THE DVD SHELF: The Pleasures of "Boyhood" and Exciting Special Features on "Syncopation"

News   THE DVD SHELF: The Pleasures of "Boyhood" and Exciting Special Features on "Syncopation"
 
This month's column looks at Richard Linklater's new classic, "Boyhood" as well as a long-vanished 1942 drama centering on jazz and swing, "Syncopation."

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In 2002, director/writer/producer Richard Linklater — best known until recently for the "Before" trilogy ("Before Sunrise," "Before Sunset" and "Before Midnight"), although only the first had been made at that point — decided that he wanted to make a film about childhood. He came up with various ideas; something that could happen to an 8-year-old, something else at 11 or 13 — but didn't want to make one of those films where you have an older child actor "playing" young, or a younger actor aging; and he didn't want to use multiple actors. As he focused on effective ideas taking place at different ages, he conceived the notion of shooting five days a year, over the course of twelve years. The adult actors would clearly age, as in real life; but the centerpiece would be watching a seven-year-old grade school student gradually transform into a college-bound 19-year-old.

This scheme sounds impossible, from a practical point of view; it would seem difficult to come up with a plot that could be bent and formed around so many unknowns. The idea was also risky, financing-wise; investors don't want to be told that that a movie they spend money on in 2002 won't even be finished until 2014. If ever; given the vagaries of the business and the impossibility of binding actors to a 12-year legal commitment, it was hard to say whether the thing would ever be completed. If the boy decided he didn't want to do it anymore, or his family moved away — for example — the project might need to be scuttled.

To hedge his bets, he cast the roles of the parents with Ethan Hawke (of the "Before" series) and Patricia Arquette, both of whom had worked with him before and whose attitude seemed to be that whatever Linklater wanted, they'd gladly participate. For the role of the sister — who starts at age eight — he cast his own daughter, Lorelei Linklater. She seems to have forced herself into the role, in a good way, and turns out to be one of several key assets.

Typically, sketchily-planned projects like this don't turn out well. When they do, though, they can be unique. Such is the case with "Boyhood" [Paramount]. The film opened to virtually unanimous raves and a slew of award nominations. Critical raves, awards and even commercial success are one thing; I'm sure we could find similarly lauded films of the past that simply don't hold our interest. "Boyhood" is a wonderful and fascinating film, though, the sort of thing that draws you in and grabs your emotions. It is also one-of-a-kind. There are some theoretical links to the series of documentaries that started in 1964 with "Seven Up!"; but those focus on non-actor participants, who started at age seven, every seven years. Linklater shows us his characters every year, so we get more of a time-lapse effect. Ellar Coltrane is the centerpiece. You watch him, literally, grow before your eyes. (The film is fictional, yes; but while Linklater had a general outline from the start, he wrote and constructed each year's shooting script with input from and observation of the principal actors.) Coltrane grows scrawny, awkward and introspective; his hairstyle changes, he at some point sports an earring. But we feel like we are watching a real person — as opposed to an actor — and that his development comes not from some canny scriptwriter somewhere, but from life. No matter how he grows, the image of the innocent seven-year-old — as seen in the photo used to advertise the movie — remains with you through the film and after.

It is hard to say whether the performances of Coltrane and Ms. Linklater are so good because they are so real, or so real because they are so good. Perhaps it's a combination; one has to expect that Coltrane, moving forward, will always carry around these early stages of his life which are now preserved in a highly successful film. (You yourself might have been awkward at ten, but people who meet you as an adult aren't going to know that.) It is not difficult, though, to appreciate the performances from Arquette and Hawke. Arquette — a 2005 Emmy winner for "Medium" — appears to be a front-runner in the Oscar race. It's well deserved, as her character changes and grows almost as much as Coltrane (although not physically). Hawke, who is a constant presence on our New York stages, is equally impressive as he transforms from a hot-rodding, absentee dad to a fellow carefully buckling the baby from his second marriage into the minivan.

"Boyhood" also benefits from a handful of memorable subsidiary performances, all the more remarkable in that Linklater couldn't have necessarily known that these actors would be around to participate in later years. Standing high among them are Marco Perella as an abusive stepfather, with two of the most harrowing scenes — in a car and at the kitchen table — that we've recently seen; Tom McTigue, as a photography teacher who recognizes the boy's potential and forces him to live up to it; Richard Robichaux, as a somewhat whiny restaurant manager who does likewise; Zoe Graham, as the teenage girlfriend who helps change the child into an adult; and Roland Ruiz as an immigrant yard worker in the fourth or fifth year of filming, who comes back with an immensely touching scene in the final section.

"Boyhood" is not to be missed, a film that brings us so much more than just a couple of hours of entertainment. The home video release includes two features to enhance your enjoyment and understanding of the film. "The 12 Year Project" explains just how the film was made, including interviews with Linklater and the four stars along the way. There is also a 2014 Q&A session which provides further insight.

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Among the more curious first-time-on-home-video films to come our way is William Dieterle's "Syncopation" [Cohen]. Dieterle, a Max Reinhardt protégé who left Germany in 1930, did some impressive work over his 25 years in Hollywood, including the 1935 "Midsummer Night's Dream," "The Life of Emile Zola," the Charles Laughton "Hunchback of Notre Dame," the fascinating "Devil and Daniel Webster" and "Portrait of Jennie." Mixed in among them all, and pretty much forgotten, was the 1942 "Syncopation." This cavalcade of American jazz, ranging from slavery to swing, is not very artful. At times it seems almost amateurish; it nevertheless manages to hold you thanks to the performances, the sometimes striking visual work of producer/director Dieterle, and mostly the music that courses through the film. The gimmick that RKO used to promote the film — running a contest in the Saturday Evening Post in which readers voted for the "All-American Dance Band" included in the film — might have turned out to be a weakness of the enterprise. Benny Goodman, Harry James, Gene Krupa, Alvino Rey, Charlie Barnet, Joe Venuti and Connie Boswell are all on hand, but with so little screen time that the movie probably didn't please their collective fans.

While the plot is contrived and the writing often static, the two central performances are surprisingly attractive. Jackie Cooper plays a trumpeter from streets, who makes it big; Bonita Granville is the well-behaved miss from New Orleans who turns out to be the best jazz pianist around. Both were former child actors. Cooper was the first and only nine-year-old to receive a Best Actor Oscar nomination, for "Skippy" in 1931. He went on to a string of starring roles, with several opposite Wallace Beery ("The Champ," "Treasure Island"), before his career faded in adulthood. Granville also began with a splash — as the evil child in "These Three," the 1936 screen version of Lillian Hellman's The Children's Hour. This earned her a featured actress Oscar nomination, at the age of 14. Granville went on to star in the "Nancy Drew" serial, but she is best known as the producer of the "Lassie" television series. In "Syncopation," she is much better than you might have anticipated.

Of most interest, at least to me, is the presence of Todd Duncan as the jazz trumpeter from New Orleans. This is a rare chance to see Duncan, who in 1935 created the role of Porgy in George Gershwin's Porgy and Bess. We also get the Hall Johnson Choir, of Green Pastures fame, and they contribute mightily to the musical strengths of the film.

The Cohen Film Collection has added special features to the "Syncopation" Blu-ray that might well be even more interesting than the film itself. We get nine vintage jazz shorts, mostly from Paramount in the 1930s and ranging from five to 19 minutes. These include Bessie Smith delivering the "St. Louis Blues"; Duke Ellington in "Symphony in Black" (with Billie Holiday) and "Black and Tan Fantasy (with Fredi Washington); "Rhapsody in Black and Blue" with Louis Armstrong; "Cab Calloway's Hi De Ho"; "Artie Shaw's Class in Swing"; "Hoagy Carmichael," starring the songwriter with conductor Jack Teagarden; and something called "Jazz a la Cuba," prominently featuring location shots of Havana c. 1933.

(Steven Suskin is author of "Show Tunes," "The Sound of Broadway Music: A Book of Orchestrators and Orchestrations"; "Second Act Trouble," the "Opening Night on Broadway" books, and "The Book of Mormon: The Testament of a Broadway Musical." He also writes the Aisle View blog at The Huffington Post. He can be reached at Ssuskin@aol.com.)

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