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Monday, August 11, 2014

Boyhood (Limited Release Date: 7-11-2014)

        Richard Linklater has been making feature films for the last 23 years, and we're only just now starting to figure him out. Undoubtably one of the most under-appreciated directors of his generation, Linklater's formal elasticity has helped him make minimalist art films (Slacker, the Before trilogy), layered character studies (Dazed and Confused, Bernie), rotoscope animation drama for adults (Waking Life, A Scanner Darkly), and live-action studio comedy for kids (School of Rock, Bad News Bears). This reluctance to be placed in any single box has threatened to become the very box itself, the auteur's insistence on variety serving as a defining trait of his filmography. Another is sparkling dialogue, as anyone who's melted over Jesse and Celine's crackling discourse, or poured over Waking Life's myriad of delightfully thorny ideas, can readily attest. With the release of Boyhood, the critical conversation has shifted to his obsession with time, the Before series having already incorporated the passage of literal years onto its fictional canvas, Dazed serving as a time capsule waiting patiently to be unearthed. All theories are right in their own way, but I'm here to posit my own; Linklater's real love affair is with the notion of growth.

        Back in the summer of 2002, Linklater cast a 7-year-old boy named Ellar Coltrane in the role of Mason, a character who would take his cues from the young actor's real life, rather than the other way around. Over the course of the next 12 years, Linklater and his crew embarked on yearly visits to Houston, filming for about a week at a time on each occasion. Without a concrete script to work off, the filmmaker consulted with Coltrane and the other three leads (Patricia Arquette, Ethan Hawke, and Lorelei Linklater, the helmer's daughter), molding the story according to the real-life development of all of the actors, the kids especially. There is no plot, only a two-and-a-half hour window into the youth of a human being, resulting in a film that could somehow be described as either a dull bore or a towering epic depending on whom you're talking to. And since it's me who's talking, let's go with epic.

        I have never seen anything quite like Boyhood. The most obvious comparison is Michael Apted's Up documentaries, but those films, which check in on the real lives of the same handful Brits every seven years, observe the aging of their stars over the course of many chapters, and many hours. Watching this young boy grow into puberty and then approach manhood over such a relatively short period of time makes a real emotional impact, a special effect more awe-inspiring than anything a computer could ever make. One usually shies away from praising a film for its concept above its execution, but Boyhood is that rare instance where form starts to bleed into content. However riveting the story may or may not be, the experience of watching Coltrane stumble through that awkward, immediately relatable thing we call growing up, all while his parents develop both wisdom and wrinkles before our eyes, is undoubtably the most emotional aspect of the picture.

         Another oddly relatable property are the Harry Potter books and films, a collection of stories that featured growing characters/actors whose collective adolescence ran parallel to that of their primary audience. We certainly know that Mason is Generation Hogwarts, Boyhood oft-referencing the series, and even taking time to revel in the joy of a midnight release of The Half-Blood Prince. The picture is constantly dating itself in this manner, and while one wonders how these year-specific citations will effect the film in the future, they recall the impression and importance of pop art on young brains. The fact that six-year-old Mason loves Dragon Ball Z, 14-year-old Mason loves The Dark Knight, and 18-year old Mason reads Breakfast of Champions and jams out to Arcade Fire is neither a mistake nor a minor observation; his interests chart the moments that, at the time, felt important in popular culture, as well as our protagonist's continuing maturation.

         Casting a pair of children in a decade-plus film project is obviously a risky gambit, but for the most part, both Coltrane and Linklater come up aces. The latter grows from the sort of in-your-face precociousness youngsters often take on into an aloofness readily familiar on the faces of many young adults. Coltrane's journey is a bit more rocky; he proves endearingly observant and pensive during his single-digits ages, then morphs into a counter-culture punk, complete with greasy hair, painted nails, and forth-baked ideas on philosophy and society as a whole. I cannot say, in good conscious, that I liked teenaged Mason, but the brattiness that will undoubtedly turn off a multitude of viewers rings completely true to me. Some will claim that Linklater's writing drops off at this point, but all of the cringe-enducing self-satisfaction marks a recognizable point in adolescent development. Hawke and Arquette are perhaps even more wonderful, Arquette especially, as parental figures who attempt to steer their children onto the 'right path,' an agenda that eventually helps them locate their own.

        The last filmic comparison I want to bring up is Terence Malick's The Tree of Life, a flick which Boyhood will likely follow into a Best Picture nomination. No, there are no dinosaurs on hand this time around, but the way in which both filmmakers present childhood memories less as momentous occasions than a series of poignant minor moments strikes an awfully deep chord. Boyhood might not be electric entertainment from cover to cover, but neither is life. I usually don't like this argument, as it favors films that treat boredom as a sort of artistic virtue, but this is an entirely singular example. Linklater's piece isn't a slice-of-life movie with covert plotting and a relatable human cast; it's a slice-of-life unto itself, posing as a feature film. When most movies fail to intrigue for a few consecutive minutes, you start looking at your watch; when Boyhood hits a lull, you just sort of wait it out, just like you would analogous dull periods in your own life. The only things that come off inorganically are the start and the finish, and only because life lays claim to neither an explicit genesis, nor a definite conclusion, outside of the literal. Even after a slow-moving 165 minutes, the end credits still provide a jolt; there's so much more life to live, and Mason has only just begun.

Grade: A

Friday, August 8, 2014

Guardians of the Galaxy (Release Date: 8-1-2014)

        In case you still haven’t noticed, Marvel Studios is on to something. In a day and age where your average summer blockbuster takes on a gravity previously reserved for Oscar hopefuls, Marvel’s output uses levity as a sort of inspired counter-programming. They’ve also got that whole inner-connectivity thing going on, a rhetoric that serves to creatively handcuff the film-house’s narratives, but has proven successful enough to shake the Hollywood business model to its very core. When it was first announced, Guardians of the Galaxy sounded more like a scouting report than a proper film, a product designed to test just how obscure the brand could get before turning folks away. In reality, it’s the very opposite; Guardians is Marvel’s big power move, correctly betting that our collective previous investment would again put butts in seats, and that said butts would be primed and ready for a comic book adaptation that functions as a comedy first, and an action movie second.

        Chris Pratt stars as Peter Quill, a human orphan and conman who traverses odd ends of the galaxy looking for his next big score, a Han Solo avatar in his own mind. Near the picture's opening, Quill steals a mysterious metal orb with sights set exclusively on the nearest inter-galactic pawn shop. The theft prompts a sizable bounty to be placed on his head, one that a wise-cracking, genetically mutated raccoon (Rocket, as voiced by Bradley Cooper), and his anthropomorphized tree sidekick (Groot, voiced by Vin Diesel) would love to get their grimy mitts on. Then there's Gamora (Zoe Saldana), assassin and hench-woman of the power-hungry Ronin (Lee Pace), and adopted daughter of ultimate celestial baddie Thanos (voiced by Josh Brolin), who's tasked with retrieving the orb, but might just have a few ideas of her own. There's also a tatted-up brute named Drax, as well as Glenn Close's incredible hairpiece, but that's probably enough zaniness for one paragraph.

        Like Jon Favreau (Iron Man) and Joss Whedon (The Avengers) before him, director/co-writer James Gunn treats his Marvel debut as an enormous coming-out party. After contributing a pen to such obvious Hollywood cash-grabs as the live-action Scooby Doo movies and 2004's Dawn of the Dead remake, Gunn retreated into independent film, focusing on genre send-ups like his gross-out, alien slug invasion film Slither, and the twisted cape-and-callow cautionary tale Super. This affectionate riffing carries directly over to Guardians, and while many have praised the movie for the way it frequently skirts expectations and rhetoric, it also employs them where it sees fit. Its parody comes from a place of affection, like a friend who has known you long enough to poke fun at your tendencies every once in a while. The key word, as with all things Guardians, is fun.

        Gunn's picture is also an eye-dazzler, hoping from one planet or location to the next, each new setting beautifully rendered and admirably textured. The technical elements on hand, from costume and production design, to special effects, to sound work, are all steady and assured, while the Oscar for Best Make-Up and Hairstyling has already been shipped out to Marvel Studios, and should be getting there in about a week or so. Even the oddball sound track, comprised of soft-rock hits from the 70's for reasons that prove move affecting than one could have possibly predicted, is a perfect choice, befitting and bolstering the film's tone in equal measure. Everywhere you look, Guardians is having its cake, and eating it too. Well, almost everywhere...

        Marvel's stayed MacGuffin problem crops up once again, yet another superhero movie who's plot is set in motion by something shiny that could destroy EVERYTHING (are these movies written by cats jonesing to chase laser pointers?). The climactic battle again features an endless onslaught of sound and fury signifying nothing, led by a bad guy who we never learn to truly care about (Pace). This wouldn't be such a problem if the film wasn't so good at endearing us to its characters, the movie baring a deep, unmissable affection for its characters that's downright contagious. I expected to giggle at Pratt's pluckiness and grin at Saldana's badass-ery, but emotionally connecting to a talking raccoon and a CGI tree? Now that's movie magic.

        Guardians of the Galaxy is near-ideal popcorn entertainment, a creation so deftly calibrated that you start to wonder why more films don't follow its lead. Instead of inundating us with further gloominess and destruction, why don't big film studios... you know... create characters we like and care about, write a few good jokes, and come up with a unique visual design? Maybe it's just too much to ask, but the experience of watching Guardians in a packed auditorium that erupted into applause upon the film's conclusion reminded me that this sort of fair is supposed to be fun first, and everything else second. Gunn's film, one of the funniest and strangest Hollywood offerings in recent memory, understands what our American tentpoles have been missing, and delivers it in spades. I've always chided Marvel for exclusively making good, not great movies; looks like I'll be changing my tune.

Grade: A-