Movie Review: Boyhood

Richard Linklater’s Boyhood is a film of contradictions: Epic in scope, and yet confined by its focus; a film about finding its lead’s character, that ends just as he is finally discovering who he really is. While I went to see the story of a young boy grow to the cusp of adulthood, I found myself more interested in the story of his mother, at times wishing the film was titled Motherhood.

In following the growth of a character, portrayed by the same actor, over many years, Boyhood follows in the footsteps of Francois Truffaut’s sequels to The 400 Blows and Linklater’s own Before trilogy. Setting itself apart, Boyhood is unique in that instead of being a series of films produced over many years, this film was shot each year for twelve years.

This approach has made the film famous, yet it would mean nothing if the technique did not pay off. In many ways, the risky technique achieved what Linklater set out to accomplish, namely capturing the development of a child until he reaches adulthood. That said, his focus on the childhood of Mason Jr., played beautifully at every age by Ellar Coltrane, does not end up being the most interesting element of his coming-of-age epic.

At times feeling like a down-to-earth version of Malick’s The Tree of Life, Linklater’s film similarly shines in small moments of incredible honesty. However, due to Linklater’s linear approach to his film, it is his choice of subject that restricts what the film could be. While his Before trilogy showed us clearly defined characters that grew over a span of twenty years, Boyhood‘s Mason Jr. only begins to define himself towards the end of the film. This may be the point of the film, to show us a boy becoming a man and discovering who he is, however, it means we see but a glimpse of that fully defined character as the film finally comes to a close.

Because of this, I found myself looking elsewhere for a more interesting narrative, and that came most clearly in the story of Mason’s mom, played by Patricia Arquette. As the film begins, she is a woman who has found an identity forced upon her. Over these twelve years, we see her struggle and grow to find an identity all her own. At times her story is heavily focused on, other times it is at the periphery of the film’s titular boyhood. Unfortunately, even when her story is centre stage, it is almost always in context of how it affect’s Mason’s life. This is understandable, as the film is told from his perspective, yet I found myself wanting more intimate moments with her character. Arquette’s performance is phenomenal, and begs the question, why do we not see more of her?

Often the best coming-of-age films are stories of self-reflection, Boyhood is not one of these films. It is original in the sense it is a film that always feels in-the-moment. It is only focused on what is happening in that scene, and not what is to come. Even though it is at times frustrating, Linklater accomplished something unique and wonderful with Boyhood. Seeing a character age and grow over the course of three hours does allow for many beautiful moments throughout the film. It is just unfortunate that it did not allow for as much intimacy and insight into the more interesting story being told in the background.

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Losing My Passion

Having recently received an email from a reader wondering where I was currently blogging, I realized it was probably about time to update The Deleted Scene.

While I wish I could say I was writing elsewhere and haven’t had time for my personal blog, the truth is I simply haven’t been writing. My interest in blogging as seriously as I did in the first few years may have diminished over time, but I still wanted to blog semi-regularly. As 2013 wore on, however, writing became impossible. Around July, I was hit with an episode of depression that lasted roughly five months.

Depression kept me from writing, or doing anything remotely creative. Not only could I not write, but I couldn’t watch films either. It robbed me of my main passion in life, film.

Barely able to concentrate on the screen, watching a film in a theatre became a miserable experience. And watching a film at home from start to finish was impossible, as I would watch the beginning of four or five films before giving up, and moving on to another distraction.

I became afraid to even try to watch any difficult, interesting or complex films that were released. I avoided almost any well-reviewed film, especially the films by my favourite filmmakers, as I feared I would be unable to enjoy them. As such, I missed out on most of the great films of 2013. 

The upside, if there was one, was that for the first time in my life I understood what it must be like for people who don’t share the same passion of film as I do. More importantly, I also understood what it meant to no longer be myself.

Of course, my depression did not only affect my ability to watch, make and write about film, it affected all aspects of my life. It was just for once in my life, film was no longer an escape for me. It was no longer the one sure thing I could turn to in a time of sadness, pain, boredom or joy. 

While I have recovered somewhat from that episode of depression, getting back to normal has been a long, difficult process. I have yet to even come close to catching up to all the great films I’ve missed over the year, and have been preoccupied with finishing my new one-hour long film, The Short Way Back. The good news is that I’ve started planning a new film project that I expect to be working on most of the year.

While shooting this film over a year will be a time-consuming process, it has several advantages. It will allow the film to be more natural, as well as it will help “depression-proof” the production. At least that’s my hope. My plan is to write about this project along the way, and provide regular updates on The Deleted Scene.

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The Power Of A Film Critic

This morning I learned celebrated Chicago film critic Roger Ebert had passed away. The death of celebrities rarely cause any emotional reaction from me, and yet I found myself becoming increasingly upset over Ebert’s passing. He was not just a famous film critic, but someone who had a real impact in my life, and I am sure countless others. 

Film has almost always been a central part of my life. I realized early on that I wanted to be a filmmaker, and I have yet to change my mind. Roger Ebert was a huge part in my development as a film fan, and in my commitment to becoming a filmmaker.

As a kid, I would stay up late to watch At The Movies with Siskel and Ebert, and later At The Movies with Ebert and Roeper. And while I certainly did not always agree with Ebert, his love for film influenced me significantly and drove me to discover some of my favourite films.

His beautiful and deeply personal review of Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Dreamers, for example, led me to what is now one of the most important films in my development as a film fan. His review of that film is an example of how film criticism is an art form in itself. Roger Ebert will be remembered as one of the most important film critics of all time, and as an inspiration to film fans, critics and filmmakers alike.

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My Top 10 Favourite Films Of 2012

First let me mention that this is not a list of the “best films of 2012”. It is however a list of my favourite 10 films of the year. I missed many potentially great films during the year, and beyond that, would never claim to know objectively what the best films of the year are. These films are the ones that I enjoyed the most. These are the films that inspired me, or scared me, or affected me the most emotionally.

Just like every year before it, 2012 was a year of disappointment, surprise and great cinema. This list reflects what I found surprising, exciting and great.

10. Moonrise Kingdom

Wes Anderson is a filmmaker stuck in his ways, and that is not always a bad thing. His style is distinct and assured. This leads to him often repeating himself, both thematically and stylistically. That said, when he manages to say something new, his films are brilliant. His latest film, Moonrise Kingdom tells the somewhat familiar story of two precocious kids in love and on the run. Anderson manages to keep the film fresh, however, with a wonderful adventure, fantastic performances, and possibly his most authentically emotional film yet.

9. Sinister

Scott Derrickson’s Sinister might be a rather silly horror film, and yet I felt it deserved a spot in my Top 10. While not the most pleasant film experience I’ve had this year, it was certainly one of the most intense. What makes Derrickson and C. Robert Cargill’s script great is that it not only gives you a family that you care about, but a reason for them to stay in the potentially haunted house. Combining effective jump-scares with an incredibly unsettling atmosphere, Sinister is one of the scariest films I’ve ever had the pleasure of watching.

8. Django Unchained

I am not ashamed to admit that I have never liked Quentin Tarantino. His films just do not work for me. The dialogue and style usually rubs me the wrong way. And yet I still fully understand why he is such an important figure in film, and why so many love his work. With Tarantino’s latest effort Django Unchained, I now have a personal understanding of why film fans worship at his feet. Tarantino’s epic tribute to the spaghetti-western is a beautifully shot, acted and scored film that is occasionally hurt by some of his more self-indulgent directorial choices, such as a particularly distracting cameo. And while those hurt the film, the overall experience outweighs his few bizarre choices.

7. Beasts of the Southern Wild

Behn Zeitlin’s Beasts of the Southern Wild is about as impressive a debut as you could possibly hope for. It is also a film that is clearly a first feature. Zeitlin is at once naive and confident in his directorial choices, delivering one of the freshest pieces of cinema this year. Told from the perspective of 6-year old Hushpuppy, the film tells the story of the fictional Bathtub, a part of America in danger of being washed away by a flood. Even if it weren’t for the great cinematography, editing and supporting characters, the power of Quvenzhane Wallis’ performance as Hushpuppy makes the film worth seeing.

6. Magic Mike

The marketing for Magic Mike was both frustrating and genius. It made the film a solid hit, but made some skeptical of the film’s quality. Steven Soderbergh’s name should have convinced any cynical audience members that the film was more than the trailers were selling. Soderbergh presents a realistic, funny and often-depressing look at the life of an aging male stripper, based on the experience of the film’s star Channing Tatum. It is a small film, but one that shows just how much Soderbergh has perfected his cinematic approach.

5. The Comedy

While I laughed throughout Rick Alverson’s The Comedy, I was never sure if I should feel bad for doing so. The film follows Swanson, an aging hipster played with great authenticity by Tim Heidecker, as he wastes his time and his family’s money. No character in the film is likeable, and it is to Alverson’s credit that this never becomes an issue. The film meanders and is mostly improvised, and yet it is exceptionally fascinating as you wonder just how awful these characters can become. I was shocked by how much I enjoyed the film, finding it both hilarious and depressingly honest.

4. Stories We Tell

Sarah Polley followed her directorial debut Away From Her with two of this year’s best films, Take This Waltz and Stories We Tell. Both films are incredibly personal and honest films showcasing the downfalls of love. It was Stories We Tell, her documentary about her mother and discovery of her potential biological father that ended up being the stronger of the two. It is not new for filmmakers to depict their feelings, fears and memories on screen, yet it is still shocking and refreshing to see someone willing to open themselves up so entirely to their audience. Stories We Tell is a heartbreaking and beautiful film that is never self-indulgent, but simply honest.

3. Wuthering Heights

Andrea Arnold first caught my attention with her exceptional 2009 film Fish Tank. Her depiction of an angry young girl living in an English estate floored me with its authenticity. To my surprise, her adaptation of Emily Bronte’s classic Wuthering Heights was just as authentic and brutal. Arnold’s adaptation sets itself apart for many reasons; most controversially being the fact she cast two Black actors in the role of Heathcliff. However, more importantly, the film changes what it means to be a British costume drama. Instead of being cold and lavish, the film is intensely emotional and brutal. Arnold’s Wuthering Heights was this year’s biggest surprise. From the first beautiful frame of her film, Arnold had my attention, ultimately leaving me emotionally drained.

2. The Master

Much attention was given to Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master due to the misleading reports that the film would tell the story of the Church of Scientology. Instead, the film focusses on two men, played incredibly by Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman, as they become increasingly obsessed with each other. While this more personal story may have disappointed some, it was epic in its own way. Few filmmakers are as confident as Anderson, and it shows. Each shot, cut and performance is perfect. In a year when many critics announced the “death of cinema”, Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master singlehandedly proves that claim wrong.

1. John Carter

No other film this year gave me as much joy as Andrew Stanton’s much-maligned adventure epic John Carter. The disaster that was its marketing and release was unfortunate, however, the film itself is fantastic. As a huge fan of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ John Carter series of books, I was both incredibly excited and worried sitting down for my first viewing of Stanton’s adaptation. Since that day on March 7th, I have seen the film eight times. Stanton’s power as a Pixar director is not lost here, as he brings just as much filmmaking skill and heart to his first live-action effort. Andrew Stanton’s John Carter may never get a sequel, and did not receive the positive attention it deserved. However, I am certain in the years to come, it will become a classic.

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Movie Review: The Hobbit

When Guillermo Del Toro left the directorial duties on The Hobbit to pursue other film projects, I was disappointed. As much as I loved Peter Jackson’s original Lord of the Rings trilogy as a kid, the thought of Del Toro’s take on Middle Earth and The Hobbit excited me greatly. It was only a few minutes into Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey that I realized this was always Jackson’s film to make. And after viewing it, I was certainly glad he did.

There was much controversy leading up to the release of the first film in this trilogy, starting with the fact that it is part of a trilogy. The Hobbit is a relatively light novel, one that certainly does not need three films to tell its story. Jackson, however, decided to expand the novel, and include elements from other Tolkien stories. 

And while this film feels like a first part to a much longer story, the expanded material, for the most part, fits in wonderfully. Some of the additional material, in fact, makes for some of the most intriguing elements of the film. That said, while the film is never dull, knowing that this is not the end of the story, makes you wonder where it is going. This affects the pacing of the film.

The pacing is never too much of an issue however, as the adventure and fantastic characters keep your attention on screen. Martin Freeman, as the young Bilbo Baggins, is one of the more genius bits of casting in years. He plays the reluctant hero perfectly, and is just about as likeable a lead as you could possible hope for. The cast members that return from the original series are all fantastic, the stand out being an older Ian McKellen playing a slightly younger Gandalf. His iconic wizard is less confident this time around, and McKellen is at the top of his game.

It seems that everyone who returned to Middle Earth with Jackson and McKellen, did so with just as much enthusiasm and skill. From Andy Serkis’ fantastic, but short, return as Gollum, to Howard Shore’s beautiful score, this prequel trilogy does not feel forced or lazy –at least, not yet. 

It is a hard film to judge, as it is only the first part of a trilogy of films that are entirely connected. This film does not have a real ending, it simply ends a third into its story. While this is an issue, it does not stop it from being a fantastic adventure film that is funny, exciting and beautiful to look at. 

The film’s look is important to mention, as the fact it was shot in 48 frames per second is seen as almost more significant than the film itself. I was worried going in, as the reaction to 48fps had been almost exclusively negative leading up to release. The first couple of shots looked quite bizarre, almost as if the characters were moving too fast. However, I quickly became adjusted to the frame rate and began to enjoy this new form of cinematography. It does not look cheap, or like a ’80s BBC production as some have suggested. It looks beautiful, and makes the 3D and CGI look real. The detail is simply stunning, as the screen becomes a window with a world beyond it.

I saw Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring on opening day when I was ten years old. I instantly fell in love with Jackson’s version of Middle Earth. It was my Star Wars, and it makes me incredibly happy to find out that The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is not my Phantom Menace.

There is no doubt that it is an occasionally messy film. One that is hurt by the fact it has no true ending. That being said, it is a small price to pay for being able to spend three hours in a world you love, with a great filmmaker as your guide.

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Saying Good-Bye To DVDs

For several years after I began to collect DVDs, I still saw my VHS collection as a decent alternative. Now the very thought of watching a film on VHS would bring most to laughter, or even tears. I never thought my DVDs would suffer the same fate as my vast collection of dust-covered VHS tapes. However, as I recently moved my DVDs from boxes after a move, I realized just how little I cared for them anymore. This is not only an issue of video quality, but also of the need for physical media.

I have never been one to buy into the idea of a world without physical films available for purchase. I’ve always loved collecting films, and showcased my large, alphabetically ordered DVD collection proudly. As I am slowly transitioning to Blu-ray, my interest in upgrading my collection once again is diminishing. For many of my favourite films, upgrading to Blu-ray is a no-brainer. And yet, owning something physically has less value to me than it ever has.

Similar to film, I loved collecting music and video-games. However, now I purchase both almost exclusively digitally. Services such as iTunes and Steam have made owning physical copies entirely pointless. That said, services as effective as iTunes and Steam do not exist for film. At least, not just yet.

One of the issues seems to be that watching films digitally is split between streaming and actually owning a specific title. Video stores are now a thing of the past, as most people subscribe to streaming services such as Netflix and Hulu. And yet, these streaming services do not satisfy the strict wants and needs of many film fans.

A major issue that is likely not to be solved for years, if ever, is the fact that most titles are exclusive to one service. This makes finding specific titles on a single streaming service difficult. Beyond that, the quality offered is just not as good as on Blu-ray. It seems like just a matter of time before a company gets it right, offering a huge library for purchase, at Blu-ray or higher quality. That said, many hurdles stand in the way of having a truly successful way of purchasing films digitally. 

There is still a nostalgic pull towards owning something physically. Still, I know that once a service effective enough is available, I will have no problem starting my digital collection. The Criterion Collection is an exception to the rule, as they make owning a film physically absolutely worth it. However, it is a sad realization that owning something physically no longer has the same significance it had several years ago, and the cons of physical media are as apparent as ever.

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Movie Review: Stories We Tell

Making a personal film takes a certain level of courage on the part of the filmmaker. Allowing the audience into one’s memories, thought process, and feelings is, of course, difficult. That being said, when done successfully, it can often make for great cinema. Sarah Polley’s third film, Stories We Tell, is just about as personal as a film can get. It is also as heartbreaking, honest and beautiful a film you are likely to see this year. 

Stories We Tell is Polley’s first documentary, and her most accomplished film yet. It deals with her discovery that her dad may not actually be her biological father. Polley made the brilliant decision to tell the story not from her perspective, but rather from the perspective of just about everyone else involved.

Presented in chronological order, the story is told by her family, family friends, and even possible biological fathers. And with these different perspectives on the story of her family, the film ends up being more about her mother, actress Diane Polley, who died when Sarah Polley was 11.

Her father, Michael Polley, serves as both one of the storytellers and narrator to the film. It is a fascinating perspective, and is a great example of why Sarah Polley’s uniquely personal film never feels self-indulgent. Beyond the storytellers, Polley also employs a mix of home-movies, and reenacted 8mm footage that flow seamlessly together. 

The story is rarely seen from Polley’s point-of-view, and instead of this being distancing, it actually makes the film work so wonderfully. She had no control over this aspect of her life, and as such, it is appropriate that she lets the story be told by those directly involved.

Once the film begins to concentrate on her biological father, it becomes its most emotionally effective. Up to this moment, the film is entirely about Michael and Diane Polley, and their family. And then, we are given the parallel story. A story of a man desperately in love with someone he could not have, and with a daughter he did not know. It is a film that breaks you down emotionally, like so few films can. 

Many filmmakers put their hearts on screen, but it is rare to see one give so much of themselves to the audience. With Stories We Tell, Polley invites us into her family, and into a life-changing moment. It is a privilege to be allowed into something so utterly personal and important to a small group of people, especially when it is shared in such a beautiful way.

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