Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Boyhood and Life Itself - Two of the Finest Films I Have Ever Seen

Richard Linklater has made a version of all of the movies I could ever hope to make, and more. He’s made the joyous backstage theatre drama (Me & Orson Welles), the best romance in recent movie history (the Before Sunrise, Before Sunset and Before Midnight trilogy), the story of the last day of school at an Austin high school (Dazed and Confused) and a dark comedy that explores the peculiarities of East Texas and its local flavor (Bernie).

With Boyhood, his twelve-years-in-the-making portrait of Mason (Ellar Coltrane) from age six to eighteen, Linklater has made his best movie, a masterful epic that brings to mind Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life (2011), both in its ambition and in its Texas setting. Roger Ebert wrote in his review of The Tree of Life that he didn’t “know when a film has connected more immediately with [his] own personal experience.” I suspect many people will feel this way about Boyhood, too.

Oh, how this film will resonate for those who grew up in Texas. Linklater gets everything right – the recitation of the Texas pledge in public schools, the sound of white winged doves calling out over suburban neighborhoods, the Bible given to you at a certain age with your name engraved on the cover. 

Near the end of the film, as she’s sending her son off to college, Mason’s mother, Olivia (Patricia Arquette), says, “I just thought there’d be more, you know?” And that’s when the power of the movie hit me.

Though the movie has been lauded for its incredible twelve-year shoot, the greatest achievement of Boyhood is that you don’t really notice the characters (and actors) aging. The movie is so entertaining, the transitions so seamless, and the characters such a genuine pleasure to hang out with, that you lose sight of the fact that they’re growing up and maturing right before your eyes. By not focusing on overly dramatic or seminal moments that other filmmakers might make the focus of their coming-of-age films, Linklater gives the whole movie such a hang-out feeling that the trick is not thinking about the time. And I thought there’d be more. But that’s how it happens. It’s all over too soon, and perhaps the power of the movie doesn’t even fully register until you realize it’s all over.

In the first half of this film, Mason is pulled in many different directions, with adults offering out various ways through life. It’s not until about midway through Boyhood that Mason really emerges and develops a voice. That’s not an arc we see much in cinema, particularly with so much emphasis placed on active characters. But how are we formed? Aren’t we all slowly molded by the world around us? Much of our childhood is spent not thinking about the future and not making active decisions. We’re certainly not thinking about what we’re doing as part of some larger life structure.

Many of the major character changes take place off-screen. The movie is not unlike Kenneth Lonergan’s Margaret (2011) in this respect, where characters are allowed to leave a scene and have lives outside the movie. I think of Mason’s father, Mason Sr. (Ethan Hawke) growing from freewheeling dad in one section of the movie to a slightly more conservative and mature man entering his second marriage a bit later. We see how this change must have taken place. To witness the change itself is not necessary.

The actors in Boyhood are extraordinary, and you’d be hard-pressed to argue that any other film performances this year are really comparable to what Arquette, Coltrane, Hawke and Lorelei Linklater achieve in this movie. In particular, I’d like to see Hawke at the very least get nominated for an Academy Award for his performance – he’s an absolutely fantastic actor, extraordinary in everything from Linklater’s films to Sidney Lumet’s Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead (2007) to Training Day (2001).

As Linklater says in an interview, “At some point, you’re no longer growing up, you’re aging. But no one can pinpoint that moment exactly.” I can’t wait to see Boyhood again to see if I can pinpoint exactly where it happens, but I have a feeling I’ll be taken away on Mason’s journey once again and forget about that question altogether, enjoying my time with wonderfully real people.

I’ve had my own boyhood with Mr. Linklater (see the picture to the left). I don’t mean to say he has any idea who I am, but by growing up in Austin and being interested in film, I (along with many others) feel a certain kinship with him.

He is our resident auteur, and more. He’s the friendly patron of the arts, the man sitting behind me at Hyde Park Theatre’s production of Killer Joe. He's the guy enthusiastically talking with cinephiles in between the Summer Classic Film Series screenings of Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull (1980) and Goodfellas (1990) at the Paramount Theatre. He came to Waterloo Video to sign the newly released Criterion DVD of Slacker back in 2004, and I have my copy proudly placed atop my DVD collection. “To Jack – all the best. Rick Linklater.”

I’ve never been more proud to come from the city of Linklater. The Texas auteurs – Linklater, Terrence Malick, Wes Anderson, David Gordon Green – are responsible for many of the best films of the last few years. Boyhood is certainly the best picture of this year, and I can only hope that by this time next year, we’ll be referring to Linklater as an Academy Award-winning director.

Special Note: In one of the scenes filmed at Austin High School, you can see the 2009 UIL One-Act Play State Champions banner hanging over the Preas Theater (for our production of Over the River and Through the Woods, in which I was one of the six actors). We didn’t just win State – we made it into a Linklater movie! Watch the Boyhood featurette that shows some of the filming at Austin High. And here's a great interview with Linklater - on Boyhood, Bernie and Texas.

How Richard Linklater made me a better film critic

Slacker Geography, 25 Years Later

Life Itself (Steve James)

I often walk out of movies and struggle to articulate the effect they have on me. Roger Ebert was a master at this. He always had a perfect turn of phrase to capture exactly what a certain movie felt like. Who else could write something like, “I was almost hugging myself while I watched it” of Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous (2000)? I think of that quote every time I watch Almost Famous, because that’s exactly how the movie makes you feel.

On the opening night of Steve James’s new documentary about Ebert, Life Itself, I was moved to tears, just as I had been the first time I saw the movie in January. Walking out of Austin’s Violet Crown Cinema and seeing the peaceful Austin skyline before me, a banner poster of Boyhood proudly draped over the cinema, I was touched by a tinge of sadness.

Partially because this journey isn’t yet over. Many of us left have yet to enjoy our heyday. Some of us never get there. Roger Ebert did, and the morning after he passes away in Life Itself, Steve James shows us a Chicago infused with sunlight and purpose. Forty years ago, there was Ebert, part of the very fabric of that city, informing the lives of its people. And now, he’s gone.

This is to say I don’t know how to articulate exactly how I felt looking out at the city skyline after this movie ended. Certainly, I was overcome with sadness, knowing that Ebert is gone and not coming back. But I was also filled with joy, knowing that a city – in his case, Chicago – could contain a man such as this, who stood for the right things and whose writing guided so many people to see pictures they may never have seen otherwise.

The film’s score plays an integral role in this magnificent feeling. The music by Joshua Abrams hits a feeling somewhere between triumphant and mournful. There’s something truly grand about it – as soon as you hear it, it just feels right. It’s the score a life like this deserves. With the aid of that score, those final shots of trains running through Chicago the morning after Ebert’s death give the movie an almost transcendental power. This movie embodies such a specific feeling and attitude toward a man, his life and the city in which he lived.

Watching Life Itself, I understood, in a way, what people mean when they say death is a beautiful thing. The movie’s celebration of life and reconciliation with death took me aback. When I saw the film for the first time in January, I was focused on how well the movie illustrates Mr. Ebert’s impact on cinema and his relationships with many of the filmmakers he championed. But I may have missed the fearless quality of the movie to look at something deeper, going into the unknown and ultimately coming to peace with Ebert’s passing. I felt Ebert’s bravery more this time.

I’ve not seen a movie that treats death with such forthrightness since Sean Penn’s Into the Wild (2007), at least in the sense that death is accepted in both films and shown for what it is.

During one section of the movie, Ebert’s friend Bill Nack recites the last page of Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby by heart, and perhaps that’s as good a way as any to reconcile this thing that happens to all of us in the end. Life Itself is one of the best films I’ve seen, not simply because it captures what made Ebert so important and influential to the film community, but because it’s one of the few movies that’s left me with a profound impression about what it means to face death.

So, reflecting after the movie, I thought about this ether space – the space between the old world, where Ebert was alive and influenced how I thought of cinema, and this new world, where recent movies seem almost out-of-balance without his writing and guiding them to their proper alignment. As Ebert goes, so does a whole way of living, a whole time and place for me.  He is more than a part of my childhood. He is sort of the leader, along with Martin Scorsese, of everything I hold sacred and thrilling in movies.

And here was this new city in front of me, full of life and those who may never know what kind of man was here for a time and informed the way we feel and react.

"And it took me years to understand that that’s who I am. And Roger knew that.” - Martin Scorsese

The best films of 2014, at the half-way point.

1. Boyhood (Richard Linklater)
2. Life Itself (Steve James)
3. The Immigrant (James Gray)
4. The Grand Budapest Hotel (Wes Anderson)
5. Under the Skin (Jonathan Glazer)
6. Noah (Darren Aronofsky)
7. Ida (Pawel Pawlikowski)
8. Joe (David Gordon Green)
9. Night Moves (Kelly Reichardt)
10. Jersey Boys (Clint Eastwood)

With Begin Again, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Edge of Tomorrow, Snowpiercer, Enemy, Muppets Most Wanted and The Lego Movie very close behind. And, of course, Afternoon of a Faun: Tanaquil Le Clercq, which I'm not including due to my closeness to the movie (but it is truly one of the finest films).

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