic endeavors and reinvent learning for the few dedicated, loyal students who still care to park their carcasses in the lecture halls of this storied institution.
 

To this end, we welcome a new addition to the well of knowledge from which so many have drank, filled their heads and moved on. (And probably continued to drink, just not from our metaphorical well, but whatever…) His name is Professor Dewey Finn, and he will be joining our esteemed music department. Though Professor Finn is not exactly a proper professor, he did insist we address him as such as a condition of his accepting employment here, so we have done so, however reluctantly. (The heavily tenured head of the department, Dr. Anton Phibes, has registered the most empathic resistance to this idea, and though he has been civilized in his objections so far, per his history Dr. Phibes has been instructed by our legal advisors to approach Prof. Finn with caution and respect in any future encounters.) Professor Finn hopes to stimulate your brains with a strange mélange of questions with little purpose or focus beyond his own amusement, a strategy he hopes will serve him well as he shepherds the rock division of our musical studies here at the university this year.
 
As part of his introductory duties, Professor Finn has devised a brand-new quiz in that spirit with which to ring in the new school year, and you see it before you now— he calls it his very own Ostentatiously Odd, Scholastically Scattershot Back-to-School (Of Rock?) Movie Quiz—which should warm you up for the rest of the adventures in movie education that await you as the calendar enters is autumn/winter phase. The notes on this quiz are the same as always: You may provide links to your answers if you have your own blog or Web site, but if you enter your answers in the comments field, please copy and paste the questions along with your answers so readers may more easily reference the context of your answers. Also, Professor Finn is very much like the rest of our staff in that, while he will certainly accept short, to-the-point answers, he is much more entertained and enlightened by an answer that isn’t afraid to err on the side of the verbose. So feel free to let loose your logorrheic tendencies here!
 
So, without any further hesitation, let’s jump right in. Pencils at the ready, back straight, eyes forward. You may begin!
 
 
1) Band without their own movie, from any era, you’d most like
     to see get the HARD DAY’S NIGHT or HEAD treatment

2) Oliver Reed or Alan Bates?

3) Best thing about the move from physical to streaming media in home video

4) Worst thing about the move from physical to streaming media in home video

5) Favorite Robin Williams performance

6) Second favorite Carol Reed movie

7) Oddest moment/concept in rock music cinema

8) Favorite movie about growing up

9) Most welcomed nudity, full or partial, in a movie (question
     submitted by Peter Nellhaus, class of 2004)

10) Least welcomed nudity, nude or partial, in a movie
       (question submitted by Peter Nellhaus, class of 2004)

11) Last movie watched, in a theater, on DVD/Blu-ray, via streaming

12) Second favorite Bertrand Blier movie

13) Googie Withers or Sally Gray?

14) Name a piece of advice derived from a movie or movie
       character that you’ve heeded in real life

15) Favorite movie about learning

16) Program a double bill of movies that were announced but,
       for one reason or another, never made. These could be
       projects cancelled outright, or films that were made, but at
      one time had different directors, stars, etc., attached--
      and your "version" of the film might be the one with that
      lost director, for example (question submitted by
      Brian Doan, class of 2007)

17) Oddest mismatch of director and material

18) Favorite performance by your favorite character actor

19) Favorite chase scene

20) Movie most people might not have seen that you feel like
        proselytizing about right now

21) Favorite movie about high school

22) Favorite Lauren Bacall performance

23) David Farrar or Roger Livesey?

24) Performance most likely to get overlooked during the
       upcoming awards season

25) Rock musician who, with the right project, could have been
       a movie star

26) Second favorite Ted Post movie

27) Favorite odd couple

28) Flicker or Zeroville?

29) Favorite movie about college

30) In a specific movie full of memorable turns, your favorite
        underappreciated performance

31) Favorite movie about parenting

32) Susannah York or Sarah Miles?

33) Movie which best evokes the sense of place in a region with
       which you are well familiar

34) Name a favorite actor from classic movies and the
       contemporary performer who most evokes their
       presence/stature/talent

35) Your favorite hot streak of any director (question submitted
       by Patrick Robbins, class of 2008)

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Monday, August 11, 2014

FOR CHARLIE AT 17: BREAKING AWAY



One of the pleasures of revisiting movies we loved as kids can be in seeing how much richness the passage of time and our own experience brings to how we live and breathe the vision of the filmmaker, or the lives of characters that may be as familiar to us as members of our own families. Of course, it doesn’t always work this way—sometimes on return engagements the stuff which turned us on as young viewers is revealed to be crass or manipulative or otherwise false in ways we couldn’t have recognized without the benefit of a little maturity. But every now and then we get lucky and a movie that meant something to us when we were younger and just beginning to understand the world through more empathetic eyes turns out to be one that honors the passions and joys and disappointments of everyday life, one which retains its emotional resonance while rewarding the years spent thinking about it with richer perspective on its characters.

I recently went on a multiple-day cycling trip with some friends, and one of the ways I got myself prepared for the adventure was to revisit Breaking Away (1979). While perhaps not specifically a movie “about” cycling, Breaking Away is certainly steeped in the expressive capacity the sport has for its principal protagonist, a young Bloomington, Indiana townie named Dave Stoller (Dennis Christopher), whose inarticulate yearning to travel a path other than the one laid for him by his blue-collar dad (Paul Dooley) coalesces through his love for Italian culture, particularly the world of Italian cycling. Naturally, it was Dave’s story, Dave’s yearning, that made the movie reverberate for me when I first saw it as a 19-year-old college junior. I was quickly approaching a crossroads of my own, and I understood not only Dave’s desire to be transported somewhere beyond the limits of his small-town upbringing, but also his closed-off relationship with his dad, whose comic hostility and intolerance toward Dave’s passions seemed impenetrable. (Mr. Stoller reminded me not only of my dad, but the dad of a close friend as well.)


I saw myself in Dave, of course, despite the fact that I was not at all athletic as a young man. But even when I first encountered the movie it was clear that Breaking Away, guided by Peter Yates’ clear-eyed, no-nonsense direction, had a way with subtly spreading its sympathies across generational boundaries. In 1979 we were still five or so years away from the invasion of John Hughes, a writer-director so eager to burrow his way into the hearts of minds of the youth market that there’s barely an adult character in his oeuvre who isn’t either a tone-deaf dunderhead or cripplingly dependent on the sympathies of the kids surrounding them, all of whose worries and fears and immature yammering always carry more weight than those of Hughes’ numb, defeated, clueless grownups. And at first glance Dooley’s characterization seems to flirt with the sort of narrow-minded blowhard-iness that would become a staple of Hughes’ never-trust-anyone-over-30 (except Hughes, of course) philosophy.

But Steve Tesich’s screenplay is smart enough to lay the groundwork for a tentative meeting of minds between Dave and his dad, and for moments that allow audiences to see Mr. Stoller as something other than a comic gargoyle, someone capable of remembering what it was like to be young and hopeful about the future. At age 19 I was relieved when the cracks in Dooley’s defensiveness toward his son began to appear. But probably because my tenuous relationship with my own dad was still far from resolved I was never fully able to rid myself of the sense that Mr. Stoller was a man who would continue to try to exercise his will and his pent-up rage over further signs of his son’s increasing independence. It remained for me, as a young man operating without the benefit of empathy for other perspectives, a movie whose primary concern was Dave.


In seeing Breaking Away as an adult, however, it’s striking to me that, with all due respect and reverence to Barbara Barrie, whose blend of compassion and stern sympathy as Mrs. Stoller has always seemed a perfect conjuring of weary yet warm motherhood, this is a movie about sons and fathers. And the plural is appropriate, because there are four friends (the title of another Steve Tesich-penned film) in the picture whose dads, in absentia from the movie and, in some cases, from their lives, remain influential, for better and worse.

Moocher (Jackie Earle Haley) has a dad and mom who have moved away to Chicago in search of better employment prospects. But instead of feeling abandoned Moocher, fueled by his relatively sunny disposition, forges ahead, perhaps with his dad as an example. He’s got a girlfriend whom he wants to marry, and he keeps looking for work himself, though not too ambitiously. Moocher seems to have seized the opportunity, since his parents are no longer around, to feel out what it’s like to be truly independent.

Mike (Dennis Quaid), the disillusioned ex-jock, never speaks of his dad—we presume he’s dead, or perhaps he abandoned his family at some point. But he’s got a father figure to push against in the personage of his older brother (John Ashton), who not only has the advantage of age in the relationship, but he’s also a town police officer, one who occasionally, if reluctantly, has to assert his authority over Mike and his pals.


The likably sarcastic Cyril (Daniel Stern) is the only other one of the three with a dad who lives in Bloomington, but as he memorably recounts to Dave, it’s a father-son relationship built predominantly on the elder’s apparently only parenting skill—the doling out of sympathy during moments of failure. (“It’s okay, Cyril. I understand.”) During the celebration of the team’s unlikely victory in the Little 500, it’s the absence of Cyril’s dad that provides one of the movie’s most piercing moments—as Dave celebrates with his parents, Moocher hugs his now-wife, and even as Mike jumps up and down and hollers with his brother, Cyril can only look on, a wistful mixture of happiness and disappointment on his face, wishing that his dad were there to see him in a moment of success and provide him an opportunity to express a rare burst of exhilaration. It’s a moment notable for the subtly with which Stern plays it, but also for the way Yates almost glides past it, as if to stay longer with it might be seen as some sort of intrusion.

The key to unlocking the mystery of Mr. Stoller turns out to be not just the father-son scenes between him and Dave (“You’re not a Cutter. I’m a Cutter!”), but those involving Mr. and Mrs. Stoller, when the husband is eased by his wife into a better understanding of the son’s behavior, which Dad finds confounding. Tesich and Yates display laudable patience and intuitive storytelling intelligence in allowing the movie these moments during which wife and husband can relate to each other as people with a shared past, as human beings, not authority figures—just one more way the movie elevates itself above what would become John Hughes’ cheap bag of tricks. It’s in these moments that Mr. Stoller is tenderized toward his son, thus making sure the audience registers that Mr. Stoller’s understanding has been awakened before his enthusiastic embrace of Dave’s performance in the bike race, that his son’s athletic success is not the sole reason why the father has made newfound room for him in his overtaxed heart. What we once may have mistaken for hostility and intolerance on Mr. Stoller’s part can now more easily be seen as confusion over his son’s sympathies, his sense of being threatened by not being able to connect with his son’s interests, and most certainly an elder Cutter’s fear of being left behind to watch his son forge the sort of future he never could.


Breaking Away continues to hold a fascination for me because of the way it accommodates seeing both Dave and his dad from each other’s point of view. We are most certainly more on Dave’s side emotionally, but with a little time it has become easier for me to appreciate Dave’s adoption of his Italian persona, particularly as it plays into the deception of Katarina (Robin Douglass), his would-be amore, as less a comic conceit and more of an expression of his own insecurity and desperation. (And it is a little creepy too, which is, I’m sure, how his dad sees it.) And now that I’m a grownup it’s easier to identify with the frustrations Mr. Stoller must feel about the avenues not taken during his life, about not being able to continue doing what he feels he did best to provide for his family, about how even that trade—stonecutting--  has become increasingly irrelevant now that all the space for new buildings, not to mention rocks in the quarries, have been used to build places like the local university, places built for people other than people like himself.

But now I also see the younger and the older Stoller at the end of Breaking Away and I’m reminded of something else. Seventeen years ago today my wife and I lost our son Charlie, and perhaps it’s this hole in my heart, which will never be filled, that speaks up most profoundly to me when I watch the movie today. It’s because Tesich and Yates, and Dooley and Christopher, have crafted such a believable and moving portrait of a father and a son, in conflict and in togetherness, that I continue to take from the movie an understanding of the way a young man—myself-- feels his way into the world, and the way a distant father—my own dad, maybe?-- feels his way toward his son. But I also see faint echoes of my own life, the one not taken (or allowed), as a father to a son who likely would have wanted to go his own way as well, and a glimpse at some of the ways I could have risen to the occasion, or fallen beneath it. The memory of Charlie echoes in my soul constantly, never more so than on this day, of course, but also strongly whenever I encounter a truthful and uncompromising portrait of a father and son relationship on screen. It’s what I’m hoping for from Boyhood. But until I see that, Charlie and I will always have Breaking Away.

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Friday, August 08, 2014

PER UN BEL VENERDI...


 
 
 
 

I film hanno mai visto una tale bellezza prima o dopo?

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Friday, July 11, 2014

SMALL MIRACLES: LAND HO! (2014)


 
In Land Ho! co-directors Martha Stephens and Aaron Katz (who also wrote the screenplay together) take a familiar framework— friends, opposites, traveling together—and infuse it with a kind of offhanded magic. The spark of what might rather too deliberately be described as the film’s plot is the reunion of two brothers-in-law previously separated by divorce and death, Colin (Paul Eenhoorn), an unassuming gent who seems just on the cusp of letting life’s sometimes turbulent weather wear him down, and Mitch (Earl Lynn Nelson), an ebullient fellow bent on making the most of what he might only hesitantly acknowledge as his twilight years.

Without Colin’s consent, Mitch buys first-class tickets for the two of them to visit Iceland, promising good food, relaxing hot springs, spectacular scenery, even more spectacular women, and the freedom to move around and enjoy it all as they please. Colin somewhat reluctantly agrees, and the movie’s come-what-may voyage gets under way, each of them taking turns poking through the travel guide for ideas on what to do, all while dancing subtly around the notion that they not be the most well-matched of traveling companions.



Rather than milk the situation for manufactured laughs, however, Stephens and Katz instead allow it to unfold and breathe with something like the rhythms of accrued experience and unexpected harmonies. They thankfully approach the material as if they’d never heard the words "planes," "trains" or "automobiles" in that order. Instead, the laughs, and the insights into recognizable human behavior come as natural byproducts of the movie’s free-floating sense of discovery, its willingness to let these two interact on screen with a minimum of melodrama, letting the natural push-pull between their disparate personalities-- droll versus dynamic-- create the momentum necessary to propel them, and us, along the journey. As it turns out, neither perspective ends up overwhelming the movie. Nelson’s natural and occasionally profane enthusiasm turns out to coexist marvelously with Eenhoorn’s more subdued and economical personality (which probably has a lot to do with the actors’ natural generosity toward each other), so the surprises that occasionally register on their faces, especially in some of the more clearly improvised sequences, seem even more genuine.

But as much as it is a joy to see the screen given over to two such likable and rather seasoned performers, it would be a mistake to characterize Land Ho! as simply being about two old geezers and how they tentatively make their way toward a renewed friendship. At the risk of making the movie sound disagreeably universal and lacking in distinction, while it is quite specifically about the experience of these older gents it also accesses insights about the way people interact and bristle and embrace each other that ought not to be hemmed in by false generational boundaries. One of the movies I thought of fondly while watching Land Ho! was Kelly Reichardt’s Old Joy, which exists somewhere way down the line from this one on the dispositional scale. It shares with Katz and Stephens’ work a potent emotional current regarding the ease and tension within an old friendship, even though Reichardt’s protagonists are considerably younger men.

Tension is an issue that seems to have been marvelously resolved among the filmmakers themselves as well. Stephens, who previously directed the indie delight Pilgrim Song (2012), which featured Nelson—her cousin-- is an excellent temperamental match with Katz, who came of age as a filmmaker amidst the advent of the mumblecore movement but quickly separated himself from the drab D.I.Y. aesthetic of those films with sharply observed works like Dance Party USA, Quiet City and Cold Weather, all of which offered keen and unsentimental character observation without sacrificing increasingly strong visual cohesiveness. Together, they manage to guide Land Ho! with a casual confidence that many more seasoned directors should rightly envy. The two are seemingly unafraid of their movie being misperceived as slight or airy or whatever other adjective reviewers might use to connote a lack of depth, which is, of course, a brilliant strategy if your goal is to delight your audience and prepare them up for the hooks to be set as the characters, at their own pace, deepen.

There are illuminating diversions created by the appearance of Mitch’s young relative Ellen (Karrie Crouse), traveling through Iceland with her friend Janet (Elizabeth McKee), and later Nadine (Alice Clarke), a bank clerk on holiday who sparks an unexpected connection with Colin. None of these diversions are exploited for their possible melodramatic plot functions, though in other hands they could have been, and that’s to the credit not only of Stephens and Katz but also to the actors who briefly visit Colin and Mitch’s playground, all of which—especially Clarke—have very appealing, natural and unforced screen presences.




Land Ho! is a very perceptive movie in terms of the way its characters interact amongst themselves and with others, but it’s also very sensitive to the way landscapes can be used to reflect and illuminate and set in relief the way the personal angles they have on their own lives, which makes it far more than just a hit-the-highlights travelogue with good company and, courtesy of Mitch, the occasional dick joke. In its ability to not just observe but in some sense understand why Iceland and its many natural marvels was the perfect stage on which to play out this very small-scale story, it really did remind me of what a director like Bill Forsyth could do at his peak. Land Ho! isn’t quite the miracle that Forsyth conjured with Local Hero, but it’s on the scent, and it shares some of that movie’s delicious comic timing—an episode with Colin and a flooded road will quickly put Forsyth-heads in mind of the earlier movie’s way with a speeding motorcycle.

And speaking of miracles, the fact that a movie such as Land Ho! exists at all, especially plopped down in the middle of a mid-year movie marketplace glutted with superheroes and transforming robots and endless duping of shrieking horror franchises, should count as some sort of providence. (And it arrives the same day as Richard Linklater’s highly touted Boyhood. Can I get an "amen"?) On its own, but even more so in this context, Land Ho! has transformative powers even Hasbro couldn’t imagine-- it can take a sullen and cynical moviegoer and turn her/him, 95 minutes later, into someone who might once again believe that the possibility for real summer movie magic still exists.

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THE 2014 HALFTIME REPORT

 
 
And now the halftime report.
 
With over half of 2014 now in the rear-view mirror, I think I’ve almost fully acclimated to the reality that most of the more interesting niche films, which will only play a week or so in Los Angeles, I’m going to have to catch up with on VOD services or on traditional (you know, like the dinosaurs, traditional) DVD and Blu-ray. This means, of course, that I’m usually about three months (or even further) behind my more on-top-of-it friends and neighbors in the film-going world.
 
But that’s okay, because what I’ve seen so far in 2014 has been, with a few notable exceptions which will be noted in a moment, less than inspiring—it’s hard to remember a year in which I’ve been so indifferent to the majority of mainstream movies I see advertised, and so compelled by tiny notices in the newspaper or online about movies that, even living here in Los Angeles, I’ll probably have to wait to see. (Life Itself awaits, while I’m still processing my mild disappointment with Snowpiercer and feeling kinda shruggy about the prospect of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.)
 
Here, then, is just a brief peek at what’s floated my boat so far this year, happily noting that Boyhood, Venus in Fur and the documentaries Whitey: United States of America v. James J. Bulger and The Battered Bastards of Baseball are all now playing in theaters near me.
 
 
ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE (Jim Jarmusch)
 
 
UNDER THE SKIN (Jonathan Glazer)
 

 
THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL  (Wes Anderson)

 
GODZILLA (Gareth Edwards)

 
LAND HO! (Martha Stephens, Aaron Katz)
 
 
MILIUS (Joey Figueroa, Zak Knutson)

 
THE IMMIGRANT (James Gray)

 
NON-STOP (Jaume Collet-Serra)
 
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Friday, June 13, 2014

A MILLION WAYS TO WHIFF IN THE WEST



"Painless" Peter Potter (a.k.a. Paleface), Jessie W. Haywood (a.k.a. The Shakiest Gun in the West), to say nothing of Gov. William J. Le Petomane and his disloyal subjects, your legacies are secure. Writer-producer-director-star and all-around Renaissance man Seth MacFarlane, from whose loins A Million Ways to Die in the West hath sprung (actually, given the movie’s obsession with all things anal, it might have sprung from somewhere else), has gushed a lot in junket promotional interviews about how much he loves Westerns. And he’s obviously seen enough of them to know that his movie needs to hit all the obvious touchstones—gunfighters, grizzled prospectors, saloon fights, a score nodding toward the majestic direction of Elmer Bernstein, Max Steiner, Dmitri Tiomkin, and of course the wide-screen panoramas of Monument Valley intended to inspire his presumably self-aware audience to put a check mark next to "John Ford" on the laundry list of the movie’s references. (Almost as if MacFarlane were worried about kick-starting comparisons to Blazing Saddles before the comedy actually began, he’s consigned his would-be-rousing theme song, sung by Alan Jackson, to the end credits instead, and it turns out to be a wise move— Jackson comes off pretty tepid next to the straight-up whip-cracking Frankie Laine turning Mel Brooks’ deceptively straightforward lyrics into sly, satisfying satire.)
 
Yessir, all the pieces seem to be in place for another rip-roaring comedy western. But then the action begins--Albert Stark, the hostile wise-ass played by Seth MacFarlane himself, in his first (perhaps his last?) leading role, steps into a confrontation with a cranky citizen bearing a very big pistol. Stark, a sheep farmer who likes to carry on about how shitty and dangerous life is in the American West (hence the cumbersome title), begins trying to distract his adversary with rapid-fire riffing that wouldn’t be out of place in the mouth of Peter Griffin, and whatever goodwill the director may have carried over from his previous hit, the raunchy teddy bear comedy Ted, begins to leak out of the movie in a panic.
 

The only thing more tiresome than MacFarlane the actor is MacFarlane the writer-director, who not surprisingly relies on that relentless pattern of caustic asides and observations, often followed by cutaways to wacky illustrations of same, which will be familiar to anyone who’s ever grown weary in front of an episode of Family Guy or American Dad. At least in the context of the Old West it’s harder for the triple hyphenate to mindlessly riff on current pop culture, but he still gets his licks in on the old school—one riotous flashback features Gilbert Gottfried as Abraham Lincoln—and somehow that context doesn't prevent the rest of MacFarlane’s dialogue from sounding like it’s coming out of the mouths of pampered Hollywood douchebags circa 2014 who wouldn’t know a saddlebag from a swag bag. At one point Charlize Theron, playing MacFarlane’s love interest, who also happens to be the wife of murderous gunslinger Clinch Leatherwood, underlines her director’s radical thesis that "the West fucking sucks," and all I could do was admit that it certainly does, as far as MacFarlane has dared to imagine it anyway.

There is a positive about MacFarlane’s presence in this picture though-- it underlines just how important Mark Wahlberg and Mila Kunis (and Sam Jones) were to Ted, a very crude, very funny movie which gave the audience something to cling to besides its creator’s juvenile wit, a wit which itself was sharper for having to bounce off of personalities as strong as his own. MacFarlane is the whole show in A Million Ways to Die in the West, and he seems bent on testing the audience’s limit on his very special mixture of self-loathing schlub and self-satisfied smarm. Separated from his ironic Oscar show emcee persona he’s charmless. He, and the snotty personality with which he invests the movie itself, wears the audience down to a nub.


MacFarlane also wastes a game cast. Sarah Silverman and Giovanni Ribisi are sidelined with probably the movie’s best idea. They’re a sweet Christian couple—he repairs shoes for a living, she bangs cowboys (loudly) in the second-floor bedrooms of the local watering hole. But they’re saving the consummation of their own romance for their wedding night. It seems like a nifty comic premise, especially well-suited to Silverman’s own way with wide-eyed, inappropriately forthright observations, but the joke never expands-- repeated too often, it drifts away along with the characters themselves. Liam Neeson glowers impressively as Clinch, but he never gets a moment where he gets to turn the notion of a burly bad guy (with an Irish accent!) inside-out. And all apologies to those who worship at the feet of Charlize Theron, but her appeal continues to escape me. She’s always self-serious, but here she’s stuck in the role of the good girl redeemer, and she doesn’t have much in the way of instinct for climbing on board the movie’s raunchy wavelength—in fact, she’s the only performer who doesn’t appear to have a sense of humor at all. And most damningly, she eagerly guffaws at all of MacFarlane’s jokes and charming asides, the glamorous Old West equivalent of all those hapless soldiers in Good Morning, Vietnam who were contractually bound to find everything Robin Williams said hilarious in the extreme.

All the envelope-pushing in the taste department just seems desperate here too, as it does on MacFarlane’s TV shows. The obvious fixation on the rectum isn’t unexpected — rampant diarrhea, anal sex (at one point Silverman demurs from sitting at a table, opting to "give my asshole a rest") and, of course plain old flatulence, they’re all showcased. (Bad gas was funny around Brooks’ campfire, but here’s it’s just another way the West is out to kill ya.) What’s really surprising is how tedious it all is, how quickly the movie flat-lines because of it, and how conservative, for all its "Look, Ma! I said ‘fuck’ in the Old West!" flaunting of propriety, the movie reveals itself to be— there isn’t a hint of the meta-maniacal auto-destruct impulse that reduced Blazing Saddles to such memorable madness. There also isn’t a moment in this movie that can stand beside Madeline Kahn channeling Marlene Dietrich, or Alex Karras punching out a horse (MacFarlane tries, and fails, to up the ante here), or the groundbreaking/wind-breaking aural-olfactory assault of that bean-heavy campfire menu. The cowboys in Blazing Saddles may have smelled bad, but MacFarlane’s just whiff.

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