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Entries in Ethan Hawke (7)

Thursday
Jul172014

Boyhood

Writer/director Richard Linklater’s latest film, “Boyhood,” is tough to discuss because, while it is most certainly worth seeing, it’s difficult to determine if my admiration for it comes from my thinking it’s a great movie or merely a fascinating storytelling experiment. Filmed over the course of 12 years using the same actors as they naturally grew older, the film follows Mason (Ellar Coltrane) from a six year old adolescent to a college bound adult and it’s easy to relate to. To a certain extent, all who have lived through those years and experienced the highs and lows of growing up will see themselves in young Mason or his sister, Samantha (Lorelei Linklater). If other published reviews are any indication, it’s this strange feeling of seeing our lives (or at least a decent representation of them) onscreen that is garnering the film its acclaim. But step back and look at it from a filmmaking and narrative point of view, stripped from its unique 12 year shoot, and you start to see some rough edges.

These come in the way of a story that is fairly traditional, regardless of the unique way it was captured. There isn’t much here we haven’t seen before—a broken home, an unsure future, a young boy coming of age—though it isn’t these aspects themselves that don’t work. On the contrary, they work very well. Growing up is scary, especially if your childhood is surrounded by an unstable family, and making that transition to adulthood is one of uncertainty: of where we’re going, what we’ll do, who we’ll meet, who we’ll become or if we’ll find success in our endeavors. Perhaps more succinctly, will we be happy? It’s impossible to know and “Boyhood” captures this uneasiness perfectly.

Where it stumbles is in its redundancy and inability to explore key aspects of a young person’s life that is integral to who they eventually become. The latter issue can largely be excused. Even with a runtime of nearly three hours, it’s impossible to fit every life changing event in, though certain important topics are picked up and dropped so nonchalantly that they feel forced, almost as if Linklater felt compelled to include them, but had no idea what to do with them. The best example comes with its all-too-brief discussion on religion. A child’s spiritual journey, from believing what they’re told to figuring things out for themselves, is a big thing. Whether someone ultimately decides to keep their faith or abandon it (or discover it in this case, since Mason’s parents seem to have never introduced him to it) is a long and tough process that is glossed over inconsequentially here.

However, this is not the film’s focus, so it’s a minor issue. Less forgivable is its rush through certain periods of their lives, like when they discover their first stepfather’s completely out-of-left-field alcoholism, and its repeat of previous events; their second stepfather too proves himself to be an abusive alcoholic, though not a violent one like the first. There may be those out there who can relate to this (rare though they may be), but it leads to narrative staleness. The fear you’ll feel from their first encounter will likely be replaced by a weary shrug when it happens again. It seems like there was a narrative need to have their mother divorce this man to get the family back on their own, but why resort to the same approach as before? A simple explanation that the two had simply fallen out of love would have sufficed and is just as believable.

Nevertheless, this is a very good movie, the aforementioned flaws a minor part of its overall impressive (and lengthy) construction. In fact, it’s the little things that give the movie its poignancy: when Mason develops his first crush, experiences his first heartbreak and has to quickly decide how to respond to peer pressure. The latter scene will speak to everyone watching, regardless of their own personal choice, as they watch Mason give in and start drinking while a friend refuses and suffers the harsh, emasculating name calling, as if chugging a beer would somehow make him a man.

Other moments come and go, some happy, some sad and some so funny and tender they’ll likely arouse an unexpected laugh and smile out of you, particularly the sex talk Mason’s father, played by Ethan Hawke, has with his sister, but the most impressive aspect of “Boyhood” is how it captures the time period, each year feeling like a brief snapshot in an era since passed. The characters play original Xbox systems, the soundtrack consists of music from the year represented, like a track off Blink-182’s 2001 album, “Take Off Your Pants and Jacket,” and the characters read the Harry Potter books, even dressing up as the characters later on during a book release event after the series has become a full blown phenomenon. It even pokes fun of these time periods, most notable in a 2008 section focusing on the election between Barack Obama and John McCain. At the time of filming, Linklater cleverly realized the extremes of the two sides as he portrays a Republican man smugly commenting that Obama’s middle name is Hussein and an overenthusiastic Democrat who supports Obama, but seems to have no idea why.

“Boyhood” captures not just the triumphs and tribulations of growing up, but also serves as a spot-on reminder of how our world has evolved (or devolved, depending on your point of view) over the last 12 years. It’s a little rough around the edges with a handful of blurry shots and some occasionally rigid performances (that get better as the kids get older) and its narrative can be a bit clunky, but it is nevertheless an accurate and engrossing representation of growing up. Individual moments never last for long and before you know it, those little kids have become full grown adults, a realization indicative of many of our own lives.

Ultimately, that’s the point of “Boyhood.” It realizes that life isn’t always easy or pleasant, but it goes by quick and the amalgamation of these moments make it worth living. As one character astutely points out late in the film, life isn’t necessarily about seizing the moment, as the old adage goes; after all, you can’t always control the situations life throws at you. Perhaps more appropriately, she says, it’s about letting the moment seize you.

Boyhood receives 4/5

Thursday
Aug292013

Getaway

Despite a filmography that consists of a few stinkers, Ethan Hawke is a daring actor, mainly because he isn’t afraid to plant himself in all kinds of different films. In the last three alone, he has starred in a home invasion thriller (“The Purge”) a wonderful romantic drama (“Before Midnight”) and an intensely frightening supernatural horror movie (“Sinister”). He’s drawn to ideas, even if the final product encompassing those ideas isn’t always successful, like the aforementioned “The Purge” or 2009’s alternate take on vampire mythology “Daybreakers.” This leads me to wonder why he would ever agree to star in something like this week’s “Getaway,” a derivative, brainless action film with zero ideas and only the thinnest of stories. After seeing “Before Midnight,” it was obvious he was going to appear on my obligatory best-of list at the end of the year. After watching “Getaway,” it’s now apparent he’ll also appear on my worst.

The film has a nifty stylized, black and white opening that begins in a wrecked apartment with blood and broken glass everywhere. Initially a first person view, it eventually transitions to a third person view where we first see our protagonist, an ex-racecar driver, Brent (Ethan Hawke). It’s his apartment that he shares with his wife, who has been abducted by a mysterious man for unknown reasons. Cut not too far in the future and he finds himself in a game where he has to use his driving talents to pull off certain jobs and if he calls the cops or is caught, his wife dies.

And thus begins a movie with no plot structure, no flow, wimpy dialogue and annoying characters so inconsequential and uninteresting that one of the two main ones isn’t even given a name, an 18 year old girl that IMDB so aptly classifies as “The Kid” (Selena Gomez). Yet the nameless character isn’t the biggest problem, but rather her and Brent’s utter lack of personality. It must be no more than a few minutes in before Brent is racing away from cop cars through a darkened Bulgaria, so no time is taken to truly characterize this man and make him someone we should care about. A mid-movie sob story about why he gave up racing is so forced in as to be almost comical. Similarly, the first time we meet his wife, she’s being dragged screaming down a dank, decrepit hallway by two goons who lock her up for safe keeping. It’s obviously not an ideal scenario for any person, but who exactly is she? If not for the mysterious voice on the other end that helpfully labels her as Brent’s wife, we would have never even known, given that they don’t share a single minute of screen time prior to the kidnapping.

To be fair to the film, it’s not like it has high aspirations. It knows it’s a big, stupid action picture and it plays it up for all it’s worth, creating high octane chases through narrow alleyways, cluttered highways and crowded parks at seemingly every turn. It never takes the time to make these scenes work in conjunction with what little story it has, though, instead opting to make The Kid a genius tech geek, able to hack into security networks with nary a plausible explanation, no doubt a quick and accessible way to bypass all that pesky talking. But none of these scenes work because it never truly feels like the characters are in any real danger, given the incompetent police force chasing them. At one point, after he slams into a cop car, The Kid remarks that he just committed assault with a deadly weapon, which gives the police the authority to shoot at them, yet they never do. Never does it come to mind that perhaps they could take out a tire or two, effectively ending his rampage. The only ones that are smart enough to pull out their guns are the mysterious voice’s hired hands, but even they only shoot at the body of the car, despite the knowledge that the car is armored. The worst driver in the world would be able to escape such idiotic opposition.

If there was some type of skill put behind the crafting of these action scenes, many of these problems could be ignored, but such a reality is quickly dashed. Directed by Courtney Solomon, whose only other directing credits include 2000’s abominable “Dungeons & Dragons” and 2005’s equally bad “An American Haunting,” has no idea how to stage an action scene to elicit excitement. Instead, it’s the editing that hopes to manufacture it in a thinly veiled attempt to hide the fact that what’s going on isn’t really all that interesting. The scenes are cut in rapid succession similar to the shootouts in 2009’s “Gamer,” to the point where you can barely even register certain shots before they disappear. If some of these shots were any shorter, they’d be subliminal.

Then the twist comes and the mystery man is revealed, not that we actually know who that man is as a character. The reveal is more one of the actor playing the mystery man, which means little to nothing in the big scheme of things. Strangely enough, questions are left unanswered, which is tough to do in a movie with such little plot to speak of, though you likely won’t care enough to have them answered anyway. When the movie ends, the title card flashes onscreen once more, almost as if it’s telling you to get away as fast as you can. You likely won’t need to be told twice.

Getaway receives 0.5/5

Friday
Jun072013

The Purge

Great ideas come along once in a blue moon. With today’s state of cinema that is inundated with superhero movies, sequels and adaptations from other media, it’s like a breath of fresh air when a movie comes along that is completely original and free of a man in tights or a number at the end of its title. But coming up with an idea is only half the equation. The idea must be expanded upon. A movie can’t survive on an idea alone. Unfortunately, “The Purge” is of the great-idea-bad-execution variety. It sets up its intriguing premise with promises of social commentary on our culture of violence, but then does nothing with it and relegates itself to what amounts to nothing more than a bland home invasion thriller.

The year is 2022. Unemployment rests at a mere one percent and crime is practically non-existent. This drop in poverty and crime is due to one thing, an annual event called the Purge. For one night each year, all crime is legal, no matter how heinous. If you want to murder your neighbor or rape the pretty girl at the office or loot a home of its valuables, you’re free to do so with no fear of consequence. Most families who can afford to have barricaded themselves in their homes thanks to James (Ethan Hawke), a salesman who has gotten rich from selling security systems to his surrounding neighbors. He and his wife, Mary (Lena Headey), have one of the systems themselves and are planning on having a quiet evening at home. However, when their son, Charlie (Max Burkholder) opens their doors to a man being attacked, the masked attackers demand to have him back. They have a short amount of time to find the man in their home and force him back outside or they’ll use their tools to break through their security system and kill each and every one of them.

So despite a compelling premise that could spin hundreds of intriguing stories about people all around the country during the Purge, it narrows its scope to one tiny space, a handful of characters and a banal, run-of-the-mill story. Take the premise away and this is 2008’s “The Strangers,” only not half as scary or interesting. “The Purge” quickly abandons its unique identity and falls back on tried and true horror tropes, like when the power goes out and the characters get stuck in what I like to call a Horror Movie Blackout, where everything is tinted blue and a flashlight covers far more area than its actual spread. Other films can get away with this due to the moonlight covering outside areas or infiltrating homes through windows, but metal barricades block every door and window here. Aside from one small rectangular portion that allows them to see outside, the entire house should be cloaked in darkness.

Of course, this is a minor problem in a movie with such sluggish pacing. Even at a brisk 85 minutes, “The Purge” feels too long and relies almost entirely on slow walking through a darkened house to build its suspense. Some of these moments are effective due to a minimal use of music or ambient noise—besides, silence can sometimes be scarier than any gradually building score—but they are too frequent to truly work, especially given that the true bad guys are safely planted outside for the majority of the film. Cut out the slow walking and you have a movie that’s barely an hour.

With its focus on a single family on a single horrifying night, what “The Purge” needed more than anything else was established characters with real personalities and a family dynamic that rang true. You can really only find true fear within the viewer if they care about the characters they’re watching (which is something Ethan Hawke’s last genre endeavor, “Sinister,” nailed). Although an attempt is made early on before the night turns grim, it’s a lousy attempt, one that is too obvious and superficial to work. It’s quite clear from the get-go that this movie was built around its idea rather than its characters, all of whom seem like an afterthought.

While “The Purge” is by no means terrible, its failure to expand upon its ideas is frustrating. Aside from its brief look at our culture of violence, it also postulates the idea through onscreen television news stories that the event is a way to purge the world of the weak, the poor and those without value that have nothing to contribute to society, a Final Solution if you will. It teeters on the edge of the question, is this the way to truly redeem society? To lower unemployment? To fix the economy? Does isolated evil justify the widespread good that can come from it? But then it never answers those questions or expands on them enough to let us intellectualize them ourselves. The final twist that introduces new characters with admittedly ridiculous motivations nevertheless proposes the idea that such barbarism is simply a part of human nature, but that’s as close as it ever gets to anything intellectually stimulating. Not all movies need some deep meaning to succeed, but “The Purge” isn’t particularly thrilling or scary, so its idea is all it has left. By not expanding on it, it loses nearly all of its appeal.

The Purge receives 2/5

Friday
May312013

Before Midnight

Rarely in the world of cinema does a romance come along and touch you in a way that can’t be explained. Rarely does one relate to you or your ideas of a perfect love while still remaining grounded enough to avoid the fairy tale expectations society has associated with it. Director Richard Linklater’s enchanting 1995 film, “Before Sunrise,” managed to do just that. It was a simple film, one where Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) meet on a train in Europe and decide to spend the night together strolling around Vienna and sharing stories about their lives, but it was nonetheless wonderful. The two characters connect not just on a physical level, but on intellectual, spiritual and emotional levels as well. The movie portrayed the type of magical night we all wish we could have, even if it is fleeting.

Such was the case with Jesse and Celine and when sunrise came, Jesse had to leave, the film ending on an ambiguous note that kept the viewer wondering if they would ever see each other again. That question was answered in 2004 with the blissful follow-up, “Before Sunset,” and again, the film ended on a hopeful, but not exactly final, note. Now another nine years have passed and we have “Before Midnight,” and it’s almost as good as its predecessors. Considering that it’s following two of the greatest romances ever put to screen, that’s really saying something.

The beginning of the film confirms it. Jesse and Celine are together now and have two beautiful twin girls. Jesse has moved to Europe, leaving his 13 year old son, who has just hopped a plane to head back to the states, behind. They’re in Greece for a quick getaway and, thanks to some friends who agree to watch the twins, they have the entire night to themselves. However, it has been nearly two decades since they first met and one since they decided to be with each other, so that fairy tale romance has long since passed. Their lives are more complicated and Jesse pangs to be with his son, especially during this time of his life where he’ll be discovering his sexuality and meeting girls. As he puts it, in another four years, he’ll have graduated high school and the chance to connect will be gone. He’ll be an adult. Celine, on the other hand, has a wonderful opportunity with a potential government job and doesn’t want to move to America, despite her love for Jesse’s son. Naturally, this leads to argument.

If the previous two movies explored the love that can form between two people, “Before Midnight” is about the potential destruction of it. It answers the question that cynics wonder and romantics try to avoid at the end of a romance: what happens after the movie ends? Over time and in real life, the bond that was so strong before begins to weaken and it’s only natural for someone to wonder if they really love this person anymore. This movie explores that in-depth and, though it isn’t always pleasant, it’s always truthful. The pent-up frustration Jesse and Celine have been carrying around all come bubbling to the surface and hurtful things are said, things that threaten to end a relationship that looked so perfect all those years ago.

But hidden within the fighting are philosophical themes that contemplate life, love, the inescapableness of time and the finite nature of all things. Jesse and Celine both realize that they’re getting old, perhaps closer to their deaths than their births, and such a notion puts things into perspective. Have they lived their lives the best they can? Have they done all they can to care for their children? Are they really happy with each other or has their attempt to recapture the feeling they felt that night in Vienna all those years ago fooled themselves into thinking they are? Much like the previous movies, there’s no clear answer (only another sequel will be able to shed some light), ending with a scene that feels hopeful, but not definite.

All of this is done with an exquisite sense of direction, one that refuses to overcomplicate things and decides to keep it simple despite its non-simplistic themes. Much like the previous movies, Linklater more often than not settles on long takes, effectively placing the viewer in the scene with the characters. It doesn’t cut back and forth in the typical filmic shot reverse shot based on who’s talking, but rather places them both on camera, allowing them to play off each other in a seemingly less scripted way, whether they be walking down the road or driving in the car. These long takes only work with actors that can pull them off and both Hawke and Delpy do so with aplomb. Although they’ve only worked with each other across the three movies for what couldn’t be more than a couple months, it nevertheless feels like they’ve been in each other’s minds and lives for the two decades these movies span.

It may sound strange to hear, but it’s no exaggeration to hail this romance trilogy as one of the best ever. To give that statement some context, this film doesn’t quite live up to the standards of “Before Sunrise” and “Before Sunset,” yet it’s still likely to be one of the best of the year. “Before Midnight” is nothing less than a majestic, ethereal treat.

Before Midnight receives 4.5/5

Friday
Oct122012

Sinister

Sinister hearkens back to classic horror films. It isn’t overly violent and relies more on mood and imagery to create a disturbing and frightening atmosphere. It doesn’t rush through its story to please the ADD generation, but builds slowly, tightening the tension until it becomes too much to bear. The film, quite frankly, is terrifying. It stumbles in a few key areas and relies a tad too much on played out horror movie tropes (the creepy kid thing isn’t scary anymore, let’s move past it), but it’s likely to chill you to the core. It’s one of the scariest movies in at least a decade, so if fright is fun to you, you won’t have more fun at the movies than you will with Sinister.

Ellison Oswalt (Ethan Hawke) is a crime writer. He investigates real life murders and tries to uncover things the initial police investigation may have missed. Part of his process is moving into or near the house or area that the heinous event took place, which has just led him to an eerie house in what appears to be a fairly standard Midwest town. In this house, a family was murdered, all but the smallest child who went missing. Not too long after moving in, Ellison finds a box of old film reels in the attic. Curious, he brings them down, hooks them up and begins to watch them. Each reel depicts the brutal murder of a family and they are accompanied by spooky symbolism and a mysterious man looking on. Eventually, strange things begin to happen in the house and Ellison begins to realize he may have put himself and his family in danger.

Sinister begins with footage from one of those film reels and it perfectly captures the tone of what is to come. What is shown should be left for the viewer to experience, but it immediately crawls under your skin, and does so without resorting to cheap tactics. It’s a violent exhibition, but it isn’t gory. It’s also scary, but it isn’t in your face. Such restraint is held throughout nearly the entire movie. Aside from a couple “Gotcha!” moments (including a horrible one at the end that effectively ruins the sense of eeriness the film had captured up to that point), the film is more about ambiance. It’s more about the fear of what’s going to happen rather than of what actually does. Sinister understands something that very few modern horror movies do: feeling is key. Emotionally unsettling the viewer is more effective than occasionally making them twitch.

What it also understands is that horror movies need a fleshed out script and good acting just as much as any other movie. The bane of the genre these days is its neglect of story and list of no name actors unconvincingly hamming it up onscreen. Sinister, though its story is admittedly familiar, feels so unique because so much care was put into its creation. The characters aren’t just fodder for the creature to take out like in other horror films. Here, they are fully realized with complex emotions and motivations. The best scene, in fact, isn’t even a scary one. It’s a dramatic scene between Ellison and his wife, Tracy (Juliet Rylance), as they fight over Ellison’s lies that brought them to live in a house where grisly murders took place. Most horror films wouldn’t even consider including this scene, but something tells me Sinister's filmmakers knew their movie would be incomplete without it.

At the end of the day, Sinister is an above average horror film with above average acting and a keen understanding of what is truly scary, but it nevertheless falls into traps of the genre that are seemingly impossible to avoid. One can’t help but wonder why Ellison, who suspects that whoever committed the murders depicted on the film reels planted the box for him to find, wouldn’t move his family, if not himself, out of the house immediately. This is a horror movie standard that was brilliantly addressed in James Wan’s underrated Insidious and Sinister falls prey to it. In fact, there are plenty of “Don’t go in there!” and “What was he thinking?” moments throughout the entire film, but one must forgive (or go with) these moments. Without them, there wouldn’t be a horror movie to watch. The one genre misstep Sinister embraces and actually improves on is the comedic relief. Too many horror movies throw comedy into the mix only to disappointingly break the tension; whatever goodwill it had built to that point dissipates. In Sinister, these moments are a welcome reprieve. They give you a chance to calm down from the unrelenting terror you’ve just sat through in the scene prior.

Sinister will scare you so bad, you’ll feel the pulse racing in your feet, and that’s in spite of a few key moments that don’t work, including a horribly unfrightening slow motion scene involving a dark house, long hallways and children. Its biggest issue is probably its ending, which feels all too abrupt after such a slow, gradual build, but they say it’s the journey, not the destination, that counts. The same holds true for Sinister and by the end of this journey, you won’t need to pull over to pee. You’ll have already done so in your pants.

Sinister receives 4/5