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Let the Moments Seize You: A Review of Richard Linklater’s “Boyhood”

Grade: A

Sometimes, we count on a movie to pull us out of something, out of ourselves, out of our rut, our emotional hole, or funk. Sometimes, we lean on the stories we hear and watch more than we should. We expect them to mirror our own lives perfectly so that the act of relating to the story makes us feel better. By relating to someone else’s tale, we feel normal. By seeing the characters come out of their low points, we know we can and will come out of them too. We see the bigger picture for what it is—bigger than the present.

BoyhoodRichard Linklater (Dazed and Confused, the Before Series) has teamed up with long-time collaborator Ethan Hawke (who plays Mason Sr. in the film) for a movie that’s the first of its kind. Filming a little each year over the course of twelve years, the film follows the actual growth of its characters and the physical evolution of its actors. The story centers around Mason (Ellar Coltrane) who starts out an adorable six-year-old boy in trouble for trying to make rocks into arrowheads using a pencil sharpener and spending too many hours gazing out the window at school. By the film’s completion, he’s evolved into a full-blown adult, just as contemplative as he was in the beginning of the film, but entering the next great phase in his life: College. We follow the family through all their ups and downs—all their moves, career changes, and new and failed marriages. Hawke’s Mason Sr. evolves from a wild, absentee, young dad to the tamed, mini-van driving father of a new baby. All the while, Mason’s mother, Olivia (Patricia Arguette) makes mistake after mistake in her oftentimes fruitless attempts to make life better for her two children. We get the family’s whole history and every physical transformation without the makeup, fat suits, or multiple actors often clumsily employed in a drama in order to depict the passing of time. No miscast younger versions of the title character. No caked on stage makeup. Linklater’s Boyhood is different. It’s special. His characters have grown and evolved as the actors have—every gained pound, grayed hair, and alternating style.

And we get to watch the transformation.

Despite the spectacle of this film being both ingenious and the first of its kind, my initial reaction after leaving the theater was of slight disappointment. I guess I was looking for a little something more relatable in Boyhood. Relatable to my experience. Thankfully, this feeling was only my initial reaction. After thinking it over, I changed my mind completely and my feelings of letdown were immediately replaced with awe. I wasn’t approaching the film in the right way. I wanted a film that was entirely my childhood experience with all its specificity, angst, and thrill. I wanted to leave the theater with a new perspective on my past from having watched someone else’s. I wanted this film, like many have in the past, to provide answers to my own questions. To boost my spirts. To offer clarity where there was none.

BoyhoodUnlike Mason, I was not born in the late 90s. I didn’t grow up with divorced parents. I never had to deal with alcohol or physical abuse in my family. I wasn’t ever lazy in school. I didn’t party as hard as the average teen. I didn’t have a cell phone before the age of 15. I didn’t ever live in Texas and have to state the Texas anthem after the Pledge of Allegiance each day in class (a scene in the film that got a lot of laughs from the audience). For a story about growing up, I was upset that Mason’s coming-of-age was so different from my own. I was upset that I couldn’t relate directly to his experience. But then I noticed something: Throughout the entire film, the movie audience knew just how to react—just when to laugh, just when to coo, just when to cringe, just when to sigh—and I realized that this audience was entirely relating to Mason’s story. The entire film, to them, was an inside joke they were thrilled to be let in on. And this was not an audience of all 18-year-old boys, like Mason. This was a mix of males and females, twenty-somethings and teeny-boppers, the middle-aged and the senior citizens. If they could laugh, if they could sigh, if they could identify with Mason’s story, why couldn’t I?

And that’s when I realized I was approaching the film all wrong. The film’s goal wasn’t to make you identify with the specific events that happened to Mason, but instead it sought to make you relate to the act of experiencing experiences. Your experiences. The string of experiences that make up a life. The moments. Yes, Mason’s coming-of-age story was not my story, but despite this, I did play trampoline games with my siblings when I was young, as Mason did. I did blow bubble-gum bubbles as big as my face and wait for my sister to pop it. I have cried over a bad haircut. I have bonded with my father over The Beatles. I have ordered queso at 3 am after a night on a college campus. I have moved far away from home. I have seen endings come and wondered why.

By filming one story over the span of twelve years, Linklater is expertly able to create a comprehensive study on human life. Specifically, the pace at which life flies by. What I came to realize is that Boyhood wasn’t so much about the things that did or didn’t happen to Mason in his life, the story was about how life, in general, is made up of these seemingly inconsequential memories. It’s about the timing of the events. The pace of life. The changes. The amount of changes. The speed of the changes. The footprint those changes leave. Linklater captures this unseen, abstract idea of growing-up. The actual feeling of it. And he does this by cramming twelve years into just under a three hour movie. This makes perfect sense. When we sit back and recall our life’s story, our major memories, we don’t list them all, we only have our key moments. And they’re the key moments that have made up a life that, in a blink of an eye, has come and gone.

And that’s something we all can identify with – the ever-morphing past, present and future. The string of events and memories and instances that make up a life and the complex ways in which those memories are plotted and sewn into the fabric of our lives. No two childhoods are the same, but despite what happens to us in our individual growth, the progression of life, the very act of growing up, is universal. We grow. We identify with the fluidity, the constant change, the inertia of life. Despite what happens, we’re always moving. And life and childhood and adulthood fly by and it’s only the key moments, the key glimpses into a life that may seem inconsequential (like bowling without bumpers, and drinking our first beer) that make up who we are and who we become. Our memories become an epic movie with fast cuts and holes and quick scenes. And we choose to remember the ones that explain who we are in the best way. As Mason and his new friend theorize at the end of the film (albeit a bit stoned in the mountains), it’s not the moments we seize that matter, but the moments that seize us. We all have a lifetime of moments. It’s what we make of them that shape us. It’s those individual moments, whatever they are and however they’re strung together, that make all of our coming-of-age tales one in the same.

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Scorsese’s Snow Globe of Film History: A Review of Hugo

Grade: A

The first movie I remember seeing in the theater was Aladdin. And although years later, after countless views of my family’s VHS copy of the Disney classic, I grew obsessed with the story and the characters involved (I seriously donned a Jasmine T-shirt nearly everyday for a three month period of my childhood), that first viewing was about something different. It wasn’t about my new favorite “person” Jasmine. It wasn’t about the love story, or the Jafar’s evil plot or the character’s quest for validation and adventure. For a three year old with popcorn butter on her fingers, what engrossed me was the spectacle. A larger screen than I’d ever seen was projecting colorful images of dancing middle easterners, personified monkeys and tigers, and a genie who would grant three wishes. I was hypnotized by the magic—by the soundtrack I’d be humming for days to come, by the size of Aladdin’s face projected on the cinema screen, by the magic sweeping carpet ride through the city. I didn’t understand the story beyond the basics, or the plot’s homage to past classic stories, or the fact that Scott from Full House was the voice of Aladdin, but the movie-experience alone of sitting in that cineplex chair before my feet could touch the ground, wide-eyed and enthralled by simply the sights and sounds I was experiencing was enough to hook me for life.hugo-martin-scorsese-and-ben-kingsley-review

What struck me while watching Hugo was Martin Scorsese’s ability to capture young viewers’ imaginations again. In the same way that I was swept up in the color and magic of Aladdin, a new generation of movie-goers would be hooked with the enchanting snow-globe of a world Scorsese had created. They wouldn’t understand the, at times, slow moving plot in its entirety. They couldn’t understand the blatant and subtle references to the silent film era from the Méliès classics being filmed, to Buster Keaton’s name printed on the movie theater marquee, but they could understand the magic and the spectacle of a mechanical man, movie-magic, and the 3D snow falling in front of their eyes. They would be swept up in Hugo’s run through the frozen city wearing shorts, and Isabelle’s love for books, and the intricacies of operating the clocks at a train station, as well as the wonder of living amongst them. The children would be swept up in the adventure.

But Hugo is not just a children’s movie. In more ways, it feels like a cinephile’s movie. It’s an opportunity for someone well-versed, or even casually-versed, in film history to completely geek-out and marvel at how far cinema has come. Perhaps Scorsese is the Méliès of our generation—his vast film library and accolades surely put him in the running—but “Hugo” doesn’t so much serve to applaud the artist behind the film, but instead admires the way that film history itself has unfolded.

The story follows Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield), an orphan who lives in the clocks of a train station and masters running them. But his real passion lies in getting an old and rusted mechanical man, who works much like a clock, operating again. It was a project he shared with his late father and Hugo is certain that a message from his father lies in the metal and shifting gears of the mechanical man. But a crotchety old shop owner (Ben Kingsley) stands in Hugo’s way until his sweet granddaughter Isabelle (played by the precocious Chloe Grace Moretz) befriends Hugo and helps him on his journey. What they uncover is nothing short of cinema-magic, past and present, as it becomes apparent that the shop owners’ famous name is Georges Méliès and that he’s spent the second half of his life trying to hide his past and the fact that he was the most applauded screen “magician” of the silent film era.

From the opening sequence until the final “fade-to-black,” the film spends every second teaching the audience, and ensuring that anyone who may have lost sight of the wonder and escapist qualities of the cinematic experience will jump right back on the movie-bandwagon, as the film provides, in plot and style, a crash-course in film history.

So where do you start in this lesson on film history? Of course, you start where it all began—the silent film era. And Hugo’s opening sequence is a perfectly crafted and subtle homage to the feel of silent film. The first five minutes before the film’s title appears on the screen is very quiet. There is little dialogue and a simple score as the viewer is asked to voyeuristically (another aspect of early cinema—capturing life as it is) observe life at the train station through Hugo’s eyes. We are introduced to several minimal, and a few trivial, plot points in this sequence. Much like silent film’s penchant to introduce multiple ensemble plots and characters such as in D.W. Griffith’s silent-epic Intolerance (1916), Hugo does the same—introducing a woman with a dog who frequents the station and the older man’s crush on her, the classically sweet woman who sells flowers from a cart, and the diabolical station inspector with a squeaky leg brace. This entire sequence has the feel of silent film—from the outlandish physical gestures of the characters to make up for their lack of dialogue, to their minimal subplot purpose and voyeuristic qualities, and their transition to the plot-point we know will carry the most weight—Hugo’s interaction with the toy shop owner, George, who accuses him of being a thief. These storylines reference the early days of film before narrative worked its way in, before movie stars were staples. It was about the pleasure of watching life on the screen—watching a 30-second reel of a baby laughing, or a man play a prank with a hose. In the early 1900’s, pleasure in film was achieved by observing the everyday, and Scorsese’s opening sequence acknowledges that.

Once established, the film quickly moves to reference the next era of film—the talkies. As Hugo’s story becomes more complicated and we begin to  understand  his back-story, motivation, and conflict, the film represents  the transition to more narrative-based and character-driven storylines. Suddenly, dialogue is crucial. Isabelle is a character whugohose entire being is wrapped up in what she says. Her character is intelligent and confident—spouting vocabulary words like “clandestine” and “superlative” from the countless books she’s read. You believe her adoration of literature in the way she talks about the books, in her tenor of voice, and the syllables she stresses. If we were asked to understand this passion for books by reading title cards as she expressed her love, we wouldn’t get it. Isabelle is dependent on her dialogue—it’s a facet of her character. When she recites by heart a Christina Rosetti poem, we believe her. We believe that someone so in love with words and stories could be the granddaughter of a film artist equally enthralled by the transformative qualities of film. Sound in film is critical at times. We need to hear George’s voice bellow through the train station when he calls for the station master. We need to hear the clank of the wrench that Hugo accidentally drops from the clock near the station master’s feet that terrifyingly risks unveiling his secret identity. The film represents the critical move from silent film to talkies.

But not only does the film represent the ways in which sound has evolved, but storytelling as well. It shows how acting has evolved—from outlandish gestures, to subtle break-downs. In a silent film, George Méliès’ emotional crumble as he recalls his past would be shown with exaggerated sobs, but in modern cinema, his subtle emotional collapse is more effective. The film shows how acting has evolved, how the camera has developed. It’s now free to sweep and dance across a set whereas before the camera was mostly stationary. It showcases the power of close-up—now in 3D, and the importance of reference and homage, and artistic backlighting like the beautiful shot of Isabelle and Hugo sneaking into a theater and watching a silent film. What is marveling about the film is the way in which the elements of film past and present occur simultaneously—the old gentleman with the crush continues to pursue the woman with the dog in a silent film style, even as Hugo and Isabelle continue on their adventure with rich back-story and modern visuals—papers fluttering in a whimsical array, snow falling, the view of the city from Hugo’s dangerous hiding spot along the outer ledge of the clock. It’s a mixture of styles, but it all comes together in a seamless way, possibly because each style originated from the same place. Hugo shows the evolution of the filmic experience, but each element came from the same initial piece of celluloid back in the early 18th century. It’s all cut from the same cloth.

hugo-moonBut the magic ingredient that makes Hugo a lesson in how far cinema has come is the fact that the film is in 3D. The same train that made early viewers duck as it came into the station towards them, now literally pops from the screen. If the first viewers found the magic of a jump cut exciting, imagine how they’d experience 3D movies today. Scorsese doesn’t just use the technology because it’s there, he knows how, and it’ll hike up the ticket cost, but he uses it because it’s a perfect representation of where cinema is in 2012. It makes sense that a movie applauding the life of film and its roots would be shot in a way that showcases the entire spectrum—we went from stuttered still frames in kinetoscopes, to sound, to Technicolor, and finally to a 3D pop up world. Hugo is like a snow globe that the viewers are allowed to shake and shudder as the story unfolds in their hands. The viewers are reenergized, they’re recharged by cinema. In the same way that the first viewers marveled at the simple images, or even the way I was once captivated by the color and music of Aladdin, we’re left to experience the newest element of film in its relatively early days with wonder and enchantment that 3D visuals can provide. And all the while, the wonder of the medium brings to life the old classics—the pleasure of watching Méliès’ A Trip to the Moon come to life in Scorsese’s retelling is fascinating. Viewers who may have never encountered Méliès films are asked to respect cinema’s roots with films they’d likely never had the opportunity to see, in the same way that film students forced to watch countless Méliès’ shorts in the first  week of every film history class, can now appreciate the spectacle of early cinema so much more just by seeing it through Scorsese’s modern lens. Scorsese keeps film past and present alive. He keeps us marveling at its art and craft. And he guarantees that we dream of the endless possibilities of where cinema could go next and what it can accomplish.