Review: Boyhood (2014)

Ellar Coltrane and Ethan Hawke in Boyhood

Time has always been a pillar for the cinema, whether looking at how a film simply shows a compressed amount of time from a particular point of view or more pointed experimentations with the concept showcased with pictures such as Rashomon, Memento and the commendably ambitious The Tree of Life.

Time is also a distinctive characteristic of Richard Linklater`s cinematic work, whether looking at it through a sharp focus and prism of a period of history “Me and Orson Welles,” short time of significance with coming of age comedy “Dazed and Confused.” And finally the Before Trilogy, which fantastically blended real-time intimacy and naturalism with large scale implications of the time that the characters had been away from the audience and with one another, making for an engaging and emotional experience.

Boyhood has different aspirations entirely, seeming to exist between the traditional narrative framework and the “Experience” cinema that has characterised much of Kubrick, Malick and Herzog`s work, with its ambitious depiction of showing a boy growing up from age 7-18. Ultimately, with these terms established, there are two ways to view Boyhood.

The first is an almost meditative experience, allowing the audience to reflect on their very own growth and development, not only from traditional aspects of life depicted but also the events and small pieces of dialogues that suggest the passage of time. The best example of this was when the film has a few scenes dedicated to the 2008 American Election.

A notable moment with this brief point was an amusing scene when Mason Jr and his sister Samantha are handing out Obama election leaflets, and one woman they encounter is so awestruck by the president in what she says. It was a great case of personal reflection and dramatic irony melded with history; that resulted in a wonderful microcosm of this form of engagement with the picture.

The second way to view Boyhood is as a narrative piece that in its thematic resonance is about growing up, not only from the point of view of seeing Mason Jr doing so, but also his parents, Oliva (Patricia Arquette) and Mason Sr (Ethan Hawke) Their respective trials and tribulations are equally as fascinating, and the fact they don’t share much screen time make their parenting styles much more explicit to the audience.

Linklater never shows us why Oliva and Mason Sr split up in the first place, but the screenplay which he solely penned gives the audience clues into why, and the audience are left to put these together almost like a detective. Additionally, Oliva`s occupation as a Psychology teacher does not feel unintentional as it feels like Linklater is almost challenging us throughout the picture to guess the traits and characteristics of Mason Jr based on our observations of his behaviour and upbringing that are occurring before our eyes.

William Friedkin in his commentary for “The Exorcist” said he did not want to name any of the places that the characters were in the film because he wanted to give the audience credit in figuring them out. Linklater with Boyhood works in this mold, seemingly not breaking up the passages of time or growth with subtitles or indicators. It makes for a rich cinematic experience that expounds throughout its near three running length, the importance and ever constant nature of time.

Discussion: Under the Skin Ending

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In my original review of Under of the Skin, I briefly touched on the ending of the picture, remarking that the alien`s reveal looked more like a cyber infused Edmund Munch painting, as opposed to the usual Hollywood, alien reveal, particularly thinking of Terminator and Alien respectively. Since then, I have had a chance to revisit the film at home, and I have found that there is much more to the ending than what was initially observed in my first viewing.

The first is how it subverts the usual conceptions of the Slasher genre, in this case their endings. They almost always end with a prolonged chase sequence between victim and killer, the unmasking of the antagonist and finally the protagonist gaining the upper hand by injuring their merciless chaser.

In Under the Skin, the alien in the guise of a human being, played by Scarlet Johanson, has been the quote on quote killer throughout the picture and now has turned into the victim. It is because she has grown a strange sense of curiosity about her image that result in her believing she is a woman, so in essence because she believes this now, we see her become quite vulnerable.

However, this is only the tip of the iceberg, to what transpires next and how the ending ultimately reverses the formula of Slasher genre ending. The being gets lost in a damp, cold and depressing forest walk that stretches for miles. She encounters a lone male worker there, and he goes on length about how the place is good for solitude but warns her of getting lost easily.

She then stumbles upon an isolated cabin, which she spends the night sleeping. The next day, she is woken up by that aforementioned lone male worker, who is trying to rape her, she runs away and finds his truck. This next moment with her trying to escape, using a truck evokes a usual horror movie trope, and it is an interesting twist in how it is used here given what has happened in the picture so far.

Upon seeing the lone man coming back towards his truck, she flees it very quickly and goes back to the forest. The lone man catches up with her and this time grabs hold of her and really violently tries to rape her this time. This encounter leaves her feeling disoriented and then we see some rips in her legs, revealing oily black skin underneath, she takes off her whole fleshy disguise and what follows is perhaps the creepiest moment of the film.

The alien now fully revealed, looks pensively at the face of her disguise and Glazer then cuts to the human reaction to it, with a slow, calculated and slightly shaky camera looking on at a faint outline of the alien figure hidden among the trees. It is one of the few shots not seen from the alien`s point of view and in this sense there is an inherent, sub-consciousness uneasiness to it, given that the film has made us so used to this point of view that anything else seems so alien, (No pun intended)

Additionally, how this moment twists the slasher genre ending is in the direction of the unmasking. First of all, the reveal comes from the victim which is the alien and it is not played for the same effect as it is in many of those pictures. In many of those films, it is used as an extra source of jolting and scaring the protagonist as well as the audience.

Here, it is quite strange as we see the alien just staring at the face of her disguise and the audience almost has to project what she is feeling, as her eyes have no life or soul to them, we can`t tell any emotion from them. Previously, I interpreted her staring as pensive, an action further given validity when the lone male worker returns to burn her, there is no flinching or reaction from the alien, which gives the sequence further weight.

The music that is playing during the scene where the alien is burning is the primal beating drums that appeared earlier when Scarlett`s character was seducing men to their doom. Its use here is very interesting, and it provides the last few breaths of life that the alien has, I equated the overall musical score representing the landscape of the alien`s mind in my original review.

Elsewhere, the ending evokes the style of two directors that seem quite counter-intuitive when thought of together, in the same breath. The first is Tim Burton, as the ending goes on, it begins to snow, being first apparent as the second attempted rape starts to take place. On second viewing, the scene almost did evoke the dark, moody visual scheme that are a staple of his films. His pictures are also like operatic Fairy Tales, with misunderstood freaks representing the protagonist figures.

In this regard, that scene almost plays out like a piece of moralising that Burton would put in his films. To this end, the lesson being if you embrace your female form to the fullest extent, you are prone to being vulnerable from the repercussions of that, in this scene the lusts of men. Although this could also be read as the alien embracing her humanity and becoming more vulnerable, given the skin she chose to wear throughout the film.

I also saw a little bit of David Cronenberg in this ending, regarding his early examination of Body Horror, in films such as Videodrome and The Fly. The key line from the latter mentioned 1986 picture particularly struck me when thinking of this scene “I’m an insect who dreamt he was a man and loved it. But now the dream is over… and the insect is awake.”

When thinking about it within this context and situation, the line has resonance because of how the film is structured. You can see that Scarlett`s alien character almost did dream she was a human, and how that is now over, going back to my reading of her reaction to seeing her fleshy face disguise.

Review: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

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Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is not a Summer film, despite it being released in mid-July, a hotbed time when the season is in full swing, made quite apparent with the new Transformers hitting screens last week and still advertising…

However, surprise is the secret weapon that this rebooted series has, which was shown by the last picture Rise of the Planet of the Apes, taking the world by storm with its earnest, poignant storytelling. Dawn, surprises with how ambitious and smart it is while additionally asking a lot of its audience.

The first fifteen minutes of the picture are a great example of the this. After a quite harrowing and lengthy opening credit sequence that depicts the death of humanity through news footage, audio clips all while we see a traveling blackened ash map of the world, the film cuts to the firmly established Ape society headed by Ceaser (Andy Serkis)

This sequence with Ceaser lasts a good 10-12 minutes, and it is mostly comprised of the Apes talking with sign language and the audience are left to read subtitles while also having to let the visuals tell the story. It is a fantastic sequence that represents an excellent fusion between, content, form and technology. The last being the innovate motion capture which enables the actor who wears a gray dotted suit to perform regularly, and their work gets recorded and rendered with CGI.

Andy Serkis, who has been a veteran of this form of acting, adds interesting layers to Ceaser in this installment, conveying a sense of reluctance in his plight, grand authority and steely resolve. The film opens with a close up of his eyes and closes with a similar shot, cementing the importance of Serkis and Ceaser for this series, in equal measures.

Equally as impressive is Toby Kebbell as Koba, who has this tightrope balance of being commanding and cruel, while also being quite funny. In some scenes, he conveys all three of these aspects effortlessly. The best example being when he goes for the first time to spy on the human camp. His character gets caught by two humans with guns, and he pretends to act like he is at the circus, essentially putting on a show to illustrate he is a dumb ape who has gotten lost. He gets away with it and soon after, we immediately see his disgust at his act and the humans, and then finally showing his commanding side when he meets up with his Ape friends.

Elsewhere, the film in its DNA has elements of the original series. For example, the big battle that sets up the third act feels at times like the dizzying, fiery passionate revolt finale of Conquest, and a scene involving a train station called to mind a similar scene in Beneath. The most surprising element was that the picture felt like a remake of the last of the original series- Battle for the Planet of the Apes, taking key elements such as Ceaser`s rule “Ape shall not kill Ape” and Ceaser`s in fighting with an insubordinate general. However, all these elements are handled with a great amount of care, through great setup, interaction and acting.

Dawn permanently joins among the ranks of its series forebears in delivering a great cerebral experience worthy of its science-fiction roots. However, unlike even some of the more fun outings, it stays the course through its great screenplay. When, Malcolm (Jason Clarke) says to Ceaser at the end of the film, we could have had a chance. Alluding to their attempts for a peaceful co-existence between both societies, you feel the weight of that, speaking to the film`s power in showcasing two societies on the brink, and how little it took to bring them both down.

 

Brief Examination: Godzilla (1954)

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There is a line that comes nearly half way through Godzilla, where a reporter says, “This is not a movie” It is a line that is simple in conception, but emblematic of the whole picture. Godzilla directed by Ishiro Honda does not feel like a mere monster movie but instead like an artefact found from another time and place. All the way through you feel as though you are viewing a real country deal with a problem that while beyond the realm of logic and science feels tangible and horrifying in equal measures. Even, when the picture goes intro the realm of cliché, such as the presence of a romantic entanglement, the showcase of destruction, despair and Godzilla himself feels so much bigger than that one element that it brushes it aside with ease.

More astonishingly even when flaws are present in the effects and production design, the film still grabs you with its strange power of showcasing overwhelming bleakness. Much has been said about Godzilla being a metaphor for Nuclear warfare. Watching the film feels like you are seeing a glimpse into how the country is dealing with a recent tragedy that had befallen them. In this regard, it feels quite intrusive, strangely cathartic and inspiring, speaking to the power of cinema as a medium in illustrating hope and struggle.With this knowledge, I am embarrassed to admit that I had watched the American reworking before this version that was renamed to “Godzilla: King of Monsters” At the time of watching, I had praised it for its showcase of utter sadness, despite its cornball musings and narration.

Compared to the Japanese version, it falls apart. The narration in “King of Monsters” lends an air of trying to understand the situation as well as moral judgement on the romantic situation that calls attention to itself and takes away from the bigger elements that are occurring. Finally, the picture is essential viewing because when you watch it, you will see the seeds of director Guillermo del Toro`s filmmaking approach. Genre pictures can transcend their perception and trappings and become genuine ways to communicate elements of the human condition, and Godzilla is one of the towering monster movies to demonstrate this quite emphatically.

Brief Examination: Pacific Rim (2013)

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In tandem with the recently announced news that Pacific Rim is going to get a sequel that is set for an April 2017 release date. I decided to revisit the picture and make a few quick observations. The first is how it ranks within director Guillermo del Toro`s oeuvre. I tend to separate his native language pictures and his Hollywood ones. Pacific Rim, judged against the latter mentioned marks his most ambitious film to date, but not necessarily his best. That honor goes to Hellboy II: The Golden Army, which feels like del Toro`s entire thesis on why he loves monsters, filtered through the title character. Pacific Rim is a homage to the films that the director had grown up with, known as “Kaiju” films. They had begun with Ishirō Honda`s Godzilla (1954) and continued with various movies that pitted the King of Monsters against many other creatures. But to just see the film as pure homage is selling it short. Del Toro`s world building is impeccable; the devil is truly in the details. Whether it is how the monsters in the world are thought of, observed or perceived.

Additionally, he is is going for a very simple message that has some thematic resonance and informs the robots (known in the picture as Jaegers) Mankind as a whole must overcome its follies if it is to survive and learn to trust one another to succeed in this regard. The Jaegers in the film are piloted by two people who share a neuro connection with one another and in this regard plays to those aforementioned points. Their designs that come from human hands conceptualising and painting them make them feel very distinctive. It is a usual problem in giant robot movies that Del Torro easily overcomes by also never letting the audience forget that humans are piloting them. It results in the action sequences having a heightened sense of intensity. There is a lot more to engage with within Pacific Rim, but for now, if you have not seen it, I recommend you do. It is a great contemporary paradigm of spectacle cinema from a director`s whose passion and love for film is evident in every frame.

Review: Noah (2014)

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There is a scene early on in Noah that greatly encapsulates Darren Aronofsky`s approach in the telling of the famed parable from Genesis. The scene depicts Noah and his family walking through a blackened and brownish ash landscape that is as vast and wide as the eye can see. Aronofsky`s use of handheld camera reveals a minimal sum of dead humans that Noah speculates got scavenged and killed after settling. It is a scene that cements Aronofsky`s humanist interest in the story of Noah`s Ark.

God or as he is referred to in the picture- “The Creator” merely feels as though he is a catalyst for which debates about the nature of humanity and their behaviour and place in the entire world are speculated. Aronofsky along with co-screenwriter Ari Handel conceive of the titular character in a God like fashion. He makes many moralistic judgements about some of humans he encounters and their role in this new creation of the earth, while also committing an action in the film that is the equivalent of hearing tragic stories of when human beings pray in times of crisis and find they are not answered.

These interesting layers of the story are combined with some of the prevailing themes that Aronofsky likes to grapple with in his films. The most pronounced one being his protagonists dealing with obsessions with impossible and idealistic conceptions. For example, in The Fountain (A film equally steeped in Biblical motifs) Hugh Jackman’s character was obsessed with preventing death at any cost. In Black Swan, Natalie Portman`s character is obsessed with perfection to psyche breaking costs. Noah in the picture is obsessed with the belief that mankind is a plague upon the Earth and should be left to die, a fact he presents to his family in a hauntingly quiet scene.

Aronofsky`s direction of the film is very interesting, particularly with his interplay between the epic and the intimate scenes. There are moments when Aronofsky lets the landscapes and grand vistas rule in an almost Leanian way, additionally showcasing how scarce, and small human beings are in these moments. Then there are moments when man looks so big that Noah`s beliefs are justified in how they have affected the Earth. However it some of the abstract scenes that cement Aronofsky as one of cinema’s best visualise working today, be it some of the terrifying dream sequences or the scenes that look like a beautifully conceived and presented oil paintings.

Elsewhere, Russell Crowe`s performance is noteworthy for its subtlety and power. The former present in some of Crowe`s early scenes when learning about his task and the latter showcased in the scenes on the ark when he is telling his family about his current beliefs. Clint Mansell`s score is magnificent in its unfolding depth and ability to combine many different genres of music including ambient, classical and electric. It is a great piece of work that proves that the Aronofsky/Mansell collaboration is still fruitful.

Half Way There: The Best Films of 2014

July is a great month in many ways, not only for reflection on the first half of the year and how it has gone, but also for looking forward to the rest of it. In the spirit of this grand reflection, below are a list of the best films I have seen so far in 2014 and reasons as to why you should watch and engage with them.

The Grand Budapest Hotel

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Wes Anderson`s latest opus is a charming, frightening and melancholic piece of work that is daring in its reach, pointed in its comedy and in love with cinema in every frame. The main character M.Gustave says part way through the film-  “You see, there are still faint glimmers of civilization left in this barbaric slaughterhouse that was once known as humanity” To reverse engineer that quote for present purposes, The Grand Budapest Hotel holds tiny sparks of hope in the massive commercially, cynically driven cesspool that was once called the cinematic experience.

Under the Skin

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Out of all the films, I have seen this year, Under the Skin is the one that has fascinated and haunted me the most. It is richly seductive in its filmmaking, perfectly cast and ever expanding in its thematic power, a fact I look forward to unraveling more and more upon future viewings.

 Her

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Spike Jonze`s Best Original Screenplay Oscar Winner is a poignant  love story  that fundamentally explores the concept in our technological age. With a great central performance provided by Joaquin Phoenix, a slick, bright visual look and a great experimental score by Arcade Fire, Her stands tall in its presentation of emotions and ideas.

 The Raid 2 

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Gareth Evans`s followup to the Raid is a brutal, effective and efficient exercise in great action cinema that manages to provide its audience with incredible set pieces that they have not seen at all. Additionally, it fits together nicely with the genre that the film is primarily steeped in which is Crime Drama. Furthermore, it is admirable in its exploration of themes such as violence begets violence and the psychological implications of working undercover.

Locke

‘Mastery of small, telling gestures’: Tom Hardy as a man who goes awol in Locke.

Stephen Knight`s 80 minute directorial debut is an interesting and lingering character study that is fulfilling in its dramatic presentation of a man`s life collapsing in the space of one night. With a strong and effecting performance from Tom Hardy and visual motifs that evoke Drive and Taxi Driver. Locke is a great reminder of contemporary British independent filmmaking.

 

Introductory Post: The Appeal of Cinema

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Hi, welcome to my new blog, SGS on Film, a piece of virtual space that will dedicated to my inane ramblings on cinema, be it through editorials or reviews. Rather then use this first post to explain my so called “story” of how I got into the medium, I think time would be better spent in trying to explain its appeal. It would seem especially timely, seeing as the virtues of Cinema are being constantly questioned these days, especially in contrast to its cousin in the department of visual storytelling- Television.

Cinema has two primary functions; the first is telling stories, and the second is allowing the audience to experience, a place or a set of circumstances entirely different from their own. These two ideas can work in tandem, but emphasis is given over to the first of these two ideas. In thinking of cinema as a storytelling medium, I think that it stands head and shoulders over other mediums in achieving this very simple task.

It is due in part to one quality it possesses that many people would argue its true Achilles heel. This being its limited amount of time, while the novel can be ever expansive in its scope and play by default is automatically longer than any film. Cinema does not have this luxury as films are typically between 90-120 minutes in length. Though, I realise there are a great number of exceptions, one such example being one of my favourite movies that run at nearly three hours in length.

Expediency in presentation of storytelling gives cinema an adrenaline shot that forces it to make every moment count and make the experience by extension very immediate. However, this one element can be seen as a true red herring in terms of function, if one was to look at the history of the medium.

This brings us onto the second function of Cinema that I briefly mentioned earlier, which is providing the audience with an experience that could be very different from their usual ones. The late and great Film Critic, Roger Ebert, describes this idea with much more beauty and potency with the following quote- “We live in a box of space and time. Movies are windows in its walls. They allow us to enter other minds, not simply in the sense of identifying with the characters, although that is an important part of it, but by seeing the world as another person sees it.”

With this in mind, Cinema can broadly be seen as more than just a ways and means of telling a story, and many films have encapsulated this idea. For example, the 2011 film- Tree of Life is an examination of loss through a child`s point of view. The appeal of Cinema comes from many other things that I have barely scratched the surface in discussing or exploring. Suffice to say, despite the renaissance of television in recent years with shows such as Breaking Bad and Game of Thrones, Cinema still continues to inspire as a medium and its a candle that has not flicked out yet