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Small(er) Movie Roundup: ‘Boyhood,’ ‘Deliver Us From Evil,’ ‘Life Itself,’ and More

Reviews of some of the best movies you’ll see this year, and some of the worst.

Boyhood, directed by Richard Linklater

As Richard Linklater’s family drama makes its way around the country, the accompanying stories of its making will lure the curious — stories about the dozen years he, his crew, and cast devoted to shaping and shooting of this movie. It was made off and on, loosely adhering to the personal growth of the actor playing the boy at its center. Ellar Coltrane was in or near the first grade when his performance as Mason Jr. began. In the final shot, he’s a college freshman. The formal device sounds like a gimmick — filmmaking that is holistic, sustainable, organic. The farm is the table, the table is the farm, and on and on.

But to sit with this movie and witness the concentrated passage of time is to watch, in a true, moving way, your life unspool before your eyes, without fanfare or idealism or romance. The years pass with a simple cut, as gradual and seamless as evolution itself. There is nothing quite like the brightness in Mason’s 5- or 6-year-old face when Mason Sr. (Ethan Hawke) finally comes to Texas to visit him and Mason’s sister, Samantha (Linklater’s daughter, Lorelei). It’s the face of Christmas mornings and surprise birthdays, a face of innocence. Eventually, you notice the lighting leaving it. Somewhere toward the middle of the movie, a teenage Mason bounds down a flight of stairs — his hair oily, his face pimpled, the pudginess that gave him a cherub’s adorability having melted off his lanky frame — and I gasped. Where did the time go?

The audacity of the format belies the modest ambition of the story on display. Boyhood is actually the story of a single mother who wants the best for her children but also for herself. Mason’s father and mother, Olivia (Patricia Arquette), had children when they were very young. The relationship didn’t work out. Mason Sr. went off to work in Alaska and drive cool cars. Olivia raises a family, puts herself through college, and twice marries poorly. The children are not the center of her universe. They’re two enormous planets. Her children are growing and changing. So is she.

There’s a moment when she looks at her young-adult son and says, through tears, something so deeply honest that it hurts not to be able to hold her. Mason Sr. enjoys the relative luxury of the non-custodial parent: He’s aspired-to, he’s awesome, and he gets to grow up and into fatherhood, taking the kids camping and to post campaign lawn signs for Barack Obama in 2008. The breezy, cool-guy routine Hawke does so well here is the opposite of Arquette’s extraordinary micro-climates: pride, anger, fear, resentment, surprise, wonder, disappointment, and unconditional love, sometimes right there in one reaction shot. The movie is called Boyhood, but the world Linklater’s conceived is grand enough to include the most poignant depiction of a single mother I can think of.

The form here is the content. Linklater is almost philosophical about becoming who you are. His filmmaking tends to veer in and out of shagginess. Strong images don’t come naturally to him. He is, as they say, a people person — a man of places, too. Mason Jr., Samantha, and Olivia seem to tumble across Texas, and as they do you wonder how the upheaval has wounded and strengthened them. Mason Jr. develops oddball distrust of systems and social conventions. Spiritually, at least, he’s the son of Linklater’s Slacker. He sits in the desert, a plaintive, pontificating, unambitious teenager looking, more or less, for the meaning of life. The light in his face is gone. Twelve years later, it’s moved to his soul.

Land Ho! directed by Martha Stephens and Aaron Katz

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Andrew Reed/Sony Pictures Classics

Are you tired of death and insurrection and monkeys and machines, of Jolie and Cruise? Do you wish you could experience some far-flung place that requires an actual passport? Does the idea of 90 minutes with a horny old Texan stoner and his milder-mannered, Australian ex-brother-in-law having the time of their lives for a few days in Iceland appeal to you? Then, by all means, run to Stephens and Katz’s comedy. It’s one of the best, happiest movies of the year. Youll exit better than high. Youll leave on a trampoline.

The premise fits on a beer coaster. Mitch (Earl Lynn Nelson) has a big body, big money, and a big mouth. He also has a big heart. He’s planned a trip to Iceland for him and his buddy Colin, who’s still sad about the end of his marriage and plans to sulk. But Mitch wins, and to some extent so does Colin (Paul Eenhoorn). They experience the natural wonders of the country. They get drunk, high, laid, and lost. They do some deep thinking. They dance. What Stephens and Katz achieve is done with a high degree of difficulty. They find the comedy in the odd-couple pairing of personalities and nationalities and tastes without losing the human thread that keeps Mitch’s larger-than-life-ness from leaving the planet.

It’s funny when his volubility gets under Colin’s skin. But Colin, too, is human, and he cannot resist his friend’s charisma. Neither can a lot of the respectfully drawn women whose paths Mitch and Colin cross. One of them, a Canadian photographer (Alice Olivia Clarke), is so richly magnetic that you want to see the movie of her travels. Often a buddy movie has to find a dramatic gear to get an audience to care. But the scenarios aren’t pushed too hard, and the filmmakers have worked out a number of bits for Nelson and Eenhoorn to improvise their way around. You always feel a blowup coming between them. But they’re having too much fun for Colin to stay mad. Yes, this is yet another bromance, but for people who remember when that was just called friendship.

Life Itself, directed by Steve James

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Magnolia Pictures

Boyhood and Land Ho! feel very much like the sort of introspective affirmation of existence Roger Ebert would’ve admired toward the end of his life. His film criticism had achieved an enviable capacity for empathy. His favorable opinions swelled after he was diagnosed with cancer in 2005, and they weren’t fashionable. But to read him was to read a man communing with movies at a higher emotional register, particularly during the final years. James was present with a camera during this period. The resulting documentary adapts Ebert’s 2011 memoir and chronicles his Illinois childhood, his years as an alcoholic Chicago journalist, his professional marriage to Gene Siskel, and his romantic marriage to Chaz Hammel-Smith. For James, the movie’s less formally rigorous than a landmark like Hoop Dreams or an epic masterpiece like The Interrupters. It’s an elegy, a eulogy, and a valentine, one that honors some of the warts of Ebert’s character and presents Chaz as a pillar of loving reason.

James skips the aftermath of Siskel’s death in 1999 — the many attempts to fill his seat. We don’t hear a peep from Ebert’s second partner, Richard Roeper, for instance. But it is generous enough to make Siskel a fully developed character. The passages about his rivalry with Ebert are the film’s strongest. They shared a complicated ambivalence with each other. Their fame simply compounds your fascination with their mutual fascination. Many people learned how to watch movies by watching them talk about what they watched, myself included. Some of those people write about movies because Ebert empowered them to do so. Life Itself makes clear how much Ebert meant to moviegoers and moviemakers (like Martin Scorsese, Gregory Nava, and Ramin Bahrani) — a lot. It also makes clear that Ebert didn’t want to partake in a movie that sweetened who he was. He’d be proud to know that the movie of his life is sugar-free.

Begin Again, directed by John Carney

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Andrew Schwartz/The Weinstein Company

So let me get this straight. The owner of an independent record label that once had a hand in discovering and distributing cutting-edge music is fired from his company. One night, he’s drunk, facedown, at a bar when suddenly he hears the music that saves his life. It’s a young Englishwoman, a guitar, and a song. This is music so good that he peels himself up, has a gander at the stage, and envisions the unused instruments suddenly supplying accompaniment by playing themselves, so the movie audience just sees a pair of floating drumsticks and levitating violin bow.

After decades at the vanguard of cool, this guy finds the woman so irresistible that he risks what little cachet he has left to record her debut record in alleys and apartments and rooftops. Those who aren’t amazed by his commitment and her integrity are laughing at the sheer preposterousness of it all. His attraction to her sound is like Mario Batali falling in love with a bowl of brown water and vegetables that he plans to sell to the world as minestrone.

Keira Knightley plays the songwriter who happens to sing. For the first time, this good actor really is just a bowl of water and celery. And Mark Ruffalo is the music veteran. He spends the movie careening around Manhattan in his vintage Jaguar, a brown cigarette dangling from lips most of the time. The only other actor I’ve seen play such a stupid part with this kind of admirable but ridiculous passion is, well, Mark Ruffalo. Who would flip for songs that would make Starbucks throw up its hands? Knightley has her heart broken by her old writing partner turned pop star (Adam Levine). Ruffalo is trying to fall back in with his estranged wife (Catherine Keener, bitterly coupled again) and daughter (Hailee Steinfeld, truculently teenaged once more). Neither woman is very good; both look miserable.

Carney also made Once, the most redundant musical romance in the history of the art form. It was the equivalent of ordering a replacement cable and having it come in a three-foot box of packing peanuts. The new movie is worse. There’s no cable. They play songs in open spaces as double acts of ingenuity and rebellion: Screw the studio! But we seemed to be hearing at least a partial recording of these sessions, so the production conceit remains just that. And would Knightley’s optimistic busker friend (James Corden) really pause his own stalled musical career to do sound and throw parties for her?

The trouble with this movie — aside from its lack of visual wonder and musical shape — is that you don’t trust its priorities. Right before it cuts to Ruffalo squabbling with Knightley, there’s a cut to the act who follows her. He’s just a dude with a guitar, but his voice is chowder by comparison. How can you respect a movie whose protagonist believes that Knightley’s thin, flat singing and her character’s dear-blog lyrics are good, one who envisions either the future of music or college tuition payments? Even Levine’s nasal bleat has charisma. With him and Corden and the dude with the guitar, there’s too much evident talent to take seriously the movie’s endorsement of Knightley.

But after two weeks, the movie’s on its way to becoming a hit, in part, I’m guessing, because of pop music–geek draws like Levine and Corden, and partly because Knightley is meant to represent authentic artistic integrity. The putative villain is Ruffalo’s business partner, who’s played by Yasiin Bey, the former Mos Def. It’s utterly surreal to have a rapper be The Man. His terms differ from Knightley’s. She wants to sell the album only for what its worth, which is $1. Needless to say, the people behind Begin Again are selling both the soundtrack and the film for many times more. But after only 20 minutes of this movie, even her price feels steep.

Deliver Us From Evil, directed by Scott Derrickson

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Screen Gems

Desperate to re-create the sensation of last summer’s The Conjuring, this exorcism horror-thriller swears it’s true. If you’ve seen the posters, the tag line is so enormous that you’re free to think the words “inspired by the actual accounts of an NYPD sergeant” are the star of this movie. As it is, you have to work hard to find Eric Bana’s name. But he and his not-terrible Bronx accent are in almost every scene. As Ralph Sarchie, he’s the very fit cop who pokes around crime scenes unaware that his penchant for hearing and seeing what others cannot are a calling against Satan.

Sarchie gets mixed up in a lot of paranormal activity that walks right up to his doorstep, where his wife (Olivia Munn) and daughter (Lulu Wilson) spend a lot of time without him. Thankfully, there’s a sexy demonologist priest (Édgar Ramírez) to help out, wearing leather jackets, drinking alcohol, and taking deep drags on cigarettes. These two discuss Sarchie’s renunciation of God and the priest’s old life as a junkie. Together they uncover weirdness that leads to soldiers in the Iraq War. But it’s a conspiracy unworthy of your intrigue. Sarchie and his smart-ass partner (Joel McHale, whose performance here was all done at the gym) are in one eye-rolling scenario after the next.

Derrickson’s been here before — he made 2005’s The Exorcism of Emily Rose, which is the best-worst demonic possession movie I’ve seen, and 2012’s Sinister, a pale The Shining knockoff in which evil body-snatches Ethan Hawke. This movie appears to have saved all of its money for the exorcism itself, whose exhaustiveness is something to see. It’s like watching two men try to put out a fire with water balloons. But this is cheap horror, with none of the parental angst or memorable imagery that gave The Conjuring its kick.

Deliver Us From Evil is content to be sick (hey: self-cannibalism!) and cheap. This is the sort of movie that leans hard on a sludgy, hissing sound design to work your nerves (they just got on mine) and animals that leap out of nowhere to make you leap from your seat. If you didn’t know that Jerry Bruckheimer produced this movie, the boot prints on your eardrums would’ve clued you in.