Friday, May 24, 2013

Ranking Richard Linklater

For the past 22 years, since his 1991 breakthrough Slacker, Richard Linklater has been one of the most interesting filmmakers working in American indies. Yes, he has certainly flirted with bigger movies for studios – and actually made a couple of very good ones – but he always come back to his indie roots. Before Midnight opens this week – not in Canada, so I’ll have to wait a while to see it. So in lieu of that, I figured now was the time to look back at his 14 features (for those who are curious, I’m not counting his work before Slacker – one short, and two longer films, another short he made in the 2003, a TV movie from 2004, a documentary from 2008, or the TV series he directs – Up to Speed – just his theatrically released work). Anyway, it’s a strong resume, although I do think it is missing one thing – a true masterpiece, because for all the great, interesting work Linklater has done, he still hasn’t quite made one of them yet.

14. The Newton Boys (1998)
The Newton Boys was Linklater’s first attempt to go mainstream, and quite easily the worst film of his career. It stars Matthew McConaughey, Ethan Hawke, Skeet Ulrich and Vincent D’Onofrio as the title brothers, who along with Dwight Yoakam, robbed some 200 banks in the 1920s, made a lot of money, and never killed anyone, except one of their own. This is because they work mainly at night and blow the safes, and make out with the money. There is a reason why The Newton Boys aren’t as famous as some of the bank robbers that came just after them – John Dillinger or Bonnie & Clyde – and judging on this film the reason is simple – they were boring. There’s no romance about them, they are strictly professional criminals, very good at their job, who can seemingly talk about nothing except what they do. The film is slow – painfully slow – and Linklater isn’t much of an action director in the few cases where it is called for. Unlike his other films, he doesn’t seem to care about his characters, or what they are saying, so you have to wonder why the hell you should.

13. Bad News Bears (2005)
I don’t really dislike Linklater’s remake of Bad News Bears – it is about as good as the original, which was an average sports movie with a fine performance by Walter Matthau. This is an average sports with a fine performance by Billy Bob Thornton, who isn’t lovably vulgar like that Matthau was, but just plain vulgar – and it must be said, pretty damn funny too. In fact, Thornton is really the ONLY reason to see the movie – and even then, you’re better off watching Bad Santa, where he plays a similar role in a much better film, that truly allows him to be vulgar, which this one doesn’t because it wanted a PG-13 rating. Bad New Bears is a mildly amusing time waster – nothing more – and I have trouble believing that Linklater really directed it. He can make a great studio comedy – see the wonderful School of Rock – but this time everyone seems to be going through the motions.

12. Me and Orson Welles (2008)
Christian McKay, who plays Orson Welles in this film, may just give the best performance of anyone in a Richard Linklater movie (certainly only Jack Black in Bernie and Ethan Hawke in Tape can compare). He fully embodies the famed director/actor as he stages what will become his infamous stage version of Julius Caesar, with Nazis, a few years before he went on to reinvent film with Citizen Kane. It is a magnetic performance, where you can never take your eyes off of him. He looks and sounds as much like Welles as you could possibly expect, and captures the gravitas that Welles had that so few others did. It is a brilliant performance. And the movie is also a showcase for period costumes and set design, done on a shoestring compared to most period movies. So why then does Me and Orson Welles rank only 12th for me among Linklater’s films? Simple – I wasn’t all that interested in the “Me” part. Zac Efron plays that title character, and is fine as a youngster who has bit part in the stage, and tells the story, and also has a romance with an older woman (Claire Danes). All is well enough handled, but rather perfunctory as well. I wanted more McKay and Welles – a supporting character in the movie, but the only one you really remember as you leave the theater.

11. Fast Food Nation (2006)
Fast Food Nation is a fine film that tells three interlocking stories about how America slaughters and consumes meet. One story involves Greg Kinnear as a fast food executive who is tasked with finding out if there really is shit in their meet. He does not like what he discovers – especially when he meets with one of the biggest suppliers (Bruce Willis) who matter of factly tells him it doesn’t matter – the germs are killed by cooking the burgers, and besides, sometimes we all gotta eat shit. The second is about undocumented Mexican workers who come to America and end up being cheap, illegal labor at the factories that package the meet. Americans don’t want the jobs, so they do it, and companies like it because they save money and if a worker gets hurt, what can they do about it? The third is about fast food employees themselves, who don’t much like their job, and at some point decide to do something about it – although what they do doesn’t really accomplish anything. Fast Food Nation certainly has a point of view about meet – but it doesn’t really drill into your skull, but rather sits back and allows you to watch everything that happens. The ending of the movie – where we see a cow being slaughtered in the factory from beginning to end, is stomach churning, but I guess if you’re going to eat meet (and I’m not going to stop), you should at least know how it got to your table.

10. subUrbia (1996)
The oddly capitalized subUrbia was written by Eric Bogosian, a gifted playwright adapting his own work for the screen. For whatever reason, this movie never really seemed to catch on with audiences, and all these years later, I still don’t think it has ever really found its audience – and that’s too bad. While it may not be as good as Linklater’s best work, it is still fine indeed. The film, I think, makes an interesting companion piece to Dazed and Confused – which is about high school grads who don’t know what to do with their lives – as the characters in this film are older, but no wiser, and still don’t know what to do with their lives. All they do is hang out in the parking lot of a convenience store, drinking beer and waiting – but there is nothing to wait for. True, during the course of the night that makes up this film, they are actually waiting for a former high school friend, who has become a rock star (and he does show up), but even if they weren’t waiting for him, these characters would still be there, drinking, waiting, arguing with the Pakistani owners of the store (who see them more clearly than they see themselves). And perhaps that is why subUrbia still seems like it’s waiting to find its audience – while there are moments that are funny, this ends up being a fairly dark film, about the emptiness of the lives of these slackers. Unlike some movies (like say Kevin Smith’s), there is nothing romantic about these slackers – they’re kind of pathetic, and you feel sorry for them.

9. Slacker (1991)
Linklater’s breakthrough film was this free association film about life in his hometown of Austin, Texas. In it, we see what Linklater will do best throughout his entire career – listen to interesting people as they do nothing but talk and talk and talk. The film all takes places in seemingly real time, as Linklater’s camera finds a character and follows them for a while, as they ramble on about nothing overly important, until Linklater gets bored with them, and then spins off, finds another person on the street and follows them for a while. Linklater does this better later in his career (especially in Waking Life, but also in the Before Sunrise/Sunset films, although of course, there you don’t spin away) and Slacker certainly feels like exactly what it is – a young filmmaker experimenting with style and finding his voice. On that level, Slacker is a must for Linklater fans, much like the first films of many great directors are – not because they are the best work the filmmaker will do (Slacker clearly isn’t) but because we see the seeds of greatness in the film all the more clearly once we know what comes after.

8. Before Sunrise (1995)
Of the two “Before” films so far, Before Sunrise is the more dreamily romantic – because, of course, the characters at this point are in their 20s, and still see the world and their lives with endless optimism. They haven’t quite been crushed by life yet, haven’t settled down and “become their parents”. Instead, they are two young, intelligent 20-somethings who meet cute on a train in Austria, and decide to spend the long night together in Vienna – walking around and talking – before Jesse (Ethan Hawke) has to board a plane back to America and Celine (Julie Delphy) has to return to her life in Paris. Watching them walk around the streets of Vienna and talk – about everything and nothing – is a wonderful experience. You almost wish there was no sequel, because then we could remember them – and they could remember each other – as they were. But alas, time moves on.

7. Dazed and Confused (1993)
Dazed and Confused could well be Linklater’s most famous film – it has certainly garnered a sizable cult following in the nearly two decades since it was released. Most people remember it as an hilarious comedy – and while it certainly is hilarious at times – it is also a more clear eyed view of life in high school than most movies of its ilk. Unlike say George Lucas’ American Graffiti, which looked back nostalgically to life as a teenager in the 1950s, Dazed and Confused has no delusions that life in high school was all romance and fun times. It is a movie about these characters who seem stuck between teenagers and adults (or in the case of Matthew McConaughey, an adult who wants to remain a teenager). Like all of Linklater’s best films, this one is all talk – the character ramble on about seemingly nothing, and yet somehow find some real truth along the way.

6. Tape (2001)
Tape is the most underrated film of Linklater’s career – a stage to screen adaptation, that although the entire thing contains just three characters and takes place in a hotel room, doesn’t feel stage bound. Working on video (daring in 2001), Linklater doesn’t go for the shaky camera work of many films of the time who used that format – but does use the camera more freely – to capture everything in a more free flowing manor. The movie stars Ethan Hawke, Robert Sean Leonard and Uma Thurman. At first, it’s just Hawke in the motel room, than Leonard arrives. The two are old high school friends, and Leonard has become a famous filmmaker. Hawke was in love with Thurman in high school, but the two never had sex, but she did have sex with Leonard once. But was it consensual? Hawke hammers away at Leonard until he “confesses”, and then Thurman arrives and things get even more complicated. Because nothing is quite as it seems, nothing is the same from every character’s point of view. It shifts, and in some stories one character in the “bad guy”, and in other’s someone else is. Like Linklater’s best films, this one is all talk – but what talk it is, and what acting (especially by Hawke) and how much Linklater is able to accomplish with little more than three actors, a hotel room and a videocamera.

5. School of Rock (2003)
Out of all of Linklater’s experiments with mainstream filmmaking, School of Rock is the only one that truly works – and it does so just about perfectly. It stars Jack Black being his regular Jack Black self (see his performance in Linklater’s Bernie to see him do something completely different), as an aging rock singer who never made it big, but keeps the dream alive. He needs money, and somehow fakes his credentials, becomes a 5th grade teacher and turns his class into a rock band so they can compete in Battle of the Bands. Yes, the plot sounds dumb, but the movie is anything but. This is a sharply written movie (by Mike White), that actually takes the premise seriously. Black remains himself throughout, and the kids stay kids. Yes, you know where the movie is going, but does it really matter? Linklater has made better films than School of Rock, but I don’t think he’s made one this purely entertaining.

4. Before Sunset (2004)
Before Sunset, made 9 years after Before Sunrise, as the two characters once again meet up – this time in Paris – and once again walk around the city and talk. Those endlessly optimistic characters we knew for the first film, are gone. They have become older and wiser, and look back at their night together partly wistfully, partly with regret of a path not taken. I feel that over the years I have been too negative about the film – which was never my intent, because I do think it is a near great film. I just don’t think it is the masterpiece that many claimed it was back in 2004. A near great film to be sure, and I am certainly looking forward to the final chapter this year – to see not only what happens to Jesse and Celine, but perhaps if Linklater can actually make his masterpiece.

3. A Scanner Darkly (2006)
Even when Philip K. Dick’s stories are turned into great movies – like Blade Runner or Minority Report – they usually just use the original Dick story as a starting point, and then jump off into something different. This may well make A Scanner Darkly the best “faithful” adaptation of a Dick story. Like he did five years earlier in Waking Life, Linklater uses an animation process called rotoscoping – where he films real actors, and then animates over top of them – to achieve the shimmering animated look of the film – and to achieve effects that he never could on his budget (like the scramble suit). This works just about perfectly for this film, which all takes place in a drug induced haze as undercover cop Bob (Keanu Reeves) starts to forget he is an undercover cop because of all the drugs he is taking. He spends a lot of time watching video of himself and his roommates (Robert Downey Jr. and Woody Harrelson) trying to remember what happened, and chasing down Donna (Winona Ryder) who is either his wife or his drug connection or both. A Scanner Darkly is certainly an anti-drug movie, but it’s much more than that as well. It’s a haunting film, and a brilliant one.

2. Bernie (2012)
Perhaps I am over praising Bernie because it is Linklater’s most recent film – but I don’t think so. Bernie is a great film about a character who lies to everyone, including himself, but is so charming that no one really cares. It gave Jack Black the role of his career so far, as the seemingly sunny, cheerful man who blows into a small Texas town, becomes a beloved local overnight, and even when he’s charged with murder, no one much cares, because the old woman he killed (the great Shirley Maclaine) was a bitch. Linklater combines documentary elements with his film, based on a true story, letting many of the locals play themselves. It is a daring combination that comes off because the screenplay is so strong, as are the performances (not only Black and Maclaine, but Matthew McConaughey who is great as the prosecutor). The film is much more ambiguous and less exploitive than most true crime movies of its ilk – and, for the moment anyway, it is one of Linklater’s best films.

1. Waking Life (2001)
When Waking Life opened in 2001 it was a completely different kind of animated film. Using a process called rotoscoping, where Linklater films real actors and then animates over top of them, Linklater has made an animated that captures all those small moments of human behavior and body language, that animation can never get quite right, but also gives him the freedom that animation provides. It stars Wiley Wiggins as a young man caught in a dream that he cannot wake up from, and like Slacker, he moves from one character or set of characters to another, eavesdropping on their conversations, or listening to their dialogue, as they try to answer the BIG questions of existence’s meaning. The movie doesn’t try to answer that question, but like Wiley, it wants the audience to at least be asking themselves those questions. It is unlike anything other movie I can think of – which is why I think it’s Linklater’s best so far.

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