Sunday, August 17, 2014


For most filmmakers, one of the biggest narrative struggles is finding a way to distort—or evade altogether—the depiction of the passage of time.

That’s not the case for Richard Linklater, who doesn’t just embrace the elusive concept with a profound understanding that few of his contemporaries can match, but makes it the very core of his work. We’ve seen him do it before, revisiting Jesse and Celine at progressive intervals through their lives in the Before Sunrise trilogy. But never before has Linklater captured the essence of growing up with such graceful authenticity and fluidity as in Boyhood.

It’s difficult to assign the film a synopsis. The word often implies a story heavy with construction, and forces us to condense it into a single sentence that cleanly encompasses its major events. But there are no major events in Boyhood. No “a-ha” moments, no brewing struggles that crescendo into a dramatic climax, no tidy denouements. There’s just the gentle observation of a young life and of the lives around him. I even hesitate to call him the male lead, as portraying a character seems to be the last thing the remarkably natural Ellar Coltrane is doing here. But technically, that’s what he is.  

He plays a pint-sized Mason when we first meet him, grinding rocks through pencil sharpeners and collecting snake vertebrae—as any six year-old boy would. Over the next 164 minutes, we watch him become a high school graduate through snippets from his life, interlaced with those of the lives around him.  The product of a divorce, Mason and his older sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater) are shuttled from city to city within Texas, following their mother Olivia (Patricia Arquette) as she goes back to college and stumbles through a series of toxic husbands, and reconnecting with their father, Mason Sr. (a hammy but perfect Ethan Hawke), on weekends and holidays.

By many accounts, it’s an all-American childhood, each year a fifteen-minute collection of memories: the kids reading Harry Potter in bed with Olivia. A particularly amusing conversation on contraception with Mason Sr. Perfecting s’mores by a campfire. Cracking voices. Teenage girlfriends. Part-time jobs. They’re not necessarily milestones, just moments, made special by the simple virtue of being part of life.

The years flow seamlessly, without captions of clarification or prolonged black screens that blatantly declare the passage of time, but with transitions that are more organic—a character turning a corner, a passing comment about a recent news event, Mason’s ever-fluctuating hair length. Everything is historically accurate by default, from computer models and political campaigns to the music accompanying the chapters, each tune a reminiscent throwback to its era (think Coldplay of the early millennium, up to "Summer Moon" from Jeff Tweedy's still-unreleased album).  Like scribbled notes, the moments are disconnected, compiled in a cinematic scrapbook that chronicles the evolution of not just a young boy, but of an entire family. Linklater is keenly in tune with their growth along with Mason's, from Olivia’s turbulent relationships to Samantha’s middle school crushes and Mason Sr.’s own maturation from a responsibility-shunning, accidental dad to a remarried and graying owner of a minivan. It’s as much a tale of childhood as one of parenthood or even sisterhood, not a singular transformative story but the trajectory of many, each character’s arc as real as it gets without slipping into nonfiction.

But at its heart is the boy. Mason is a slight shadow of a being during his first ten years, the nonchalant background observer as Samantha steals scenes with her pre-adolescent sass. But as he explores where to stand on the vast spectrum of the people he could become, he gradually takes steps to the forefront. Glimpses of passion and purpose reveal a budding personality: a preference for photography over football. A disdain for the digital invasion of human interactions. The quiet kid, whose ambivalence we at moments worried for, has become sensitive, receptive, and a real individual, evoking a wistful pride that can only come from the unique experience of having watched both Ellar and Mason come of age before our eyes.

Some months ago, mere days before the film’s release, I attended a Q&A session at Manhattan’s 92nd St. Y with Coltrane and Linklater, the latter confessing his “extremely low standards” for what qualifies as a film; according to him, anything can be turned into a story. What was cited self-deprecatingly as a flaw is actually a rare gift: the ability to view ordinary incidents through an understated yet distinctive lens that doesn't elevate or inject them with contrived sentimentality. We appreciate them simply by watching. What would appear corny in anyone else's hands is, in Linklater’s, thought provoking and deeply touching. In this literal and figurative labor of love, he is guided by his gentle intuition to let human journeys unfold, rather than the motivation to impart a weighty message about them.

 Moreover, he makes his brand of storytelling look deceptively easy, effortlessly weaving improvised dialogue into predetermined plot points that camouflage the sheer conviction, commitment, and yes, the time it took to realize this vision: less than 40 days of principal photography sprinkled over 12 years, a production conceived on a shoestring budget, shot on film, with little foresight into the distribution landscape upon its completion, and driven by the collective leap of faith of its cast and crew. Transporting us into this family’s life, the 2+ hours pass in waves of humor and heart-tugging nostalgia. At one point, Mason and a new friend contemplate the popular notion to “seize the moment,” realizing that in truth, it’s the moments that seize us. In Boyhood, those moments are fleeting portraits of poignancy, constant in their presence and their transience. Like in life itself, they melt into years that suddenly, somehow, go by in the blink of an eye.

Friday, August 1, 2014

Indie Movie Preview: August 2014

So far so good with my promise to keep up with my monthly movie preview series! (Let’s just ignore the minor detail that that means pretty much nothing, considering that this is only the second one).  We’re heading into the prime of the “dog days of summer;” and while there aren’t a whole lot of options at the theater this August to help beat the heat, I’m looking forward to five releases that may provide some respite. Here are the indies* lighting up the marquees this month!

First time here? Check out my July 2014 preview for an introduction to this series, wherein I also clarify what I consider to be “indie.”

What If
Release Date: August 1
Starring: Daniel Radcliffe, Zoe Kazan, Adam Driver, Rafe Spall

What’s the story? The Boy Who Lived becomes the Man Who Loved as Daniel Radcliffe swoops into straight-up romcom territory in this story of a fellow who falls for his best friend, though she happens to be seeing someone else.

My take:  If the plot sounds predictable to you, I can’t disagree. But I’m looking forward to Radcliffe taking on a more “normal” post-Potter role in which he’s not blinding horses or being accused of murder. After graduating from the wizarding world of Harry Potter, he has stripped on stage in Equus, sprouted Satanic prongs in Horns, and dabbled in hipster-era debauchery in Kill Your Darlings; in short, he’s (only partly successfully) done everything in his power to render his wand-wielding days a distant memory. If you’re anything like me, you still find it challenging to see him as anyone other than Harry, even three years after the final film. But along with the character, the loyalty he inspired from me in that beloved series has also carried over since he said goodbye to Hogwarts. And so, whether I’m convinced by his performance in this film or not, I’ll be watching and rooting for it anyway.

The Trip to Italy
Release Date: August 15
Starring: Steve Coogan, Rob Brydon, Rosie Fellner

What’s the story? Four years ago, Steve invited Rob to join him on a journey through northern England to review the country’s finest dining establishments. This time, they’re taking their volatile bromance on the road again, driving and dining their way from Liguria to Tuscany in an exploration of Italy’s culinary and cultural treasures. 

My take: I haven’t yet seen The Trip, the much-loved 2010 precursor to this movie—though I’ve had it on my Netflix queue for the last two years, so my intentions are good! Yet, from the looks of it, that isn’t a prerequisite for enjoying the leading duo’s second excursion. Films focused on travel, food and friendship never really fail that miserably to begin with, and anything involving Steven Coogan (last seen in the extremely likeable Philomena) is probably worth watching. Couple that with his natural chemistry with Brydon, their shared gift for comedic timing, and the promise of many close-up shots of pasta, and I’m guessing The Trip to Italy will be one to remember.  

Release Date: August 22
Starring: Michael Fassbender, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Domhnall Gleeson

What’s the story? Aspiring musician Jon thinks he’s on his way to stardom when he joins a pop band. When he realizes that the group’s lead singer is a man who insists on permanently wearing an oversized, paper mache head, he begins having second thoughts. But at that point, he may be way too in over his own head to back out.

My take: The last time I saw Michael Fassbender on screen, he was ruthlessly whipping slaves into bloody submission as plantation owner Edwin Epps in 12 Years a Slave. I think it’s safe to say that Frank, with its kooky plot and deadpan humor, is a bit of a departure from that. Most intriguing is how, with that giant mask obstructing his facial expressions—which I would think are essential to effective acting— Fassbender might use other tools to deliver a convincing performance. If he can pull this off, it’ll be yet more proof of his limitless talent.  And from the film’s positive reception at this year’s Sundance and SXSW festivals, it looks like he can rest his case on that point. I’ve got to see this.

Love is Strange
Release Date: August 22
Starring: John Lithgow, Alfred Molina, Marisa Tomei

What’s the story? After over 40 years together, Ben and George finally get married. But their plans for happily ever are quickly botched after George loses his job; the couple is forced to sell their apartment and live separately until they can find a new home, all the while struggling with the adjustments of their host families and the woes of being apart.

My take:  Be it the ever-so-relatable “unforgiving New York real estate” angle, the unique handling of concepts like long-distance love and intergenerational family dynamics, or the rare focus on an elderly gay couple, there are plenty of reasons to be taken by the looks of this film. Known for stories that are less plot-driven than they are character sketches, director Ira Sachs has ably handled subjects like the hardships of marriage and homosexuality in previous films such as Married Life and Keep the Lights On. He therefore seems firmly in his comfort zone here, while seasoned actors like Lithgow, Molina and Tomei look poised to do those characters justice. From where I stand, this looks like a sensitive, reflective, and gently humorous look at love story gone slightly askew.

The Congress
Release Date: August 29
Starring: Robin Wright, Paul Giamatti, Harvey Keitel, Jon Hamm

What’s the story? A has-been actress, on the verge of becoming completely obsolete agrees to do one last job, but things become way more complicated than she anticipated when the project presents life-altering repercussions.

My take: My desire to see The Congress comes, more than anything, from the fact that I am utterly baffled by it. The trailer comprises a bewildering amalgamation of nostalgic references, futuristic effects, post-apocalyptic worlds, a dash of inexplicable animation, and some very blurred lines between fantasy and real-life. I wish I had a more cohesive explanation for it all. Considering that this movie is made by Ari Folman, the same man who gave us 2008’s Oscar-nominated documentary Waltz With Bashir, I’ll just trust that there’s surely a greater meaning behind all the enigmatic madness. The curiosity to discover it is enough reason to watch the film—well, that, and the fact that Jon Hamm is supposed to be lurking around somewhere in there.