Wednesday 30 July 2014

Review: Boyhood

Year: 2014
Director: Richard Linklater
Screenplay: Richard Linklater
Starring: Ellar Coltrane, Patricia Arquette, Ethan Hawke, Lorelei Linklater

Synopsis is here

Describing Boyhood feels like it should be a gimmick. A fictional chronicle of a boy’s life from age 5 to 18, filmed with the same cast over a period of 12 years. Collaborated in a way in which we are literally watching the boy (Ellar Coltrane) grow up in front of our eyes, as his parents grow older. The parents are actors we know and have seen in films from before, so to see them slowly alter and change, plays havoc with our knowledge of them as performers. If we place the film's plot down in words, its uniqueness seems to fade. The narrative strands are not particularly out of the ordinary. Though to watch the film play out is to watch a cultural marvel due to its conceit. The ambition is not in the words, but on the screen itself. Linklater’s Before trilogy only hinted at the ambition. Boyhood helps cement his place as one of the most valuable documentarians of modern relationships.

Boyhood does what Linklater's films love to do: have people talking. The film lets things play out in the simple, natural way we often expect from the filmmaker. We watch the kids natter about childish things, and their (unmarried) parents argue. We note the hint of determination in the Mother (A never better Patricia Arquette), and the brashness of the Father (Ethan Hawke). The conversations they have may not be exactly like the one your family have had, but they certainly feel like ones a family would have. There’s a beauty in how Linklater gets such engagement in the seemingly mundane. It also makes the small rises in conflict (involving divorce, alcoholism and sibling rivalry) feel so profound.

It’s after we get comfortable with the quirks of these people does the subtle power of Linklater’s direction occur. The use of form found in Boyhood is beyond grand in scale and thought. Music choices and product placement are suddenly valuable time signatures. They not only tell us the year we’re situated in, but help signify the cultural changes and growth of this boy’s life. Is Coldplay’s Yellow an obvious choice of song? Easy to sneer at now. Yet that single feels synonymous with the year it was released, as does Mason’s sister murdering Oops I did it again. By the time we reach Lady Gaga on an iPhone, Linklater has subtly shown us the gradual shift of what media has changed (or stayed the same) and how it’s consumed.

Elsewhere; we watch young friends fleeting away in wide shots, only to be sharply cut from the view. When the family move away, the Mother swears they’ll be back to visit, yet we never see them again. Does Mason? Ask yourself about some of the people you knew at similar ages and how your relationships ended. But its accuracy of how Mason’s viewpoint is portrayed that’s so impressive.

The characters seem unaffected by the slow evaporation of time and yet they slowly succumb to realisation. We watch Hawke’s immature, forthright young man morph into a figure of some maturity (sweetly symbolised by what he drives). Mason’s Mother takes a hint of determination and utilises it to help shatter a typical outlook of the single mother. All the while, the human landscape changes. We see the beginnings of Bush’s war before we witness Obama placards on lawns.

How Linklater keeps hold of these strands and textures is remarkable, but his ability to keep the drama as honest as he does is astonishing. As facial features and certain elements of personality grow and form, we’re still aware of their flaws. It’s amusing to see Mason issues finishing homework follow him throughout his life, but it’s notably perceptive to view his Mother’s trails in relationships. Repeat patterns of ill behavior follow and flow through the family in the same way that it flows through our own. The conflicts never feel bogged down or over dramatized, while every performance is instinctive no matter which part of the time they occur. As stated in other reviews, could Linklater have any clue at just how well Ellar Coltrane would carry a film that would span his adolescence?

That said, this is the kind of film Linklater has been working up to. From the Errol Morris vibe given off in Bernie (2011) to the feeling of nostalgia that comes with Dazed and Confused (1993). By the time we see Mason in his teenage years, he’s well on his way to being the type of gentle philosophizing Linklater protagonist we’ve seen in Waking Life (2001) or the Before series. Yet in all of the films I’ve seen of the director, I’ve never experienced something that plays with such conviction of its scope and understanding of its textures. Cinephiles will be well aware of the similar features (Up series, The Apu Trilogy, Truffaut’s films of Antoine Doinel), yet the intertwining of the cultural observations that Linklater uses, make this a landmark that deserves a place to stand with them. At a time in which Hollywood is wrestling with its love/hate relationship with arrested development, Boyhood stands out as one of the most mature and moving films about adolescence and family I’ve seen in a long time. Can the U.S keep Richard Linklater safe, please? He’s a cultural asset.

Review: The Zero Theorem

Year: 2013 (UK Theatrical 2014)
Director: Terry Gilliam
Screenplay: Pat Rushin
Starring: Christoph Waltz, Mélanie Thierry, David Thewlis, Lucas Hedges

Synopsis is here:

The Zero Theorem frustrates in the same way that Richard Kelly’s Southland Tales (2006) does. The film feels it has something to say about the state of our world, but yells too much information way too loud to gain any real sense of clarity. I love Terry Gilliam for the simple fact that his protagonists are all dreamers. They throw caution to the wind as they become obsessed with their flights of fancy. The problem arises when the dream isn’t particularly interesting or involving. What we have here is a film that’s extremely loud about what it wants to say, but for some, they won’t really care about what is said.

I found myself reminded of The Ninth Configuration (1980) which treads similar territory of men who are looking for hope within the hopeless. Themes like this, I do tend to enjoy, as faith is that wonderfully human thing that brings up exciting conflicts within narratives. At the start of The Zero Theorem, I felt we were on to another winner. It’s clear that the budget was low but the imagination high, as we’re landed into an obscenely coloured and cluttered landscape which melds the grubby London setting of Children of Men (2006) with Gilliam’s own, satirical Brazil (1985). Orwell himself would be proud of the surreal production and art design on display.

It’s clear that Gilliam hasn't lost his sense of fun, filling the film with dry jabs of modern life. Advertisements of a church of Batman are slapped on walls, while the idea of party revelers dancing to their own iPods despite the room playing loud music is something that already feels closer than we think. There's even a certain dryness to Christoph Waltz’s character of Qohen working a pathetic number cruncher for an all-consuming company named Mancorp. Particularly when we find out Managements reason for being.

When summing the film up to more than its smaller parts, The Zero Theorem suffers from being a bit of a beautiful nothing. Waltz’ is having fun with a character far removed from what we know him for, but the character himself is far from engaging. The film's romantic relationship between Waltz’s Qohen and Mélanie Thierry’s Bainsley never really sizzles, while the feeling of wanting to replicate Brazil in more than just set design never really leaves us. The film blows a lot of smoke over the cruel search for purpose, unfortunately Gilliam’s worse indulgences take over and the film never really stakes a strong claim.

I say this as a bit of a Gilliam apologist at the best of times. I found Tideland (2005) nightmarish and evocative. The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (2009) pushes Gilliam’s love of the messiness of imagination and storytelling while The Brothers Grimm (2005) brushes past its flaws with an interesting look on fairy tales that one could say, may have helped usher in this new breed of “gritty” fairy tales. The Zero Theorem has many of the pacing and organised problems of the director’s weakest pieces. The problem is this time round, I found myself unable to find the golden nugget of significance that usually resides in Gilliam’s mind’s eye. As gorgeous as The Zero Theorem is in parts, this tragic tale of The Big Crunch felt more than a little soggy.