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The title of this film, Juliet, Naked, is a nod to The Beatles’ release of Let It Be … Naked, a stripped-down version of that album. In this movie, Juliet, Naked is a demo version of an album recorded by a fictional indie-rock star, Tucker Crowe (Ethan Hawke).

I can’t think of a more appropriate role for Hawke at this point in his career. Over the last couple of decades, he’s grown into one of the best actors on the planet. He had promise in the first act of his career, but he was a little annoying, self-important and boring … like the younger version of Tucker Crowe. But he’s older now, and so is his character in this movie, a reclusive star who retreated into obscurity after a bad breakup. That part isn’t autobiographical—Hawke has been pretty active throughout—but there are fun parallels between Hawke and Tucker Crowe.

Rose Byrne plays Annie, the girlfriend of mega-Crowe fan Duncan (Chris O’Dowd). When a demo of Crowe’s album winds up in their home, it receives opposing reviews from the two on the Internet—with Annie’s being far more critical. Crowe responds to her review, and the two strike up a kinship that’s far more plausible than it seems on paper.

The three stars are great, especially Hawke. One of the funniest things about the movie is Byrne trying to obscure her pregnancy during filming—a lot of travel bags obscure her baby bump). It’s like that season of Seinfeld when Julia Louis-Dreyfus was pregnant.

The movie is adapted from a novel by Nick Hornby, which is no surprise—because it is insightful, witty and entertaining.

Juliet, Naked is available via online sources including iTunes and Amazon.com; it will be available on DVD and Blu-ray on Nov. 13.

Published in DVDs/Home Viewing

Ethan Hawke is on fire in First Reformed, a return to form for writer-director Paul Schrader, the man who penned Taxi Driver and Raging Bull—and directed American Gigolo 38 years ago.

Hawke plays the Rev. Ernst Toller, a priest in an historical church located in upstate New York. Toller holds up well in front of his congregation, but behind the scenes, he’s a mess: He’s an alcoholic; he is haunted by the loss of his son; he’s stricken with self-imposed loneliness; and he may have cancer.

When a congregation member (Amanda Seyfried) requests he speak to her husband (Philip Ettinger), a manically depressed environmentalist, it sparks something within Toller. He starts to doubt his place in the world, the hypocrisy of his religious organization, and his own ability to lead. His chief religious adviser, the Rev. Joel Jeffers (an excellent Cedric the Entertainer, aka Cedric Antonio Kyles), tells him he’s worried—and the downward spiral accelerates.

I have said it before, and I’ll say it again: Hawke just gets better with age. He makes Toller as memorable of a character as Taxi Driver’s Travis Bickle. It’s a barnburner performance in a stunner of a movie.

First Reformed is available via online sources including iTunes and Amazon.com; it’s available on DVD and Blu-Ray on Aug. 21.

Published in DVDs/Home Viewing

There isn’t a single wrong note in Maudie, an alternately heartbreaking and uplifting biography film about the life of Canadian painter Maud Lewis (Sally Hawkins).

After answering an ad seeking a housekeeper in Nova Scotia, Maud, stricken with arthritis since she was a child, winds up in the house of miserable-bastard Everett Lewis (Ethan Hawke, delivering yet another monumental performance). The two wind up married, but it’s no fairytale: Everett has some major, major issues that Maud must contend with, and when Maud finds fame with her sweet paintings, Everett becomes an even bigger jerk.

Director Aisling Walsh, working from a script by Sherry White, makes a lot of interesting choices in depicting the couple—and Hawkins and Hawke make them all work.

Hawkins is a true Oscar contender for her work here, and while the role of Maud requires a difficult and strenuous physical performance, the light in her voice gives her Maud an illuminating quality. The humor always shines through, and it’s breathtaking how good she is.

Hawke never gives up on his character’s unrelenting stubbornness; he’s afflicted with a permanent scowl. He could find himself in the Oscar race as well.

If there’s an underlying message to this movie, it’s this: If you love somebody, you’d better damn well act like you mean it before it’s too late.

Maudie is now playing at the Palm Desert 10 Cinemas (72840 Highway 111, Palm Desert; 760-340-0033). It opens Friday, July 7, at the Camelot Theatres (2300 E. Baristo Road, Palm Springs; 760-325-6565).

Published in Reviews

Horror fans know director Ti West for his cult-classic horror film The House of the Devil, as well as V/H/S, The Innkeepers and The Sacrament.

His latest, starring Ethan Hawke and John Travolta, is a major departure: In a Valley of Violence is a capable, full-on homage to Sergio Leone Westerns.

Hawke plays Paul, a drifter who finds himself in a frontier ghost town with few remaining inhabitants. He and his dog immediately get into trouble with Gilly (James Ransone), the son of the town marshal (Travolta). Bad things transpire (think John Wick set in the old Wild West), and Paul sets out for revenge. The resulting gunfights are nicely staged, accentuated by good work from Hawke, Travolta and Ransone.

While Hawke is always reliable these days, Travolta’s film career has been on a bit of downslide (one of several his career has endured). His performance here as a semi-crooked lawman with a small streak of decency is actually funny at times, and is his best work in a film in more than five years. (It must be noted that he was also quite good as Robert Shapiro in The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story.)

The film’s biggest surprise is Taissa Farmiga, who provides solid comic relief as a fast-talking hotel operator.

West does admirable work in the Western genre. The movie doesn’t feel all that original or groundbreaking, but it does look good and has some solid acting, plus it mixes in some nice dark, humor for an overall good time.

In a Valley of Violence is now playing at the Palm Desert 10 Cinemas (72840 Highway 111, Palm Desert; 760-340-0033). It is also available on demand and via online sources including iTunes and Amazon.com.

Published in Reviews

Director Antoine Fuqua’s remake of The Magnificent Seven (which itself was a remake of Seven Samurai) has enough in common with the Yul Brynner/Steve McQueen original to make it feel like a re-telling of the classic story. It also contains enough departures from the original to make it feel like a fresh take.

The Mexican bandits led by Eli Wallach in the original are replaced by an evil, land-stealing company led by a man named Bartholomew Bogue. As played by Peter Sarsgaard, Bogue is a memorable villain who makes skin crawl. He rolls into a mining town; kills a bunch of good, hard working people; and winds up getting the grouping in the movie’s title opposing his ass. Let the spectacular gunfights commence!

Fuqua pal Denzel Washington (they also worked together on The Equalizer and Training Day) is first-rate as Chisolm, basically Brynner’s role from the 1960 classic. When the wife of one of the deceased (Haley Bennett) comes looking for help and mentions Bogue’s name, Chisolm flies into calm, collected and valiant action. He enlists six other men to visit the town and prepare the townspeople for the fight of their lives.

The Magnificent Seven include Chisolm, scheming alcoholic gunslinger Faraday (Chris Pratt), the knife-wielding Billy Rocks (Byung-hun Lee), Confederate sharpshooter Goodnight Robicheaux (Ethan Hawke), mountain man Jack Horne (Vincent D’Onofrio), Vasquez the “Texican” (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo) and Comanche Red Harvest (Martin Sensmeier).

Each member of the cast does a nice job of building a character in the 133-minute film. Hawke (who also frequents many Fuqua films) is especially good as the once-heartless sharpshooter who now has a case of the Jon Voight-in-Deliverance shakes when he tries to kill a living thing. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it here again: Hawke is the most improved actor I’ve witnessed in my years of reviewing movies. This guy used to be the worst thing on a movie screen, and now he is one of the best.

Pratt scores laughs as the slightly racist, Archie Bunker-with-a-pistol member of the crew. D’Onofrio is equally funny, sometimes employing a high-pitched voice, as a man of honorable means who will crush your face with his boot if you steal from him.

Fuqua most certainly knows how to stage an action scene, and the action scenes in this one are absolutely thrilling. Every gunfight is expertly staged and beautifully tense, especially the final standoff. I was reminded watching this movie that if it weren’t for that final battle in the original The Magnificent Seven, we wouldn’t have had those final battles in Blazing Saddles and The Three Amigos.

While the film somehow scored a PG-13 rating, it’s worth noting that it is still very violent. There are not only a lot of gun deaths in this movie; there is some serious stabbing and slashing with knives and forks and things. I was actually surprised by how brutal the film was. I guess the MPAA has some sort of blood-volume criterion, and a movie can stab and shoot as much as it wants as long as no more than two quarts or so of fake blood is spilled. By my eye, this sucker is an R-rated movie.

If anything takes the film down a notch, it’s the all-too-clean production values. The sets often look like something out of Disney’s Frontierland, and the costuming is a little too clean and spiffy. I prefer Westerns that are a little grittier (Eastwood’s Unforgiven being the high watermark).

The Magnificent Seven gets the fall movie season off to a good start. It’s actually the sort of well-cast, thrilling blockbuster we often would see in the summer, and it gives the old time Western genre a decent addition.

The Magnificent Seven is playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews

Ethan Hawke plays legendary jazz-musician Chet Baker in Born to Be Blue, a gritty work about the man’s trumpet-playing comeback after he took a severe beating to the face.

Hawke just keeps adding to his list of great performances; this one might be his most ambitious. He learned how to play trumpet for the movie, impressively miming to the music on the soundtrack. He also captures the essence of a man addicted to a dangerous drug—a good man who is slowly killing himself.

Carmen Ejogo plays Jane, a combo-character depicting various women in Baker’s life. She does a nice job of showing the kind of patience required to deal with an addict.

The movie also contains some of the best and most-contentious scenes between a father and son I have seen in recent years: Stephen McHattie has just a couple of scenes as Baker’s dad but, man, are they memorably nasty. Miles Davis (Kedar Brown) was a devastating presence in Baker’s life, and he’s effectively depicted here.

I play the trumpet, and have played for many years. It’s a complex instrument, and director Robert Budreau and Hawke do a nice job of portraying those difficulties. I had a big gap in my teeth when I was younger, and it made playing the instrument hard. Baker had a missing tooth in his heyday, and dentures in his latter career. He still sounded cooler than most.

Much of the film (like the recent Miles Davis biopic Miles Ahead) is fictitious, but that’s no matter. There’s a spirit to this movie that is very real.

Born to Be Blue opens Friday, April 15, at the Cinémas Palme D’Or (72840 Highway 111, Palm Desert; 760-779-0730).

Published in Reviews

Ethan Hawke plays an alcoholic drone pilot in Good Kill, an intriguing drama from director Andrew Niccol.

Maj. Thomas Egan (Hawke), a former pilot, now spends his days and nights remotely killing the enemy: He commands drones with a joystick, taking orders from his commander (Bruce Greenwood) and never putting himself at actual risk.

The situation leaves Egan bored, stressed out and reliant on alcohol; this creates problems at the workplace and at home with his wife, Molly (a strong January Jones). When the CIA steps in and takes over Egan’s operations, things get a little shady—and Egan is pushed over the edge.

What makes this movie work is the performance of Hawke, who just gets better and better with each movie. His Egan shows a believable combination of extreme guilt and a newer form of battle fatigue. Jones matches Hawke with her performance, and Greenwood strengthens the cast.

Niccol, who worked with Hawke on Gattaca, makes up for the recent misfire that was The Host, a Saoirse Ronan disaster. This is a different kind of war movie for a different kind of war.

Good Kill is available on demand and via online sources including Tunes and Amazon.com. It’s also now playing at the Cinémas Palme d’Or (72840 Highway 111, Palm Desert; 760-779-0430).

Published in Reviews

There’s already a pretty awesome movie on the boards in 2015: Predestination is an ingenious time-travel thriller that’s guaranteed to totally mess with your head.

Ethan Hawke plays The Barkeep, a time-traveling law officer in search of a serial bomber who is destined to cause a lot of damage in 1975. Sarah Snook plays a character called The Unmarried Mother; to discuss her role any further would spoil a lot of the fun.

I will say that both Hawke (who just gets better with age) and Snook are outstanding in this film. Snook, at times, is unrecognizable. She’s a relative newcomer, and this film could be the start of some great things for her—if people manage to see this film, that is.

There have been a lot of good movies that have played with time travel and paradoxes in the last few years, but this one goes to inconceivable extremes. By the time it’s all over, you’ll be a little shocked about what you just saw.

Special Features: There are some decent features that come along with the iTunes purchase. Bringing Predestination to Life contains multiple featurettes on the making of the film. There’s also a blooper reel that provides some nice comic relief after watching this very dark movie. Let me make this clear: Do not watch the special features before watching the movie!

Predestination is available via online sources including iTunes and Amazon.com.

Published in DVDs/Home Viewing

A lot can go wrong when you film a movie on and off for more than 12 years. Cast members can die; the director can lose his drive and quit, etc.

However, everything turned out just fine with Boyhood, writer-director Richard Linklater’s amazing cinematic undertaking. It doesn’t feel like experimental or stunt filmmaking; it’s just a great-looking, terrifically acted, tremendously moving film made progressively over 12 years.

It’s an amazing thing to see young Mason (Ellar Coltrane, who we first see to the joyous strains of Coldplay’s “Yellow”) go from a wide-eyed 5-year-old boy staring at the sky to an 18-year-old college kid dealing with girls and big life decisions. It’s equally fascinating to watch Ethan Hawke, playing Mason’s father, go from Training Day Hawke to The Purge Hawke within the course of two hours and 45 minutes.

We also see Linklater’s daughter Lorelei playing Samantha, Mason’s sister; and Patricia Arquette as Mom, putting in her best performance since she graced the screen as Alabama in True Romance. All of the performers go through beautiful and awkward stages, aging before our eyes without the aid of special-effects makeup.

All of this would mean relatively little if it were at the service of a bad screenplay. Happily, Linklater has delivered the sort of observational, honest, enlightening screenplay that made his School of Rock and Dazed and Confused such endearing films. While there have been great films about adolescence, family turmoil and growing up (with Linklater being the architect of a few), never before has one film captured the essence of “boyhood” quite like this.

Mason has three different dads in this movie, the first being the biological father played by Hawke. Hawke brings a bohemian charm to the well-meaning but somewhat flaky character; he’s basically a good man who didn’t have what it takes to last with Arquette’s mom. While he isn’t there every day, he remains an important force in Mason’s life.

As Mason’s first stepdad, Marco Perella delivers a chilling depiction of alcoholism, unlike any I have ever seen onscreen. We first see him as Mom’s charming college professor, and ultimately see him in a visceral, frightening sequence as a man out of control in front of his family. Perella worked on the film for three years, and his snarky disintegration into alcoholic madness is deserving of Oscar consideration.

Arquette is brilliant as the mother who makes a few mistakes along the way (her third husband isn’t much better than the first two), yet she keeps on chugging. She has a breakdown scene when Mason is heading off to college to which many moms will relate.

It’s fun to see both Hawke and Arquette at Mason’s high school graduation party. While they surely aren’t Coltrane’s real parents, they probably attained some sort of honorary aunt and uncle status, having known Coltrane for most of his life.

And what of Coltrane as Mason? How did Linklater know he was casting such an interesting kid when he signed him up? I have no idea, but every moment that Coltrane spends on the screen feels real. I especially liked young Mason’s face when he was getting an unwanted haircut. Coltrane does a great job of showing the pain and tragedy of a haircut no boy wants to display at school.

It must’ve been a crazy day when they wrapped shooting on Boyhood. The resulting product is one of amazing foresight, almost impossible visual consistency, and rewarding performances.

This is a movie that will only be made once. Nobody will ever pull off anything like Boyhood again. Linklater has made a permanent, monumental mark on cinematic history.

Boyhood is now playing at the Camelot Theatres (2300 E. Baristo Road, Palm Springs; 760-325-6565) and the Century Theatres at The River (71800 Highway 111, Rancho Mirage; 760-836-1940).

Published in Reviews

This week, we’re taking a look at the 2013 works of Mr. Ethan “Consistency Is Not My Forte” Hawke.

Jesse (Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) return for Before Midnight, their third movie after Before Sunrise and Before Sunset, and they remain as interesting as ever. After going to Celine’s apartment nine years ago in Paris, the two hooked up for good, with Jesse’s marriage ending.

This third film in the series starts with an amazing scene between Jesse and his son (Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick) in an airport. It builds momentum until an emotionally exhausting ending (in a good way). The movie features Jesse and Celine talking a lot because, well, that’s what they do best.

It also has Jesse and Celine going at each other in a hotel-room argument that’s so vicious, it’s scarier, by far, than anything in Hawke’s recent horror flick, The Purge.

Director Richard Linklater gave us two very romantic movies with the first parts of this trilogy. This one is romantic, too—but it’s romance laced with a harsh dose of reality.

We have been getting a new “Before” movie every nine years. I hope this isn’t the end; whenever these films fade out, I feel like I need another chapter immediately.

Special Features: There’s a fun audio commentary with Linklater, Hawke and Delpy that does the film justice. You also get a question-and-answer session with the trio that suffers from the fact that film-critic Elvis Mitchell is presiding over the event. (I can’t stand that guy!) There is also a short about the revisiting of the characters of Jesse and Celine.


The Purge offers a cool concept … and poor execution.

For 12 hours each year, Americans are allowed to go helter-skelter and commit felonies—including murder—with no legal consequences.

James (Hawke) has made a lot of money by capitalizing on this day and selling-high priced security systems to his neighbors. When he locks down his house on the night of “the purge,” he thinks his home is an impenetrable fortress. Obviously, something is going to go very wrong.

There’s a great idea at this movie’s core, but it degenerates into a home-siege movie in which everybody—and I mean everybody—acts stupidly.

Villains walk around slowly, with guns down and faces up … and the armed people being pursued fail to take them out. It drove me a little crazy—especially when the surprises were not at all surprising.

This premise is ripe for a sequel. I’d like to see a movie in which we are witnessing this fabled purge outside the confines of one house. Hawke gives it a good try, but the film lets him down.

This isn’t even the worst Hawke film of 2013; that honor goes to the horrible Getaway. It’s OK, Ethan: Before Midnight is so damn good that we can forgive the missteps.

Special Features: The only supplement is a behind-the-scenes look at the making of the film that is short and uninformative—not that I need to know much else about this stinker.

Published in DVDs/Home Viewing

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