Sunday, July 27, 2014

Boyhood (2014)

A maddening masterpiece. 

I have seen everything that is done under the sun, and behold, all is vanity and a striving after wind. (Ecclesiastes 1:14, ESV)

Boyhood is the vivid portrayal of the boy Mason’s (Ellar Coltrane) life over twelve years, from five to seventeen. Living with his mother (Patricia Arquette) and unbearable sister, but spending the weekends with his absentee father (Ethan Hawke), Mason watches as his mom falls in and out of love with several new father figures, struggles with the people and places fading in and out of his life, grapples with his own complacency and lack of purpose, and seeks to find meaning in his life.

Boyhood was long in the making, scenes being shot once a year as Coltrane aged. This fact is, by far, the film’s most impressive offering: it is truly a wonder to watch as Mason grows up on screen, the camera never shying away from his awkward teenage years or his raging acne.

But because of its twelve years, the film is better described by its process than its plot. It offers little in the way of a cohesive story, following no three-act structure, bouncing around from year to year and happenstance to happenstance, without any real purpose or overall story. Characters are introduced, questions are raised, and scenarios are started. Few of these fragments ever find closure; the one story that does reach an ending becomes one of the movie’s cheesiest scenes, grasping—too late—for the audience’s empathy. While the creativity of Boyhood’s concept offers an outrageous amount of potential, the film never capitalizes on it. By the end, I felt like I'd been watching a documentary, not a movie.

Boyhood has its good points. Coltrane shines as Mason in every scene, disappearing into his role. Hawke is phenomenal, and his character’s progression is believable and fascinating. The dialogue is good, always genuine and heartfelt, although unfortunately riddled with strong profanity. There are many story fragments and arcs, some falling flat but others intriguing. The storyline revolving around Mason’s mother’s second husband is the most fascinating; watching Bill transform from occasional drinker to abusive alcoholic is painful, even terrifying, in its realism. The film’s soundtrack is also a highlight. The progression of years is emphasized by the familiar sounds of that year’s hit; from Coldplay’s “Yellow” to Gotye’s “Somebody That I Used to Know” to Arcade Fire’s recent “Deep Blue,” the songs not only encapsulate the mood of the film, but the tenor of the passage of time.

But for all the good, there was even more bad. Two scenes towards the film’s end illustrated its ultimate hopelessness. In one, Mason, recently heartbroken, asks his father, "What is the point of all this?" His impassioned plea for answers only elicits an "I don't know, son." In the other, Mason’s mother bemoans her son’s departure for college. She wails, "I just thought there would be more!" These scenes illustrate the film’s fatal flaw. While the characters continue to age, they never actually grow. They mature, but never become better. They leave the audience without hope.

Mason started the movie as a precocious five-year-old who hates school and has no drive or motivation. Despite the many attempts of those around him, Mason ends the movie as an aimless, complacent 17-year-old, still falling trap to the same patterns that plagued him from his childhood. This is probably what the director intended, to demonstrate that sometimes people are duds, their lives never transcending their own mediocrity.

Watching Boyhood unfold gave me a clear picture of writer and director Richard Linklater’s worldview. In his perception, life doesn’t operate like the movies. Rather, it’s a combination of tiny events—lacking a true conflict or villain—that form a complete life. Hidden behind this premise lies a true hopelessness. Linklater denies any eternal meaning or greater purpose, mocking any contrary position. The various teachers, employers, and relatives who try to encourage Mason, urging him to do more with his life, are shrugged off as foolish or played for laughs—portrayed as redneck hicks pounding Bibles and shooting guns. Boyhood rejects any promise of hope or the thought that there might be something more to life.

While Linklater’s temporal outlook may have been shared by most of the audience, it presents a problem cinematically. Movies have meaning. Movies have a purpose. Movies give hope. And the reactions of the audience around me demonstrated that they were expecting more. We would gasp when foolish boys engaged in dangerous dares, when Mason recklessly picked up a saw. We would tense when Mason looked at his cell phone—or took a swig from a flask—while driving. We all expected something to happen, but nothing ever did—or at least nothing that left a meaningful impact in the overall scope of the film.

Boyhood is an undeniable masterpiece—but a messy, maddening one. As the credits rolled, I felt totally empty—frustrated that I had spent almost three hours watching what amounted to total nothingness. The lack of any growth or redemption left me feeling grieved, saddened instead of hopeful. But that was its point: life is empty and meaningless, offering no catharsis to its audience. The film is stuck on its rejection of purpose and meaning, wallowing in its own hopelessness.

As I tried pinpointing my frustration with the film, Solomon came to mind. He also wrestled with life’s purpose and meaning. But instead of a resigned complacency to hopelessness, Solomon concluded differently: The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil. (Ecclesiastes 12:13-14, ESV)

Boyhood rejects this perspective, missing out on the ultimate point of life. Life does have meaning. Life does have purpose. By rejecting this premise, it frustrates and grieves, falling short as both a social commentary and as a film.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Edge of Tomorrow (2014)

“Through readiness and discipline we are masters of our fate.”

A staccato of television news clips and grainy video shows that central Europe has been overrun by a sudden and fast-spreading alien invasion of “Mimics.” When comfort-loving media relations officer for the United Defense Forces Major William Cage (Tom Cruise) reports to western command, he is assigned without reason and despite a lack of specific combat training to take part in the front wave attacks on the French coast. The optimistically-named Operation Downfall is a total failure: the highly adaptable Mimics, several millions of brute many-tentacled creatures with the speed of striking snakes, engulf the legions of soldiers, decimating them. Major Cage’s unit is hit while still in the air and before the troops have drop-landed; the falling hovercraft crushes a war-hungry fellow GI; the soldiers stumble disorientedly through the surf and dunes; and Cage himself is immediately confronted by the Mimics. Scrabbling to the ground, he clumsily manages to set off a personnel mine, surviving only scant seconds on the battlefield before blasting the nearest Mimic into a gory explosion of blood that snuffs out his own life as well.

Then he wakes up, to a nightmarish repeat of the catastrophic day. Every insignificant event unfolds exactly as before—the master sergeant’s monologue on the power and beauty of war, the interrupted poker game of the J Squad, his introduction to the soldiers, the deployment and drop—until the bewildered major lands again on the beachhead to helplessly witness the slaughter of his comrades and lock in mortal combat with the inescapable Mimics.

Again, again, and again the day repeats, until Cage knows the rhythm of every movement and moment like a macabre choreography, can predict with precision each Mimic as it mechanistically appears and is mechanically mowed down by his weapons, each time surviving a few seconds longer before inexorably falling in the unmitigated massacre. In this hellish cycle of life and quickened death, he comes across the war heroine and mascot of the unified resistance, Sergeant Rita Vrataski (Emily Blunt), and endeavors to extend her life with his short-lived omniscience. But when the shocked Vrataski sees his abilities, she stops fighting and throws her weapon to her feet; above the chop of the hovercraft and the scream of artillery, she shouts out to Cage—“Find me when you wake up”—and is consumed in an explosion.

Edge of Tomorrow’s premise invites comparison to other time loop films, like Bill Murray’s Groundhog Day (1993), but beyond the motif of the repeated day (and a supporting heroine named Rita), similarities are scarce. Groundhog Day suggested a cosmic concern with the protagonist’s self-centeredness and ends redemptively as he finally saves lives and shows genuine concern for others. Conversely, Edge of Tomorrow portrays a naturalistic, uncaring, and almost rigidly deterministic world devoid of any butterfly effect and where every step and misstep can be precisely learned and eventually predicted. Cage’s selection as unwilling hero is pointedly random, and the army’s portrayal as supersoldiers suggests both futuristic power and transcendent impersonality. While Cage does overcome his initial cowardice (“there is no courage without fear,” claims his master sergeant) and dutifully devotes his repeated lifetimes to the salvation of his race, his character only barely evolves rather than experiencing some single moment of metanoia.

The film is careful not to repeat sequences unnecessarily, avoiding irritating predictabilities and constantly upending the pace and direction to keep action and plot at a run. The warzone scenes are rapid but not erratic, raining destruction on man, machine, and Mimic alike in a blaze of explosions and rifle fire, but largely avoiding gratuity in the carnage. Cruise is characteristically delightful in both the high-action sequences and in his conversational quips, while also capable of showing a more humane side as Major Cage learns abouts and attempts to save his quirky (and sometimes unlikeable) squad mates, or cares for a wounded Vrataski before sorrowfully failing to shield her, yet again, from a death only he will remember.

In a reversal of tradition, it is Vrataski, the female soldier, who fills many of the typically masculine roles in the film: as armored war hero, leader, mentor, protector, and (late in the movie) romantic initiator to the combat-shy media relations officer. When Cage is wounded, Vrataski emotionlessly (and repeatedly) “resets” her acolyte’s day with a bullet—in a manner harshly dissonant to Cage’s later tenderness in her final moments. But the contrast is often subtle in the overall desperation of the film’s war; Vrataski is not the only woman in the predominantly-male military forces, and her relentless warrior ethos perhaps reflects only the dehumanizing potential of war.

In any case, the film does not mire in questions of the human condition and our response. In true Cruise fashion, it is fast-paced, exciting, and gloriously (some might say mindlessly) entertaining. While the picture and score engage, it is the plot and characters that drive the story. Only the echoes of its running theme—of a random Joe plucked from the humdrum and suddenly required to weigh questions of age-defying importance—might yet ring in our ears and bid us look beyond a rapturous two hours, past the edge of tomorrow.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Chef (2014) / Begin Again (2014)

Are these indie films just buying into a formula?

Last weekend I saw two movies. Both were critically acclaimed independent films. Both celebrated the awakening of the senses. Both were undeniably enjoyable and worth repeat viewings. But I noticed something else:

Both were exactly the same. 

(Mild spoilers follow.)

A cinematic celebration of food, Chef tells the story of Carl Casper (played by Jon Favreau—who also wrote and directed the film), a once-brilliant chef who falls out of grace with his admirers, has an emotional breakdown, and tanks his career in a social media debacle. With the help of his ex-wife (Sofia Vergara) and a generous benefactor (Robert Downey Jr., in a hilarious supporting role), Carl opens a food truck and rekindles his love for good food. And as he drives cross-country, he reconnects with his estranged son.

An ode to good music, Begin Again (directed by John Carney of Once fame) tells the story of Dan (Mark Ruffalo), a once-brilliant music producer who falls out of grace with his business partner, has an emotional meltdown, and tanks his career and future prospects. Through the help of his ex-wife (Catherine Keener) and a generous benefactor (Cee Lo Green), Dan is able to rekindle his love of music by helping recently heartbroken Gretta (Keira Knightley) record an album in the midst of New York City. Oh, yeah...and he repairs his relationship with his estranged daughter.

As I watched these films back to back, I couldn’t help but become frustrated at how truly identical the stories were, even down to the most minute subplots. But while the cinematic tropes rehashed by both these films are common and formulaic, these stories transcend their own predictability to become something truly special. Each of these films feature moments that excite and awaken the senses. An early scene in Chef features Carl making a grilled-cheese sandwich for his son. I was tantalized with the precision by which he buttered the bread, placed the cheese, heated the griddle, and watched attentively as the cheesy delight slowly melted and the bread browned on both sides. It’s a scene that enlivens the tastebuds and demonstrates the true love that the director has for its cinematic plat du jour.

In Begin Again, Gretta sits on a stage in a crowded bar, strumming a guitar and singing one of her new compositions. The patrons in the bar are unimpressed, and, sensing this, Gretta lapses into an ever more soulless performance. But then the scene shifts, replaying from the perspective of a clearly inebriated Dan. He doesn’t hear the solitary guitar or melancholy voice; rather, in his ears, the guitar is joined by invisible musicians in the arrangement: the piano riffing, the high-hats clanging, and the stringed instruments crooning—a mediocre song becoming great in the mind of the rapt listener.

Music is the focus of Begin Again and the soundtrack does not disappoint. Adam Levine (lead singer of Maroon 5) does a reasonable job in his first acting role and his chart-topping vocal ability is a major addition to the song set—“Lost Stars” and “Step You Can’t Take Back” being the standout hits. Similarly, Chef does its job in making its audience ravenous. Dish after dish was filmed with such beauty that my mouth watered the entire time. While the good outweighs the bad, both films aren’t without their demerits. Of biggest issue is the lack of originality: there were no plot twists or character developments that couldn’t be called from a mile away. Apart from that, the only things keeping these films from being friendly to all audiences were the frequent profanities and occasional innuendos. However, these detractions only slightly sour an otherwise perfect movie-going experience.

I remember when an “indie” movie guaranteed originality, unknown names, quirky characters, original plotlines, and a general departure from Hollywood formula. But as independent films become more mainstream, so do the plotlines, actors, characters, and formula. These two movies, watched back to back, painfully illustrate this paradigm shift. Upon close reflection, you may realize that the food is occasionally too salty and processed and that the song is a little too overproduced and familiar. But the predictability (and foul language) aside, both these films will leave you with a sweet taste in your mouth and a song in your heart.