Boyhood – a tribute to and exploration of life

I was very pleased to catch Boyhood on its opening day (Friday) at the Michigan Theater in an “exclusive Ann Arbor area engagement.” It’s amazing and impressive that a film like this stayed under the radar for so long (at least to the general public) until its release was confirmed sometime late last year or earlier this year.

The genesis behind the movie is now well – known, and so I won’t recap it here. I will add that the storyline achieves its goal of serving as a narrative time capsule of the past 10 – 12 years. Somehow director Richard Linklater had the foresight to offer lingering shots on various cultural objects – whether a Game Boy, older model car, Harry Potter release party, a bulky cordless landline phone, hit song from a particular year, etc – that the audience can recognize and relate to, or in some cases laugh at and be like “wow, I can’t believe I used that, or that thing was so common back then.”

From the very first shot of the movie, we are right there with the development and growth of Mason, played by Ellar Coltrane. The film tracks the journey of, but never feels like a spectator in, Mason and his family’s growth over the next 12 years. We meet his older sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater), his mother (Patricia Arquette) and his distant father (Ethan Hawke). The parents are divorced with the mother taking primary custody, and her career and life path initially dictates the geographical range of the film as they move across Texas, the kids’ father comes in and out of their life, As Mason matures, he moves into the more direct focus of the narrative, and the last third or so of the film focuses on his own development in claiming an artistic life and stepping off on his own – into interpersonal relationships, career development, and a new life in college.

This was easily the most humane movie I’ve seen since Toy Story 3, with its tear-jerker of an ending, back in 2010. And this film touches the heart in a similar and different way, showing that life is relatable in its small, poignant, important moments, and drawing emotional truth, recognition and reflection from those same narrative themes.

On an industry – watcher note, it’s fascinating to see known actors Arquette and Hawke age on-screen; we can chart their growth in individual films over the years, of course, but never before in the same movie. Meanwhile, Coltrane and the younger Linklater mature into thoughtful young people, with a reflective poignancy present in their earlier in life scenes. Several actors move in and out of the narrative, and I wondered what that must have been like to come back to a project after a gap, or leave it after a year or two of working on it.

The film offers a fuller view of Texas than is usually seen on screen. Linklater directs with a steady hand, never letting a particular moment or theme overwhelm the narrative, or the story to be taken over by sentimentality or something that isn’t rooted in realism.

Best film of my year so far. I’m sure it will be hard to top. I almost don’t want to see another film this year after seeing this one.

boyhood cast

The cast and director as seen at the recent New York premiere.


Third Person Drama

My series of weekend late shows at the State Theatre continued last night with the new release Third Person.

The film is begin sold as “from the writer/director of Crash” and shares many similarities with that 2005 opus, which I found interesting on first (and possibly only) viewing, but is definitely a film that has not aged well.

Liam Neeson takes the central role as an accomplished writer, Michel, who is working hard on his latest novel, but is also working through some changes in his personal life, having decamped to Paris for an extended rendezvous with a  younger flame (Olivia Wilde) and left his wife (Kim Basinger) behind in the USA. We are introduced to several secondary characters as parallel story lines quickly take shape.

In New York City, an estranged couple (Mila Kunis and James Franco) engage in a custody battle over their young son, with the support of a lawyer (Maria Bello) and several additional characters. Meanwhile, in Italy, an American businessman (Adrian Brody) meets a mysterious local woman (Moran Atlas) and is drawn into her current predicament that eventually takes them to several places across Italy.

The stories intercut with each other and with the continued development of Neeson and Wilde’s storyline, so that you know they will eventually be linked in some way, and that connection is revealed at the very end of the film.

Only problem was I guessed the connection about a third of the way into the film – and it becomes increasingly clear if you pay attention to various visual clues.

Haggis displays a similar heavy-handed approach here as seen in his earlier films, which I feel might have been initially appreciated but now are greeted with less enthusiasm. I felt that most of the actors struggled to commit to their roles, with Kunis being a particularly glaring example of trying to give A Serious Performance … and not convincing me. (In contrast, her subtle, intense dramatic role in Black Swan continues to stand out in my memory.) I felt that Brody showed the most commitment to the material, which is interesting as his storyline initially seems the most tangential, but becomes the most endearing of the three.

On a related note, WHERE HAS KIM BASINGER BEEN? Her appearance here is criminally brief, but serves as a sharp reminder of her talents. I felt that she and Neeson should have spun themselves off into a separate movie focused on an age-appropriate romance or adventure. On the opposite side, JAMES FRANCO CONTINUES TO BE EVERYWHERE and strained credibility in his role as an accomplished New York painter, with his usual smirk lurking below his serious expressions.

Neeson acquits himself well, but suffers from a contrived role. It’s refreshing to see him stepping back into adult dramas after (what feels like) several years of only focusing on action movie work. I hope that other audiences will be reminded of his earlier work – and potential for future roles – with this performance. I felt that Kunis and Wilde ought to have switched roles, where the actresses’ strengths might have been more visible in their opposite parts. As it is, Wilde enjoys several sharp – tongued script moments but suffers from an overabundance of gratuitous girlfriend scenes, with accompanying nudity.

Curiously, one of the film’s best scenes sees Wilde and Neeson visit a Parisian dance club, where they briefly interact with some locals and express their intimacy through dance and silence, accompanied by a new track from Moby. The scene shows an easy comfort with simplicity, and what’s said and isn’t said, that the rest of the movie, with its overwrought and heavy – handed exposition, sorely lacks.

The new song’s video doubles as an extended informercial for the film:

You'd be drawn to a film with a cast like that, right?! (photo from IMDB)

You’d be drawn to a film with a cast like that, right?! (photo from IMDB)


Can’t/Must Stop the Train


Film poster courtesy IMDB

Film poster courtesy IMDB

Snowpiercer has arrived as curious anomaly or antidote to the summer movie season. Its cold, dark winter setting makes it seem more appropriate for a holiday season release, and a pointedly grim atmosphere clashes with the sunshine currently widely present outside movie theaters. But a relatively star-studded cast, with at least two Oscar winners and three Oscar nominees, plus two current popcorn-movie leading men, lends some credence to the summer release plan.

Set in the not-too-distant future, with references to an inciting event said to take place right here in 2014, the film tells the story of the last survivors on Earth who have been hauled together on an endless train ride, following a failed attempt to balance out the planet’s climate problems. The train is a microcosm of what’s left of humanity, but also shows the lingering tensions and anxieties of such relationships.

We’re introduced to the lower-class members of the train who are forbidden from moving forward thanks to on-train law enforcement. Occasionally they are addressed by Mason (Tilda Swinton) – a warden of sorts who tries to be somewhat humane to them at times, and maybe has a conflict between what she is doing and what actually happens to the lower-class individuals.

The first scene makes it clear that Curtis (Chris Evans – doing a total 180 from his “Captain America” life) is the ringleader of the rear-class citizens. He and a few friends including Edgar (Jamie Bell) are working to determine a way to get to the front of the train, aided by some assistance from Gilliam (John Hurt) – an older passenger who helped construct the train. A community of families is also evident in the group, with Tanya (Octavia Spencer) and Andrew (Ewan Bremmer) emerging as key representatives from that section of the population.

Because some of the players, Curtis included, have been trapped in the back of the train for so long, they have some misgivings about actually going ahead with their attempt to go to the front of the train. But several incidents and plot developments arrive in quick succession, and so Curtis takes the lead of going off into their unknown. The group quickly learns that they will not have an easy journey and that the train is more complex than any of them could have imagined.

I am impressed that a film like this, which could be summarized as “The Matrix on a train,” attracted such a star-studded cast. While a few performers (John Hurt, Ed Harris) offer variations on similar roles in their past or archetypal roles, others such as Evans and Swinton offer distinctive portrayals very different from previous performances in their filmography. Character distinctions are further highlighted by all of the rear-class citizens having some form of grime and muck on their body, while those closer to the front of the train have flawless skin. This is most sharply realized in a surprise cameo from Allison Pill as a teacher who seems to have a heart of gold, in spite of the circumstances (but does she?)

Director Joon-ho Bong makes his English-language debut with this release, and his Korean roots are evident in the choreography of fight scenes and use of actor Kang-ho Song in a key role. However, several of those same fight scenes take the violent elements longer than American audiences might be used to, and certain plot elements that might be suggested are actually visually explored, thus making the film hard to watch at times. The greater plot element of a class system on a contained environment is notable, and continues to find relevance in the present era.

I felt that same artistry contributed to the success of the film at other times, as in several moody sequences through the lesser-known (to the lower class citizens) areas of the train where ambient noise and active visuals take the place of dialogue, a sudden left-turn moment in a classroom car on the train, and a climactic sequence with a well-known actor appearing as the mastermind behind it all. The dark train ride is occasionally supplemented by beautiful cinematography of an endlessly snow-covered landscape, and the pace of the film does not feel rushed or locked into a blockbuster-style showdown at the end of the story.

I can’t recommend this film with gusto due to the high violent content and several derivative plot elements, but I feel that it will sustain itself as a notable release from this year. It’s great to see the cast members committing to their parts – though Swinton is always memorable in her roles. I particularly hope that the movie continues to stand out on Evans’ filmography, as he capably turns away from the “American Hero” role he’s become known for, and shows more depth and commitment to the part than possibly any other role he has done before.