Ethan Hawke

The Black Phone

24/06/22

Cineworld, Edinburgh

After stepping away from Marvel’s Dr Strange franchise, director Scott Derrickson turns his attention to something entirely different. The Black Phone is a smaller scale project, filmed during lockdown, and is all the more powerful for its tight focus. Derrickson’s screenplay is based on a short story by Joe Hill. Set in Colorado in the 1970s, the grubby, hardscrabble lifestyle of the community in which the story unfolds is convincingly evoked through Brett Jutkiewicz’s stylised cinematography. Be warned, this is a visceral, uncompromising tale that’s not for the faint-hearted.

Finney (Mason Thames) is a teenage boy, struggling to come to terms with a high school that’s dominated by punch-happy alpha males, while simultaneously suffering the brutal ministrations of his alcoholic father, Terrence (Jeremy Davis), who has never properly recovered from his wife’s suicide. Finney’s younger sister, Gwen (Madeleine McGraw), also comes in for beatings from Terrence and is prone to having mysterious dreams, which seem to offer clues to the identity of ‘The Grabber,’ a local boogie man who has been kidnapping young boys from the area over a long period.

No trace of his victims has ever been found.

And then, inevitably, Finney himself falls prey to The Grabber (Ethan Hawke) and finds himself locked up in a dingy basement, awaiting an unknown fate. On the wall beside his mattress is the titular phone. It’s out of use, the wire cut through and yet it has an unnerving tendency to ring from time to time – and whenever he answers, Finney finds that the voices on the other end of the line are eerily familiar…

It would be impossible to relate more of the plot without giving away massive spoilers, but suffice to say this is a tale of survival, where Finney must pit his wits against his captor. Derrickson has the good sense to devote plenty of time to character development before the abduction occurs, which means I’m already rooting for Finney and Gwen by the time it happens – and it also helps that the two young leads are so appealing. Hawke submits an uncannily powerful performance as the villain, considering he spends most of the film half-hidden by a series of bizarre face masks. The sense of dread throughout the story is palpable. The jump-cut is a regular narrative device in this kind of film, but there are some here that are so impeccably timed they have me almost out of my seat on a couple of occasions.

The overall atmosphere is enhanced by a kicking 70s soundtrack and I’m particularly impressed by a lengthy sequence based around Pink Floyd’s On the Run – I suspect that Derrickson has been waiting a very long time for the opportunity to deploy it, but for me it’s one of the film’s high points.

This won’t be to everyone’s taste. Those who deplore screen violence will be sorely tested by many of the scenes unflinchingly depicted here, but if nothing else, The Black Phone offers an encouraging escape from the slice-and-dice mundanity that has dominated the horror genre for far too long.

My advice? Buckle in and give it a whirl.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney

The Northman

19/04/22

Cineworld, Edinburgh

It seems suspiciously like fate. Here I am – only just returned from a week in Shetland, where I’ve been researching Vikings – and this film is waiting for me at the local cineplex. Of course I have to see it. I can’t not see it. But I have some reservations. For one thing, despite the film’s almost indecent rash of five star reviews, I haven’t been exactly enamoured by Robert Egger’s previous offerings, The Witch and (more especially) The Lighthouse, both of which felt like cases of style over content.

It’s clear from the get-go, that The Northman is a big step up for Eggers (who co-wrote the screenplay with Sjon). His evocation of Viking life is vividly painted in freshly-spilled viscera across a massive landscape. The world-building here is dirty, ugly and thoroughly convincing. In the opening scenes, we meet young Prince Amleth (Oscar Novak), welcoming his father, King Aurvandil (Ethan Hawke), back from his conquests. Amleth’s mother, Queen Gudrún (Nicole Kidman), is rather less welcoming and the reason for that soon becomes clear. She has secretly allied with Aurvandil’s brother, Fjölnir (Claes Bang), who is determined to kill Aurvandil and his son, and take Gudrún as his wife.

If the story seems familiar, it ought to. The ancient Scandinavian legend of Amleth is the tale that initially inspired Shakespeare to write Hamlet.

Amleth manages to escape from the bloody mutiny and, when next we meet him, he’s grown into a thoroughly buff Alexander Skarsgård, who, adopted by another tribe, has become a fully-fledged wolf warrior, a berserker. An ensuing battle sequence leaves no femur unshattered, no skull uncleft. Those viewers who wince at bloody violence may prefer to avoid this film at all costs – or spend a lot of time looking away from the screen.

Amleth learns that his uncle Fjölnir has had his stolen kingdom taken from him and has been exiled to Iceland, where he’s attempting to make a new life for himself as a sheep farmer. Gudrún has gone with him and Amleth knows that he must follow. So he disguises himself as a slave (by first branding his chest with a hot coal) and stows aboard a boat taking a consignment of workers over to Fjölnir. On the hazardous journey across the ocean, he meets up with Olga of the Birch Forest (Anya Taylor-Joy), a self-professed earth witch, and quickly falls under her spell.

But can this new love quell the thirst for vengeance that has consumed him since childhood?

The Northman is by no means perfect. It’s at its best when depicting the savage lifestyle of the Vikings and I also love the hallucinatory images that often flood the screen, particularly Amleth’s repeated visions of the legendary Tree of Yggdrasill, where family members are suspended like ripening fruit from its entwined branches. There’s also a spectacular Valkerie ride that carries me headlong to Valhalla.

Kidman, though initially underused, does get one scene that puts an entirely different spin on circumstances and makes me appreciate why she’s a director’s go-to for so many difficult roles. I would also have liked to see more of Willem Dafoe who, as Heimar the Fool, has clearly been drafted in to fill the Yorrick-shaped hole in the piece.

If I have a criticism, it’s simply that the age-old theme of revenge offers little in the way of surprise – indeed, there’s one point in the film’s later stages that seems to offer a braver and less conventional solution to Amleth’s torture, should he be man enough to take it – but, perhaps inevitably, it’s thrown aside and our rugged hero goes back to the well-worn path he’s always been destined to tread. Which makes the final fiery confrontation a little underwhelming.

Still, there’s no doubt that this is Eggers’ most assured film thus far – and I’m definitely interested to see where he goes next.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney

The Truth

12/05/20

Curzon Home Cinema

Hirokazu Koreeda’s first film outside his native Japan is an elegant French affair, a story about the tensions between mothers and daughters, fiction and truth, acting and living. Fabienne (Catherine Deneuve) is a celebrated actress, whose memoir – entitled La Vérité – has just been published. There’s an initial print run of a hundred thousand, she boasts to her daughter, Lumir (Juliette Binoche). ‘Fifty thousand,’ her assistant corrects her, and Lumir rolls her eyes. Such self-aggrandising exaggeration is clearly typical of her mother, and establishes Fabienne’s complicated relationship with ‘truth.’

Lumir lives in New York, where she is a screen-writer. She has a husband, Hank (Ethan Hawke), a TV actor, newly sober after a stint in rehab, and a young daughter, Charlotte (Clémentine Grenier); this is their first visit to Paris for many years. Clearly Lumir and Fabienne have issues to work through.

The storytelling is as elegant as Fabienne’s home furnishings. She has all the trappings of success, including a house that ‘looks like a castle.’ She’s imperious and vain, but complex too: this is no pantomime villain. Just a woman, caught in the gap between the fantasies she performs and the emotional realities she avoids.

The film-within-a-film device is neatly employed, the parallels between Fabienne’s current project, Memories of My Mother (based on a short story by Ken Liu), and the dynamics of her real-life family are subtly – but clearly – defined. In the story, a mother is frozen in time; her daughter ages while she stays the same. Fabienne plays the daughters’s oldest incarnation. But Fabienne and Lumir are frozen too; they’ve never moved past the resentments forged in Lumir’s youth, never resolved their feelings around a cataclysmic event, the death of ‘Sarah,’ Fabienne’s friend (and rival), and Lumir’s confidante. But, as Lumir confronts Fabienne about the distortions in her memoir, we see the glimmerings of a thaw…

Deneuve completely dominates this film, and that’s as it should be: it’s clearly her story. Fabienne is a huge character; everyone is diminished in her presence. Binoche and Hawke make excellent foils, their exasperation and admiration beautifully conveyed.

Koreeda is clearly one to watch; this is an utterly compelling piece of cinema, where not much happens but everything matters.

4 stars

Susan Singfield

 

First Reformed

13/07/18

Paul Schrader is most famous for writing Taxi Driver, Martin Scorscese’s devastating study of a lonely outsider driven to an act of extreme violence – but as a director, he has never really quite hit the mark. There was his fitful remake of Cat People in 1982; his study of the Japanese poet Mishima in 1985; and, more recently, his self-produced film, The Canyons, which attempted (unsuccessfully) to revive the flagging career of Lindsay Lohan. First Reformed arrives in the UK garlanded with praise by the American critics and it certainly represents Schrader’s most assured work as a director, but, perhaps unsurprisingly, the story it most resembles is Taxi Driver. It’s as though he can’t quite shrug off the influence of his finest achievement, even after all these years.

Ethan Hawke plays the Reverend Toller, resident priest of the titular church, an ancient clapboard affair that these days is more a haunt for tourists and souvenir-collectors than an actual congregation. Toller has experienced some misery in his recent past – his son, a soldier, died on active service in Iraq, and Toller’s marriage has subsequently failed because of that loss. It’s clear he’s been given this post mostly out of sympathy and he’s doing his level best to handle the role, but he’s increasingly troubled by the fact that his church is just a small part of a much bigger concern called Abundant Life, whose major benefactor is one Edward Balq (Michael Gaston), a local businessman who has his fingers in some very dodgy – and environmentally damaging – enterprises. To add to his problems, Reverend Toller is suffering from some kind of intestinal cancer and is existing mostly on a diet of whisky and Pepto Bismol.

Then he’s approached by young parishioner, Mary (Amanda Seyfried, taking a break from her usual more lightweight roles). She is pregnant but deeply concerned about her partner, Michael (Philip Ettinger), an environmental activist, who is clearly having doubts about bringing a child into such a troubled world. Toller agrees to talk to the young man and finds himself increasingly agreeing with Michael’s point of view. As events develop, he is also irresistibly drawn to Mary herself. And, as he struggles to deal with that realisation, he begins to contemplate an act of unspeakable violence…

This is an extremely dour and sombre film, shot in desaturated colour and projected in an almost square 1:37:1 ratio. The interiors of Toller’s house are distressingly bare and there’s a strange, almost subliminal score, courtesy of Brian Williams, that seems to amp up the sense of alienation we share with him. Hawke is excellent in the title role and the central premise of the aspirations of the church having to bow down in the face of big business are deftly explored. It’s by no means a perfect film – and I can’t help feeling that some of the praise that’s been lavished upon it may have been somewhat exaggerated – but it’s compelling enough to see you through to its odd and profoundly unsettling conclusion. Is it possible for a priest to maintain his faith in such a corrupt and devastated world? Does religion even have a place in it? Schrader’s film is brave enough to ask the questions, even if it can’t quite supply the answers.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney

The Magnificent Seven

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26/09/16

This was always going to be an important film for me. In 1960, when I was nine year’s old, my father took me to see John Sturges’ original version of The Magnificent Seven. It’s one of the first movies I can remember seeing on the big screen. I recall being thrilled by it and it was certainly instrumental in kindling the flames of what would become a lifelong obsession with all things celluloid. But of course, its storyline (itself inspired by Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai) wouldn’t really fly in this day and age. It tells the story of seven heroic cowboys who come to the aid of a village full of ‘lowly’ Mexican peasants who are being terrorised year after year by a gang of marauding bandits. If somebody was going to remake this particular classic, they would have to find a new approach – and to director Antoine Fuqua’s credit, he’s managed to do that.

If this version of the tale resembles another classic Western, it’s actually High Noon, where a bunch of townsfolk fail to come together to challenge a force of evil. Here, the denizens of Rose Creek are threatened not by bandits but by greedy industrialist Bartholomew Bogue (Peter Sarsgaard, doing the latest in a long line of creepy, evil stinkers). Bogue wants the land on which the town is built so he can mine it for gold and has offered each family a pittance in exchange for what they own. Anyone who  defies him is summarily executed and this includes the husband of Emma Cullen (Hayley Bennett), who, looking for revenge, sets out to recruit some help and chances upon law officer, Chisolm (Denzel Washington) as he goes about his deadly duty. He listens to her tale of woe and finally gets interested when she mentions Bogue. It’s clear from the start that there is some unfinished business between the two men. Chisolm promptly recruits a band of misfit heroes to help him rescue the town… they comprise an ex-confederate sniper (Ethan Hawke), a roguish gambler (Chris Pratt) a Mexican gunslinger (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo) a Chinese knife fighter (Byung Hun-Lee), a native American bowman (Martin Sensmeier) and a shambling mountain man (a barely recognisable Vincent Donofrio).

From there on, it’s pretty much a series of spectacular shootouts, set amidst stunning widescreen locations. (There’s an irony here in that the seven set out to protect Rose Creek and by the film’s conclusion, there’s not much of it left standing, but we’ll let that one go). Critics have complained that the film isn’t realistic (no, really?) but I think they’re missing the point somewhat. As a rip-roaring entertainment, The Magnificent Seven mostly succeeds in its aims and if it doesn’t quite match up to its famous progenitor, well, that was a shootout it was frankly never going to win, because what passed for valour in 1960 is going to look pretty reprehensible in 2016.

My favourite bit of dialogue in this version? Emma Cullen proudly telling the other townspeople that she’s quite clearly the only one with enough balls to take on the bad guys. Give this movie a fighting chance – it’s at least earned the right to that.

4.4 stars

Philip Caveney

 

Maggie’s Plan

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03/08/16

It’s ironic that before the screening of Maggie’s Plan, we’re shown a trailer for Cafe Society, the kind of film that Woody Allen makes now – ironic, because the main feature is the kind of film that he used to make, back at the height of his powers. Greta Gerwig stars as the titular heroine, a self-confessed control freak who believes she has her whole life planned out in advance. Having failed to sustain a meaningful relationship for more than a few months, but deeply addicted to the idea of becoming a mother, she decides to go ahead and have a baby via insemination by Guy (Travis Fimmel) a ‘pickle entrepreneur’ who readily agrees to eschew any notion of parental responsibility. But matters become a bit more complicated when Maggie’s fellow university lecturer, John (Ethan Hawke) asks her if she wouldn’t mind reading some chapters from his novel, a thinly veiled account of his own life and marriage to the highly successful, but  extremely neurotic Georgette (Julianne Moore).

As Maggie and John’s friendship develops, it soon becomes apparent that they are falling for each other and matters are compounded when, inevitably, they sleep together

Three years later, they are a couple with a toddler to look after but Maggie is beginning to realise that this isn’t anything like the kind of rosy future she’d envisaged. As well as her own child, she’s also handling the other kids that John had with Georgette and John is too intent on that blasted novel to pay her any real attention – so Maggie hatches a devious plan to get John and Georgette back together…

The film is a delight, funny, acerbic, beautifully handled by writer/director Rebecca Miller. Gerwig builds on the sterling work she did in Frances Ha and Julianne Moore submits another of her chameleon-like performances, that stays just the right side of caricature. Bill Hader is particularly funny as Maggie’s long-suffering best friend, but to be fair, there’s barely a wrong note anywhere in this movie, which is as light and palatable as a perfectly cooked soufflé. It’s interesting to note that there are no villains in this story, just a collection of people dealing with their own life issues- and there’s a delightful surprise at the film’s conclusion that makes for a truly satisfying ending.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney