Thursday, February 19, 2015

Linklater Pulls Off Passion Project With Beautiful, Resonant "Boyhood"

Boyhood chronicles 12 years in the life of a family of four, including
a loving but absent dad and a quiet and relaxed son.
Boyhood deserves to win Best Picture and Best Director at this year's Oscar telecast.

I say that, having seen almost none of the nominated films. While I pride myself in my opinion on film, and I usually stay pretty well versed in the Oscar coverage and discussion, fatherhood has drastically altered my regular viewing and reading habits. I have only seen two (Boyhood and The Grand Budapest Hotel) of the eight Best Picture nominees, three of the 20 nominated acting performances, and, well, you get the idea.

All that being said, I still feel comfortable making such a lofty claim about Richard Linklater's examination of life in process. Although it's entirely possible that a film like Foxcatcher or Birdman could leapfrog Boyhood as my favorite film of 2014, the enormity of what has been achieved with Boyhood flat out needs to be recognized. The film, which chronicles 12 years in the life of Mason (Ellar Coltrane), his sister (Lorelei Linklater), and their parents (Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette at the top of their games) is not as novel as some might think (Michael Apted has been doing something similar with his Up series of documentaries for half a century), but it is still a monumental accomplishment.

Will Boyhood actually win? I'm doubtful. Birdman seems deserving and has a leg up on the top prize, and while director is, by most accounts, a tighter race, Linklater doesn't have the showy style of Alejandro González Iñárritu. I would celebrate a win for an artist like Iñárritu, but I think the time is right to give Linklater his due. The guy has spent a great deal of his career exploring aging, the maturation process and the passage of time -- charting growth and relationships over two decades with his Before trilogy (reviewed by yours truly here) -- but Boyhood is something extra. Conceived as a whole and shot and edited bit by bit over a twelve year period, it required unwavering discipline, incredible patience and, let's be honest, some real cajones.

It's just so crazy to consider that over the past dozen years, while Linklater was churning out a consistent stream of films, including several that are outright dynamite (School of Rock, Before Sunset, Before Midnight), he had this project just simmering on the backburner. There was so much here that could've gone wrong, but Boyhood is so damn perceptive and tonally consistent because of the clarity of Linklater's vision mixed with his patented ability to go with the flow and make small moments so damn engaging.

Even if there was some sort of rudimentary outline here, Linklater took a real risk staking such an ambitious project on an unknown actor that could've grown into just about any type of person. To a large extent, the development of Coltrane was driving the narrative here, and while he wound up fitting the mold of Linklater's prototypical sensitive artist type (a few tweaks and this could easily be a prequel about Jesse from the Before series), he easily could've grown into something else entirely. I suspect Linklater would've made any outcome work, because he's just so damn light on his toes, and I'm a firm believer in rewarding humanist filmmaking of this scope and caliber.

It's worth stating explicitly that the film is pretty damn good aside from all that background -- it's a subtly resonant, gently profound and authentically naturalistic coming of age story, aided enormously by some dynamite lived-in acting and its director's keen ear for honest interactions and dialogue. The film doesn't revel in the typical "big moments" of boyhood -- instead it focuses on the more mundane lead-ups and aftermaths, which works as a sly comment on how we spend far more time anticipating and reacting to the big experiences than we do inside of them.

Having said that, the film is still fascinatingly gripping, mostly because you get sucked into caring about what's happening and come away feeling like you know these people. There's just a tremendous satisfaction to watching these lives play out.

Late in the film, Hawke has a scene with Coltrane in which he touches on that notion, providing the perfect reason for why Boyhood is such a beautiful piece of art. He says,"What's the point? I mean, I sure as shit don't know. Neither does anybody else, okay? We're all just winging it, you know? The good news is you're feeling stuff. And you've got to hold onto that."

There's no doubt Linklater winged quite a bit during the making of this film, and that the end result makes the audience feel stuff. And that makes Boyhood a film worth holding on to. A

Sunday, February 8, 2015

"A Walk Among the Tombstones" Proves More Than Your Typical Liam Neeson Actioner

Liam Neeson gets to do more than just snarl his way through this one.
Since the runaway success of the original Taken six years ago, Liam Neeson has appeared as a stoic tough guy in anywhere between eight and a dozen movies depending on how you view the likes of Clash of the Titans, The Lego Movie and A Million Ways to Die in the West.

Considering that, it would be easy to shrug off A Walk Among the Tombstones as another in a long line of stock actioners meant to capitalize on audience fondness for Bryan Mills and his extremely abductable family.

However, while Neeson is still playing an intimidating ass kicker, A Walk Among the Tombstones is very different from Taken, Non-Stop and all the other cookie cutter crap he's been churning out the last few years. As far as this action phase of his goes, this one fits most comfortably alongside The Grey, another film that took this hardass archetype and actually ventured into thoughtful reflection and interesting characterization.

Based on one of the books from Lawrence Block's popular detective series, A Walk Among the Tombstones isn't even much of an action movie -- it's a dark, slow-burn character piece. Box Office Mojo compares it to Prisoners, and while I don't think it's quite in the same league as that film, the comparison is apt. Another analog would be The Lookout, the only other film ace screenwriter Scott Frank (Minority Report, Out of Sight) had directed before this one.

Plotwise, the film sounds like a movie you've seen before. It follows Matthew Scudder (Neeson), a disgraced former police officer who works as a non-licensed detective when he's not attending AA meetings, as he investigates the murder of a drug kingpin's wife. Combined with his taking a street kid under his wing, the case ultimately provides Scudder a chance at redemption.

But a film like this isn't so much about plot as it is about mood and tone, and Frank and Neeson get all of that right (besides a voiceover during the conclusion that ham-fistedly ties in the 12 steps of AA). Neeson still gets to be the grizzled badass here, but there's a humanity to the guy that really plays. And in a film of this ilk, that can go a long way. B