05/14/15 9:00am
05/14/2015 9:00 AM |

Good Kill

Good Kill
Directed by Andrew Niccol
Opens May 15

Andrew Niccol’s haunting Good Kill, set in 2010 during the steep escalation in US drone strikes, argues that remotely piloted vehicles make war too easy to wage. Ethan Hawke’s laconically smoldering Tom Egan, an Air Force major, has weathered six combat tours as an F-16 pilot and yearns to get back into the cockpit. “I miss the fear,” he says. Now he sits in a windowless metal container outside Las Vegas glued to a computer screen, wasting suspected jihadists from thousands of miles away with the squeeze of a joystick. He risks only carpal tunnel. The agonizing absence of valor in his toil taxes his marriage and sobriety. He seeks validation in self-destructive insubordination.

The film has the trappings of a conventional service drama. Egan and his wife—a suitably subdued January Jones—live with their children in modular base housing, defying regimented monotony with muscle cars, barbecues, and booze, maintaining Tom Wolfe’s vaunted “even strain.” But if astronauts transcended “spam in a can” ignominy and matched test pilots in daring patriotic glory, comfy drone operators will never have the right stuff. Fair enough, but the script is overly freighted. While the CIA may deserve its infamy, its rules of engagement probably aren’t as egregious as depicted. As Egan’s commanding officer, Bruce Greenwood, a fine character actor, is saddled with salty, cliché-ridden exposition meant to drive home drone operators’ indispensability for killing terrorists before they kill Americans. Actual operators are undoubtedly torn, but likely don’t debate ethics as deeply or piquantly as they do here. The women are essentially props. Still, Good Kill’s workmanlike quality affords it demonstrative credibility. From the American side, drone warfare itself is that way—safe, banal, quotidian, self-perpetuating. It is also insidiously perverse. In time the only thing Egan can do competently and calmly is the very task he hates most: executing drone strikes.

Civilian deaths (“collateral damage”) seem singularly callous when visited from thousands of miles away. They have hurt America’s image. Beyond that, drone strikes infuriate locals and effectively recruit terrorists. But they also arguably reduce civilian casualties overall and are cheaper than more gallant traditional warfare, and they have allowed the United States to back out of Afghanistan and tamp down terrorist threats in Pakistan, Iraq, Yemen, and Somalia. Egan himself sees them as ubiquitous and irrepressible, customizing his lawn so the operators he imagines monitoring his neighborhood can distinguish his house. These considerations justify Good Kill’s tone of weary resignation. Yet the film’s timing as protest is also propitious. On June 1, prompted by outrage among veterans and soldiers over the brief establishment in 2013 of a Distinguished Warfare Medal for drone operators that ranked above the Bronze Star with a “V” and the Purple Heart, the Pentagon is due to release a study on what military decorations drone pilots should be eligible to receive. Traditionalists like Maj. Egan hope it will restore valor’s pride of place in military culture. If so, the motivation to make war with mortal impunity may at least diminish.

03/11/15 6:36am
03/11/2015 6:36 AM |
Image courtesy of Sundance Selects

Seymour: An Introduction

Directed by Ethan Hawke
Opens March 13

Some people just seem to have it all figured out. Seymour Bernstein, as seen in Ethan Hawke’s Seymour: An Introduction, is one of them.

This is a documentary that’s more philosophy than biography. Much like Rivers and Tides, the film about environmental sculptor Andy Goldsworthy, it considers its subject’s musings on art and how the disciplines one develops there can be applied to the rest of life. As recounted in the film, Hawke met the pianist at a time when he was feeling “inauthentic” about his acting, struggling to find what deeper reasons he had for it beyond money and “acting like a big shot.” Bernstein, a once-promising concert player who quit the professional track to teach, provided such comfort that Hawke was spurred to make this film. He didn’t want to tell Bernstein’s story so much as to capture his essence.

It’s likely a cult will grow around Seymour, if not Seymour, which is as charming as its subject but lacks urgency for also being as low-key. Bernstein talks about music as a universal “language of feelings,” and urges his students to respond to Bach and Beethoven as children would, on purely emotional terms, without any knowledge of structure or history. He explains that he quit playing professionally because of the commercial considerations required, but that he still “goes to war” with the art, though now for purer reasons, and on his own terms.

Salinger nod aside, the title is appropriate. Little is learned about great sections of Bernstein’s life: he lives alone, doesn’t seem to have kids or to have ever gotten married. A line about his father having “three daughters and a pianist” hints that he’s gay and wasn’t accepted by his family, but Hawke doesn’t pry. In a moving section, Bernstein describes playing music while stationed in Korea, then breaks down under the weight of memories. It’s one of the rare times that the film is devoid of music, a strong choice by Hawke in a film that otherwise lacks much sense of authorship.

Bernstein seems like a lovely man and a lovely teacher. At one point, a student of Seymour’s says that the focus he’s developed towards music has allowed him to be more responsive to other people. He’s clearly learning.

03/11/15 6:18am
Image courtesy of Lionsgate

Directed by Michael Almereyda
Opens March 13 at the Quad

Shakespeare’s Cymbeline isn’t performed too often in the theater now due to its convoluted plot, and so for his charmingly hybridized film version director Michael Almereyda streamlines the play and uses it as a basis for a fresh, sophisticated, visually inventive work that sets Shakespeare’s characters down in a laidback land of motorcycle gangs and corrupt cops. The DIY aesthetic here uses elements of 80s flash, 90s emo, and more free-floating influences, all wrapped up in a truly bitchin’ score by David Ludwig and Bryan Senti that smoothly grooves from one musical genre to the next, all-inclusively.

Anyone who has suffered through clunky modern-day Shakespeare films like Ralph Fiennes’s Coriolanus (2011) should delight in Almereyda’s poetic fluidity, which is so all-embracing that it can handle the very different acting styles of his eclectic cast. As Cymbeline, who is a head of a motorcycle gang here, Ed Harris reads the verse so authoritatively and clearly that he could probably do a full-scale traditional production of this play, and so Almereyda uses his commanding presence as an anchor. On the other end of the spectrum, Dakota Johnson’s naturalistic Imogen would be entirely out of place in a theatrical context but plays touchingly within the rapidly changing styles of the film. Ethan Hawke’s villainous Iachimo bridges that gap between stage and screen, keeping one foot in both traditions.

Most of the monologues in the play are done as voice-overs, including the famous speech “Fear no more the heat o’ the sun,” which is sung on the soundtrack, and this works quite well. You might wonder why, in a world of iPhones and iPads, everyone is so obsessed with Imogen’s “honor” and “chastity,” and the concluding scene wraps up the plot so conveniently that it can only seem absurd, but Almereyda has such respect and interest in this material that he makes it only lightly absurd, and he purifies it all with a piquant, feminist final shot. Though there is nothing as startling here as the scene in Almereyda’s 2000 film of Hamlet where Ophelia (Julia Stiles) freaks out at the Guggenheim, this unexpected Cymbeline is a model of free Shakespearian adaptation.

12/31/14 9:00am
12/31/2014 9:00 AM |
Photo Courtesy of Stage6

Directed By Michael and Peter Spierig
Opens January 9

There is no movie star who more fully embodies the “one for them, one for me” ethos than Ethan Hawke. In the past year he’s alternated between subtle and challenging work in Before Midnight and various Shakespeare productions, performances that sandwich his sleepwalk through Getaway. How unfortunate that Boyhood, which has him literally moving through the years, should be followed soon after by Predestination, a warmed-over Timecop that seems desperate to be considered a cult item.