Most musical biopics operate around a familiar set of scenes: the humble beginnings, the record deal, the first time the hero’s song is heard on the radio, the challenges from drugs/alcohol/success that are finally overcome. The one surefire part of the story is the rise to fame and the thrills associated with the big break.
What if you made a music biopic without the big break? This is the task director and co-writer Ethan Hawke sets himself in Blaze, a sad telling of the near-miss career of Blaze Foley. Born Michael Fuller in 1949, Foley was one of those songwriters admired by other musicians but denied even a modest level of stardom. His quick temper and alcoholic tendencies didn’t help him on the occasions when he did get opportunities to shine. Since his death in 1989, his status as a cult figure has slowly grown, and some of his songs (Merle Haggard’s cover of “If I Could Only Fly,” for instance) now stand as classics.
Anyone who has followed the career of Paul Schrader could fall into the trap of simply cataloguing the ways in which First Reformed (2018) is a summation of his themes and inspirations. Imagine the promotional possibilities: “From the author of “Transcendental Cinema” and “Notes on Film Noir” and the screenwriter of Taxi Driver and The Last Temptation of Christ.” First Reformed leans on the former but, as so many of his past films, he puts his search for grace in an American context where violence is too often an answer, or at least an impulse.
A gaunt and drawn Ethan Hawke stars as Reverend Ernst Toller, a former Army Chaplain who has found his place as the pastor of the tiny First Reformed Church, an historical landmark with a dwindling congregation about to celebrate its 250th anniversary. In denial of an unnamed, possibly fatal affliction and spiking his spare meals with splash or two of whiskey, Toller could be an American answer to the idealistic cleric of Robert Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest (he even keeps a handwritten journal), embracing the simplicity of faith and the purity of a spare existence after the loss of his family. Mary (Amanda Seyfried), a loyal congregant, asks Toller to counsel her unemployed husband Michael (Philip Ettinger), an ecological activist giving in to despair and desperations. When Mary discovers explosives hidden in their garage, seeds of violent action take root in Toller’s mind as he obsesses over images of our polluted and poisoned planet.
There are, I understand, people who can drive around a mesa in the American Southwest and come upon a vast, stunning expanse of pure Western landscape and not hear the music from The Magnificent Seven in their heads. Sad, but true. The catchiness and ubiquity of Elmer Bernstein’s thrumming music (which Marlboro licensed for their TV campaign peddling a manly, nicotine-loaded lifestyle) is so definitive it instantly summons up the Old West—or at least the cinematic version—in its first few beats. That music is the Western movie.
Bernstein’s score is amusingly hinted at during the remake of The Magnificent Seven, but you’ll have to wait until the end credits for a full nostalgic airing of the main theme. The original music is too heroic and unconflicted for a 21st-century Western, which Antoine Fuqua’s new film certainly is: Multicultural in its casting and pointedly political in its choice of bad guy, The Magnificent Seven is a 2016 movie all the way. In fits and starts, it also manages to be a pretty enjoyable Western.
It’s possible that the author of Death of a Salesman might have fathered a child with a gift for the rapid-fire style of screwball comedy. But in her films as writer/director, Arthur Miller’s daughter has remained true to his somber mood. Rebecca Miller seems entirely at home in the heaviness of her 2005 drama The Ballad of Jack and Rose (which starred her husband, Daniel Day-Lewis, no laugh riot himself). And when hilarity breaks out in Miller’s Private Lives of Pippa Lee (2009), it’s like a desperate bark from someone drowning.
Miller’s new film, Maggie’s Plan, has the contours—and the far-fetched storyline—of a screwball comedy, and although it misses the happy rhythm of that ditzy film subgenre, it substitutes something intriguing.
The first shot of Born to Be Blue is a close-up of a trumpet, laid on the dirty floor of what turns out to be a ratty jail cell. The notorious jazz musician Chet Baker is in the clink, presumably for one drug offense or another. He’s on the dirty floor, too. Baker’s horn sits there, gaping at him. He can never fill its maw, never plug up the emptiness, never satisfy his various cravings. Just then a big black spider crawls out of the trumpet’s bell.
Hmm. Maybe Baker has the DTs, or maybe the film is telling us not to take everything here literally. Writer/director Robert Budreau underscores his approach with the next sequence: Baker (played by Ethan Hawke) has been rescued from his lockup and plunked into a Hollywood film project of his own life.
“This would make a great movie,” all of us have sighed while mind-directing a film from the novel we’re reading. But most of the time it wouldn’t really make a great movie, because a movie is a different animal entirely. Ten Thousand Saints conveys a passionate desire to capture a 2011 novel by Eleanor Henderson, but it looks like a quickly sketched version of something much, much larger. You want big canvas, you’ve got big canvas: We follow teenager Jude (Asa Butterfield, the kid from Hugo) from his turbulent life in small-town Vermont to the grungy streets of the East Village in the late 1980s. His drug-dealing adoptive father Les (Ethan Hawke) returns to the boy’s life to insure he has a place to crash in the city. The movie has hardcore music, a tragic death, and that laziest of plot devices, the unexpected pregnancy that changes everything.
What does war become in the remote-control age of drone strikes and remote surveillance? That’s what Andrew Niccol ostensibly asks in Good Kill—a film we know, after watching a few minutes, is going to spin its impersonal military-speak title into bitter irony. There we see Major Tommy Egan (Ethan Hawke) destroying military targets in Afghanistan from the Nevada desert, where he mans the deadliest videogame you ever saw.
This veteran Air Force fighter pilot has been downsized to drone jockey, and Tommy wants nothing more than to get back into the cockpit, even if it means going back to Afghanistan. Or maybe especially if it means going back. It’s not just the G-forces and the rush of speed. There’s something about deployment that makes war more real.
Boyhood (Paramount, Blu-ray, DVD, VOD) is arguably the movie of 2014. Even if you don’t think it’s the best film of last year, it dominated Top Ten lists and critics groups awards and it offered a different and daring kind of cinematic experience, something rare enough in American popular cinema.
It’s now common knowledge that filmmaker Richard Linklater and his four central actors—Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke as the parents, Lorelei Linklater (the director’s daughter) as the older sister, and Ellar Coltrane as Mason—shot the film over the course of 12 years to watch not just Mason but everyone in the fictional family grow up and evolve over time. What’s most exciting about the film, however, is the way the film avoids the expected landmark moments and big dramatic conflicts to focus on the sense of life as an experience and an evolution.
Which is not to say there aren’t dramatic moments—Arquette’s single mom shows a history of bad judgment when it comes to life partners and one flight from a particularly bad marriage to a bullying drunk is both harrowing and startlingly realistic—but that the usual spotlight events are left offscreen. Because life isn’t about those flashpoints, it’s about connections made with friends, privileged moments with family, decisions, interests, disappointments, successes, and an evolution of character informed by experience. And that’s what this film becomes: an experience as much in the texture of this fictional life, growing up from first grade to arriving at college, as in the narrative journey. The performances are appropriately low-key and naturalistic and the evolution feels organic, thanks in large part to the collaboration of the actors and incorporating elements of their own experiences in the characters.
It runs 164 minutes, which lends itself to a home viewing (easier to get comfortable for the long haul), but it is something to see straight through as a single narrative experience. The Blu-ray features the 19-minute featurette “The 12 Year Project,” made up of interviews with the director and the cast (often interviewing one another on camera) over the course of production, from year one to year twelve, and the 52-minute “Q&A with Richard Linklater and the Cast,” shot after a screening of the film at L.A.’s Cinefamily on June 15, 2014. They are excellent supplements to the experience. Also includes bonus DVD and UltraViolet Digital HD copies of the film. No extras on the DVD release.
The title Boyhood suggests something definitive, perhaps even a statement on the essential nature of growing up. Which is not at all what this movie is. Made up of stray moments, occasional bits of melodrama, and a gentle sense of time drifting by, the film is much better represented by its working title: 12 Years. Nothing grand about that, just a description of the awkward age of life. (Writer/director Richard Linklater decided to go with Boyhood after 12 Years a Slave came into the world.)
12 Years would’ve also been shorthand for the film’s making. It was shot in the director’s native Texas in short bursts over a 12-year period—Linklater knew the shape of the film, but would tweak its script as time marched on, incorporating topical issues and reacting to his performers. This means that unlike most movies, which remake the world and impose an order on it, Boyhood reacts to the world; as 21st-century history and its actors’ personalities evolve, the movie is changed by those things.
Richard Linklater’s cinema is made of moments. This is not to say that his films are valuable only in pieces, or that the parts are greater than the whole, but rather, that Linklater’s films find deepest insights through small gestures and hushed glances. For all of the hyper-articulate dialogue spouted by Linklater’s characters, it is the quiet moments that slowly build to flashes of revelation and human connection. They come on subtly, taking both the characters and the viewer by surprise. Fleeting and impermanent as these revelations are, Linklater cannot help but recognize their sublimity; these moments are magic.
That Linklater elevates mundane occurrences with a distinctly unfussy style makes them all the more remarkable. Perhaps the most powerful example of one such moment occurs partway through Before Sunset, Linklater’s middle-aged sequel to his youthful romance Before Sunrise. Nine years after Celine (Julie Delpy) and Jesse’s (Ethan Hawke) 24-hour affair, spent wandering around nocturnal Vienna, they are reunited in Paris. As in the previous film, they have a short time before they must part; Jesse has a plane to catch. But before he leaves, they meander through the streets and gardens of the city. After some initial awkwardness, it becomes clear that neither their deep affection nor their penchant for intelligent conversation have dimmed in the intervening years.
Their roaming conversation covers politics, love, and that night in Vienna. Linklater shoots their exchanges in real-time, via a series of unassuming long-takes. This choice forces the viewer to feel time as it progresses in the film, underscoring the transient nature of Celine and Jesse’s reunion. It gives Before Sunset uncommon urgency and emotional heft. The long-takes also compress the space between Celine and Jesse; they are consistently framed together in medium shots. This visual pattern culminates in one brief gesture, lasting a mere three seconds, framed in a typically unpretentious two-shot.
In the back of a taxicab, Celine finally lets down her emotional shield. Their banter can no longer mask her heartache and sense of loss. She tells him that their reunion has stirred up emotions she hoped to ignore. In an outburst of confused rage, Celine tells Jesse to leave the cab. Suddenly, Jesse, who has feigned the romantic optimism of his youthful self, reveals that he too has been wounded by the disappointments and compromises of growing older. His marriage is in shambles; he can’t remember the last time he was happy.
After cutting back and forth between close-ups of Jesse and Celine, Linklater cuts back to a two-shot. Jesse, on the left of the frame, briefly looks out the car window, holding back tears. On the right side of the frame, Celine’s face expresses her embarrassment and recognition of shared pain. The negative space of the back windshield splits the frame, emphasizing the gulf between them. But in a stunning moment of empathy, Celine hesitatingly reaches her hand towards the back of Jesse’s head, her hand crossing the divide of the windshield. Her hand hovers for two seconds. Before she can fully reach out to him, Jesse turns his head back and she quickly pulls it out of sight. Linklater cuts back to a close-up of Jesse, isolating these characters in their respective spaces once again.
In this moment, a flash of revelation occurs. But it is not Celine’s, nor Jesse’s. The revelation is ours. Unexpectedly, we recall words Celine spoke to Jesse nine years earlier:
“I believe if there’s any kind of God it wouldn’t be in any of us, not you or me but just this little space in between. If there’s any kind of magic in this world it must be in the attempt of understanding someone, sharing something. I know, it’s almost impossible to succeed but who cares really? The answer must be in the attempt.”
Jesse and Celine may have forgotten these words, but we have not. Nine years and two movies have built to this seemingly simple moment of attempted human connection. Linklater is too wise to suggest that the heartache of lost time can be healed in one gesture. But Celine’s words echo in our minds, and give us hope; something sacred exists in that flickering space between her hand and his head. In this single, humble shot Linklater reminds us that there is a kind of magic in this world. For a moment, it’s right there up on the screen.
Writer-director Scott Derrickson (The Exorcism of Emily Rose) and co-scripter C. Robert Cargill (the Ain’t It Cool News staffer who pitched the story) clearly hoped to make Sinister an old-school horror movie, mining terror from classic haunted house scenarios designed to drive a desperate writer to Shining-style madness. Juice that formula with ancient deviltry laced with contemporary tech-paranoia and Sinister ought to look and play like lethal nightmare, in the tradition of John Carpenter’s Halloween. It doesn’t. Derrickson and Company, lacking Carpenter’s filmmaking chops and bone-deep faith in the genre, can’t deliver the hair-raising goods. Sinister may make you jump at predictable intervals, but it never rattles your existential certainties the way truly subversive horror does.
True-crime author Ellison Oswald (Ethan Hawke) has moved his family into a new home, failing to mention that the previous tenants were murdered by hanging. Fact is, our hero doesn’t much care what his long-suffering wife and kids think or feel; he’s jonesing for a best-seller, having last hit the jackpot 15 years ago. Pretty quick, a mysterious box turns up in the attic, packed with an 8mm projector and cans of home movies with benign-sounding titles like “Pool Party,” “Yard Work,” “Sleepy Time,” “Hanging Out With the Family.” These turn out to be grainy snuff films, gruesome to the max, and soon Oswald notices disquieting connections with the unsolved murders he’s investigating. Then, with the aid of computer technology, he discovers and extracts from the moving pictures a recurring image: a horrific goblin face as blankly malevolent as Michael’s in Halloween.