Boyhood (2014)

Boyhood

“What’s the point? I mean, I sure as shit don’t know. Neither does anybody else, okay? We’re all just winging it, you know? The good news is you’re feeling stuff. And you’ve got to hold on to that.”

The big sell for a lot of films, and other works of art, is scope. It’s the awe you feel when you pick up Infinite Jest, or you watch Michael Apted’s Up series. It’s what Sufjan Stevens capitalized on when he claimed he would record an album about all 50 states in America (though this one was a lie). I think a lot of people equate scope to greatness, especially when an established “visionary” is involved. There has been no better example of this big scope fascination than with Boyhood, which Richard Linklater shot using the same cast of actors over twelve years. Thankfully, the scope holds up, and Boyhood is an unquestionably beautiful movie.

There’s not some convenient “through line” to connect the different years of footage, and Linklater instead chooses to jump straight from year to year without some magical tell, using expository dialogue (or simply the visuals) to indicate how circumstances have changed over the years. The scope of the film is really nothing more than tell the story of a boy’s life. It sounds impossible, but he includes a mix of key moments (moving houses, high school graduation) with some pretty normal moments (going bowling) to round out 12 years of the protagonist’s life – as well as you could for a three hour movie.

My measure of success for Boyhood was how well a lot of these scenes ring true. It’s what drew me to Moonlight, a movie with a similar structure (and longer gaps). I also had the unique experience of growing up along the same time period as the protagonist almost right down to the year, so I got to experience the soundtrack and cultural events of my youth in a really resonant way. (Linklater nails the soundtrack, too, with big names like Britney Spears or Lady Gaga to mark the time period and also less familiar artists like Wilco or Arcade Fire that I associate even more powerfully with my youth.) In terms of the meat of the story, though, I think Boyhood relies on its resonance. Is the dialogue genuine? Does it hinge too much on either Linklater’s script or the shtick of the movie? Thankfully, I think about 90 percent of the movie feels real enough for a movie of this design, and Linklater unifies life with art in a really smart way, writing around the physical changes or life experiences of the actors to add authenticity to the movie.

Some bits in the middle seemed cliché, particularly the middle school bullying and peer pressure bits. I think movies have a hard time getting these tropes right, and they always come across as stock scenes included in any movie about children in school. I did, however, really enjoy the “camping” scene in the abandoned house when a young Mason falls victim to peer pressure in a really believable way: by seeing another boy get bullied for his hesitance to sex and beer and by pretending to be cool with those things as a result. I think a lesser movie would just have Mason himself get bullied, but scenes like that one are a little more dynamic and felt closer to my own experiences as a result.

Aside from some too familiar scenes, I think Boyhood takes a wide target and hits its mark appropriately and powerfully. Every scene is important to Mason’s life, but there’s a balance of big moments like the above quote and little moments of learning and growing. We get a lot of gaps due to the scope, but Linklater doesn’t seem explicitly interested in those gaps per say. We don’t need to know why Mason pierced his ear, and we can in fact infer or draw on our own experiences as to why he did so. Linklater is more concerned with beautiful moments throughout a boy’s childhood and what they can tell us about the human experience.

I’m also wary of three-hour movies, and I think Boyhood almost earns it. The final act seems too long, as if Linklater was having trouble letting go. I was actually really impressed by the pacing for the first few hours, and I felt like the three hours was flying by, until I realized that the 17-18 year old Mason is just a really long segment. In terms of unity, it feels unbalanced for this reason, and I was waiting for Linklater to finally accept that his subject just wasn’t a boy anymore. There are some really great scenes in this final sequence, but a few could definitely have been cut. I would have been satisfied with a lot of “cut to black” moments before the actual moment hit, which wasn’t nearly as powerful a time to end the film as some that came before. It’s a small gripe, but it sit with me strange because it dominated my thoughts for the last thirty minutes of the movie.

Boyhood is another “big scope” achievement, and like most of the famous ones, it pays off. Linklater is no fool, and he understands how to tell a story, even if he does so in a way that’s never been attempted before. I’m glad Birdman won Best Picture, but I suppose there’s nothing wrong with Linklater picking up Best Director if we’re to believe that award is more for the process than the product, because Boyhood is a really resonant, beautiful product, and one that I’ll be curious to revisit later in my life.


Films Left to Watch: 860

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The Conversation (1974)

The Conversation

“I’m not afraid of death, but I am afraid of murder.”

Thrillers today are too focused on story, I think as I watch The Conversation, Coppola’s entrancing mystery-thriller about a paranoid man who listens to other people’s conversations for a living. There’s an entire world to this movie- a sad world where lack of privacy is a given. A world where a shred of empathy could be your downfall, but you still cling to the hope of some kind of decency. This is a mystery where you can stop worrying about the story for long intervals just to immerse yourself in a character, and I think we’ve lost a lot of that in mainstream thrillers today.

Harry Caul (Gene Hackman) is a private-operating surveillance expert who is tasked by a mysterious client to record a conversation between a young couple in a public square. Caul is incredibly cautious and paranoid about being a victim of surveillance himself, and he distances himself emotionally from others, including his girlfriend who knows very little of his actual life. He becomes obsessed with the details of the conversation he records in the square, suspecting that the young couple may be in some serious danger.

The movie is slow in terms of plot because there’s not a lot of actual plot. There are some really cool sequences of Henry piecing together the audio, refining its quality to understand new pieces of the mystery while older segments are constantly repeated. Mostly, though, Coppola seems interested in his protagonist. There’s a fascinating sequence in the middle where Caul visits a surveillance convention, mingling with other surveillance expert, and his iconic status in the world of surveillance becomes apparent. I love when movies can bring some niche culture of individuals to the forefront, and The Conversation does so delightfully with surveillance junkies in a really thrilling way that you just wouldn’t see done the same way today.

Coppola wrote and directed the movie, and you can see his cohesive vision throughout all parts of The Conversation. It’s not meant to be an epic like a lot of his other movies. It’s more focused and ripe with details, like Caul’s love of the saxophone or all the little ways he maintains his privacy. The movie is easily more of a character study than a mystery, and that only makes the mystery more elusive and enticing. Coppola achieves the unique task of making you less concerned about whether anyone is in danger but more concerned with how the protagonist feels about that. It’s an exciting, violent scenario presented in a slower, more reflective way, and I think that’s a sign of mature filmmaking.

The Conversation is a delightful, underseen find of a movie. It’s as good as Coppola gets, and I like that you can see a more nuanced side of his work with this movie. It doesn’t shoot as wide as The Godfather, but it hits its mark beautifully nonetheless, and it’s definitely worth your time.


Films Left to Watch: 861

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Field of Dreams (1989)

Field of Dreams

“We just don’t recognize life’s most significant moments while they’re happening. Back then I thought, ‘Well, there’ll be other days.’ I didn’t realize that that was the only day.”

Movies like Field of Dreams are manipulative. But to butcher Steve Erickson’s Zeroville, all movies are manipulative; some just do a better job of hiding it. I don’t think Field of Dreams does a great job of hiding how manipulative it is. It’s drastically melodramatic, and its entire story is guided by a voice of God with the most reactionary protagonist you could possibly write. That being said, the movie is an 80s staple on all accounts. For the type of movie it’s trying to be, it’s one of the best, with all the limitations that come along with that.

Iowa farmer Ray Kinsella (Kevin Costner) lives a simple life in rural America, when one day he hears a voice from above: “Build it and he will come.” Ray then sees a vision of a baseball field in his own backyard. Compelled to break the cycle of his life and finally do something “that doesn’t make any sense,” he builds the baseball field. When major league players from years past start appearing as spirits to play ball on his field, he’s led on a journey to discover the true purpose of the field he created.

Field of Dreams doesn’t take a lot of risks, but it’s got the formula down with some cool plot points along the way. James Earl Jones brings a fun performance as Terence Mann, a visionary novelist turned cynic who accompanies Ray on the latter half of his journey, expanding on the themes of the film and serving as one of several foils on the concept of regrets and finding fulfillment. The other major foil is Archibald “Moonlight” Graham (Burt Lancaster), a retired ball player who played only one inning in the major leagues before giving up his dreams. This character is much weaker in comparison to Mann, but he provides fine filler towards the end of the film with a fitting emotional payoff.

The final scene of the movie is probably the most memorable, when a half dozen miracles heap themselves onto Ray’s baseball field in a single stretch of twenty minutes, each more dramatic than the last. These kind of scenes can leave a bad taste in my mouth. The lack of subtlety shouldn’t be unexpected, but it still surprises me every time. This is a movie you shouldn’t think too much about if you want to enjoy it. Again, with that being said, it fits the bill nicely with some competent storytelling to wrap up any mysteries the film had spun up.

This is an understandably popular and beloved movie, although I don’t hear a lot of people talking about it these days. It’s not something I’ll see myself returning to, but if I did, I’d probably feel the same way I do now: that I have no problem with it. It’s charming in its 80s way, and you really couldn’t ask for more from a movie with a name like Field of Dreams.


Films Left to Watch: 862

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MASH (1970)

Mash

“I wonder how a degenerated person like that could have reached a position of responsibility in the Army Medical Corps!

He was drafted.”

Wanda was a slow, feminist triumph from the year 1970. Robert Altman’s MASH is an unfunny, sexist triumph from the same year. I didn’t like the movie, but it was a triumph nonetheless, scoring 5 Academy Award nominations and securing a place in cinematic history on a number of “Top American Films” lists. I think there’s a lot to appreciate about MASH, so I can’t say I don’t get it, but I definitely didn’t enjoy it.

MASH follows a looser, episodic series of antics surrounding a Mobile Army Surgical Hospital (MASH). The movie takes place during the Korean War, but there’s clearly a parallel to Vietnam given the time of release, well before the big-name Vietnam films would start hitting theaters. There’s also no surprise that the movie was made into a TV show for how episodic it is. I took a prolonged break from the movie halfway through and had no trouble picking back up in the middle, despite the fact that I didn’t really want to finish it.

I enjoy dark comedies, but something about the style just didn’t sit right with me. There’s a goofy Mad Magazine approach where nothing takes itself seriously. I think that’s what worked so well for the movie, given its playful approach to some of the darkest subject matter of the 70s, but it doesn’t hold up for me today. Comedy has changed for the better, or maybe I’m just of a different time, but there’s nothing subtle about MASH. Even overlooking the sexist, unsettling missteps that the film makes, there’s no comedic substance. MASH isn’t shooting for much commentary, and when over-the-top sight gags are the entire pitch for the movie, I find it hard to latch onto anything.

In one famous scene, the characters set up a trap for the antagonistic female nurse “Hot Lips” where they convince her to take a shower, then raise the tent that surrounds her as she begins showering, revealing her body to the entire camp. Again, the abhorrent depiction of females in the film aside, the gag is lazy. The film is not only overtly masculine, but it seems to shoot for the lowest common denominator. I’ve heard that the TV show improves on the hollowness of the movie by rounding out the characters, but I still wouldn’t care to watch it.

The movie is a sort of anomaly for me in this process. It’s maybe the least enjoyable experience I’ve had, as I haven’t found much to learn from MASH. I don’t see much artistic merit in it, but there are plenty of movies without much artistic merit that are still watchable. MASH isn’t one of those movies either. It seems severely dated, perhaps as dated as a movie can get in terms of content, and I haven’t been so tempted to browse my phone during a movie for a long time. I don’t plan on watching it again, and hopefully I won’t ever have to.


Films Left to Watch: 863

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Wanda (1970)

Wanda.jpg

“I don’t have anything. I never did have anything. Never will have anything.”

Wanda is beautiful. It’s the strange, reflective film that seems lost in cinema’s history. It feels like a classic: the way it’s shot, the mood it creates, its feminist triumph, but Wanda is shrouded in mysterious obscurity. Its director, writer, and leading actress Barbara Loden died of cancer before she could make another film, and there’s a lack of breadcrumbs leading back to the movieIt has reasonable acclaim among viewers but is almost never discussed in 2017, though it demands as much discussion as any other great film. Maybe I’m still lost in the facade of this movie and of Loden’s life (particularly after reading Nathalie Léger’s A Suite for Barbara Loden on the subject), but I think there’s undeniable merit to not only the mystery but the movie itself: a tale of loneliness.

Wanda follows its titular heroine, a lower-class woman in her 30s in the anthracite region of Pennsylvania, through a sequence of tragedies that only highlight her obscurity to the world and her harrowing passivity. She hands custody of her children to her ex-husband, citing her inability to provide as a mother. She’s used as a sexual object and then promptly forgotten by the men in her life. She then finds strange comfort in being the accomplice and victim of abuse to a petty criminal whom she calls Mr. Dennis (Michael Higgins).

There’s a lot of French New Wave to Wanda, so much that I often mistake the movie for a French-language film in my mind. The pacing and editing is very Godard, not surprising considering Loden was an outspoken fan of Breathless. There’s also a subtlety to how the film conveys its themes in a way Godard would (and perhaps does) admire. Loden gives herself no triumphant speeches, no sudden bursts of clarity. The story is ripe with despondency and aimlessness from the opening shot, and it only continues to dominate each frame in a deliberate pace. The editing is also experimental: how events jump forward abruptly while still giving time to sit and marinate on more personal moments in between. As Loden supposedly said, “it is easy to be avant-garde but it is really difficult to tell a simple story well” (Léger). Yet she does both in the French tradition.

It’s only fitting, given her triumph on the screen, that Loden’s auteurship be examined. Loden’s mystery, her charming but saddening passivity, translates magically from life to screen. The screenplay, not entirely clear in its intents, lays a framework that suggests only Loden had the vision to direct and star in the film. Not only her performance but the way she’s framed, how we’re able to identify with her world – it’s masterful direction. Wanda is as much evidence for auteur theory as any other film, and Loden is one of the most underappreciated auteurs of the 20th century for this single film which translates a sole vision confidently, proving that fewer cooks in the kitchen is often the way to go, particularly for a piece such as this one.

Wanda also plays on subversion, picking apart the masculine landscape of conventional cinema. Mr. Dennis is the film’s cruel hyper-masculine figure, but he seems weighed down by insecurity, reaching desperately for control. Even when he abuses Wanda, we identify with her as the more powerful figure. Dennis is a criminal, but a bad one, constantly making mistakes and proving himself out of his element while Wanda watches curiously, hoping passively that something good can come out of this. We also see Wanda not as a feminine or masculine figure, but as a dynamic blend. She rejects motherhood out of practicality for the lives of her children and herself, a progressive display even today. But she also strives for femininity in other ways, such as desiring to curl her hair or wear nice dresses, and she is shut down by Mr. Dennis for attempting to do so. Wanda seems to assert that women are often forced into passivity, into a zombie-like state as Loden describes it, no matter what changes they strive to make.

If ever a film demanded a Criterion release, it would be Wanda. History has glanced over the film, just as it glanced over Loden, and it deserves to be seen. I was entranced and inspired by this movie, and hopefully in due time, many others will have the same experience.


Films Left to Watch: 864

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The Thing (1982)

the-thing-macready

“This thing doesn’t want to show itself. It wants to hide inside an imitation. It’ll fight if it has to, but it’s vulnerable out in the open. If it takes us over, then it has no more enemies, nobody left to kill it. And then it’s won.”

Like most influential movies, John Carpenter’s The Thing was misunderstood at first. It’s hard to categorize, and it plays at all ends of the spectrum: paranoia thriller and zany body horror frenzy. As time progressed, of course, the film was granted cult status for reasons that become apparent with some context. It takes the camp of the 50s and 60s and transfuses the darker horror techniques of the 70sarriving at what still feels like a very modern film. I think The Thing is a triumph of horror that challenged the notion that quality terror can’t be wildly entertaining at the same time.

The premise is golden. Grabbing the loose structure of the 1951 Thing from Another World but trimming the fat and introducing character-driven, groupmind elements from AlienThe Thing is a master class of sci-fi suspense from its screenplay alone. A group of researchers in Antarctica is infiltrated by an alien specimen that has been sealed in ice for thousands of years. The alien, or “The Thing”, can take the form of any living creatures it attacks, spreading into multiple organisms as it gains more victims. The film follows MacReady (Kurt Russell), a helicopter pilot who takes the charge in uncovering the truth behind The Thing and keeping it from infiltrating the entire camp, and in turn, the entire human race.

I was most interested, this recent viewing, in the duality to The Thing. It’s Alien, but it isn’t. There’s nothing slick and cleanly sinister about The Thing as there is with a Xenomorph. It’s certainly predatory, but it’s smarter and more of an enigma to the characters, paying homage to the campy sci-fi of the 50s and 60s when the primary plot question was “Well, what is this thing?” Carpenter smartly draws on both of these traditions. The Thing is perhaps most thrilling, most suspenseful, when it plays as Alien, but its homage to the “classics” of the 50s and 60s are equally critical to its identity: as body horror.

The Thing takes the body horror genre a step further, I believe, than Alien. While the latter film presents an infiltrating, parasitic foe, The Thing does more than devour and incubate. It imitates. The film gives us the timeless sci-fi trope of the disguised monster. How do we know, characters ask throughout the film, that we are who we say we are? There’s some really great game theory to the movie. The alien is outnumbered but possesses the skills to hide in plain sight and grow exponentially, raising the stakes as the crisis only worsens should the protagonists fail from the beginning. The Thing doesn’t just force us to think about a creature entering our body; rather, the creatures kidnaps us. It becomes us. While there’s definitely something campy and familiar about this concept (Invasion of the Body Snatchers is the clear inspiration.), Carpenter modernizes this idea. He asks us, as Scott does with Alien, to go there with him. Meet these characters and find out what would happen, pushing suspense where you would instead expect camp.

Is The Thing without its share of camp, then? Does it transcend the label entirely? If you look at the special effects and the manner in which the creature is shot, I would say not. I think this explains some initial hatred of the movie. Carpenter definitely tries to have it both ways, but his direction is so confident that it works. The effects are smiley and shown directly (as opposed to Alien which teases its creature and obscures its technical shortcomings), so some suspension of disbelief is certainly necessary. But what I think this accomplishes, should you let yourself go there with Carpenter, is a movie that is heaps of funThe paranoia and gritty character study is always going to be there, but the body horror draws on just enough camp to make The Thing not just terrifying, but also wildly satisfying.

Just as he did with Halloween, Carpenter showed confidence, artistry, and a mastery of horror with The Thing. It’s intrusive, chilling, but also an absolute blast of a movie, definitely worth a place on your Halloween watchlist.


Films Left to Watch: 865

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The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975)

Rocky Horror.jpg

“Give yourself over to absolute pleasure. Swim the warm waters of sins of the flesh – erotic nightmares beyond any measure, and sensual daydreams to treasure forever. Can’t you just see it? Don’t dream it, be it.”

It’s easy to forget, as Halloween rolls around and my college campus is abuzz with Rocky fever, that The Rocky Horror Picture Show is a movie. The movie itself and the live performances are one in the same. The call-outs, the newspapers on heads, and lastly the movie itself – it’s all one in the same. Rocky Horror is, in a way, less of a movie than any other movie. Subculture is critical in its discussion, as has always been true with this movie. For one night of the year in my town (on Halloween), all the freaks and weirdos get to come out of hiding, re-enacting every beat of this cherished film in a triumphant rebellion against normalcy. I attended last year, and while it was a fun time, I think there are some cinematic issues to the movie that I’m more interested in discussing: issues interspersed with some stylish triumphs.

Rocky Horror is a musical, and a good one at that. It finds its way into your earbuds as does any great collection of show tunes. While the film subverts and ridicules a lot of things, it doesn’t ridicule great songwriting, one of the film’s high points that accompanies the story of Brad and Janet (Barry Bostwick and Susan Sarandon). A traditional, conservative pair of newlyweds, Branet stumbles upon the manor of Dr. Frank N Furter (Tim Curry) when their car breaks down in the rain. A transvestite mad scientist hellbent on creating life, Frank N Furter brings about a wild sexual awakening over the course of the evening in which he awakens his latest creation: Rocky.

The film was based on a musical of several years prior, a cinematic translation that works fairly well given the musical’s goals. Rocky Horror has two big ideas: satirizing B-movies and bringing about sexual revolution. It marries these ideas without apology, playing off clunkiness for comedic effect. As a result, the movie has a lot of blind spots, and it’s easy to poke holes in Rocky Horror if you’re so inclined. And sure, I feel inclined.

It’s an uncomfortable thing, though, to criticize Rocky Horror. While I think it’s a cop out to claim that a movie “doesn’t care about being good,” I also think it’s unfair to critique a movie as something it’s not. Is this a spectacle? Yes, and it works best as one. That much is clear. Fans of the film will also defend its story, but this is where things get murky for me. I feel like standard B movies problems are still present here, regardless of how much they’re satirized. Rocky Horror runs out of steam for me. Everything that works about the first half hour, the passion and creativity – it all seems to fade as the movie only tries to top itself. I felt a John Waters sort of disdain at times, as if choices are sometimes made for the sake of themselves. If you take it as fact that Rocky Horror does take a shot at sci-fi storytelling, which I think it does, then the movie fails spectacularly. But if I’m wrong and it’s more about dressing up and putting newspapers on your head, then I think that’s a disservice too.

What separates Rocky Horror from Pink Flamingos, aside from being tamer, is that there’s a thematic agenda. The set design, the visual contrasts, the social rebellion that the movie puts forward – it works. It accomplishes what few movies manage with such assurance. Rocky Horror is undoubtedly an important piece of history and culture. The satire is biting, and there’s a love for science fiction of the mid 20th century that comes through in ways big and small. I wonder how many Rocky Horror fans are also fans of the movies referenced in the opening number (Science Fiction/Double Feature), probably less and less each year. I think the movie is celebrated today as a manifesto of identity and is often discredited for its honest adoration of B-cinema, which is sad, because that stuff really works as well.

Rocky Horror always cycles back to its legacy. The midnight shows aren’t going away any time soon, so maybe that’s where its discussion belongs. If you’re gonna watch Rocky Horror for the first time on your laptop screen, maybe don’t. But if you find someone who loves this thing and let them take you down their rabbit hole, you’ll probably have a much better experience. Happy Halloween.


Films Left to Watch: 866

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