Wednesday, July 9, 2014


Richard Linklater's "Boyhood" is an extraordinary filmmaking achievement in its ambition, scope and as an experiment in time and longevity through the telling of a family story filmed over the course of 12 years with all the same actors. But even more than that, it's a film of remarkable power and humility. The director who helmed the "Before" trilogy creates a lived-in feeling with these characters in their decade-long journey, and it permeates into a sensation for the audience that is indescribable and inescapable; it's the aura of watching something so true and real that you'll find yourself reflecting back on your own childhood and experiences growing up. It's by and far the best film so far this year and likely the best film of the year, period. And personally, it's the best I've seen in years and had me moved to tears of awe unlike anything in recent memory.

Newcomer Ellar Coltrane plays Mason, who begins the film at age six and ends at 17, and we watch him grow up right before our eyes. The moments through childhood into adolescence and young adulthood for Mason are both small and large, from playing mindless video games with friends to a camping trip with his dad to witnessing domestic abuse and graduating high school. Arguments could be made about individual scene inclusions full of seemingly arbitrary and insignificant moments, but that would be missing the point. Having watched everything in these lives unfold before us for two hours and 45 minutes, it becomes astounding, enthralling and overwhelming in its bigger picture breadth of emotion and resonance.

Cultural cues take us through the passing of time, and it clicks along seamlessly without any timestamp. The soundtrack, most notably, is keyed into each era perfectly and includes a fantastic use of Arcade Fire's "Deep Blue." As we go along, sometimes our only indicator is Mason's changing hair shifting back and forth between short and long as he goes from precocious kid to introspective teen. Spending too much time on his Nintendo 3DS, wondering why his girlfriend doesn't agree that "Tropic Thunder," "The Dark Knight" and "Pineapple Express" are the best three movies of the summer, attending a book launch party for the sixth "Harry Potter" and the bittersweet sibling relationship with sister Samantha (played by Linklater's daughter Lorelei) who admires Lady Gaga's "Telephone" video -- it's all part of the larger tapestry that gets weaved through a series of nearly non-events, about nothing more than watching this boy grow older, watching a life. And in that simplicity lies the film's greatest strength.

As much as "Boyhood" is about boyhood, it's also largely about motherhood and fatherhood. Ethan Hawke is the divorced dad whose eventual maturity was too little, too late to save his marriage. Later in life we see him with a second wife and a newborn; he's finally grown into the man Mason's mom expected him to be years ago. But that's not to say he's uncaring. He loves his kids and connects with him the best he can and bestows whatever knowledge he has onto a teenaged Mason about life, love and women. Patricia Arquette as Mason's mom is the film's rock and guiding light. She goes through two more divorces -- a parade of drunk assholes, as Mason recalls -- and seems to be just as in flux as her son, a smart and talented woman who happens to be still figuring things out nearly halfway through her lifetime. In a final moment as she watches Mason head off to school, the weight of everything that has come before crashes down on her in a devastating flash of midlife crisis.

Early Oscar buzz should be in the air and will hopefully carry into the season and not only for the film and its writer/director but for its actors, too. Ellar Coltrane, Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette all deliver nomination-worthy performances that are soulfully nuanced for over a decade. While Coltrane's older Mason stays relatively quiet around family, he opens up into philosophical musings with his girlfriend that cut into themes about connecting with others, the passage of time and wondering what it's all for. The final scene has Mason off at college, and a girl contemplates with him the meaning of the phrase "seize the moment." She asks, "Isn't it the other way around?" The moments are what seize you. And so they do. No other film captures an entire stretch of life's moments quite like Richard Linklater's "Boyhood" does. It's a masterpiece.


At the start of the uplifting and momentous documentary "Life Itself," the voice of Roger Ebert gives a speech: "For me, the movies are like a machine that generates empathy. It lets you understand a little bit more about different hopes, aspirations, dreams and fears. It helps us identify with the people who are sharing this journey with us." This journey, for our generation's most famous and beloved film critic, is a life lived through cinema. And even though in 2006 his voice was taken from him, it did not silence him from doing what he loved: delivering cinematic and cultural commentary with great passion and honesty. And he did it for years to come. From director Steve James (known for 1994's "Hoop Dreams," which Ebert loved), the film recounts Ebert's journey and, most fittingly, it's largely told in the critic's own words.

The film traces back to December 2012, documenting the final months of Ebert's life, when James visited him and wife Chaz in the Chicago hospital where he was staying after multiple surgeries. He was at the tail-end of a battle against thyroid cancer that had taken his lower jaw, leaving a limp flap of skin where his chin used to be. There is no shying away from close-ups of Ebert's rather grisly physical state, including an unflinching moment where he's fed through suction; he cringes in pain at the procedure before giving the nurse a thumbs up. Ebert was deeply involved with this film's creation, aiding to the desire for full transparency and wanting to tell his life story with the utmost truth. This involves revealing the return of his cancer against Chaz's wishes and the not-revealed-until-now fact that he met Chaz in AA after battling depression and alcoholism.

Taken from excerpts of his memoir of the same name, the film takes a look back at his career as a steadfast newspaperman for the Chicago Sun-Times, his Pulitzer Prize-winning work, his writing of the screenplay "Beyond the Valley of the Dolls," the impact his words had on filmmakers' lives such as a young Martin Scorsese and, of course, his show "At the Movies" with longtime partner Gene Siskel which created the infamous two thumbs up review system.

Especially here in this relationship, Ebert is painted as stubborn, egotistical and sometimes downright harsh. And yet that's who he was, and this surprisingly unsentimental portrayal does the famed film critic justice by showing exactly the man he was; and not to say he wasn't heartwarming and generous. He was that, too, just not maybe toward Siskel -- until an appreciation for each other grew late in the game. And how devastated Ebert was when Siskel's death came as a shock after he had decided not to share the news of his illness.

"Life Itself" is a lovely film and critical viewing not only for admirers of Roger Ebert but for anyone who considers themselves a lover of cinema. It's an absorbing and life-affirming documentary that touches on everything from the power of writing, the necessity of film criticism, the pain of illness and death and, finally, the nature of love and living life to the fullest down to the very last moment.

Monday, June 30, 2014


As we continue into the summer movie season with superheroes, sequels and money-grubbing tentpoles, here arrives "Snowpiercer," a thrilling piece of international filmmaking that carries the gusto of any great blockbuster and the brains of the most sophisticated sci-fi dystopian fare. From visionary director Joon-ho Bong, who took the creature feature (2006's "The Host") and murder mystery (2009's "Mother") genres and turned them on their heads, he has created a wildly original and inventive take on a sociopolitical parable. Simply put: it's the action film everyone should be (and probably isn't) seeing and talking about right now.

It's the year 2031, and an attempt to counteract global warming has sent the world into an Ice Age with the only survivors boarding a guargantuan locomotive that circumvents the earth at a rate of one revolution per year. It is humanity's brave new world, a place severely divided into a harsh class system. The deprived, soot-covered 99 percent are forced to live in miserable conditions in the back of the train while the one percent enjoy decadent luxuries in the front of the train. Curtis (Chris Evans) is the reluctant hero of his fed-up cohorts in the back who've long been planning a prison break-styled revolt to charge their way to the front. The premise may sound like something you've seen before -- most notably the class system found in "The Hunger Games" franchise -- but that's where the familiarities begin and end.

What follows is a headlong rush into complete lunacy, a wild ride that could only work as well as it does because it comes from such a visually audacious filmmaker. The action sequences are propulsive and spectacular, each uniquely stylized as the revolters hack and slash their way through swarms of thugs; one of the scenes in particular is a heart-pounding stand-out. Beyond visually, what's most impressive is the crazy balancing act the film strikes in its tone; it's profoundly serious with brutal violence and then throws in spurts of pitch black hilarity.

Delivering the most laughs is Tilda Swinton who beams in her performance from what feels like a different planet entirely. The chameleon actress is batshit brilliant and knocks out every scene she's in. A close runner-up is Alison Pill as a delusional school teacher in a sequence that stands as the film's downright most bizarre. Chris Evans sheds his "Captain America" exterior to deliver a grounded, rugged performance while John Hurt is great as the peg-legged old man of wisdom. Octavia Spencer shines with ferocity and warmth while Jamie Bell plays a go-getting sidekick, and Kang-ho Song is superb as a drug-addicted securities expert.

Here's a film that pulls you into its strange, scary and wonderfully weird world and recaptures the feeling of truly transporting cinema. Think "The Matrix" -- it's that good. Joon-ho Bong doesn't shy away from reaching for greatness and comes out the other end with something to say, too. The film is not subtle about its powerful ideas and using the train as an allegory for the world we live in today. How far are we willing to go in order to exist comfortably in our society at the expense of so many suffering? "Snowpiercer" suggests a bleak reality.


The romantic leads in David Wain's "They Came Together" are Paul Rudd and Amy Poehler, and it's inspired casting, both for the sake of comedy and that they actually look like romantic leads. Rudd is handsome but nonthreatening while Poehler is adorable and impossible not to like. This very thing is explained in the opening scene when their characters, Joel and Molly, are telling the story of how they met to friends, Kyle (Bill Hader) and Karen (Ellie Kemper), at dinner. Their story is like a cheesy romantic comedy, and the friends act as an audience stand-in. But it's not a movie; it's their real lives! And a millisecond before the scene cuts away, Poehler gives a knowing look right to the camera. It's perfect.

Don't forget that New York plays such a pivotal role in their story, that the city really is like a third character, something that's brought up over and over. "So if your life was a movie," the friend asks, "we'd probably open with overhead shots of New York?" Cue overhead shots of New York, and the movie begins. Written by Michael Showalter and David Wain -- the guys behind the cult favorite "Wet Hot American Summer," and Wain who more recently made "Role Models" and "Wanderlust" -- the guys have a whole hell of a lot of fun jabbing, poking and skewering cliches of the rom-com genre left and right. It's really a one-joke movie, but that one joke really works thanks to smart writing and a whole cast of funny people from Max Greenfield and Michael Ian Black to Christopher Meloni and Jason Mantzoukas. (Not to mention a late cameo that I will not spoil here.)

Beyond Joel and Molly, all of the folks who populate this movie are less characters and more walking, talking rom-com tropes. Characters will call each other big brother, best buddy and friend stereotypes without batting an eye. The whole thing plays out like a series of strung-together sketches wherein some of the gags are a little too out there and don't exactly work. But when the comedy is on-point with its satire of the genre, especially early on, it's firing on all cylinders with always welcomed splashes of vulgarity. And it's not just broad brushstroke satire; they get down to even the smallest details to take aim at from musical montages to characters always having one more thing to say before a scene's end ("shit"). While the third-act catapult into absurdity is a bit of a letdown, what comes before it makes that easy to forgive. It will probably be hard to watch any straight-laced romantic comedy through the same lens again. Bravo.