Binge Richard Linklater movies on Criterion this month
As one of the forefathers of the indie film revolution of the 90s, director Richard Linklater has compiled an impressive filmography and firmly established his place as one of the most influential voices of cinema today. The Criterion Channel has curated a comprehensive library of his career on its streaming platform this month.
An excellent place to start is found on the Criterion Channel in the “Adventures in Moviegoing” series, where several stars and filmmakers are interviewed about their early experiences becoming fans of the medium. In the 22-minute Linklater feature, he shares his history as a college dropout who found a job working an oil rig with a driving curiosity to watch as many movies as he could during his time off. It was an obsession that led to Linklater studying film, working with a local theater to program features, and crafting his work. “It was a great time to be hungry and consuming everything,” Linklater says.
Linklater first gained attention for his second directorial feature, the 1990’s “Slacker.” The movie takes place over one day in Austin, Tx. (Linklater’s hometown), as the story follows many people throughout the city in short tales as one character enters the end of a scene to transition to the next one. While “Slacker” is undoubtedly inventive, each scene is carried mainly by characters monologuing to the others on screen. Linklater would improve his execution of these elements in the ensemble comedy “Dazed and Confused” and the ongoing conversation over one day in a city in his Before trilogy, none of which are part of Criterion’s streaming collection here. Still, the platform’s deep-cut collection of Linklater’s filmography gives us early glimpses into his inventive and thematic storytelling.
The director made his first studio film with 1998’s “The Newton Boys.” Two of Linklater’s frequent collaborators, Matthew McConaughey and Ethan Hawke, a team with Skeet Ulrich and Vincent D’onofrio as a group of real-life Texan brothers who begin a bank-robbing spree in the early 1920s. Linklater uses the robberies to touch upon one of his ongoing themes: Outcast Texans trying to overcome the systematic powers that oppose them, whether the stakes are high as it is here or through casual social interactions like 1993’s “Dazed and Confused” and 2016’s “Everybody Wants Some.”. “The Newton Boys” aims for the same vibe as 1968’s “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” but never matches the classic. Still, Linklater and friends keep the time fleet and are engaging.
Linklater has also experimented with animated films, specifically with the rotoscope technique where live-action footage is filmed then animators trace over the frames to create a unique style. The director first used this technique in 2001’s “Waking Life” and later in this year’s “Apollo 10 ½: A Space Age Childhood.” Criterion offers Linklater’s second effort in this style, 2006’s “A Scanner Darkly,” a science-fiction drama adapted from the Philip K. Dick novel. Keanu Reeves soon stars as an undercover agent surveilling an addictive drug operation. As part of his cover, he lives with two deadbeats (Robert Downey Jr. and Woody Harrelson) and forms a relationship with a potential supplier (Winona Ryder). “A Scanner Darkly” is predictive of the future (if it’s not the drugs burning us out, it’s social media and news as entertainment) and offers another strong Reeves performance in questioning reality.
Linklater’s prolific career includes black comedy with 2011’s “Bernie.” Based on a true story, the movie quickly introduces us to Bernie Tiede (Jack Black), a kind-hearted Texan mortician who befriends an older woman, Marjorie Taylor (Shirley MacLaine), wealthy and mean-spirited, before killing her at her home. “Bernie” is one of Linklater’s best films, drawing wonderful performances out of Black, MacLaine, and McConaughey as the local district attorney prosecuting Bernie and including many documentary-style comments from both character actors and real-life townspeople. As conceptual and experiential as the director can be, “Bernie” proves he can make an engaging comedy-drama for all audiences at any moment.
The most ambitious project Linklater devised was released in 2014 with “Boyhood,” a coming-of-age story the director filmed over 12 years. Ellar Coltrane plays Mason Evans Jr., a boy who grows from 6 to 18 throughout the movie and experiences all the joys and trials the journey entails. Hawke and Patricia Arquette play Mason’s separated father and mother and, in each of their ways, tries to mold the young boy in the quiet moments he’s paying attention. Linklater’s film is compelling in its own right, but the conception and execution of quietly filming these actors over 12 years remind us of his fascinating, thoughtful vision.
Watching the bulk of his career’s work in one place reaffirms what a unique talent Linklater is. I’m hard-pressed to think of any modern filmmaker who can adeptly move between indy aesthetics and studio films. He properly understands story structure while experimenting with different forms to execute the movie. While the industry business model has radically changed since he broke through with “Slacker,” Linklater is a vital voice and influence in film art. We should look forward to him continuing his work in future decades. One also hopes the industry finds ways to open up more avenues for filmmakers like him.
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