REVIEW: “Boyhood”

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“Ambitious” is an adjective that is probably overused by many when reviewing movies. As a result many well-known and prominent movie critics steer clear of the word and often view it as a negative description of the film. Their idea is that many people excuse a film’s faults by hiding them under ambition. That may sometimes be true, but I’ve never prescribed to that reasoning nor do I avoid using the word when it accurately describes a film. There are plenty of examples of movies that have combined great ambition and great storytelling. “Boyhood” is one such example.

Let’s talk about the film’s ambition. Writer and director Richard Linklater has shown himself to be one of the great modern American filmmakers. In “Boyhood” he gives us a coming-of-age drama unlike any you’ve seen before. Filming spanned twelve years starting in 2002 and the same cast was used the entire time. They were brought back to shoot scenes periodically throughout those twelve years in hopes of capturing an accurate physical representation of aging. It also allowed the cast to grow with their characters making the film’s time transitions all the more realistic. This is an extremely ambitious project.

 

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But it isn’t just the clever and innovative approach that makes this a good film. It’s Linklater’s simple but beautifully conceptualized vision for presenting a young boy’s life from preadolescence to early adulthood. There is no distinct streamlined plot. Instead we are introduced to a young boy named Mason and we experience his complicated, topsy-turvy boyhood with him. Linklater doesn’t ask us to dissect or wrestle with the material. Instead he seeks to show us the complexities and minutia of real life. He wants us to invest in Mason and let his circumstances strike an emotional chord. We laugh with him. We fear for him. We worry about him. Essentially we grow up with him.

Mason is played by Ellar Coltrane, a relatively unknown actor who was 7-years old when filming began. Coltrane has a quiet reservation about him that we consistently see in every stage of Mason’s life. It’s an acting quality that gels nicely with Linklater’s vision for the character. When we first meet young Mason he is living in Texas with his older sister Samantha (played by Richard Linklater’s own daughter Lorelei) and his single mother Olivia (Patricia Arquette). His father Mason, Sr. (Ethan Hawke) reappears after over a year doing his own thing in Alaska.

Mason’s life has its share of obstacles and it starts with his parents. His mother works hard to provide for Mason and Samantha. She moves them to Houston where she finishes her degree and gets a good job. But her loneliness leads to bad choices which effect her children. Mason, Sr. is a flaky and irresponsible father who won’t get a job and doesn’t always provide a mature fatherly influence during his time with his kids. In a sense Mason and Samantha’s time with their father is an escape. Mason, Sr. clearly hasn’t been a good father, but he loves his kids and they recognize his good intentions. As the film harmoniously moves along we learn more and more about these characters and we watch them and their circumstances evolve.

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At times “Boyhood” feels like a series of random moments sewn together to form a beautiful whole. We often move from scene to scene without any narrative connection between them. But that’s okay because the film is about the journey. We literally watch Mason (and Coltrane) grow up before our eyes. One minute we see a young boy laying on the couch asking his father about the existence of magic and elves. An hour later we watch a 16-year old get into his Toyota pickup. It’s such a visually satisfying trip through time brought to life through Linklater’s brilliant approach, Sandra Adair’s impeccable editing, and the cast’s unquestioned commitment.

Speaking of the cast, I’ve talked about Coltrane being a great fit as Mason and he only gets better as he transforms from a first-grader to a college freshman. But Patricia Arquette is the one getting a ton of attention and rightly so. This is a such a strong and honest performance , significantly better than when I first saw her years ago in “A Nightmare on Elm Street 3”. She doesn’t offer an ounce of pretense and she never overplays her scenes. And as you would expect Ethan Hawke is really good and you never doubt the truth he brings to his character.

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The only performance I struggled with came from Lorelei Linklater. In her defense she is considerably better by the end of the film but by that time we rarely see her. Prior to that I felt she was forcing her performance and she looked like a young actress who was having every line, every look, and every expression drawn out by the director. I also struggled with these odd and sometimes clunky political sequences that pop up several times. At first they feel like a natural extension of a particular character. Later the politics and characterizations seem forced and very heavy-handed. This stands out mainly because Linklater is such an instinctive and precise writer.

Those things aside, what is it that great movies do? They challenge us. They cause us to reflect. They cause us to appreciate. They cause us to feel. “Boyhood” did all of that for me but not in a casual sense. It is a coming-of-age story but it also looks at other things like parenting – the sacrifices of good parenting and the consequences of bad parenting. As a father, that hit home for me. The film had me looking back on my own childhood, but also thinking about my 13-year old son and the life he is living. Walking out of the theater I wanted to hurry home, give him a hug, and tell him that I loved him. Some may call that corny. I call it being moved by a very good movie.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

(Fun observation for “Dazed and Confused” fans: Pay close attention to the brief scene in the liquor store. The clerk is played by none other than David Blackwell. He played a very similar convenience store clerk in “Dazed”)

REVIEW: “Before Sunset”

BEFORE POSTERIn 1995 writer and director Richard Linklater introduced us to Jesse and Celine, two young twentysomethings who – by one spontaneous act – end up spending one night together roaming the streets of Vienna. The two open themselves up to each other and fall in love. The movie ends with Jesse heading to the airport to catch his flight back to the United States and Celine catching her train to Paris. Both agree to meet back at the same station on a set day five years later but as they go their separate ways they, and we, wonder if they will ever see each other again. That movie was “Before Sunrise”. That’s brings us to 2004 and “Before Sunset”, a sequel directed, produced, and co-written by Linklater that tells us what happened to these two fascinating characters.

Ethan Hawke returns as Jesse and we find him at Shakespeare & Company in Paris doing a signing for his new book. Jesse seems successful. His book has taken off and Paris is the last stop on his European promotional blitz before heading back home in the states to his wife and child. While being interviewed we discover that his new book is based on his romance in Vienna 9 years earlier. We also see in the corner of the bookstore Celine (Julie Delpy). Celine, now living in Paris, had come across the promotion of Jesse’s appearance. After finishing his last interview Jesse sees Celine in the corner and the two meet again. Jesse has a few hours before his flight so they slip out and walk through Paris, catching up, reconnecting, tapping into old feelings, and second guessing their life choices.

“Before Sunset” pretty much follows the same formula as the first film. It’s an extremely talky movie and the two main characters are the centerpiece. We see the awkwardness of them first meeting again and their reflections on their night together and the reunion that was to take place five years afterwards. But it doesn’t take long before we see evidence of the same chemistry that had drawn them so close together before. The conversations flow naturally – at first as if getting to know each other again then later like two soul mates pouring their hearts out – and we never doubt that there is a real connection between these two characters.

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In the first film both were young, energetic, and open. But as the movie moved along we found they each had their own worries and insecurities. Jesse took solace in seeing himself as not belonging which in turn gave him a sense of freedom. Nine years later, even with his success as a writer and a wife and child, Jesse still feels as if he doesn’t belong but the byproduct that he once saw as freedom has now become a stranglehold. In the first film Celine was witty, optimistic, and open-minded but yet with her own reservations about things. Nine years later her optimism has turned to pessimism; her open-mindedness has become cynicism and distrust. While she’s still as witty as ever, she has changed the most of the two and it’s clear that she’s wrestling with some overwhelming inner feelings. She’s bitter and forlorn and even a bit neurotic when her emotions get the best of her.

“Before Sunset” isn’t as romantic as “Before Sunrise” but in a very real way it gives the first film a more forceful emotional punch. Their decisions, particularly at the end of the first movie, became life altering choices. Even smaller decisions such as not exchanging phone numbers turned out having monumental effects on the courses of both their lives. This gives the audience several good lessons and points to ponder and Linklater feeds those ideas throughout this film. And while the first film focused on the blossoming of love, this film showed the endurance of love, albeit a now unattainable love. We also see both Jesse and Celine shackled with their own personal and emotional baggage.

There’s a lot to like about this film but like it’s predecessor, the writing is really what makes this movie so special. Linklater once again worked with Kim Krizen to develop the story and Hawke and Delpy both contributed a lot to the screenplay. Like before, you can clearly see the collaborative effort of the four writers in not only creating two fascinating characters but in presenting a large amount of dialogue that we the audience never lose interest in. A lot of that is also due to Hawke and Delpy’s incredible performances. Both are extremely comfortable with the characters and the material and their own influence into the story translates strongly on screen. Also impressive is their ability to handle these long dialogue-soaked takes. There’s an enviable skill in being able to nail a long take. These two performers do it over and over again.

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In “Before Sunset” Linklater uses Paris instead of Vienna but uses it in a slightly better way. The beauty of Paris isn’t thrown in our faces. Instead it playfully lingers in the background injecting itself at just the right moments (as only the City of Light could do) giving the movie a more romantic feel. It’s not forceful or overdone. The movie was filmed in just 15 days and the very few locations used around the city were perfectly appropriate for the long tracking shots and framed still shots that Linklater incorporates. Another fun and interesting production note – Delpy also wrote and performed three songs for the film.

This is a movie that might not be for everyone. Those unable to withstand long sequences of just two people talking are going to struggle with this picture. But they’re also going to miss out on a fabulous film. The more I think on it, the more I view it and the first movie as inseparable. “Before Sunrise” clearly made the sequel possible but the sequel gave the first movie a real feeling of consequence. These two didn’t just go their separate ways from Vienna. They changed the courses of their lives forever and not necessarily for the better. It doesn’t have the romance of the first film and it’s ending left a little to be desired. But I still find these characters mesmerizing and easy to invest in. Now bring on the third film!

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

5 PHENOMENAL MOVIE SOUNTRACKS *

Music can make a huge difference in movies. So this week I decided to look at 5 phenomenal movie soundtracks. But to be clear, I did set some restrictions. These are soundtracks featuring a collection of songs that work incredibly well with the movie they’re in. I’m not including in original scores in this list (that will come a little later). These are all soundtracks with songs by various artists that helped make the movies they were in unforgettable. I tried to pick soundtracks that are so memorable it would be hard to imagine the movie without them. Now all movie fans have soundtracks that strike a chord so I wouldn’t say this is the definitive list. But for my money these are 5 movie soundtracks that are absolutely phenomenal.

#5 – “TOP GUN” SOUNDTRACK

It could be argued that the “Top Gun” soundtrack is better than the actual movie. That’s an argument for another time. One thing that isn’t debatable is how much the soundtrack added to the movie. I mean can you imagine “Top Gun” without Kenny Loggins’ “Danger Zone”? And then you have Berlin’s Academy Award winning “Take My Breath Away” which was a #1 mega-hit. Loggins also sang “Playing With the Boys” and Cheap Trick did the energetic “Mighty Wings” which I still enjoy. Classics “Sitting on the Dock of the Bay”, “Great Balls of Fire”, and “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling” were added later to the deluxe edition. All of these songs and several others helped make the late “Tony Scott’s “Top Gun” and 80’s classic.

#4 – “O BROTHER, WHERE ART THOU” SOUNDTRACK

First off, this is not my kind of music. But there is no denying that the music in the Coen Brothers’ “O Brother, Where Art Thou” is an absolute perfect fit. The soundtrack features bluegrass, country, folk, and gospel and scatters it all through the movie. The soundtrack featured new songs and old classics from artists such as Ralph Stanley, Alison Krauss, Harry McClintock, and The Fairfield Four. But the song that people will always connect to the film is “Man of Constant Sorrows” sung by George Clooney and company in the movie but by “The Soggy Bottom Boys” in real life. The soundtrack won several awards and became incredibly popular and I can’t imagine this movie without it.

#3 – “PULP FICTION” SOUNDTRACK

Quentin Tarantino has a deep affection for music and how it contributes to his films. Perhaps the best example of this is with the fantastic assortment of tunes in “Pulp Fiction”. Tarantino carefully chose a stylish mix of soul, classic rock-and-roll, and even guitar driven surf music from the legendary Dick Dale. The song choices went from Kool and the Gang’s “Jungle Boogie” all the way to The Statler Brothers’ “Flowers on the Wall”. But the best scenes of the movie feature the best music. I love the famous dance contest at Jack Rabbit Slim’s to Chuck Berry’s “You Never Can Tell”. I also love Urge Overkill’s remake of Neil Diamond’s “Girl, You’ll Be a Woman Soon” which plays during the apartment scene. And who can forget Dusty Springfield’s “Son of a Preacher Man”? What a great variety of music.

#2 – “AMERICAN GRAFFITI” SOUNDTRACK

I love the music and the use of it in George Lucas’ “American Graffiti from 1973. But there’s a very interesting story behind it. Lucas understood that music was a huge presence in the summer of 1962. So he spent tons of money securing the rights to use the original material. In fact, he used up all of his budget therefore these classic oldies are the only music in the entire picture. But would you want it any other way? It was the perfect decision because you couldn’t go cruisin’ on a weekend in the 1960’s without the radio playing Del Shannon, Buddy Holly, The Beach Boys, Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, The Crests, Billy Haley & the Comets, and so many others. “American Graffiti” is a movie that owes a part of its success to this great selection of classic rock and roll tunes.

#1 – “DAZED AND CONFUSED” SOUNDTRACK

Let me simply say that I love the soundtrack to Richard Linklater’s coming of age picture “Dazed and Confused”. This 1993 comedy was set in 1976 during Lee High School’s final day of school and then a night of hanging out and cruising the town. As with “American Graffiti”, the music of the time is huge in making this movie work so well. And it’s not just the songs themselves, but it’s also Linklater’s management of the music. The soundtrack is an incredible collection of 70’s rock music including ZZ Top, Kiss, Alice Cooper, and Lynyrd Skynyrd. We get some great songs that we hear playing in cars and in the local arcade such as Rick Derringer’s “Rock and Roll, Hoochie Koo”, War’s “Low Rider”, and Foghat’s classic “Slow Ride”. Several other great tracks are perfectly used to help make this feel like a genuine 1970’s picture. I love the music, but even more I love the way Linklater makes the music as essential to the movie as it is to those kids cruising the streets.

There ya go, 5 Phenomenal Movie Soundtracks not including original scores. What do you think of the list? What did I miss. Please take time to share what you would have included.

“BERNIE” – 4 STARS

I can honestly say there are few actors that I dislike more than Jack Black. In fact, my excitement and anticipation for a movie can be negatively influenced or shaped just by seeing his name attached. So it’s safe to say that it wasn’t Jack Black that drew me to “Bernie”. But the movie has several other things going for it that spurred my curiosity. First, “Bernie” was directed and co-written by Richard Linklater, a filmmaker I have recently grown to appreciate especially after seeing “Before Sunrise” and “Before Sunset”. Then there’s the whole “based on a true story” thing about a funeral director in a small southern town. It sounded quirky and unusual yet featured several things that hit pretty close to home. Throw in what looked like a really peculiar looking role for Matthew McConaughey and I knew I needed to check this film out. I’m glad I did.

I wasn’t familiar with the real story of Bernie Tiede but I knew it was a highly unusual one. Jack Black plays Bernie, a funeral director in the small town of Carthage, Texas. In the first few scenes we notice that Bernie is, shall I say, a very different individual. Yet despite his many eccentricities, he is adored by the small community. He sings in the local church choir, helps locals with their taxes, coaches little league baseball, and is known for the amazing attention and care he gives grieving families at the local funeral home, particularly the widows. Linklater employs a very effective and often times hilarious method of storytelling. The movie is constructed like a documentary and we are introduced to and learn about Bernie through snippets of interviews with the Carthage locals. Some of the locals are played by lesser known actors but sprinkled in are interviews with real citizens of Carthage who are familiar with the real Bernie and the situation that he found himself in. It’s quickly evident that the locals truly loved him.

Bernie befriends a mean, crusty old widow named Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine). Marjorie is an extremely wealthy woman but she’s hated by the community and her family. She hits it off with Bernie after he handles her husband’s funeral and the two soon become inseparable. He takes her to dinner, helps her manage her affairs, and takes trips with her all over the world. Even as she grows more abrasive and abusive, Bernie is loyal and supportive. Again, Linklater tells us all of this through interviews with the town folks who aren’t a bit shy about sharing their opinions of Marjorie and of her friendship with Bernie. This is also where we meet Danny Buck Davidson (McConaughey), the area district attorney who some locals feel is more interested in staying in office that doing any real good. McConaughey is fantastic with his cowboy hat hair, oversized glasses, and funky inner mouth prosthetic. He fits perfectly in this zany cast of characters and he steals most of the scenes he’s in.

There is so much that works with this film. It shocks me to be able to say this but Jack Black is really good here. This is a quirky character that fits right into his limited comfort zone. He sells Bernie wonderfully and he leaves the audience questioning how we should understand and respond to his character. The movie also packs a lot of genuinely funny moments. Even when the story takes a more twisted turn it stills manages to sideswipe you with some unexpected hilarious scenes. But while it certainly didn’t ruin the movie, the later shift in the movie’s tone wasn’t seamless. There were a few moments in the film where it felt like Linklater struggled in mixing his humor with the more serious elements of the story. It’s impossible to go any further into detail without getting into spoiler territory but I did find myself questioning what kind of movie Linklater was making a few times in the third act.

But don’t let that small gripe scare you away from this picture. “Bernie” is one of the bigger surprises of the year. It’s a comedy that’s actual funny. It’s intelligent and creative and it doesn’t use the normal modern comedy gimmicks that are so prevalent today. Linklater does a brilliant job of taking a serious true story and wrapping it up in very unique humor and the results are fantastic. Black is really good, McConaughey is great, and the entire assortment of interviewed locals are guaranteed to make you laugh. I had a blast with “Bernie” and it’s a movie that I simply can’t wait to check out again.

“BEFORE SUNRISE” – 4 STARS

It’s gotten to where it is really difficult to find a good romantic drama or a good romantic comedy out of the host of mediocre to bad films that Hollywood churns out these days. So many of these movies employ the same stale formulas and the same conventional approach to storytelling. Richard Linklater’s “Before Sunrise” is an intelligent and fresh romantic drama that is anything but conventional. Linklater wrote and directed this story of two strangers who meet, take a chance, and truly connect.

“Before Sunrise” is built around an extremely minimal plot. Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) meet while on a train from Budapest to Vienna. Jesse is an American heading to Vienna where he is to catch a plane to the United States. Celine is a student at the Sorbonne in Paris and is returning after a trip to visit her grandmother. The two enjoy a conversation and they both sense a connection between them. The train arrives at Vienna in the early evening and Jesse’s flight doesn’t leave until the next morning. So he convinces Celine to skip her connecting train to Paris the spend the night with him walking through the streets of Vienna.

The rest of the movie follows them as they simply walk and talk. As they stroll through some of the city’s streets, cemeteries, and parks, they share more and more about each other – their beliefs, their pasts, their outlooks, their fears – and we the audience learn who they both are with each passing conversation. Even more, we watch as a spark of attraction turns into romance as the night continues. What’s even more interesting is watching the two pour their hearts out to each other as their time together begins to run out. There is an awareness between them that once she boards the train and he heads to the airport they may never see each other again. Linklater translates that reality to the audience very well and it’s a lot of what drives the second half of the film.

Both Ethan Hawke and Julie Delphy give great performances in a film requiring a lot of dialogue, some delivered through very long takes. The script almost feels as though it were written with them in mind, particularly Hawke, when actually Linklater had a hard time finding the perfect actors for the part. Hawke and Delphy work off of each other wonderfully and it’s their natural genuineness mixed with a perfect handling of the characters that sells both them and their romance. While Linklater brought aboard Kim Krizan to add a solid female influence into the story, it’s also said that both Hawke and Delphy contributed to the script. I think that’s another key reason that they work so well with the material.

Now there’s no denying that “Before Sunrise” is very talky and on the surface there isn’t a lot that happens. And even though I loved the glimpse into Vienna’s culture, Linklater – while certainly using it to a degree – doesn’t make the city and the culture a key player in the film in the same way as say Woody Allen did with Paris. It’s truly a movie about two strangers connecting and talking. Now as I mentioned, there is a meatier subtext and a more grounded and authentic look at spontaneity, personal reflection, and romance. But I can see where Linklater could have used the Vienna setting more to the movie’s advantage.

Overall, “Before Sunrise” is honest and straight-forward. There are no false moments or pretenses from the film, the characters, or the story and that’s one of the things that makes it work so incredibly well. You believe in the characters and you believe in their romance even though it’s based on one small spontaneous act. Watching these characters unfold was a delight and the ending didn’t undo what the rest of the movie accomplished. “Before Sunrise” may not be for everyone, but it’s a truly romantic yet in some ways sad look at two individuals who aren’t nearly as assured as they let on to be.