BOYHOOD_finalposterIt could have just been written off as some gimmick. But in the hands of director Richard Linklater a film shot over 12 years becomes something much more profound. Boyhood is so much more than an honest chronicle of actors aging over the course of a film. Linklater knows something about developing a story in real-time to achieve a deeper existential snapshot of humanity while still engaging the audience. At one end of the spectrum there is the “Before” series (see my review here). And on the other there are experimental works like Waking Life (2001) and A Scanner Darkly (2006). Let’s also not forget Linklater has a terrific angle on youth, from little kids to high schoolers (Dazed and Confused [1993], School of Rock [2003] and Bad New Bears [2005]). All of his talents in those films blend together elegantly for Boyhood, a film bound to go down in his career as his masterpiece.

What sets this film apart from other family dramas is the liberty granted by time. Growth literally unfolds naturally, unencumbered by contrived obstacles or plot twists. When you consider the dictates of consistent character behavior over a period of years in most movies of such time spans, it demands the viewer suspend disbelief that it was actually shot over a period of a few months (usually a maximum of three). You can have makeup and effects, but a stagey quality, even on a subtle level, still hangs over the action.

Ironically, in Boyhood, what isn’t a special effect has a rather magical effect as real kids and adults grow up in front of our eyes. In Linklater’s sensibly crafted script, the characters are allowed room to be humanly fallible Still7not in a sense that feels necessary to move a plot along but in a feeling honest to becoming a person, which is really what Boyhood is about. Just like growing up should change you, a sense of time passing has a great influence on not just the title character but those who make up his family. They hardly seem to act. It feels like nature or skimming through a family photo album that covers a period of years.

One will be hard-pressed to find a film more concerned with the mundane that can unfold over nearly three hours and remain consistently engaging. Part of it lies in the ever-curious sensation the viewer will feel about watching the actors age, but another part is in the film’s light-handed craft. The plot is easy to sum up: 6-year-old Mason (Ellar Coltrane) grows up over the course of 12 years in a broken home with his similarly-aged sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater) and his mom (Patricia Arquette) while his dad (Ethan Hawke) pops in and out of his life. An imperfect life allows for the perfect drama for the boy at the center of the film. Add a few jerk stand-in father figures, the inevitable awkward transition from child to teenager and the friends and loves who pass through his life, and you have the film. Though Mason endures commonplace obstacles that are hardly the stuff of headlines, much less summer film spectacle, these are the events in life that stick through memory and shape us. Flipping through a lingerie catalog as a boy, breaking into a construction site with friends, finding your mother on the floor with your stepfather standing over her. Linklater treats these encounters with a respect that belies the impact of moments that shape persona. In a sense, Mason is riding the wave of growing up. That he does so with an often composed stoicism, speaks to the discovery of his power as a young man.


Over the course of the film, the inconsistency of the fleeting nature of persona comes unobtrusively into focus. The idea of innocence lost between the ages of 6 and 18 need not be punctuated with melodramatic events. From our first meeting of the mostly quiet Mason, it is apparent he is a pensive child. His eyes are focused on the sky. As an older teen, he muses aloud about his place in life, the world and the universe and how it all connects. It’s almost as if we are watching the boy learn the language he needed to express himself.

Of course, Linklater does not forget the adults. There are moments for the parents to grow and learn. There’s an undeniable fear of fatherhood coming from the nomadic father. Exactly where he goes to work and live (rumors of Alaska) while Mason and Samantha attend elementary school under the care of their single mom, remains a mystery. All we can see is that the children like him when he’s around and hate to see their parents argue. Mom gets the unromantic raw deal. She spends every moment she can with her children, unlike the spectral father, who the children can easily romanticize in absence. Her desperate attempt to have a father for the kids and a husband for herself leads to some terrible choices. Meanwhile, Dad has a lot of growing up left to do before he can come to any understanding of his role as a father.

None of this could be sold without the acting. From a face loaded with silent wonder to the laid back delivery of Linklater’s script, Coltrane delivers. He approaches his character with a naturalism that feels authentic and endearing. Arquette also deserves a special mention for the thankless role of a mother Boyhood_HiRes_3who cannot seem to get the men right in her life and dishes out unconditional love for her seldom appreciative children, as if it is instinct. She also fluctuates in weight (ed: as does Hawke), but never makes it an issue as she ages with grace as a woman who indeed sacrifices for her children in a heroic manner without any histrionics but with a mix of sympathetic love, fear and duty.

There are many things to consider in the film. The witty cultural reference points from pop songs to the Harry Potter series offer sly time stamps that feel real and genuine. The film’s low-key color palette creates an almost impressionistic effect, inviting the viewer to fill in the blanks with memories of his or her own childhood or memories of their own children they have seen grow up before their own eyes. It’s worth noting that though shot over 12 years, the quality of the image remains consistent. Technology in filmmaking would change so much and so fast over the years this film covers, and Linklater’s decision to shoot in 35mm proved wise. The digital image has grown by leaps and bounds when you consider how dull it looked in 2002.

There are many ways to approach this film, but my favorite is to think of it as the blossoming of a young person’s consciousness. From the silence in the gaze of Coltrane at the start of the film to his rambling musings, which are something out of Waking Life at the end, possibilities seem boundless. Experiences both external and internal have shaped our hero, but there is also a sense of self coming into development. The film is so consistently interesting throughout, from one subtle yet profound growth spurt to the next, that, by the end of it, it will be hard to let these characters go. You almost hope that maybe Linklater will keep following up with these characters with a film about Mason’s adulthood. He surprised us by turning Before Sunrise into a trilogy, after all.

Hans Morgenstern

Boyhood runs 165 minutes and is rated R (for growing up). IFC Films invited me to a preview screening for the purposes of this review.

South Florida screening update:

Boyhood is expanding at indie art houses soon. Here are the following venues with scheduled screenings:

It opened at the following theaters in South Florida, Friday, July 25 (Note: the Coral Gables Art Cinema will have a live video-link Q&A with the star of the film, Ellar Coltrane, this Saturday, July 26, at the 6:15 pm screening of the film):

  • Coral Gables Art Cinema
  • Regal South Beach
  • AMC Aventura
  • Boca Carmike Palace 20
On Aug, 1, it expands thusly:
  • Miami:  AMC Sunset Place 24
  • Fort Lauderdale: The Classic Gateway Theatre
  • Hollywood: Regal Oakwood
  • Pompano: Carmike Broward 18 (Formerly Muvico Pompano 18),  Regal Cypress Creek
  • Sunrise:  Regal Sawgrass
  • Boca: Living Room Cinemas, Shadowood 16
  • West Palm: Carmike Parisian 20
  • Royal Palm Beach: Regal Royal Palm
  • Indian River:  Indian River 24
Finally, if you are outside my geographic area, go here and put in your zip code.

(Copyright 2014 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

computer_chess_posterA rather cute notion clouds the mystical existential drama of Computer Chess, the new film by Andrew Bujalski. Just before the dawn of personal computers, software programmers from schools like MIT and Cal Tech have gathered at a convention to test programs of computer chess against one another. Bujalski and his longtime cinematographer Matthias Grunsky shot the film with actual technology of the era, a Sony AVC 3260 tube-based camera from the ‘70s (See Grunsky’s blog post on working with the camera). However, the film stands as so much more than a retro-fetishizing of the past. Not only does the cinematography match the era in which the film’s drama unfolds, but it adds a rather preternatural atmosphere to the goings on between man and computer.

With his new film, Bujalski offers a statement on the dilution of the mysteries of the analog and the romanticism surrounding that, lost to a mathematical world that threatens living organically, as computing continues to confine humanity while defining life experiences with every new, so-called “advance.” Indeed, this film stands as a work revealing an evolved, sensitive filmmaker, beyond the narcissistic world of mumblecore, a film scene of the early 2000s Bujalski helped define with early works like Funny Ha Ha (2002) and Mutual Appreciation (2005).

It all begins with setting atmosphere for Bujalski, and he uses the vintage filmmaking technology and all its quirks to his advantage. Along with the ghosting from lights burning too long on the mostly black and white images, the movie also has a flat sound quality to its audio track. computer-chess-3There are also explorations in archaic spilt-screen effects and some witty supers on teletype during the conference’s opening statements. The film’s slower pace also harkens to another time, if not the early 1980s, then certainly a sort of indie-film aesthetic defined by an elder Austin indie film pioneer: Richard Linklater. Characters talk over one another and during one marijuana-induced scene, reveal various ideas and fantasies about exploring what was then the very new world of artificial intelligence, from cold war concerns to existential entanglements.

The characters spend most of their time in a hotel of appropriately vintage quality. From the lamps, to the cheap dressers inside the hotel rooms, the film’s production designer, Michael Bricker, deserves extra acknowledgement. computer-chess-1He seems to have put great effort  into recreating “vintage banal,” as well as costume designer Colin Wilkes, who gets everything from the corduroy suits to the raggedy Polos and T-shirts that right sort of disheveled that would never pass in today’s hipster geek scene.

These superficial aspects aside, the film soon rises above its gimmick to enter a brilliant territory beyond nostalgia. It opens with a roaming camera as the nerds gather, awkwardly commenting to the camera. During an opening panel with the stars of this conference, the camera pans to the audience. One guy quietly but sternly shakes his head in disagreement while someone else nods off. It all seems rather candid and indulgent in its own “vintageness,” as if looking to create a faux document of a lost era. However, it soon becomes apparent that Computer Chess would like to offer much more than this. With hindsight perspective from the 21st century, the filmmakers choose to focus on whether humanity did the right thing to venture into this wormhole of artificial intelligence that now seems to rule our lives.

At the heart of the film, though by no means the film’s only level of drama, is Peter Bishton (Patrick Riester) and Shelly Flintic (Robin Schwartz), two young programmers who have an easy chemistry in their mutually awkward attraction to one another that never moves beyond brief glances. computer_chessMore pressing matters are at hand, as Peter appears more concerned about his team’s computer, TSAR, which only seems to follow disastrous moves against other computers. However, when Peter asks Shelly to play the computer, TSAR seems to make an effort. This quirk inspires Peter to think the computer was acting out and has an innate desire to play the game with a human.

This projection of a personality on TSAR by the sensitive Peter while he fails to connect with Shelly is just the tip of the iceberg. Bujalski spreads his ideas among more than this couple. There is the cocky human chess master Pat Henderson (played with deadpan bravado by Boston film critic Gerald Peary) boiling over with repressed anger at the notion of irrelevance. Then there’s the enigmatic “independent programmer” Michael Pappageorge (a charmingly quirky Myles Paige), Andrew-Bujalski_web1who may be programming in Sanskrit and seems to be haunted by fluffy cats. Acting as Peter’s foil and grounded mentor, family man Tom Schoesser (real-life University of Chicago computer science professor Gordon Kindlmann indulging in the film’s soberest character), would never dream of anthropomorphizing computers, as he casually but determinedly pioneers this new virtual cyberscape.

Even outside this group, other layers of the film’s concerns come to light. The fact that the tournament shares a conference room with an “encounter group” concerned with communal “rebirthing” experiences has a resonance far beyond the wink implied at the past. This is only another way humanity struggles to find the transcendental experience in a world that continues to work to rationalize existence while inching further away from the powers of mysticism.

One of the ways Bujalski maintains the mystical, beyond several strange scenes that seem downright Lynchian best left to surprise, is his inspired choices for the film’s soundtrack, specifically, his unearthing of the obscure folk singer Collie Ryan. The film features rather gorgeous musical interludes of Ryan rambling on guitar and warbling poetic lyrics that have a loop-like quality. computer-chess-2Her voice twitters like Kate Bush as she sings about nature and man’s futile role to do nothing but learn to flow with it. During one particularly powerful moment, she sings, “And the rain comes down easy/But the minds of men take longer,” against a montage featuring droplets of rain nourishing some small leaves, while the programmers hustle to cover up and protect their equipment from the casual wrath of nature. It’s raw, organic and positively stirring in an understated way.

Ryan comes from obscurity and is far from the mass media viral hype of today’s popular music artist who needs technology to achieve any sort of relevance in contemporary pop culture, from social media marketing to the computer programs used to “co-write” songs. Ryan came to the project because Bujalski wrote her a letter, of all things. She was an obscurity during an era that had long grown past folk music, in the early ‘70s. Bujalski only learned of her through a friend (reference). It’s a rather organic and pure word-of-mouth experience far from Google filters and Spotify suggestions, and it resonates against the images and concerns of the film as far as adding yet another layer to the montage.

With Computer Chess, Bujalski presents the beginning of an end. It chronicles the dawn of the digital world from the analog. But it’s so much more. This is the awakening of another consciousness, outside humanity’s. These are people toying with the latch of Pandora ’s Box.

Hans Morgenstern

Computer Chess runs  92 minutes and is not rated (language and sexuality). It opens in South Florida exclusively at the Miami Beach Cinematheque this Friday, Sept. 14, which provided a DVD preview screener for the purposes of this review. Nationwide, the film might already be playing in your neighborhood or coming soon, see full screening dates (that’s a hotlink). Yoga Records has provided a bandcamp page to stream the entire soundtrack for free here.

(Copyright 2013 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

before_midnight_ver2As the third chapter in a real-time trilogy about two people in love, Before Midnight has a unique position to explore a relationship between a couple beyond the limitations of many other films about such a topic. Few have done it. One of the most noteworthy exceptions being a brilliant series of films by Ingmar Bergman featuring Erland Josephson and Liv Ullmann playing a couple across 30 years or François Truffaut’s uneven series of movies covering 20 years in the life of Antoine Doinel. Still, those are foreign titles. That an American filmmaker can take the rather idyllic pair of movies Before Sunrise and Before Sunset and revisit a couple during not just a difficult period but a rather banal moment 18 years after they first fell under each other’s spells allows for a rather unique opportunity. Director Richard Linklater and his co-writers and stars, Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke, do not blow the opportunity.

Before Midnight picks up almost 10 years after 2004’s Before Sunset, when Celine and Jesse rekindle a desire for each other after only having the memory of a perfect meeting 10 years before that on a train and an evening in Vienna before Jesse has to catch a plane back to the U.S., in 1995’s Before Sunrise. Now the couple has produced a pair of twin girls and Jesse must split his life between them and Celine and his young son to his ex-wife. before-midnight-julie-delpy-ethan-hawke-600x421During a vacation in Greece, the couple find a rare chance for an evening alone to walk the ruins of the Southern Peloponnese and have some private time in a luxury hotel suite. What unfolds may upset many who fell in love with this couple in the ideal vacuum of not one but two first meetings in Before Sunrise and Before Sunset respectively.

Relationships are a funny thing, as anyone who has shared a 10-year journey or more with another might know, and cinema can hardly ever honestly capture that. There’s a cruel fallacy at play when movies end with weddings because it is only after the honeymoon that the mettle of the relationship enters the flames of a true trial. With Before Midnight, Celine and Jesse have passed some difficult bumps to have made it together as long as they have, yet many unresolved issues have seeped out of the cracks of their relationship that only become magnified when they find themselves alone together. It’s a dark, but real step in that relationship, and it will rile up the idealists of love stories in film in a very unique way.

Linklater has grown marvelously as a director since his 1991 Generation X-defining debut Slacker.  He immediately proved himself as a thoughtful director who knows how to impress larger existential ideas beyond his intelligent dialogues. His films have always been about the larger picture and this trilogy of films stands as his masterwork. before-midnight09The film opens with a dynamic goodbye at the airport between Jesse and his son Hank (a perfectly low-key Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick dabbling in solemn repressed suffering). The revelations into their dynamic comes with break-neck humor and poignancy unique to the cinema of the Before trilogy that also raises it to a new level. All is not well in this once dreamy relationship as the irritating burs of reality have taken hold and are threatening to fester.

This film features scenes with other people, offering a distinct diversion from the earlier films, which both only focused on conversations between the couple. In this third (and hopefully not last) film in the series, Jesse mostly has alone time with other people to talk, including the terrific opening scene with his son that is allowed resonance throughout the film. There’s a conversation between he and the other men he’s visiting with on this Greek vacation and a dinner table conversation featuring the couple and other couples, younger and older, which captures the various stages of enlightenment and naiveté that comes with time as a couple. In the end, a widow gets the last word: “We appear and we disappear. We’re passing through.” Nothing like death to define a life.

Like the other movies, all the drama and conflict comes from how people talk with each other in several long scenes. The climax of which comes in the bedroom of the lux hotel, which includes the longest conversation with a nipple in a man’s mouth ever committed to film. before-midnight06Delpy gives a brazenly shameless performance to capture the casual and lax quality this relationship has taken a turn into. Jesse seems tired and long-suffering of her pushy dominance that often shifts to insecurity. There are several references to the summer of ’94, when the two first met. It is an idealized time that can never return. Celine longs for that mystery and Jesse tries to play games to keep her interested that constantly backfire. It’s a sad state for the once idealized couple, but it’s an honest portrayal that captures the reality of evolution in love. It’s not about the arguments, but the sincere affection these two have for being with the other, which fuels the arguments. Though often full of tumult, the conversations are as much about loving the other during a very important moment in the relationship that hardly signals an end of it as much as the continued journey.

Hans Morgenstern

Before Midnight is Rated R (It’s frank and real in a way most youngsters could never appreciate) and has a run time of 108 minutes. Sony Classics invited me to a preview screening for the purpose of this review. It opens in Miami-Dade theaters today, Friday, June 7:

Coral Gables Art Cinema
Regal South Beach
AMC Sunset Place 24

It will expand into West Palm Beach and Fort Lauderdale theaters next Friday, June 14. It is also playing in limited release in certain locations in the U.S., so check the film’s official website here for all screening dates (that’s a hotlink).

(Copyright 2013 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)