Saturday, October 25, 2014


Director: Richard Linklater
Starring: Ellar Coltrane, Patricia Arquette, Lorelei Linklater, Ethan Hawke, Marco Perella, Brad Hawkins, Jenni Tooley, Zoe Graham, Charlie Sexton
Running Time: 165 min.
Rating: R

★★★★ (out of ★★★★)

The most amazing thing about Richard Linklater's Boyhood is how it becomes the story of whomever watches it, as viewers can't help but reconfigure it in their minds to fit the templates of their lives and memories growing up. Ask anyone about this movie and I'll guarantee that within minutes they'll be talking about themselves. That's just how hard it hits. While it'll probably strike the loudest chord for millenials or parents who raised a child in that age bracket, the story is universal, resonating just as much for those, like me, who happen to fall right in the middle. In seamlessly recreating the feeling of watching life unfold in front of our eyes, much attention has been paid to the fact that Linklater was somehow able to covertly shoot this over a 12-year period, allowing his actors to naturally age on screen. It's an authenticity that all the CGI and make-up in Hollywood can't replicate, but it's not a gimmick. You hardly notice it's happening and it rarely calls attention to itself, instead enveloping the story like a warm blanket.

Linklater uses this tool but never abuses it to weave a narrative that unfolds with all the realism of a documentary, while also making sure it never merely feels like an experiment. Until now, the closest we've come to this is Michael Apted's Up series, which followed its subjects as they aged and Linklater's own Before trilogy which followed its pair of leads over the years. But this is different in that it's one standalone fictional film, despite being at least partially inspired by the director's childhood and own experiences as a father. And as someone who really appreciates music and pop culture as time markers, nothing made me happier than seeing it expertly used in such a way here. Everyone will have their favorite moments and parts to which they most relate, regardless of age. For once, 165 minutes almost doesn't seem long enough, even if it ends exactly where it should.

The film opens with six-year old Mason Evans, Jr. (Ellar Coltrane) lying on the grass staring at sky as the strains of Coldplay's "Yellow" blast over the soundtrack. The year is 2002 and Mason lives in Texas with his single mother, Olivia (Patricia Arquette) and older sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater). Their father, Mason Sr. (Ethan Hawke) is largely absent, occasionally dropping in on weekends to take the kids bowling or to an Astros game. Taking classes and hoping to start a career as a psychology professor, Olivia struggles to provide for the kids while introducing a series of abusive men into their lives, each of which fail as suitable replacement for their real father.

With the family moving more than a few times, we follow Mason as he grows up and attempts to adjust, only to be uprooted again as Olivia tries to find herself. He says goodbye to close friends, makes new ones, faces off with a vicious stepfather, gets his first job and girlfriend, experiments with drugs and alcohol and eventually heads off to college. It all occurs as his relationships with his parents and sister evolve, set against the backdrop of key cultural events.

If someone told me this boy was being played by the same actor over the years I'm not sure I'd even believe them because he looks and acts so different at each life stage. With growth spurts and bad haircuts, it's as fun to watch the character evolve as it is to chart Coltrane's progression as an actor for over a decade, but condensed for us into feature film length, which only magnifies the impact. Thanks to Linklater and editor Sandra Adair the transitions between time periods are not only seamless, but invisible, often causing me to do a double take just to confirm we've moved on to the next stage.

As difficult as it may have been to keep the shooting of this project under wraps, you'd figure it had to be even harder to edit it all into a cohesive whole. While it sometimes meanders as life literally does, there was never a point where my attention was diverted or found the protagonist irritating, even when entering an angry high school phase that Coltrane infuses with heartbreaking sincerity. What doesn't change is that Mason is basically a shy, quiet kid throughout, challenging the notion that all movie leads must drive the action. Frequently, the action's happening to him as he sensitively responds to all that occurs, and is constantly changing as a result.

Certain movies can allow us to sympathize with those we wouldn't even try to defend or understand in reality because judgment gets in the way. That's the power in Patricia Arquette's career-high, award worthy performance as a single mother who seems to makes all the wrong choices for herself and her kids, at least a couple of times putting them in harm's way for the sake of trying to create a stable home life. Inadvertently, she does just the opposite, to the point that it would be very easy to call Olivia a terrible mother, and at times maybe even a selfish one. But Arquette changes the conversation, simply playing her as a desperate mom who screws up a lot, but has her good qualities as well. While we never see or hear exactly what happened to cause the deterioration of her marriage to Mason Sr., it's easy to put the pieces together from their brief, contentious interactions with each other regarding his visitation and frequent unemployment.

Hawke (who barely even looks to age throughout), appears more sporadically than Arquette, but his role in Mason's life is crucial, only increasing in importance as he enters adolescence. Of all the characters, he's the one who changes the most, but I liked how they committed to making him a good guy despite some maturity issues many would relate to. Far from a deadbeat dad stereotype, it's fascinating to watch Hawke believably play the evolution of a guy completely unqualified at giving any relationship or life advice to a full-blown expert by the film's end. Even at his worst, he's better than a couple of nightmare father replacements Olivia brings into their lives, one of whom is the centerpiece of the film's most uncomfortable section.

As Olivia's second husband Bill, character actor Marco Perella steals the show with a terrifying depiction of an abusive alcoholic who wrecks havoc on their new blended family. He starts out as a seemingly mild-mannered college professor, but Perella is brilliant as he slowly reveals the cracks hinting that something's really off with this creep. First it's a couple of drinks. Then a few passing comments to the kids hinting at his temper. Before long, he's like Bill Parcells on a bender. Then finally, his transformation into full-fledged monster is complete. He makes it happen so subtly and surprisingly that there's hardly a moment to come up for air.

Lorelei Linklater's work as Samantha can't be overlooked given how groan-inducing it can often be when directors cast family members in key roles, especially their offspring. A complete natural on screen, there's good reason to think she'd beat any young actress out for the part anyway. As we watch her evolve from a little girl to sullen young adult before our eyes it's remarkable just how much of her offbeat personality is retained over that twelve year-period and how naturally she interacts with her onscreen parents and brother. 

The look on Mason's face when he realizes his dad traded in his souped up Pontiac GTO for a minivan says it all. The past is the past. We grow old. Time marches on with or without us. And it's scary. Linklater knows that nostalgia can be the most powerful feeling there is, as well as our biggest obstacle in moving forward. If it's not a valuable possession, then often it's music invoking an emotional connection to a specific time and place. Boyhood's soundtrack is more than just a collection of songs, but a document of a specific year, associating music with milestones.

Featuring everything from Bob Dylan to Wilco to The Black Keys to Arcade Fire, it's definitely one of the most stacked compilations of recent years, but more rewarding because of the context. And at the risk of spoiling it, I won't even go into what's done with The Beatles and how their catalog is, but actually isn't, incorporated into the film. It would be interesting to find out how much of the music was chosen at the various shooting times versus what was added recently in post-production. The script takes a similar approach with cultural events, taking us from post 9/11 to the Obama's election to the rise of social media, giving us the opportunity to open up a time capsule exposing the attitudes and feelings of the day. At one point Mason and his dad have conversation about the Star Wars franchise that's almost eerie given current developments.

Those who came from a single parent home or were shuffled  from school to school as a child will connect to that section the most. A single father around Hawke's character's age will likely find a lot to connect to there, as would any single mother who even remotely went through anything close to what Arquette's Olivia did. The last third of the picture resonated strongest for me, as Mason prepares to head off to college, questioning everything and unsure of his place in the world. We've seen this kind of story arc before, but rarely presented so authentically and impactfully in such a compressed time. Mason and his first serious girlfriend, Sheena (an excellent Zoe Graham) stumbling and bumbling through their feelings for each other is a high point, as every interaction between them just seems so real and natural. There's a big rant from Mason about modern technology and an inspirational speech he receives from a teacher, but it's a soundtrack choice during this section that's most unforgettable, with Linklater unearthing a very recent gem that's somehow slid through the cracks, going unappreciated until that moment.  

It's logical to think of Mason as Linklater's surrogate in much the same way William Miller stood in for Cameron Crowe in Almost Famous. Inspired by its writer, but very much his own character, he's stated in interviews how he was torn between using his jock or artsy side growing up as the template for Mason. The latter proved to be the right choice, both for the character and the actor, especially considering the dramatic possibilities it opens up in the third act, as an introspective loner looks for answers. It ends up being the culmination of not only Mason's story, but his parents' as well.

Whatever perceived mistakes the parents made in raising these kids, they must have done something right since both turned out better than okay despite the obstacles. Or maybe even because of them. And then comes the perfect closing scene, that creates the spontaneous feeling of arriving out of nowhere when in fact it was waiting for us the entire time. With a filmmaker digging down deep to pull out something we didn't know he had, in both concept and execution Boyhood accomplishes the special feat of depicting a coming-of-age story in a way we've never seen before.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Carrie (2013)

Director: Kimberly Peirce
Starring: Chloe Grace Moretz, Julianne Moore, Gabriella Wilde, Ansel Elgort, Alex Russell, Portia Doubleday, Judy Greer
Running Time: 99 min.
Rating: R

★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)

Let's just get it out of the way now: Yes, Chloe Moretz is too pretty to play Carrie White, the role originated by Sissy Spacek in the 1976 Brian DePalma film. It's a statement you've heard and read a lot from everyone leading up to release of a remake most would consider pointless anyway. But whether or not it's actually pointless is up to the filmmaker remaking it, and sometimes that's not even true as they're often just following the marching orders of the studio. While we'll never know for sure, that seems to be what happened with director Kimberly Peirce (Boys Don't Cry, Stop-Loss), who's as good a choice as any to make this work. And there are some moments when it almost does, in spite of all the obstacles put in front of her.

The question of whether Carrie has to have a certain look in order for Stephen King's story play believably on screen is a good one since the character's supposed to be an outcast on every level. While Spacek would never be considered "ugly" by anyone's standards, she did have an unconventional appearance that made her stand out from the pack, allowing the narrative of a shy, creepy misfit and social outcast to take flight in a way it wouldn't if another, more conventional "movie star" were cast. It's a case where looks matter. The same description even applies (to a lesser degree) to Angela Bettis in 2002 TV remake. Because the last thing Moretz can be described as is "unconventional," she's already at a deficit before the cameras start rolling. No one's denying her talent and despite being miscast she does a commendable job under thankless circumstances. Unfortunately, she just has to work harder to do it.

Shy outcast Carrie White (Moretz) is tormented by her classmates at Ewen High School, while at home she's emotionally bullied by her borderline psychotic mother Margaret (Julianne Moore), whose religious fanaticism prevents her daughter from leading the life of a normal teen. But at school Carrie finds a confidante and mentor in gym teacher Miss Desjardin (Judy Greer), who seems determined to punish the offenders, most notably popular ringleader Chris Hargensen (Portia Doubleday). Also feeling sympathy is classmate Sue Snell (Gabriella Wilde) whose guilt over joining in the teasing leads her to urge boyfriend Tommy Ross (Ansel Elgort) to take Carrie to the prom. Needless to say the invitation doesn't go over well with mother Margaret, whose daughter is now just starting to realize her telekinetic powers. And that means trouble for everyone.

What's most bothersome about this reimagining is how it almost seems to draw attention to the miscasting by overcompensating, both with Peirce's direction of the actress and some of the goofy creative choices early on. Exaggerated mannerisms and costuming choices are used to accentuate the fact Carrie is a weirdo since that's really the only viable option. She mumbles, she slumps, she walks with her arms folded. All of this screamed acting with a capital "A" to me and altogether doesn't seem like the wisest route to take, but perhaps predestined considering the casting.

Moore's take on Margaret is campy to say the least, chomping on every scene in a performance that feels like an audition reel for Mommie Dearest. The only good thing is that it's clear early on the tonal direction they were going with this and the performance works as that. Whether it's the direction they should have gone with the material is another argument altogether, but unless memory fails, the original didn't feel quite this over-the-top and silly in its first half. Carrie's discovery of her "powers" also isn't handled as well, making the original seem like a telekinesis documentary in comparison. The presentation seems off, as if the screenwriters saw one too many episodes of Heroes, as opposed to attempting to organically incorporate it into the story.            

A web video on a smartphone and some texting represents the script's stabs at contemporizing King's first novel, but given how much of a timely, hot-button topic school and cyber-bullying has become, I expected a little more. But maybe it's for the best that they didn't at the risk of it feeling like just another teen horror movie, which it kind of already does. But the scenes involving Carrie's abuse at school are some of the strongest, especially that infamous shower scene with her cluelessly experiencing her first period as classmates ridicule her. One would guess this is primarily what earned the film its "R" rating, although you can't help but think the end product still strangely feels like a "PG-13."

The two strongest performances unsurprisingly come from Judy Greer and Ansel Elgort. As Miss Desjardin, Greer is asked to do some pretty ridiculous things for a gym teacher and yet she's completely believable doing every single one of them. She's an actress who can just slide into any role and do anything so it's not a shock, but when her character hits and curses at students, I actually believed an administrator wouldn't even think of firing her. It's one of many instances of her impressively covering up the script's flaws.

Elgort shows signs of the talent he'd later emerge as in The Fault in Our Stars with a similar but not identical performance. He exudes a laid-back confidence and likability as Tommy, going a long way to transcend material that wants to paint him as a one-dimensional high school jock. He and Sue going out of their way to help Carrie just might the most compelling sub-plot, if only because there's legitimate doubt as to their intentions the entire time. While Gabriella Wilde comes off as a blank slate as Sue, what Portia Doubleday does with Chris is great, as the character is less a school bully this time around than a full-fledged sociopath. It's a wise decision that only enhances our sympathy for Carrie and has you anticipating the moment when Chris get hers.

When Moretz transforms from ugly duckling into beautiful swan for prom it weirdly feels like the equivalent of Rachael Leigh Cook removing her glasses in She's All That, to the point that I half-expected Sixpence None the Richer to start playing. Nonetheless, this is the point where Moretz's performance really comes alive, as she's freed to play a more realistic teen instead of sulking as a weirdo. With the exception of maybe a little too much CGI, Peirce nails the big bloodbath of a finale, which was high on the list of things she absolutely had to get right.

There were plenty of stumbles along the way, but the staging of the famous ending is an exciting recreation, even making a couple of minor changes to the action in that gym that seem creatively defensible. What isn't is the final image, which reminded me of what Tim Burton did in his disastrous Planet of the Apes remake: Take an iconic closing shot and unnecessarily tweak it while winking at the audience. This isn't as bad an offender, but you have to wonder why they made it a point to change one of the few things that should have remained untouched. And are all horror remakes now required to close with a hard rock song, regardless of whether it fits?   

Since it clearly isn't strong horror, you have to wonder if Peirce had abandoned all genre trappings in favor of a coldly realistic dramatic tragedy, this would have turned out better. Sure, it would have alienated horror audiences, but that's a demographic you could argue is dwindling in theater presence anyway. There's little doubt that approach would have made for a better film, but I'm not sure it would have been as fun to watch.  This latest King interpretation certainly doesn't rank amongst his worst, but it's a missed opportunity, eventually finds its footing in time to deliver a gripping third act. But by then, the damage is already done.There's no problem in remaking Carrie, but if they're not going to change anything besides the cast, it's perplexing just how inferior this turned out with all the talent involved.

Friday, October 10, 2014

3 Days To Kill

Director: McG
Starring: Kevin Costner, Amber Heard, Hailee Steinfeld, Connie Nielsen, Richard Sammel, Tómas Lemarquis, Eriq Ebouaney, Raymond J. Barry
Running Time: 117 min.
Rating: PG-13

★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)

The best thing about the otherwise unambitious but fairly enjoyable McG action thriller 3 Days to Kill is Kevin Costner's performance. It continues what has to be considered somewhat of a late-career resurgence for the actor who's as good as he's ever been lately, this time as a veteran CIA agent dying of cancer. The set-up is both more and less interesting than it sounds, with a script that sometimes cleverly blends the main character's professional and personal lives, while delivering few surprises. That means it's all up to Costner to carry this, which he does, playing a two-sided character that isn't completely unlike the one we saw him portray in 2007's overlooked Mr. Brooks, with the key difference being that this murderous character is a legally contracted one. And yet the two movies are nothing alike and his work impressively not even the slightest bit similar. But even that's not enough to save what ends up being a fairly routine action outing well disguised as something more substantial.

CIA agent Ethan Renner (Costner) probably won't live to see Christmas, having been diagnosed with terminal brain cancer that's already spread to his lungs. When he returns home to Paris from his latest assignment, he sees the diagnosis as the final chance to repair his damaged relationship with estranged teenage daughter Zooey (Hailee Steinfeld) and ex-wife, Christine (Connie Nielsen). Instead, he's greeted with a proposition from CIA assassin, Vivi Delay (Amber Heard) to find and kill a dangerous arms trafficker known simply as the Wolf  (Richard Sammel). In exchange he'll receive an experimental drug that could possibly prolong his life, giving him extra time to reconnect with his family. But its hallucinatory side effects cause him to wonder if it's worth the trouble, while also making it extremely difficult to complete the task at hand. Hardly in top form but with nothing left to lose, Ethan's in a race against the clock, but the bigger challenge might be figuring out how to be a dad to a rebellious teen.     

To its credit, this is actually a pretty compelling premise, muddled by some of the usual cliches found in hitman movies. That's tempered slightly by Costner's work as a dying man trying to do right by his daughter. He makes it clear that Ethan is weakened and on his last legs, but doesn't overplay it either, showing shades of an agent you'd imagine as a force when he was at the top of his game. His best scenes are opposite Steinfeld, whose Zooey is not only at the age where she's mortified to even be seen with her father, but actually has a good reason since he's been selfish and absent most of her life. It's not groundbreaking material and I'm still on the fence about an actress of Steinfeld's caliber being burdened with having to flesh out a whiny teen in an action thriller, but if it has to be played by anyone, it may as well be someone talented.

How their relationship develops beats anything having to do with the actual assassination plot or whatever tasks Ethan must complete to extend his life. Their arc may be predictable, but in the hands of these two actors it manages to at least feel somewhat fresh. As entertaining as it is watching the action jump back and forth between Ethan's bumbling attempts to connect with Zooey and his assigned kills, the two never really merge in a satisfying way. The lone plus on the professional end of the narrative is Amber Heard at her most seductive as Vivi, injecting a decent dose of deadpan humor and energy into each of her appearances opposite Costner, even as Ethan injects the drug that could potentially extend his life.

The action sequences are excitingly filmed by McG, with everything eventually coming to a head in a bullet-heavy finale that concludes exactly as you'd expect. If anything, you'd figure the added drama of having a dying protagonist working against the clock would organically inject the script with an urgency, at least leaving the door open for possible surprises. Instead, it seems the filmmakers were content just letting this predictably unfold. That it was co-written and produced by Taken director Luc Besson should have been a hint to expect something a little meatier than a run-of-the-mill thriller but both installments of that franchise were considerably more suspenseful and exciting than 3 Days to Kill, despite having seemingly less to work with. Trying to turn Costner into the next Liam Neeson isn't the worst idea in the world, but he's going to need a much better project to fully pull it off.