Wednesday, October 29, 2014

The Skeleton Twins

Nothing's gonna stop us now!  Except possibly for some smarmy lip syncing
amid a gratuitous dance scene.  Bill Heder and Kristin Wiig in The Skeleton Twins.
Even if you attend a screening of The Skeleton Twins with an awareness of the film's subject matter, you probably won't expect to see its main characters winding and kicking along a hillside at dusk, led by the embodiment of death, prior to the closing credits.  No, if America has a danse macabre, that's hardly it, even if we (like Bergman) were to pluck from history the inspiration and form of such a procession.  That's just not us.  One can report this with certainty, if not relief.  The problem, dear friends, the worrisome thing, is that our dance might be best performed to a Starship song.  So it goes, at least, in The Skeleton Twins.


Bill Heder and Kristen Wiig are Billy and Maggy, brother and sister, if not actually twins. They haven't talked in decade at the outset of The Skeleton Twins, though the siblings have arrived at similar psychic states a country apart.  Maggy, pills in hand, has her suicide attempt preempted by a call to announce that her older brother is in the hospital after an unsuccessful attempt of his own.

Accompanying charmingly ghoulish home movie images of their childhood, Wiig explains in voiceover that dad was probably to blame for the depressive tendencies of his children, whom he dubbed, "the gruesome twosome."  It seems that Maggy and Billy experienced something of a middle class Addams Family existence with a fun if morbid father who checked out permanently while they were still children.

Old Saturday Night Live pals Wiig and Heder could well be honorary sister and brother at this point. Beyond their years together on the NBC comedy war horse,  Their substantial and ever-growing resumes include several films together.  In the case of the Skeleton Twins, Heder and Wiig manage to convey both the estrangement present as Billy and Maggy take the measure of one another in his California hospital, as well as the emotional thaw that occurs after the brother reluctantly joins his sister in her Brookyn home, shared by her almost insuperably good-natured husband, Lance (Luke Wilson).


Depression, or even attempted suicide, might be the case in The Skeleton Skeleton Twins, but for audiences going in, the question is likely not "to be or not to be," so much as when will the jokes begin.  So the comedic pedigree of the two leads suggests, which the film's trailer does nothing to discourage.  Of course, trailers discourage very little these days except intelligent life.

For their part, Wiig and Heder are quite willing and able to play it straight...or gay, as the case may be.  Among its more dubious accomplishments, Bridesmaids proved that Kristen Wiig can carry a film, as much by her ability to evoke sympathy as to make us laugh.  The very pleasant surprise with The Skeleton Twins is Bill Heder.  His is a touching performance, credible without making the common mistake of straight actors playing gay characters.  Heder's Billy is full and flawed, a character who happens to be gay without the actor resorting to camp, or simply trying too hard.

For a while, The Skeleton Twins goes seriously, if not too earnestly about its work, earning its modest laughs.  Despite the superficial dynamic of solid older sibling and fuckup baby of the family, we know better, thanks to the early the glimpse into Maggy's despondency.  Billy might be another California washout, vague dreams of acting giving way to the usual reality of waiting tables, but Maggy is desperately bored with her very good, not very dashing husband.  She takes birth control pills on the sly while the couple are ostensibly trying to conceive their first child.  Maggy also takes a very hands-on approach to adult education, an affair with her tattooed Aussie scuba diving instructor that latest in a series of such flings with teachers, she later confesses to Billy.  These affairs are one of several implausibilities offered by the script of Craig Johnson and Mark Heyman.  The pool also offers Mr. Johnson the opportunity for the hack shot of a film's main character submerging in a kind of daze, diving beneath a watery blanket to hide from a world for which they feel ambivalence if not outright dread.

To give us a fuller sense of the murky emotional current against which the brother and sister have swum, there is also a brief visit from their mother (Joanna Gleason), courtesy of an ill-advised invitation proffered by Billy.  Mom is full of new age platitudes and the willingness to clean auras, but not so keen to spend much time or invest any depth of emotion with her kids.  So maybe it wasn't all dad's fault.

Ultimately, Wiig and Heder are like two accomplished athletes, skaters or gymnasts, patiently working their way through the technical portion of their routine before getting to the skill for which they are best know. Eventually, the time comes for them to tumble, perform their triple axle, make us laugh.  To be fair to these particular performers, the predictable choreography is not their fault.  Mr. Johnson is the pushy coach making all of this happen from the sidelines.  So, we have a heart to heart in Maggy's workplace after she has cleaned her brother's teeth and allowed him liberal amounts of nitrous oxide.  Of course, she indulges in the laughing gas as well.  Laughs, as they must, ensue.  This - as when Wiig dons some conveniently outdated-looking headgear -  is the comedic equivalent of the feel-good musical montage.  But there is music yet to come in The Skeleton Twins.  Sort of.

     
Billy later disarms Maggy, irate at his meddling in her marriage, by cuing Starship's "Nothing's Gonna Stop Us Now" for a living room dance party.  Maggy tries to stay angry, but we all know how that's going to go.  Resistance in the zero gravity of such film scenes is futile.  She eventually floats up from her seat and it's on.  This is all painfully charming, Heder certainly sells it, but the sequence might as well be an outtake from Bridesmaids.  And if The Skeleton Twins provides the sort of reanimation to Starship as Bridesmaids did for Wilson Phillips, the makers will have a lot more to answer for than a middling piece of work.

Neither of these scenes quite spoil a classic in the making, but they do limit the degree to which any of the film or its willing actors can be taken seriously.  A later scene, which mixes humor, pathos, sibling bonding and cross dressing, demonstrates that The Skeleton Twins hardly need resort to cliche to buoy its audience.  It's Halloween.  Billy consents to accompany Maggy and let her dress him in drag.  The two wander through an urban parade of Halloween celebration and decoration before settling in a bar to reminisce.  As opposed to the imported goodwill of the earlier lip syncing and nitrous riffing, this scene actually seems to spring from a certain logic of story, continuity of character.  It makes sense, it entertains and doesn't seem forced.  In a rare moment of depth, the script of Johnson and Heyman even hints that Maggy's livid response to Billy continuing involvement with his former high school English teacher (Ty Burrell) might be less a matter of protecting her younger brother than responding like a jilted lover.  Unfortunately, a hint of depth is about all we get in The Skeleton Twins.    


America tends to be a country of feel-good myths and reality avoidance.  It's a kind of toxin that seeps into all but the most scrupulous of narratives.  The Skeleton Twins is in no way immune to such comfort-seeking.  Death, of course, is the ultimately reality to be dodged.  But that futile two-step makes for a tired dance, cheap storytelling.  Our culture might never manage a danse macabre to match the richness of those in Mexico, Ireland and elsewhere.  We're not likely to, nor should we don antic costumes and parade after the guy in black with the big reaper as daylight fades.  But must our dance and its second hand moves occur to the schlock accompaniment of "Nothing's gonna stop us now?"



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Tuesday, October 7, 2014

The Drop

Apparently, he's a pitbull.  Usually gentle, cute in his way perhaps, but not to be crossed.  This Brookyn bartender Bob Saginowski (Tom Hardy) as conceived by writer Dennis Lehane in The Drop.  Mr. Lehane sets up a rather simplistic case of nature versus nurture in a harsh, twilight Brooklyn where it's tough going for dog and man alike.

The Drop is notable as the final work of actor James Gandolfini.   He plays Bob's cousin Marv, which happens to be the name on the front of the bar he has long operated in a Brookyn neighborhood which shows no signs of gentrification.  But as The Drop begins, we find out that Cousin Marv's is Marv's in name only.  He was muscled out of ownership some eight years previous and is now beholden to Chechen gangsters.  At the outset, speaking in an adopted accent, Hardy as the soft-spoken Bob explains that many such bars are used as drops for bag men, all the city's dirty money funneling into slots and fake kegs, ultimately finding its way to the sort of people who tolerate nothing going astray.


In what seems a particularly elegaic performance, Gandofini is grave as the weary, embittered and compromised Marv.  Marv's foolhardy plan to cross the Chechens sets the plot of The Drop in motion.  Pressed for money from both the criminal and nominally legitimate overlords of his world (the collection agency which threatens to ship his vegetative father off to a lesser nursing home if he can't catch up with his bills) Marv finally decides to push back.  The film is ultimately Hardy's to carry, just the mess that Marv creates is ultimately left for the deceptively simple Bob to clean up.  We find that he's more than up to the grim task.

There's a lot of deception going on in The Drop, initiated by the desperate Marv, as well as the slow revelation of character on the part of screenwriter Lehane, adopting his short story "Animal Rescue."  This unveiling of nuance and back story is more credible among the secondary characters like Marv and a menacing local, Eric Deeds (Matthias Schoenarts), than with Bob and Nadia (Noomi Rapace).

Nadia (Noomi Rapace) is a neighborhood woman whom Bob meets when he finds a wounded and abandoned dog in her trash can.  It seems eminently clear from this first meeting, that the battered animal will bring together these wounded souls, even as the skittish Nadia takes a photo of Bob's license in a kind of safety Instagram, sending it to four friends, which she makes clear to Hardy's character before she allows him to follow her into the house so they can tend to the hurting puppy. The cute fellow, whom eventually receives the name Rocco, is actually a pit pull,  When Nadia - a waitress who used to work in an animal rescue organization - corrects Bob's misidentification of the dog as a boxer, he recoils somewhat and earnestly proclaims the cultural bias about the ill-used breed.  This a case of Bob being conveniently simple.  No need to punish the dog because his owner was a dick, Nadia says, scratching the puppy's floppy, grey ears.  Bob is able to resist neither Rocco, nor Nadia.  

Ms. Rapace has had her Scandinavian blonde hair dyed black to play Nadia, just as Hardy's relatively fair has has been darkened to accompany a light beard, further highlighting his already prominent lips and nose.  Both actors look well enough like the second or third generation Eastern or Southern Europeans they're supposed to be.  The Drop at the very least looks authentic, from its characters to building interiors (particularly the lived-in Cousin Marv's; someone did some good location scouting), even if the action takes place in a portion of Brooklyn that the sun seems only rarely to find.  


The details in The Drop, the particulars of people and place of the film's overcast Brooklyn, are frequently credible enough, or at least compelling enough to suspend disbelief.  So it goes with the soft tones and accent of Bob.  This just another tune from the rich instrument that is the voice of Englishman Tom Hardy.  For a man of his relative size and presence, Hardy has proven more a chameleon than one might imagine possible, particularly with his voice.  This is the same actor who trumpeted the pronouncements of the indomitable Bane in The Dark Night Rises, croaked out the limited verbiage of the almost comically unkillable Forrest Bondurant in Lawless and fairly expectorated the blustering philosophy of the titular prison inmate in Bronson.  Hardy's Brooklyn inflection might not be the accent of any of the multitude of accents actually heard in New York's most populous borough, but his voice and generally troubled mien are the least problematic aspects of his character.

Matthias Schoenaerts in Bullhead.
Both feature-length films of Belgian Michael R. Loskam have had at their center a kind of innocent lumbering around in the formidable shell of a man, trying to navigate subcultures of violence and gangsterism.  Given its European setting and provenance, perhaps it's not surprising that the protagonist in his Bullhead (2011) is a less approachable character whose story plays out far more darkly than Brooklyn Bob in The Drop.

Both Bullhead and The Drop draw us into the lonely lives of their main characters.  Unfortunately, Mr. Loskam undercuts himself in each case with pondering shots of these innocents amid encroaching darkness.  In Bullehead, this takes the form of the clunking mechanism of flashbacks in which we find out that the troubled bulk of Jacky Vanmarsenille is not exactly what he appears to be at first or even second glance.  The film ends with another ill-advised return to innocence, lest we fail to grasp the pathos which has already been well established.  Loskam concludes The Drop with a similar shot, this time of man and dog on the sidewalk of Nadia, tongues figuratively wagging, asking to be let in out of the cold.

Director Loskam squeezes the story and camera, as it were, too tightly at one of The Drop's most crucial and ultimately unlikely moments.  But one's enjoyment of The Drop will depend most on how readily can be accepted the very contradictory character that is Bob Saginowski, as written by Dennis Lehane.  At least Mr. Lehane demonstrates the relative grace of using something other than the death or abduction of children (as was the case in Mystic River, Gone Baby Gone and Shutter Island) for the dramatic thrust of this most recent story of his set to film.  His attempt rehabilitate the reputation of the pit bull is also rare and laudable.  But much as he sprinkles details in the story to hint at the violent potential of Bob - as the quiet man expertly wraps a severed arm that had been delivered to the bar in a bag with bloodied currency, cousin Marv gruffly notes that it looks like he's done it a thousand times before - it seems a case of a criminal trying too hard to establish an alibi to cover a botched crime.  This man as drawn by Lehane strains credibility.  That he would be taken back by Nadia after she witnessed Bob at his most violent, even more so.

The lingering sadness of The Drop is the realization that it's the last time we'll see James Gandolfini in a new role.  There are more obvious ways to celebrate his legacy, as his magnetic work all those years as Tony Soprano.  But to stay within the realm of the motion picture without leaving the shadowy world of violent men, check out Andrew Dominik's for more accomplished Killing Them Softly (2012).

James Gandolfini in Killing Them Softly.


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Saturday, September 27, 2014

Frank


At a certain point, Frank, the man in the very large papier mache head, shows up at South By Southwest, the annual Austin, Texas festival of music, film and general hipness, as it seems he must. During the brief glances we get of Frank's band, Soronprfbs (don't try to pronounce it), milling amongst the other SXSW performers and attendees, there is a brief, amusing, two-person, street summit of bodies beneath large, fabricated noggins.  These big heads seem to tilt slightly in recognition, as if echoing souls from a distant, disproportionate realm who have found a fellow traveler.

While the fleeting, amusing encounter might seem to present but two characters adding flavor to the human stew about them, there's no reason to believe they're at all the same.  The square, crudely-rendered, television-like head staring back at Frank is probably little more than a band's temporary gimmick, perhaps a festival attendee's costuming lark.  For Frank, the oblate dome atop his shoulders with neutral blue eyes and smoothly formed black hair (like Big Boy, with a more conventional stylist) is very much a way of life.


Our entree into the tempestuous world of Frank and Soronprfbs is provided through the wide eyes of budding songwriter and rock star Jon (Domhnall Gleeson). This convergence seems particularly unlikely at the outset, given the painfully literal attempts we hear Jon make at songcraft in voiceover that opens the film. This first occurs at the seaside and later walking home in his coastal English town. "Lady in the red coat walkin' with a brown bag!" is Jon's genius lyric inspired by, well....a woman in red coat walking with a brown bag.

But our Jon is not easily discouraged.  "Working hard on songs all day.  Now for dinner - hashtag nomnomnom," he Tweets to an indifferent world after his completely forgettable attempts at composition.  The following day, his Twitter feed is favored with "Panini with cheese and ham #livin' the dream."  But wouldn't you know it, Jon's Tweets are unburdened of their rather desperate irony when he happens to encounter an unconventional band playing in his town that night.  Yes, Soronprfbs has rolled into town, no more smoothly than they roll off anybody's tongue.  A row between the band that Jon first hears on an radio interview continues on the seaside where he's eating that same wondrous panini.  The man thrashing around in the cold surf turns out to be the group's keyboard player.  A brief conversation with Soronprfbs' American manager, Don (Scoot McNairy) elicits an offer to fill in at that evening's gig.  After most of the band drive away in their van, Jon asks the paramedics if the hypothermic keyboard player will recover.  It's only some cold seawater, he's assured, the man will be fine.  But he'll have to stay in hospital overnight? Jon asks hopefully, demonstrating the sort of music business (or perhaps any business) ambition that often involves stepping gingerly over the bodies of one's fallen competitor's, even while sentiments of concern are feigned.  Little does Jon realize that keyboard players in Soronprfbs are beginning to go the way of Spinal Tap drummers, even if their demise is arrived somewhat more typically.  Step carefully indeed, young hopeful.

Alas, Jon's rock and roll dream is one from which he's abruptly jolted awake.  Just as he's getting into the flow of the first number, yet more histrionics occur between the band's hostile theramin player Clara (Maggie Gyllenhaal) and French guitarist, Baraque (Francois Civil).  Faster than you can say Sex Pistols in America, the show ends in angry feedback and an abandoned stage.

It is on the same stage that we, as Jon, see for the first time the lead singer of Soronprfbs, sporting his trademark head and one of an enviable collection of vintage sweaters.  This none other than Frank (Michael Fassbender), whose deep vocal register spoken word and singing, his herky-jerky movements, give the impression of a large, comic book version of the dearly departed Ian Curtis of Joy Division (in some other dimension, Curtis might be wishing that he had the same idea).      

As with Scarlett Johannson's work in Her, one of the year's more interesting performances comes from an actor whose face we almost never see.  Of course, as the computer operating system,  Johannson's role was completely vocal.  Beyond the vocal facility he demonstrates as Frank talks, sings and wails, Michael Fassbender delivers a robust physical presence both anxious and charismatic.  Fassbender, as usual, maintains a strong and mesmerizing sense of character, even if the same cannot always be said for the film's writers and director.

Fanciful as it might seem, Frank does have some basis in actuality.  Writer Jon Ronson was once part of a group called Frank Sidebottom oh Blimey, Mr. Sidebottom being the big-fake-head-wearing alter ago of the late Chris Sievey.  Sievey himself was apparently influenced by the likes of Daniel Johnston and Captain Beefheart.  Hence, the cinematic Frank, part naif, part genius, the alternating current of his psyche surging with a better than average helping of mental illness.

The original, if not the real Frank.  Chris Sievey, a.k.a, Frank Sidebottom.
Mental illness is one aspect of character after which the screenplay of Mr. Ronson and Peter Straugham quest with some ambition but varying degrees of success.  The cinematic persona of Frank is probably blown up for effect beyond the extremes of any real inspiration.  So it tends to go.  The Frank we see is both reclusive and fragile, at other times charismatic to the point of guru-hood.  The latter finds expression in one of the film's most humorous episodes, when a family of German tourists shows up to take possession the rural Irish retreat of Soronprfbs.  Frank is not only able to speak to the family in their native tongue, but leads the mother outdoors in what becomes a kind of encounter session, the very odd pair ultimately spinning around hand in hand before the gratefully transformed woman and her family quit their reserved vacation home without further complaint.

Altogether, this Frank is probably a bit vague, a bit too much, although Ronson and Straugham avoid facile reductions like having Frank's Bluff, Kansas home turn out to be some sort of miasma of mental ill health from which he emerged, scarred but brilliant.  So Jon imagines Frank's childhood until he visits the unassuming suburban house and amiable parents of Frank toward film's end.  The kindly but disturbed in his own right (a thing, shall we say, for mannequins) Don, manager and former keyboard player, explains to Jon early on that that he and Frank met in a mental hospital and despite the lead singer's obvious issues, "he's the sanest cat I've ever known."  Still, Jon can't help envying the dysfunction, which be believes a font of genius.  When the rehearsals and recording session in Ireland stretch to month after intense month, the time reflected in Jon's increasingly bushy red beard, he thinks he's finally found his own fertile ground of mental discord.  "I have found my abusive childhood," he muses, "my mental hospital."

As for the rest of Soronprfbs, one could say that Ronson and Straugham show considerable patience in developing these characters, which would be a polite way of saying that Clara, Baraque and drummer Nana (Carla Azar) all operate in one intense, darkly-clad dimension for most of the film.  Gyllenhaal apparently first turned down the chance to play Clara because she simply didn't understand the character.  One can appreciate her bewilderment.  Gyllenhaal defaults to an expression of seething scorn most of the way, usually directed to the interloper Jon, but sometimes even to her beloved Frank.  Overall, her performance is like a radio tuned to one end of the dial at which extreme only a rough and wavering signal comes through.  "Get away from my fucking theramin!," or "Someone needs to punch you in the face" are typical blasts of dialog from the sunny Clara.

Through the early stages of Frank, Clara, as the most prominent and emblematic member of Sornoprfbs not wearing a papier-mache head, is indicated as much by costume as complexity of character.  Sound at all familiar, art house regulars?  Miiiister Anderson.  We, of course, speak of Wes and not P.T (or Neo).  As the band settles into its rustic Irish retreat, goes about its field work and begins to rehearse, Frank veers sharply toward Andersonia.   Cue the montage of the band going about arcane rituals, Clara's upright fur hat flying like a flag of preciousness and Stephen Rennicks' score (at its worst, with manic mandolin and saccharin bells like a music box with the dry heaves) sounding entirely too like the pop baroque with which Mark Mothersbaugh has adorned the films of Wes Anderson.  Altogether, it's a lot of sugar this already rich recipe hardly needs.


Certainly some of the blame goes to writers Ronson and Straugham, but it's director Lenny Abrahamson who doesn't always seem to know, or trust, what he has in Frank, the overall story as well as the character.  This is surprising given Mr. Abrahamson's handling of actors and  material in What Richard Did (2012), the only other of his five feature films readily available in the United States.  What Richard Did is nearly meditative in its focus and control, focusing on the life of a well-to-do young man living in a Dublin suburb who is involved in a homicide.  With Frank's multiple tones or directions, the director doesn't fare quite so well.

Chinchilla!  Francois Civil, very much in need of the
band's safe word in Frank.
Fortunately, Frank finds a steadier, more deeply satisfying track.  The film's detour toward the conventionally precious before returning to an arc more somber and true is paralleled by the involvement in the band by Jon, dubbed, "The ginger bird," by Frank in the midst of one of his typically creative, mid-rehearsal exhortations.  Our perspective on Frank and the group is provided through Jon's narration.  Our vantage point is essentially his, and it seems for much of the film that Soronprfbs is better for his involvement.  The group behind Frank are more often than not a mirthless, even pretentious bunch, complete with a dash of Gallic hauteur.  Or to turn some of Clara's words against her, they (save the sweet, ill-fated Don) seem like people who need a punch in the face.

Domhnall Gleeson is near perfect, running a subtle range from innocent outsider to ultimately destructive influence, genially dragging the rest of the band toward the mainstream.

The character of Frank might not entirely make sense, but the film's ruminations on normalcy and mental illness, success and artistic satisfaction are insightful while avoiding obvious conclusions. Frank's need to withdraw, to don the big papier-mache head, might not be anything to romanticize or emulate, but neither is striving for popular acceptance at the cost of artistic identity.  And sometimes, culture's greatest threat to artistic vitality comes not from its blatant philistines but from its seemingly well-meaning mediocrities:  the docents expounding from partial knowledge and little insight;  the gushing PBS pledge drive hosts whose attempts at cultural arbitration could hardly be more conservative; the sweet guy longing for stardom who should probably be kept out of the band at all cost.


So we get the long-anticipated SXSW gig, by which point Jon has driven away all of Soronprfbs, save its lead singer, whose imminent breakdown has been signaled by increasingly erratic behavior, culminating in his emergence from the dressing room in a dress and crudely made-up face.  As Jon stands on the stage beaming, playing ingratiating chords on an electric guitar and proclaiming, "this is the best day of my life!," Frank's gratuitous screams quickly curdle from crowd pandering to personal horror.  He may harbor a child-like need to be loved, but even in the midst a freak-out which ultimately finds him flat on the stage and howling, he knows terminal compromise when he hears it. "The music is shit," he moans from the depths of his pained being.

Stephen Rennicks' score might be cloying as it accompanies director Lenny Abrahamson's ill-advised detour into Andersonia, but his original songs, written with the director and various of the cast members, provide the film and the fictional band with a kind of life blood, without which it all might seem little more than a twee exercise.  A film about an artist or band that doesn't rely upon established material tends to live or die by how credible are such songs composed for the occasion. With Frank, the compositions are strong enough to be credible, different enough validate the idea of a gifted but troubled lead singer and band.  These tunes run from the bombastic ("Secure the Galactic Perimeter") to the hilariously bad ("Frank's Most Likable Song...Ever") to the outright moving ("I Love You All").

Frank and his reunited band are seemingly add-libbing "I Love You All" in some lost Texas bar as we leave them at film's end.  By this time, Jon is wise enough to walk away and leave the group to itself, the ginger bird necessarily flying from the rare aviary which is Soronprfbs.  The camera follows him out of the bar and down the street.  Best that we all leave such rare birds to their own space and their own strange plumage.  Perhaps outsider artists are best left the hell alone.  Perhaps it is absolutely necessary.    

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Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Calvary



Darkness, darkness.  Poor Father James (Brendan Gleeson) may be a priest in Count Sligo, but his parish seems more a hell on earth than the picturesque Atlantic Coast of Ireland. This apparently good priest is made to answer not only for the trangressions of his church, but all of the pent-up outrage of his country in the early 21st century. "You have to put up with shit like this on a regular basis?" asks his visiting daughter, Fiona (Kelly Reilly).  "There's a lot of it going around, let's put it that way," responds the weary man.

Calvary is, among several other things, the result of writer and director John Michael McDonagh avoiding the sophomore slump much more nimbly than his brother Martin.  The younger McDonagh followed his highly original first feature In Bruges (2008) with the deeply mediocre Seven Psychopaths (2012).  Perhaps the moral of that brief story is to make sure that you have Brendan Gleeson at the head of your cast. Gleeson played the older of two Irish hitmen hiding out in the eponymous Belgian city in Martin McDonagh's first feature, very much the grave heart of that bracing film.  He was not among the strong cast assembled to minimal effect in Seven Psychopaths.

John Michael McDonagh has been wise enough to place the likable actor at the center of both of his films. Gleeson's Gerry Boyle is a Connemara law enforcement officer who is seen partaking of more vice than stamping it out in The Guard (2011). This time out, he's a feeling, well-intentioned, but no less unconventional priest, who answered the call relatively late in life after the death of his wife.  The success of John Michael McDonagh's first two features has depended largely on Brendan Gleeson, so convincing as men replete with the sacred as well as the profane.  More deeply, both films, perhaps not unlike the nation where they have been set, recognize the inextricable connection of those elements, or even how arbitrary can such distinctions be in end. 


Calvary begins with a bang.  Or as Father James says, "It's certainly a startling opening line."  This his response to a man beginning an apparent confession by saying, "I first tasted semen when I was seven years old....Nothing to say?"  The man on the other side of the confessional screen proceeds to unfurl yet another case of sexual abuse on the part of a Catholic priest that has hounded a child into adulthood.  He sees no point in reporting the priest, who is now dead.  "What good would it do anyway if he were still alive?  What would be the point of killing the bastard?  That would be no news. There's no point in killing a bad priest.  Killing a good one?  That would be a shock!"  The good priest, of course, is the unfortunate Father James.  He's told to get his affairs in order and meet his would-be assassin on the beach, Sunday week.  Violence, then, is promised early on in Calvary.  But as the days to the fateful meeting are announced on screen, it's in the moments quiet amid the menacing noise of conflict in which the film makes its greatest impression.  This McDonagh's juxtaposition of tone to match the darkness and light battling in the content of his story.  

The troubling confession and promise of murder is merely the opening salvo against the priest, whose entire parish seems teeming with threats to his wellbeing, challenges to his faith.  All of this complicated by the visit of his daughter Fiona from London.

Beyond its often thoughtful, occasional humorous marriage of the sacred and profane, Calvary bears the mark of the same hand that crafted The Guard.  Young Michael Og is on hand in both films, operating as a kind of Dead End Kid by way of Shakespearean fool.  In the film at hand, he's a smart-alecky altar boy to Father James, when not painting slightly otherworldly watercolors by the seaside, present, as in The Guard, at significant moments for Gleason's characters trying to find some meaning amid the chaos.  There is also that particularly Irish dance with death.  In McDonagh's first feature there was the dying mother of Gerry Boyle.  With Calvary, Gleeson's character has to contend with his depressive daughter, who attempted suicide in the months before her visit to Ireland and would seem to require a bit of convincing to hold on to her particular mortal coil going forward.  What is especially Irish here is the candor, immediacy and even humor with which the subject is met.  When Father James sees his daughter's scarred wrists shortly after her arrival, he says,"Don't tell me, you made the classic error.  You're supposed to cut down, not across."  

At the pub are but a few of the locals who torment the priest, each in his fashion.  Chief among them is Dr. Frank Harte (Aidan Gillen), whose manner and enunciation are as sharply groomed as his slightly demonic mustache and soul patch.  Dr. Frank is all too happy to repeat the "You made the classic mistake" observation about Fiona.  Much as he later owns - after  he's wearily chided by Father James for his lack of originality - that good material is hard to come by:  "Sure. The atheistic doctor. It's a cliched part to play.There aren't that many good lines.  One part humanism to nine parts gallows humor."


TThe doctor is one of several suspects that McDonagh places before us as the possible assassin of Father James.  Another is a hapless local butcher Jack Brennan. This Chis O'Dowd, playing well against his usually charming type. The father calls upon Brennan not to investigate the threat against him, but to confront the man about the shiner borne by his wife, Veronica (Orla O'Rourke), which explains why the butcher's wife is first seen taking communion behind a large pair of sunglasses. The husband assures Father James that it wasn't him this time, but probably her lover, Simon (Isaach De Bankole, laconic as usual as we've seen him in the films of Claire Denis, Jim Jarmusch and others, if more menacing in this case).  Even the slightly battered Veronica has her sport with father James, alternately flogging the lost cause of her soul, or leading their exchanges into more suggestive directions:
     Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned.
 Say one Our Father and ten Hail Mary's.
 I've sinned more than that. 
 Make an ascent to Croagh Patrick, then. On your knees. 
 On my knees, is it? What made you say that?

Yet another possible owner of that threatening voice in the confessional is local plutocrat, Michael Fitzgerald.  Irish comedian and actor Dylan's Moran, typically arch, is the man abandoned by wife and child to roam his estate and many well-appointed rooms.   He's one of several examples of supporting (threatening) characters, like the sharp-tongued doctor rendered sharp but thin.  Away from its center, Calvary is rescued a bit by those working in the roles so stylized by McDonagh.   

Moran in particular is charged with bringing some human credibility to pronouncements like, "What do you see when you look at me? I'll tell you what you see.You see a handsome, sophisticated, eminent man in the prime of his life.  A colossus, let's say. Who once bestrode the world of high finance...and became profoundly influential in certain spheres."  Fitzgerald, by his own admission, was one of the rogue capitalists who helped tank the Irish economy at the same time as their avaricious brethren were doing the same in the United States, Iceland and elswhere.  The meetings between Father James and Fitzgerald are increasingly confrontational, culminating with the rich man threatening to remove a fairly priceless painting from his wall and urinate on it, if only because he owns it and and can.  "People like you have pissed on everything else, I suppose. So why not?" is all the priest can say.

 The theme of havoc-wreaking bankers getting off scot-free is later picked up by the town's embittered publican (Pat Shortt):
  "How come I never hear your mob preaching about that? 
 About what? 
 About all these bankers who have brought this country to its knees?  I suppose when you have a history of screwing the Jews out of their money, and collaborating with the Nazis. It's like the pot calling the kettle black, eh?"  

That amiable exchange all in a day's work for Father James.


So, quite enough dumped into the lap of the priest's soutane (which on posters for the film quite intentionally make Gleeson look like some figure in a Western, the outer garment flapping like a gunman's duster in the wind).  But McDonagh gives him yet more, including the counseling of a French woman whose husband is killed in an accident, as well as a maddening visit to a young serial killer intent on playing at remorse so as to win admission to heaven.  The father's life and death ruminations also find outlet in peppery discusssions  with an aging writer (M. Emmet Walsh) to whom he ferries supplies.  These conversations at least, like those with his daughter, offer some rare amity and rapport for the priest.  

Little wonder that we see Father James crawl wearily into bed with his dog upon one return to his his home, Gleeson himself a sympathetic beast with his rumpled figure, full head of hair and creep of red-grey beard up his ample cheeks.  Alas, both recumbent beasts eventually find themselves in harm's way.   

McDonagh, abetted significantly Gleeson, manages all this roiling strife gracefully enough to allow Calvary's reflective moments to breathe the film's richest atmosphere.  Only in a couple of significant scenes does does the writer/director's taste for absurd extremes get the better of his story.  

Not uncommonly for a small Irish town, a good portion of the locals seem gathered at the public house one evening.  Certainly, most every one of Father James' antagonists and his potential assassin seem present.  Veronica and her lover are found snorting cocaine in the lavatory. The aforementioned run-ins and come-ons with the pub owner and Veronica ensue, the circle of hell atmosphere only enhanced by the bordello red of the walls.  Finally, someone tells the priest that his church is on fire.  He doesn't take the remark seriously at first, but is made to look out the window and across the water to his church, very much in flames.  "Jesus Christ," says the priest - cut to a statuette of J.C. himself amidst the hellish conflagration, the flames of which are then seen bursting out of cut-outs of crosses in the buildings front doors.  This the dark or mordant humor to which so many reviews of Calvary allude.  Also the chief instance of McDonagh going rather too far.    

Calvary has plenty of time to find itself and does so before the priest goes to meet the man who has promised to kill him on the beach.  One more episode of keen violence awaits, but that very much in keeping with the dark logic of the film's plot.  There is, finally, a scene of possible reconciliation after the reckoning.  But is bloodletting necessary to bring it about?  So easy to watch for all the aggrieved humanity that Brendan Gleeson brings to the role of the keenly-tested priest, Calvary ultimately lets no one off easy, audience and main character alike.      

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Friday, August 8, 2014

The Rover


No, it's not that film.  Not a Road Warrior for a new generation, a new century.  The Rover is set amid the seared, forbidding landscape of Australia's Outback.  The time is post-something - maybe not post- apocalypse, but post-"collapse."  There is violence.  There are vehicles and pursuit.  There is at the story's center a man whom one might well characterize as a road warrior, though for what he so single-mindedly fights besides the return of his automobile, one is hard pressed to determine for most of the film's duration.  And yet....

Ply as it might the lonely roads of nether Australia, David Michod's The Rover confines itself to a very small emotional map.  So too that grim fellow in the short pants and dress shirt, both long absent from the wash, hell bent to recover his car.  All the more impressive that The Rover so involves us in its story, it's anti-hero's almost inexplicable quest, wrings so much emotion out of such a narrow range, like water divined from that arid Australian ground.

The Rover is the second feature written and directed by David Michod.  He apparently conceived the story with actor and writer Joel Edgerton, one of the many veterans of Michod's first film, Animal Kingdom, who contribute to The Rover.

All in the family:  David Michod's first film, Animal Kingdom.
Michod's brief directorial career has also proven an exercise in drawing a lot of action and emotion out of limited thematic ground.  Though ostensibly more mobile and more minimal than its predecessor, The Rover echoes Animal Kingdom in violence and relative lawlessness and its considerations of family, specifically a kind of innocent groping after some sense of belonging.  What has most distinguished David Michod's first two feature films are their integrity of story and character.  Mr. Michod has made two very uncompromising films.


The Rover's story is basic enough, even while some of the specifics of plot and backstory of its two main characters are only hinted at in asides, mumbled bits of dialog, or parceled out in brief allusion.  Our rover is presumably Eric (Guy Pearce), sitting in his car as the film begins, looking out on a barren landscape, seemingly seeing even less life than is actually present.  We have been told that the time is 10 years after "the collapse," apparently a world economic free fall even more comprehensive than its havoc-wreaking 2008 predecessor.  The life of this desolate, wandering man intersects with a group of criminals who have just perpetrated some sort of caper gone wrong.  Like most all action in The Rover, this intersection is a sudden and violent departure from a near-static scene.  As Eric sits in a kind of canteen at the end of the world drinking a glass of water, the truck with the criminals flies silently by the window behind him on its side, the vehicle having flipped out of control after a squabble breaks out among its motley group of passengers. When they cannot extricate the truck from the roadside where it came to rest, one of the men hot wires Eric's car and they speed away.  This turns out to be the worst decision the criminals make in a day chock full of them.

English-born and Australian-raised Guy Pearce tends to make any film worthwhile, a traveling companion that enlivens even otherwise pointless journeys.  When  material and execution are equal to his chameleonic abilities, then we really have something.  Such is the case with The Rover. There's nothing pretty about Pearce (consider the sort of elegant figure he cut in  L.A. Confidential and as the future Edward VIII in The King's Speech) or The Rover, but its hard to take your eyes of either.

One can only imagine how Eric and most other inhabitants of this post-collapse Australia might smell. Pearce's hair looks to have been trimmed with garden shears down to an Outback-practical shortness and prominent recession.  The rough growth of salt and pepper beard adds to cheeks and jaw which seem puffed, as if all the man's misery has drifted downward along the face, seeped from the troubled mind to settle around the mouth.  The spring, or perhaps cauldron of this misery is in the eyes above.  Dark, nearly black, Eric seems to be forging them to lifeless coal with the intensity of his fury. 

An initial chase between the Rover and the men who stole his car sets the tenor of the story, demonstrates the tenacity of the man.  He quickly frees their truck and gives pursuit, coming abreast his car until one of the men pulls a gun.  He drops back but continues to follow.  This almost absurd chase is all the more menacing in its relentless, inexorable start and stop.  Finally both vehicles do come to rest.  The group confronts the solitary man and he eventually throttles one of the trio against the trunk of his car as if none of the other men or their guns are present to stop him.  He catches a rifle butt to the back of the head and wakes up at the side of the road some time later.  Of course, this does not deter our anti-hero in the least. 

Eric's pursuit of the men and his car is both complicated and ultimately made possible when he crosses dusty paths with Rey, left behind by his older brother and the other two criminals.  This relationship begins coercively, as Eric first finds a doctor to tend to the wounded young man and then forces him to lead them to where the trio is holed up. Eventually, the seemingly slow young man trails after and even defends Eric with something like the used but fierce loyalty of an abandoned dog that finds a new master.  
  
It is perhaps to be expected that these two disparate characters so initially at odds will forge a kind of bond as their journey ensues.  True enough, but what little feel good the story provides is hard earned.  The Rover distances itself from any sort of buddy or road film cliche both in its particulars - story, character and setting - and the grim logic of the journey's result.

Even as a showdown between Eric and the men who stole his car is inevitable, even while he and the young man left behind do ultimately attach themselves like two burned sections of skin reluctant to take a graft, things do occur on the road that are anything but predictable.

Most strangely, before he meets Rey, there is a near-Lynchian digression in which Eric first wanders into a home to ask if anyone has seen his stolen car. This turns into a veritable odyssey that begins with a young man answering the Rover's questions while several others sprawl around them in a living room asleep.  It ends with Eric attempting to buy a gun, a transaction that goes very poorly for the seller.  In between and after these encounters, there are two Chinese acrobats, a midget and a woman who sits placidly in white blouse miraculously untouched by the dust which pervades most everything else in this world, half oracle from The Matrix, half procuress, cooing "What's your name, honey."  This extended scene is the weirdest example of how The Rover proceeds down it's crooked, if inexorable course:  we're never sure what the next turn will reveal and where violence might flare up.  And yet there seems a logic behind it all.  Even before a rusty circus vehicle is seen outside the house, thus explaining the odd personages playing cards that Eric discovers in a kind of opium den, nothing or no one in the bizarre establishment seems so out of place as to stretch credibility to the breaking point, such is the authority of the storytelling.


The quick resort to violence while bargaining for a gun is the first of many seen from Eric, lest we begin to find the comfort we likely would with his character in a Hollywood rendering of this story.  Think of The Town and its bank-robbing protagonist who's able to send a hail of automatic weapon fire at police without killing anyone.  The Rover's anti-hero will kill whenever and wherever necessary and there's nothing comic book about this violence; the bullets find and tear flesh, they kill.  His years as a solider explain the proficiency with which he wields pistols and rifles, as when the Chinese acrobats show up for revenge at the home of the doctor (Susan Prior, also an Animal Kingdom vet.) at which Rey is being treated, only to be dispatched with a couple of shots.

It is at the doctor's remote compound that we also see the first sliver of sentiment betrayed by this desolate man.  Like many scenes in Animal Kingdom, there is a tense winding through place and time with an almost palpable sense of menace at every turn.  Eric is drawn through a  passageway and into a room where we don't know what awaits him in the darkness.  When a florescent light flickers into harsh illumination, it's not some frightening adversary, but cage upon cage of stray dogs that the doctor has taken in.  When the woman joins Eric, she's surprised at the interest he has taken in the ragged creatures.

When we ultimately find out why the man has been so determined to recover his car - "You must really love that car," the otherworldly madam murmurs to him during their strange encounter - the earlier scene in which he regards the abandoned dogs gains a greater resonance, a powerful echo.  So too his relationship with Eric

One brief action eloquently and efficiently illustrates the relationship that develops between Eric and the young man who had come to Australia, like his brother, to find mining work after the economic collapse. Rey's wound becomes infected.  Eric helps him reapply a bandage after first disinfecting the wound with gasoline and drying it with a rag.  Rey responds to these rough ministrations as some scruffy, ill-used dog who has been scratched behind the ears.  So starved for affection is the young man that as gasoline is poured on his afflicted torso and mopped with a dirty piece of cloth, he responds with a brief, contented near-smile. The eyes nearly roll beneath his dark, thick, undulant eyebrows.


Beneath and behind those redoubtable eyebrows is Robert Pattinson.  The much-swooned-after star of those Twilight films apparently auditioned for the role of Rey, beating out several rivals.  Neither that willingness to audition nor his work in The Rover bespeak any young movie star vanity.  It's a performance that's a little mannered, a little blinking, swaying slightly toward a kind of Son of Sling Blade under duress. But mainly Pattinson gets this simple young man across, gaining credibility as the film progresses.  Rey even blossoms slightly, becomes freer with his speech as the bond with Eric strengthens along the road.  Pattison's work here stands on its own, relative to the rest of his brief career and holding its own for the most part against the power of Guy Pearce.  But watch Pattinson in David Cronenberg's Cosmopolis (possibly the thinking person's Wolf of Wall Street), the quick intelligence required of him throughout that film.  You begin to have a sense of some range and promise.

Antony Partos composed the varied score for The Rover, as he did for Animal Kingdom.  Here it ranges from the percussive to the wailing early on. At times, a piano drifts in as if from another dimension, a splintered sonata.  Later a keyboard is heard like one submerged in water, giving way eventually to wavering spiritual.  All of this no mere discord, cacophony for effect; this is not John Cage having a bad day.  But signaling and reflecting the action of the film, themes emerge, however spare, however sad.  As the Rover and Rey grow closer, a kind of tenuous harmony is introduced.    

The story, like the music of The Rover is a spare, sometimes very rough surface from which any expression of humor - "I've got things in tins...buy something!" admonishes one exasperated shop keeper with his rifle - or tenderness emerges in all the more stark relief from the emotional landscape about it.  Much the same can be said for the work of Guy Pearce.  In lesser hands, his would be an interminable, one-note performance. With Pearce, that often unvarying tone hints at and ultimately reveals the holding back of an awful flood. When his eyes well at the film's climax, the brief expression is a kind of deluge.

Even with Eric's rare show of emotion and the film's final, sad revelation, there is not catharsis so much as weary resolution.  So it's gone through David Michod's first two features.  The logic is severe but the integrity offers a kind of exhilaration.


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Friday, August 1, 2014

Boyhood


Those all-too-willing participants in reality shows have wrought even more damage than is obviously the case.  Of course, there is the mental toll:  billions of brain cells, lonely outposts of thought surrendering to the onslaught of gleeful indignity, seemingly as many as would drown in a Pacific of bad whisky, to the likes of the Kardashians, Real Housewives of Atlanta, New York, Orange County...the pawn shop owners, the late-to-the-party celebrities...ad nauseam.  All of this, presumably, to distract viewers from the pain, the loneliness, or just the oppressive banality of their lives.  

Less obvious perhaps is the obscuring of the value of life stories wrought with any measure of thoughtfulness. Stories that not only distract us, remove us for a time from the pressing matters of our existence, but inevitably carry us back to a reflection on those same lives.  For however banal, uneventful, or ordinary... be it ever so humble, there is no story like THE story:  the master narrative; the story of our life.

Like a good piece of conceptual art, Richard Linklater's engrossing, 166-minute Boyhood derives most of its power from its premise.  Shot intermittently between the summer of 2002 and the fall of 2013, Boyhood follows Mason Jr. (Ellar Coltrane) and his family from the time he's a five-year-old boy until the outset of his college years.  We see this soulful, questioning boy grow up before our eyes in just less than three hour and it's a moving experience.


In Boyhood, we see a lot of  passing time heralded with young Mason's ever-changing hair styles - involuntary buzz cut to a kind of Texas Fauntleroy of girlish length and curl about the face still maintaining a good bit of its baby fat - not to mention those skirmishes of acne playing out on his adolescent face as it gains angle and definition.  This photo album (or Flickr page) given motion is replete with built-in sentiment.  There is also the boy himself.  Linklater's premise might be watchable enough with any young actor as its lead, but Ellar Coltrane's subtle performance throughout provides a depth of feeling after which Boyhood itself sometimes quests with a little too heavy a tread.

Where Boyhood might tend to go wrong and where it ultimately succeeds is demonstrated quickly enough in the film's opening moments.  We're made to regard one of those summer skies of brilliant cerulean and drifting, knowing cumulus.  Over this timeless background the film's title appears in a kind of aw-shucks, pseudo-hand-written font.  This to the accompaniment of the Coldplay's "Yellow." It's a precious little balloon that is voided of its warm air when the perspective switches to that of young Mason Jr., supine on his lawn.  When Linklater lets his camera focus on the blue eyes and serious visage of Ellar Coltrane, he never goes too wrong.  Mason Jr.'s face, like that summer sky he regards, seems lit from within and yet drifted by its own enigmatic clouds.


Fast enough on the heels of "Yellow," we see and hear Mason receiving the unwonted serenade a la Britney Spears from his older sister, Samantha (the director's daughter, Lorelei).  Not long after that highly successful bit of annoyance, it's The Hives "Hate To Say I Told You So," as Mason and a young companion indulge in a bit of graffiti.  Musical cues both to the early 2000's.  When Sheryl Crow arrives at the party soon thereafter, it seems that Boyhood might be on its way to three hours of montage punctuated by interludes of significant dialog.  Fortunately, Linklater lets the music drift into the background where it belongs and away from its rigid chronological moorings.

The mere audacity of Linklater's concept seems to be winning the director lavish praise that he hasn't quite earned.  Boyhood is a great concept that the director doesn't always trust.  Where many a film utilizes flamboyantly bad hair to illustrate the passage of time, Boyhood has the actual stuff.  Lorelei Linklater - who settles into her role after a gratingly energized start - has had any number of styles and even colors immortalized, one bang-heavy arrangement particularly tragic.  So it goes with Ellar Coltrane and his aforementioned extremes of style and length.  Much more significantly, we see time playing out in most profound way:  these kids grow up before our eyes.  No elaboration is necessary.

And yet Linklater has the camera come to rest on several generations of video games and controllers with such conspicuous focus that you would think a product placement deal with Nintendo and others was in place.  Similarly, Mason Jr. and some friends walk down a sidewalk, each one of them with a particular iteration of the Coke can in hand, the sort of consensus found only in advertising.  This might not be quite the pages flying from calendar, the clock hands spinning madly around their circle in the hack films of yesteryear, but it's close.



As the writer/director model goes, Richard Linklater has usually distinguished himself much more as a writer who directs.  Not necessarily a bad thing.   Even something as seemingly experimental as Waking Life (I've not seen his adaptation of A Scanner Darkly) with its nervous animation is still mainly a film about conversations, still more verbal than visual.  Through his varied body of work - drifting warily toward the Hollywood mainstream and back to his native Texas for stories set in that state - Linklater has been reliably competent director with occasional flashes of something more.  Me and Orson Welles, for one, is a little-seen gem that you wish Hollywood could produce more often, an intelligent package of pure entertainment in which the director (he did not contribute to the film's script) draws the best out of his actors and presents a story to its best advantage.  But for those who remember Richard Linklater, they are likely to remember words and not images.

The director's touch is not always light with the would-be-profound raw material of Boyhood.  And even Richard Linklater, the normally rock solid writer and storyteller loses his way occasionally through the expanse of the story.

Is she really going out with him?  And him?
  Patricia Arquette
and Ellar Coltrane in Boyhood.
 As Boyhood begins, Mason Jr. and his sister are being raised by their mother (Patricia Arquette), while their father (Ethan Hawke) is busy keeping maturity at arm's length in Alaska.  As the mother tries to keep the family together and even return to college so they can all enjoy a better life, she marries not one, but two other men who celebrate their matrimony and responsibilities by becoming sour drunks.  This is particularly the case with a college professor (Marco Parella) of the Arquette character.  The two marry and join their families, but before long - in the grand tradition of mental health professionals or teachers who cannot begin to heed the sound advice they espouse - he's guzzling way more alcohol than soda in the plastic bottle he carries around the house, on his way to becoming a drunken, glass-hurling Great Santini.  As is his easygoing way, Mason first greets the professor with a smile.  But we subsequently see the boy looking on warily as the man and his mother flirt.

So it goes with the next candidate, a handsome, youngish veteran named Jim (Brad Hawkins) who somehow manages to win mom's affection and hand before seeking commiseration in too many cans of beer during off hours from his work as a correctional officer.  As that relationship begins to develop, we once again see Mason look upon his mother's growing fondness with skepticism if not outright displeasure.  This shot almost mirrors the earlier focus on Mason looking askance at his mother and Professor Bill.

While it may well be true that shrinks and teachers of psychology come off the mental rails as disastrously as anyone else, while mommies and daddies do sometimes make the same mistakes repeatedly, this repetition in Boyhood seems an excessive bit of rough road thrown in before mom and son can eventually arrive at a more satisfying place for both, much as the mother has to eventually face the sadness of her empty nest.

The most glaring shortcoming amidst all that goes right in Boyhood may well be a scene in which a teenage Mason and one of his contemporaries hang out with some older boys in a house under construction. Linklater does at least avoid obvious conflict or crisis - some sort of humiliating ritual; the circular saw blade being thrown into a section of drywall like a kung-fu star doesn't actually come to rest in some young body as you fear it might - in this scene, but nothing rings true in the execution.  We hardly need an interlude of stilted dialog and clumsy line readings to demonstrate that boys often act and talk down to a very low common denominator of bravado when performing for each other in a group.  It's a surprising misstep for a writer who has gotten this sort of thing so right in the past (at least as well as one remembers films like Slacker and Dazed and Confused...).  


The men don't acquit themselves very well in Boyhood.  We're given a pretty dubious sampling of fathers and would-be fathers.  But with Mason Sr., Richard Linklater not only creates a character of complexity, but winds the story along an unexpected though no less realistic course.  When he first reappears on the scene, the older Mason impresses one as an absentee father off an assembly line, bearing gifts and an exaggerated enthusiasm he seems unlikely to maintain.  When the father does show up or drive off into a sunset of limited responsibilities, it's in a cherry GTO, the sort of starter object of love from which many men never seem to graduate.

But to our surprise, Mason Sr. sticks around and sustains an interest in his children, in having actual conversations.  Easy enough, one might say, when you only have to parent every other weekend.  And perhaps largely a matter of assuaging a guilty conscience.  But as some men streak from mortality, others embrace the trappings of convention, perhaps a second shot at a family with all the energy with which they earlier scorned those things.  Mason Sr. is this sort of man.  Ethan Hawke hits truly upon all the fluctuations of this particular father, the bending of him by life into something that fits into his world.  


The power and the pleasure of Boyhood is to watch its young protagonist question his way through those early years, rarely angry but also rarely happy, a fine, wavering line between his admirable skepticism and an unfortunate tendency to feel that nothing much can be trusted.  A natural enough complexity in a boy who has had the ground so often shift beneath his feet.  Richard Linklater generally tells this story well, renders dialog that make us believe Mason Jr.'s struggle and development.  This is never more the case than some lovely exchanges between Mason and his high school girlfriend, Sheena (Zoe Graham, quite good), two intelligent young people trying to sort out the world and their feelings, not necessarily in that order. 

Ellar Coltrane is well cast to carry this long film, through all the years and fluctuations in hair style. Throughout the eleven years condensed into 166 minutes, there a light in those blue eyes which tells us that life is happening right then and there. 


Just how good is Boyhood?  "A Moving 12 Year Epic That Isn't Quite Like Anything Else In The History of Cinema!" (exclamation mark added; about a dozen exclamation marks implied).  So exults one version of the film's poster, quoting a gushing critic who apparently doesn't get out to the movies often enough. And, well...let's not get completely carried away.

Perhaps our overly-eager friend who shall remain nameless has never heard of English film directors Michael Apted and Michael Winterbottom.  That's not easy as it might seem, as those talented directors have quite literally been all over the place, in subject matter as much as geography.  Among his extensive and varied body of work, Mr. Apted continues with his fairly towering "Up" series that has followed a group of English children from the age of seven well into their sixth decade.  For his part, the mercurial Winterbottom premiered Everyday in 2012, which depicts a man and particularly his wife and children during the five years of the husband and father's imprisonment.

Boyhood is neither unprecedented nor great, nor must be it to be worthwhile.  It is essentially a mural to most film's neatly-framed pictures.  To look upon the expanse of any mural rendered with a good degree of competence and style is to be a bit awed, to be carried away by the sweep of the thing.  So it is with Boyhood. Linklater's mural generally does bear scrutiny, even if some of the detail reveals a common touch.  

Seen another way, which might partially explain the inordinate enthusiasm with which it has been greeted, Boyhood  is a big, green oasis in the particularly drought-ridden cinematic summer of 2014 (never mind that arid Texas ground so often on display).  Sit down and watch this film and you are likely to be aware of its breadth, of the time being stretched and yet feel no hurry for the experience to end.  Rather like life that way.

Beyond the story of Mason Jr., whom we leave in Big Bend National Park, tripping peacefully on mushrooms with a few fellow freshmen (this isn't quite the principals of Lawrence Kasdan's Grand Canyon looking awe-struck at the eponymous hole in the ground at film's end, but it does get perilously close), Boyhood will almost inevitably lead you to reflect upon the stealthy passage of time in your own life, when images from your youth might seem as incongruously fresh as something that happened just a few hours ago.   

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