Monday, December 29, 2014

MD Reviews: Where the Boys Are

Riding high on Best Picture wins from both the Los Angeles Film Critics Association and New York Film Critics Circle Awards, not to mention a slew of nominations from the Golden Globes, Screen Actors Guild and just about every other movie prize-giving group that pops out of the woodwork this time of year, Richard Linklater's Boyhood is poised for some degree of Oscar gold this award season. Necessarily twelve years in the making, this coming-of-age tale has quite the back story. However, its onscreen story is overlong and trite.

A dozen years ago, writer director Linklater (best known for Dazed and Confused and the Before Sunrise trilogy) began production on Boyhood (then titled 12 Years; a change was required following last year's big awards magnet, 12 Years a Slave). Centering on a then-seven year old Ellar Coltrane as the five year old Mason, the film follows him as he literally grows up before our eyes to the age of 18 (one assumes the sequel will be called Manhood). No recasting was done, Linklater and company met once a year to continue filming.

Patricia Arquette gives a strong performance as Mason's mom, even though she is saddled with not one but two alcoholic husbands, while Ethan Hawke is surprisingly likeable as Mason's absent father; Linklater's own daughter Lorelei rounds out the family as big sister Samantha. The film starts out strong, but once Mason enters his sullen teenage years, the pacing grinds to a crawl and the high school tropes start stacking up. By the time he goes to college as a proto-hipster I had lost all interest.

Boyhood is a compelling filmmaking experiment that nevertheless never quite gets past its central (for lack of a better term) gimmick. One wonders how much acclaim it would be reaping if the much-publicized making of the film was unknown.

From the overrated to the mostly overlooked, St. Vincent is a winning comedy/drama about a grumpy old man and his unlikely friendship with the boy next door. Bill Murray turns in some of his best dramatic work to date with his performance as Vincent, the meanest guy on the block who Melissa McCarthy's Maggie has the misfortune to move in adjacent to. In the midst of a messy divorce, Maggie is forced to accept the cash-strapped Vincent's offer of watching her son Oliver (Jaeden Lieberher) after school. The two form an odd partnership, with Vincent teaching the boy how to defend himself against school bullies (not to mention the finer points of betting on the horses), while Oliver slowly warms this Grinch's heart.

If it all sounds a tad sappy, director Theodore Melfi (who also penned the script) deftly avoids any gross sentimentality with gritty tinges of black comedy, mostly via Naomi Watts' acerbic Russian prostitute Daka, whose unfortunate pregnancy keeps getting in her way of turning a not-so-honest buck. Watts recently scored an unexpected Screen Actors Guild nomination, while Murray and the film itself rightly picked up nods from the Golden Globes. Here's hoping that these aren't the last laurels received by St. Vincent.

The Babadook, our final boy's tale, is a decidedly darker one. Australian writer/director Jennifer Kent makes an impressive feature film debut with this spooky supernatural thriller from Down Under, which again finds a young lad at the center of the proceedings. Still wracked with grief over the death of her husband on the same day she gave birth to her son Samuel, frazzled single mother Amelia (a raw to the bone performance by Essie Davis) is increasingly disturbed by the erratic behavior of the precocious boy (played by Noah Wiseman, who easily joins Damien and Regan in the esteemed ranks of Cinematic Creepy Kids). Faster than a trip from the frying pan to the fire, the situation escalates when Amelia reads Samuel the worst bedtime story ever, a mysterious pop-up book about a boogieman named the Babadook.

With excellent usage of disembodied sounds, pitch blackness and razor sharp editing, Kent expertly delivers the requisite willies, most successfully with the quick flashes of the title specter, with his London After Midnight top hat and Nosferatu fingers. And although the momentum lags a bit in the final third, and the climax isn't quite as big as it needed to be, you'll want to let in The Babadook next time you want your pants scared off.

MD Ratings:
Boyhood: C+
St. Vincent: B+
The Babadook: B

Reviews by Kirby Holt, creator and editor of Movie Dearest, The QuOD: The Queer Online Database and the Out Movie Guide.

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