Thursday, July 24, 2014

An amazing portrait of boyhood

Boyhood -- director Richard Linklater's 12-year portrait of contemporary childhood -- stands as a time-capsule-worthy movie about the kind of fragmented family lives that have become increasingly common.

Linklater's movie may not be flawless, but it's brave and thorough, and it may make you realize just how difficult growing up has become. I don't know if Boyhood describes a new normal, but it's an eminently credible look at the realities that confront an awful lot of today's kids.

The story focuses on Mason, following him from the age of six to the age of 18. Mason's the son of parents who married too early and subsequently divorced. He lives with his mother, who has notably bad judgment when it comes to men, eventually entangling herself in a second marriage to an abusive drunk.

During his young life, Mason is forced to change residences and schools. He must also navigate a relationship with his biological father, a good-hearted guy who hasn't really grown up himself.

Linklater shot his movie in 39 days over the course of 12 years, employing the same cast throughout the entire project. As a result, we get to watch the young people in the movie grow and mature, a process that takes them through stages of cuteness and ungainliness and finally deposits them on the cusp of adulthood.

We feel as if we really know these youngsters, and as they get older, we're constantly looking for traces of the children they once were. We live with these characters.

To his credit, Linklater doesn't fill the movie's 2 1/2 hours with wall-to-wall confrontation. Although there are a couple of tough emotional outbursts, Linklater mostly allows his characters to live their lives unhurriedly, often struggling to do the best they can.

In that sense, Boyhood is a movie about the ways in which we learn to live with imperfection, to adjust to it as time passes.

Young Ellar Coltrane provides the glue that holds Boyhood together. He gives the movie a strong center as Mason's moves toward young adulthood.

Linklater's daughter Lorelei, who plays Mason's older sister, is equally good, although her character doesn't get equal time with Mason.

In an early scene, Lorelei Linklater and Coltrane battle in the backseat of a car in ways that will be distressingly familiar to any parent who has lived through similar moments with a contentious set of siblings.

The rest of the cast does strong work, particularly Patricia Arquette as Mom and Hawke as Dad. Marco Perella plays another man in Mom's life, a guy who tries to over-control his kids because he can't control himself. His alcoholism eventually turns mean.

Mom later takes up with an Iraq war vet, another guy who's clueless when it comes to women and kids.

It's fair, I think, to regard Boyhood as a collection of telling moments: a kid watching his parents argue and us knowing that the moment is spring-loaded to have later impact, for example.

Late in the movie, we see Mason's first serious relationship with a girl (Zoe Graham).

As I watched Boyhood, I kept wondering when melodrama would strike, when the dramatic chickens would come home to roost. That never really happens.

Yes, circumstances can be difficult, but the characters muddle on. Some fall by the wayside -- or are pushed. Some grow and prosper. Mom, for example, becomes more independent, although she also sees the hollowness in a life that has left her on her own.

Hawke's character finds a second wife and starts a new family. He puts irresponsibility behind him, and trades his beloved GTO for a mini-van.

Throughout, Dad remains in touch with the kids from his first family. A scene in which he takes them to meet his new wife's parents typifies the way Linklater plays against expectations.

Grandma and Grandpa are Bible-toting churchgoers, and Grandpa's a gun enthusiast, but they're also people with a natural sense of generosity.

When Grandpa (Richard Andrew Jones) gives 15-year-old Mason one of this prized shotguns (his father gave it to him), the moment becomes truly touching.

Shifting cultural references pop up as we go. We get scenes during the height of the Harry Potter craze. Cell phones crop up. Musical tastes evolve. Mason changes hair styles, and eventually dons earrings.

But Linklater seems significantly less interested in shifting styles than in the substance of the lives he's observing.

When Mason begins to mature, he becomes interested in pursuing a career in art photography. It's clear that he's dealing with adolescent confusion, but also that he's smart and sensitive.

Besides, there could be a good side to the emotional distance that Mason learns to maintain, a hint of wariness that should serve him well in a world that's not always waiting for us with open arms.

In its later stages, Boyhood begins to feel like a talk-heavy Linklater movie in the Slacker and Waking Life vein: Characters reveal themselves (or not) through conversational riffs. And the movie overstays its welcome with a prolonged final act.

But taken as a whole, Boyhood represents an impressive achievement, a beautifully observed portrait of contemporary life, rooted in Texas but not confined to the peculiarities of the Lone Star state.

For all of its difficult detours, Boyhood qualifies as an optimistic movie, expressing Linklater's belief that most of us survive, get along and do our best to keep on going. We try.

Another helping of John le Carre

In A Most Wanted Man, author John le Carre shifts his espionage focus to Hamburg and Berlin. With the Cold War receding into memory, le Carre continues to find other milieus in which he can examine the chilly world of men and women who earn their living plying history's back channels.

Director Anton Corbijn tries to respect the tone and intricacies of le Carre's informed imagination, immersing us in a complex story built around German spy Gunther Bachmann (Philip Seymour Hoffman).

As head of a special unit, Bachmann spends his time keeping tabs on Hamburg's radical Muslims. He hopes that he can uncover terrorist plots as he moves through a shadowy world that he doesn't always understand. Who could?

We're in a post 9/11 environment: The movie begins several years after Hamburg played home to Mohamed Atta, one of the leaders of the World Trade Center attack.

Not without reason, Bachmann considers himself a savvy guy. He's seen plenty, and he's not likely to be bested by anyone. He's a bit disheveled, but he's knowing and efficient, and has a deep mistrust of bureaucracy -- anyone's.

The movie starts when Issa Karpov (Grigoriy Dobrygin), a Chechen/Russian arrives in Hamburg. A devout Muslim, Issa may be dangerous or maybe he's merely a pawn in someone's plan to lure and catch a bigger fish.

A German immigration lawyer (Rachel McAdams) tries to help Issa gain permanent residency in Germany. They approach a German banker (Willem Dafoe) to gain access to a substantial bank account left by Issa's father, a bad actor in the Russian criminal world.

The movie's cast of characters also includes Dr. Faisal Abdullah (Homayoun Ershadi), a high-profile spokesman for the German Muslim community, and a cagey CIA agent (Robin Wright), who tries to work her way into Bachmann's plans.

Corbijn (Control and The American) doesn't totally conquer le Carre's complicated plot, the movie's pacing can become turgid, and the story might have been better served with a German actress in the role played by McAdams.

Still, the payoff perfectly reflects le Carre's cynical intelligence, a rueful defeatism that emanates from too keen a knowledge of the many ways in which people betray one another.

I wish it weren't so, but, for me at least, the fact that Hoffman's no longer with us imbued A Man Most Wanted with unintended eeriness, a sense that perhaps, in the end, life trumped any performance the gifted actor could give.

Put another way, it's difficult not to mourn the fact that A Man Most Wanted should have been one more Hoffman movie among many more to come.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Roger Ebert's life -- as it was

Life Itself -- director Steve James's revealing look at the life of film critic Roger Ebert -- is difficult to watch. This isn't because Ebert's life had its bad patches (which it evidently did), but because in his post-cancer, post multiple-surgeries days, Ebert's face became unrecognizable.

Even before filming started, Ebert was left with a flap of a jaw that didn't always conceal the holes created by cancer of the thyroid, salivary glands and the surgeon's knife.

I'd be lying if I didn't tell you that there were times when I had to look away from the screen.

Those who knew Ebert -- and who didn't feel as if they knew him after his lengthy career on TV's Siskel & Ebert and the Movies -- were accustomed to seeing him looking a good deal more robust, and it's shocking to see him inching toward his last days.

Still, if Ebert didn't shrink from showing us how he looked, we must respect his choice. Even before James's film, Ebert had released photos of himself that were enough to take the wind out of anyone's sails.

Those of us who knew Ebert from the festival circuit (which is to say that some of us were acquainted with him) knew him as an indefatigable worker, an astonishingly prolific writer, a good journalist and an adventurous critic who was willing to attend events that sometimes were not as well known as he was.

I don't know if anyone's movie reviews will (or even should) stand the test of time, but Ebert's interviews with actors and directors remain some of the best ever written.

More than a cancer chronicle, James's biography is also a sketch of an amazing career. The movie begins with Ebert's childhood, covers the budding journalist's college years and his early newspaper life at The Chicago Sun Times.

The movie also charts Ebert's rise on television, which -- we're reminded wasn't meteoric. Siskel and Ebert began on Chicago public TV long before either of them expected to attain a national profile.

Later, Ebert would fill his popular web site with reviews, interviews and more.

Perhaps eager to avoid an exercise in hagiography, James tries to show that Ebert could be less than pleasant -- less in his reviews than in his personal life. I should say that Ebert always displayed generosity toward me.

In hindsight, all of Ebert's missteps (the alcoholism he overcame; his egotism; his purported bad taste in women during his younger days) seemed to lead him toward a kind of personal redemption that culminated with his marriage to his wife Chaz.

I suppose that the rivalry between Gene Siskel and Ebert will interest those who are fascinated by the wave of pop-cultural oomph they created, their thumbs turning up and down for our amusement and occasionally, our edification.

It's possible that Ebert's life as a journalist was unique. I doubt whether a career such as Ebert's ever will happen again. Newspapers have declined. Movie critics with stable positions are more difficult to find.

TV still creates personalities, but it's difficult to imagine that one of TV's lights ever again will shine so brightly on another film critic.

Once, at a Telluride Film Festival, I asked Ebert if he planned to retire. As near as I can recall, Siskel already was dead, and Ebert had partnered with Sun Times columnist Richard Roeper to preserve the show's down-to-earth informality. The TV show wouldn't last forever, Ebert said.

But, said Ebert, he thought his Web site would allow him to continue writing no matter what else happened. He was right about that. He continued watching movies and writing as long as he could, turning a blog into a kind of personal and philosophical journal.

I don't mean this as a sick joke, but even now, I sometimes half expect Ebert to weigh in on a current release. He was a critic who became a touchstone. There always will be good -- even great -- film criticism, but it's unlikely anyone will take Ebert's place in the national conversation. With his passing in the spring of 2013, that sun has set.

Zach Braff's soggy sitcom of a movie

Aidan Bloom (Zach Braff) is not religious, yet he's sending his daughter and son to an Orthodox Jewish school. Aidan's kids are receiving a Jewish education because Aidan's father (Mandy Patinkin) wants them to understand their heritage. Just as important for the financially pressed Bloom family, Aidan's father picks up the tuition tab.

This, unfortunately, makes Aidan a bit of a hypocrite, a Los Angeles man so fearful of public education, he's willing to put his kids in an environment he doesn't take seriously.

Aidan is the main character in Braff's sometimes irritating Wish I Was Here, a movie about an aspiring actor (Braff) who's struggling economically, but won't consider giving up his dream of becoming a working performer.

Aidan's half-Jewish wife (Kate Hudson) holds the family together financially with a job she hates. Aidan's kids (Joey King and Pierce Gagnon) are ... well ... kids.

The twist that sets a sitcom-like story in motion occurs when Zach's father announces that his cancer has returned, that he's probably terminal and that he's going to spend all his money on what he hopes will be a miracle cure. Money for private school tuition suddenly vanishes.

Aidan's son is delighted to be free of the strictures of religious school. Hs daughter takes her religion seriously; she's also upset about losing touch with friends.

Improbably, Aidan takes on the responsibility for home-schooling his kids, a decision that leads to scenes more painful than funny. Besides, a guy like Aidan has no real reason to believe that he can teach his children math, science or anything else.

And that's the rub: In trying to be clever, the movie often seems to trash anything resembling comic or dramatic truth.

Braff, who financed Wish I Was Here with a much-discussed Kickstarter campaign, seems to be engaged in a hodgepodge of a project: part sitcom and part melodramatic tearjerker.

Just when you think the movie couldn't get worse, Aidan's defiantly geeky brother (Josh Gad) decides to attend a Comic-Con event dressed as a space man. And, yes, that's a definite turn for the worse.

Braff, who wrote the screenplay with his brother Adam, also includes fantasy sequences in which Aidan imagines himself as a kind of comic-book hero, a ploy that provides one more reason to wince.

Hudson brings a sense of reality to her character, and Patinkin makes a convincingly doctrinaire former professor who must, of course, soften his heart before he bids the world adieu.

Braff, who made his directorial debut with 2004's Garden State, attempts to humanize some of the fringe characters: The religious Jews, for example, begin as stereotypical figures, but eventually display a bit of recognizable humanity.

By then, though, the movie has dissolved into a soggy river of sentiment. Braff obviously wants to move us, but Wish I Was Here struck me as a self-absorbed exercise in failed cleverness that doesn't deserve its tears.

In case I haven't been clear enough: I didn't like it.

Polanski and the battle of the sexes

Roman Polanski tries his hand at another stage play in Venus in Fur, a mini-movie that represents a definite improvement over 2011's Carnage, a movie also based on a play. This time, Polanski translates David Ives's Broadway production into French, turning it into a claustrophobic power struggle between a playwright/director (Mathieu Amalric) and a mysterious actress (Emmanuelle Seigner) who's trying out for a part in the director's adaptation of a novel by real-life, 19th-century author Leopold von Sacher-Masoch. Polanski's remarkably fluid opening and closing shots are enough to justify the price of admission. Better yet, the performances are intriguing, perhaps because they totally embody the movie's deeper meanings. Seigner's character wheedles her way into an audition. Amazingly, she already knows her lines, and she's quite good. Amalric's character reads with her, playing the part of an aristocrat. As the story unfolds, director and actress begin jockeying for position. Seigner's character becomes increasingly bold, often taking aim at the director's judgment. In Seigner's capable hands, the play becomes a sharply observed study of acting, pretense and sudden shifts in direction. Polanski's two-character drama is limited only by the material itself: It can seem more tricky than profound, but Polanski knows how to stage a battle between the sexes with the advantage, in this case, tipping toward Seigner's wily, alluring and seldom predictable chara

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Man vs. ape: Can there be a winner?

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes makes for a smart, involving sequel.
The screenplay for Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is smart enough to make you wonder whether the movie's intelligent apes didn't have a hand in writing it. This sequel maintains the overall arc of the revitalized series, pitting man (or at least some men) against ape (or at least some apes).

But if we take the apes as metaphors for the natural environment, the one which we tend to intrude upon and despoil, the movie becomes deeper, more resonant.

Director Matt Reeves not only peppers his screenplay with ideas, he tells a story that can be enjoyed on the most rudimentary of levels.

So where exactly are we in the evolutionary saga of the human and ape populations? We're in the near future just after a terrible Simian Virus has wiped out a substantial part of humanity.

A group of survivors -- perhaps numbering in the hundreds -- has assembled in a ruined quarter of a devastated San Francisco.

The apes, who have attained various levels of intelligence and some of whom have developed the ability to speak, live in the Muir Woods, where they've constructed an elaborate wooden village and are in the process of developing an ethos: Apes don't kill apes.

The apes do, however, kill deer: They hunt for food with spears and evidently are carnivorous. They also have family structures and a form of governance.

The apes are led by Caesar (Andy Serkis), a leader devoted the ape population. Caesar has strength, but also a reflective sense of sadness about where the world has been and where it seems to be headed.

The potential for additional trouble arises when the San Francisco humans launch an expedition into the Muir Woods. They hope to reactivate a power plant that's badly needed to maintain the city's supply of electricity and to keep matters from returning to total barbarity.

The mission includes a trio that has formed an impromptu family in the wake of the virus that has taken away husbands, wives and children. There's Malcolm (Jason Clarke), his girlfriend (Keri Russell) and Malcolm's son (Kodi Smit-McPhee).

The apes reluctantly agree to allow the mission to proceed, but Koba (Toby Kebbell) objects. It's understandable, maybe even justifiable: Koba -- a victim of cruel human experiments in the last movie -- has no reason to trust mankind.

Eventually, Koba sets himself up in opposition to Caesar, and we know that an eventual battle looms. The clash between Koba and Caesar allows Reeves & company to serve up some strong action while also examining the role of guns in building a civilization, as well as what happens when a society is fractured by two opposing narratives.

That conflict, of course, inevitably pits Koba and his marching minions against Dreyfus (Gary Oldman), a human who takes responsibility for wiping out the apes and protecting humanity.

Reeves (Cloverfield and Let Me In) handles the action, effects and story with great aplomb, developing a sense of mystery and awe from the outset -- with help from Michael Giacchino's powerful score.

The San Francisco-based battle sequences don't disappoint: They're even coherent.

To its credit, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, which follows 2011's Rise of Planet of the Apes, doesn't entirely resolve the conflict between all its warring impulses. The movie does what few blockbusters would dare: It leaves us with a lingering, sorrowful feeling about the possibility of resolution.

This Berlin isn't for tourists

I like a film about slackers as much as the next indolent wretch. Still, I wasn't quite sure how to feel about director Jan Ole Gerster's A Coffee In Berlin, a film that focuses on Niko, a young man (Tom Schilling) whose life is going nowhere. Although Niko has dropped out of college, he still collects money his father sends him for tuition. That's how he lives. While vainly looking for a cup of coffee, perhaps thinking it will pull him out of his stuporous existence, Niko has mini-adventures with an actor pal (Marc Hosemann). Niko meets an attractive woman (Friederike Kempter) he knew and evidently teased in high school. She used to be fat. If you've been thinking of Berlin as one of Europe's most dynamic and culturally vibrant cities, A Coffee in Berlin may change your mind. Gerster's camera takes an anti-touristic, black-and-white approach to a city he obviously knows well. The film flirts with making a point when Niko visits the set a World War II movie. There, he meets a jovial actor who's playing a Nazi who has fallen in love with a Jewish woman, an extraordinarily bad idea for a movie. Gerster carries the idea of Germany's indigestible Nazi past further when Niko, dejectedly planted on a bar stool, meets an aging man who remembers the horrors of Kristallacht. All of this is set to a jazz-laden score, which seems to suggest that Gerster has lots of stuff whirling around in his mind and may someday make a movie in which some of it coalesces in a more impactful way.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

All aboard for a compelling ride

A wild, weird dystopian journey that demands to be seen.
Lately, I've been wondering why we can't seem to get enough of dystopia? I don't need to recount all the ways in which the world's a mess, but it's intriguing that just about every tentpole movie (from Edge of Tomorrow to Transformers: Age of Extinction to The Hunger Games) mires itself in the gloomiest possible vision of a future we once saw as endlessly bright -- or at least that's the story we tell ourselves about the past.

TV, of course, has joined the vigorous march toward doom. This week, I watched the opening episode of HBO's The Leftovers, which (happily) is not another cooking show. The jury may be out on the show's merits, but it brings dystopian flavor to a present in which a third of the population has vanished -- for no apparent reason. The great disappearance seems to have resulted in a thorough demoralization of those who remain, the leftovers of the title.

That shows airs at the same time as The Last Ship, a TNT production about the lone surviving naval ship in a world vanquished by a plague-like virus.

As a culture, we seem to be wallowing in mass depression -- and even if the box office has flagged a bit -- we seem to be enjoying our gloom immensely.

Me? I've grown weary of the dystopian thinking that has burdened the artistic imagination. But maybe even that attitude reflects the general malaise. What the hell's wrong with me? I'm having trouble enjoying mass destruction.

Now comes Snowpiercer, an international hybrid of a movie from Korean director Bong Joon-ho (The Host), and it may help restore my faith in hopelessness.

Perhaps because its director is Korean and perhaps because Bong bases his movie on a French graphic novel called Le Transperceneige, Snowpiercer has become an art-house offering.

Don't be misled. Snowpiercer is an action movie wrapped in an iron-clad vision of a society in which survival depends on brutally enforced class divisions that may have resulted from an intense competition for limited resources.

Bong's refreshingly preposterous movie takes place on a train that circles the globe. The lives of those on board are maintained, but the train goes nowhere. The whole idea of destinations seem to have vanished.

How did this happen? Global warming was heating the planet to intolerable levels. Someone figured out how to cool the planet, but the solution went too far, turning the entire Earth into a snow-covered wasteland. The only survivors are on the train to nowhere, lurching endlessly through sub-zero temperatures.

As can happen when a group is totally suppressed, the lower classes who occupy the rear of the train are becoming restless. Curtis (Chris Evans) and his friend Edgar (Jamie Bell) decide it's time for a revolt.

This means organizing their fellow sufferers and fighting their way to the front of the train, where people haven't been reduced to living in squalor and eating nothing but protein bars that look as if they're made from a combination of recycled rubber and Gummy Bears. They're not.

A mysterious figure we don't see until the film's final act presides over the train and its regimented inhabitants.

Bong creates plenty of excitement as the rebels attempt to traverse the train's length, exposing the train's social structure as they go, and pouring on plenty of revolutionary violence.

Bong obtains fine performances from a cast that includes Octavia Spencer as the mother of a boy who's taken to the front of the train for unknown reasons, and John Hurt, as a sagacious old man who became a peon when he was banished from the front of the train.

We also meet Mason (an unrecognizable Tilda Swinton), a bureaucrat who travels the length of the train making announcements for the purportedly revered leader and doling out punishments to those who express dissatisfaction.

Alison Pill has a wonderfully exuberant turn as a school teacher who instructs young people and who also leads them in insanely cheerful devotions to the unseen leader.

Korean actors Kang-ho Song and Ah-sung Ko, play a father/daughter team of drug addicts who join the fray.

Intricately realized and totally unhinged, Snowpierecer can't be watched without feeling a bit of trepidation, probably because much depends on what happens when our revolutionaries finally reach the front of the train, where actor Ed Harris becomes a presence.

It pains me to say that the finale is a bit of a letdown. How could it not be? Harris doles out a bits of expositional and philosophical dialogue that don't quite deliver the hoped-for payoff.

But don't let that stop you from seeing one of the most creative, strange and propulsive movie's of the year. Flaws and all, Snowpiercer -- like its perpetually moving train -- takes us on one hell of a trip.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Melissa McCarthy's summer stumble

Tammy's as crude as you'd expect, but not as funny as you might have hoped.
Few things are more painful than being stuck in a moving vehicle with people who you find annoying. That's exactly how I felt watching Tammy, a movie that puts Melissa McCarthy and Susan Sarandon on the road.

Painfully misguided, Tammy is the result of a collaboration between McCarthy and her husband Ben Falcone, who co-wrote the screenplay with McCarthy and who also handled the directing chores.

Tammy finds McCarthy playing the title character, the wayward granddaughter of an aging alcoholic (Sarandon).

After being fired from her job at a fast-food franchise, McCarthy's Tammy sets out on a road trip with her grandmother, who supplies the car -- an aging Cadillac -- and the money that supports a journey toward Niagara Falls, a stop on grandma's bucket list.

All of this takes place over the objections of Tammy's mother (Allison Janney), who understands that grandma is both a diabetic and a drunk, and shouldn't be let loose on an unsuspecting world.

Sarandon may be game for anything, but she's given scenes that struck me as embarrassing: carrying on in the backseat of a car with a guy (Cary Cole) she meets in a bar or having a drunken outburst at a Fourth of July party thrown by her lesbian cousin (Kathy Bates).

McCarthy's luckier: Her previous comic roles have immunized her against embarrassment. Here, she plays a foul-mouthed woman whose husband (Nat Faxon) is having an affair with a neighbor (Toni Collette).

As is the case with many crude comedies, Tammy feels the need to sentimentalize its main character before it's done, something like an boisterous drunk who ends the evening crying in his beer.

Tammy 's told -- via lame dialogue Bates delivers with unnecessary conviction -- that she needs to take control of her life and stop wallowing in self-pity.

She's supposed to do this even though her drunken aunt has grabbed a microphone and told the partying lesbians that Tammy's a fat loser worthy of the nickname "cheeseburger."

Sarandon has been made to look as old as possible, even to the point of donning artificially swollen ankles, but she's never convincingly dissolute.

In what may have been intended as a comic high point, Tammy puts a paper bag on her head and robs a fast-food outlet after fashioning another paper bag into a pretend revolver. She needs money to bail grandma out of jail.

If this was intended as the movie's comic high point, it's not much of one.

Mark Duplass plays the son of the man who picked up grandma in a bar and a potential love interest for Tammy, the movie's lone representative of normalcy.

Tammy tries to get by making lame jokes about old folks, dishing out crude humor and toying with the image McCarthy has created in previous comedies such as Identity Thief, The Heat and, of course, in Bridesmaids, the movie that provided her with a breakthrough role.

Maybe because it's summer, Tammy even finds an excuse to blow up grandma's car. If only that had happened before grandma and Tammy had had a chance to get into it.