Sunday, August 31, 2014

A Most Wanted Man

Alternate Title:  Diablo Ex Machina

One sentence synopsis:    The head of a secret German counter-terrorism team tries to entrap a terrorist financier by manipulating a Chechen refugee and his lawyer.

WARNING: This review contains spoilers. There was little option but to employ them given the issues that arose. You have been warned.

Things Havoc liked:  Phillip Seymour Hoffman's passing earlier this year caught him in the midst of his customary massive workload, allowing us the next year or so to watch him in the various films that were still under production when he died. I've contrived to miss a number of these, boring indie fare as they seemed to be, but this one I was interested in, as John le Carré spy thrillers have a decent pedigree on film, and the subject of this one looked particularly interesting. Hoffman plays Günther Bachmann, a dumpy, middle-aged spy, as are basically all of le Carré's protagonists, head of a secret group of clandestine bagmen tasked with penetrating networks of terrorist cells both domestically in Hamburg and elsewhere. As anyone who has ever seen a John le Carré film or read a book of his can tell you, Hoffman was made to play a leading role in one of his books. Wandering about in a perpetual half-stooped slouch, Hoffman looks like nothing but another governmental middle manager of the type that seems to grace all the bureaucracies of Europe (and elsewhere). His character almost never raises his voice, doesn't scream or chase people, not even in the midst of enhanced interrogations, and looks ill-at-ease when called upon to report to formal superiors. His techniques rely on patience and surveillance, turning one asset after another to exert pressure against the next one. The skill with which he manipulates people caught in compromising circumstances is impressive, and by the end of the film, when four people are in a room discussing crime, three of whom are actually working for Hoffman, it all seems perfectly natural.

But Hoffman's merely one of many in this cast. Rachel McAdams, an actress I have successfully avoided up until now, actually does a fine turn as Annabelle Richter, a young immigration lawyer who allows ignorance and idealism to drag her way too far into a case she does not understand the particulars of. Watching her squirm as Hoffman plays her like a violin is exquisite, but not as exquisite as Willem Defoe, one of the weirdest men in Hollywood, here playing perhaps the most normal character he has ever touched, a bank manager whose father was involved in unscrupulous business, and who must do what he can to cover himself and his institution against liability and governmental interference. Iranian veteran actor Homayoun Ershadi, of Zero Dark Thirty and Agora, plays Dr. Faisal Abdullah, a seemingly-pro-Western Arab of means and influence whose secret funneling of money towards terrorist cells touches all of this off, his character only ever betraying bare hints of what he must actually be plotting. But the best of the bunch is unquestionably unknown Russian actor Grigoriy Dobrygin, whose character Issa is a scarred, skittish, half-Chechen trauma victim, who seems to be up to no good when we first see him, and only slowly do we realize is nothing but a scarred, broken refugee, scared and confused by his surroundings. The film plays a brilliant game with this character, using shot construction and expression to give us Westerners the unmistakable impression that we are looking at a Terrorist, only to pull the rug out from under us when he proves interested in nothing of the sort.

If I sound like I'm just reciting actors and their roles though, bear in mind that this film basically IS the actors and their roles, and the situations that such characters are inevitably going to be placed in by virtue of being around one another. We watch as Hoffman watches, as the characters are slowly ensnared in his web, turning them one by one into "assets" to be employed in the furtherance of his cause. And what is that cause? Not the destruction of his enemies nor the death of the aforementioned people, but information. We see Hoffman and his coterie use the Lawyer to get to the Banker, the Banker to get to the Doctor, and the Doctor to go on and get to others, penetrating further and further along until he can reach the actual source of the evil he seeks to fight. Along the way, as best he can, Hoffman does try to do his best for his assets, if nothing else because a carrot and a stick have more persuasive power than the stick alone. The Lawyer wants her client given refugee status. The Banker wants to have his past unexamined by society at large, and as these are things that are secondary to Hoffman's goal, he can get them in furtherance of it. Le Carré's stories are usually like this, procedural spy thrillers that eschew the Bond-esque escapades for realistic investigations on just how intelligence work is properly done.

Things Havoc disliked:  The problem though, is that this is not the only thing that le Carré's stories are usually like. And here's where we unavoidably get to the spoilers, because one of le Carré's other conceits, from as far back as The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, is that everything to do with the United States is evil.

I mentioned spoilers above. I'm serious.

No, I'm not trying to turn this into another nationalist screed. I'm well aware of US intelligence's less-than-spotless record when it comes to the work we have done, both in the Cold War and the War on Terror. But there's a difference between wishing to point out the CIA's failings, and being obsessed by them. Zero Dark Thirty did the former, showing enhanced interrogations, unapologetically, and showing that they were useless wastes of time and effort to torture undeserving people for no gain. But this film has nothing whatsoever to do with the CIA, save only for the character of Martha Sullivan, the German Station Chief for the CIA played by Robin Wright. Initially this character is somewhat mysterious, as she appears only once in a while, and there mostly to bring up backstory about the main character and bounce ideas off of him, as well as provide the audience with some sense of the ticking clock going on back in Berlin. Fair enough. But in the last ten minutes of the film, this character suddenly morphs into Snidely Whiplash, who swoops in to wreck the operation, beat up everyone with goons, kidnap and destroy people's lives, and all for no conceivable gain whatsoever.

It would be one thing if this trainwreck were the product of ignorance, mistakes, or other elements established somewhere in the film, but it's not. It's instead the inverted equivalent of a Deus Ex Machina, wherein an outside element not previously established suddenly shows up in the middle of nowhere to ruin everything, irrespective of what any of the characters have and have not done up until this point. And why is this somehow an acceptable thing to throw into a movie that had been so scrupulously realistic until this point? Because the element in question is the CIA, and the CIA is axiomatically evil. They need no establishment, no motivation, no background, no characterization, nothing. To le Carré and his filmmakers they may as well be the Nazis, a plot device assumed by all to be evil without need for any such detail-work. A film interested in showing off the ways in which the CIA interferes with domestic intelligence would be one thing, as would one where the interplay between Hoffman and Wright led them to this state. This film however, is so intent on ensuring that the CIA gets mud thrown in their eye, that ultimately, the film would rather do that than actually tell its story, and literally breaks the entire narrative just so that they can make a cheap, smug point about how dumb, stupid, and recklessly evil the Americans are. So evil, in fact, that there's no need to even establish them as so. Their nationality does that well enough. The movie goes on as normal until an evil American who has nothing to do with anything suddenly destroys everything, and then it is over. Curtain up. Credits roll.

Final thoughts:    I don't hate this film. Indeed I quite liked this film up until the very end. What I hate is the underlying assumption behind it, that the need for ideological pie-throwing in the direction of the CIA is sufficient, by itself, to absolve the film from actually telling its story. It's as though le Carré, or Dutch director Anton Corbijn (whose last film, "The American", also suffered from this defect), feel that all they need do is stand on stage and say "Americans, AMIRITE?!" in order to get independent or European film critics to praise his daring exposure of the corruption that lies in the heart of those barbaric cretins from across the ocean. That said, as I once mentioned to a friend of mine whose hatred for a failed ending on an excellent video game was getting the best of him, a film that does everything right except for five minutes of its runtime is still a good film, even if it picks the worst possible five minutes to screw everything up in.

A few years back, I reviewed le Carré's Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, a film that I thought was highly confusing and erratic, albeit good despite. This film is considerably clearer than that one was, but all that managed to reveal is that sometimes an author's proclivities are best left opaque.

Final Score:  6/10

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Guardians of the Galaxy

Alternate Title:  Your Move, DC

One sentence synopsis:    A human outlaw, an assassin, a literal-minded warrior, a genetically-engineered raccoon, and a sentient tree team up to save the galaxy from a raging, genocidal maniac in search of a superweapon.

Things Havoc liked: Do I even need to recap the Marvel films now? This is the tenth film in the Marvel cinematic universe, seven of which (counting this one) I have now reviewed, and if there's anybody left who doesn't know what this madcap insanity project that Marvel has been on for the last six years is, then they need to go find someone else to tell them about it. Ten films and more to come, and the only question remaining here was whether or not Marvel, having maintained their momentum through a series longer than the great run Pixar had in the late '00s, or either of Disney's masterpiece periods, or even those of Ridley Scott or James Cameron, could possibly do it again, this time with a series and a concept so insane I thought they'd lost their minds when I first heard about the film.

Well of course they did. Who the hell do you think this is? Warner Brothers?

Guardians of the Galaxy rocks. It is a fun, explosive, irreverent space-opera, that proves, yet again, that Marvel seems to be incapable of doing wrong. Taking a series of characters I know nothing about, and shoving them into a film that seems to be comprised of equal parts Star Wars and Galaxy Quest, this film is the cherry atop Marvel's sundae of never-ending success that has attended their entire "Phase 2" output, and if it is not the best Marvel film of this year, that is simply because Winter Soldier was one of the best Marvel films of all time, and this one "only" manages to give it a run for its money.

Part of the secret to Marvel's success throughout these films (other than the pacts with Satan) has been the quality of the crews they have assembled to produce them. It's not merely that the films have had excellent writers and directors, but that each film has been painstakingly paired with a production team tailor-made to do the type of film that Marvel had in mind to do. So it was that the original Thor somehow managed to kidnap and drug Kenneth Branaugh into directing it, Iron Man was the work of snark and slice-of-life master Jon Favreau, Arrested Development and Community's Russo Brothers were brought in to modernize Captain America, and writer's director Joss Whedon was handed the reins when it came time to do the big ensemble piece in Avengers. For Guardians, Marvel called an audible, pulling in Indie Director James Gunn to take on the writing and directing duties in his first big-budget effort. Gunn was a weird pick for a film that would appear to demand someone with hardcore science-fantasy chops (John Carpenter, J.J. Abrams, or Matt Reeves all come to mind), and yet what Marvel wanted here was not a traditional Space Opera feel, but a much more indie-take on big-budget scifi. And Gunn, whose credits include Super, Slither, and Dawn of the Dead, somehow came up this time with a script and a film that is simultaneously everything and nothing like the films it is aping. The movie is riotously funny, even with the central conceit of the characters not being taken remotely seriously despite their pretensions of awesomeness having been spoiled by the trailers. Banter between the characters, each of which is immediately given their own style and archetype of speech, meets anything to be found in the Avengers, while the design, look, and feel of the film is distinctive and colorful, as befits a space opera and yet recognizably Marvel-esque, as befits the series. I've not been a big fan of Gunn's before this, despite all the critics who rave about his potential, but Gunn has now finally made good in all the right ways, and I can't praise his efforts enough.

But what of these characters, about whom, for the first time in the history of the Marvel franchise, I knew practically nothing going in. To my astonishment, every one of them is not only characterized well, despite this really being a five-way origin story, but portrayed expertly by whatever combination of actors and animators were involved. Starlord, AKA Peter Quill (the movie insists on calling him Quill throughout, despite his best, hopeless efforts) is played by Moneyball's Chris Pratt like a cross between Han Solo and Marty McFly, a hopelessly immature child of the 80s (his music obsessions are amazing) who was kidnapped by space aliens at the age of about eight, and seems to have taken the opportunity to become every eight-year-old's vision of what a wisecracking space outlaw is supposed to be. I've never had occasion to like or dislike Pratt before this, but he is amazing in this role, as perfectly cast as Chris Evans or Chris Hemsworth were for their respective Marvel characters. Only slightly less amazing is Zoe Saldana, of the new Star Trek among other things, who plays cold-eyed assassin Gamora. Her character has the unenviable role of playing the brooding badass in a movie that slathers liberal ridicule upon the concept of brooding badass, but she pulls it off mostly by heaping unending ridicule right back on everyone else. The only shaky element among the live-action cast is WWE wrestler Dave Bautista, who despite his turn in Riddick is plainly not a professional actor. And yet here, the writing comes to the rescue, as his character of Drax the Destroyer is of a race of beings who lack a concept of metaphor, and speak in absolutely literal terms at all times. That's right, they took the fact that Drax was being played by a wrestler without acting experience, whose lines would therefore sound stilted and unnatural, and wrote it into the script. Those beautiful bastards.

But the CG characters are the ones that really steal the show, a duo that should not, under any circumstances have worked, and yet. Rocket Raccoon, a contemporary of Bucky O'Hare, one of the most ludicrous concepts that even Marvel's comic line has to offer, is by far and away my favorite character of the entire film. An anthropomorphic, genetically and cybernetically-enhanced raccoon voiced by Bradley Freaking Cooper of all people, this character is awesome itself. A foot and a half tall gun-fanatic who spends most of his time either blowing shit up, piloting warships what blow shit up, or serving as the dry, comic wit of the entire group preparatory to blowing shit up. A sequence halfway through the film has Rocket get drunk and belligerent, only to be talked down by Starlord into a puddle of tears, and just as we fear that a dreaded "narrate your own backstory" scene is about to raise its head, he responds to his crushing depression by whipping out an assault rifle larger than he is and preparing to, you guessed it, blow more shit up. Rocket is done perfectly, riding the line between Joe Pesci and the Voice of Reason, and surprisingly enough, may actually be the character with the most face-time in the entire thing. But just as amazing is Groot, Vin Diesel's turn as a walking tree, whose limited vocabulary belies rather surprising depth. Supposedly Diesel demanded that the writers translate all of his dialogue into English so that he could put the exact right tone on the... Grootish... version. It shows. Groot is the perfect counterpart for Rocket and for all the others, and if baby-dancing-Groot does not become a toy line, then someone at Marvel will have lost their damn mind.

On and on I could go, from the side-characters and cameos to the soundtrack. Lee Pace, Thranduil himself, having decided that his turn in the Hobbit was insufficiently campy, plays Ronan the Accuser in the best traditions of Ming the Merciless. So over-the-top that he winds up screaming defiant villain-speech at his own boss (when you're out-scenery-chewing Thanos, you're doing quite a thing), his character is the perfect foil for our completely nonchalant heroes, and the moments when they manage to flat out confuse the hell out of him are priceless. Michael Rooker, one of the finest character actors of all time, gets to hick it up as Yondu, Starlord's abductor/enemy/ally/father figure/pain in the ass (it's that kind of film). This is a man who once played himself in a call of duty game. He's right at home here. Smaller roles go to Djimon Honsou (who reportedly demanded a role in a Marvel film because he felt there were insufficient black characters), Glenn Close (who manages to do better than Judy Dench did in the Riddick series), John C. Reilly (not as annoying as he customarily is), and, of course, Benicio del Toro, who plays some kind of deranged outer-space Liberace with the aplomb I have come to expect from him. I don't usually mention cameos in these things, but this movie is STOCKED with them, from the obligatory Stan Lee appearance to momentary spots by Nathan Fillion, Josh Brolin, Seth Green, and Rob Zombie, all atop a pile of in-jokes and nerd-references that should keep the internet buzzing for weeks.

Things Havoc disliked: I'm sure Marvel will tell you that they knew this movie was going to be a hit from the get-go, and that nobody was nervous in the slightest about this thing, but that would almost certainly be a lie, as I think most of us are well aware, and in fact that's something of the problem this time around. The movie is well-structured and well-written... except when the Gunn's nerve fails, and he suddenly feels the need to explain to the audience what they have just witnessed. There are several points, riven throughout the film, where sentiment or concepts that are perfectly clear to the audience are ruined by the script deciding that a character needs to spell the obvious out, just in case the audience fails to get beaten over the head sufficiently with the standard Marvel themes of "friendship and teamwork conquers all". Several of these incidents hit at absolutely the worst possible moment, spoiling, among other things, one of the bigger dramatic payoffs of the film. This tendency annoyed me more than my viewing companions, but given that the Marvel films are famous for, among other things, the quality of their scripts, it was a serious disappointment.

There's also the issue of sequel-bait. We've all come to expect and accept that the Marvel films, contained within their own universe like episode of a TV show, will continue on and on, but the sequel-baiting for this film is clunky in the extreme. Not only are obvious plot hooks for the next film dragged up out of nowhere in the last ten minutes of runtime (never a good way to do things), but the same problem as before afflicts even the sequel-baiting, meaning that the hooks in question are dragged up many times, each time out of nothing whatsoever. It's awkward and ugly, and mars a film that otherwise is none of these things.

Final thoughts:   DC Comics has had a rough time of things at the movies in the last few years. Not only have they put out half of the raw output that Marvel has, but their offerings have been mixed in tone and quality, and lacked utterly the cohesiveness that is Marvel's towering cinematic universe. DC's poverty of imagination in realizing its properties on film has been palpable, and this is coming from someone who liked both Dark Knight Rises and Man of Steel. The best point of comparison from DC for this movie is likely 2011's Green Lantern, another high-concept space opera film that misfired drastically in every way that this movie aims true. And yet the point isn't so much that that movie was mediocre while this one was excellent, but that DC, having failed to do a space opera properly, retrenched themselves in the old-standbys of Superman and Batman, and will be doing so yet again in 2016 (having pushed the release date back from their original 2015 opening). In response to questions about greater diversity of characters, a Wonder Woman film perhaps, or simply anything not done by the Zack Snyder/Chris Nolan combo, DC has made many excuses, including that audiences were not ready for such things, and that the risks of doing anything but what worked in 1973 are too great. Marvel, meanwhile, just finished making a space opera about a raccoon and a walking tree, one of such qualities that I was forced to praise it immodestly, explicitly torpedoing every excuse DC has made or will make in the future regarding what is and is not possible in comic book films.

A day may come, must come, friends, when the skill of Marvel fails. When they forsake care and break all standards of quality, in favor of the mediocre and the stupid. An hour of laments, and shattered dreams, when the age of Marvel comes crashing down around us, when they revert, at last, to the mean, and go the route of Pixar or Michael Bay.

But it is not this day. This day we watch Guardians of the Galaxy. This day, we get to smile.

Final Score:  8/10

Tuesday, August 5, 2014


Alternate Title:  And the Rock Feels No Pain

One sentence synopsis:    Hercules and his band of adventurers seek to save a Thracian kingdom from the depredations of a horde of centaur barbarians.

Things Havoc liked: My process for choosing movies to watch is not terribly sophisticated. Trailers, posters, the occasional bit of rumor overheard from here or there, as well as my own biased opinion of what I do and don't want to see all factor into it. Some movies I will see despite the fact that I have strong suspicions that they are going to turn out terrible (Godzilla, Pacific Rim, Suckerpunch). And some, despite excellent trailers and decent word of mouth, I simply have no interest in watching whatsoever (the entire Planet of the Apes series). I do not explain all this to defend my decision to see Hercules, for that was an easy choice, but rather to explain why I was so excited to see this movie. And for that, we need to discuss another movie, specifically 2004's Troy.

Troy, for those who haven't seen it, was an epic all-star blockbuster based on Homer's Iliad, and it was also one of the worst movies I've ever seen. Not because it was badly written, acted, or had poor action, but because it completely missed the point of its source material, turning the Iliad into a modern parable about a conflicted hero (Achilles) who doesn't want to war, but does so anyway, reluctantly, to satisfy the whims of a thoroughly modern tyrant who seeks to conquer all Greece and rule it in a modern Empire. Not only is this completely antithetical to the story of Achilles and the Trojan War, it was also completely Antithetical to the reality of it, of Mycenean pirate-kings raiding hill forts in Asia Minor with their retinues of soldiers. And being as the Iliad is kind of my thing (Ancient History, etc...), this pissed me the hell off.

Why am I bringing this all up? Because Hercules gets it right.

No, I don't mean they're scrupulously faithful to all elements of the Hercules legend (for one thing, that would require calling the movie Herakles), in fact they junk a considerable amount of it, but it doesn't matter, because the essence of the story is right, or at least of some version of the story. Indeed, the whole point of the movie, to my surprise, is the gap between the legend of a figure like Hercules, and the (likely) reality of that situation. Hercules, like every other legend in the world from Gilgamesh to Spring-Heeled Jack had to come from somewhere after all, and this film posits one such place that it could have been, all without trying to "revise" the legend itself. This is not a movie like Ridley Scott's Robin Hood which seems almost contemptuous of its own mythology, nor one of those tired elements wherein the hero is buried by his own legend and must find the strength to live up to it. Instead we actually get to sit down and discover where such a story as that of Hercules might well have come from, and why, consciously or otherwise, it might have been embellished to the point it was.

Or was it? The movie plays a rather cagey game all the way through as to what's actually going on here, how much of Hercules' mythology is actually myth and how much is not. This game is helped by the casting of Dwayne Johnson, the Rock, who is a figure of such almost comedic mass and power (to say nothing of his natural showmanship) that he manages to believably blur the line between a real person and a legendary figure. I've been a big fan of the Rock's since I first came to know him, even in bad movies, and his turns in things like Be Cool or Pain & Gain have long-since proven that he's a far better actor than he's given credit for being. Hercules doesn't exactly stretch his range, but he certainly looks and feels the part, a man just at the edge of what is possible, whose legend goes well beyond. Not many guys can walk into a room wearing a lion skin and loincloth, carrying a club the size of a tree, and have nobody laugh at them.

And a lot of why this duality manages to work is the presence of several of Hercules' co-stars, particularly Abe Lincoln Vampire Hunter's Rufus Sewell and Deadwood's Ian McShane. Friends and long-time battle companions of Hercules (the very existence of a crew of fellow badasses with Hercules is fed directly into the theme above), both Sewell and McShane take on the role of cynical commentators on the goings on, as Hercules' legend is embellished and burnished. There are none of the tired cliches here, the resentment of the leader or contempt for legends or wide-eyed adoration turned to mockery when the hero fails to stand up to the legend built for himself. Instead we simply get action, piles of it, violent and bone-crushing and quite expertly done (the scythe chariots in particular were a nice touch). All in all, what we have here is a fun adventure romp in the classical style, and if that's what you were looking for going in, as I was, you'll have a great time with Hercules.

Things Havoc disliked: Shame about that plot though.

Yeah, I know, action movie, plot optional, but that's not really true and never has been and you all know that. It's not so much that the plot is bad as it is horribly dated, and treats itself like it isn't. And I hate to lay the blame for this on a particular actor, but John Hurt, of all people, deserves a particularly dishonorable mention, for whatever reason (bad script, bad directing, brain aneurysm). His King Cotys goes through several massive personality transplants at points throughout the movie, providing whatever the movie needs at that particular moment, be it a screaming, puppy-kicking villain, a wise, beleaguered ruler, a dedicated family man, a merciless tyrant, or (ultimately) a complete idiot. As a result his character, and all those associated with him, including his daughter and grandson (Rebecca Fergusson and Isaac Andrews) are utter cyphers, saying and doing whatever the director needs them to say or do to hammer home the "point" of a given scene, or push Hercules into reaching the next action setpiece.

Inconsistencies in the writing, or rather the quality thereof, also serve to confuse the issue, to the point where I began to wonder if there weren't multiple screenwriters involved. The opening sequence, a battle against Aegean pirates, serves so transparently as an "let us introduce the team of badasses by name one by one" sequence that I thought for a moment we'd switched into a Japanese Sentai show, and several of the characters, particularly Atalante (Ingrid Bolsø Berdal) and Tydeus (Aksel Hennie) are wooden and flat. Not as wooden and flat however as Joseph Fiennes' turn as King Eurystheus, a completely useless character brought in at the last second for no reason other than to try and desperately undo all of the good ideas the movie had about Hercules and replace them all with more standard cliches. This character has editorial meddling written all over it, and seems to have been conjured out of nowhere so as to suddenly give Hercules a more standard Hollywood arc at the last second, accompanied by a thunderously out-of-place "buck the hero up" speech at a moment when there is no reason to have one.

Final thoughts:   Still, half a daring movie is better than no daring movie at all, and Hercules, despite its manifest flaws, is still a rock solid action piece with more to say than I had expected it to. I won't be remembering this film for all time as a classic of the silver screen, but it's a fun, competent, highly-serviceable action flick starring fun actors making witty commentary on the goings on. Classics have been made from less than this, and while this film isn't one, it's still definitely a worthwhile endeavor.

And if you need more convincing, this movie also possesses the coveted "Raging Hatred" award from noted film connoisseur Alan Moore. If that doesn't make you want to watch this film, I don't know what will.

Final Score:  6.5/10

Sunday, August 3, 2014


Alternate Title:  The Endless Slideshow

One sentence synopsis:    A boy with divorced parents and an older sister grows up over the course of more than a decade.

Things Havoc liked: I've become fond in these little reviews of trying to sum up the career of a given director in a pithy comment or nickname (several people disagreed with Mallick the Pretentious, but I stand by that one), but that's not always possible, particularly not with Richard Linklater. Linklater's filmography is an eclectic bunch, covering everything from critically acclaimed, excellent films like Dazed and Confused, A Scanner Darkly, and Bernie, to... other things... such as SubUrbia, School of Rock, and Fast Food Nation. His biggest claim to fame on the Indie circuit was probably the Before series (Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, and Before Midnight) a trio of widely-spaced romantic comedy/dramas starring Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, but apparently that wasn't ambitious enough for him. Back in 2002 he struck upon the idea of making a film about a boy and his family that would explore the process of growing up using all the same actors for the entire journey. Hiring a group of actors to do just that, he proceeded to film then, off and on, for twelve years. Boyhood is the result.

Let me repeat that for a moment. Twelve years.

Twelve years this movie took to make. I don't mean it was stuck in development hell or sat on someone's shelf or was even mired in the editing process for a decade like Under the Skin (*Shudder*). I mean that someone sat down and drew up a schedule for a twelve-year film shoot and got it approved. I know it wasn't continuous, and I know a lot of the material was made up on the spot, I don't care. Before I can even go anywhere with this review, we all have to sit down for a second and contemplate the immensity that is the task of making a film for twelve goddamn years. I knew that Linklater was insane (the man once stood up at Telluride and proudly declared his fiery opposition to "Bovinity"), but this takes a special sort of insanity to try and make, if only because the central character in this story, a boy named Mason, is played by Ellar Coltrane, who was six years old at the time he was hired, and there was no guarantee that he would grow up to be anything resembling an actor. And yet he did, sort of, helped of course by the fact that Linklater let him write or even ad-lib a lot of his own material, intent on creating a very slice-of-lifeish film. Indeed, I almost feel like criticizing Coltrane's acting, for better or worse, is almost missing the point. In a strange way, I suspect he wasn't acting, or at least not substantially. He did, after all, have the advantage of actually being whatever age he was portraying, with all the excitement, fear, and hormones that each age involved. If the essence of acting is acting like you're not acting (five points to anyone who gets the reference), then Coltrane manages to act like he's not acting very well, whether age 7 or 17.

Of course Linklater doesn't leave Coltrane out by himself. Linklater's own daughter, Lorelei, plays Samantha, Mason's older sister by about two years, turns out to be almost as important a character in the story as Mason himself. Through his eyes we see her grow up, and the interaction between them is about as real as any sibling interaction I've ever seen in a film. An early sequence wherein Samantha starts singing Brittney Spears songs early in the morning purely to annoy Mason, only to burst into artfully-crafted tears when it comes time to get him in trouble with their mother nearly sent me into a flashback (Amy, if you're reading this, don't think I've forgotten your "show tunes" outside my door), and her casual dismissal of her younger sibling resembles behavior I've witnessed time and again (but was obviously far too sensitive a child to have enacted). The rotating panoply of other kids in Mason's life, from his friends to his girlfriends are by and large played to perfection by kids who sound utterly convincing, down to the subtle nuances of cadence when they swear at one another using words they're still not quite comfortable employing yet, or the way in which a teenager can ape adult seriousness while talking about a childish subject. There is some method to Linklater's madness after all, it appears, as casting kids their own age and letting them ad lib their own dialogue, amazingly enough, produced something that could well have been a documentary.

But lest this sound like a student film, there are actually professional actors in this epic project, the foremost of which is probably Ethan Hawke. Hawke is an actor I've never had much use for, particularly earlier in his career where he made a habit of starring in crap like Dead Poets Society, Reality Bites, Daybreakers, or the 2000 version of Hamlet. That said, he's slowly grown on me now that he's no longer a hot young star, and films like Gattica or Training Day have forced me to re-evaluate my position. And with Boyhood, I have to confess, that Hawke is unexpectedly the best thing around. Playing Mason Sr, the father of Coltrane's Mason Jr, divorced from his son's mother at the beginning of the film, we get to watch his relationship with his son (and daughter) over the course of twelve years with a performance that hints at, rather than forces us to watch the growth of the character itself in that period. Early on his house, at which the kids stay every weekend, is a wreck, a bachelor's flophouse (not that I'd know what those look like...) filled with things thrown in every direction. Slowly, over the course of progression from early adulthood to middle age, Hawke's character nails down his life, becomes more respectable, until in the end his son suggests that if his mother had had more patience with his father, he and his sister might have been spared "a succession of drunk assholes". And yet this is no morality play about the redemption of man. Hawke's character doesn't "find his path" or some similar script absurdity, but simply begins the film as one person, and ends it, twelve years and a lifetime of experiences later, as another. This is the way life moves, how people go from one thing to another, and the temporal displacement of the beginning and end of this film allow us to watch that process with a degree of reality difficult to find anywhere outside of projects this ambitious.

Things Havoc disliked: And yet, even as I describe this film as ambitious, I am left with a desire to qualify that remark...

I understand that the point of this film was to make something real. Not a cheap story composed by some middle-aged author trying to remember what childhood was like, but a portrait of childhood as it actually was, seen through the eyes of a real child in real time. And yet, there's a reason why stories are told by professional storytellers, and that reason is that life only makes sense in summation when it is clarified and reduced, by memory if nothing else, down to salient points that progress from one to the next. Bereft of that, life is a collection of unrelated incidents that have little to do with one another, day to day activities and occurrences, important and otherwise, that simply don't mean much out of context. If that was the point of the film, fair enough, but this is a long movie, nearly three hours, and throughout the entire run of it, I was left basically asking one question: "So what?"

Yes, the achievement of having made this film is fantastic. Yes, the acting is realistic and believable. But what purpose is any of it really put to? Mason grows up. His mother marries and remarries. He changes schools and meets new friends. He is bullied once. He has a girlfriend. He breaks up with said girlfriend. He gets into photography. He goes to college. On the one hand I understand that these are the things that life is comprised of, but on the other hand, this is a three hour film, and if all it has to tell me is that boys go through these things over the course of growing up, then I'm left with the unfortunate question of what the point of it was? Is it really a revelation to all mankind that teenagers don't know what they want to do and think they know everything? That children fight with their siblings and occasionally get into trouble? The film seems to think it is, and gives us so much of this slice-of-life stuff that we never even really get to know who Mason is as a person. That Mason doesn't know either is fine. Nobody does at that age. But he's the central character of a drama that took twelve years to make, and without any sense of narrative thrust to his story, the film comes across like a big-budget version of a home movie compilation, wherein we check in on the kid every year to see what he happens to be up to at that moment. Maybe that's the point or something, I don't know, but the film so steadfastly refuses to say anything about Mason for fear that it might break the "reality" of the situation that I am left with the conclusion that it simply had nothing TO say. This is what Mason did at various points in his childhood. Make of it what you will.

And even that might be understandable if the reality of that situation were uniform, but it's not, and the reason it's not is because of the character of Mason's mother, a psychology professor played by Patricia Arquette. Arquette's career has been the reverse of Hawke's for me, in that I liked her back when she was making things like Lost Highway and Ed Wood, but her recent work such as A Single Woman or A Glimpse Inside the Mind of Charles Swan III has been godawful tripe. Boyhood is hardly in a class with those failures, but it does feature Arquette as a woman who manages to miraculously marry nothing but (to quote Mason from earlier) drunk assholes. Spousal and child abuse happens in the world, I get it, but Arquette seems to have a knack for finding men who start out well (a fellow professor, or a dashing, compassionate soldier back from Iraq), and morph instantaneously into monsters (abusive wife-beater and drunken failure of a man, respectively) as soon as she marries them. I don't know if every stepfather Mason has is made to be a drunk so as to make Ethan Hawke look better by comparison or if there's some other factor at work here, but without any context or insight as to what is driving these people, it seems like nothing more than forced conflict. One moment, literally, these men are fine, and the next they are abusive drunks. This, apparently, is drama.

It's like this, ultimately, for every element of the film. Elements appear and disappear without explanation or purpose, which is fine, except it leads me to ask why they were included at all. Mason is taken to his grandparents' house in rural Texas for a birthday in which he is given a shotgun (Texas). He learns to fire it, and then it is never heard of or mentioned again. Neither is his political activism during the Obama campaign of 2008, his relationship with his stepbrother and sister from his mother's first abusive husband, or any number of other elements of his life that we are painstakingly shown one after the next. For three hours. Without end. Worse yet, the film makes the classic mistake of celebrating itself without earning the celebration. Much attention is given to seminal moments in Mason's life, graduations, birthdays, etc. This is fine, it's a biopic after all. But the film chooses to portray these events not in terms of what they mean to Mason, but in terms of what other people have to say about him. And after about the ninth semi-tearful "fare well on the next stage of your journey" speech that we are subjected to about this kid we only see in glimpses, it occurred to me that this was all time that might have been better spent doing so, rather than announcing to us all that he was amazing while he stood there and watched. The filmmakers, as a result of filming this kid for the better part of a dozen years, must have gotten to know him pretty well. So well, it appears, that they forgot that we didn't.

Final thoughts:   Boyhood is not a bad film. Indeed in some ways it's a fascinating one. The act of using the same cast for more than a decade is unheard of in a feature film, and lends it a quality that previously only long-running television series could achieve, and on the occasions when the filmmakers use this to their advantage, we can get things that are truly special. A particularly memorable supporting character is a Mexican laborer who works with Patricia Arquette at one point installing a drainage system on her house, who she remarks is a smart man who should consider bettering his condition. We see him again years later, having taken her advice and gotten an education and graduate degree, and appears to thank her for the kind words that literally changed his life. Not much is made of this character, and yet through this one anecdote, brought back after the fact, that unnamed character stands out more in my mind than the boy whose childhood we are theoretically here to witness. I understand that life is not always, nor even usually a collection of narrative stories, but films are, and pretending that they are not does not serve anyone's purpose any more than playing random notes on an instrument "because life is eclectic" would serve to represent anything musically. I have many times used the term "A series of events that happen and then are over" to describe a failed film, but in this case I use the term with absolute, literal fidelity. This movie is a series of unconnected events which happen. It was intended to be a series of unconnected events which happen.

Boyhood has generated acclaim from most critics so inflated as to be almost unheard of. Perfect tens, universal approval, unanimous selections by juries at prestigious film festivals. I suspect that what is being praised is the achievement of having made a film this daring, an achievement which is admittedly considerable, even if the result is shockingly unambitious given the scope of the project. I also suspect this has something to do with critics not wishing to be the only plebeian who did not praise the art-house darling, a condition I have suspected before from films as varied as Beasts of the Southern Wild and The Fighter. Amateur as I am, and unconcerned therefor with my reputation as a follower of the herd mentality (aren't I unique?), I am not afraid to buck this trend, as I did in the aforementioned movies.

I do not say that this particular Emperor has no clothes. But dressed in his finest he is not. And if you're going to sit us all down for three full hours, the least you can do is show off your wardrobe.

Final Score:  6/10

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