Boyhood

Year of Release: 2014     Directed by Richard Linklater.  Starring Ellar Coltrane, Lorelei Linklater, Patricia Arquette, Ethan Hawke, and Libby Villari.

It is inevitable for any critic that a highly acclaimed film will come along, and that critic will be surprised to discover how much he does not care for the film in question, and he will also be surprised others are so enthusiastic about said film. For me, one of those films is Boyhood. I liked parts of it – mostly the parts when Mason (Ellar Coltrane) was a child; but as a whole the film failed to engage me, and I never cared about any of the characters.

Naturally, I am surprised at my lack of enthusiasm for Boyhood, partially because many of my friends and the critics with whom I normally agree all loved it, but also because I normally like films that are quiet snapshots in time. I suppose there are two disclaimers I should make: 1) I have never liked a Linklater film other than the Celine/Jesse Before trilogy, and 2) with a few exceptions I’m generally not a fan of coming of age stories. I was really hoping this film would break both those trends, but unfortunately it did not.

My biggest complaint was Mason; while he was empathetic as a kid, once he got older he turned into the dullest, most generic, unsympathetic protagonist I can think of. He makes no decisions, lets everything bounce off him as if he doesn’t care, never gets really angry, never is enthusiastic for anything. Every other character would have made a more interesting subject for a movie than Mason: his sometimes pesky sister (Lorelei Linklater), his irresponsible father (Ethan Hawke), his stressed single mother (Patricia Arquette), his abusive alcoholic stepfather, his supportive stepsiblings, his very religious gun-toting step-grandparents, etc. Somehow in the midst of all those scenarios, Mason manages not to care about anything or anyone, mopes around about nothing in particular, and for some reason we’re supposed to sympathize with him because he’s the main character and he suffers a lot of hardships, many of which are his own damn fault. When his second stepfather chewed him out without getting aggressive or violent concerning Mason’s irresponsible behavior, that perfectly summarized Mason’s problems as well as the film’s problems. As a teenager, Mason becomes so dull that he makes Michael Palin’s chartered accountant look riveting in comparison.

I understand that many people are loving Boyhood specifically for its temporal jumps and brief snippets over a period of time. I often love those types of films myself, but with Boyhood Mason’s passive, indecisive nature made the film meander for a really, really long time. Robert Bresson (a director whose films I love) often employs elliptical editing that meanders through a character’s life, but his protagonists are always fascinating characters who make choices that affect their lives. I’m trying to think of any film I like with a passive protagonist who cares about nothing. The best examples I can think of are The Man Who Wasn’t There and Inside Llewyn Davis, both of which I love, but even those films have protagonists who make decisions, albeit lousy ones. Hamlet is famously a tragedy of a character who refuses to make a decision, but the play is driven by his inner conflict and fear of making the wrong choice. Mason has no conflict whatsoever, and consequently there is nothing to drive the film.

Boyhood is certainly ambitious, landmark filmmaking, and it has a lot of interesting vignettes, but it doesn’t add up to anything particularly worthwhile, at least not for my tastes.

 

Content Advisory: Occasional rough language, domestic violence, an implied sexual encounter between teens, and depiction of substance abuse by teens.                 MPAA rating: R

Suggested Audience: Adults

Personal Recommendation: C

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Pieces of April

Year of Release: 2003     Directed by Peter Hedges.  Starring Katie Holmes, Patricia Clarkson, Oliver Platt, Alison Pill, John Gallagher Jr., and Derek Luke.

Pieces of April is a delightful, funny, heart-wrenching, and ultimately uplifting film that is sadly not nearly as well known as it should be.

After living on her own for a year in a dumpy section of New York, April (Katie Holmes) has resolved that she is going to cook her first Thanksgiving dinner for her estranged family, with whom she has had a tempestuous relationship to put it mildly. Having ended her drug abuse and broken up with her dealer boyfriend, she now has her own apartment with a new boyfriend. Given her mom’s (Patricia Clarkson) cancer, April wants to mend those bonds as well.

However, as April’s younger sister Beth (Alison Pill) constantly reminds her family, April cannot cook. Since their mom is too sick to cook a big meal, Beth should be the one cooking, after all, she passed home economics, which April miserably failed.

Their mother reassures Beth and the rest of the family that driving to April’s apartment and letting her cook is the best option, because “This way, instead of April showing up with some new piercing or some ugly new tattoo and, God forbid, staying overnight, this way, we get to show up, experience the disaster that is her life, smile through it, and before you know it, we’re on our way back home.”

Now I called this film funny. So far, I do not think I’m making it sound funny. April’s good-hearted, but inexperienced attempts at cooking truly are hilarious, especially for anyone who’s ever botched a difficult recipe on a first attempt. Her most foolish culinary decisions simultaneously evoke laughter and sympathy. April’s desire to make a simple gift of a meal to her family is truly touching, but trying to mash raw potatoes, placing hot stuffing in a turkey with your bare hands, cramming uncut stalks of celery into the stuffing, and insisting that cranberry sauce out of a jar tastes just as good as homemade is genuinely funny.

April’s troubles do not end with her lack of cooking experience. Right as she is about to start cooking the turkey, she discovers her oven is not working, and she frantically asks her neighbors if she can use one of their ovens. During her search, she meets people even more selfish than anyone in her family, but she also encounters people who aid her with surprising acts of compassion and generosity. April’s interactions with her neighbors are made all the more tense due to the anxiety she feels over seeing her family for the first time in almost a year.

Even though April wants to see her family and please them with her cooking, she is still bitter towards them for their lack of support and afraid that she will never be good enough for them. As she makes place cards, she writes “Mom” on one, and then throws it away, replacing it with one that reads “Joy.” On the other hand, she exhibits the giddy nervousness of a child as she decorates her apartment hallways with balloons, streamers, and drawings.

In many ways, April is still a child, but she is a child whose foolish decisions and uncompassionate family forced her to grow up too quickly, losing important years with her family. The resulting tension and April’s desire for reconciliation is portrayed by masterful cutting between April preparing Thanksgiving dinner and her family driving to New York, dreading how awful this Thanksgiving is going to be. April’s father (Oliver Platt) is the only one who has any hope that his daughter might succeed, and even he is easily quieted as his wife and younger daughter remind him of all April’s failures, which obviously weaken his resolve.

The unease between April and her family is illustrated when her Asian neighbors ask her what Americans celebrate on Thanksgiving. She tries to tell the story of the first Thanksgiving three times. First, she describes the big harvest and celebration; then she mentions the Pilgrims getting as much food and knowledge from the Native Americans before stealing all their land. Finally, sensing the confusion of her neighbors, she simply concludes the holiday exists as a memorial to a time when everyone came together to celebrate, in recognition of how much they needed everyone else to survive.

The unique blend of humor and pathos pulled off a rare achievement by making me laugh and cry simultaneously. I don’t think that’s ever happened to me before.

 

Content Advisory: An out of frame sex scene, drug use, some strong vulgar language, cohabitation, photos of medical nudity, and themes of intense family discord.                    MPAA rating: PG-13

Suggested Audience: Teens and up with discernment

Personal Recommendation: A-

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Evan’s Writing Elsewhere

I’d like to thank Ken Morefield, the editor of  1More Film Blog, for giving me an outlet to write reviews for Clannad – The Motion Picture and The Maid’s RoomI will post links here for any future reviews I write for 1More Film Blog.

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Lucy

Year of Release: 2014     Directed by Luc Besson.  Starring Scarlett Johansson, Morgan Freeman, Min-sik Choi, and Amr Waked.

We all know movie premises don’t have to make sense. A twenty-five foot great white shark stalking humans off the coast of Cape Cod isn’t exactly realistic. A composer plotting to murder a rival and steal his magnum opus is absurd, especially when those two composers only met a couple times in real life. Yet Jaws and Amadeus are both in my personal top fifty.

All that is to say, I was totally on board with Lucy‘s very silly premise that humans only use ten percent of their brains, and after being kidnapped and forced to transport a new drug, Lucy accidentally absorbs the drug which unlocks her brain’s full potential. I actually enjoyed the scenes in which the film set up that premise. When the film refused to follow it through with any consistency, I became increasingly irritated.

My biggest problem is that as Lucy (Scarlett Johansson) unlocks more of her brain’s potential, her decisions become increasingly stupid. For instance: why does she casually shoot and kill civilians and small time petty criminals, yet leave murderous drug lord and his hitmen alive so they can repeatedly chase after her and try to kill her? Or, when she’s about to conduct a massive experiment that will allow her to fully utilize her brain, why does she tell a small handful of police officers armed with pistols to secure the room against 25 thugs armed with machine guns, when she could easily disarm all the thugs and incapacitate them the exact same way she did in the previous scene? That way, the police could easily arrest them, and she could conduct her experiment in peace. I am aware Lucy is hard-pressed for time, but stopping the thugs would have taken her all of five seconds.

The conclusion of the film leaves open two distinct possibilities, which the film seems entirely unaware of. When Lucy’s brain reaches one-hundred percent capacity (that’s NOT a spoiler) she either becomes God and takes over control of the world, or there is a Doctor Who-esque twist in which she becomes able to manipulate time. Since the film does bring time travel into it, it raises the question of many time travel films: is time a continuous loop where our past actions affect our present lives, or has the loop been broken? There is no indication that the filmmakers gave this any thought at all.

Director Luc Besson maintains an intense pace and stages the action scenes with clarity, and I appreciated the inter-cutting of stock nature footage, which provided a refreshing change of scenery and helped make the premise conceivable. However, that hardly makes up for the utter inanity of the rest of the film.

 

Content Advisory: Much violence, some of it quite gory and disturbingly played for laughs; reckless disregard for human life, and a possible killing God theme (the film is too shallow for any theme to be definitive).                 MPAA rating: R

Suggested Audience: Adults with discernment

Personal Recommendation: C-

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Begin Again

Year of Release: 2014     Directed by John Carney.  Starring Mark Ruffalo, Keira Knightley, Hailee Steinfeld, James Corden, Adam Levine, and Catherine Keener.

My biggest complaint with Begin Again doesn’t even concern the film itself. The only major criticism I have is the title. The filmmakers should have stuck with the original: Can a Song Save Your Life. While that title does have a certain degree of awkward cheesiness to it, it fits the film perfectly. For one, the film itself has some awkwardly cheesy moments, and secondly, the film is not about starting over but instead about one moment, one person, or one song that can completely change the direction of one’s life.

However, I have no intention to hold a bland generic title against any film, and Begin Again is an absolute joy from start to finish, even during the parts that don’t work quite as well as others. I think a few more of the songs should have been diegetic rather than underscoring, and as much as I love Casablanca, having Keira Knightley call “As Time Goes By” her favorite movie song was weird, especially when there were so many choices that would have better reflected the conflict of the film. I was personally hoping she would say “The Rainbow Connection.” However, it is also pointless to hold that against the film. While director John Carney does not quite recapture the intimate magic of Once, he comes close.

The film opens with Greta (Keira Knightley, who sings surprisingly well) in a New York bar, where her guitarist friend Steve (James Corden) ushers her onstage to perform one of her songs, which she says is “for anyone who’s ever been alone in the city.” The song is “A Step You Can’t Take Back,” which has been the main song used to underscore the trailers. The arrangement that opens the film is just Knightley singing accompanied by simple guitar chords, not the fully orchestrated version used in all the ads. At the end of the performance, the crowd in the bar is paying no attention to her, except Dan (Mark Ruffalo) who looks thunderstruck.

The film flashes back to earlier that day, revealing Dan is an ex-record producer, having been fired that morning for failing to sign any new talent in awhile. Prior to being fired, an hilarious sequence showcased his desperate searching for a new client among nothing but crappy demo tapes. After picking up his daughter Violet (Hailee Steinfeld) from school, with whom he has to bolt out of a bar because Dan has no money on him, he drops Violet off with his estranged wife (Catherine Keener), and then heads to another bar to get drunk that evening. When Dan hears Greta sing, he is given a glimmer of hope, since her song and her talent have given him a chance to turn his career around.

At this point the film repeats the opening scene of Knightley performing “A Step You Can’t Take Back.” However, the performance is shot from Dan’s perspective, as the audience hears what he hears: a fully orchestrated pop song with guitar, drums, piano, violin, cello, and bass. It’s a brilliant choice to bookend the opening segment of Dan hitting rock bottom, showing how something simple and unpolished can be transformed into an elegant, professional work of art while maintaining the simplicity and roughness that originally made it endearing, a theme which will be important in a later confrontation.

As a force of habit, after hearing her sing, Dan immediately goes over to Greta, introduces himself, offers his card, and asks to producer her. She is shocked and skeptical, and turns him down. If this were a standard Hollywood film, the storyline would then take this trajectory: Dan deceives her regarding his unemployment, yet persuades her to record anyway. When she eventually learns that he does not have a label, a huge fight threatens the success of the music they have recorded; however, they overcome that setback and make a great album anyway.

Other than making a good album, Begin Again follows none of those clichés. It is refreshing how original and lifelike this film is. There are no elaborate deceptions, no awkward unbelievable romance subplots, no standard setbacks threatening the success of everything that was undertaken. All the characters are totally believable, and the storyline follows a natural path for human beings who are committed to their work and behave with decency while struggling with some flaws.

Obviously, Dan does persuade Greta to record an album; however, he perks her interest by telling her the truth of his situation, admitting he only gave her the producer spiel out of habit. Badly broken herself, Greta takes a day to think over his offer, and when she accepts, Dan cannot convince his former label to produce her. So he comes up with an ingenious solution: record outdoors in different areas of New York City. Greta’s friend Steve has a full studio’s worth of recording equipment. Dan recruits musicians who are willing to work for a cut of the final profit: a pianist working as a ballet accompanist and a cellist and violinist from Manhattan School of Music who are thrilled to play anything that’s “not f**king Vivaldi.” *

Before Greta agreed to record the album, the film has a flashback to show why she is depressed and alone in New York. Like the flashback showing how Dan hit bottom, her flashback is framed by two performances of the same song, “Lost Stars,” which she had composed for her ex-boyfriend Dave (Adam Levine). Greta and Dave had come to New York for an album deal for Dave, after his success composing a film soundtrack. While there, she discovered he was cheating on her. That knowledge transforms “Lost Stars” from a pretty tune to a poignant reflection of Greta’s sorrow.

Since Greta was depressed after Dave’s infidelity, her old boyfriend Steve allowed her to crash at his apartment until she booked a flight back to England. Fortunately, Steve forced her to perform at the bar, Dan heard her, and she agreed to work with them on an album.

Like Once, Begin Again is about a once in a lifetime opportunity for decent, empathetic human beings to pursue their art and make something unique and magical with it. While on the journey, the characters’ enthusiasm and diligence for their art carries over into other aspects of their lives. There is no tense drama or overblown indecision, but rather quiet moments of grace and generosity that are touching and inspiring in their direct simplicity. The healing of wounds between father and daughter is a beautiful scene, especially when Greta forces the two mediocre musicians to record a small part on one of the album tracks. An old friend of Dan’s pays for two musicians for the album, simply because he wants to help out.

Are such acts unbelievable? Or is the perfect timing of events too coincidental and stretching credibility? I don’t think so. One of the best experiences I had during my undergraduate occurred because I happened to be walking out to the parking lot simultaneously with three conductors who were desperately looking for a replacement celeste player for a concert next week, and with very little though I said, “I can do it.” Begin Again captures the joy and excitement of moments like that.
*While I am one of the few classically trained musicians who kind of enjoys Vivaldi, especially because playing continuo on Vivaldi can be simple yet fun, I can totally attest to the accuracy of that statement.

 

Content Advisory: Frequent vulgar language, occasionally quite strong; some profanity; mild sexual references; and depiction of alcohol abuse.                             MPAA rating: R

Suggested Audience: Teens and up with discernment

Personal Recommendation: A

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