First Reformed (2017)
★★★ / ★★★★
The first thing I noticed about the character drama “First Reformed” is its alarming cleanliness. Notice how the inside of the church is extremely well-lit and spotless—like heaven’s light itself forbids imperfection from anything it shines on, how the minister’s home is lacking furniture as if the austerity’s sole purpose is simply so that dust would not settle on extraneous surfaces, how the waiting room of a neighboring church’s pastor commands the impersonality of a hospital. Clearly, these purposeful images is an invitation. Writer-director Paul Schrader wants us to take note of the tidiness, symmetry, and organization of every room. He pushes us to feel uneasy and to examine closely the growing darkness thrumming just beneath the picture-perfect facade.
The work unfolds like silent thriller but a drama at its core. Ethan Hawke plays a minister named Ernst Toller whose life has been in shambles ever since his son’s death in Iraq—followed by his marriage’s dissolution. To numb it all, he drives himself to alcoholism; and despite finding blood in his urine, he continues to postpone a doctor’s visit. Does his suffering come with a purpose? Toller is a fascinating character and Hawke plays him with graceful intensity. When the camera is up close and there is no escape, we can almost feel the demons writhing inside this man. We wish to understand him, to pull him out of his hopelessness even though deep inside we know—and he knows—it is probably too late. In the meantime, Toller is approached by a pregnant woman (Amanda Seyfried) whose husband (Philip Ettinger) does not want them to have the baby.
It is bizarre that the material offers environmental messages—which enraged and fascinated me. On the one hand, I agree that, as residents of this planet, we can do a whole lot more to take care of plants, animals, oceans, and untouched lands. We should be mindful of the trash we make and where we put them. We should take action in making sure that our government works for us rather than with money-driven corporations. Climate change is a fact, not an opinion or an interpretation.
Yet despite these, nearly everything about it is so heavy-handed that at times I felt like these well-intentioned messages overshadow the rich character study. I grew impatient. I caught myself wondering where it is going or if it is even going anywhere. On the other hand, it is interesting because eventually the astute screenplay finds a way to tie them into Toller’s increasingly skewed psychology. Maybe emphasis on the environment does need to feel so extreme so that we can appreciate the subject’s fragile mind and spirit. The atonal approach did not work for me completely.
Toller keeps a journal and in it he writes down events of each day for a year. I enjoyed how the film adapts the format of diary; nearly every scene is just another day—sometimes something important happens and other times it is merely composed of meeting with people and continuing to plan a celebration for the church. (The First Reformed Church is about to have its 250th anniversary.) Although a slow burn, there is urgency in each day. We get a sense early on that it is building up to a crucial event—and it does not disappoint.
“First Reformed” is not for the impatient viewer. It is, however, for those who delight in peeling off each layer with a keen eye. On a surface layer, it is a story about a man in crises: his relationships with fellow man and God, his health, his faith, his purpose as a man of the cloth as well as just a man with many flaws. On a deeper layer, it tasks us to consider our morality and our actions.
At one point, Toller offers advice: “Wisdom is holding two contradictory truths in our mind, simultaneously, hope and despair. A life without despair is a life without hope. Holding these two ideas in our head is life itself.” As an individual, do you intend to live your life closer to hope or closer to despair? And what about your actions? Do they reflect your intentions?
24 Hours to Live (2017)
★★ / ★★★★
Here is yet another action fare that offers standard shootouts and vehicular crashes propelled by a curious premise that dips its toes on sci-fi territory. Although this type of material can work, it is not effective in this instance because the idea is treated like a plot convenience rather than one to be explored either as is as a neat idea or as a metaphor for something else—like how our time is currency, for example. What results is a mindless action picture that fails to challenge the viewer. We deserve better.
Ethan Hawke leads the cast as Travis, a contract assassin who remains in mourning over the death of his wife and child. At the night of their passing’s anniversary, the killer on extended vacation is approached by a friend (Paul Anderson), now working for a multi-billion-dollar firm, for a job that would pay a million dollars. The assignment involves the assassination of a whistleblower (Tyrone Keogh), protected by an international agent (Qing Xu), who is about to deliver a deposition to the United Nations against the firm. The task appears to be straightforward and so the hitman-for-hire accepts the job.
Hawke attempts to elevate the material by committing thoroughly to the role. He utilizes his dramatic chops to generate interest in a generic screenplay, to give the poorly written character a semblance of dimension, and to make the sudden shifts between drama and action appear fluid. Despite his efforts, it is obvious that the work is without inspiration. Its aim is to deliver shallow entertainment simply by showering the screen with bullets, crashes, intense masculine stares, and explosions supported by rather decent sound design.
There is not one wrinkle in the screenplay that is surprising or particularly moving. In the middle of it, I wondered what compelled the filmmakers to make the movie. Surely they did not expect the project to be embraced by the mainstream without taking bold risks. When Hawke is not on screen, one gets the impression the film is made for cable TV, if that.
It is further crippled by exhausting hallucinations and quick flashbacks. While the former is written into the script with some context, both elements hinder the forward momentum of the material. Notice that in the middle of an action sequence, these appear out of nowhere. Instead of gathering much-needed tension, the situation is reduced to a deflated balloon. I would argue that even if the action sequences were especially creative, disrupting the flow of what is supposed to be a visceral experience would render the material ineffective. The inherent miscalculation in the screenplay is nearly impossible to overcome in this case.
Directed by Brian Smrz, at least “24 Hours to Live” is not so manically edited that we are either unable to figure out what is going on or the choppiness gets under the skin. The staging of the action, particularly those set on narrow roads and highways, is well done. When the excitement stops, however, there isn’t much to grab onto.
Ten Thousand Saints (2015)
★ / ★★★★
Based on the screenplay and directed by Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, “Ten Thousand Saints” is an ambitious drama about youth, friendship, family, New York City on the verge of change, and sacrifices that adults (and soon-to-be-adults) are willing to make for their children, but it is not a successful film because it fails to focus on and explore any one of the subjects it attempts to tackle. What results is a formless picture, bereft of compelling elements that are specific to the characters involved.
After a New Year’s Eve party in Vermont, Jude (Asa Butterfield) suggests that he and his best friend, Teddy (Avan Jogia), get high on freon—the former unaware that the latter had taken some cocaine at the party just a few minutes prior. They lose consciousness amidst the snow and the next morning, both of the boys’ bodies are found—Jude still alive but unable to move, Teddy dead for several hours. Jude’s father, Les (Ethan Hawke), who grows cannabis in NYC as a source of income, invites his son to live with him in the city for a chance to make a change, if Jude wanted, in his life. Soon enough, the surviving teenager meets up with Johnny (Emile Hirsch), Teddy’s elder brother, who lives his life as a Straight Edge—one who makes an active choice in avoiding all drugs, sex, and eating meat.
The picture is shot quite beautifully, highly convincing in showing us different lifestyles of people who do not have much money but are getting by. The interior of homes are so detailed, it is like visiting a real house with many years of memories. This is especially critical when people get into a disagreement or when secrets are revealed. The walls and decorations exude the feeling of becoming more alive over time—that the more experience family and friends go through together, the picture frames, furnitures, figurines, and other knickknacks become all the more embedded in the place of living’s DNA.
Significantly less convincing is the love shared between Jude and Eliza (Hailee Steinfeld), the daughter of the woman (Emily Mortimer) that Les is currently dating. Although the screenplay touches upon the different types of love between them, Jude’s feelings for her are never given a chance to come into focus. As a result, the protagonist is paper thin as a character but has a memorable physicality: bright blue eyes and a lanky frame. He is a quiet young man, but what does he stand for? Why is this specific story worth telling through his eyes? There is a lack of a defined perspective and insight here.
Another lost opportunity comes in the form of failing to delve into teen drug abuse. Although the material addresses the topic quite heavily during the first third, it is almost completely dropped about halfway through. Instead, we get to hear Jude tell another person he longer is into smoking marijuana—and that’s about it. This is inappropriate because he still feels guilty for being an instrument toward his friend’s untimely death. By sweeping the drug angle under the rug as if it were unimportant, the film loses about half of its staying power. The second half drags like nails along a chalkboard.
Based on the novel by Eleanor Henderson, “10,000 Saints” is also about rebellion, whether be in a suburb or a city, but there is a lack of convincing passion amongst its main players. What the film needs is rage and a punk-rock attitude to match its soundtrack in order to ignite the fire underneath the more melodramatic elements. Because it is missing this critical ingredient, the characters are unforgivingly dull, one-dimensional, and forgettable.
Phenom, The (2016)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Those expecting a standard feel-good sports comedy-drama are going to be disappointed with “The Phenom,” written and directed by Noah Buschel, an efficient and haunting character study of a young baseball pitcher whose blossoming career is suddenly endangered because his abusive past has begun to consume him whole. The film is written and shot with great intelligence, insight, a balance of perspicuity and mystery, and humanity from top to bottom, a rarity in the current landscape of the movies where spectacle is valued more often than reality.
Notice the stunning use of silence. Mainstream works are prone to employing soundtrack between moments and even during conversations at times in order to hint at what the character might be feeling or thinking. Here, silence is utilized to highlight the story’s melancholic fog, that even though Hopper (Johnny Simmons) is making millions as an athlete, a dream or goal for many people, he is severely unhappy and no one is genuinely happy for his success. In one way or another, he is envied, especially by his father, Hopper Sr. (Ethan Hawke), who lives vicariously and damagingly through his son’s golden arm.
Hawke is a highly likable and charming performer, and he presents a sympathetic monster here. From the first instance where father and son share a scene and interact, we learn quickly the level of control senior has over junior. When the son is not being insulted, he is being threatened, oftentimes in the form of physical threats but the psychological beatings are equally unbearable and maddening. Hawke and Simmons share excellent chemistry, believable as father and son, predator and prey.
The story has two hearts and both are handled with vitality and a sense of yearning. The first involves Hopper and a sport psychiatrist. Dr. Mobley (Paul Giamatti) attempts to untangle his patient from the vines of depression, inertia, and lack of self-worth. But their exchanges are not inspirational is such a way where the doctor says one line and the patient finds his light out of the blue. It is a process and I appreciated that the screenplay never surrenders to or reduces itself so it could fit into the pitfalls of Movie Psychology 101. Instead, the relationship is, for the most part, built upon the rhythms, beats, and faint pulses of exchanges rather than through what is being outwardly expressed.
The second involves Hopper and a girl named Dorothy (Sophie Kennedy Park), a girl from high school who he liked but messed it up terribly before moving onto professional baseball. A few years ago, there was a movie called “The Spectacular Now,” directed by James Ponsoldt, in which it told the story of two teenagers finding a kind of love in one another. It treated its characters with respect without sacrificing an ounce of complexity. There are elements of that picture here which I found beautiful and craved to see more of.
There are no big games. No inspirational speeches. Not even a scene where the main character flicks a switch in his mind and works hard to turn everything around. It offers instead a final scene where the son is willing to face his father at his worst. And Hopper Jr. is not afraid, not even remotely ashamed of his old man. Some may quickly and foolishly label the scene as depressing. I found it to be deeply humanistic and optimistic. Notice there is no silence between them—at least not the kind that cripples, torments, nor poses a threat. And sometimes that’s enough of a first step toward a better tomorrow.
★ / ★★★★
“Regression,” written and directed by Alejandro Amenábar, suffers from a lack of genuine intrigue considering that it is inspired by real-life events in the early 1990s when reports of Satanic rituals have spiked. Just about anyone who has taken an undergraduate psychology course should be able to see through the bewilderingly predictable facade. And by doing so, the so-called twist in the film is not only expected but it takes unbelievably long to get there.
The story revolves around a detective named Bruce Kenner (Ethan Hawke) who leads an investigation in a religious small town. Angela (Emma Watson) claims to have been sexually molested by her father (David Dencik) for about a year and has been since living in a church after telling the police what had happened. The suspect is apprehended, questioned, and eventually confesses to the crime, but there is a catch: An alcoholic, John has no memory of what he he had done, allegedly, to his daughter. A professor, Dr. Raines (David Thewlis), an expert in regression therapy, is brought on board to excavate the man’s hidden memories.
A highly simplistic script is one of the film’s main problems. As a result, when characters show up on screen, the viewers are not pushed into a convincing reality—whether it be in terms of the look and atmosphere of the small town or how the players engage with one another. Just about everyone talks the same way and so it fails to give an impression that the story being told is happening in a specific town with specific ways of life.
The level of believability is tantamount to the success or failure of the picture exactly because the material is inspired by actual phenomena. It does not help that some of the casting is completely wrong. For instance, Watson, while trying a lot, sometimes too much, to emote, is not a believable small town girl. Notice that even when they put her in very drab, plain-looking clothing, there remains something regal and polished about her. This is not the performer’s fault—even though there are times when Watson fails to match Hawke’s effortless intensity—but the casting directors’, Jina Jay and Jason Knight.
It would have been far more effective if an unknown or a relatively unknown actor had been cast, preferably one who is a chameleon. Angela should have had an air of mystery and unpredictability to the point where we cannot predict what she is really thinking or feeling at a given time. Here, acting-wise, Watson does not exhibit enough range to communicate the little complexities of what Angela undergoes. Watson seems distracted—perhaps because she is attempting to modulate a convincing American accent while trying to evince the exact emotions the script requires.
There is not enough discussions, contexts, and subtexts about psychology, science, police work, and religion—how they meld into one another to make this specific story worth telling. The picture suffers greatly from a plethora of generalities that at times the viewers cannot be blamed for feeling like the writer-director has not put in enough effort to make his vision into a memorable, curious, horrifying experience.
Good Kill (2014)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Although a member of the U.S. Air Force, Major Thomas Egan (Ethan Hawke) has not been on a plane as a fighter pilot for years. Instead, he is a part of the Unmanned Combat Air Vehicle (UCAV) stationed in Nevada, controlling drones from halfway across the world. Already unhappy with where his career has ended up, he begins to question whether it is morally right to keep performing his job after the CIA becomes a significant part of his unit’s missions.
Written and directed by Andrew Niccol, “Good Kill” tells an unexpectedly engaging portrait of a man who controls military drones while sitting in an air-conditioned shipping container in the middle of a desert. This is due to a powerful and focused screenplay that highlights the impersonalization of war from several angles. During the film, we are forced to ask ourselves: If we are given the chance to kill someone, for whatever reason or none at all, from halfway across the world—to watch them die, to observe their burnt and crumpled bodies, likely to be in pieces, can we do it?
Hawke has a gift for playing characters with clipped wings. In Niccol’s modern science fiction classic “Gattaca,” Hawke plays a man who dreams of visiting space but is restricted from doing so because he is genetically imperfect. Only the best of the best are able to go up there. Here, he plays a man who wishes to pilot a fighter plane once again but technology has gotten so advanced over the years that it is deemed there is no need to take such unnecessary risks. Instead, he sits behind a computer as if he were a kid playing a video game—the key difference being that every action he takes has real-life, very often fatal, consequences.
Just about every scene hinges on Hawke’s body language. Major Egan is a quiet man. Even when he speaks, his words tend to say very little, much to the frustration of his wife (January Jones). Thus, it depends on us to observe closely what his body is saying given a situation. For instance, notice how he walks toward the shipping container where he is required to do a job he detests. He looks fatigued, dejected. He might as well have weights tied around his ankles. When at home, his eyes are rarely present, always staring at something very far away—as if in mourning of the man he used to be.
Hawke builds a dramatic gravity through body language, a task not at all easy to accomplish. This is proven by his co-star, Jones, who is by far the worst performer on screen. Just about everything she does looks forced and fake: the looks of worry, the tears, the feelings of abandonment. When she is on screen, the material drags a bit—a stark contrast against Hawke’s subtle and effective performance. While Jones is beautiful physically, it is a challenge to relate to her thoroughly because of her inauthentic acting.
Appropriately, the film is at its most powerful during the missile strikes. We watch the monitor closely as we hear the characters perform checks and countdowns. We look at the people being targeted. We look at the surroundings. Complications happen. Mistakes cannot be taken back. Unlike a video game, you cannot simply push a button and restart from the last save point. Instead, you take the dire mistakes with you and they fester in the mind.
★★ / ★★★★
Constantly wondering of the kind of places and lifeforms outside of Earth, Ben (Ethan Hawke) dreams about a circuit board one night and draws it out the moment he wakes up. On the way to school, he shows the image to his best friend, Wolfgang (River Phoenix), who reckons himself as a scientist. Soon enough Wolfgang is able to built it and discovers that the chip creates a force field capable of traveling long distances at high speed.
“Explorers,” written by Eric Luke and directed by Joe Dante, generates a sense of wonder during the first half but offers a disappointing final thirty minutes when the junior high students actually meet the long-awaited extraterrestrials. It works best when Ben, Wolfgang, and Darren (Jason Presson) are interacting—trying to figure out what to do with their discovery—because the characters have different and colorful personalities that children and pre-teens can relate with.
Ben is the dreamer, Wolfgang is the pragmatist, and Darren lives in the moment. Sometimes these personalities clash but not in a way that it creates big drama and impedes the story’s forward momentum. The clash is often dealt with humor and so we get a chance to appreciate their friendship despite their disagreements. The script is written in such a way that we believe there is a good reason why the boys are friends.
There is a misplaced romantic subplot between Ben and a girl classmate. I found it to be forced, silly, and cheesy. Although I believed that the dreamer is at an age when he is beginning to notice the allure of the opposite sex, not once is the girl given anything interesting to do or say. As a result, she comes across more than an object than an actual person with real thoughts or ideology. It is most amusing when Wolfgang rolls his eyes every time his friend goes girl-crazy.
The special and visual effects are dated based on today’s standards but they retain a level of charm nonetheless. One can argue that such a quality works for the film as it ages because the story is more about imagination than showcasing the most crisp, first-rate images. When I was a kid, I did not care whether a movie or television show looked old; what mattered was the energy, the story, whether the characters encountered a lot of surprising dangers and last-minute saves.
The aliens ought to have been more interesting. Although there is irony in the eventual crossing of paths between extraterrestrials and human children, the tone is far too comedic. Gone is the sense of wonder and curiosity established in the former half. The personalities of the trio feel diluted instead of more concentrated. They are overshadowed by the creatures instead of them getting a chance to ask questions and to explain how humans are like divorced from what the aliens expect.
Still, the picture is imaginative enough to be worthy of seeing at least once. Children, especially boys, who are interested in spaceships and aliens are likely to enjoy the little adventure that the main characters go through.
★★ / ★★★★
One of the eleven time-traveling agents, only known as The Barkeep (Ethan Hawke), goes back to 1975 to catch and kill the “Fizzle” Bomber, responsible for many deaths across time. In this case, failure to stop him in 1973 will result in losing eleven thousand lives. The Barkeep makes small talk with a writer (Sarah Snook) with a fascinating story to tell, beginning with her life as an orphan up until her female-to-male transition.
“Predestination,” written and directed by Michael Spierig and Peter Spierig, offers a strong first half, highly unpredictable in terms of the world the characters inhabit and also from a storytelling standpoint. One comes to believe that the core of the story is the hunt for a terrorist and so we come to expect a thrilling, action-packed picture with many classical twist and turns involving time travel. Instead, from the moment the writer begins to recollect her difficult and painful past, we are thrusted into a story with a lot of heart, insight and intelligence.
I wished that The Spierig Brothers were able to maintain the spirit of the former half. The picture is obviously inspired by Andrew Niccol’s brilliant “Gattaca” in that one of the main characters is so driven to succeed, he is willing to go through whatever it takes to reach his goal. Snook plays her character with a real sense of anger and frustration with the world. Going through the detailed flashbacks, we learn exactly what makes him tick.
The second half is ridiculous, ludicrous and, quite frankly, nonsensical. Although I suspected that something like it is going to transpire because I have seen my fair share of egregious movies involving time travel, I so badly wanted to believe that the material would avoid the headache-inducing clichés. This is because the first forty-five minutes or so shows a genuine sense of creativity, verve, and a willingness to tell a story that may just stand the test of time.
Looking at the final act of the movie, observant viewers will recognize that twists without explanations are not satisfying. The screenplay’s laziness upset me because I was so engaged in the stories of the writer and the barkeep. By the end, I felt as though my time was wasted because the writer-directors had no clue how to finish their story, brimming with potential, in a manner that felt exactly right.
The look of the film, despite being set across time, offers nothing special, but the elegant way in which it lures us into wanting to discover its secrets more than makes up for its lack of visual stamp. What is unforgivable, however, is the messy final thirty minutes, so confused in what it wants to convey, one gets the feeling that the Spierig brothers simply put everything in a pot and hoped that enigma or genius would appear out of the steam.
White Fang (1991)
★★★ / ★★★★
Scott Conroy’s son, Jack (Ethan Hawke), goes to Alaska during the Gold Rush to look for a man named Alex Larson (Klaus Maria Brandauer) to ask if he can lead the way to his father’s claim. Alex is reluctant to take the young man, but his friend, Skunker (Seymour Cassel), is immediately taken with Jack because he resembles his father so much: To refuse the boy’s wishes is almost tantamount to declining a favor for their friend who had passed away too soon. With a dead body in tow, which is to be buried in a special spot, the three traverse toward a town relatively close to Scott’s mine. Meanwhile, hungry wolves spot the dogs that help carry the trio’s belongings.
Based on a novel by Jack London, “White Fang” is an equal conflation of a survival story in the harsh wilderness and friendship between man and beast. It is sensitive but never sentimental, a rousing adventure story that is in touch with the majesty of nature.
While the snowy terrain is not particularly impressive, the picture comes alive when the wolf-dog cub finally makes an appearance. As White Fang explores his environment for the first time, it is as though the filmmakers are putting us in the youngling’s eyes as it experiences the magic of natural wonders for the first time, from a cavern covered with scintillating ice to fish stuck in muddy waters desperately attempting to escape from being eaten by the cub. The tender, childlike moments provide a wonderful contrast against dark and genuinely scary moments like when a ravenous pack of wolves realize that their prey are vulnerable and slowly begin to close in on Jack, Alex, and Skunker.
The friendship between White Fang and Jack does not feel hackneyed because they spend the majority of the time apart. Although they meet when the wolf-dog is still small, it is not until later on when White Fang is hardened by his owners (Pius Savage, James Remar) that their bond begins to have life, complexity, and depth.
The material poses interesting questions such as whether learned cues and motor responses, like a man picking up a stick and the animal going into a fit of rage, can be unlearned. If so, as to what extent can such responses be unlearned? Will it be temporary? Is it person-specific? I do not know much about wolf-dog behavior and intelligence, but I appreciated that the film is able to answer its questions with clarity. Because it gives us a chance to understand what is happening and why, it feels like we are growing alongside Jack and White Fang.
Furthermore, I enjoyed that the passage of time almost feels seamless. There is audacity in scenes that are really short. Whenever the point is made, it is onto the next scene. I felt as though my time is being valued and not enough movies bother to communicate that.
Directed by Randall Kleiser, “White Fang” can appeal to both children and adults. While there are some disturbing scenes like a dead body being pushed out of a coffin and violent dogfights where dogs eventually lie lifeless on the ground, I believe that kids and adults, especially those who love pets, will ultimately appreciate the theme of a person loving and caring for another non-human being. It is entertaining not because the material is cute and sugary but because there is honesty behind the plot devices.