Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘Ethan Hawke’

By one of those weird little resonant coincidences which might almost make a person believe in stuff beyond the humdrum quotidian, we currently have a situation where two films on release feature an uncanny degree of similarity in one element of the script. Were you to mosey down to your local UK cinema and say ‘I want a ticket for the film… I can’t quite remember the title… it’s the one where Amanda Seyfried has recently become pregnant but is having trouble in her marriage… can you help?’ you would be basically be taking a gamble. While this is essentially a large chunk of the premise to Mamma Mia! Oh No Not Again, currently occupying an unfeasibly large number of screens in the UK, it is also an essentially accurate description of the set-up to First Reformed.

I would say it is a very good idea to get your pregnant Amanda Seyfried films sorted out before heading to the cinema, because they are in other respects cut from slightly different cloth. The Mamma Mia! sequel is a fluffy, glittery, feel-good piece of froth that doesn’t make many demands of the brain from anywhere much higher than the medulla oblongata; its sole intent is to distract and delight. First Reformed, on the other hand… well, I’m reminded of a Stephen King quote about the literary style of James Herbert – who, according to King, performed the equivalent of grabbing you by the collar and screaming in your face.

This should not come as much surprise once one learns that the writer-director of First Reformed is Paul Schrader, a veteran film-maker long renowned as the grim observer of a certain kind of damaged masculinity: he wrote Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, not to mention The Last Temptation of Christ. You don’t go to a Paul Schrader film for a cheery Swedish power-pop singalong. You go there to have the harsh realities of modern life scraped across your face like a handful of broken glass, and First Reformed really delivers on this score.

Ethan Hawke plays Ernst Toller, pastor in charge of the small, little-attended ‘tourist church’ First Reformed, in upstate New York. Toller has a broken marriage and an intense personal tragedy behind him; he is a lonely man, not in the best of health either physically or mentally, perhaps actually very sick indeed. As the film begins he has just begun keeping a journal of his private thoughts, primarily (it seems) to justify the voice-over which Hawke delivers throughout the movie.

The church is about to reopen for its 250th anniversary, the renovation having been bankrolled by various wealthy local businessmen. Toller is more preoccupied with the lot of one of his flock, a young woman named Mary (Seyfried). She is with child, but concerned by her husband’s response to this news. He is an environmental campaigner, though one who has now fallen somewhat into despondency, and feels it is a fundamentally selfish act to bring a new life into a world which will soon be ravaged by the consequences of human-caused climate change.

Well, this has a big impact on Toller, but how should he respond to it? The very men his church is so reliant on are industrialists and polluters on a massive scale. His superiors in the church do not seem very sympathetic either. It’s almost enough to make a man, even a priest, contemplate the darkest of notions…

So, and I’m not sure I even need to reiterate this again but let’s be on the safe side, not a great many laughs in this one. The trailer for First Reformed looked interesting, and the 94% approval rating it enjoys on a popular solanaceous review aggregator site also suggested it might be worth a look, but I was especially intrigued when a couple of people from work went to see it and came back grumbling loudly. ‘Awful. I fell asleep. It’s so slow. Not what you’d call entertainment,’ was the capsule version of their collective opinion.

Well, I can kind of see where they’re coming from, as even at the viewing I attended, someone behind me stood up at the end and announced with a huge grin ‘It was even bleaker than I’d hoped!’ You would have to be some kind of sociopath to come out of First Reformed skipping and whistling: this is a film which will test you and attempt to shred your soul. Not in any particularly explicit, horrific way – this is first and foremost a personal drama. But it is about as heavy a drama as I can remember seeing at a UK cinema, recently at least.

Initially the film seems content to deal in a sort of non-specific gloominess, as various scenes of Toller drinking too much, peeing blood and sitting in darkened rooms with his head in his hands are intercut with gloomy pronouncements about the state of environment and the theological ramifications and aspects of this. You do wonder where it is going and, indeed, what it’s actually about.

Eventually things acquire a little clarity, and it seems to me that while the film does have some interesting and perhaps challenging things to say about environmentalism and how society deals with this issue, it is really about hope and despair. How does a sensible person fend off despair these days? How can you maintain any sense of hope in the era of Trump, Brexit, accelerating climatic disaster, the collapse of western civilisation as we have known it, and the prospect of any number of apocalyptic futures?

It is, to say the least, a very considerable challenge – or so the film seems to suggest. Unsympathetic viewers might say that First Reformed goes off the deep end in the sheer scale of its darkness and willingness to toy with disturbing notions and imagery. If it were made with less commitment and focus, and had a less impressive performance than Hawke’s at its heart, it might become risible and preposterous, not to mention extremely tasteless, towards the end. The film still often feels like a calculated act of provocation against normal standards of good and bad taste, and it does make unusual demands of the viewer – there’s a sequence towards the end which had me going ‘What the hell…?’ so abruptly and thoroughly surreal is it.

The fact remains, though, that this is still clearly a highly intelligent film, the product of a distinctive directorial vision, and lifted by a superb performance from Ethan Hawke. There are big questions about faith and society being asked here, even if the answers that are given seem provisional at best. First Reformed is absolutely not for everyone, and contains material likely to disturb and perhaps even offend – but if you like some slightly more demanding, chewy material in your cinematic intake, then this is a film with the potential to satisfy you.

Read Full Post »

In an unprecedented development, the blog finds itself reviewing two westerns on the spin. Once upon a time (in the west), this might not have seemed so notable, for the cowboy movie was a Hollywood staple for decades, with literally thousands of films being produced. Not so many these days, of course – and the films that do get made are usually reinventions, or low-budget deconstructions, or remakes, or films that creep into western territory without genuinely being truly of the genre (is The Revenant a western? Is Cold Mountain?).

So it should come as relatively little surprise that the movie under review is Antoine Fuqua’s new version of The Magnificent Seven, as this is one of the very few westerns with any name recognition these days that wasn’t made by either Sergio Leone or Clint Eastwood. This would usually be the place for me to complain about Hollywood’s habit of doing pointless remakes of brilliant extant movies, but (possibly annoyingly) the new movie has a ready-made defence: the 1960 John Sturges version of The Magnificent Seven was, of course, already a remake, of Akira Kurosawa’s 1954 film Seven Samurai. (Neither Sturges nor Kurosawa gets a credit on the new film, by the way.)

the-magnificent-seven-international-poster

The thing is that Seven Samurai is, not to put too fine a point on it, one of the greatest movies ever made, and the 1960 Magnificent Seven is also a classic in its own right, an almost-perfect film. (The story has been pastiched many times since, too, and some of those were also pretty good – I really should look again properly at Battle Beyond The Stars one of these days.) Surely the new film is just asking for a critical drubbing up by going upĀ against this sort of competition?

The story is more or less recognisable. The year is 1879 and the inhabitants of the small town of Rose Creek are being driven from their homes by ruthless businessman Bogue (Peter Sarsgaard), but being a tidy-minded sort of villain he sets a convenient three-week deadline for them to pack up and get out. Feisty young widow Emma (Haley Bennett, who is a perfectly acceptable actress but whom I suspect will mainly succeed in her career due to her resemblance to Jennifer Lawrence), whose husband has been killed by Bogue’s men, refuses to be cowed and sets out to find help in resisting him.

And, well, she ends up with seven gunmen, as you might expect. Denzel Washington plays Yul Brynner, Chris Pratt plays Steve McQueen, Ethan Hawke plays Robert Vaughn and Byung-Hun Lee plays James Coburn. (The film is trading off the popularity of the Sturges version, so I don’t think it’s unreasonable to make this sort of comparison – though I should mention that character fates from the 1960 version aren’t necessarily repeated in the new one.) Vincent D’Onofrio, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, and Martin Sensmeier complete the septet, though their characters are essentially original.

Well, that’s one way of putting it. As you may have noticed if you’ve seen the trailer, one of the seven is now a native American, one is a sort of Korean ninja, and various other ethnicities are in the mix too. Some have gone so far as to describe the new film as a ‘diversity western’ (as opposed to what, I wonder), and there’s a slightly laboured scene drawing attention to just what a mixed crew they’ve ended up with. Still, at least this film hasn’t drawn the tsunami of abuse directed at the all-female Ghostbusters remake, possibly because there’s at least a tiny element of historical accuracy here, and the original film and its sequels took a few steps in this direction, too, featuring black, disabled, and Russian gunfighters.

It’s perhaps illuminating to consider just what has been changed in the new movie: well, first off, the whole film is set in the US, rather than the seven going off to Mexico to defend some villagers – but this is hardly a surprise, given the Mexican government objected to its citizens being presented as so weedy 56 years ago, before we even get onto present-day US-Mexican relations. On perhaps a related note, the villain is no longer a simple bandido but a super-rich industrialist intent on despoiling the landscape for his own betterment, but I think suggestions that the bad guy is a thinly veiled caricature of the current Republican presidential nomineeĀ are probably pushing a point. Perhaps most significantly, in story terms, this is no longer just a story about a bunch of guys going off to do the right thing simply because it’s the right thing: there’s some Questing For Vengeance going on here, because being virtuous for its own sake is apparently not a proper motivation any more.

I’m not sure I agree with this: one of the things I like about the 1960 movie is that it’s such a simple story of good guys pitted against bad guys, without a great deal in the way of moral ambiguity. Then again, this is very much a post-Unforgiven western, with the west presented as a hard, somewhat squalid place: nearly everyone has a beard and looks like they probably smell quite bad. At least the good guys are still pretty good, although what were subtle touches in 1960 have become hammer blows here – the knife-throwing member of the seven is festooned with blades, the one whose nerve has gone is afflicted with the screaming ab-dabs, and so on. The bad guy is, regrettably, fairly terrible: he’s an absurdly underwritten cartoon villain and it’s very jarring when he eventually starts coming out with some of Eli Wallach’s dialogue from the original script.

This doesn’t happen too much: only a few lines and a couple of bits of business are retained, but I can’t decide whether this is for the best or not. These moments are fun, but do you really want to be reminded of another, better movie? Where the film really struggles is in its soundtrack, which was one of the final projects worked on by James Horner before his death. Writing a completely original Magnificent Seven soundtrack would challenge the greatest composer who ever lived, for Elmer Bernstein’s music is surely one of the most famous and best-loved scores ever written – it’d be like trying to write a new Star Wars soundtrack without being able to utilise any of the elements written by John Williams. Sure enough, the music spends most of the film trying as hard as it can to surreptitiously suggest Bernstein, before the movie caves in and plays the main theme of the 1960 movie over the closing credits. Of course, by this point it just feels rather incongruous, almost like a contractual obligation.

In a sense this extends to much of the film – it’s really compelled by its very nature to reference the Sturges movie, because that movie’s continuing popularity and fame are the main reasons why this one exists at all. But it never really feels comfortable doing so – it wants to be dark and gritty and psychologically complex where the 1960 film was breezy and light and entertaining (The Magnificent Seven is itself a very 1960 sort of title – no-one gives their movies such on-the-nose names these days).

In the end the new Magnificent Seven isn’t a particularly bad film, but it isn’t going to rock anyone’s world either, I suspect. I think part of the problem is that Hollywood studios stopped making westerns on a regular basis so long ago that they’ve kind of lost the knack. It does feel oddly self-conscious about the classic genre elements, and much more comfortable with its modern-style action sequences (suffice to say much stuff blows up amidst automatic gunfire). The cast are pretty good (Ethan Hawke probably makes the biggest impression) but most of them still look more like grown men dressing up as cowboys than authentic western heroes. Perhaps the classic western is truly dead and it is time to stop interfering with the corpse; this movie passes the time fairly agreeably but if you want to watch this story, you have other, far superior options available to you.

 

Read Full Post »

It’s the height of summer, with remakes, sequels, and comic book adaptations pretty much as far as the eye can see, which means it must be time for some counter-programming (which is the ever-so-slightly-sniffy term used in some quarters to describe films actually made for intelligent adults). In the mix currently is Rebecca Miller’s Maggie’s Plan, which does a pretty good job of looking like a low-budget indie comedy-drama, but…

maggies-plan-poster

Well, this is not the kind of film which flaunts the size of its budget as part of its marketing (which really does seem to be a genuine occurrence), but the presence in the cast of quite a few well-known faces suggests that this is not the teeny-tiny project you might think from the tone and subject matter (the fact that Miller is the partner of one of the world’s most celebrated actors could lead you to suspect she might have more pull than the average indie comedy-drama director, should she choose to exert it). Not that any of this really makes a difference, of course, except that right now there might be a virtue in appearing smaller and more independent than you actually are.

If nothing else, Maggie’s Plan marks another step in the ascendancy of the bodacious Greta Gerwig, and surely no-one can take exception to that? On this occasion, Gerwig plays Maggie, a young and single academic who has decided to take the plunge and have a baby, mainly because, as she says, she doesn’t want to leave her destiny in the hands of destiny. To this end she has made an arrangement with an up-and-coming pickle entrepreneur (Travis Fimmell) whereby she will make use of his reproductive material to conceive a child.

However, just as all of this is coming to a boil (as it were), her scheme is somewhat disrupted when she meets John (Ethan Hawke), a brilliant and talented writer who is stuck in a chaotic marriage with the very demanding Georgette (Julianne Moore). Possibly to both their surprise, John and Maggie fall in love, get married, and have a child together.

And is this the happy ending everyone is surely rooting for? Um, well, no, for things get a bit complicated between Maggie, John, Georgette, and their various progeny. Maggie comes up with another plan to resolve everything (not including the pickle entrepreneur, sadly), but is she being a kind and helpful person or just a control freak?

Well, one thing you can certainly say about Maggie’s Plan is that it is really a very generous-spirited film: the characters may occasionally act in foolish or naive ways, but none of them are actually genuinely unpleasant. How much of a big deal this is will probably depend on the kind of film you usually go and see, but in this case I think it is important as it does give the film a certain kind of distinctiveness in the milieu in which it operates.

Or, to put it another way: this is a film where the main characters are usually preoccupied with all sorts of fairly rarefied social, ethical, cultural, and personal issues, never seem to have to worry about their means of support, and are generally a cerebral bunch. I mean, Maggie herself works at an university and decides to become a single mother without worrying at all about the financial and personal strain placed on her as a result. Not many real-world people think and behave this way. In short, in some ways the film is sometimes very reminiscent of Woody Allen when he’s in default mode.

Given this is the case, the fact that the film does have a current of warmth running through it – mostly down to Gerwig’s performance, for I’ve yet to see a film where she hasn’t radiated a sort of sincere decency – does set it apart from most of the Allen canon. It’s a little more willing to engage with matters on a more human level, too: I can’t imagine the notoriously fastidious Allen even considering a DIY impregnation scene, let alone putting one on-screen as happens here.

Of course, the jokes and script aren’t perhaps quite as sharp as they would be in an on-form Allen movie, but the performances are strong and the writing is intelligent and satisfying. Fimmel in particular is unrecognisable as the guy currently spending two hours covered in CGI in the Warcraft movie, though I suspect he has the same beard.

Maggie’s Plan probably won’t rock your world, but it tells its story well and engagingly, even if things do seem to get a little bit unravelled in the third act (at this point the plot becomes much less focused on Gerwig’s character, which may be the reason why). It is amusing and smart and engagingly good-natured, even if, if we’re totally honest, it isn’t that much closer to reality in some ways than the fantasies and action movies it’s presenting itself as an alternative to.

Read Full Post »

There is, as we are always being told, no such thing as bad publicity. This especially applies when you are trying to launch a movie into a crowded marketplace, with the result that hapless PR agencies have the habit of latching onto the slightest irregularity or quirk in a film’s production and making it a central plank of their promotional campaign. There are some films which are marketed not on the strength of their stories or creators, but simply on the novelty of the fact that they were made for an especially large or small amount of money, or by an especially small or large group of people – or, indeed, over a particularly long or short period of time.

Falling resoundingly into this lattermost camp is Boyhood, written and directed by Richard Linklater (whom I must confess is one of those much-respected directors none of whose films I can recall seeing). Boyhood is, as it sounds, a coming-of-age drama about a fairly ordinary, perhaps slightly gifted young man living in Texas. What makes it noteworthy and lifts it into the major achievement category is the fact that, as you probably know, Linklater began the project in 2002 and proceeded to film a few minutes every year, retaining the same actors throughout.

boyhood_poster1

Ellar Coltrane plays Mason, the central character, Patricia Arquette his mother, Ethan Hawke his frequently-absent father, Lorelei Linklater his older sister. The story is that… well, when we meet him, he is six years old, and when the film concludes, twelve years later, he is (spoiler alert) eighteen. In between he changes schools and moves house several times, makes and loses friends, discovers his vocation, suffers some unflattering haircuts, has a couple of romances, struggles to cope with his mother’s poor taste in partners…

In short, nothing particularly memorable happens, beyond the stuff that makes up the most memorable moments of most people’s lives. You might therefore argue that all the attention Boyhood has attracted is a result of its extraordinary filming process rather than any actual significance or quality in the movie itself. On the other hand, it’s very difficult to distinguish between the medium and the message in this case – the whole point of making a film this way is to capture the small realities of life, and I suspect the project required a massive degree of flexibility from both the script and the actors (I understand many scenes were semi-improvised, with Coltrane gradually taking on a much greater role as a contributor as he grew older).

Watching it is certainly a unique experience – much as I enjoy a sprawling biographical epic, there’s never been anything like watching Coltrane almost imperceptibly age across the course of the film’s rather significant running time, just as all the other characters grow older at the same time. Linklater avoids all the usual signposts of the passage of time: there are no Christmases or New Years, only the odd birthday, and he eschews the use of captions to indicate how quickly time is elapsing. The results are somewhat eerie and I did find myself relying on other clues sprinkled across the film to keep track of time.

Boyhood obviously also operates as something of a potted social history of the last decade or so – as Sheryl Crow is eventually replaced by Lady Gaga on the soundtrack, you are reminded of how much things have changed, and there’s a weird sort of instant nostalgia in seeing a young Mason queueing for the latest Harry Potter novel on release. There’s even a little bit of irony, partly when Obama’s first election campaign hits the action (Mason’s dad is a true believer), but especially a scene from about 2008 where father and son firmly conclude that making any more Star Wars movies would obviously be a really stupid idea.

The film may be about Mason, but he isn’t in every scene, and you could make a strong argument that the film is about his parents just as much as it is him. All the characters inevitably go through some kind of transformation in the course of the film, and the performances of Arquette and Hawke are both superb. One inevitably finds oneself wondering just how they approached their roles – how did they maintain a characterisation so intermittently, over such a long period? But this just opens the door to a dozen such questions – what on earth were the logistics of making this film like? How much did they plan ahead? How much was actually scripted?

Then again, I’m not sure I really want to know, as exploring the reality of Boyhood as a film is surely contrary to the intentions of the film as a piece of art. Most films are studiously artificial in their treatment of time, space, and character, but Boyhood seems to me to be an attempt to reduce the margin between film and reality as much as possible, within a fictional narrative at least. Watching it is an extraordinary and quite moving experience: you really do feel invested in these characters, almost like part of the family, long before the end – which, inevitably, comes at what feels like the least likely and appropriate moment. But that’s the point – life goes on, unlike a film. Boyhood is closer to life than virtually any other film I can recall seeing – it may look like it’s about nothing, but in reality it contains everything. Very nearly unmissable if you are interested in serious cinema, but I wouldn’t necessarily rush to see it. It will probably be a while before the sequel comes out.

 

Read Full Post »