Brothers in Harms

Zeros and Ones

by Hope Madden

Abel Ferrara, man. Dude refuses to follow a traditional film structure, and sometimes that works so well. Bad Lieutenant and The Addiction — two of my favorites — took on a dreamlike atmosphere thanks to the filmmaker’s loose structure and it suited both pictures.

Beginning with 2014’s Pasolini, Ferrara seems to have abandoned the standard framework entirely, his films becoming more dreamlike than lucid. His latest, Zeros and Ones, follows that path.

Ethan Hawke stars in this hazily connected sequence of scenes emphasizing one man’s journey toward a realization about himself, his brother and the world around him. Hawke plays both the journeyman, a military specialist of some kind, and his brother, a freedom fighter in Rome.

Hawke wanders empty post-pandemic Rome as bits of military and religious debauchery and double-crossing weave and bob across the screen. Meanwhile, Hawke’s voiceover oscillates between meta-Christian reflections and calls to action.

For his part, Hawke delivers two discernibly different characters, sure, but in keeping with Ferrara’s themes, two distinct types: apostle and wayward soldier. Nothing feels scripted, and with a veteran like Hawke, that works out fine. Like Willem Dafoe in so many of Ferrara’s recent films, Hawke inhabits the desolate dreamscape with a weary resignation, a ghost guiding us toward some dark inevitability.

Zeros and Ones is a pandemic film, but rather than feeling like a filmmaker doing whatever they can with the situation, this one seems like an opportunity Ferrara has been waiting for. He isn’t doing his best within unreasonable constrictions, he’s finally found that empty, nihilistic apocalypse he’s prepared for. The empty streets and lonesome, masked figures feel apiece of his greater goal.

What was that goal? What is it always? The world is filth, hope is futile, man is doomed. You’ve seen his films, right? If so, you probably already know where you’ll fall on Zeros and Ones. It is less poetic and self-indulgent than Tommaso or Siberia, less sensible than his earlier work, and less compelling than a lot of what he’s done. And the explosions look ridiculous.

And yet, there is nothing quite like an Abel Ferrara film.

A Shot in the Dark

Tesla

by Matt Weiner

Nikola Tesla is having a moment. Hot on the heels of 2019’s The Current War comes Tesla, another take on the inventor from writer and director Michael Almereyda. And while both treatments are anchored around Tesla’s rivalry with Thomas Edison over electrifying the country, Tesla is so far apart in style and tone that the subject could be a completely different person.

Almereyda has already shown that he can handle big sci-fi themes on a small budget. His adaptation of Marjorie Prime was moving and challenging. Tesla also has the rhythm of a stage play, one where characters and dialogue take precedence over strict history.

This is still a biopic though. The story begins as Tesla (Ethan Hawke) splits from Thomas Edison (Kyle MacLachlan), and follows through his partnership with George Westinghouse (Jim Gaffigan) and his ultimate victory in the war of the currents.

But as Tesla’s personal and professional lives unravel, Almereyda takes his film off the rails as well. From historical counterfactuals and modern-day interruptions to an arresting musical number, Tesla the movie surrenders all control over its title character—and does so gleefully. These big swings don’t always connect, but the attempts are always compelling.

In Almereyda’s version, Tesla is a cipher. Hawke trades in his usual charm for a portrayal that blends tortured genius and mad scientist, and despite his quiet demeanor he fills every scene with an intensely heavy presence.

It’s up to the supporting cast, especially MacLachlan’s flighty yet imperious Edison, to draw out whatever they can from the inscrutable Tesla. It’s an unusual effect for a biopic, but it works. Tesla is the rare adaptation that seems determined to obscure its subject rather than illuminate him.

This Tesla is a man not so much ahead of his time but completely outside of it. Almereyda suggests that the enduring appeal of Tesla can’t be neatly captured in the war of the currents against Edison. There’s Tesla the pioneering genius who lit up the Chicago World’s Fair, and there’s Tesla who died penniless in a hotel room dreaming of death rays. And somewhere in between, there’s a man who raises the curiosity of everyone he meets.

But in this telling, the closest we can come to unsolvable mysteries are a reflection here, a spark there. This Tesla is a brief light guiding us toward some greater understanding, one that vanishes just as quickly.

Belle of the Ball

The Truth

by Matt Weiner

Actors getting lost in a role can become the stuff of legends, or the butt of jokes—as Olivier’s advice allegedly went to Dustin Hoffman, “Why don’t you just try acting?” In The Truth, director Hirokazu Kore-eda takes one of film’s most iconic actresses and sets to demolishing the notion that an artist could ever separate who they are from what they have to say.

The film is Kore-eda’s first foray outside of Japan, and a worthy follow-up to his masterful 2018 drama Shoplifters. The drama, also written by Kore-eda, has a lighter touch in The Truth, but it’s no less arresting thanks to a brilliant self-referential performance from Catherine Deneuve.

Deneuve plays Fabienne, an idol of French cinema now at a point in her life when she’s ready to look back on her storied career. Fabienne’s daughter Lumir (Juliette Binoche) has brought along her family from America to pay Fabienne a visit. When Lumir gets an early look at Fabienne’s memoir, she lashes out at the wide gulf between Fabienne the myth and Fabienne the mother, the one who pursued her art to the detriment of everything else in her life.

One family’s drama becomes a delightful interrogation of memory and art. And as if the unreliable memoir weren’t enough to drive the point home, Fabienne is also currently filming a new movie against an up-and-coming actress playing her younger version.

The film’s quirky sci-fi twist forces Fabienne to face her younger self, and the grande dame of French cinema isn’t quite ready to relinquish her fading star power to what she sees as a poor imitation of her own youthful rise to celebrity.

Kore-eda blurs the lines even further by referencing Deneuve’s breakout years, specifically Belle de Jour, with posters and costumes dotting Fabienne’s house and still exerting a powerful hold on her sense of self-worth. (Ethan Hawke’s understated turn as Lumir’s bohemian husband Hank also feels like an alternate universe version of Jesse from the Before trilogy… but that might also just be Hawke’s natural “these are my ‘just chilling in France’ vibes.” Either way, the man is living his best life.)

The result is a family drama that manages to humanize the dysfunction without fully absolving anyone. Fabienne might be a legend, but she’s still only human. Living an entire life unmoored, unable to process anything in the moment without layers of artifice to mediate any real emotion, seems like it should be punishment enough.

Hellhound on My Trail

Blaze

by George Wolf

Outlaw country musician Blaze Foley lived too hard and died too young, a life so steeped in cultish mystery that even the director of his biopic believed an urban legend about what led to Foley’s tragic death.

Ethan Hawke, who also co-wrote the film with Foley’s ex-wife Sybil Rosen, presents Blaze’s story with respectful grace and an observational tone that moves casually but cuts deeply. Seemingly drawing inspiration from frequent collaborator Richard Linklater (who has a cameo role in the film), Hawke’s directing style is unassuming and unhurried, mining resonance from small moments that define his subject.

It seems cosmically right that a virtual unknown singer-songwriter, Ben Dickey, plays Foley, who may be best known to mainstream country fans as the writer behind songs recorded by artists such as Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson, Lyle Lovett, and John Prine.

Dickey, who was working as a chef when Hawke offered him the role, is a revelation. Though more physically imposing than the real Foley, Dickey reveals the demons that frequently bested Blaze, pushing him to sabotage his relationship with Sybil (Alia Shawkat-also stellar) as well as his chances at big-time music business success.

With music such a big part of the film, Hawke’s decision to present it in its live, raw glory reaps big dividends.

Dickey mimics Blaze’s phrasing, picking and rambling onstage persona to eerie perfection, getting an impressive assist from Charlie Sexton as fellow troubadour Townes Van Zandt. Sexton (who had an 80s hit with “Beats So Lonely,” has been Bob Dylan’s guitarist for years and appeared alongside Hawke in Boyhood) gives the film solid layers of reference as the drawling Van Zandt charms a radio DJ (Hawke) with stories of Blaze, the little-known legend.

From dreaming of stardom while riding in a truck bed, to antagonizing barroom audiences, to a visit with Blaze’s once-abusive, now senile father (Kris Kristofferson), sequence after sequence rings more organic and true than most found in music biopics.

It’s clear this a passion project for Hawke (and, of course, for Rosen), who is smart enough not to let that passion interfere with authenticity. Blaze gives Foley the re-birth he clearly earned – as a conflicted, damaged soul longing to be heard.

 

 





An Unfortunate Movie Mixtape

Juliet, Naked

by Brandon Thomas

Movies that mix music and quirk tend to punch me right in the feels (is a 36-year-old allowed to say “feels”?). Once, Begin Again and Sing Street are a few examples of movies that gave my tear ducts a workout. The only feelings Juliet, Naked conjured in me were boredom, apathy and a dash of frustration.

Annie (Rose Bryne) is stuck in a rut. She lives in her sleepy hometown and works the same job her father did. Her boyfriend, Duncan (Chris O’Dowd), is more interested in a long-disappeared musician than starting a family with her. When a CD demo for Duncan’s favorite musician, Tucker Crowe (Ethan Hawke), shows up at their home, Annie is the first to listen. Her negative reaction to the album, mixed with Duncan’s over-the-top positive one, sets off a chain of events that ends with Crowe himself visiting her in England.

I realized halfway through Juliet, Naked that director Jesse Peretz (Our Idiot Brother) was trying to reinvent the classic rom-com. Instead, it’s more of a Frankenstein’s monster hybrid, as one part indie drama mixed with your classic rom-com clichés makes for strange bedfellows. It’s not to say that these tropes couldn’t exist together – they could – but it would need to be in the hands of a stronger filmmaker.

The cast fares a little bit better. Hawke and Byrne do what they can with a messy script, and they have an undeniable chemistry. The problem – again – lies in that it sometimes feels like the characters are moving between two different films. One moment, Hawke’s character is lamenting his shortcomings as a father, and the next he’s in a hospital bed surrounded by all of his ex-wives/lovers. It’s a scene that wouldn’t feel out of place in a network sitcom.

Byrne is the one saving grace. She’s always been able to lift the material she’s given and it’s no different here. There’s a sweetness to Annie that never feels naïve. She’s a competent, driven woman who just hasn’t allowed herself to go after what she wants in life.

There’s a behind-the-camera pedigree to Juliet, Naked that makes its shortcomings all the more disappointing. It’s based on the book by Nick Hornby (About a Boy, High Fidelity), and produced by Judd Apatow (Bridesmaids, Superbad, Pineapple Express). Apatow has especially shown himself to be adept at producing really funny, thoughtful comedies.

Had Juliet, Naked kept both feet firmly in one genre, I think the film would’ve had something nice to say. Instead, it’s a murky mess of what could have been.





Suitable for Framing

Maudie

by George Wolf

“Show me how you see the world…”

Thanks to a glorious performance from Sally Hawkins, Maudie shows us the enduring flame of creativity, and how a Canadian folk hero harnessed it to rise above the challenging hand life dealt her and become a sought-after artist.

Born in Nova Scotia in 1903, Maud Dowley suffered with rheumatoid arthritis from a very young age. By 1937 both her parents had died, and not long after Dowley answered an ad from local fish peddler Everett Lewis for a “live-in housekeeper.” The two were married some weeks later, and Maud began her professional art career selling small, hand painted Christmas cards to the locals.

While director Aisling Walsh and writer Sherry White can’t follow through on all the possibilities for resonance that Maud’s story offers, Hawkins carries the film. Hers is a warm, endlessly captivating performance that fills nearly every frame with the sweetest of heartbreaks.

As Maud’s gruff and often disagreeable husband Everett, Hawke continues his recent streak of impressive performances with a turn that gives Hawkins a fitting bookend. But this is her show, to such an extent that the sheer joy of watching her can compensate for when the film takes the road more traveled.

While Maud’s talent and ingenuity are in focus, and we see her rise above those who would cast her off as nothing but a burden, Maudie‘s spirit soars. But Walsh and White then become too satisfied with a by-the-numbers love story pastiche.

It’s a curious destination for a film that seemingly had much more to say.

Still, it has Hawkins in nearly every scene, all suitable for framing.

Verdict-3-5-Stars





Valley Dogs

In A Valley of Violence

by Cat McAlpine

Paul (Ethan Hawke) just wants to make it to Mexico, and freedom. Unfortunately, a random and heart-wrenching act of violence detours him down a bloody path to revenge. Writer/director Ti West brings his experience in the horror genre to the Wild West, with surprising but refreshing reserve.

In a Valley of Violence benefits from West’s time in horror. The build is steady and slow. Paul transforms from quiet stranger to calculating killer, but all the blood is earned. The shootouts aren’t elaborate but they are grisly and realistic.

The first note I wrote down was “color”. (The second note I wrote down was “His dog wears a bandana.”) West has colorized an homage to old westerns, bright and yellow. At the turning point, though, his roots show.

The camera work changes with Paul. A flashback is handled with a shaky cam and a flashlight. It feels like found footage, and though it’s a jarring stylistic change, it’s not unwelcome.

Another scene is shot from a single vantage point that makes the view feel like a security camera. The small room almost gets that fisheye quality, as Paul sneaks up behind an unsuspecting bather. These touches gently meld the horror and western genres, using cues from both to shape the viewers’ journey.

The performances are as realistic as West’s measured use of bullets and blood. Hawke is brooding and dangerous, but soft, too. His dog is an excellent device to extrapolate the way PTSD can function. Paul confidently banters with his dog, makes her promises, plots with her… but when he’s faced with people he keeps his mouth shut and his eyes low.

As the sheriff, John Travolta plays with equal restraint and mastery. He’s quiet but commanding, a good match to Hawke. As he devolves into panic, Travolta becomes funnier and more terrifying.

These performances from the two veterans balance out a younger cast of characters who are spoiling for adventure.

Karen Gillan shines with absurdity and humor, and she’s hard not to watch, even sprinting across the back of a shot. Taissa Farmiga is all wide-eyed wonder, but carries enough grit to make her character arc as compelling as Paul’s.

Most of the absurdity comes from a truly excellent Burn Gorman, as the priest. His drunken ramblings about sinners are bizarre, and showcase some of the best writing in the film. The priest’s appearances divide the film into three distinct parts, highlighted by Paul’s changing interaction with him each time. He serves as a beautiful device and a welcome, though momentary, release of pressure.

In a Valley of Violence is an homage to the traditional western with updates from the horror genre, not with blood, but with tension. Paired with a fantastic score from Jeff Grace and a cast that delivers, West has avoided the trappings of the modern shoot-em-ups and rejoined the classics with some fresh perspective.

Verdict-4-0-Stars

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ek8cjysuvJ4





Eye in the Sky

Good Kill

by Hope Madden

In 2013, Jeremy Scahill opened our eyes to the darker side of drone wars with his documentary Dirty Wars. Writer/director Andrew Niccol uses a more understated and intimate road to the same destination with his latest effort, Good Kill.

The film follows Tom Egan (Ethan Hawke), a man who flew 6 tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan and is now on his third tour in a Vegas cubical piloting drones. From 7000 miles away he watches, then eliminates Taliban threats. Then he goes home to barbeque.

As a writer, Niccol has a long history of mining similar ideas – the alienating power of surveillance as well as the business of war (The Truman Show, Lord of War). He’s on his game here, depositing points and counterpoints in the mouths of the right characters and watching each character evolve as their duties begin to look more like war crimes.

Niccol made some fine decisions as the director as well, keeping the tone understated and the tensions on low boil. He also slyly parallels the aerial images of the Middle East – dry, brown and dusty with neat rows of damaged houses – with aerials of Vegas. Once you get past the glitz and bombast of the strip, the landscape is eerily similar. Not only does this humanize the targets, but it exposes our own vulnerability.

Hawke, hot off a career-best performance in Boyhood, does a stellar job animating a mostly internal character. His struggle feels honest, and on the rare occasion that Tom articulates an issue, his thoughts are enlightening. “We got no skin in the game. I feel like a coward every day.”

Bruce Greenwood, reliable as always, carries a great deal of the weight in the film without ever taking the spotlight. Meanwhile, the great character actor Peter Coyote lends a smarmy, soulless voice as “Langley,” the CIA contact given control over Egan’s unit.

This is a meticulously written script, one that weighs issues without truly taking sides, and Niccol develops a hushed tension that builds to something powerful.

It’s a finely crafted and engrossing film that looks at the effects of a risk-free war from the eyes of one of the warriors being saved from combat. Without beating you about the head with its message, it’s about a lot more than that, too.

Verdict-3-5-Stars





Being in Love Means Never Having to Say “Slow Down!”

 

by Richard Ades

 

Just days after the events depicted in Before Midnight, Jesse (Ethan Hawke) is still smarting from the emasculating attack he endured at the hands of Celine (Julie Delpy), the increasingly bitter love of his life. He returns to their Parisian home and is surprised to find it empty and in a state of disarray.

The phone rings. A strangely accented voice tells him he must steal a souped-up Mustang and perform a series of dangerous tasks if he ever wants to see Celine again.

There’s a long pause. “Well?” the voice asks.

“I’m thinking,” Jesse replies.

Obviously, that is not how Getaway begins. A flick that hopes to attract fans of Gone in Sixty Seconds and similar car-chase epics has no time for complicated relationships. It doesn’t even have time for exposition. Instead, director Courtney Solomon dives into the gear-gnashing, tire-squealing action before the opening credits even roll.

Via flashbacks and spare bits of dialogue, we learn that Brent Magna (Hawke) is a washed-up American racecar driver now living in Sofia, Bulgaria. We also learn that his Bulgarian wife (Rebecca Budig) has been abducted by a mysterious man (Jon Voight) who communicates with Brent through the car’s phone and threatens to kill her unless his instructions are followed to the letter.

Soon joined by the Mustang’s angry owner, a young woman known only as the Kid (Selena Gomez), Brent is ordered to perform tasks that mostly involve evading the police and always put the general public at risk. And because it’s the Christmas season, there’s a lot of general public around to be put at risk.

All of this could be entertaining if it weren’t for a couple of problems.

First, the movie suffers from unfortunate timing. In an early scene, Brent is told to drive at full speed through thick crowds of holiday revelers. Though he miraculously avoids hitting anyone, it’s an uncomfortable reminder of the Dodge-driving maniac who killed a bride and injured 16 others while plowing through a Los Angeles boardwalk crowd in early August.

More importantly, co-screenwriter and third-time director Solomon (An American Hauntingseems to have no knack for this kind of thing. The action is nearly nonstop and the destruction is massive, but frantic editing lowers the excitement level.

We see a tiny Bulgarian police car, and a split second later, it crashes. Where’s the fun in that? A last-minute chase, in which Solomon adopts the driver’s-view strategy pioneered by Bullitt (1968), offers one of the flick’s few heart-pounding moments.

Solomon’s attempts at humor also fall flat. They mostly call on the Kid to hurl insults at Brent, such as calling him a “shitty” driver—which is incongruous, considering he’s performing moves that could only be completed by someone who’s spent his life racing on Sundays and studying stunt driving the rest of the week.

In general, the talented Hawke and likable Gomez are limited to yelling at each other in the midst of all the mayhem, except during the rare quiet moments when the Kid uses her technological savvy in an attempt to figure out their tormenter’s motive. And he has one, of course, but don’t think about it too hard or you’ll start asking questions.

Getaway is designed to be mindless entertainment, after all. It’s just too bad that the mindlessness began before the first pedal was pressed to the metal.

 

More reviews and stories by Richard Ades can be found on his theater blog, columbustheater.org, and in the new weekly version of the Columbus Free Press, which launches Sept. 5.

 

 

Verdict-2-0-Stars

 

 

 

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hM7BB16PkAw





Because After Midnight, They’re Gonna Let It All Hang Down

Before Midnight

by Hope Madden

The third installment of what may be the most understated trilogy in cinematic history, Before Midnight catches up with Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) – American writer and French muse – almost twenty years after their first meeting on that train.

Those two romantic kids Richard Linklater followed around Vienna back in 1994’s Before Sunrise, then again through Paris in 2004’s Before Sunset, are now a timeworn couple with kids on vacation in Greece. If nothing else, the pair does visit lovely spots.

For all the similarities in the three films, though, Linklater and his two leads/co-writers take the story in a very natural yet risky direction. The first two installments are among the most unabashedly romantic indie films ever made.

Before Midnight, on the other hand, is far more of a meditation on relationships – the compromises, selfishness, joys, tedium. This is untrod ground in Hollywood, where films find inspiration in either the beginning or the end of a romance. That long slog in the middle, though, that’s hidden from view.

As Celine and Jesse struggle with the consequences of their youthful decisions and wrestle against the weight of middle age, they take some time to examine their lives, flaws and desires. They talk it out.

This is certainly the talkiest film released this weekend, as it relies entirely on conversation to tell its story. There are times when the dialogue feels self-serving. At other times, it gives the film too pretentious an air. On the whole, though, these characters are recognizable in a way that is rarely achieved in film.

Delpy’s performance is particularly courageous, as she’s willing to be unlikeable in the way we all are when we’re feeling particularly bitter and put-upon. Hawke equals her performance, allowing Jesse’s entire demeanor to change in relation to Celine’s mood; after years together, he can predict what’s coming and maneuver to calm the storm. Their unerring take on couplehood is often unsettling, and it brings authenticity to every scene.

Warts and all, Before Midnight is a sort of miracle. It revisits beloved characters with subversive honesty, embraces mid-life without pretending it to be something other than what it is, and finds value in the struggle to remain inspired by your own love.

Verdict-4-0-Stars