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Two movies have opened recently in which your equal and opposite reaction to them will probably depend on how you feel about the central characters. In both cases, I have to admit that this was the one area where both films came up a bit short for me.
Stephen Soundheim, Gypsy
In Boyhood, a coming of age drama written and directed by slacker fabulist Richard Linklater, the same cast was filmed over a period of one year less a baker’s dozen in order to make the movie. By doing so, Linklater created his story in such a way that we see the same actor, Ellar Coltrane, grow and change right before our eyes as he plays the lead Mason.
In other words, Boyhood is a movie with a gimmick.
Fair enough. Gimmicks can be good. Gimmicks can work (making movies with sound and then color were considered gimmicks at the time, and since then we’ve had such films as Memento, Blair Witch Project and Lady in the Lake—okay, that last one with the first person POV didn’t really work, but you get my drift).
And on paper, this particular gimmick actually sounds like a very good one with a lot of potential.
But after seeing the result, I have to say that Boyhood is a movie with a gimmick that, as far as I can tell, doesn’t really do anything that a movie without a gimmick couldn’t or hasn’t done better. It doesn’t really show us its subject matter any differently, or give us any insight into the central character, or share with us a unique vision of life any more than do the classics of the coming of age genre like The 400 Blows, Murmur of the Heart and Rebel Without a Cause (as hyperbolic as that last one might seem at times).
Still, even that’s not the real deal breaker as far as I’m concerned. In the end, it’s how you feel about Mason himself and Coltrane who portrays him that will probably determine how you feel about the movie as a whole.
Well, Coltrane is certainly an amiable enough young man, that’s for sure. He’s certainly not dislikable. At the same time, if truth be told, he’s a little on the less than exciting side on screen and doesn’t project a lot of personality or presence. He’s not really someone that can hold a whole movie together like this.
In the same way, neither can his character Mason, who comes across as sort of an empty vessel who is only there to really observe everything going on around him—i.e., be the eyes and ears of the audience.
I have no issue with Mason being a passive figure who is only there to interpret what is going on around him for our sakes. That’s a perfectly acceptable central character to have. The problem here is that his life and everything around him can be summed up with the three B’s (bland, boring and banal).
One scene perhaps demonstrates this viewpoint in many ways. Mason has a confrontation with his photography teacher who is upset that he spends all his time in the dark room rather than do his assignment via computer. The conflict isn’t between whether digital photography or dark room photography are the best ways to approach taking pictures. It’s not an aesthetic disagreement. The teacher just doesn’t think Mason is working that hard.
Which might make sense, except that it’s obvious that Mason is working very hard. Very, very hard.
So why exactly is this scene in the movie? What is it trying to tell us about Mason and what is going on around him?
Hell, if I know.
The actors that surround him rarely fare any better. Patricia Arquette plays the Mom and she’s generally as good as she usually is. But she’s sort of stuck with the thankless and somewhat familiar role of the independent woman who is punished for being independent by constantly marrying abusive spouses. (While Mason’s through line is closer to the characters of Linlater’s film that first brought him to everyone’s attention, Slacker, his mother’s is pure soap opera melodrama.)
In Linklater’s defense, he does try to offset that a bit by giving her the intestinal fortitude to go to college, get her degree and become a college professor (and one just adored, simply adored, by her students). And I know that Linklater didn’t plan for the mother to come across this way. But it still felt a little too much been there, done that for me.
Most of the other actors play their roles with exaggerated facial expressions and overly deliberate line readings (Marco Perella as Mom’s second hubby is probably the guiltiest of the guilty here).
And none are helped that much by the dialog which is often clunky and has an improvisational feel to it, but not the improvisational style that makes it seem more realistic, but the style that calls attention to itself and makes it sound more like bad writing than anything else (the weakest scene is probably when Mason gathers with his friend and some older kids at an abandoned house—to be ruthlessly honest, this is a particularly painful sequence to sit through).
It’s only Ethan Hawke who really shines through. Every time he comes on screen he brings such an incredible hurricane of energy you instantly realize why the rest of it doesn’t quite work as well. He just lights up the screen and takes over the movie whenever he appears.
He also has the most interesting journey staring out as a sort of roustabout who left the family to find a job in Alaska. When he returns, he first hunkers down to be a good dad, and then gradually becomes much more relaxed with his role in life, eventually becoming a sort of family man with a white picket fence and 2.5 kids (though the two are from his first marriage).
It’s not that there aren’t some interesting scenes. At one point, Hawke has an interaction with his ex-wife’s third husband. What’s surprising here is that they are getting along famously, Hawke even thanking the newbie on how much he has helped Mason. And there’s an almost startling scene (because it’s so unexpected) where Mason is taken sort of skeet shooting by his grandfather while Hawke teaches Mason’s sister how to shoot a pistol.
But in the end, Mason grows up; goes to high school; takes photos; gets a girlfriend; loses his virginity; loses his girlfriend; and goes to college. That’s about it. There’s really not a lot more to it than that.
Theoretically, that really should be more than enough. But in Linklater’s hands, it all feels a bit too generic, too lethargic, too uneventful, too flavorless.
But if that’s the point Linklater is trying to make, that life is just a series of flavorless, uneventful events and there’s nothing to learn and people don’t grow up with character arcs and change or gain any insight into the world around them (you know, all the usual things that are included in most dramas), I guess that’s fine.
One might even call it a very naturalistic and accurate view of life.
At the same time, the movie lasts two hours and forty-five minutes. That’s kind of a long time to say that life is a bunch of nothing much happens of any real interest.
And what was it that Alfred Hitchcock said: Drama is life with the dull parts left out?
If so, then it sounds like Boyhood is definitely something, but it isn’t drama.
With Lorelei Linklater, daughter of the director, as the sister from hell (and I’m being generous).
Land Ho, a drama written and directed by the writing/directing team Aaron Katz and Martha Stephens, is a movie about two older gentlemen who take a trip to Iceland.
Once there, well, they rent a car and go from place to place and pretty much go through all the usual things that most people do when they go on a road trip in a movie: They get on each other’s nerves; wax philosophically about life; have a spat; make up; and go on their way.
That’s about it.
Oh, wait, yeah, there’s also an awfully lot of lovely Icelandic scenery and some nice meals along the way.
Which means, I guess, that it’s also sort of like the movie The Trip; that is, if Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon were thirty years older. But with gushing geysers instead of wit.
Again, how you feel about the main characters will determine how you feel about the movie.
The two leads are played by Paul Eenhorn as Colin and Earl Lynn Nelson as Mitch. They are the usual mismatched odd couple paring. Colin is more reserved and conservative, a gentle curmudgeon who has accepted life as it is. Mitch is Auntie Mame in male drag.
There’s also a difference in acting ability. While Eenhorn, who seems to have more experience than Nelson, easily inhabits his characters, Nelson tends to overdo it. He’s obviously acting, or more accurately, actually, not acting. Some people might say that in doing so he is more real than others, but in truth, he ends up feeling more fake than Eenhorn.
But there’s a deeper problem. I know some writers who don’t think one should have a character in a screenplay one wouldn’t want to spend time with or have dinner with. For me, that’s one of the most ridiculous ideas in writing I’ve ever come across. One of the things that’s so great about art, is that it enables the audience to spend time with people they would never ever want to sit down to a meal with.
Nelson is close to that. Not only would I never want to have dinner with him, I don’t even want to spend time with him in the safe distance of the movie screen.
Nelson is one of those chauvinistic and vulgar characters who constantly makes offensive and randy comments about women, and does so to their face. Everyone in the movie (except perhaps Colin) treats him as one of those adorable Uncles that you just smile, roll your eyes and condescendingly nod your head about when you bring him out at public get togethers and he starts going off about the things people like that go off about.
If you think he’s cute and cuddly, you’ll probably love the movie like you love a worn out teddy bear. But if you think he’s the sort of person who gets sued for sexual harassment and creating a hostile work environment, then you might not be so generous with your feelings.
And there aren’t any real surprises here. It’s a fairly predictable and formulaic movie, a pg. 10 of Screenwriting 101 type thing. It does exactly what this sort of movie does and has done for about, well, forever, except this time round it takes place in Iceland.
But what all of that means in the end is that it’s generally inoffensive, while at the same time also being a bit dull and uninspiring.