The Work of Alfonso Cuarón

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Over the past two decades, Mexican-born director Alfonso Cuarón has made his way into Hollywood with a varied and surprisingly diverse filmography. He’s directed two kids movies, one lighthearted (1995’s “A Little Princess”) and one tonally darker (2004’s “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban”); a modern adaptation of a Charles Dickens novel (1998’s “Great Expectations”); a dystopian action thriller (2006’s “Children of Men”); a Mexican road movie (2001’s “Y Tu Mamá También); and a space epic (2013’s “Gravity”). Known for utilizing long, continuous takes, wide angle shots, and negative space, Cuarón’s visual techniques are arguably his greatest quality, thanks mostly to his visionary touch and help from frequent collaborator, Oscar-winning cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki. Thematically, Cuarón’s films dwell on existentialism, friendship, race, class, survival, and love. Usually, the protagonists in Cuarón’s movies undergo a drastic personal change — and in some cases, a rebirth — over the course of the film, usually by going through an arduous and life-altering journey, a disruption in their daily lifestyle, or other difficult obstacles. Having only directed six films, excluding his 1991 Mexican debut “Sólo con Tu Pareja,” Cuarón is a masterful, distinctive storyteller and his films are essential to watch for film buffs and moviegoers everywhere.

“A Little Princess” (1995)

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Though I appreciated the technical and visual aspects of “A Little Princess,” I wasn’t necessarily thrilled when watching the film, especially considering its target audience is predominantly young children. “A Little Princess” definitely captures the magical realism that it seeks, imbuing a starry-eyed innocence and wonder within the script, characters, and dreamy setting. However, I felt the story itself felt familiar and somewhat flat and though the ending may have been satisfying, the payoff wasn’t quite as compelling as it should have been. Narrated and seen from the perspective of Sarah Crewe (Liesel Matthews), the privileged daughter of a wealthy aristocrat British soldier, “A Little Princess” is set in WWI-era New York, where Sarah is relocated after her father leaves abruptly to fight in the war. She is sent to an all-girl boarding school in the city, where she faces the villainous headmistress Miss Minchin (Eleanor Bron). Under Miss Minchin’s authoritarian rule, Sarah sees the kind of strictness employed within the school, each girl having to follow all of Miss Minchin’s instructions (no talking at the dinner table, doing arithmetic correctly). You know, the sort of stuff that any generic villain in a kids movie would do, right? At first, Sarah continues to live her affluent lifestyle, living in a beautiful suite and being treated with more respect than the other girls. Nevertheless, Sarah cultivates a much-needed passion within the school structure, providing fascinating tales during reading time and subsequently spark the repressed interest of the girls. Unfortunately, things change for the worse when Sarah’s father was unexpectedly (and allegedly) killed in combat. Seeing Sarah now as a threat, Miss Minchin orders Sarah to become a servant, forcing her to work nonstop and share the shabby attic with the other young scullery maid Becky (Vanessa Lee Carter). This doesn’t stop Sarah from telling her magical stories and folklore, only making her closer with Becky and the rest of her schoolmates. Other than the ravishing cinematography, set/production design, and costuming, “A Little Princess” is sensible in its portrayal of Sarah and the rest of the child protagonists. There were even some genuinely funny moments! But for some reason, I didn’t find “A Little Princess” that compelling of a film. Matthews had really the only well-developed performance in the entire film, as the rest of the cast struggles under the weight of using mawkishness and sentimentality in their performances. Even Eleanor Bron made Miss Minchin into another stereotypical, one-dimensional villain, though there is one subtle scene that shows her having a redeemable quality. Perhaps the film may have aged poorly or I’m just a little too old and not as nostalgic about childhood. “A Little Princess” may not have been an amazing watch, but it’s still an admirable first effort from Cuarón.

Grade: B

Favorite shots:

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“Great Expectations” (1998)

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I actually really enjoyed watching Cuarón’s “Great Expectations,” an updated, revisionist adaptation of Charles Dickens’ famous novel, co-written by Cuarón, David Mamet, and Mitch Glazer. However, there were certain crucial elements in the film that held it back from becoming a breathtaking cinematic achievement. For one thing, the cast is stellar and even almost perfect; it includes Ethan Hawke, Anne Bancroft, Robert De Niro, Chris Cooper, Hank Azaria…and Gwyneth Paltrow, who was completely miscast in my opinion (or simply did not do a good job of acting in this particular role). She certainly did not have enough romantic chemistry with Hawke, as the two played the central couple/love interests. Another thing is that the film starts out fantastically, but fluctuates tonally towards the end. Taking place from 1970s Florida to 1990s New York, “Great Expectations” focuses on the journey of the story’s hero Finn (Hawke), a skilled artist who as a child held ambitious aspirations but quickly became infatuated with the young granddaughter of an aging wealthy woman, Miss Dinsmoor (Bancroft). Every Saturday for 10+ years, Finn visits Miss Dinsmoor and her granddaughter Estella (Paltrow) and becomes more and more possessed by Estella’s enigmatic allure. Finn tries to pursue Estella romantically, but even after a brief sexual encounter, Estella rejects him repeatedly, leading Finn to move on from his past and begin planning on a life for himself. As a young adult, Finn has given up on being an artist and instead becomes a fisherman like his uncle Joe (Cooper). But Finn’s adeptness for painting and drawing comes back to him when he is asked to create an art gallery in New York City with the promises of money, success, and fame. He reluctantly agrees and thrust back into his passion for not only art, but Estella, who happens to be in Manhattan at the same time. The two reconvene, but their chances of reconnecting romantically has dissolved, especially since Estella is married to a rich, ordinary businessman (Azaria). Or so it may seem. Despite my wanting to like and even root for Finn and Estella, I couldn’t resist disliking Hawke and Paltrow as a romantic couple, as they had little to zero chemistry. Though Hawke is an impressive lead, Paltrow’s stilted line delivery and her character’s unlikable personality made it hard to enjoy some parts of “Great Expectations.”In addition to that, the subplot between Finn and mobster Arthur Lustig (De Niro) is one of the film’s weakest qualities. It attempts to showcase how Finn has grown as a character, having saved (and incidentally unsaved) Arthur from escaping prison. Despite that subplot being somewhat intriguing, it unsuccessfully loosens the tight thread of the story, causing “Great Expectations” to be uneven. But what saves most of the movie are the visuals and the editing in particular. Green plays a huge role in the color scheme of “Great Expectations,” both as an attractive mood setter and symbol of the film’s recurring themes of money, class, privilege, growth, and possibly nauseous heartache. The color can found in almost every shot and it helps indicate Finn’s character as a man struggling with making something out of his life, while trying to share his life with someone whom he loves (or at least believes he loves). As Finn said in voiceover during one of the first sequences, “Great Expectations” is not meant to an actual retelling of these events, but how Finn remembers those events from his perspective. That kind of sentiment grounds “Great Expectations” to a certain extent and gives the depth and emotional honesty it needs, even though there are a few missteps along the way.

Grade: B

Favorite shots:

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“Y Tu Mamá También” (2001)

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“Y Tu Mamá También” is the kind of great film that is so unapologetically honest, brutally explicit, and completely engaging that you can’t take your eyes off it for a second. Sure, there are a few long, drawn-out sequences that are occasionally boring. But the majority of “Y Tu Mamá También,” Cuarón’s third and arguably best film, is built on well-crafted characters, frank sexuality, well-written dialogue (both scripted and improvised), and some social commentary to boot. Set in Cuarón’s native Mexico, the film is part coming-of-age story, part tantalizing erotic drama, part road trip movie. It features career-making performances from real-life best friends Golden Globe winner Gael Garcia Banal and Diego Luna, who portray the two hormonal teenage protagonists Julio and Tenoch. Both characters come from different socioeconomic backgrounds: Julio is from a middle-class, leftist family, while Tenoch is the son of a high-ranking political official in Mexico. Yet the two still maintain a friendship through their partying, drug and alcohol use, and general horniness. The film even opens on two graphic sex scenes, both showing the two boys each with their respective girlfriends, who are set to leave and travel to Italy for vacation. Though Julio and Tenoch promise their girlfriends to remain faithful after they leave, their horniness gets the better of them and they meet and ultimately attract the attention of an older woman named Luisa (Maribel Verdú), the wife of Tenoch’s cousin Jano. In order to get closer to Luisa, Julio and Tenoch invite her to go on a drive to see a beach called Heaven’s Mouth. Initially, Luisa is reluctant, but after a series of unfortunate events, including Jano’s drunken admittance to infidelity, she decides to join the two boys for a little vacation. Little does she know that Julio and Tenoch have no clue where the actual beach is, but they nevertheless push on and the three learn a whole bunch about one another, both through stories of fun memories and brewing sexual and emotional tension. Some may view the love triangle in “Y Tu Mamá También” as inappropriate and the execution as pornographic, but it does serve a largely artistic purpose. Luisa ultimately has sex with both Julio and Tenoch and the two boys, initially cocky about their sexual suaveness, are clumsy and somewhat too excited during sex. In addition to the film’s extremely revealing commentary on human sexuality, “Y Tu Mamá También” also showcases the political climate in Mexico and the disparity between the lower and upper classes, which are somewhat personified through Julio and Tenoch’s relationship. As their friendship begin to unravel into something much more unsettling, we understand that Julio and Tenoch are more than just a couple of horny teenagers with uncontrollable libidos. Cuarón’s daring direction may be a little risky, but he pulls it off completely and tackles a collection of plots, ideas, and characters that most directors probably wouldn’t be able to grapple with well. It also helps that the entire film is in Spanish, making it easier for Cuarón and the actors to express their thoughts about how to depict Julio, Tenoch, and Luisa’s journey together and the aftermath of what became an unforgettable and life-changing summer. “Y Tu Mamá También” may not be the most relatable film you’ll see, but it’s undoubtedly one that will stick with you until the very last scene, both for the story and the imagery.

Grade: A

Favorite shots:

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“Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban” (2004)

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It’s a strange feeling watching a Harry Potter movie for the first time in a long time. I almost had forgotten how fantastic of a franchise the Harry Potter series was, particularly due to the maturity of stars Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, and Rupert Grint. Their growth as people and as characters was especially present in the third Harry Potter film, “The Prisoner of Azkaban,” the only one of which Cuarón has directed (Chris Columbus directed the first two, Mike Newell directed the fourth, and David Yates directed the fifth until the last one). Yet even in the Harry Potter series, Cuarón manages to stand out, as “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban” has been considered by many fans and critics to be the best film of the franchise, despite it being the lowest-grossing of the eight films. While the first two HP movies were innocent (more the first one), “The Prisoner of Azkaban” represents a change of pace and tone for the series, the calm before the storm, if you will. Cuarón infuses his auteur techniques perfectly into the HP film, while still maintaining the appeal for HP fans. As an angsty 13-year-old, Harry’s journey back to Hogwarts is thwarted by the escape of Sirius Black (Gary Oldman), a Voldemort supporter and ex-best friend of Lily and James Potter, Harry’s parents. “HP3” also marks the introduction to the Dementors, which are honestly one of the most terrifying creatures in cinema that could easily have their own horror movie. Even being in CGI, the Dementors pose as Harry’s biggest fear at the moment, besides Voldemort, and asks his new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher, Professor Lupin (David Thewlis), how to repel them. While he learns to grapple with fighting Dementors, Harry also searches for more clues about the mysterious Sirius Black and discovers that he is Harry’s godfather. Harry, Hermoine, and Ron go on a quest to find the truth about Black in the final climatic and trippy sequence of the film, with Harry learning more about myself than he expected. His relationship with Sirius, which changes quickly from hostile to familial, is touching and even poignant, with Oldman nailing Sirius Black’s character from the characterization down to the physical look. It’s funny how I’d also forgotten how many iconic scenes from the series occurred in “Prisoner of Azkaban.” A few examples include: the unexpectedly hilarious beginning sequence involving Harry casting a spell on his insulting Aunt Marge and blowing her up into a balloon; Hermoine calling Malfoy a “foul, loathsome, evil little cockroaches” and subsequently sucker punching him in the face; Harry screaming out “EXPECTO PATRONUM!,” one of the most epic line deliveries/moments in cinematic history. This was also Michael Gambon’s first film as Dumbledore, replacing Richard Harris, who had passed away before HP3 filming began, and has does an admirable job in portraying the Hogwarts headmaster ever since. Cuarón does the best he can do under such a heavy Hollywood production and nails it in almost every department, specifically with the brilliant visuals and seemingly impossible continuous long takes. There’s nothing much I can say, considering that “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban” has received enough acclaim and recognition to be considered watchable from an audience/HP fan perspective and thought-provoking from a filmmaking perspective. The plotting is a bit clunky here and there, but it’s important to note that Cuarón’s contribution to the film has made it all the better.

Grade: A

Favorite shots:

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“Children of Men” (2006)

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It’s movies like “Children of Men” that make you wonder: Could this actually happen? When I say “this,” I’m also referring to the film’s futuristic setting, where society is on the brink of collapse and almost every government in the world has become eradicated. Additionally, children are no longer part of the population due to infertility caused by unknown sources. Given the world’s current turbulent political and social state, it is likely for something as maddening as infertility to occur. Nevertheless, as stark and bleak as “Children of Men” may be, it remains a cautionary tale for how our world can break down into utter madness unless we find a way to hold onto hope. Other than a few minor flaws (mostly being the wooden acting from Julianne Moore and Clare-Hope Ashitey), “Children of Men” is a powerful, entertaining, breathtaking, and multi-layered thriller strengthened by harrowing social commentary on societal issues, heartstopping action, and some of the best cinematography in modern cinema. Set in 2027 London, which in that timeline contains the only remaining working government, “Children of Men” follows passionate rebel-turned-depressed government bureaucrat Theo Faron (an amazing Clive Owen), who gets kidnapped by a secret militia led by his ex-wife Julian Taylor (Julianne Moore). She needs his help in getting a young, pregnant girl named Kee (Ashitey) to the Human Project, a rumored safe haven designed to cure infertility. Along their perilous journey, Theo gets help and advice from marijuana consumer Jasper Palmer (a fantastic Michael Caine). But even then, Theo can’t trust many people he comes in contact with, including temperamental rebel Luke (Chiwetel Ejiofor). Through extremely intense and violent situations, Theo makes sure that Kee has her baby and that both are safely taken to the Human Project. What’s so refreshing about “Children of Men” is that it rejects all action movie tropes and conventions. The film subtly sneaks in intellectual and intelligent themes into its plot and displays those themes through uninterrupted action sequences that are almost 8+ minutes long and are too unbelievable and jaw-dropping to comprehend. Though the cause of infertility is never discussed, “Children of Men” infers that the severe issues facing the world — environmental disasters, political corruption, flu epidemics, social unrest — has lead to such insane chaos and anarchism that it must certainly bring down the population size, both with people killing one another and perhaps a general depression/listlessness of women or romantic couples. Yet among the dark tones and themes of “Children of Men,” the biggest factor that drives the story and Theo’s determination is hope and faith, which reinforces the idea that the film also acts as a religious allegory, specifically in reference to the Nativity story: Theo represents Joseph, Kee as Mary, and her baby as Jesus. The one scene in particular where Kee walks with Theo and her baby through a crowd of awed, silent soldiers and rebels symbolizes a moment of divinity and salvation, that that baby holds the key to unlocking the dry spell that has haunted humanity for however long. Cuarón again does a fine job at making “Children of Men” into something much deeper than an action flick, but that can resonate with our society even today when we are experiencing some of the darkest times in recent memory.

Grade: A-

Favorite shots:

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The very last shot! (spoiler alert)

“Gravity” (2013)

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In my original 2013 review of “Gravity,” I mention that the film “proves to be a fantastic addition to the sci-fi thriller genre with mesmerizing visuals, intimate cinematography, and intriguing storytelling.” 3 years later, I still believe in that statement, but now have a greater understanding of what the film represents as a visual and artistic achievement in cinema. Co-written by Cuarón and his son Jonas, “Gravity” still manages to marvel, even it doesn’t quite look as great on a small computer screen than on, let’s say, an IMAX screen. There are a few flaws within “Gravity” that I noticed a second time around, particularly with Sandra Bullock’s character, Dr. Ryan Stone, who is on her first ever space mission and has only trained at a space program for 6 months. Why would they put an inexperienced astronaut in space? I don’t know. But clearly, that wasn’t the point of “Gravity” and logistical stuff like that usually doesn’t find its way into the plots of sci-fi films. But small flaws and inaccuracies aside, “Gravity” delivers on every other level: Emmanuel Lubezki’s visually stunning cinematography (the first shot was 12 minutes long!), Sandra Bullock’s acting, Steve Price’s haunting score, and Cuarón’s writing. Alongside Ryan Stone is space veteran Matt Kowalski (George Clooney), who is on his final mission and is helping assist Ryan into getting acclimated in the scarily peaceful environment of space. But when a field of debris hits their station, Ryan enters a long and frightening journey of survival and makes as many attempts as possible to get back to Earth safely. Other than the visuals and other compelling aesthetic elements, what distinguishes “Gravity” from other space films is its psychological and spiritual themes, the ideas of rebirth and renewal after facing adversity. It parallels to Cuarón’s previous film, “Children of Men,” but focuses on how space itself can be a lonely and isolating place, especially for someone like Ryan who is both lost and suffering from loss (this being of her young daughter). As she works her way through dodging debris, climbing into airlocks, and furiously untangling herself, Ryan realizes that the only person she can and needs to save is herself, since Matt sacrifices his life for her well-being a little before the halfway point of the movie. For claustrophobes and aspiring astronauts who haven’t seen “Gravity,” you’re in for a bumpy and unsettling ride. But for everyone else, “Gravity” remains a remarkable example for modern filmmaking and another great entry into the sci-fi space genre (next to “Interstellar” and “The Martian”).

Read my original review here.

Grade: A-

Favorite shots:

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The Work of Sofia Coppola

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Writer-director Sofia Coppola has come a long way since her infamous acting role in her father’s 1990 film “The Godfather Part III.” As one of Hollywood’s brightest and coolest filmmakers, Coppola has a knack for visual storytelling. Each of her films is aesthetically compelling, both in their beautiful cinematography and classic soundtracks. Since most of her films have little to no dialogue, the music and visuals carry the weight of Coppola’s narratives, as well as the acting and editing. The themes of Coppola’s films involve alienation, loneliness, detachment, and dissatisfaction, which are usually embodied in her protagonists. Coppola collaborates often with her father (who produced three of her movies), her husband and Phoenix lead singer Thomas Mars (who provided background vocals on a song from “The Virgin Suicides,” made a cameo with his band in “Marie Antoinette,” and composed the score of “Somewhere”), producer Ross Katz, and actress Kirsten Dunst (who appears in three of her films). Though not all of her films are acclaimed, Coppola is undoubtedly one of the most talented film directors and screenwriters working today.

“The Virgin Suicides” (2000)

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After watching “The Virgin Suicides” for a second time, I realized how great the film truly is. Some may become frustrated by the film’s ambiguity and disturbing content — it is called “The Virgin Suicides” after all. But regardless of how it may turn people off, “The Virgin Suicides” is a mesmerizing, eerie, and absorbing drama and a fantastic start for Coppola (arguably her best work). Based on the 1993 novel by James Eugenides, the film features a dreamlike score from rock group Air, picturesque composition, and impressive acting from James Woods, Kathleen Turner, and a young Kirsten Dunst. Set in 1970s Michigan, “The Virgin Suicides” follows the mysterious, blonde-haired adolescent Lisbon sisters, who become the object of desire for a group of hormonal teenage boys from across the street. The important thing to note about “The Virgin Suicides” is not that the story is about who the girls were, but how the boys thought about the girls. The narrative being told here parallels to the film’s overarching theme of voyeurism and loss of innocence, which is referenced throughout the film via the narrator (Giovanni Ribisi), who speaks on behalf the male group and recounts the time that changed their lives. The film literally begins with the aftermath of 13-year-old Cecilia’s (Hanna R. Hall) suicide attempt. As the youngest of the five Lisbon sisters, Cecilia is the loneliest and most self-conscious, but also the least clueless; she understands and observes her surroundings with a quiet, subtle sorrow. The Lisbon sisters live under the strict supervision of their authoritarian Catholic parents (Woods and Turner). 14-year-old Lux (Dunst) is the most rebellious and sexually curious of her siblings, toying with the affection of desperate heartthrob Trip Fontane (Josh Hartnett). However, as the Lisbon girls attempt to branch out from their hawk-eyed parents, especially after Cecilia’s second fatal suicide attempt, they ultimately become confined to their house. The now four sisters go with Trip and the group of boys out to homecoming, but Lux gets herself and her sisters in trouble after staying out late from a steamy midnight hookup with Trip on the high school football field. Now, the Lisbon girls have become an enigma, both for the group of boys and the audience, as they are not allowed to be let out of the house for a single moment. While the boys try to figure out what’s happening, the story reflects on the passage of time, both in the present and future. The future parts are primarily just an adult Trip, fondly reminiscing his love for Lux, whom he left quickly after their night out together. While time-lapse sequences are interspersed, we see that Lux is forced to burn all her rock records, causing her to rebel even more and have sex with strangers on her rooftop. Gradually, the Lisbon sisters’ seclusion from the world becomes even more of a mystery. The best scene in the entire film comes when the boys attempt to speak with the sisters by calling them and playing romantic songs on vinyl as a way of subliminal communication (in case their parents were listening). It’s a soft, heartfelt, and nostalgic scene, one of the lighter moments of an otherwise tragic film. Eventually, the boys plan an escape with the Lisbon sisters, which is really only seen in a dream sequence, as the group drives down an empty highway, free of restrictions like school and family. Unfortunately, that’s not how things end up and, well, you can guess what happens next. The Lisbon girls form a suicide pact and one by one, they no longer are just objects of affection. As the film’s conclusion indicates, “The Virgin Suicides” ruminates on how the boys and the rest of the neighborhood dealt with the aftermath of the Lisbon deaths. The narrator notes that while everyone else seemed to forget about the Lisbon family, the boys never forget who they were. That kind of humanism is truly what grounds “The Virgin Suicides” and makes it much more than an ordinary film. Coppola understands the pains of growing up as a young girl and shows that process with a sensitive and perceptive eye.

Grade: A

Favorite shots:

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“Lost in Translation” (2003)

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Sofia Coppola’s “Lost in Translation” is considered by many to be her best and most accomplished film, but I slightly disagree. It’s definitely an admirable piece of work and certainly has many high points, yet I was sort of disappointed with “Lost in Translation,” especially since it started out great and continued to do well until its somewhat trite ending. Coppola’s recurring themes of loneliness and alienation are definitely present here, as the story follows two Americans, aging actor Bob Harris (a remarkably restrained Bill Murray) and doe-eyed Yale graduate Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson), staying in Tokyo. Bob is in Japan to film advertisements for a whiskey he’s promoting, having to suffer through the unintelligible words of his Japanese director and other locals. It doesn’t help that his estranged wife and children don’t want anything to do with him, adding onto his already thick pile of detachment from others. Married to a douchey photographer (Giovanni Ribisi), Charlotte is aimless and so intensely bored by everything that she ends up having a premature existential crisis. Together, Charlotte and Bob make the perfect match, as the two meet in their hotel and decide to walk through the streets of Tokyo, going to strange parties, strip clubs, and karaoke bars. Their friendship feels genuine and heartfelt, especially since Murray and Johansson have surprising platonic chemistry. They are able to infuse those internalized emotions of dread and apathy into those characters without seeming too boring or contrived. At the same time, Bob and Charlotte’s shared dissatisfaction with life is interesting to see, considering that they are both experiencing the same level of distress at different times in their lives. Even when they’re not discussing their hopes, dreams, and problems, Bob and Charlotte bond over the equally fascinating and alien world of Tokyo. In addition to the fantastic lead performances, “Lost in Translation” also benefits from another woozy soundtrack/score, breathtaking cinematography, and a general sense of weightlessness. Even the symbolic lighting is inventive, as Coppola utilizes chiaroscuro (strong light and dark contrasts) to illuminate the conflicting themes of happiness and despondency (perhaps Coppola learned a thing or two from her dad?). However, even with all these positive aspects in mind, my main problem with “Lost in Translation” was mostly with how Bob and Charlotte’s relationship culminated into a kiss in the end. I was praying that the two characters wouldn’t become romantically involved, not because they were already married to other people, but because of their notable age difference (keep in mind, Johansson was 19 when this was being filmed). It once again perpetuated the creepy old man/younger woman trope found in several romantic dramedies (Woody Allen, ring a bell?). Other than that slightly major flaw, “Lost in Translation” was a stirring and visually enthralling experience, a story of two lost souls making a connection in a place that feels somewhat disconnected.

Grade: B+

Favorite shots:

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“Marie Antoinette” (2006)

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It makes sense why “Marie Antoinette” was considered divisive at the time of its release. For one thing, many people thought it wasn’t a great follow-up to the universally acclaimed “Lost in Translation,” that its maximalist approach was beautiful to watch but unnerving, that it was historically inaccurate, and that it felt empty beneath its gaudy exterior. And while most of that is true, “Marie Antoinette” is still an entertaining and appealing drama that continues to showcase Coppola’s visual, aural, and narrative talents. What “Marie Antoinette” lacks in historical accuracies, it makes up for with another powerful lead performance from Kirsten Dunst as the titular protagonist, lavish cinematography, impressive direction, and an unexpectedly talented cast (Molly Shannon! Rose Byrne! Jamie Dornan! Rip Torn! Danny Huston! Jason Schwartzman!). The film also benefits from an awesome contemporary soundtrack, which may turn some off due to its anachronistic nature. But admit it: how cool is it to hear The Strokes’ “What Ever Happened,” Bow Wow Wow’s “Aphrodisiac,” Aphex Twin’s “Avril 14th,” and New Order’s “Ceremony” in a movie set in the late 1700s? The modern soundtrack also bodes well with the character of Marie Antoinette, who was all about living in the present. As the story goes, Marie Antoinette was the infamous Queen of Versailles, known as the first party-girl queen who was unintentionally complicit in the rise of the French Revolution, leading to her death via beheading. But the film primarily focuses on Marie’s journey from an innocent, puppy-loving Austrian heiress to a full-fledged, materialistic aristocrat. Coppola makes the audience sympathize with Marie, showcasing the literal and figurative stripping of her innocence, as she is coerced to wed King Louis XVI of France (Schwartzman) in order to solidify the French-Austrian Alliance. Even while living in luxury, Marie experiences boredom with her rather routine lifestyle: waking up every morning to a crowd of servants, eating gargantuan amounts of foods, attempting and failing at getting her husband to help her conceive a child. Eventually, Marie does bear children, one of whom dies a few days after childbirth. While she is shown to indulge in gluttonous acts like drinking, dining, wearing colorful outfits, and donning awkwardly tall wigs, it’s moments such as when her child dies that truly capture Marie’s despair and utter loneliness. She never wanted this life of royalty, yet it had been given to her and shoved down her throat. That being said, there are some not-so-great parts to the film, particularly its lengthiness (123 minutes, ugh) and occasionally boring sequences. There are a lot of questions one may ask after watching “Marie Antoinette”: Why was Kirsten Dunst speaking in an American accent and not an Austrian/English accent? Why didn’t they show Marie’s beheading in the end? To answer the first question: I’m sure there were certain dramatic liberties Coppola needed to take in order for the film to work and I doubt Dunst would be able to pull of a believable English/Austrian accent. To answer the second question: we don’t see an actual beheading, but one of the last scenes involves Marie going out onto her balcony and resting her head and arms on the balcony’s edge as a group of angry French protestors watch in silence. It essentially resembles a beheading, a symbol of Marie’s defeat as a queen who could not heed to the cries of the people because she couldn’t even heed to her own needs.

Grade: B+

Favorite shots:

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“Somewhere” (2010)

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In contrast to the maximalism of “Marie Antoinette,” Coppola’s follow-up film, “Somewhere” featured a more minimalist approach. And despite being beautifully filmed and relatively well-acted, “Somewhere” was frustratingly slow-paced, which for some can make the film and for others break the film. It definitely treads familiar ground from Coppola’s previous films — specifically “Lost in Translation” — in its portrayal of an empty male celebrity protagonist finds solace in a younger woman. In the case of “Somewhere,” that male celeb is handsome womanizer Johnny Marco (Stephen Dorff) and the younger woman is his cute, precocious 11-year-old daughter Cleo (a stunning Elle Fanning). Before we even meet Cleo, we get a sense of who Johnny is, based on the painstaking single take opening shot of him driving his black Ferrari around in circles on an empty road. He’s trying to get a thrill out of doing something that should be exciting, but as he stops and gets out of the car, Johnny doesn’t seem too thrilled. In later scenes, Johnny lives a wealthy lifestyle at the famous Chateau Marmont, which acts the film’s symbolic setting for both paradisal living and celebrity ennui. Johnny goes to parties and hooks up with the hottest girl there or watches two pole dancers perform in his bedroom. Though his life sounds like a flurry of fun, it’s really just noise for Johnny, whose joylessness can be seen through his passivity, monotone voice, drinking and smoking, and emotionless face. Coppola has mentioned that Johnny’s character isn’t having an existential crisis, but simply has anhedonia, which means the inability to feel pleasure. That is until he finds some meaning when he’s unexpectedly reunited with Cleo, who stays with him after her mother and his ex-wife goes missing for unknown reasons, possibly from suffering from a nervous breakdown. Nevertheless, Cleo and Johnny bond as daughter and father to make up for lost time and their relationship, like in “Lost in Translation,” is genuinely sweet. He watches her ice skating lessons, lets her cook dinner for him, and takes her to Italy for promoting his movie and treats her to a mini vacation. Yet, some of Johnny’s insecurities get the best of him when he sleeps with an Italian model and doesn’t have the guts to explain to Cleo who the woman is at breakfast the next morning. Seeing Cleo’s contempt for his actions, Johnny considering refocusing his lifestyle choices and eventually stops sleeping with random women, even closing the door on a prostitute in his bed and getting burgers with Cleo instead. While the film sounds remarkable, which some parts of it are, I was impatient watching “Somewhere.” There’s no real wow or a-ha moment, but the closest it gets to that occurs late in the film, when an emotional Johnny calls up his ex-wife and tells her that he’s nothing. It’s a quietly powerful and devastating scene, reverberating towards the end when he tells Cleo that he regrets not being around her before and later driving off into the distance, only to get out of the car with the ignition on, not looking back. “Somewhere” is certainly enigmatic and I may revisit it again, but I wouldn’t say this is an essential Sofia Coppola film.

Grade: B

Favorite shots:

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“The Bling Ring” (2013)

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Unfortunately, “The Bling Ring” is Coppola’s weakest film so far, even with captivating cinematography, a promising story, and a hilariously devilish performance from Emma Watson. It also has an aptly pop and hip-hop heavy soundtrack that includes artists Sleigh Bells, 2 Chainz, M.I.A., Rick Ross, Phoenix, and Frank Ocean. Yet not even that can compensate for the film’s extremely unlikable characters, grating performances from Katie Chang and Taissa Farmiga, and an overall uneven tone. It attempts to be a social commentary about fame, obsession, and greed in the post-modern era, which it honestly almost was. Coppola certainly was the right person to write and direct it, but somehow it fell flat. Based on true events, “The Bling Ring” follows a group of unruly, vapid, fame-obsessed high schoolers who break into the homes of Hollywood movie stars and steal their belongings for themselves and to sell to others. The leader and starter of the group, Marc Hall (Israel Broussard), is a quiet, lonely teen, the most likable and sympathetic character of the whole film. He starts out as the new kid at a San Fernando Valley high school, where, on the first day, he meets Rebecca Ahn (Chang), who introduces him to the world of L.A. artifice and vacuity. They start off stealing wallets, then cars, and then jewelry from the home of Paris Hilton. Knowing that Rebecca is his only friend, Marc struggles with his morality in order to have a successful social life. At a club one night, Rebecca introduces Marc to her girl friends: the overtly flashy Nicki (Watson), her adopted sister Sam (Farmiga), and Chloe (Claire Julien). Together, they begin breaking and entering Hollywood houses of celebrities, trying on and taking clothes, makeup, and wads of cash. As most crime dramedies go, these kids will eventually be caught and, since this is based on a true story, they are in fact indicted for their actions. “The Bling Ring” never really glorifies the lifestyle of the rich and famous, since these kids essentially absorb it up like empty, overprivileged sponges. With the exception of Marc, who takes full responsibility and apologizes, the rest of them certainly don’t learn from their actions, especially not Nicki. She victimizes herself to her advantage in order to gain exposure from the paparazzi and media, which ultimately works in her favor in the film’s haunting final scene. Yet “The Bling Ring” doesn’t feel as compelling as it should. It’s not necessarily a bad film, but it’s not a great one either.

Grade: B-

Favorite shots:

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The Work of Alexander Payne

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In the past few years, two-time Oscar-winning indie filmmaker Alexander Payne has made noteworthy strides with his remarkable filmography. With only 6 films under his belt, Payne is a masterful storyteller whose perceptive eye makes his movies entertaining, thought-provoking, and brimming with realism. Like other auteur writer-directors, Payne has retained a distinctive aesthetic and thematic style. With the exception of “Sideways” and “The Descendants,” almost all of Payne’s films take place in his hometown of Omaha, Nebraska. Most of his films’ plots focus on people living in contemporary American society, specifically middle-aged male protagonists reaching a breaking point in their life, either by struggling to maintain relationships or making personal decisions that could drastically change the course of their lives. His films depict these characters through a mostly satirical but undeniably authentic lens, balancing both comedic and dramatic elements. Other recurring themes/motifs in Payne’s films include existential crises, familial ties, infidelity, and road trips. Visually, Payne’s films capture the starkness of the American landscape with expansive cinematography, as physical settings play a huge role in connecting with and influencing the characters (i.e. California wine country in “Sideways” and the Hawaiian islands in “The Descendants”). Almost each Payne film is adapted from a book except for “Citizen Ruth” and “Nebraska.” 4 of Payne’s films are written by Payne and frequent collaborator Jim Taylor (Bob Nelson wrote “Nebraska, while Payne, Nat Faxon, and Jim Rash wrote “The Descendants”). Here are my thoughts on Payne’s movies:

“Citizen Ruth” (1996)

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Clearly aiming to be a biting social satire on the abortion debate, “Citizen Ruth” is instead a juvenile, bizarre, heavy-handed, tone-deaf, and laugh-free “comedy,” where almost every character is an obnoxious caricature of their respective stereotypes. Ruth (a young Laura Dern) is the dumb, homeless paint huffer/alcoholic protagonist, who gets pregnant after a one-night stand. During a legal hearing, the judge asks that she abort her unborn child in order to avoid a long jail sentence. Norm (Kurtwood Smith) and Gail (Mary Kay Place) are the holier-than-thou, aggressively pro-life Christian fanatics, who bail Ruth out of jail. They attempt to coerce her into keeping the child, sending her to pro-life doctors who diminish Ruth’s desire for abortion. She ultimately finds herself taken in by one of Gail’s friends, Diane (Swoosie Kurtz), who happens to be an uber-feminist, pro-choice lesbian in disguise. Accompanied by her lover Rachel (Kelly Preston), Diane helps Ruth to get her the abortion she wants. Unfortunately, the pro-lifers get in the way of that, when an anonymous donor gives $15,000 to the “Baby Savers” foundation in order for Ruth to not get the abortion. Ruth changes her mind, until Diane’s Vietnam vet friend Harlan (M.C. Gainey) offers her $15,000 for her to have the abortion, believing in personal freedom and not sponsorship money. Ruth can’t seem to make up her mind (or her own decisions), constantly being swayed by both sides. The charismatic leader of the pro-life movement, Blaine Gibbons (Burt Reynolds), offers Ruth $27,000 and so on. After attracting local news and more protestors from both sides, Ruth suffers a miscarriage and decides to secretly take the money Harlan offered her. Once she sneaks out of the abortion clinic where she was supposed to have an abortion, Ruth nonchalantly saunters past all the commotion outside the clinic and runs away with glee. Perhaps I’m reading into the too much, as “Citizen Ruth” was made out to be a critique on both sides of the abortion debacle, in that both people who consider themselves extremely pro-life or pro-choice tend to make these kinds of situations more about themselves than about the actual woman carrying the baby. But even Ruth isn’t moral or responsible enough to make her own choices. She already has four kids, whom she cannot see. She gulps any liquor and inhales any patio sealant she can find. So what is the point even? Reynolds and Kurtz had arguably the best performances, making their characters somewhat bearable. However, Laura Dern’s totally unhinged, over-the-top performance is almost unbearable, her vulgar insults and temperamental behavior making Ruth into an unlikable character. It’s also unfortunate that “Citizen Ruth” doesn’t have any characters whatsoever to root for, as each person is deemed to be crazy in their own way. Smith and Kay Place certainly play their uber-religious characters well, but so much so that it becomes irritating. Some might say “Citizen Ruth” is daring, considering that it defies plot and story conventions completely — and they might be right. But other than the film’s slightly thought-provoking resolution, “Citizen Ruth” struggles to make its message clear. The only really positive aspect I will acknowledge from “Citizen Ruth” is its cinematography, the most well-developed part of the entire film. Below, you’ll see three great shots from “Citizen Ruth” that deserved some recognition. But other than that, “Citizen Ruth” was not a fun viewing experience.

(Note: I watched the “Citizen Ruth” trailer before seeing the movie. The producers marketed it to be this odd, hilarious comedy, but it’s actually an extremely dark movie, since it tackles a lot of heavy subject matter, such as abortion, miscarriages, addiction, and fanaticism).

Grade: C-

Favorite shots:

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“Election” (1999)

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Payne’s first film may not have been fantastic, but his second one, 1999’s “Election” definitely was. Featuring extremely clever writing and electric performances from Matthew Broderick and a young Reese Witherspoon, “Election” is a hilarious, enjoyable, and occasionally raunchy venture into high school satire. Though it may not appeal to some for its frank depiction of inappropriate romantic relationships, “Election” triumphs as a bold film about infidelity, fantasy, school politics, and the drive to succeed, more specifically to win a stupid high school student government election. Broderick plays the movie’s antihero Jim McAllister, a beloved high school civics and history teacher who’s kind of like a grown-up version of Ferris Bueller: likable and charming but mischievous and slightly deceptive. His normal routine is interrupted by the annoying presence of Tracy Flick (Witherspoon), an aggressively friendly and ambitious overachiever, who will pretty much do whatever it takes to get to the top, starting with running for school president. In addition to being the advisor for student council, Jim feels threatened by Tracy’s goals to be student body president, especially after she had a covert affair with another teacher (one of Jim’s best friends). Determined to make sure Tracy doesn’t succeed, Jim gets dim-witted but popular football quarterback Paul Metzler (Chris Klein, who would star in “American Pie” that same year) to run against her. At the same time, Paul’s adopted sister Tammy (Jessica Campbell) decides to run as well, in hopes of getting back at her love interest Lisa (Frankie Ingrassia), who rejects Tammy for mistaking “experimenting” for actual love. While Jim thinks his situation has only improved, things subsequently get worse. Underneath Jim’s facade as a well-liked teacher is a deeply flawed, insecure man, suffering through loneliness in his unhappy marriage and anxiety in his quest to defeat Tracy once and for all. Unlike Ferris Bueller, Broderick’s Jim McAllister doesn’t get away with everything. Seeing through this ploy, Tracy doesn’t go without a fight and though the two never really “duel it out,” their battle is a hard fought one, filled with twists, turns, and manipulations. In addition to being a genuinely creative and entertaining film, “Election” is inventive for its unflinching look at the personality types of its characters and the absurd situations they encounter. Both Broderick and Witherspoon own the screen as Jim and Tracy, both in individual and collective performances. Witherspoon is especially great as Tracy Flick; she gives her a much-needed emotional weight instead of simply drawing her as a caricature. Tracy isn’t very likable, but she’s not completely unbearable. Payne directs “Election” with graceful poise and ease and his screenplay with Jim Taylor deserved to win for Best Adapted Screenplay, which it was nominated for at the 2000 Academy Awards (it lost to “The Cider House Rules”). Depending on the audience, “Election” can easily win people over, as it is arguably Payne’s best film and greatest cinematic achievement.

Grade: A

Favorite shots:

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“About Schmidt” (2002)

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The melancholic “About Schmidt” is just as brilliant as “Election,” but on a much more understated level. Balancing existential drama with darkly funny undertones, “About Schmidt” is a wonderful tragicomic character study, with its plot focused on the story of Warren R. Schmidt (Jack Nicholson), a man suffering through an intensely lonely and dull life. After his anticlimactic retirement from working 20 years at a mundane sales job, Schmidt has almost nothing to do except wallow in his newfound boredom. He has very little hobbies or interests and would likely be the most ordinary human being on the face of the planet, yet we are drawn to him. This is most likely due to Nicholson’s magnetic lead performance, crafting Schmidt to make him interesting and captivating even when he’s not. After watching a commercial guilting him into contributing to a foster program in Africa called Plan USA, Schmidt decides to write to a letter to a Tanzanian boy named Ndugu, realizing that he has nothing better to do. But as we see throughout the film, Schmidt’s letters are a way of releasing some catharsis from his daily frustrations, while trying to build a connection with someone like Ndugu. Through these letters, read aloud via voiceover, we learn of Schmidt’s alienating wife Helen (June Squibb), his adult, soon-to-be-wed daughter Jeannie (Hope Davis), and how his retirement has affected him. Prompted to make some changes, Schmidt ventures out to Denver to see Jeannie and her deadbeat, mustachioed fiancée Randall Hertzel (an unrecognizable Dermot Mulroney). He drives there in his slightly too big Winnebago Adventurer, which Helen bought him as a retirement present, but Jeannie doesn’t want him to come to Denver until two days before her wedding. Reluctantly, Schmidt obliges, traveling to nearby spots instead, including his old childhood home (now a tire shop) and his frat house at the University of Kansas. During this excursion, however, Schmidt doesn’t feel the nostalgia that he so desperately yearns for. Rather, he is constantly caught in moments of self-loathing, mostly because of his guilt over despising his deceased wife and coming to terms with how empty his life is. When he eventually gets to Denver, Schmidt quickly knows what he must do (or at least, thinks he must do): stop his daughter from marrying Randall and subsequently from joining his whackjob of a family, which includes his eccentric mother Roberta (a hilarious Kathy Bates). But Jeannie immediately stops Schmidt from doing so, questioning his sudden interest in her life and urging him to not make such a rash decision. Once again, Schmidt must do what makes others happy and not for himself. While “About Schmidt” is primarily a drama, there are some really funny, lighter moments, particularly during the infamous hot tub scene between Nicholson and a nude Kathy Bates. But for the most part, Payne demonstrates Warren’s self-affliction through both a satirical and sympathetic lens. Like the protagonists in “Citizen Ruth” and “Election,” Warren isn’t necessarily likable, but he has a certain quality to him that gives him an emotional, very human edge. This is especially evident at Jeannie’s wedding reception, where Schmidt gives what may be the saddest and most human wedding toast of all time — and Nicholson, of course, makes his searing performance even more compelling. The only minor flaw of “About Schmidt” is that it is a little slowly paced, with the film taking some longer detours than expected. But ultimately, “About Schmidt” is yet another spectacular work from Payne.

Grade: A-

Favorite shots:

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“Sideways” (2004)

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It’s strange to see in 2016 how “Sideways,” Payne’s most iconic film, was such a huge deal when it came out 12 years ago. It opened to wide acclaim, was nominated for several Oscars (winning one for Best Adapted Screenplay), and even influenced wine consumerism. In that sense, “Sideways” would fall under the category of slightly overrated, but I found the film to still be very charming, dynamic, and unconventional, even for such a conventional plot. Bolstered by strong lead performances and writing, “Sideways” overcomes its deliberate pacing with a shimmering blend of deft comedy and poignant drama. The story follows two best friends, depressed English teacher and wine connoisseur Miles Raymond (Paul Giamatti) and womanizing voice actor Jack Cole (Thomas Haden Church), who don’t actually seem like they would be friends. Their personalities are polar opposite, with Miles’ high-functioning alcoholism making him cynical and Jack’s ease with women making him optimistic. Yet when you pair the two together, they seem to balance each other out. As a fun getaway present for Jack’s upcoming wedding, Miles takes him up to California wine country, where the two get to enjoy some good ‘ol fashioned bro time, which includes drinking pinot noir, eating great food, and playing some golf. But Jack has other plans in mind as well; he wants both Miles and himself to get laid before the wedding. During their time in the Santa Ynez Valley, they meet two beautiful women who both seem to take a liking to Miles and Jack. Waitress Maya Randall (an excellent Virginia Madsen) develops a romantic interest in Miles, while wine pourer Stephanie (Sandra Oh) becomes sexually acquainted with Jack. During one night where the four get together, Maya and Miles have a beautifully intimate moment together, sharing their love for wine and how it makes them feel. I figured this part would make my eyes roll, considering how wine is often a subject of pseudo-intellectual conversations. But the way they express themselves, particularly Madsen, is totally honest and even eloquent. Of course, Jack’s fling with Stephanie doesn’t last very long, once Miles accidentally mentions Jack’s impending wedding, which upsets both Maya and Stephanie (this is in the movie trailer, by the way, so don’t blame me for giving plot details). In addition to the great writing and acting, “Sideways” includes lush cinematography and a sweet score from composer Rolfe Kent, who scored most of Payne’s movies. What “Sideways” also does well in is its ability to humanize Miles, in that the film de-stigmatizes depression and how it affects Miles. He drinks often as a way of coping with his inner turmoil, but also to escape from his painful, crippling self-loathing. Giamatti does a superb job of portraying this and I’m surprised he didn’t get an Oscar nom from that (yet Haden Church and Madsen did). The plot primarily centers on friendship, but it also takes note of how friendship can be a both positive and detrimental thing. Miles and Jack have a complicated relationship and “Sideways” showcases how their relationship unravels as they make mistakes and see each other’s flaws. Though “Sideways” is made as a comedy (which it is, for the most part), there are several dramatic components to the dialogue and the characters. That being said, if “Sideways” can pull off being comedic and dramatic, then it can easily work as a whole.

Grade: A-

Favorite shots:

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“The Descendants” (2011)

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After a 7-year hiatus, Payne returned to film with “The Descendants,” another emotionally heavy dramedy that explores the complicated dimensions of family and parenthood. Considering that this follows “Sideways,” Payne does a pretty admirable job with writing and directing a film that continues to demonstrate his artistry as a storyteller. Set in the beautiful landscape of the Hawaiian islands, “The Descendants” tells the tale of land baron Matt King (George Clooney), a man whose recently been grappling with several newfound issues in his life. His distant Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie) wife is comatose from a boating accident and must deal with being the primary parent for his two daughters Scottie (Amara Miller) and Alexandra (Shailene Woodley, in one of her first film roles). Simultaneously, Matt is also the sole trustee to a large family inheritance that is considered to have lots of monetary value, prompting him and his cousins to discuss selling the land to make money. At first, Matt has no clue how to handle anything. But as the film moves along, he gradually becomes a better, more self-aware, and much wiser person than he was before. With these unfortunate circumstances, Matt is determined to make things right with Elizabeth, but soon learns from Alexandra that she was cheating on him with popular realtor Brian Speer (Matthew Lillard). Together, Matt and his daughters, along with Alex’s simpleton friend Sid (Nick Krause), travel to Oahu to track down Brian and confront him about the affair. But even more so, Matt believes Brian deserves to know what happened to Elizabeth and that she is eventually going to die. For the most part, “The Descendants” is genuinely touching and well-written. However, even though the film’s screenplay won an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay (Payne’s second consecutive Oscar win), the dialogue can be a bit too forced at times, especially during the confrontation scene between Matt and Brian. Perhaps that’s just the acting and delivery, but “The Descendants”‘s reliance on expositional voiceover can be tricky too, as most of what we learn about the characters come from Matt’s omniscient words. It parallels to “About Schmidt,” but there’s an iffy quality to the way “The Descendants” uses voiceover. Fortunately, “The Descendants” still delivers, thanks to great performances from Clooney and Woodley, some gorgeous cinematography, and its depiction of the themes of pain and death, which “The Descendants” handled relatively well by not making things too dramatic. The subplot with selling the inherited land was interesting, connecting back to the whole overarching theme of Matt’s emotional and physical bond with the place where he and his family enjoyed being in. Beau Bridges makes an appearance as one of Matt’s cousins, who sort of seems like a villain since he doesn’t want Matt to screw him and the rest of their family over by not selling the land. But as Matt understands during the course of the movie, family precedes money and that is something worth valuing (that may sound a tad cliché and sentimental, but trust me on this one). The last scene of “The Descendants” was especially heartwarming, as Matt, Scottie, and Alex sit together on the couch, covered in the floral blanket that Elizabeth wore in the hospital. It’s a subtle but really beautiful moment that signifies their literal and figurative thread as a family and how far they’ve come from being estranged and distant.

Grade: B+

Favorite shots:

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“Nebraska” (2013)

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You could say that “Nebraska,” Payne’s sixth and most recent film, is the culmination of all his work. It’s another road trip movie and his first film based off of an original screenplay since “Citizen Ruth” (and much better written). But “Nebraska” also feels like a pointed dedication to the state Payne grew up in. Omaha had been the setting for most of Payne’s movies, but “Nebraska” explores other realms of the state, more specifically in the city of Lincoln. That is where Montana resident Woody Grant (a brilliantly solemn Bruce Dern) is headed to collect $1 million after allegedly winning a sweepstakes contest. His adult son David (Will Forte, taking on his first big dramatic role) denies that his father won anything, as he notices quickly that the “sweepstakes” was an advertising scam. Nevertheless, Woody is relentless, prompting David to drive him all the way from Billings, Montana to Lincoln, Nebraska to collect the money. Like Payne’s other road trip films, “About Schmidt” and “Sideways,” “Nebraska” isn’t necessarily about where they are headed, but how they get there and what they encounter along the way. We also get to learn more about Woody and David as individuals and their complex relationship as father and son. During the trip, they see estranged family members, most of whom are just old white people who do nothing but eat, drink, and watch the football game on TV. At a bar, Woody sees his old pal Ed Pigrim (Stacy Keach), who used to co-own a mechanic shop with Woody. Despite David telling Woody not to talk about the money, the “truth” eventually comes out and Woody becomes the talk of the town. Luckily, two more Grant family members swoop in to intervene on the father and son’s quest: the blunt matriarch Kate (June Squibb) and David’s local news anchor brother Ross (Bob Odenkirk). Those two try to bring some sense into their pointless journey, causing even more familial tension to erupt — and so does Woody and David’s relationship. David doesn’t understand his intensely quiet father, who barely utters a word and denies being an alcoholic, despite being a consistent consumer of beer. David challenges Woody’s reasoning for what to do with the million dollars, as Woody believes he wants just buy a pickup truck and a new air compressor. However, as some troubling truths unravel, David begins to understand Woody’s condition and that his bitter quietness is really just an external cover for his loneliness. The million dollars wasn’t just meant for Woody, but for David and Ross as well. Sympathizing with him, David trudges on to Lincoln with Woody and though Woody doesn’t actually win anything, they are enriched by their experience together as father and son. What makes “Nebraska” another fantastic entry into the Payne canon is that it doesn’t veer too heavily into sentimentality, something that most family bonding films overuse. Payne trusts the audience enough to know the complexity of Woody and David’s relationship and subsequently provides authenticity to their dynamic. In addition to having fantastic performances, “Nebraska” is also aesthetically compelling. The cinematography uncovers the plain beauty of the Nebraskan landscape, which is complemented by the film’s black-and-white visuals. At times, the film can seem a little long (this seems to be a recurring thing for Payne), clocking in at almost 2 hours. “Nebraska” can be occasionally boring, but it surprisingly manages to keep its simple story from becoming too bland. As low-key as “Nebraska” may be, it remains a poetic, low-key, and well-acted story and probably one of Payne’s best.

Grade: A-

Favorite shots:

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The Work of Ava DuVernay

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Though Black female writer/director Ava DuVernay has only made three feature films (plus a documentary), she has already established herself as one of Hollywood’s boldest successes. In fact, DuVernay has already made several firsts in her short career. She became the first African-American woman to win the Best Director Prize at the Sundance Film Festival for her second film, “Middle of Nowhere.” She was also the first black female director to be nominated for a Golden Globe and for Best Picture for her breakthrough, “Selma.” Despite a small filmography, DuVernay possesses a distinctive aesthetic and thematic style in her movies. She highlight issues of race, womanhood — more specifically, Black womanhood — uncertainty, family dynamics, and resilience, while utilizing warm visual palettes, intimate close-ups, almost all-Black casts, an R&B-esque score/soundtrack, and extended scenes of silence (something that fellow director Martin Scorsese uses in several of his films). Even though she’s only directed a meager amount of movies, DuVernay has been involved in the industry for a long time, first starting out as a journalist covering the O.J. trial and then transitioning to being a publicist/distributor for films made by Steven Spielberg, Clint Eastwood, Michael Mann, and more. In addition to directing an episode of ABC’s popular “Scandal,” DuVernay has been outspoken about the disproportionate amount of recognition directors/actors of color receive from studios and the Academy, especially since “Selma” was only nominated for two Oscars and robbed of other prominent awards. Her passion for filmmaking and social justice is something that certainly makes DuVernay stand out, which is why I decided to watch her body of work, and here are my thoughts:

“I Will Follow” (2010)

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DuVernay’s feature debut “I Will Follow” is a simple, relatively short, but emotionally stirring melodrama that follows a day in the life of Hollywood makeup artist Maye Fisher (a great Salli Richardson-Field) after the death of her beloved aunt Amanda (“Lean on Me”‘s Beverly Todd). Considering that “I Will Follow” had a small budget, I was impressed by DuVernay’s use of space and environment, despite the film’s low production values and 15-day shooting schedule. During the movie, Maye spends the day cleaning out items, nooks, and crannies, which ignite memories that are shown through interspersed flashbacks of her time with Amanda, who was experiencing breast cancer. Though the story is touching and really compelling at times, “I Will Follow”‘s greatest weakness is its pacing and tonal shifts. Throughout the day of cleaning and packing, there are several tense moments between Maye’s three biggest relationships — her irritable rich cousin and Amanda’s quietly grieving daughter Tiffany (Traci Thoms), her teenage nephew Raven (Dijon Talton), and her sort-of crush Troy (Omari Hardwick) — that ultimately change during their time together. Tiffany and Maye lash out at one another, with Tiffany accusing Maye of coercing Amanda into staying home in order to be with her, instead of having Amanda go to the hospital for chemotherapy. Tiffany and Maye’s scenes together are somewhat histrionic, but there are some deep-seated truths behind the two’s relationship. Despite Tiffany’s unlikability, her feelings of subordination to Maye during her mother’s time of need feel real. But at the same time, Maye recognizes Tiffany’s lack of spending time with her mother, causing an even greater rift between the two. Ultimately, their argument isn’t really resolved, making for an unsatisfying subplot. Nevertheless, “I Will Follow” has some other good moments, especially the scenes between Maye and Raven. In the beginning of the film, Raven is made out to be an angsty, unhelpful teenager, but later becomes more open once he talks with Maye during a lunch break about their favorite NBA players and the Jay-Z/Nas feud. Their scenes are sweet and fill the film’s melancholic tone with levity. In the film’s last big sequence, Maye deals with two former love interests, first from her bitter ex-boyfriend Evan (Blair Underwood) and then from Troy, whom she contemplated having a relationship with while taking care of Amanda. Ultimately, the two men seem to have certain qualms about their individual relationships with Maye. Like Tiffany, Evan is angry with Maye over her letting Amanda slowly die from breast cancer, instead of getting proper treatment. In a completely different and more intimate setting, Troy explains that he is seeing someone at the moment and therefore cannot be romantically involved with Maye. These situations only add more emotional weight to the film and to Richardson-Field’s enchanting performance as Maye. “I Will Follow” was unique in that it was considerably a more low-key drama about mourning than one would expect. It wasn’t profound, but nevertheless an admirable first effort from DuVernay, especially with her depiction of strong female characters. Strangely, the film’s title derives from a U2 song, most likely due to Amanda’s fondness of the music of the Irish rock group in one scene. That type of characterization is something not normally represented in films with predominantly Black characters. I believe Roger Ebert perfectly exemplified that idea of race representation in “I Will Follow” with his review of the film. “This is a universal story about universal emotions,” Ebert wrote. “Maybe I mention [race] because this is the kind of film black filmmakers are rarely able to get made these days, offering roles for actors who remind us here of their gifts.”

Grade: B

Favorite shot:

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“Middle of Nowhere” (2012)

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Like “I Will Follow,” DuVernay’s second film, “Middle of Nowhere,” is also a film about grieving, except not for a deceased loved one, but for an imprisoned loved one. With improved production values, amazing performances from perfectly-cast actors, beautiful cinematography, and sensitive direction (which DuVernay won a prestigious award for at Sundance), “Middle of Nowhere” is a story about promising medical student/nurse Ruby (Emaytzy Corinealdi) and her fight to get her husband Derek (“I Will Follow”‘s Omari Hardwick) out of prison. The film also had a low budget of $200,000 and was shot in a small period of time (about 19 days), but that barely shows. “Middle of Nowhere” is less about Ruby’s relationship with Derek, though it spends some time focusing on their journey together throughout his eight-year sentence. Rather, the film is more about Ruby’s self-discovery and the events and people who shape who she is and becomes. In the film’s beginning, Ruby is solely focused on getting Derek a shorter sentence and vows to stay devoted to him during several jail visits. In the meantime, she hangs out with her financially struggling sister Rosie (Edwina Findley Dickinson), her infant nephew, and her temperamental mother Ruth (“Orange is the New Black”‘s Lorraine Toussaint). Eventually, she meets friendly bus driver Brian (a phenomenal David Oyelowo), who becomes entranced by her. Ruby knows not to cheat on Derek while he’s incarcerated and makes that clear to Brian, who respects her choices. But things take a dark turn after Derek gets demerited for being involved in a prison fight. That’s not the bad part, actually. During a hearing regarding Derek’s actions, Ruby and Derek’s lawyer Fraine (Sharon Lawrence) provide enough evidence and alibi to justify Derek’s good behavior and circumstantial involvement in the fight. However, the judge at the hearing states that Derek has had a past sexual encounter with a female prison guard, which is a shock both to Ruby and the viewer. This particular scene is especially well-done, as the camera faces Ruby’s back during her reaction. We don’t see her facial expression, but we understand immediately her emotional torment over this crippling new truth. Derek is regretful and apologetic for this, but Ruby realizes she can no longer handle feeling imprisoned herself and shackled to their slowly crumbling marriage. Afterward, Ruby meets Brian again and the two flirt, dance, have sex, and ultimately begin a relationship together. In addition to Ruby and Brian’s mesmerizing, tender chemistry, “Middle of Nowhere” does a great job of showcasing Ruby’s journey as a woman who is attempting to find meaning and purpose in her life, based on her own terms and not from what others tell her. Her anxious uncertainty becomes visible in a dramatic and well-acted sequence between Ruby, her mother, and her sister. As the three sit down to eat dinner, Ruth unearths the growing tension between her and her two daughters, who have grown to resent her and one another. Ruth and Ruby’s scenes are especially heart-wrenching, as Ruth angrily berates her daughter for not being able to stand up for herself, in terms of giving up med school to take care of her husband and letting her life pass her by. Again, the camera doesn’t show Ruby’s face (only her profile), yet her seething rage is palpable, slowly unraveling in one climatic moment. The rest of the film channels those same emotions of pain, as Ruby grapples with ending her relationship with Derek in order to start a new one with Brian. Both Ruby and Derek share a sad but passionate final encounter, knowing that their love for one another is unfortunately not strong enough to last. “Middle of Nowhere” makes Ruby’s turbulent emotional journey into something spellbinding, thanks to DuVernay’s writing and direction, as well as Corinealdi’s fantastic central performance.

Grade: A-

Favorite shot:

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“Selma” (2014)

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Films like “Selma” are painful, vivid reminders that America has a difficult and often ugly past. It’s similar in subject matter of other 2010s films about racial inequality, such as 2011’s “The Help,” 2013’s “The Butler,” and 2016’s “Race.” Yet “Selma” is the rare historical film that neither sentimentalizes its plot nor lionizes its characters, but instead sends a powerful, uplifting message about the long journey towards freedom. “Selma” isn’t so much of an MLK biopic as it is a portrait of MLK’s relentless drive to get Black people the individual rights and political autonomy they deserved. It’s also a film where DuVernay’s cinematic vision is fully realized, making it her best effort yet. Despite a few historical inaccuracies (which will inevitably occur in films that dramatize history), “Selma” is a gorgeously shot, extremely well-acted, and unflinching depiction of one of the darkest times in American history, particularly for African-Americans in the South. David Oyelowo makes his second DuVernay appearance as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., playing him during 1964-1965 (3-4 years until his untimely death). Oyelowo’s performance as MLK is amazing, not only in mastering King’s Southern accent, smooth cadence, and methodical mannerisms, but also in portraying his ferocious passion for social and racial justice. What surprises me most about “Selma” is how it also recognizes both the quirks and faults of its protagonist. The film observes MLK’s gentleness, personality, smoking habits, and alleged infidelities. That last part is especially jarring, as many do not know that MLK apparently had some quiet affairs, which causes friction between him and his loving wife Coretta (British actress Carmen Ejogo) in one intense, blistering scene. Nonetheless, this makes MLK’s character all the more nuanced and flawed. “Selma” is mainly concerned with MLK’s marches from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, which he helps lead with James Bevel (Common), Hosea Williams (Wendell Pierce), Andrew Young (Andre Holland), and Diane Nash (“Creed”‘s Tessa Thompson), all of whom are deserving of praise for their performances. Along with some inspiring scenes of marching, protesting, and preaching, most of “Selma” is filled with heartbreaking, often uncomfortable moments, particularly in one opening jump-scare sequence, in which several young girls are instantly killed by an explosion inside a church. Other hard-to-watch scenes include the rejection of Annie Lee Cooper’s (Oprah Winfrey) voter registration; MLK’s peaceful protest against racist Sherriff Jim Clark; a shootout scene in a restaurant where civil rights protester Jimmy Lee Jackson (“Short Term 12″‘s Keith Stanfield) gets killed, and so on. These moments are punctuated by the stinging racial slurs and discrimination that still exist in some parts of our country today, which is troubling but nevertheless should be watched and heard. A problem I initially had with “Selma” upon my first viewing in theaters was its demonization of President Lyndon B. Johnson (Tom Wilkinson), who stunted MLK’s demand to allow Black people the right to vote unencumbered by police. History would say otherwise, but it should be noted that these kinds of limitations made it even harder on MLK, leading him to create the Selma-Montgomery marches on the Edmund Pettus Bridge. The first march is unsuccessful and violent, with state troopers beating protestors and blinding them with tear gas. The march and its aftermath are televised, leading hundreds of viewers to go out to the South to march with Dr. King and others. The second march — the film’s climax — gathers everyone together, both Blacks and whites, giving the state troopers the OK to open up the bridge. However, in a bone-chilling moment of silence, Dr. King kneels, with everyone following him, almost as if they’re praying for this madness to truly be over. When MLK stands back up, everyone follows, and the civil rights leader pushes his way through the crowd, turning the march back around. Perhaps, as interpreted by some characters in the film, Dr. King was asking for God’s help and God did not answer. It’s unfortunate even for the viewer not to relish in what could have been an incredible groundbreaking moment in American history. But later, it seems as those King’s prayers were indeed heard. Southern judge Frank Johnson (a surprising cameo from Martin Sheen) allows the march to happen without fear of endangerment; President Johnson subsequently creates and signs a bill that eliminates restrictions on voting. “Selma” concludes with a hopeful, if slightly harrowing, takeaway about the Civil Rights Movement’s struggle to attain its long-standing goal of freedom. Even with all the progress made in America today since that time, “Selma” is a strong reminder that we still have a long way to go to in terms of combating racism against Black people.

Grade: A

Favorite shots:

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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.