The Work of Richard Linklater

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I had already seen two of writer/director Richard Linklater’s films before watching almost all of his work (the two films being School of Rock and Boyhood). Even with having seen just those two movies, I was amazed by Linklater’s approach towards storytelling and filmmaking. His movies are frequently looser, more naturalistic, and more humanist/realist than a conventional film. He creates engaging scenarios and situations instead of actual plots by utilizing universal ideas and themes (love, existentialism, marriage, ambition, politics, social alienation) through the relationships and dialogue between the characters in his films. Additionally, Linklater uses long takes and the setting of his native Austin, Texas in several of his movies and often collaborates with actors Ethan Hawke (the Before trilogy, TapeWaking Life, The Newton BoysFast Food Nation, Boyhood) and Matthew McConaughey (Dazed and ConfusedThe Newton Boys, Bernie). Linklater has done commercial comedies (Bad News Bears), indie dramas (the Before trilogy), two rotoscoped movies (Waking Life, A Scanner Darkly), and a whole bunch more. While I didn’t watch four of his 18 films — his 1988 debut It’s Impossible to Learn to Plow By Reading Books, 1997’s Suburbia, 1998’s The Newton Boys, and this year’s Everybody Wants Some!! — I was able to watch the rest and here are my thoughts: 

Slacker (1991)

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Starting off Linklater’s legacy is 1991’s Slacker, an unconventional, sprawling film that works with a loose, plotless structure. While it could’ve been shortened a bit (it’s 100 minutes long), Slacker was nevertheless a compelling take on the human condition in the most literal sense possible. From start to finish, the camera follows one character until it smoothly follows another character and so on and so forth. Linklater actually makes a cameo in the very first sequence, playing a talkative taxi passenger who contemplates out loud his thoughts about dreams and alternate universes and realities. This scene is a simple static shot that lasts for about 4 minutes straight, but what makes it kinetic is not necessarily Linklater’s character, but what his character is saying and how he is saying it. That essentially sets the tone for the rest of Slacker, which then segues to the ordinary, mundane lives of several eccentric Austinites (a entire cast of virtual unknowns): a man arrested for murdering his mother; a creepy UFO believer who pesters pedestrians with his theories about our world actually being on the Moon; a JFK conspiracy theorist; a old man who convinces a robber to walk with him; and a female hipster trying to sell a Madonna pap smear. Most scenes are funny, not in the sense that they’re clever, but that they feel so real and authentic, as if these conversations could happen to anyone. Slacker is ostensibly a piece on Generation X, but that’s not to say that today’s generation won’t relate to the topics discussed in each conversation. College-aged “slackers” talk about national security, socioeconomic class, unemployment, and social exclusion. There are gentle characters and aggressive characters. Relationships are created and dismantled. Basically, Slacker is a microcosm of everyday life, tracking everything in real time. I wouldn’t say this movie is for everyone, considering that it has zero plot, but that’s kind of what makes Slacker such a special and profound film. Slacker can also be difficult to pay attention to all the way through, since several scenes last for lengthy periods of time and the camera never really moves except when it moves on to another story. Nevertheless, Slacker could have easily been a boring vanity project, yet Linklater’s vision persists all the way through.

Grade: B+

Dazed and Confused (1993)

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Dazed and Confused was great for multiple reasons. As an entertaining, fun, and occasionally dramatic coming-of-age story, Dazed and Confused vibrates and pulsates with the care-free attitude of its characters. Set in the spring of 1976 on the last day of high school, the film follows different characters around like in Slacker, except we see these characters more than once and we watch them gradually develop and unfold. The film is also somewhat plotless, but again, Linklater’s dialogue and direction keep the story from going off the rails. The film retains an authenticity uncommon in most period pieces, not just with the conversations between each character, but also with the movie’s impeccable production design and awesome soundtrack. Despite not having a real central protagonist, Dazed and Confused focuses primarily on two teenagers, the heartthrob rising senior Randall “Pink” Floyd (Jason London) and the introverted rising freshman Mitch Kramer (Wiley Wiggins). Both characters are dealing with issues as their lives are starting to transition: Pink faces backlash from his football teammates and coach when he decides he doesn’t want to sign a binding pledge requiring him not to drink or smoke for the summer and Mitch yearns to be a cool kid and to feel accepted before he enters high school. These situations feel as real as they sound and their journies throughout the film show just how crazy and random life in high school can be. We get to meet Mitch’s bully Fred O’Bannion (a remarkably young Ben Affleck), Mitch’s sister Jodi (Michelle Burke), the philosophical stoner Slater (Rory Cochrane), and Wooderson (Matthew McConaughey), a 20-something who still hangs out with high school kids. When school lets out for the summer, they hang out at the local hotspot The Emporium, a hamburger drive-in, and eventually arrive at a field under a moonlight tower for a late night impromptu party. While watching Dazed and Confused, I kept wondering why most of these kids, especially the more popular ones, were so unruly and that the film seemed to glorify their rebellious antics, whether it’s smoking, drinking, smashing mailboxes, or having sex. There’s a long sequence in the beginning where the senior girls haze the incoming freshmen, pouring flour and ketchup on them and forcing them to ask out senior boys. Is this glorification or just a representation of the era? Perhaps these situations were shown because these kids wanted so badly to be treated like adults or at least have some freedom, since they still live under parental authority. This theme of rebellion against authority is reinforced in the last sequence, pretty much the essence of the whole movie. After a night out of partying and trespassing school property, Pink is confronted by his high school football coach about signing the pledge in order to play football next season. With his friends by his side, Pink declines his coach’s demand, saying he might play football, but he can’t sign the pledge, signifying that there should be room for having fun in high school before actual responsibility hits you. The message is a bit heavy-handed at first, but still offers an optimistic perception of living life while you can when you don’t have much freedom anyways. In terms of flaws, I would’ve appreciated some stronger female characters in Dazed and Confused. Parker Posey did a fantastic job portraying mean girl Darla Marks in the beginning of the film, but she was mostly cast aside towards the end. Milla Jovovich played mysterious hippie Michelle Boroughs, but she had almost zero to no dialogue, except for singing a tune or two during the outdoor party sequence. The closest thing that came to a well-developed female character was Christin Hinojosa’s Sabrina Davis, a rising freshman who falls for intellectual senior Tony (Anthony Rapp). That being said, Dazed and Confused still remains a funny, enlightening, retro cinematic trip.

Grade: A-

Before Sunrise (1995)

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Immediately after watching Before Sunrise, I knew already that this is one of the most well-written and most romantic films I’ve seen. Its influence has spawned two equally critically acclaimed sequels and even a tour that directs you to every spot from the film. Before Sunrise is where Linklater’s auteur filmmaker status was cemented, proving that he has both the writing and directing skills to capture an amazingly well-told story. Taking place in Vienna in the summer of 1994, Before Sunrise instantly thrusts you into the tale of two young lovers, an American man named Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and a French woman named Celine (Julie Delpy). Their meet-cute begins on a train to Vienna from Budapest, where Jesse strikes up a conversation with Celine. At first, their encounter involves bits of small talk, but later they talk more and more about their lives and ambitions and a spark slowly begins to ignite. A connection is made. When they reach Vienna, Jesse asks Celine on a whim to get off the train with him and join him for the day before he has to catch a flight back to America. Celine accepts — and so begins their journey. It’s slightly difficult to describe the brilliance of Before Sunrise, but it’s easy to talk about the techniques Linklater uses to craft and shape Jesse and Celine’s one-day romantic odyssey. Linklater co-wrote the screenplay with Kim Kazan, cleverly offering both a male and female perspective. During their trip, Jesse and Celine travel around the town, learn about each other’s lives and their views on love, religion, identity, ambition. The two discuss openly and honestly about how they feel, what they aspire to be, and their relationships with others and past romantic partners. Hawke and Delpy remain on their A-game the whole time, making their characters’ conversations both natural and thought-provoking during long, uninterrupted takes. Just as they are attracted to each other, so are we as viewers attracted to their magnetic personalities and words. Even in moments of silence, Hawke and Delpy still manage to provoke a smile. In this case, I’m referring to a scene where they stop by a record store and go to a listening booth, standing next to each other while Kate Bloom’s “Come Here” plays. They don’t speak at all, but their faces and darting eyes speak volumes to their chemistry, encapsulating a wonderfully intimate moment in these two people’s lives. Their first kiss, atop a Ferris wheel (the same one Orson Welles rode in The Third Man), is also a hypnotic culmination of their building sexual tension. Once that’s out of the way, they continue their night, walking around in the late hours, still thinking deeply about what their time together has in store. Their discussions on love are particularly enlightening, as we understand Jesse to be a romantic disguised as a cynic and Celine as a romantic with doubts. Their shared frustration and contradicting opinions make for some enthralling material. In addition to the great dialogue and characters, Before Sunrise is visually stunning, each detail so beautifully shot that it’s crazy to think it was made with mid-90s camera technology. When Jesse and Celine finally arrive at a park late into the night, they admit their feelings towards one another and wish that their time together wasn’t so limited (isn’t that always the worst?). They contemplate having sex and it’s left ambiguous in the next sequence whether or not they went through with it. But once they step back into “real time,” as Jesse points out, their anxiety slowly seeps out. They decide to meet again in 6 months in the same place and after sealing their deal with an intense final kiss, the two lovers depart one another and they return to the normality of their lives. I’m always impressed by films that are simplistic in plot and ambition, but mesmerizing in execution and style (i.e. P.T. Anderson’s Punch Drunk Love, Charlie Kaufman’s Anomalisa, and Linklater’s Boyhood). Before Sunrise is that kind of film, a tender romantic epic with an uncomplicated plot that not only spotlights a sense of wonder about the world, but reminds people how there is something extraordinary that can happen at any moment in our lives.

Grade: A

Tape (2001)

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I enjoyed watching Linklater’s Tape, an experimental psychological drama based on Stephen Belber’s 1999 play. The film is unconventional in several ways: 1) the entire movie takes place in one room, 2) there are only three characters, and 3) it’s filmed on a home video camcorder. The minimalist setup and visuals make Tape an unnerving, often hard-to-watch experience, but the story and the way it unravels are undoubtedly gripping and extremely stimulating. Linklater muse Ethan Hawke portrays Vince, a dubious high-functioning alcoholic/drug addict who sells weed and is a volunteer firefighter. He’s stationed in a lonely, small motel room in Lansing, Michigan, awaiting the arrival of his estranged high school best friend Jon (Hawke’s Dead Poets Society co-star Robert Sean Leonard). Technically, Vince is there to support Jon’s film at the Lansing Film Festival, but we learn of his sinister ulterior motives once Jon enters the hotel room. Their greeting at first is innocuous, trading light insults at one another as if they were back in high school. But eventually, their conversation drifts towards more serious subject matter, like Jon’s contempt of Vince’s alienating aimlessness and Vince’s criticisms towards Jon’s pretension as a filmmaker. Later, they discuss Amy (Uma Thurman, Hawke’s wife at the time), Vince’s ex and Jon’s one-time hookup; Vince directly accuses Jon of raping her. The buildup of this is quite intense, even with Tape‘s claustrophobic setting, and the payoff is even more eye-opening. Jon admits his transgression, which Vince reveals he caught on cassette tape, marking evidence to show to Amy later that night. The tensions between the two are palpable enough to make your fingers clench into fists, which once again is a testament to Linklater’s capabilities as a film director. Amy eventually arrives after Vince calls her up, unaware of what’s to come. Similar to when Jon and Vince first greeted one another, the three old friends reminisce their high school days until the alleged rape comes up, to which Amy denies that it happened and Jon becomes defensive about it. She calls the police on the two former friends, Vince for drug possession and Jon for his verifiable rape. At this point, Tape essentially becomes a character study on Jon and Vince and the ethical/moral dilemmas they face. Vince’s jealousy towards Jon is clearly evident in his obsession with corrupting Jon’s reputation, while Jon’s dark past makes him reconsider his own morality and actions. But it’s what they end up doing in that tense sequence that truly displays who they are as people: Jon stays to show Amy how truly remorseful he is, while Vince flushes down every illegal item he’s obtained. As a result, Amy didn’t call the cops at all, as she hoped to see how the two would react. She leaves, followed by Jon, and the film ends where it began, with Vince alone in the room. The camerawork is at times dizzying and makes Tape difficult to stomach — there’s one scene where the camera literally switches back and forth between Leonard and Thurman for a good minute. But Tape works so well not just in the layered acting, Linklater’s direction, or Belber’s script, but in how it so easily transcends thriller/drama tropes with an engaging premise about the friction and tension that often boil underneath long-term friendships.

Grade: A-

Waking Life (2001)

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Another entry in Linklater’s experimental phase, Waking Life is a creative piece of work that furthers Linklater into more daring cinematic territory. Filmed on digital video and later edited into rotoscoped animation, Waking Life is definitely Linklater’s trippiest film to date. Its avant-garde visuals push the simple but ambitious plot along: an unnamed man (Dazed and Confused‘s Wiley Wiggins) is in a perpetual state of lucid dreaming, drifting into random conversations with philosophers, historians, film theorists, and ordinary people. Occasionally, he listens to what the other person is saying, as he observes people’s insights on existentialism, reality, free will, consciousness, human suffering, and the film’s recurring theme, dreaming. The exterior details of each character shapeshift throughout their appearance in the film, sometimes looking realistic and other times looking grotesque. Wiggins’ protagonist keeps moving around places without any conscious effort, and we are just as unsure as he is about what exactly is happening. Each time he enters a new room or conversation, the other person immediately jumps into their spiel without any greeting or actual acknowledgment of Wiggins’ character. That’s part of the beauty of Waking Life. It’s hard to keep track of what we know and whether or not something was or is part of dream or is in fact part of our reality. The thing I loved about Waking Life is that almost each scene challenges preconceived notions about life itself: How do we differentiate our dream life from our real life? Do dreams have any significance to us or are they meaningless? How much actual control do we have over our lives? Waking Life posits these questions through the illuminating dialogue of its mostly anonymous supporting cast. There are actually two cameo appearances from Hawke and Delpy, reprising their characters Jesse and Celine from Before Sunrise. They discuss the power of memory and if a person’s life is actually just a combination of memories that are being replayed when that person is on the verge of dying. It’s interesting to think that this particular scene may or may not have happened, in terms of their characters’ timeline. But considering that Waking Life is like Inception with less action and more philosophical discussions, perhaps Jesse and Celine’s situation is just a dream and a figment of the protagonist’s imagination (or Linklater’s, for that matter). The musical elements of Waking Life are also indicative of the film’s dreamscape setting, with a slightly nightmarish string-filled scoring the film. At one point, Wiggins asks a red-headed woman he runs into what it’s like to being a character in his lucid dream; she nonchalantly disregards his question and continues to offer some insight on some cerebral topic. It’s a rather aggravating response, but the exchange feels like it could have happened to anyone who has dreamt something similar. Linklater himself makes a cameo in Waking Life, first as a passenger of the protagonist’s ride in the film’s second sequence and later as a pinball player giving the protagonist advice about how to get out of a dream. Once the protagonist attempts to wake up, he figures that he still might be in a dream and realizes so when he tries to open a car, only to float up into the sky until he disappears forever. All that being said, Waking Life is not for everyone. Most of the dialogue is so intellectually hefty that each scene of conversation needs more than just one viewing. The film concerns itself with mostly talking and thinking and talking about thinking that it feels like watching a documentary (especially since there are real-life philosophers, metaphysicians, and historians playing themselves). Nevertheless, if you’re looking for a film that’s full of interesting ideas and insights on the world, society, and individuality, Waking Life would be a perfect representative of such criteria.

Grade: B+

School of Rock (2002)

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There’s no doubt that Linklater’s School of Rock will remain a modern day classic for the millennial generation. Growing up, School of Rock was a feel-good movie that most, if not everyone I know enjoys watching it. The movie is filled with memorable dialogue, toe-tapping original music, and an enthusiastically electric central performance from the underrated Jack Black. But School of Rock isn’t just a crowd-pleaser; it’s also great because it transforms a relatively familiar story into something refreshing and exciting. Black portrays the shlubby main character Dewey Finn, a slacker — get it? — who gets kicked out of his band No Vacancy, due to his embarrassingly over-the-top onstage antics at concerts. He’s living with his timid best friend Ned (Mike White, who wrote the film) and Ned’s domineering girlfriend (a perfectly cast Sarah Silverman). One morning, Dewey receives a call for Ned about a lucrative temporary teaching opportunity at a prestigious elementary school, to which Dewey feigns his identity and decides to take the job to score some cash. If the role of Dewey Finn went to someone other than Jack Black, School of Rock might not have hit as many high notes — see what I did there? — that it hits. Luckily, Black’s energy and commitment is infectious enough to make the movie fun to watch. The students in the class he “teaches” are not mere one-dimensional caricatures, but surprisingly funny and perceptive kids with ambitions like any other person their age. This is another reason why School of Rock is so subversive as a film made for a predominantly young crowd. At first, Dewey doesn’t care for the kids; he’s doing it for the money to pay his rent after all. Of course, he sees their potential once he learns of their musical abilities and enlists them as a rock group to compete for the annual Battle of the Bands. As the story continues, you sort of forget that Dewey is initially doing all this so he can earn some dough and some of his dignity back. But fortunately, Dewey realizes early on that he actually does care about someone other than himself and that perhaps his selfishness is what caused him to fired from his band after all. Despite the conventional themes and visuals of School of Rock, Linklater is nevertheless still innovative in his directing techniques. White’s screenplay is chock-full of hilarious one-liners and even manages to pull out some poignance from the film’s characters. In addition to Black’s acting, Joan Cusack is amazing as the school’s uptight principal Roz Mullins, balancing her character’s wacky impulsivities with a deep-seated yearning to be seen as someone personable. Dewey evolves over the course of School of Rock, becoming more sensitive and sympathetic towards his students and Roz, even if he is faking his actual persona. School of Rock is the story of a man who’s not just motivated by his passion to express himself, but by his commitment to giving the lives of preadolescent school children a chance to express themselves as well. The latter ultimately gives Dewey a much greater purpose to stick with his students, even after he is outed by the police as a fraud and blamed by parents for corrupting their children. The “Battle of the Bands” sequence, the film’s climax, brings the class together for an excellent finale deserving of the encore it received. Most may not remember School of Rock as a Linklater film, but it’s without a doubt one of the writer/director’s most brilliant and unforgettable.

Grade: A

Before Sunset (2004)

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Before Sunset, taking place nine years after the events in Before Sunrise, is the shortest and talkiest of the three Before movies, which both makes and breaks the film. The scenes are longer (some last from 5 to 11 minutes) and the dialogue is heavier, but the two central characters are more developed and mature than they were that one summer in Vienna. Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy return as the two star-crossed lovers Jesse and Celine, now entering their 30s. Jesse is a celebrated author, finishing off his book tour in Paris, when he sees Celine for the first time since they parted in ’94 and promised to see each other six months from that time. His book, titled This Time, recounts and somewhat exaggerates Jesse’s meeting with Celine, justifying why Celine read it and went to look for him. The pair still look great together, even though their hair is different and voices are raspier. Like in the first film, Jesse asks Celine to spend the afternoon with him before he has to go back home in the evening. Before Sunset celebrates the idea of two people who found a connection long ago finding each other again and reflecting the lost time in between. But in this reflection, time shows just how worn out the two have become by the growing pains of adulthood. Instead of talking about their ambitions and aspirations, Jesse and Celine now discuss their lives, their work, and their current relationships. In addition to writing, Jesse is married and has a young son; Celine is an environmentalist and is dating a photojournalist. I was initially surprised by this, considering neither of them disclose such personal information until almost halfway through the film. Jesse and Celine still seem attracted to one another, making even more agonizing to watch them fall in love once more. They manage to have conversations about existential topics like what you hope to do before the Apocalypse. Unlike Before SunriseBefore Sunset is less adventurous in exploring its setting. Jesse and Celine walk and talk in a coffee shop, on the street, in a park, on a 15-minute boat ride, and finally in Celine’s apartment — and that’s it. While the dialogue from the first half of the film meanders from intriguing to middling, the parts in the second half are when things get really interesting. In a tense car ride back to Celine’s apartment, the two hash out their frustrations and daily dissatisfactions. Jesse has an unhappy marriage, but doesn’t want to jeopardize it for the sake of his son, while Celine has lost her romantic sensibilities and subsequently has become more cynical towards people. One of the most profoundly devastating moments of the whole movie happens during that conversation, when Celine reaches over to touch Jesse’s head out of comfort when he’s on a tangent, but she quickly whisks her hand away when Jesse turns his head. The cinematography remains sharp as ever, making wide shots picturesque and medium close-ups intimate. Linklater has elevated his writing with the help of the film’s stars themselves (the script was nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay at the 2006 Oscars). Perhaps the reason why I wasn’t that impressed with Before Sunset is similar to how Celine felt about her life: all the romantic grandeur from the first film is completely lost and the harshness of real life has filled the void. But perhaps the reality is what made Before Sunset so believable and relatable to some. The movie’s very last scene, where Celine dances around to a Nina Simone song in her apartment with Jesse observing her, is pretty much the essence of Before Sunset: it’s both tantalizing and aggravating to watch. I hope I can watch this movie again to appreciate it more.

Grade: B

Bad News Bears (2005)

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Just an FYI: Richard Linklater’s remake of Bad News Bears is not essential viewing. Though I have not seen the 1976 original, I’ve heard much better reviews of that version than this one. Regardless, the 2005 Bad News Bears is still watchable, with its raunchy humor punctuated by small moments of heart. Billy Bob Thorton fits like a glove — I killin’ it with the puns, right? — as the film’s protagonist, Morris Buttermaker, a washed-up alcoholic who played once for the Seattle Mariners before being ejected from the Major leagues for attacking an umpire. He eventually regains some form of redemption when he decides to coach baseball to a group of dysfunctional, unruly, foul-mouthed kids, one of whom is handicapped and two of whom don’t speak of a speck of English. Considering this is not Linklater original material, Bad News Bears unfortunately suffers from a lot of familiar sports comedy tropes. The titular baseball team becomes the underdogs of the story and Buttermaker is their hapless savior. Once they improve only slightly, Buttermaker enlists the daughter of one of his ex-girlfriends, Amanda Whurlitzer, to play pitcher and later recruits tween rebel Kelly Leak as a crucial hitter. I am actually surprised to say that there are a few thematic parallels to School of Rock in Bad News Bears: Buttermaker realizes that perhaps he enjoys helping these down-on-their-luck kids and that putting in effort to help his team is actually fulfilling. In the end of both films, the good guys don’t win, but their passion is what really counts. But unlike School of Rock, Bad News Bears trades in its unsentimentality for a sentimental, mediocre payoff. The cast of young kids are wisecracking and angsty, but don’t share the same charm as the students from School of Rock. Thorton, fortunately, keeps the team and the uneven tones of Bad News Bears from falling apart completely, balancing a smarmy, unapologetic edginess with an unexpected soft side. His relationship with Amanda is sweet, showing that he not only wants her to play on his team, but also perhaps to maintain the parental responsibility he secretly yearns for. Greg Kinnear is also perfect as Buttermaker’s enemy and his team’s competition, Ray Bullock. Like Thorton, Kinnear’s commitment to the role is quite impressive, equipping his character with the too-tight short shorts and overbearing seriousness of any baseball dad/coach of a minor league team. Kinnear’s banter with Thorton is also great to watch, the two exchanging passive-aggressive insults at one another. As for Bad News Bears‘ standing in Linklater’s filmography, it’s not his finest achievement, but it’s still somewhat passable as an entertaining movie.

Grade: B-

Fast Food Nation (2006)

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Like most critics at the time, I was mixed about Fast Food Nation. Based on the book by Eric Schlosser, Fast Food Nation has the potential to offer a profound take on its source material, but instead becomes a muddled narrative. The book was a non-fiction account of the unethical actions of the meat-packing industry and the rapid commercialization of American fast food joints. The film adaptation twists that into an ambitious but poorly executed story that can be broken down into three different storylines, all of which are promising but flawed. The first storyline starts out in Anaheim, California, where we meet Don Anderson (Greg Kinnear), the marketing director of a popular fast food restaurant called Mickey’s, which apparently sells burgers with fecal matter in them. He goes to investigate this and justifies his speculating theory about shit-filled burgers during a lunch with Mickey’s executive VP Harry Rydell (a disarming Bruce Willis cameo), who admits Don is right but would rather not get into it. This perplexes Don, as he is at a crossroads between quitting the company that gave him a great position or staying with a corporation that sells unhealthy food to oblivious customers. In his last scene, it’s ambiguous as to what’s happens next, making that story’s plot all the more frustrating. The second of Fast Food Nation’s three subplots — and the weakest of the three — starts at the U.S.-Mexico border, where a group of Mexican immigrants travels to work at the factory that manufactures Mickey’s burgers. Wilmer Valderrama gives a surprisingly admirable dramatic performance as Raul, one of the immigrants, who recognizes immediately the ethical dilemmas that he faces working at the factory. He hates the way he’s treated, but still gets to earn a good amount of money, which is enough to make a living. His girlfriend Sylvia (Catalina Sandino Moreno) is more weary of their situation and her amphetamine-using sister Coco (Ana Claudia Talancón) sleeps with their malicious boss Mike (Bobby Cannavale) for god knows why. The three of them experience the horrific working conditions of the factory, which eventually takes a toll on each of their emotional and physical well-being. Coco becomes addicted to meth, while Raul hurts his back after unsuccessfully attempting to save a co-worker from getting his leg mangled in a machine. Hopeless and desperate, Sylvia decides to sleep with Mike in order to get a better paying job as a factory worker while Raul is bed-ridden and her demise is met once she (and the viewer) sees the horrors of killing, skinning, and dismembering cows. I had several problems with this storyline. While I appreciated its authentic look at the illegal immigrant experience and the consequences of living in a society that treats you like it treats its food, the characters were too thinly developed and unlikeable, and that also goes for Don’s storyline. However, the third and most evolved subplot gives Fast Food Nation a more grounded, intriguing perspective on the story’s main messages and themes. It begins with a Mickey’s employee named Amber (Ashley Johnson), a bright, upbeat cashier and high schooler who quickly learns of her company’s transgressions. As she grows more and more aware of Mickey’s evildoings, she joins an environmental activist group of students (Lou Taylor Pucci, Avril Lavigne, Aaron Himelstein), who attempt to free the cows that would ultimately become Mickey’s meat. When that fails, she becomes even more confused and frazzled about what to do, eventually leading to quit her job and pursue a real career in something. This story is not as refined as it could be, but it definitely holds some thought-provoking ideas. Within Fast Food Nation‘s cynicism, there are bright spots. Four Boyhood actors — Ethan Hawke, Patricia Arquette, Ellar Coltrane, and Marco Perella — make appearances, some of which are small but are still fun to see. Coltrane plays Don’s son in one scene, while Arquette and Hawke play Amber’s mom and uncle, respectively. Hawke lights up the screen and dialogue with his goofy, fun-loving uncle character, especially in one particular sequence where he gives Amber thoughtful advice about the evils of American consumerism and the standardization of restaurants like Mickey’s. But unlike many of Linklater’s films, I did not feel the urge to watch Fast Food Nation again nor would I want to.

Grade: C+

A Scanner Darkly (2006) 

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A Scanner Darkly was Linklater’s fourth adaptation in a row (if you include Before Sunrise as an adaptation from an original work). At this point, I was starting to get worried that Linklater’s touch was wavering, especially since his least critically-acclaimed films (Bad News Bears, Fast Food Nation) all happened to take place during the mid-2000s and all of which were adaptations. Linklater works better with his own original ideas, after all. But regardless, I still found A Scanner Darkly to be a respectable effort. The film is based on the novel by lauded author Philip K. Dick, whose other works include “The Man in the High Castle” (now an Amazon show) and “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” (which was adapted into 1982’s Blade Runner). Tackling themes of addiction, paranoia, identity, deception, and national security, A Scanner Darkly elevates its sci-fi premise with surreal rotoscoped animation and a prickly sense of despair. This is an unusual film for Linklater, considering that he hadn’t really made a thriller in his entire career. Fortunately, he still utilizes his own auteur tinge within the source material, even if he struggles to do so at times. Taking place seven years from now — so, 2011 since it was filmed in 2004 — A Scanner Darkly is set in a dystopic America where everyone is constantly monitored by high-tech surveillance due to an expanding drug epidemic. The epidemic is specifically concerned with something called Substance D, a powerful hallucinogenic drug that’s being used by almost 20% of the country’s population. One of the users is a man named Bob Arctor (Keanu Reeves), who’s posing as an undercover agent in order to gain access to the drugs himself. He hangs out with other drug addicts James Barris (Robert Downey Jr., pre-Iron Man), Ernie Luckman (Woody Harrelson), Charles Freck (Dazed and Confused’s Rory Cochrane), and Bob’s girlfriend Donna Hawthorne (Winona Ryder). As Bob becomes increasingly doubtful of his abilities, he also becomes more and more addicted to Substance D, slowly being unable to recognize his own self. Because he wears a shapeshifting, voice-altering costume at his job for the sake of anonymity, he’s tasked by his boss “Hank” to surveil himself, as he is suspected by the police to have possession of Substance D. Bob continues to lose his self-awareness and starts to unravel, forgetting his name and what he experienced the night before. Eventually, he becomes so disoriented that he is taken to the New-Path clinic, a place that supposedly helps Substance D addicts but instead brainwashes them into helping them grow and fertilize the blue flowers that are the source of the drug. Because he no longer knows himself or about anything, he, among other manipulated recovering addicts, are trusted to keep New-Path’s secret operation, thus leading to a hauntingly tragic ending for Bob. The credits even speak directly to the dangers and consequences of drug addiction, with the names of dead addicts listed from Philip K. Dick’s after note scrolling before the credits. This recurring idea of how addicts are treated in society is mainly what makes A Scanner Darkly so intense and compelling, yet something feels missing from it. Perhaps I expected too much from it. While the cast was great, the acting wasn’t always spectacular (with the exception of the always-on Downey Jr.), even when the actors were masked under layers of animated drawings. The film could’ve been shorter and delved deeper into the backstory of the characters. During one scene, Bob explains in voiceover how, before the epidemic, he was abandoned by his wife and two kids, whom he didn’t really care for in the first place. He hated his mundane life, but at the same time, doesn’t enjoy the life he has at the moment. This sequence is intriguing, but doesn’t really take off, making it immediately forgettable. Perhaps that’s how A Scanner Darkly wants us to feel in order to sympathize with the protagonist, especially in how Bob Arctor’s increasing memory less is matched with the film’s sense of alienation. Even though A Scanner Darkly wasn’t one of Linklater’s best, it’s still another remarkable cinematic achievement, both visually and conceptually.

Grade: B

Me and Orson Welles (2008)

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After a string of uneven, dour movies, Linklater landed back on his feet with the light-hearted and charming Me and Orson Welles. With three strong performances led by Zac Efron (then a High School Musical heartthrob), “Homeland”’s Claire Danes, and Christian McKay in his breakout role, Me and Orson Welles succeeds both as a thoughtful coming-of-age story and as a comedy about the highs and lows of theater and stage acting. Another adaptation, this time from Robert Kaplow’s novel, the film dramatizes the 1937 stage production of “Julius Caesar” that was created and written by revered writer-director-actor Orson Welles (McKay). A young aspiring actor Richard Samuels (Efron) joins Welles’ cast after impressing him with his singing talents, but soon learns of Welles’ temperamental, egotistical, and often manipulative character. Welles is not, in fact, the beloved celebrity that many respected and sometimes glorified. But that doesn’t stop Richard, especially after meeting and crushing on Welles’ career-driven production assistant Sonja Jones (Danes). Despite their age difference, Efron and Danes do have chemistry and they manage to sell their characters’ blossoming romance. Despite his constraints, Richard goes along with Welles’ demanding behavior in order to remain in “Julius Caesar,” but realizes he can no longer heed to Welles and his deceptive demeanor. He despises being treated with such contempt, but Welles has no patience for that and subsequently fires him. Richard later reconciles with Welles and rejoins the production for opening night, only to get fired again after the show’s end. Even after having a one-night affair with Richard, Sonja rejects him, leaving Richard back to square one. This is not a Whiplash story, where the protagonist becomes so obsessed with pleasing his teacher that he essentially destroys himself; it’s the exact opposite, in fact. Richard doesn’t perform a passionate rebuttal to Welles and instead confidently and almost triumphantly recites his lines from “Julius Caesar” in his high school English class. He’s wised up, even though he’s heartbroken, something Linklater does incredibly well at showcasing: characters who learn how to grow up when they need to. Though Linklater didn’t write the screenplay, the two writers behind Me and Orson Welles (Holly Gent Palmo and Vincent Palmo Jr.) do an exceptional job. Danes and Efron are impressive, even Zoe Kazan gives a fine performance as Richard’s other love interest Gretta Adler. But it’s McKay who stands out the most by far. His portrayal of Welles is so spot-on, nuanced, and emotionally charged that he deserved all the award nominations he received (this included a BAFTA nom). Me and Orson Welles definitely deserved more recognition than it actually got, and this was most likely due to the film’s lack of distributors (it was passed on from Cannes to the Toronto Film Festival to SXSW, until it was finally bought by production company CinemaNX). Nonetheless, Me and Orson Welles another exceptional entry into the Linklater canon. 

Grade: A-

Bernie (2011)

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For the record, Bernie is both a funny and weirdly insightful film. It’s entertaining because of its quick pace and eccentric characters, but it also somehow manages to sneak in some social commentary about morality, idolizing good-natured pseudo-celebrities, and our difficulty with cognitive dissonance when our opinions about others are compromised by contradictory evidence. Based on an true story, Bernie is a film with that kind of good-natured pseudo-celebrity character, a man named Bernie Tiede (a reliably great Jack Black). Set in the homey Carthage, Texas, the film is told both as a mockumentary and linear dramatic narrative. The mockumentary parts showcase the thoughts and opinions of Bernie from the Carthage townsfolk, who praised him for his commitment to the community and tireless ambition to make people’s lives better. He’s essentially a Renaissance man of the modern age, working as a mortician, funeral director, church singer, community stage performer, and compassionate do-gooder. One of those lives he changes happens to be a restless, affluent widower Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine). After multiple attempts of expressing kindness, Bernie becomes Marjorie’s BFF, the two embarking on trips to exotic places and spending excessive amounts of time with one another. Soon, however, Bernie grows tired of Marjorie’s incessant nagging and abusive nature, using Bernie simply for her own interest. After months of pain and suffering, Bernie shoots her in the back, four times with her shotgun. He immediately crumbles into despair, but figures that he could use her wealth to help fund local businesses and homes without anyone knowing. Of course, this is when he unknowingly enters a path into darkness. Marjorie’s disappearance incites some questions among the townspeople of Carthage and eventually her body is found whole in a freezer at her house, leading people to suspect Bernie of murder. But how can he?, the people ask. He’s Bernie, he wouldn’t hurt a fly. What’s most interesting to see is not just people defending a man completely guilty of a crime, but their condemnation and demonization of the female victim, even if she was an insane and horrible woman. No-nonsense lawyer Danny Buck Davidson (a classic Matthew McConaughey) sees through all the bullshit and decides to put Bernie in his place once and for all. Now keep in mind, Bernie is completely taking ownership of his wrongdoing; he admitted it to the police and is willing to do time. Due to the overwhelming support and high regard of Bernie from Carthage, Davidson decides to move his case to a different Texas city for a more unbiased trial. Even though Bernie still charms the pants off the jury, Davidson’s passionate speech moves them enough to find Bernie guilty of his misdemeanor. To this day, the real Bernie Tiede remains in prison for life, but still finds time to do his part for the community there. That’s what so oddly great about the film; Bernie is so ridiculous and unbelievable, yet everything (at least, most things) seems to have happened and Linklater’s return to his home state makes the story all the more interesting.                    

Grade: A-

Before Midnight (2013)

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In each Before film, the color scheme plays a huge role in representing each film’s mood and recurring theme (kind of like Picasso’s Rose, Crystal, and Blue Periods). Before Sunrise employs a rosy hue to signify Jesse and Celine’s innocence and burgeoning romance; Before Sunrise uses yellow to illuminate their rekindling attraction to one another and glow as wiser versions of themselves; Before Midnight utilizes blue to showcase their growing sadness as aging married lovers and parents. Linklater’s third and final entry into the Before saga is fortunately not as sad as one would expect. There are certainly more serious elements to it than Before Sunrise and Before Sunset, two movies that focused on the good parts of Jesse and Celine’s relationship. But now, we get to see how things have ended up and where Jesse and Celine are headed. Taking place in yet another European location (this time in Greece) and set exactly nine years after the events of Before Sunset, Before Midnight is a brilliant drama that wisely and admirably shows the toughness of marriage, long-term commitment, and long-lasting love. Before we even see the two lovebirds together, we first find a 40-something Jesse, walking with his now grown-up son Hank in the Greek airport. It’s implied that Jesse and Hank’s mother are no longer together and later revealed that Hank was in Greece with his father just for the summer. Jesse wants to spend more time with Hank, but Hank doesn’t want Jesse to feel the need to be with him all the time. This saddens Jesse, and Hawke perfectly encapsulates his character’s despair when he says goodbye to Hank and watches him as he goes through checkpoint security. Then, Jesse goes back to his normal life, where he is married to Celine and has two blonde-haired, bilingual twin daughters. I was worried that Before Midnight’s use of extended sequences would weaken the movie’s core, but it in fact strengthens it, especially with the film’s sumptuous cinematography. As Jesse and Celine drive back to where they are staying, the camera is stuck on the two for a good 13 minutes straight. Their conversation drifts from Celine’s frustrated hesitance to work for the French government to Jesse’s concerns over Hank to their relationship dynamic. It’s extremely clear that there is tension boiling underneath Jesse and Celine’s bickering. Later, the two join the friendly group of locals whom they have stayed with: an older couple, a couple their age, and a young couple. The 17-minute sequence where all of them have dinner together is also extraordinary and it’s fortunately not a single static shot. Jesse, Celine, and the rest discuss important issues about love and life from different perspectives. The young people acknowledge that their relationship won’t last, so they cherish it as much as they can. The couple who are Jesse and Celine’s age talk about everlasting love and the differing world views of men and women. Jesse and Celine’s contribution is also quite telling of the state of their relationship, as they act both passive-aggressively and passionately towards one another. Celine lightly insults Jesse’s people-pleasing attitude, while Jesse subtly acknowledges her stubbornness. The most profound moment during this sequence comes from the woman of the older couple, who offers a quietly devastating anecdote about missing a loved one and gives a hopeful mantra about “passing through” life to get by. Throughout the next few scenes, Jesse and Celine talk more directly about their relationship, now that they are away from everyone and their kids for the first time in a long time. They reminiscence over their romance in Before Sunrise and their reunion in Before Sunset, and it’s all bittersweet. But like before, there’s something bubbling in the water. Celine asks Jesse if he would ask her to get off the train with him as the person she is now, to which Jesse hesitantly replies, “Of course.” She insists he respond with something more romantic, but then again, sometimes that’s not always the case. This unsettling, brewing tension continues, especially when the two get a hotel room for the night and spend a good 20 minutes together before everything turns into shambles. At first, they engage in sex, but a phone call from Hank instigates a slowly building fight between Jesse and Celine, setting off every single jab and insult they can at one another. Similar to Tape‘s claustrophobic setting, the fighting scene offers an incredible acting showcase for both Hawke and Delpy, so much so that that scene alone could be done as a short play. Even with Jesse and Celine’s fighting, it’s great seeing the two mature from bright-eyed young adults into responsible, more practical people, which makes it all the more difficult to side with either of them. In the heat of the moment, Celine leaves and Jesse decides what to do next. Finding her alone at a table next to the Peloponnesian oceanside, Jesse pretends to be a time traveler sent by Celine’s 82-year-old self to help present-day Celine get back with him. Celine doesn’t buy into Jesse’s romantic gesture and he eventually gives up. Jesse attempts once more to show her how much she means to him, saying that love isn’t perfect, but that this is real life and not a fairy tale. After a moment of silence, Celine pretends to play along with Jesse’s gesture. As the camera slowly moves back while the two reconcile, it becomes clear that Linklater has mastered a kind of humanistic storytelling that not many other filmmakers have achieved yet. With its impeccable script, its devotion to honesty, and its overall brilliance, Before Midnight is a marvel of a film, something that may be hard to watch with someone you love dearly, but will ultimately be satisfying in the end. 

Grade: A

Boyhood (2014)

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The first time I watched Boyhood in theaters, I was about to enter my last year of high school. What made it even more special was that I saw it with my family. Senior year was the pinnacle of my high school experience and I was about to embark one of the most transitional and overwhelming times of my life so far. Boyhood was a beautiful, if sentimental, reminder of how people grow up so quickly and the kinds of people who influence and shape who we are as individuals. In addition to being one of the most ambitious films I’ve ever seen, Boyhood is Linklater’s sprawling magnum opus on the human condition. It addresses a variety of topics and situations — school, family, love, pop culture, domestic violence, responsibility — that may seem difficult to put all in nearly 3 hours, but Boyhood pulls it off effortlessly. Shot over the course of 12 years, starting in 2002, Boyhood marks the journey of a Texan boy named Mason (Ellar Coltrane) from a wide-eyed 1st grader to a perceptive, lanky 18-year-old. It’s crazy to think that Linklater shot this film while simultaneously producing, writing, and directing 8 other movies in between. It’s also insane to believe that the opening scene’s song, Coldplay’s “Yellow,” was released right when the movie was beginning to film, before Coldplay was even a thing. We observe Mason gradually grow, seeing him live with his endearing mother Olivia (Patricia Arquette) and obnoxious-turned-rebellious older sister Samantha (Linklater’s daughter Lorelai). They end up moving to Houston in order for Olivia to get her degree and become a psychology teacher. In one subtle scene, Mason is slowly shedding away his childhood by painting over his heights written in marker on the walls of his old home. His father Mason Sr. (Ethan Hawke) comes back into the picture after traveling and promises to be more of a presence in Mason and Samantha’s lives, which he does. He takes them to an Astros game and camps out with Mason, where they share some 2008 pop culture trivia and an unintentional prediction of more Star Wars films. A main issue I initially had with Boyhood was its somewhat forced and poorly executed portrayal of Olivia’s marriage to destructive alcoholics, first with her teacher Bill (Marco Perella) and then her ex-marine student Jim (Brad Hawkins), but I am willing to excuse those melodramatic aspects. Towards his impending adolescence, Mason starts smoking weed and drinking alcohol, but seems very calm and nonchalant about it. He’s not as out-of-control as his abusive stepfathers; he’s more mellow like his old man. At this point, Mason Sr. has already started a new family, marrying a nice young Christian woman and having a son together. A few sequences later, Mason Jr. shows a passion for photography and starts dating his charming classmate Sheena (Zoe Graham) and so on and so forth. There are so many great aspects of Boyhood that would be unnecessary to elaborate on, but I do have some criticisms. Hawke, Arquette, and Coltrane’s acting was fantastic, but for some reason, I’m always bothered by Lorelai Linkater’s acting, perhaps because she actually didn’t want to be in the film anymore halfway through production — and it shows. It’s also a rather nepotistic part on Richard Linklater to use his own daughter in his movie, but that’s his decision. Also, one of the more problematic scenes in Boyhood involves a seemingly harmless point that actually comes across as a white savior narrative. Around the 2010 timeline, Olivia tells a Mexican worker cleaning her septic line that he’s “smart” and should attend night school. Later, when Olivia is sitting with her two kids at a restaurant, that worker (named Ernesto) is now a manager at the restaurant and listened to her advice. I’m sure Linklater did not intentionally mean to showcase this situation in the way that other films like The Blind Side or Avatar have done, in terms of white people rescuing people of color from their plight. Perhaps he saw it more as a testament to how insignificant  events from our past can have a greater significance in our present. But unfortunately, that’s how it comes across and it doesn’t even seem to have enough emotional impact on Mason or Samantha, who kind of just shrug at Ernesto’s complimenting of their mother. Olivia herself seemed quite baffled by it, as if she had completely forgotten what she’d done. Then again, growing up all happens almost in a blur, which is partly why Boyhood feels so real and tangible as a concept. It’s not necessarily the big moments in life or the notable rites of passage (first kiss, crush, drink), but the little moments in life. Mason eventually learns that in the incredible last scene of the film, where he and a new love interest Nicole (Jessi Mechler) talk about how “moments seizing us,” instead of the other way around. What a beautiful way to articulate life and what better way to cap that off after 12 years of essentially filming someone’s life.

Grade: A

Note: I have not seen Linklater’s most recent film Everybody Wants Some!!, but once it comes out on DVD/VOD, then I will update this post with my review.

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4 thoughts on “The Work of Richard Linklater

  1. Fantastic and in-depth article. I liked Boyhood and honestly wasn’t aware that Linklater has directed so many movies. I’ve got a lot to catch but on. Very, very interesting read, especially for someone who likes movies and is always looking for recommendations (like I do). Are you currently sharing your work on any other movie/tv platforms?

    Like

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