Friday, July 25, 2014

New movie review: Boyhood

Mason, played by Ellar Coltrane, looks up at the sky in the opening shot of Richard Linklater's magnificent Boyhood.

“It’s like all of life has unfolded before us just so we could stand here and say, ‘Fuck yeah!’”

A relatively minor character has this drug-induced epiphany in the closing moments of Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, and it is as apt an approximation of the preceding film as any. It may seem ironic to begin with the ending, but only at the end can one step back and appreciate the epic achievement of this film.

The groundbreaking nature of the project will be well known to those who follow these things. Linklater assembled his cast, including child actor and star Ellar Coltrane, and filmed over the course of 12 years, capturing as part of a fiction the very real growth of all involved. Coming together every year, the director, cast, and crew documented in real time the milestones and the mundane moments that make up life.

In ways both subtle and direct, it becomes clear this film is about time and the slow but inevitable passage thereof. Every second of the nearly three-hour runtime is required to realize the breadth of what is transpiring on screen. That the movie is rather lacking in plot, which we will get to in a moment, is largely a byproduct of its particular obsession with time, and for what it lacks in forward momentum, it makes up in thematic resonance.

There have been movies chronicling characters who age over time, but except for documentaries, there have not been movies that depict the genuine passage of life. Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette are bona fide movie stars, and to watch them age naturally on screen – middle-age sag sets in and silver hairs start to appear toward the end – is a pleasure and a surprise given Hollywood’s obsession with youth and appearances.

Hawke is the mostly absent father who wants to be a buddy to his kids, which leaves Arquette with the often-thankless role of the full-time parent and disciplinarian. These are stellar performances, utterly lacking in vanity and which never lose sight of the core of the characters, even as they grow and mature. Parents often get short shrift in coming-of-age movies, but the presence of these two, particularly Arquette, permeates the entire film, and though the movie is called Boyhood, it could just as easily have been Adulthood.

Or Sisterhood for that matter. Lorelei Linklater, the director’s daughter, plays Coltrane’s sister, Samantha, and from the start, she is just as integral to the puzzle as any other piece. While the movie is centered on Mason (Coltrane), Samantha is a fully realized character in her own right, the star of the movie that is her life – as we all are.

She grows up right alongside her fictional brother, and as in life, they grow apart as the years go by, but throughout, they share the kind of well-observed moments that are this film’s stock-in-trade. They laugh and they fight; they share secrets and they tattle; they are rivals and they love each other. They are brother and sister, and nothing could feel more real.

All of which brings us back to Coltrane as Mason, who experiences the boyhood of the title. The movie has many things going for it, but none of it works without Coltrane. In the opening shot, he lies perfectly still on the ground as the clouds go by overhead, and in this moment, it seems as though the universe revolves around him. This is how it is in youth – the world spins, and we stay fixed where we are. Only with the benefit of time do we realize we are simply floating along with everything else.

The power of Boyhood lies in its ability to make us think about these things. It will hit home in different ways for different people, and as the years pass, those same people will have entirely different viewing experiences as they transition from teenagers to adults and from children to parents. Its strength is that it allows audience members to project their own lives onto the characters, and it is unlikely there will be another movie that encourages as many knowing chuckles and nods of acknowledgement that “I’ve been there.”

The universality of the characters and situations can be misleading, though, as the true greatness of the film is its specificity. Audiences leave the theater inspired to reminisce about their own childhoods, to share experiences similar to those depicted, and to think back on how much they have grown and changed over the years. But this movie lingers in the heart and mind long after the cheery nostalgia has worn off and the ever-present “Now” returns. It does so because this is Mason’s story.

Mason is a bright, precocious boy – one imagines Coltrane is as well – who navigates the twists and turns of life in ways that any of us might but in ways that only he can. There is no plot, per se. It is just life. People divorce and remarry. Families move. There is sex and there are drugs. There is honesty and deceit. Love, pain, friendship, music – it is how we live filtered through the eyes of one boy and reflected back at us.

How he views the events around him is the only way to view what happens. After all, this world revolves around him. But in this world of Facebook, Twitter, selfies, and the like, there is virtue in stepping out of ourselves and lying at the center of someone else’s universe. Now, thanks to Richard Linklater, Coltrane, and Boyhood, we all have the opportunity to lie in the grass and watch the clouds roll by through someone else’s eyes.

See it? Yes.

Monday, July 21, 2014

New movie review: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

Caesar, played by Andy Serkis, commands his fellow apes in the opening scene of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.

The most impressive aspect of Matt Reeves’ Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, the summer’s best popcorn flick by a wide margin, is its courage to stand on the strength of its convictions. Building on the foundation set by 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Reeves and writers Mark Bomback, Rick Jaffa, and Amanda Silver construct a world of political intrigue, harrowing violence, and difficult choices – effectively mirroring our reality in more ways than they could have known at the time.

After the title sequence explains what transpired between the end of the first film and the beginning of this one – the flu-like virus that sparked the apes’ intelligence has wiped out most of humanity – the audience is dropped square in the middle of a new and unfamiliar world. The apes Caesar led into Muir Woods at the end of Rise have built a utopian enclave in which they are free to live as they see fit, blissfully unaware of whether any humans survived the simian flu or not. Some did.

The filmmakers then make the daring choice to focus their story on the apes. This $170 million tent pole takes as its subject a band of rebel apes rather than the inhabitants of one of the last outposts of human civilization. It is a brave, bold decision, and it is also the correct decision. The broad strokes are there in the title. This is the story of how the Planet of the Apes came to be, not of how the humans put up one hell of a fight.

But one could easily envision that version of the movie, a version in which the humans fight to preserve or rather to reclaim their dominance – their dominion over the birds in the sky and the fish in the sea, as it were. In this hypothetical iteration of the film, the heroes would be Jason Clarke, Gary Oldman, and Keri Russell. They play the human protagonists whose attempts to restore power via a hydroelectric dam in the apes’ territory kick off the events of the plot.

There would be action galore and thrills aplenty. The movie would entertain. It would appeal to our desire to escape for a while into a dark, cool theater and watch actors play out an enjoyable fantasy. It would be a fun and diverting experience, as pleasant as reading a paperback at the beach. But it would not be a great film. This is a great film, opting to concern itself with ideas, politics, war, and our very humanity. It does not sidestep these concepts but confronts them head on and is better for it.

The star is Andy Serkis as Caesar, who has fought and won everything he ever wanted and now must struggle to hold onto it against threats from within and without. Midway through the first film, Caesar poses the question: “What is Caesar?” Ten years on, it is clear he still grapples with this, and the events of Dawn force him to face who he is and what that means. He is a super-intelligent ape raised by humans and possessing what we might consider an essential humanness. But what the world sees, both the humans and his kin, is an ape.

In this way, film’s technological prowess and Serkis’ brilliant performance coalesce into a beautifully resonant expression of theme. The visual effects bring the apes to life in ways never before possible, and the actors, Serkis in particular, imbue them with something at once raw and refined, human and transcendent.

It is a metaphor proposed by the film itself: Technology made these apes what they are, but it cannot change the core of who they are. Serkis is able to portray an ape because of advances in digital effects, but he is able to portray Caesar because he is a gifted actor, and that is what a complex, flawed, thinking, feeling being such as Caesar requires.

As Caesar wrestles with the internal dilemma of what he is and what he needs to be, his external world begins to crumble. He wishes to allow the humans into ape territory so that they may restore power with the promise of peace. Detractors within his camp see this as Caesar giving in to a long-held desire to be accepted as human rather than the measured actions of someone with a clear view of the future.

Caesar envisions a world in which humans and apes peacefully co-exist, and he sees the sacrifices that must be made on both sides to achieve this aim. But it is the fate of all those capable of seeing both sides of an issue to be accused of lacking conviction and the tragedy of the masses to fall under the spell of the accusers. There is something visceral in righteous indignation that well-reasoned moral centrism cannot match, and thus beings the war.

The last 45 minutes or so of this two-hour-plus movie constitute a well-conceived and admirably executed action picture. The battles are stunning feats of visual construction predicated upon epic acts of city-wide destruction, including one long take with a camera mounted on a tank that is among the best I have ever seen. Yet, the virtuosity of the action would mean nothing without the deeply rooted emotional conflicts at its core.

Here is an action film with more on its mind than violence and nihilism. That alone is an achievement of which it is worth standing up and taking notice. More impressive is that it is able to take those preoccupations and translate them into an entertaining, thought-provoking thriller that achieves a balance of political realism and guarded optimism. The future Caesar longs for may be clouded by the settling dust of war, but it remains in sight, a beacon of a bright, new tomorrow.

See it? Yes.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

New movie review: Godzilla

Aaron Taylor-Johnson, as U.S. Navy Lt. Ford Brody, catches his first glimpse of one of the monsters in Gareth Edwards' Godzilla.

Ken Watanabe. Bryan Cranston. Juliette Binoche. David Strathairn. Elizabeth Olsen. Sally Hawkins. Aaron Taylor-Johnson. It is an A-list cast up and down the line. One simply wishes it had been given more to do. Instead, Godzilla asks these talented people to look stunned and dispense pseudoscience dialogue that is so ludicrous it almost makes you forget you are watching the latest entry in the “serious blockbuster” canon.

There have been serious blockbusters for as long as there have been blockbusters, but the most recent crop traces its lineage to Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight. These are morality tales about humankind’s inhumanity or its shabby treatment of nature or any other broadly defined, vaguely threatening concept. Many of these films are very good, laudable for their ability to astound the senses and engage the mind. Godzilla is not of their ilk – failing on the latter front and proving a mixed bag on the former.

One wishes not to be too harsh on this movie because it at least tries to create a knowing dialogue about science and nature, and director Gareth Edwards treats his viewers as intelligent, thinking people, whereas so many of these films ask you to leave your brain with the ticket-taker. These are admirable qualities, but at $12-15 for a movie ticket, more if you are seeing this in IMAX 3D, it does an audience no good to grade on a curve.

Edwards clearly is a talented director with an eye for unique visuals and, in the early going at least, a well-defined sense of authorship. Once the movie gets into its second and third acts, however, he falls into the trap these effects-laden films so often set: an over-reliance on set pieces in place of a story.

Name a world disaster in the last 15 years or so, and there is a good chance you will find an homage to it in this film. The inciting incident is meant as a stand-in for the Fukushima nuclear disaster, there is a monster-caused tsunami reminiscent of the devastating Indonesian earthquake and tsunami, and at least once, a plane hits a building behind a character at such an angle as to evoke the Sept. 11 World Trade Center attacks.

There is nothing inherently wrong with using real-world events to inform your action picture -- and the trope has been well employed throughout the lifespan of cinema – but it would have been nice for Edwards to put a more distinctive directorial stamp on these moments rather than asking historical associations to do the heavy lifting.

Where the enterprise falls apart, though, is on the page. Movie-goers are savvy people. They basically know what to expect from a big-budget monster movie. The Godzilla movies in particular have a rich cultural and political heritage, dating back to the 1954 original. At their best, these movies are almost always about the destruction of nature and more specifically the dangers of a nuclear society.

In the wake of Fukushima, an environmental message about the need for scientific caution and restraint is a welcome one, but when it comes to the science of monster movies, less is more. Instead, screenwriter Max Borenstein bogs down the early scenes by piling on expository dialogue that asks us to believe the creatures depicted are the result of a chain of improbable events and not plot convenience. As a general rule, it is best not to nitpick the science of these movies, and the problem here stems not from the science talk so much as from the time it takes away from building real characters.

Johnson plays Ford Brody, whose name is a possible homage to the protagonists of the Jaws films, and Edwards has stated his portrayal of Godzilla was inspired by Steven Spielberg’s depiction of the shark. Brody survived a Japanese nuclear plant disaster as a child. His father, who worked at he plant, is played by Cranston, in a yeoman performance. The elder Brody believes the meltdown was the result of something more nefarious than an earthquake.

Watanabe and Hawkins play scientists who are part of an apparently international coalition devoted to covering up what lies at the heart of the disaster and studying it. Watanabe is good, but the material he is given is not. Hawkins is criminally underused, as is Olsen as Johnson’s wife, and Binoche makes little more than a cameo as Cranston’s wife. This shunting of the female characters is problematic and sadly emblematic of the genre, but it might be more troublesome if any of the male characters were given anything much better. They are not.

For much of the second and third act, Brody, a U.S. Navy lieutenant, wanders from one destructive scene to the next in such a way that it seems the monsters may be following him. Scientists and high-ranking military officials try to figure out what to do as one major city after another comes under attack, though San Francisco gets the worst of it. For years, critics have complained New York City was suffering unfairly as the primary target for cinematic destruction, but add this to the new Star Trek and Planet of the Apes films, as well as X-Men: The Last Stand, and San Francisco may be making a comeback as blockbuster whipping boy.

At one point, a scientist offers this solution: Let the monsters fight it out themselves. It sounds like fanboy service as defense strategy, and as the buildings tumble, the movie collapses under the weight of its own unsustainable premise. If you want big action and big monsters, that is what you are going to get. If you want an intelligent, fully immersive e+xperience, look elsewhere.

See it? No.