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The Films Of Richard Linklater: A Retrospective

Photo of Oliver Lyttelton By Oliver Lyttelton | www.oliverlyttelton.com May 2, 2012 at 12:37PM

Given that he's one of the more diverse and prolific filmmakers out there, it's been a disappointingly long four years without a new movie from Richard Linklater ("Me And Orson Welles" premiered at TIFF in 2008). Fortunately, the Austin, Texas-based filmmaker is back with "Bernie," a dark comedy which reunites him two of his most memorable leads, Jack Black and Matthew McConaughey, and it has picked up strong reviews and, opening in limited release last Friday, has been performing surprisingly well at the box office.
8


Bad News Bears

"The Bad News Bears" (2005)
The Bad News Bears” was a direct response to Linklater’s success with “School of Rock,” but in many ways stands as the antithesis to that film. Whereas the Jack Black vehicle was grown organically from an original script by Mike White, “Bad News Bears” was a naked grab at a commercially viable hit based on a beloved, preexisting property, the 1976 Michael Ritchie/Walter Matthau comedy of the same name. While “School of Rock” had time in development to cater the characters to the kids that they had cast, “Bad News Bears” had a truncated schedule and as a result the child actors feel anonymous, the characters lacking depth and the snappy pacing of “School of Rock” was replaced with a lethargic, nearly two-hour-long running time. It’s enough to make you wonder why Linklater made it at all. It’s not completely devoid of laughs and Billy Bob Thornton riffs on his “Bad Santa” performance to a fairly entertaining degree (“Bad Santa” writers Glenn Ficarra and John Requa wrote the script but it’s got whole swaths cut and pasted from Bill Lancaster’s screenplay from the original). It’s just that it’s the rare dud in Linkater’s oeuvre, even more damning since it was made at a time in his career when he was at his strongest both commercially (“School of Rock”) and critically (“Before Sunset”). We understand that you have to take the paycheck every once in a while, and maybe Linklater saw something interesting that he wanted to do with the project that just didn’t get translated to the screen, but for whatever reason, “Bad News Bears” might be the filmmaker’s most easily skippable movie. [D+]

A Scanner Darkly

A Scanner Darkly” (2006)
It's safe to say that the director's second experiment with rotoscoping animation didn't get a proper chance when it was released back in 2006. Faced with production delays, middling reviews, and a release date at the height of summer, the movie never found the cult audience it deserved, despite being a heir apparent to the stoner-approved "Waking Life." Adapting Philip K. Dick's novel himself, Linklater takes the intensive, amusing dialogue sessions that are his custom and coats them in fresh paranoia, creating a bleak sci-fi tale with more than a fair share of noir tendencies. Keanu Reeves plays an undercover police detective set to monitor a supplier of Substance D, a highly addictive hallucinatory drug with a large part of the population at its beck and call. His double life involves living with addicts (played by the enormously fun Woody Harrelson and Robert Downey Jr.) and prodding a self-described coke addict (Winona Ryder) who he assumes to be a highly connected dealer. The only problem? Reeves is now a junkie himself and the damage done to his brain makes it difficult to properly perceive reality or his own being. This leads the protagonist to become an untrustworthy narrator, though interestingly enough, it's hard to really trust anyone in the film -- the government workers who diagnose the condition seem highly manipulative and could very well be lying about everything -- which only makes things thrillingly unpredictable. The rotoscope works particularly well for this one -- things look and feel real, but there's just something a tad artificial and suspicious about it. This aesthetic also lead to the "scramble suit," a full-body disguise which frequently changes the wearer's appearance every couple of seconds. This thing is a walking metaphor -- the destruction of singular identity, the government's watchdog obsession, take your pick  -- but is also, on a superficial level, incredibly disturbing. First time viewers may find that 'Scanner' is a lot to take in and some might get lost amidst the knotty plot, but given a second shot it's a wild ride and a pretty unique view of those Big Brother horrors that sci-fi writers love to go on about. [A-]

Fast Food Nation

"Fast Food Nation" (2006)
Whatever you were thinking a narrative feature based on Eric Schlosser's best-selling nonfiction book (Schlosser co-wrote the screenplay) might turn out to be, Linklater's grim, weird, boldly political "Fast Food Nation," a sort of cattle-mangling equivalent to "Traffic," probably wasn't it. A sprawling, Altman-esque tangle with a half-dozen intermingling plotlines, a vaguely sinister, conspiratorial tone, and a climax that features footage of a cow getting churned through a real-life slaughter house (shocking, for sure), it was too wild to be a real Oscar contender and not outwardly pleasurable enough to be pure entertainment. Instead, it was this lumpy, misshapen experiment that, while admirably ambitious, is hard to really love, despite its stellar cast (including, but not limited to, Greg Kinnear, Kris Kristofferson, Bruce Willis, Patricia Arquette, Paul Dano, Ethan Hawke, Avril Lavigne, Wilmer Valderrama and paranoid radio show host Alex Jones), solid direction and beautiful, plainspoken cinematography (by frequent collaborator Lee Daniel). Linklater and Schlosser made a bolder movie than anyone could have anticipated but it was also alienating to the point that it couldn't get its message across. [C]

Inning By Inning

"Inning By Inning: A Portrait Of A Coach" (2008)
ESPN's "30 For 30" documentary sports series (which ran from 2009-2010) is rather grand, with the best entries in the series featuring more gripping drama and high stakes than many feature films. Of the initially announced series, three docs ended up being released on their own, including Spike Lee's "Kobe Doin' Work" and Linklater's "Inning By Inning." Linklater's doc doesn't have him stray far from his roots and sees the filmmaker focusing on The University of Texas at Austin coach Augie Garrido, the most winningest-coach in the history of NCAA Division I baseball history. While his discipline and ambitions are fascinating -- this is a man who could have easily moved to the Major Leagues had he wanted -- his story is not overly fraught with conflict or drama. Instead this is a impressive tale of drive and focused vision. Garrido had a true calling from a young age, to teach and coach, with winning as a logical byproduct, not the starting gate goal, which in part is antithetical to MLB’s end game. While winning is important, Garrido’s approach is a philosophical mentoring method and an unwavering belief that a focus on pure baseball fundamentals and teamwork bears victories. And his track record shows, more often than not, he's right. Garrido doesn't produce superstars or flashy players, just get 'er done winning teams and his gruff, but inspiring techniques are aspirational. And while "Inning By Inning" is a faithful and true portrait of the coach that he and his friends and family are likely proud and happy with, it’s doubtful that anyone outside of baseball fanatics consider this a must-see sports documentary classic. [C]

Me And Orson Welles

"Me and Orson Welles" (2008)
One of Linklater's more bafflingly overlooked entries is "Me and Orson Welles," which seemed commercially acceptable enough. A historical comedy/drama about a young man who goes to work for Orson Welles (Christian McKay) in his Mercury Theatre days (around the time of his influential "Julius Caesar" production), it featured none other than "High School Musical" hunk Zac Efron in the lead. But it was crippled by an absolutely terrible promotional campaign (including one of the worst posters imaginable – why is Claire Danes wearing that rictus grin?) and a bizarre, underfunded roll-out (courtesy of Freestyle Releasing) that made it virtually impossible to track down and see. (It's even hard to find on home video -- even though Warner Bros. put it out on DVD, it was sold exclusively at Target.) Even more heartbreaking is the fact that if somebody like the Weinstein Company had been in charge of "Me and Orson Welles," McKay's fine performance would have at least been nominated for the Best Supporting Actor Oscar (and just might have won). Instead, he was barely noticed. "Me and Orson Welles" isn't one of Linklater's masterpieces, but it's just as breezy and entertaining as "School of Rock," with an unexpected emotional punch. It's worth seeking out…if you can find it. [B]

-- Oliver Lyttelton, Drew Taylor, Christopher Bell, RP

This article is related to: Features, The Essentials, Richard Linklater, Bernie


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