Movie Review: Boyhood (2014)

September 9, 2014 in Best Of, Movie Reviews, Reviews

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I admit I had heard some good things about Boyhood — Richard Linklater’s epic experiment featuring the same actors over an actual 12-year period — but never did I expect it to be such a wonderful, profound viewing experience. Despite fears that the film would boil down to that one gimmick, once the awe stemming from the audacity to make such a crazy project subsides, Boyhood settles down into a beautiful, poignant coming-of-age story about life and love that’s as emotionally affecting as anything I’ve seen on the silver screen.

The film, which is a “proper” drama as opposed to a documentary, centers on Mason Evans Jr (played throughout by Ellar Coltrane) as he grows from a six year old in 2002 until he goes off to college at the age of 18. He leads what I suppose can be called a “regular” life by American standards these days, living with his single Olivia mother (Patricia Arquette) and older sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater, the director’s real-life daughter), while his biological father (Ethan Hawke) slips in and out of his life over the years.

That’s about as much as I need to say about the plot, which is actually very structured but never feels that way because we’re just going along with these characters lives as they pursue their passions, fall in and out of love, and endure countless conflicts over the course of 12 remarkable years. We watch them grow, age, mature and change — and it’s happening all the time, in a way that is subtle yet undeniable.

The feel of the film is very natural, with conversations and interactions that you or I might have every day. They might talk about family, about ambitions or politics (the family is very liberal and the film does make fun of Republicans to some extent), though Linklater knows how to pick and choose so that the small snippets of daily lives will usually provide fascinating insights into the characters, human nature and simply the world around us. The understated tone is somewhat similar to the Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, Before Midnight trilogy Linklater is perhaps best known for, so there is an air of familiarity for fans of those films, especially since Ethan Hawke plays quite a similar character.

Ellar Coltrane through the years in Boyhood

Ellar Coltrane through the years in Boyhood

Initially I wondered whether having the same actors throughout the years would make much of a difference. After all, we’ve seen so many films where they just cast different actors for different ages that it’s become a cinematic norm. Now, after having seen the movie, I can categorically say YES, it does matter. You might not lose anything from using different actors, but you certainly gain something, even if its just subconsciously, when you see real people growing older right in front of your eyes. As the film progresses chronologically, most of the physical changes in the adults are subtle, though for Mason Jr and Samantha it’s quite an amazing transformation. Even more amazing than the constantly shifting appearances, however, is seeing how their personalities develop over time as they turn from bratty little kids into young adults.

The film may be called Boyhood but it’s not just about the boy, as all the major characters in the family play irreplaceable roles. It’s about all of them. In some ways, I found the Olivia (Arquette) story the most fascinating (and heartbreaking) as she is forced to deal with challenging changes not just in her children but in herself.

Boyhood is a fairly long movie at 164 minutes, though when you consider how much time and ground it covers — at a leisurely pace, mind you – it almost feels short (and it makes Transformers: Age of Extinction‘s 165-minute running time even more incomprehensible). That said, I thought the length was perfect, as was the ending, which, like what the rest of the film does so well, captures just another one of life’s many precious moments.

Boyhood is a groundbreaking film because of Linklater’s ambitious filming technique, though it is so so so much more than that. This is not a film that will blow you away from the outset or titillate you with fancy special effects or intense action scenes. To be honest, I didn’t think much about anything when I first joined these characters on their respective life journeys, but then at some stage towards the end I realised, shit, this is a five-star film. Go watch it. It’s one of the most remarkable things you’ll ever see.

5 stars out of 5

PS: The fact that Linklater managed to complete the project is a minor miracle in itself. Realistically, the film could have collapsed for so many reasons — funding, studio issues, and most likely an actor falling off the rails, quitting, or even dying.

Movie Review: Before Midnight (2013)

January 17, 2014 in Best Of, Movie Reviews, Reviews

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It usually takes me a little while to get around to reviewing a movie after watching it, but I’m making an exception for Before Midnight, the third and final installment in Richard Linklater’s brilliant 20-year trilogy. Continuing the story of its predecessors, 1995′s Before Sunrise and 2004′s Before Sunset, this one follows Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy’s characters Jesse and Celine on a holiday in Greece, which not only provides closure after the cliffhanger ending in the second film, but also brings us up-to-date with what has happened to them and their relationship over the past decade (which I won’t spoil here).

I loved the first two films and of course I loved this one too. Hawke and Delpy, both of whom worked on the screenplay with Linklater, are just the best on-screen couple ever. The chemistry between them was amazing 20 years ago and remains amazing now, but it’s also evolved and matured as they’ve aged. As a result, their interactions feel so genuine and so full of raw emotion that when watching the film I often forgot they are not a couple in real life.

The astounding thing about the Before trilogy is that every film is similar on paper but completely different in terms of themes and emotional impact. All three about the relationship of Jesse and Celine. They are all dominated by conversation about love and life, sometimes about deep things, sometimes about trivial things, but always traversing engaging topics. They are each set in a different city (Vienna, Paris, and now the Peloponnese in Greece) and feature long walks that show off their beautiful scenery.

Before Sunrise, however, was magical love story about two young people making a real connection, whereas Before Sunset, which I thought was even better, was all about the pain of missed opportunities and wondering what could have been. On the other hand, Before Midnight (which many have mistaken for a horror film title, by the way), is about the harsh, and often heartbreaking realities of what happens after the happily ever after, and asks us whether the struggles and disagreements and sacrifice are, perhaps, what true love is ultimately all about.

In many ways, Before Midnight is the by far the most cynical of the three, but it is also the most down to earth. As beautiful as their one night in Vienna was 20 years ago, a relationship cannot just be about one night. There are countless forces working against couples in the real world, from children, to ex-partners, to work, and so forth, not to mention that the nature of the relationship itself can change drastically over time. It may have felt at one stage that Jesse and Celine were meant to be together forever, but after all this time, are they still truly in love? Are they still passionate about each other? And what is the nature of that love, that passion? That is what the film explores, and it does so with incredible direction, performances and dialogue.

One of the opening sequences, a 12-minute, single-take conversation between Jesse and Celine as they drive past the beautiful Greek countryside, is a perfect illustration of why this trilogy is so special. Another one of my favourite scenes (apart from the climatic and perfect ending) has Jesse telling the other men staying with him at the Greek villa the contents of his novels, which evoke clever parallels with the film trilogy. Unfortunately, Before Midnight inexplicably missed out on the Golden Globes completely apart from a single nomination to Delpy, and it will be interesting to see if it gets any nods at the upcoming Oscars.

Granted, Before Midnight will not be everyone’s cup of tea. While it is occasionally funny, it is at times also difficult to watch. People who haven’t seen the first two films will definitely not appreciate it as much because they don’t know the characters as well (which is why you should definitely see them in chronological order), and could find some of the conversations bordering on pretentious or unnecessarily sexualized. But if you were caught up in the magic, like I have been since Before Sunrise, you’ll understand who these flawed people are and appreciate that you are watching the memorable conclusion to what is without a doubt one of the best — if not the best – dramatic trilogies of all time.

4.5 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Sinister (2012)

December 4, 2012 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

It’s rare to see an original horror movie these days and even more unusual to see one starring Ethan Hawke (I think Daybreakers is his only other one), so I made sure I caught Sinister, a movie about a writer who becomes entangled in a bizarre murder-mystery with a possible occult slant.

Without giving away too much, Hawke plays Ellison Oswalt, a true crime writer whose last hit was more than a decade old and is desperately trying to land a homerun to revive his career. He becomes attracted to a chilling case about a missing girl and the hanging of her family from a tree that was caught on film, and relocates to the town where the tragedy occurred — with his wife (English stage actress Juliet Rylance) and two young children — so he can begin work on his ultimate masterpiece.

Despite its unimaginative title, Sinister is actually quite a creative horror film that worked really well for its first half. And unlike most horror films that dissolve into silliness towards the end, Sinister fails in its second half not because of the story but because of stylistic choices by director Scott Derrickson (The Exorcism of Emily Rose), who also co-wrote the script.

The film excelled in the beginning because it relied almost solely on its creepy, unsettling atmosphere. The audience is drawn in by this eerie unsolved mystery and what are essentially ghoulish snuff films that are undeniably alarming yet captivating. The scenes with Hawke sitting alone in a dark room watching chilling 8mm home videos can make me shrivel up every time (interpret that as you wish).

So for the first hour or so of the film I was kept at the edge of my seat and I had no idea where the story was heading and whether it even had anything to do with the supernatural. For all I knew it was just a really strange case where lots of unexplained stuff was happening.

At some point, however, the film takes a wrong turn down an alley we’ve all seen too many times with modern horror films. Instead of watching the horror unfold through Ellison’s eyes we begin to watch it unfold around him – in that we get to see things he doesn’t – and this actually removes us from the closeness and proximity to the fear and confusion he’s feeling.

The scares also become more predictable and clichéd. Atmosphere takes a back seat to “boo” moments with grotesque images jumping out in front of the camera purely for cheap thrills. Granted, some of them are effective, especially with the blaring sound effects and music, but it brings Sinister closer to your average horror flick than distinguishes it, which is a real shame.

Fortunately, the film doesn’t fall apart completely. There are still enough twists and turns to keep audiences interested, and Hawke’s solid performance as Ellison, as well as Ryance’s as his very reasonable wife, keep the film afloat through some of its rockier moments. As always with such movies, there are some plot issues that are best ignored (such as how everyone in the house apart from Ellison can sleep through all that noise), but all things considered Sinister is still one of the better horror flicks of 2012.

3.75 stars out of 5!

Movie Review: New York, I Love You (2009)

April 29, 2010 in Movie Reviews

I just went to see a screening of New York, I Love You, a collection of 10 short films masquerading as a full-length feature.  Despite having one of the most amazing ensemble casts ever, it was no good.  No good at all.

New York, I Love You comes to us from the producers of the French film Paris, je t’aime (ie “Paris, I Love You”) and has basically the same concept.  All stories take place in the city of New York, and each one is about love, or the search for love (which is often confused for sex).  Apart from that, they are entirely different and standalone pieces, even though it is put together as though it is a single film.  Characters from one story might make a cameo in another every now and then — and there’s one character, a girl who walks around New York carrying a video camera, that I suppose links the pieces together — but there’s absolutely no connection between the stories.

You can’t discuss this movie without talking about the actors that make up the ensemble cast.  Just off the top of my head, there was: Natalie Portman, Shia LaBeouf, Ethan Hawke, Bradley Cooper, Hayden Christensen, Anton Yelchin, Blake Lively, Orlando Bloom, Chris Cooper, Christina Ricci, Julie Christie, James Caan, Rachel Bilson, Andy Garcia, Robin Wright Penn, Jacinda Barrett, Maggie Q and Shu Qi.  Brett Ratner directed one of the stories and Natalie Portman wrote and directed another.

I guess the whole point of New York, I Love You was to show off New York as a city, and to make some sort of general comment about the “moments” and “connections” people make, whether it is with a completely random stranger or with someone you’ve been with for 60 years.

Needless to say, I struggled with this movie.  Putting aside that I did not know it was really a collection of short films as opposed to a segmented narrative (eg Love Actually, Crash, He’s Just Not That Into You, Valentines Day), many of the stories didn’t work for me.

That’s what happens when you combine what is essentially 10 films written and directed by different people.  There is no consistency in the style or the tone or the feel of each one (for instance, some stories used internal dialogue; another had a narrator).  More importantly, many of the situations and much of the dialogue felt contrived.  It was very uncomfortable watching something you know is trying to manipulate your emotions in a hurry because it only has 10 minutes in which to do it.  I often found myself shaking my head wondering who on the planet reacts and talks like that to random strangers!

The short films all certainly had a lot of style — with the pretty shots, arty imagery and poetic chit chat — but there was rarely enough substance to establish an emotional connection.  And besides, even if you did connect with a particular character, you may never see them again anyway.

Individually, some of the stories were pretty good, witty and insightful.  My favourite one was a short conversation between Ethan Hawke and Maggie Q.  A couple of others, the one with Anton Yelchin and the one with the old couple, were decent.  However, not all of them hit the mark.  One or two were actually quite boring or irritating.  And the worst part about this being a collection of short films is that about half of them (or more) had a twist ending.  Usually one or two in a film is fine, but when it keeps happening over and over, it can start to get a bit tedious.

I would have very much preferred it had they simply presented the movie as 10 short films written and directed by different people, and broken them up accordingly without trying to force an unnecessary link between them.  Knowing when one short story ended and another began would have helped me reset and watch the next one with a clean slate.  Instead, the “combined” collection we ended up with felt uneven, disjointed and lacking in direction.

New York, I Love You is technically sound, shows New York in a nice light, and features an amazing cast — but so what?  It wasn’t enjoyable and that’s all that mattered in the end.

1.5 out of 5 stars!

Movie Review: Daybreakers (2010)

February 27, 2010 in Movie Reviews

Of all the vampire movies in recent years, Daybreakers has one of the most original and interesting premises.  2019.  The tables have turned and vampires are now in the majority.  Humans are hunted down and farmed for blood.  [Sorry, I couldn't think of a way to explain the premise without giving those parts away]

Anyway, it’s a great idea, and everything about Daybreakers points towards a classic.  From the dark, cold colour scheme to some of the coolest futuristic inventions (for the vampire folk), old school action and car chases, sickening blood and gore, frightening creatures and Willem Dafoe, Daybreakers should have been a classic.

But it’s not.

And no, it’s not Ethan Hawke’s fault!  I like Hawke and I think he’s a suitable lead for this film.  He’s got that brooding, intellectual demeanor with an ample dose of wimpiness – but with hero potential, of course.  So no, it’s not Hawke.  He’s fine.

So is female lead Claudia Karvan and her Aussie/Kiwi co-stars Sam Neill, Vince Colosimo and Isabel Lucas.

So perhaps the problem lies with the fact that Daybreakers is not very memorable.  None of the characters are particularly interesting or stand out.  Willem Dafoe is supposed to be that guy, but he doesn’t quite get there.  There’s no dialogue that audiences are likely to remember or recite.  And apart from an early encounter, there’s not a lot of scares, and while there is nothing wrong with the action, it is actually rather pedestrian in comparison to the top notch action thrillers.

Having said all that, I did like the film.  It was one of those “it’s pretty good, but could have been so much more” type movies.  It kept me interested and intrigued, with a couple of twists thrown in for good measure.  At just 98 minutes, it made me wish for once the film was at least 20 minutes longer.  Maybe it’s the relatively low budget (by today’s standards) of only $20 million and a restricted vision that held it back from being great.

Argh.

3.5 stars out of 5!

 
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