Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Land Ho! (***1/2)

Written and Directed by Aaron Katz & Martha Stephens


The two main characters in Land Ho! are purposefully crafted with such contrasting personalities, a boon toward the odd couple dynamic that's played throughout the film. Paul Eenhoorn is an Australian actor whose silky accent compliments his homely face and thinning hair - he feels like a true thespian. His co-star is Earl Lynn Nelson, a larger than life personality with a boxy build and a Kentucky drawl. Both men are deep into their sixties (Possibly older? Both actors have shrewdly managed to keep their age off of the all-encompassing information machine that is the internet) and they are the stars of this Sundance hit from directors Aaron Katz and Martha Stephens. Sure, Eenhoorn and Nelson seem like complete opposites, and Land Ho!'s script does it's best to highlight the gulf in personality between the two, but that contrast is never used for the expected set-ups that come with these types of films. Instead, Land Ho! accomplishes the much harder task of convincing us that these two men really could be very good friends and bring out the best in one another. Despite two septuagenarian protagonists, Land Ho! is not a droll meditation on mortality, but vibrant embrace of life and a stunning display of real friendship.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Boyhood (***)

Written and Directed by Richard Linklater


In Richard Linklater's beloved Before trilogy, Ethan Hawke plays a novelist named Jesse. In Before Sunset and Before Midnight, Jesse is given a particular scene to describe his ideas for future novels and all of his interests seem to deal with time: a man watches his daughter dance and it transports him back into his past, another man is living in a state of constant deja vu, etc. We can see now that this is not only an obsession held by this character alone. Ethan Hawke's time-obsessed novelist is not dissimilar from Linklater himself, and the projects that he has accomplished. Plot is not Linklater's main interest, he'd rather see the way characters change with time. He doesn't believe that characters only exist within their own manufactured story, he has legitimate interest in what they keep doing once the story ends, to see them as they develop all new issues to deal with, to see how they change as people. The Before films were not just sequels, they were continuations, with a documentary-like examination of the humanity of character. Boyhood might be the most extreme execution of this interest. Shot over the course of twelve years, time is presented to us: the evolution of a boy, a family and an entire nation over the course of just over a decade. What started as an experiment turned into a film unlike any other, and I can't think of anyone better than Linklater to be at the helm of it.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (***1/2)

Directed by Matt Reeves


Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is not like most of the sequels coming out this summer (or the last five summers, really). The only characters that have stuck around from the 2011 Rise of the Planet of the Apes are all CGI'd apes. They've switched directors too, from newcomer Rupert Wyatt to Cloverfield director Matt Reeves. Dawn feels like a whole new story, more of a continuation of a character than a continuation of plot. Rise was a pleasant surprise three years ago, the beginning of the smarter Hollywood that has come to define this decade: using creative ideas and good screenwriting to boost known cinematic brands out of mediocrity and into actual cinema. Dawn is an excellent example of that ideal. Reeves directs with moments of flash but with a constant sense of slick urgency. Watching this latest film, I was struck by the thought that there isn't another franchise in Hollywood right now that is more committed to good filmmaking and acting than the Planet of the Apes reboot. No doubt, the film is very serious about itself and the story it's telling, but it also backs that up with solid screenwriting. It's a marvel to see a commercial film made with this much to say.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Life Itself (***1/2)

Directed by Steve James


When Roger Ebert died in April of last year, I wrote a long piece about it on this blog in which I hoped to put across that there is not a single writer that I have read more and not a single one that has had more influence on my own film criticism. I went to film school. I read Andre Bazin, Gilles Delleuze, Pauline Kael, Susan Sontag, and all the rest of the film crit heavy-hitters that are force-fed into the minds of students hoping to be the next Kubrick or Truffaut. We never read Ebert in any of our classes, nor would I try to make the case that his reviews should be studied, but if you really do consider yourself somebody who loves the art of cinema, then his reviews (all of them, the entire catalogue from 1967-2013, are available at his website) should be appointment reading. His knowledge when it came to movies was just as vast as Bazin and Sontag, and yet no one was as good as he was at truly articulating why a certain film just resonated with an audience more than others. He had the ability to explain to you why you loved the movie you just saw, but he did it while sounding more like a friend, as opposed to a professor. Ebert's writing style may seem too populist for the hardcore academics, but Ebert would claim that you never had to be a genius to be a enjoy a good movie.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Begin Again (***)

Written and Directed by John Carney


With the release of Once in 2007, Irish director John Carney showed that he has a real connection with pop music and a real talent for displaying that connection on the big screen. Most of the credit for that film went to its two stars, Glen Hansard and Maketa Irglova, who eventually both went on to win the Best Original Song Oscar for that film's beautiful headliner, "Falling Slowly". After all, it was Hansard and Irglova who actually wrote all of the songs, which were such a vital part of the film, even if it was Carney who stood solo as the credited writer and director. You can spend a long time hashing out who deserves the most praise for that collaboration, but I'd probably say that it makes sense that we haven't heard anything about Carney since that film. That is, until now, with the release of his latest film Begin Again, which continues his obsession with the healing power of music. Carney doesn't seem to think of music as solely therapeutic, the way a movie like High Fidelity or We Are The Best! seems to, he seems to actually believe that music has real healing power. At the very least, that's the magical elixir that he places at the feet of his characters, and it's this unbridled enthusiasm for these characters and their artistic ambition that helps us overcome the fact that he is basically making the same film over again with punchier plot points and a starrier cast.