MOVIE REVIEW DOUBLE FEATURE:
AFFLUENZA • BOYHOOD
It's a big weekend at the Los Angeles area box office with an eclectic group of indie gems shining brightly amidst some lingering tentpoles and expanding winners like "Snowpiercer" and "Deliver Us From Evil". Joining them is the dawn of a new era of "dirty apes", one of my "Must See" films of LAFF last month "Land Ho!" while glistening brightly is Jason Momoa's directorial debut in the beautifully filmed "Road to Paloma" and the adorably quirky "Audrey". But given this is summer vacation with road trips and journeys abounding, let's take a look at a couple of other new releases this weekend that take us some interesting journeys in life.
Who wasn't affected by the economic collapse of 2008, you know, the one that politicians say is over yet we're all still feeling it in our wallet? With a little bit of breathing room since the worst of the debacle now giving us some hindsight and perspective, screenwriter Antonio Macias (who just happens to be a Culver City resident) and director Kevin Asch give us an observational character and societal study with a fresh point of view with AFFLUENZA.
Inspired by books like "The Great Gatsby" and defining characters like Salinger's Holden Caulfield, AFFLUENZA is a metaphoric and substantive look at our addiction to wealth, over-consumption vs old school simplicity, the rise and fall of materialism and the age old "keeping up with the Joneses" filled with all the stress, debt and overwork in pursuit of the American dream, but told through the eyes of a group of coming of age teens, and none moreso than young Fisher Miller.
Set in late summer 2008 just before the crash, budding photographer and pot-head Fisher Miller heads out to the affluent area of Great Neck, NY to stay with his successful stockbroker uncle, Phil, and Phil's wife Bunny and daughter Kate. With perpetually popular Kate to introduce him to the world of phoniness and excess, it doesn't take long for Fisher to be hanging with the rich pretty kids, namely Dylan, Kate's boyfriend Todd and her friend Jody, who Fisher wastes no time in hooking up with.
Thanks to Dylan's uber wealth, Fisher and company are at no loss for extracurricular activities like sex, drugs, alcohol and parties, oblivious to the world outside of their little bubble and always believing that money does grow on trees. But Fisher starts to see the facade being to crack. With his ever-present camera, he focuses in on the hypocritical debauchery of this wonderland of wealth as it crumbles, including the fall of his Uncle Phil and the world around him. Fisher's camera not only mirrors the observational nature of the film but serves as our eye into AFFLUENZA.
Ben Rosenfeld gives a captivating performance as Fisher Miller. With growing introspection and intensity, Rosenfield draws one into this world of affluence but then is able to take an unobtrusive step back as if a fly on the wall but still in the room. It's a delicate emotional line, but he handles it elegantly and effectively. Gregg Sulkin embodies the "greed is good" entitled and entitlement persona of Dylan Carson while Nicola Peltz is picture perfect as Kate.
Exciting is Steve Guttenberg who as Uncle Phil gives what is easily one of the best performances of his career; intense, heartfelt, Guttenberg captures the emotion of everyone touched by the financial crisis, succinctly giving a resonating face to frustration, loss and pain. One powerful monologue in particular will have you riveted. Equally strong is Samantha Mathis. As Bunny she is perfect counter of Guttenberg and these two veterans elevate the film to another level. Sometimes the baggage of actor's prior performances is a hindrance to a role, but not so with Roger Rees as Dylan's wealthy and distant father, Mr. Carson. Undoubtedly the sight of Rees will stir memories of his indelible "Robin Colcord", the millionaire who lost it all and landed in jail on "Cheers". Brilliant casting touch.
Antonio Macias and Kevin Asch have a collaborative spirit as writer and director that has only grown in efficiency and effectiveness since their last film, the breakout "Holy Rollers". As I saw firsthand during my interview with them, their sensibilities about life and filmmaking are in perfect synergy. With AFFLUENZA, Macias and Asch think outside the box, giving fresh eyes to a painful and overdone subject. Thanks to Asch's eye and intimate understanding of the region and "that world", he brings a fluidity to the proceedings, never stagnating, always moving but well-paced, and always knowing the importance of metaphor and visual, i.e., large tall trees shrouding a property and the main players steep us in the idea of not only how small each of the characters/us is in the grand scheme of things, but how closed off and ignorant we are from the world and its problems.
AFFLUENZA soars with technical merits and none moreso than by cinematographer Tim Gillis. Using the expansive and opulent Great Neck area as his backdrop, Gillis' visuals are not only beautiful, but metaphoric, becoming a storytelling subtext of their own, particularly with the lighting - diffused fog at times, filtered muggy heavy grey skies, a slight bluish wash tint. Superb design.
Targeted for the younger demographic (as it should), the blissful innocence and ignorance of youth coming of age perspective into what kids and teens typically deem as "parent problems" proves an effective cautionary tale, positing the idea that society can change and we know it should.
Having already gained recognition for his "Before" trilogy and the idea of revisiting the same characters at different junctures in their lives, some 12 years ago Richard Linklater embarked on a similar yet distinctly different experimental film with BOYHOOD. With the same core group of actors on hand for 12 years, namely Ellar Coltrane (who is mesmerizing as Mason), Linklater's own daughter Lorelai and veterans Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette as their divorced parents, BOYHOOD charts the course of their lives as seen through Mason's eyes as he grows up, growing from chubby-cheeked pesky younger brother to mature your man with the world as his oyster.
Shot in 39 days over the course of the 12 years, Linklater uses the world and pop culture as cornerstones to infuse the direction of the story. From Harry Potter to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to the political zeitgeist and activism, cultural transitions and touchstones of each of our lives flood the film with this groundbreaking sense of nostalgic reality. "Family" photos taken over the course of the 12 years mark all the seminal occasions of life - birthdays, anniversaries, graduations, new bikes, first boyfriends and girlfriends, dances, vacations. It doesn't take long for Linklater to make us feel that Mason, Samantha, Mom Olivia and Dad Mason Sr. are a real family next door. Hilarious is a young Samantha driving brother Mason crazy with her incessant singing and dancing to Britney Spears, "Oops!...I Did It Again". Touching is watching a father and son separated by geography and understanding grow closer through the years. Initially heartbreaking is watching a single mother struggling to support her two kids and better herself while frustrating is her repeated bad choices in bad men who bring alcoholism and violence into the family unit. The result is palpable emotion.
Given that BOYHOOD is about the boy, Linklater on occasion falls short with the adult relationships and interaction. Often feeling more stilted, it both adds and detracts from the work; adding by giving a more wide-eyed questioning by the children of what's going on but detracting on the level that the conversational and reactive nature of certain scenes feels uncomfortably scripted. Where he excels, however, is with some great supporting casting throughout the years, notably Marco Perella as Olivia's professor-turned boyfriend-turned violent alcoholic husband, and Steve Prince as Ted, another doomed male. Having said that, as much as BOYHOOD is about Mason's journey, a parent's journey goes hand-in-hand with that, influencing and guiding, sometimes silently, sometimes not. It is often these peripheral adult characters entering the scene at the behest of the parents, that come and go over the years, proving to be the catalysts to have profound impact on Mason.
However, the strength of BOYHOOD lies within Linklater's own conviction to the project and the commitment of the actors. Allowing Hawke perhaps the greatest latitude with his improvisional dialogue and performance, Coltrane and Lorelai Linklater were more scripted when younger, but always had discussions with Linklater as they were growing up, filling him in on current music, books, films and what they were doing in their own lives, elements of which he then incorporated into the film. While the characters of Mason and Samantha are quite different from Coltrane and Linklater in real life, as Linklater admits, "I see some pieces of me; some things that I did that I didn't know I did, that I don't like, so now I try to change those things." For Coltrane, photography is not only an intrinsic part of Mason, but for him in real life as well. There are definite moments that have you wonder where fantasy and reality end and begin, making BOYHOOD even more engrossing and emotionally dynamic.
Shot on 35mm, cinematographers Jonathan Sehring and John Sloss keep lensing simple, allowing the performances to be the focal point of the frame, while delivering a 12-year palette that is cohesive and visually engaging. Although employing the "editing as you go" philosophy, somewhere along the way, brevity got lost leading to some protracted scenes that drone on a bit too long and delivering a film that comes in at a robust 2 hours 45 minutes. However, there is an organic natural ease to the film that flows like the river on which Mason and his dad skip stones.
BOYHOOD weaves an emotional web in this journey called life.