Blaze

August 31, 2018 by  
Filed under Kiko, Reviews

Starring: Ben Dickey, Alia Shawkat, Charlie Sexton
Directed by: Ethan Hawke (“The Hottest State”)
Written by: Ethan Hawke (“Before Midnight”) and Sybil Rosen (debut)

Imagine that Bob Dylan was never inspired to write something as perfect as “Blowin’ in the Wind” or if post-Beatles Paul McCartney didn’t release “Maybe I’m Amazed” on his first solo album. What if the Beatles had stayed together through the ’70s? Would they have recorded another album as admired as Revolver or Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band?

What if a beloved song, film or piece of art was never created? How many of these masterpieces have we lost throughout the years?

Those questions are at the heart of “Blaze,” a musical biopic on country-music singer and songwriter and San Antonio native Blaze Foley. His songs have been covered by luminaries such as Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson and John Prine.

Foley (played magnificently by breakout star Ben Dickey), with his unbridled talent, hoped to give audiences as much of himself as he could for as long as he could. Blaze is an ode to a highly-gifted, troubled legend who left the industry (and this earth) with his own distinct brand of folk and country music, which seemed to arise from the depths of his soul. As tortured artist biopics go, it’s an authentic addition to the genre.

“Blaze” is based on the memoir “Living in the Woods in a Tree: Remembering Blaze Foley” by Foley’s muse Sybil Rosen, who co-wrote the screenplay with the film’s director, four-time Oscar-nominated screenwriter and actor Ethan Hawke (“Before Midnight”).

In the film, which would make a wonderful double feature with Joel and Ethan Coen’s 2013 drama “Inside Llewyn Davis,” Hawke tells the story of Foley’s rise to fame – from the time he’s living rent-free in a dilapidated shack in the forest with Sybil (Alia Shawkat) to their journey to Austin and Chicago so they could introduce the world to his music.

Fortunately, Hawke is more interested in tapping into Foley as a man and musician battling drug and alcohol addiction than he is about maneuvering through every nuance of his turbulent career, which comes to an end in 1989 when he is shot and killed by the son of a friend during an altercation. Foley was only 39.

Hawke delivers a captivating narrative about a man who was larger than life. As Foley, Dickey might not be the biggest name Hawke could have cast, but in him he discovers the spirit and musicianship that Foley brought to the stage for every performance at every hole-in-the-wall bar he stopped at – even when under the influence.

“Where does a real song come from?” Foley asks in the film. “Where was it before it arrived?” Wherever that place is, Foley was a master at finding it, and “Blaze” is equally capable of depicting that profound emotion on screen.

First Reformed

June 22, 2018 by  
Filed under Kiko, Reviews

Starring: Ethan Hawke, Amanda Seyfried, Philip Ettinger
Directed by: Paul Schrader (“American Gigolo”)
Written by: Paul Schrader (“American Gigolo”)

It’s never ideal when a film has an agenda and then proceeds to beat viewers over the head with it. Recent message-heavy movies include the highly overrated, 2004 Oscar-winning drama “Crash” and its ham-fisted handling of race relations, the 2011 satire “God Bless America” and its commentary on pop culture consumption, and the 2012 animated ecological cautionary tale Dr. Seuss’ “The Lorax.” Get too self-righteous, and don’t be surprised when moviegoers tune out.

So, it’s quite unexpected when a film as preachy as “First Reformed” comes along and finds a way to be an exception to the rule. It’s a haunting, strange and lyrical narrative on one man’s spiritual and political resurrection from the darkest corners of his consciousness. “First Reformed” brims with insights on anger, guilt, faith and personal autonomy.

Written and directed by Paul Schrader (“American Gigolo”), “First Reformed” is a return to form for the 71-year-old filmmaker after wading in the cinematic shallow end with his last few forgettable projects. Revisiting some of the more philosophical, character-driven elements of his early screenplay work, including “Taxi Driver,” “Raging Bull” and “The Last Temptation of Christ,” Schrader taps into another tormented soul. Toller (Ethan Hawke in a career-best performance) is the reverend of “First Reformed,” a small church in the fictional town of Snowbridge, New York.

Like his church, Toller is inconspicuous — delivering weekly sermons to his handful of parishioners and then retreating to his life of solitude where he spends his time drinking heavily and writing in a journal that he plans to destroy after a year. He is also preparing for the 250th anniversary of his church with help from a local megachurch that supports his ministry. Toller is called upon for spiritual guidance by Mary (Amanda Seyfried), a pregnant young woman whose militant husband (Philip Ettinger) can’t stomach the idea of bringing a child into a world where climate change and disease are making the planet uninhabitable for future generations.

Without giving too much of the plot away, Toller finds himself taking on a de facto role as an activist while coming to terms with his tragic past and confronting the reality that men of faith, no matter how close to God they consider themselves to be, do not possess all the answers. Despite its decision to lay it on thick (Toller’s computer screensaver features a malnourished polar bear, for Christ’s sake), “First Reformed” is built to carry the burden of Schrader’s ambitious and inspired script, which includes a visceral final scene that will linger for weeks.

The Magnificent Seven

September 23, 2016 by  
Filed under Jerrod, Reviews

Starring: Denzel Washington, Chris Pratt, Ethan Hawke
Directed by: Antoine Fuqua (“Training Day”)
Written by: Richard Wenk (“The Equalizer”) and Nic Pizzolatto (debut)

Movies are often compared to theme park rides; sometimes that’s meant to evoke the thrills a viewer could experience along the way, while the more negative connotation could mean that the film takes you from point A to point B with little drama along the way. Some movies are built like rides at Disneyland: immersive and invigorating, enveloping you in a world far away from the line you waited in for two hours and 15 minutes before delivering you unharmed at an end result that, while fun, is not unexpected. Others are like an attraction at Six Flags: sure, it’s fun, too, but you can see the air conditioning units on top of the gift shop from every angle of the ride and you have to walk past a few ice machines for the adjacent snack bar on the way out.

The 2016 version of “The Magnificent Seven,” from director Antoine Fuqua, is a Six Flags ride of a pop-culture western. You can see the track the entire time, and you probably won’t want to buy the photo they take of you along the way, but the two hours and 15 minutes it took to get through the whole thing won’t feel like a waste of time.

When a crooked robber baron named Bogue (Peter Sarsgaard) forcibly takes over the small mining town of Rose Creek in the years after the Civil War, killing and stealing indiscriminately from the populace, a widow (Haley Bennet)  and her companion (Luke Grimes) hope to enlist the help of some gunfighters to free their town from Bogue’s grip. When they encounter honorable bounty hunter Sam Chisolm (Denzel Washington) in a nearby town, they talk him into their cause and prompt Chisolm to recruit a band of brave men to fight off the evil Bogue and his army of hired guns. Joining Chisolm are the rakish Farraday (Chris Pratt), legendary sharpshooter Goodnight Robicheaux (Ethan Hawke), his quiet-yet-deadly assassin Billy Rocks (Byung-hun Lee), Mexican outlaw Vasquez (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo), crazy mountain man Jack Horne (Vincent D’Onofrio) and rebel Comanche Red Harvest (Martin Sensmeier)—the so-called Magnificent Seven.

It feels like it’s been a while since a western was played as an action movie—these days they’re the domain of post-modern anti-heroes and moral conundrums. “The Magnificent Seven,” though, is just taking you from one place to another on horseback with some kicks along the way. There are times when the effortlessness actions of the heroes threatens to derail the whole endeavor—seriously, there are almost no obstacles for our heroes until the script dictates them—but it ultimately stays in the saddle long enough to be successful.

Boyhood

August 1, 2014 by  
Filed under Cody, Reviews

Starring: Ellar Coltrane, Patricia Arquette, Ethan Hawke
Directed by: Richard Linklater (“Before Midnight”)
Written by: Richard Linklater (“Before Midnight”)

On paper, the idea of producing a film with the goal of shooting it over 12 years, following a child actor as he ages and telling the story of a boy’s growth from kindergarten to high school graduation might sound crazy, or at the very least daunting and difficult. In fact, it might even be considered the ultimate creative risk, in a world where people discuss and value risk-taking in Hollywood. Leave it to Austinite Richard Linklater (“Before Midnight,” “Bernie”) to not only attempt this project, but to produce such stunning results.

It is difficult to pin down a proper synopsis for “Boyhood,” as it is more of a longitudinal character study than anything else. That isn’t to say it is without plot. While people might assume the film is solely about the process of growing up, it is far more than that. The film is at its most fascinating when it explores family dynamics, especially with how parents and children deal with divorce and newly blended families. The film centers on Mason, played by Ellar Coltrane, who began filming when he was seven years old.

In the scenes or vignettes throughout the film, we see Coltrane slowly age and encounter new issues and experiences as he begins to mature. The growth is also seen in Coltrane’s talent. Audiences will get the opportunity to literally see an actor grow before their eyes. As his relationships with his parents become more nuanced, so does his performance and by the end of the film Coltrane is a veteran, commanding the screen with a wealth of personality.

The film also follows veteran actors such as Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke and their characters growth through the course of 12 years. Hawke’s character is particularly fun to watch as he evolves from the young, cool dad into a mature middle-aged adult. There are so many details that Linklater brings to the table in “Boyhood,” none better than an incredibly smart use of music from the time period the film was shot to clue the audience in on the year. This serves as a gentle reminder that the film was shot over more than a decade without being aggressive about it.

What Linklater pulls off in “Boyhood” is nothing short of astonishing and it is easily one of the most ambitious films I’ve ever seen. It is a fascinating meditation on growing up and is likely to strike a nerve with many audience members. Funny, moving, and oozing with personality, “Boyhood” is a film that is incredible beyond just its technical and logistical feats. It feels more like an experience and an epic journey as it instantly becomes a hallmark coming-of-age film. While there are a thousand reasons why “Boyhood” shouldn’t work, it excels in myriad ways.

The Purge

June 7, 2013 by  
Filed under Kiko, Reviews

Starring: Ethan Hawke, Lena Headey, Max Burkholder
Directed by: James DeMonaco (“Little New York”)
Written by: James DeMonaco (“Assault on Precinct 13”)

It’s not so much that director/writer James DeMonaco’s new dystopian thriller “The Purge” is so ridiculously delivered despite its somewhat intriguing premise; it’s that from the moment DeMonaco (“Little New York”) presents the audience with this formidable set-up, he doesn’t have a clue what to do with it. What’s even more insulting is that he pretends he does by dragging his two-cent characters through a gauntlet of mindless violence that also never gets to the core of the matter. “The Purge” masks itself as a complex morality tale that can trigger debate, but DeMonaco couldn’t care less what the answers are to the questions he thinks he’s asking.

Set in the year 2022, the U.S. government is now controlled by the “New Founding Fathers” who have turned the country around by eliminating crime and bringing unemployment down to an all-time low. In an attempt to weed out the weakest Americans while also allowing people to blow off some steam, the government has created an event known as “the Purge,” a 12-hour window where once a year people can commit any crime they want legally. “It’s a release for all the hate and violence and aggression they keep inside them,” one character explains.

For more affluent Americans (the 1 percent), who can afford the most state-of-the-art security systems (and who are not interested in participating in the Purge themselves), the evening of maiming and murdering isn’t much cause for concern since they can basically confine themselves inside their fortress homes. That’s what James Sandin (Ethan Hawke) and his family have done every year. This year, however, things take a turn for the worse when a group of sadistic preppies (think Funny Games with masks) try to break into the family’s home when a stranger (Edwin Hodge) they intended to kill escapes and hides out in the Sandin’s house. Now the question is, should James give the masked murderers what they want and toss out their prey or should he hunker down and hope they don’t get in and mutilate everyone with their machetes.

No, actually, the real question is: should anyone care? With no emotional connection to the family or the stranger, DeMonaco hasn’t given us much reason to root for either side. Statistics show the Purge has worked in eliminating poverty and crime (“This night saved our country,” James says), but is that enough to warrant the death of a poor, innocent human being? And why are we even debating these questions anyway when it’s evident that DeMonaco would rather just kick the door down and put an ax in someone’s back as quickly as possible?

With all the flat characterizations written throughout the film, the worst has to be the leader of the purgers (Rhys Wakefield) who stands outside the house with everyone else like Abercrombie & Fitch models if Abercrombie & Fitch marketed their clothing to the criminally insane. Wakefield’s character is a caricature and his motives are never clear. At one point, he says he uses the Pruge to “cleanse his soul.” In another scene, he shoots a masked friend of his in the head for screaming too loud, a sign that the Purge itself really isn’t what drives him to kill.  Are we to believe all purgers are this crazy? If it’s so easy for him to kill one of his own, why doesn’t he stop wasting time and just go find someone else to torture? And why the hell are the rest of the vigilantes horsing around like they’re four year old children at a Chuck E Cheese birthday party? Is their immature behavior supposed to prove they lack a conscious? Is that supposed to instill even more fear into their victims or the audience?

None of it makes a much sense, honestly. By the end of the film, we’re left with a pile of dead bodies and a final scene so laughable moviegoers will wonder if DeMonaco is serious or at a loss for how to wrap things up. Whatever the case may be, he fails. There is no message about the unjust class system or some psychological take on what the decriminalization of murder is going to do to people who act on it. “The Purge” wishes it had more to say. And even at a quick 85 minutes, audiences will wish it had less.

Sinister

October 12, 2012 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Ethan Hawke, Juliet Rylance, James Ransone
Directed by: Scott Derrickson (“The Exorcism of Emily Rose”)
Written by: Scott Derrickson (“The Exorcism of Emily Rose”) and C. Robert Cargill (debut)

While horror movies are traditionally lowbrow affairs, at the very least they usually can be counted on to offer up a somewhat interesting puzzle to go along with the cheapo scares and gallons of blood. Whether it’s finding out the killer is actually the main character’s long-lost brother or that the evil spirit inhabiting the creepy kid can be sent packing back to Hell with the right incantation, the saving grace of most horror movies is the “aha!” moment. Whether it’s clever or makes your eyes roll is another story. But then there are horror movies that run in a straight line from A to B, climaxing without any real revelation or explanation. Disappointingly, “Sinister” falls into this trap.

The film stars Ethan Hawke as Ellison Oswalt, a true-crime author in search of his next hit. Without their knowledge, Ellison moves his family into the house where the grisly murder he’s researching took place. Four members of the previous family were hanged from a broken tree in the backyard and their youngest daughter has gone missing. Almost immediately, some spooky sounds draw Ellison into the attic, leading to the discovery of a box filled with innocently-labeled Super 8 film rolls and an ancient projector. Noticing the box wasn’t among the evidence the police collected after the crime, Ellison spools up the first reel and discovers the backyard hanging captured on film. The rest of the box reveals film of more murders, each one featuring a shadowy specter lurking in the background.

Further investigation identifies the ghoul as Mr. Boogie, perhaps better known as Bagul, a demon who feeds on the souls of children and can venture out of his realm via images of himself – in this case the Super 8 films. As Ellison watches more of the reels, Mr. Boogie ramps up the torment, throwing everything from scorpions to snakes to zombie-faced kids in an effort to get him to…do something, I guess.

Once “Sinister” identifies the threat as a demon with no regard for the limitations of the physical world, the rest of the film becomes a giant shrug. Seemingly half-hearted red herrings are sprinkled along the way, like a confrontational sheriff (former presidential candidate Fred Dalton Thompson) and a weirdo demon expert (Vincent D’Onofrio). Would either of them have something to do with Mr. Boogie? Is one of them Mr. Boogie in disguise? Nope, sorry everyone. Mr. Boogie is just an unstoppable demon bent on following an oddly specific ritual before he kills. All that’s left is to try and figure out is exactly how Ethan Hawke is going to die.

Brooklyn’s Finest

March 5, 2010 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Richard Gere, Don Chedle, Ethan Hawke
Directed by: Antoine Fuqua (“Shooter”)
Written by: Michael C. Martin (debut)

Someone really needs to start a Save the Squibs campaign in Hollywood. Those tiny little explosive devices used in the movies to pop packets of fake blood and create the effect of someone getting shot are being wasted. While squibs are fairly cheap in comparison to other special effects, the cost can add up if you use them as gratuitously as director Antoine Fuqua does in his latest dirty-cop film “Brooklyn’s Finest.” It’s a violent, mind-numbing, and generic cop flick that kicks down the door with guns blazing and has nothing new to say.

Despite the overemphasis on the brutality of life in the hood, the blood spurting is not the real problem. Fuqua filled Denzel Washington with bullet holes at the end of his Academy Award-winning performance in “Training Day” in 2001 and that violent scene was shot to perfection. What doesn’t work in “Finest,” however, is Fuqua inability to detach himself in any way from first-time screenwriter Michael C. Martin’s horribly clichéd script and his failure to differentiate intense performances with overacting.

In “Finest,” three New York City police officers play the pawns of this wannabe gritty drama. Richard Gere (“Nights in Rodanthe”) is Eddie, a veteran cop with an alcohol problem who is only a week away from retirement. You get a sense of who he is when he rolls out of bed and into a bottle of Jack. He’s also in love with a prostitute, but the script doesn’t really explain why. Don Cheadle (“Traitor”) is Tango, an undercover cop who is caught up in the criminal underworld and hope he can soon transfer to a cozy desk job. His last assignment: to put the sting on a criminal friend (Wesley Snipes) who just happened to save his life. Ethan Hawke (“Training Day”) is Sal, a crooked cop who starts stealing drug money so he can buy a new home for his growing family.

As Gere, Cheadle, and Hawke hobble through the motions, Martin’s haphazard story structure quickly falls apart before it even begins. If there is supposed to be some kind of statement about the injustices in black America or how faith can’t always heal a reckless soul, Fuqua and Martin miss the mark. “Finest” becomes a hopeless narrative sew together with weakly-written characters with nothing to live for and no reason to change.

Without any emotion invested in any of the officers, there is not much to be concerned over when bodies begin to hit the floor and Fuqua starts thinking he is Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese. Even when his stock was at it’s highest nine years ago, he still didn’t come close.

Daybreakers

February 5, 2010 by  
Filed under CineStrays

Starring: Ethan Hawke, Sam Neill, Willem Dafoe
Directed by: Michael Spierig (“Undead”) and Peter Spierig (“Undead”)
Written by: Michael Spierig (“Undead”) and Peter Spierig (“Undead”)

It’s nice to see vampires back on the big screen that don’t talk about their feelings and sparkle like Edward Cullen and all his “Twilight” pals. But even on the opposite end of the blood-sucking spectrum, “Daybreakers” isn’t what fans of the genre should consider pushing vampirism narrative into new territory (here vamps harvest humans for blood, which is running out in their vampire-run world). The problems is, filmmaking brothers Michael and Peter Spierig aren’t really sure whether or not they wanted to make a really grotesque horror movie or an action film with comedic riffs. The mix seems unbalanced and trite. There is one scene where a hungry vampire-type creature breaks into a kitchen for a late-night fleshy snack, which is fairly frightening. Other than that there is not much entertainment value “Daybreakers” can offer aside from the gallons of blood it splatters in 98 minutes of straight-to-DVD-quality type writing.