Boyhood. Directed by Richard Linklater. For a film that so many critics view as a universal ode to the pangs of growing up, I didn’t find that it spoke to me on a personal level. I recognize the craft of it (as a twelve-year-long shoot) and the amount of dedication put into a project of that length but ultimately I don’t love the film. The actors who play the parents, Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke, do fine work but they have the benefit of their years of experience, as opposed to Ellar Coltrane and Lorelei Linklater, who were new to the process. Coltrane is compelling in his early years, but once he hits puberty, the character becomes less interesting. All he ever seems to do is flip his hair and complain rather pretentiously about fellow teenagers who spend too much time on Facebook. Linklater, as Coltrane’s older sister, has so much personality in the beginning of the film but over time she totally zones out and director Linklater (her father) doesn’t give her anything to do in the narrative. To clarify my issues with the film from another angle, New York Times film critics Manohla Dargis and A.O. Scott wrote in this recent article about how female characters have evolved over the last couple of decades and in particular I would highlight the performance of young actress Quvenzhané Wallis in one of the big little indie hits of 2012, Beasts of the Southern Wild. Films don’t have to only be about the white male part of society; they can be about girls (in Beasts’ case, within the lower-class black community in post-Katrina New Orleans) and those characters can be strong, strong enough to carry the weight of a movie. Boyhood, with its lengthy running time and nostalgia-inducing soundtrack, doesn’t live up to the immense brouhaha that surrounds it.
Chef. Directed by Jon Favreau. Like Boyhood, hype surrounded Chef upon its theatrical release, although definitely to a lesser degree. While there are enjoyable performances from the actors who populate the supporting cast (most notably John Leguizamo and Bobby Cannavale), there is a sense that the film falls short of its potential and expends too much energy on elements of the plot that do not work. Sure, the food looks good, but for my money, you can’t sustain a narrative made up primarily of pictures of meals that you can’t actually taste. (I have never subscribed to the notion that delicious-looking cuisine in cinema can be experienced in a more sensory way than just observing a piece of paper or a painting. It’s nothing more than an image unless it is real, tangible food literally in front of you. Smell-O-Vision isn’t a possibility at the moment.) Director and star Favreau does a creditable job, though it’s nothing praiseworthy. Casting Scarlett Johansson (who had worked with him earlier in Iron Man 2) as a temporary love interest makes for a pretty picture but ultimately fails to provide any gripping drama. Sofía Vergara was competent in her subdued role as Favreau’s ex-wife – again, not anything really special. I think you know you’re in trouble when you cast Dustin Hoffman in a supporting role and he can’t improve the material. Chef is pleasant, even a little bit fun, but only as a snack, not a main course.
The Giver. Directed by Phillip Noyce. How does one begin to review a film that is based on a beloved novel from childhood? Let me backtrack: when I was ten years old, my fifth grade teacher assigned The Giver for in-class reading. (Not to make any readers feel their ages, but that was in 2002-2003.) A large part of why The Giver is such an effective novel is that its main character, Jonas, is twelve, making the loss of his innocence over the course of the dystopian future-gone-amok narrative much more poignant. The film upgrades Jonas to being eighteen, a considerable difference when the character is on the verge of adulthood and the actor (Brenton Thwaites) is himself a grown man of 24-25. I understand that filmmakers want their products to appeal to as wide a base as possible, hence the age change and the inclusion of a romance between Jonas and Fiona (Odeya Rush) that was not really in the book (only some fleeting, crush-like feelings from Jonas). Meryl Streep has the role of the Elder Chief, expanded from what is in the novel only to deliver exposition for the moviegoers. Jeff Bridges does what he can in the title role – hard, given the screenplay’s changes to the story – but it still doesn’t help. You can watch The Giver and perhaps find it moving, only don’t expect it to be anything like the source that inspired it.
Guardians of the Galaxy. Directed by James Gunn. Ah, a big blockbuster that goes beyond my expectations! The whiz-bang special effects and exciting atmosphere of the latest Marvel adventure are balanced with a soundtrack comprised of a delightfully retro selection of songs from the late 60s through the late 70s, including tunes by 10cc, Elvin Bishop, Blue Swede, David Bowie, Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell, the Jackson 5, Raspberries, Redbone and the Runaways. Chris Pratt proves he has movie star appeal as Peter Quill (“Star-Lord”), the goofy but loveable hero at the center of the ragtag bunch of space warriors. Zoe Saldana makes for a tough heroine, perhaps not as interesting as she should have been (unfortunate since one of the film’s co-writers is a woman, Nicole Perlman), but she still has some great lines. Bradley Cooper puts a lot of personality into his voice work as Rocket, while Benicio Del Toro is entertaining as the mysterious and flamboyant Collector, complete with eyeliner and white-blond hair. The only real downside to the movie is that the villains have very little to do other than be menacing, devoid of any depth. That doesn’t really diminish the effect of the film, though. It’s quite a ride.
Land Ho!. Directed by Aaron Katz and Martha Stephens. Working with a much smaller budget than any of the other four films in this post, Katz and Stephens created a lovely little comedy. Earl Lynn Nelson (second cousin to director Stephens), who is an ocular surgeon in real life, and Paul Eenhoorn, a professional actor, play two American senior citizens who take an impromptu vacation to Iceland. Eenhoorn has the subtlety of an experienced actor, but the gregarious newcomer Nelson, with his Louisiana twang and resounding laugh, brings a terrific energy to the story. I think the film could serve as an excellent travelogue for anyone interested in exploring the country, especially since the cinematography by Andrew Reed is striking, making even the simplest hot spring into a glorious wonder. Additionally, the score by Keegan DeWitt and the repeated use of the 80s song “In a Big Country” by Big Country gives the film another component of lightheartedness and likeability. I am happy to recommend Land Ho!.