Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Robin Williams: 1951-2014

One of life's cruelest contradictions has always been the sadness which lies within so many of the people who make us all laugh.  John Belushi and Chris Farley always spring to mind as lovable comedians whose depression and substance abuse took them from this world too soon.  And now, it is Robin Williams, who is dead at the age of 63 from an apparent suicide.  While this news came as a shock to me, I strangely wasn't surprised.  Williams had always dealt with substance abuse, had been a lonely child, and I always sensed darkness lying beneath his constant energy, wit, and desire to deflect attention from his personal life by creating a character we all know and love.  Like everyone has already said ad nauseum, Williams effected all of our lives.  With a decades-long career spanning all genres and mediums, Robin Williams is beloved, and will be missed.

From stand-up, to the small screen, to the silver screen, and eventually finding his way on Broadway, Robin Williams was more than the maniacal improv genius he is so well know for.  I enjoyed Williams when he was "on," when he was hijacking Letterman, doing wild stand up routines, lighting up the screen in his funniest roles.  But his dramatic roles mustn't be overlooked.  His best work was his ability to combine the two in some memorable performances.  In the early 2000s, Williams delved deep into his dark side, personifying what now appear to be real demons in some villainous roles in Insomnia and One Hour Photo.  It was quite a transformation for Williams, who pushed his range further than ever before.  Williams was an institution, the uncle to us all.  We all know about his performances and his awards so let's not retread.

I am deeply saddened by Williams' suicide, but not because he was a close personal friend.  I am upset because suicide is an epidemic in this country and the death of Williams should point us in the direction of this disturbing trend.  I am sure it will for a while, but I doubt it will sustain.  More people die in America from suicide than car accidents today.  Think about that.  There is deep, dark sadness all around every one of us, and no matter how outwardly entertaining, funny, or happy someone may seem they could be suffering in ways most of us cannot comprehend.  I have had suicide in my extended family, I have had my own bouts of sadness, but nothing even close to the depression one must feel in order to take their own life away from so many people who love them.  Williams is survived by his wife and three children.  Three children.  That would be enough for me to survive, but then again I wasn't in pain like Robin Williams. 

Suicide is pain, exposed in the most permanent and disturbing way imaginable.  I am sad today, not because Robin Williams is gone so much as his family has to stay without him.

Monday, August 11, 2014


BOYHOOD - Ellar Coltraine, Patricia Arquette, Ethan Hawke, Lorelei Linklater, directed by Richard Linklater (165 min.)

Boyhood restores my faith in the power of film as an art form.  Amid the dog days of summer movie garbage, here is the best film of the year, a transcendent piece of storytelling that is compelling, moving, true, and unforgettable.  Everyone knows the back story about director Richard Linklater shooting segments of the story over a 12 year period with the same cast, but this is not a gimmick picture.  Linklater's daring move (the list of what could have gone wrong with production is endless, and filled mostly with death preponderances) pays off not in trickery, but in seamless storytelling that comes together in concert through emotional honesty.  It is Linklater's masterpiece.

The story focuses on the life and times of Mason, played by Ellar Coltraine from a seven year old to a college freshman.  Mason has a sister, Samantha, played by Linklater's own daughter Lorelei.  Their mother is a determined woman (Patricia Arquette) who struggles to make a better life for her children and ends up making mistakes in love over the years.  The dad is Ethan Hawke, who at first is an earnest young man with a GTO and dreams of being a musician, but eventually turns into a responsible adult.  Dad is there for the fun weekends, and it is mom who fights to keep her head above water.  All of these characters float like satellites around Mason as he works his way through some of the toughest years we all have,  There are ups and downs, simple moments and moments of confusion, loves and losses, the struggle to understand.  Linklater taps into his characters with an honest eye.

The power of Boyhood lies in its details.  Sure, there are big moments in the story as there are big moments in all our lives.  Mason's mother marries her professor who turns out to be a frightening man.  She hooks up with a student of her own once she becomes a college professor down the road, and things go south once again.  But what sticks with me about the beginnings of these relationships is the way Linklater frames Mason's perspective of these gentlemen callers.  It is a small, cockeyed glance, a look of curiosity and confusion as he witnesses another man moving into his life.  A small detail, but an important one, something that still lingers.

There are moments that will reach any viewer, be it divorce, step parents, adjustments and understanding, or the simple times of happiness.  As a son and now a father, I found the scenes with Mason and his father to be the most personal, and the next person in the audience may connect with something else.  Regardless of the connection, this is a life unfolding in front of our eyes.  As Ellar Coltraine becomes a man, so does Mason.  He grows from a quiet young boy to a quiet, introverted teenager searching for himself.  From trying to understand the world, Mason becomes a young man trying to understand his own existence.  And there are no sweeping moments of epiphany, the music doesn't swell and characters don't change their world through unreasonable circumstances.  Even when the mother's second husband turns out to be a dangerous threat, the situation is not resolved with theatrics, but in a very matter of fact way that reality dictates more often than not.  He is simply... dealt with.

And the screenplay from Linklater is simple and conversational, a sublime work of ease and intelligence.  It never outreaches its characters or goes for a big payoff, it simply exists, just like all of us in the end. 

The transitions between years are done expertly, with music and current events shaping the year.  At almost three hours long, I didn't want it to end.  I could have watched this story all day long.  Richard Linklater has pulled off quite a feat and created a magical movie going experience.  I plan on seeing it again very soon because I know the experience will only enrich the early moments.  It is rare that a film makes me want to go back almost immediately, but Boyhood begs for such a thing.  I will not soon forget this.


Saturday, August 2, 2014

Guardians of The Galaxy

GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY - Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Bradley Cooper (v), Vin Diesel (v), directed by James Gunn (121 min.)

I knew from the outset I was going to have fun with Guardians of The Galaxy.  Something seemed just right from the opening credits, and the film that followed only solidified my initial reaction.  Guardians of The Galaxy is the most fun anyone could have at the movies this summer.  That may be faint praise with such a lackluster summer blockbuster season, but this movie would be a blast no matter what the situation.  It is an exercise in tonal perfection, often times hilarious, sometimes exciting, always engaging. 

The story is familiar, if only to make the wildly diverse characters and space opera adventure easy enough to follow.  A brief prologue shows our hero, Peter Quill, at the bedside of his dying mother.  This opening scene blindsides with an emotional punch as Quill's mother dies, he flees the hospital and is promptly scooped up by a spacecraft.  Fast forward twenty years and Peter Quill has become a "junker," an adventurous pawnbroker of sorts, or a low-end Indiana Jones.  He also likes to call himself Star-Lord, although nobody really jumps on board with his nickname.  Quill gets his hands on an orb, the Macguffin of the film which both the good guys and the bad guys want to get their hands on.  Turns out it is a planet-destroying weapon, but it doesn't matter much. 

Before long everyone is trying to get their hands on this orb for money or power, and the pursuit brings Quill together with a ragtag group of misfits with their own agendas.  Zoe Saldana plays Gamora, a green-skinned daughter of the galactic villain Thanos, and she wants the orb to get vengeance on Thanos for killing her real family.  Bradley Cooper voices Rocket, a hot-headed racoon who has been genetically altered and embittered over the years.  Rocket's sidekick is Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel), a humanoid tree that says only one phrase.  Then there is Drax, a slate-green brute with red designs on his skin.  Drax and his people do not grasp the concept of speaking in metaphors, which makes for some great comedy throughout.

This band of misfits team up to defeat Thanos' disciple, Ronan, played with booming bass by Lee Pace.  The plot is mechanical, merely a set up to deliver what turns out to be the funniest movie of the year in my estimation.  This is a star-making turn for Pratt as the cocksure Quill, a mix of Luke Skywalker and Han Solo.  Cooper's Rocket brings the snark, Groot the lovability, and Drax the dim-witted target.  The quintet works in concert perfectly from one situation to the next, and the tone is always perfect.  There is humor all throughout, but the picture never feels campy or like a spoof.  And there are some rich cameos from John C. Reilly, Glenn Close, and Benicio Del Toro, all of whom keep the film effervescent with their own comedic timing. 

The universe on display feels a bit like a cobbled together version of a dozen other space adventure films, which I feel is partly the idea.  The action isn't nearly as engaging as the story.  We get a prison break, a number of chase scenes, and a peaceful planet on the verge of destruction, none of which are particularly original.  The logistics of the plot aren't nearly as realized as the characters, which is a good thing if one has to suffer over the other.  Where the CGI and the story might suffer, the inventiveness of the creatures occupying this world is enough to get this film a makeup Oscar.  And on top of it all, the five central characters are all misfits in their own way, all have lost something in their past, adding weight to their budding friendships.

Guardians of The Galaxy is a wacky, wild entertainment.  The freshness of the characters without any predestined baggage makes the story a treat as it unfolds without expectation.  In yet another summer of mediocrity, here is one that would stand out in any hot season.