good_kill_280x415There’s nothing wrong with morally conscious movies. The problem arrives when morality overshadows character development and overtakes narrative. Good Kill is one of those films that drowns its drama with its own good intentions. The film takes place in 2010 and is “based on actual events,” and man, are we are continuously reminded of that. Writer/director Andrew Niccol never takes the film beyond a tiresome list of questions of morality, carefully bullet-pointed to address nearly every issue of our post-Sept. 11 world. Niccol is once again working with Ethan Hawke, who last appeared in Niccol’s much more interesting war satire Lord of War (2005). In this grimly serious look at warfare, Hawke plays Major Thomas Egan, a frustrated Air Force pilot grounded in the Nevada desert as part of a team piloting a lethal drone over Afghanistan.

Instead of physically flying above his targets, Egan works out of an air-conditioned trailer. The effect for this former F-16 fighter pilot is profound on many levels. Working warfare 9 to 5 and returning home every night to a wife (January Jones) and two kids and a bottle of vodka under the bathroom sink cannot be good for this man’s mental stability. Also, there’s a psychological complexity to the circumstance of being an invisible, untouchable killer in the skies. “At 10,000 feet, even if she looked straight at us, she couldn’t see us,” whispers Egan to a colleague. But there’s another irony. As an F-16 pilot dropping bombs, he flew past targets he could barely see as humans. With drone technology, he can now virtually make out his targets’ faces and has time to spare to count the pieces of humanity left after a missile strike.

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Niccol keeps the action on the pixellated boxes transmitted by the drone’s cameras, but it’s enough to feel the humanity half a world away. It’s about the horror of what these soldiers bear witness to from a distance. There’s a God complex with the fragility of humanity here. It’s a harsh burden to bear. It’s a strong point powerfully and simply made. They use language that speaks to the distance of their actions, when a missile hits in a startling cloud of smoke, a team member announces, “splash.” If it’s on target, Egan announces, “Good kill.” Over his shoulder, a moral voice comes from Lt. Colonel Jack Johns (Bruce Greenwood), who somberly intones, “They don’t call it hell fire for nothing.” But dialogue like that is also where problems arise. The script spends too much time focusing on informing the circumstances of this part of the War on Terror. Every single argument against drone warfare is not just on-screen but explicated to the audience over and over by the film’s protagonists.

Conscientiousness is raised a notch with the addition of Airman Vera Suarez (Zoë Kravitz) and M.I.C. Joseph Zimmer (Jake Abel) who join Egan on missions for the CIA, whose tactics are less concerned about collateral damage. “Did we just commit a war crime, sir?” Suarez asks the colonel with grim cynicism. Then it’s off to lunch. After an argument referencing Hamas, the disdain for the U.S. in countries like Afghanistan and Sept. 11, Zimmer walks away from the table calling Suarez “Jane Fonda.” ThZoe Kravitz (Vera Suarez) and Ethan Hawke (Tom Egan) in Andrew Niccol’s GOOD KILL. Courtesy of Lorey Sebastian. (C) 2014 Clear Skies Nevada LLC. An IFC Films release.ere’s only one way for them to get along better, as suggested by Suarez: a night out in Vegas. This is one of those small details that needs a strong actor to pull off. But Kravitz has yet to rise above her status as the descendant of a more famous person. Though she gives a widely modulated performance, she does not meld the character shifts demanded of her. After an ethically circumspect mission, she allows a single tear to roll down her cheek, while she assesses the aftermath. Later that night, she gets close and flirty with Egan. It’s classic Eros and Thanatos and totally conceivable, but the way Kravitz plays it, Suarez feels like two characters instead of two sides of the same person.

From his anguished relationship with his wife to his anxiety at his job, there is little ambiguity that Thomas is unhappy with his life. Hawke’s character has little space to develop, but he does tap into the humanity of Egan below is discontent. He most genuinely reveals himself in his shaky countdowns to firing the missile trigger. If he’s hard to read at times, it’s because he does “look miles away,” a phrase his wife Molly, ably played by Jones, uses more than once. The only time he flies is in his dreams. Hawke morosely channels the misery of a fighter pilot who has had his wings clipped.

January Jones (Molly Egan) and Ethan Hawke (Tom Egan) in Andrew Niccol’s GOOD KILL. Courtesy of Lorey Sebastian. (C) 2014 Clear Skies Nevada LLC. An IFC Films release.

The idea of exploring drone strikes as an action movie is commendable, but the script by Niccol is overstuffed with crutches that compromise its stakes. The film has excellent ideas. The best of which is how focused the movie is on domestic malaise and the idea of “distance” from war atrocities that might compromise a man’s moral compass.Though Niccol makes the right move visually by keeping to the POV of the drone pilots, he seems just as trapped as they are in executing the movie. Niccol just doesn’t seem to figure out or trust what he can do with action. The filmmaker once showed great talent as a writer/director, but he has not delivered a strong movie since Lord of War, and his freshest, best work (Truman Show [1998] and Gattaca [1997]) remains far in his past. It feels a bit futile hoping for anything better from this writer/director.

I had some hope for Good Kill, but it just felt like a slog, unfortunately weighed down by too much exposition, heavy-handed if sometimes clumsy character development and a startling plot development at film’s end that unforgivably compromises its message. While some might misconstrue the film’s final scene as heroic, everything before it reveals the moment as a nadir with a mixed message that compromises any sympathy for the film’s main character. It could have swung in two different ways and plays with suspense in an almost trivial, manipulative manner, cheapening the film’s tone. Unfortunately, it goes the way of catharsis for all the wrong reasons and ultimately compromises the film’s message. The moral questions become heightened in a way that feels disingenuous and more concerned with pleasing the crowd above exploring what justice means in war. It feels like a big cop-out disguised as open-ended finale.

Hans Morgenstern

Good Kill runs 103 minutes and is rated R (expect disturbing images at a distance, cursing and I&I — “Intoxication and Intercourse,” as Lt. Colonel Jack Johns explains it). It opened this Friday, May 22, in our Miami area at MDC’s Tower Theater and the Cosford Cinema and in Broward at  both Cinema Paradiso Hollywood and Cinema Paradiso in Fort Lauderdale. It’s also now on VOD. IFC provided a DVD screener for the purpose of this review. All images in this review are also courtesy of IFC.

(Copyright 2015 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

BOYHOOD_finalposterIt could have just been written off as some gimmick. But in the hands of director Richard Linklater a film shot over 12 years becomes something much more profound. Boyhood is so much more than an honest chronicle of actors aging over the course of a film. Linklater knows something about developing a story in real-time to achieve a deeper existential snapshot of humanity while still engaging the audience. At one end of the spectrum there is the “Before” series (see my review here). And on the other there are experimental works like Waking Life (2001) and A Scanner Darkly (2006). Let’s also not forget Linklater has a terrific angle on youth, from little kids to high schoolers (Dazed and Confused [1993], School of Rock [2003] and Bad New Bears [2005]). All of his talents in those films blend together elegantly for Boyhood, a film bound to go down in his career as his masterpiece.

What sets this film apart from other family dramas is the liberty granted by time. Growth literally unfolds naturally, unencumbered by contrived obstacles or plot twists. When you consider the dictates of consistent character behavior over a period of years in most movies of such time spans, it demands the viewer suspend disbelief that it was actually shot over a period of a few months (usually a maximum of three). You can have makeup and effects, but a stagey quality, even on a subtle level, still hangs over the action.

Ironically, in Boyhood, what isn’t a special effect has a rather magical effect as real kids and adults grow up in front of our eyes. In Linklater’s sensibly crafted script, the characters are allowed room to be humanly fallible Still7not in a sense that feels necessary to move a plot along but in a feeling honest to becoming a person, which is really what Boyhood is about. Just like growing up should change you, a sense of time passing has a great influence on not just the title character but those who make up his family. They hardly seem to act. It feels like nature or skimming through a family photo album that covers a period of years.

One will be hard-pressed to find a film more concerned with the mundane that can unfold over nearly three hours and remain consistently engaging. Part of it lies in the ever-curious sensation the viewer will feel about watching the actors age, but another part is in the film’s light-handed craft. The plot is easy to sum up: 6-year-old Mason (Ellar Coltrane) grows up over the course of 12 years in a broken home with his similarly-aged sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater) and his mom (Patricia Arquette) while his dad (Ethan Hawke) pops in and out of his life. An imperfect life allows for the perfect drama for the boy at the center of the film. Add a few jerk stand-in father figures, the inevitable awkward transition from child to teenager and the friends and loves who pass through his life, and you have the film. Though Mason endures commonplace obstacles that are hardly the stuff of headlines, much less summer film spectacle, these are the events in life that stick through memory and shape us. Flipping through a lingerie catalog as a boy, breaking into a construction site with friends, finding your mother on the floor with your stepfather standing over her. Linklater treats these encounters with a respect that belies the impact of moments that shape persona. In a sense, Mason is riding the wave of growing up. That he does so with an often composed stoicism, speaks to the discovery of his power as a young man.

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Over the course of the film, the inconsistency of the fleeting nature of persona comes unobtrusively into focus. The idea of innocence lost between the ages of 6 and 18 need not be punctuated with melodramatic events. From our first meeting of the mostly quiet Mason, it is apparent he is a pensive child. His eyes are focused on the sky. As an older teen, he muses aloud about his place in life, the world and the universe and how it all connects. It’s almost as if we are watching the boy learn the language he needed to express himself.

Of course, Linklater does not forget the adults. There are moments for the parents to grow and learn. There’s an undeniable fear of fatherhood coming from the nomadic father. Exactly where he goes to work and live (rumors of Alaska) while Mason and Samantha attend elementary school under the care of their single mom, remains a mystery. All we can see is that the children like him when he’s around and hate to see their parents argue. Mom gets the unromantic raw deal. She spends every moment she can with her children, unlike the spectral father, who the children can easily romanticize in absence. Her desperate attempt to have a father for the kids and a husband for herself leads to some terrible choices. Meanwhile, Dad has a lot of growing up left to do before he can come to any understanding of his role as a father.

None of this could be sold without the acting. From a face loaded with silent wonder to the laid back delivery of Linklater’s script, Coltrane delivers. He approaches his character with a naturalism that feels authentic and endearing. Arquette also deserves a special mention for the thankless role of a mother Boyhood_HiRes_3who cannot seem to get the men right in her life and dishes out unconditional love for her seldom appreciative children, as if it is instinct. She also fluctuates in weight (ed: as does Hawke), but never makes it an issue as she ages with grace as a woman who indeed sacrifices for her children in a heroic manner without any histrionics but with a mix of sympathetic love, fear and duty.

There are many things to consider in the film. The witty cultural reference points from pop songs to the Harry Potter series offer sly time stamps that feel real and genuine. The film’s low-key color palette creates an almost impressionistic effect, inviting the viewer to fill in the blanks with memories of his or her own childhood or memories of their own children they have seen grow up before their own eyes. It’s worth noting that though shot over 12 years, the quality of the image remains consistent. Technology in filmmaking would change so much and so fast over the years this film covers, and Linklater’s decision to shoot in 35mm proved wise. The digital image has grown by leaps and bounds when you consider how dull it looked in 2002.

There are many ways to approach this film, but my favorite is to think of it as the blossoming of a young person’s consciousness. From the silence in the gaze of Coltrane at the start of the film to his rambling musings, which are something out of Waking Life at the end, possibilities seem boundless. Experiences both external and internal have shaped our hero, but there is also a sense of self coming into development. The film is so consistently interesting throughout, from one subtle yet profound growth spurt to the next, that, by the end of it, it will be hard to let these characters go. You almost hope that maybe Linklater will keep following up with these characters with a film about Mason’s adulthood. He surprised us by turning Before Sunrise into a trilogy, after all.

Hans Morgenstern

Boyhood runs 165 minutes and is rated R (for growing up). IFC Films invited me to a preview screening for the purposes of this review.

South Florida screening update:

Boyhood is expanding at indie art houses soon. Here are the following venues with scheduled screenings:

It opened at the following theaters in South Florida, Friday, July 25 (Note: the Coral Gables Art Cinema will have a live video-link Q&A with the star of the film, Ellar Coltrane, this Saturday, July 26, at the 6:15 pm screening of the film):

  • Coral Gables Art Cinema
  • Regal South Beach
  • AMC Aventura
  • Boca Carmike Palace 20
On Aug, 1, it expands thusly:
  • Miami:  AMC Sunset Place 24
  • Fort Lauderdale: The Classic Gateway Theatre
  • Hollywood: Regal Oakwood
  • Pompano: Carmike Broward 18 (Formerly Muvico Pompano 18),  Regal Cypress Creek
  • Sunrise:  Regal Sawgrass
  • Boca: Living Room Cinemas, Shadowood 16
  • West Palm: Carmike Parisian 20
  • Royal Palm Beach: Regal Royal Palm
  • Indian River:  Indian River 24
Finally, if you are outside my geographic area, go here and put in your zip code.

(Copyright 2014 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

before_midnight_ver2As the third chapter in a real-time trilogy about two people in love, Before Midnight has a unique position to explore a relationship between a couple beyond the limitations of many other films about such a topic. Few have done it. One of the most noteworthy exceptions being a brilliant series of films by Ingmar Bergman featuring Erland Josephson and Liv Ullmann playing a couple across 30 years or François Truffaut’s uneven series of movies covering 20 years in the life of Antoine Doinel. Still, those are foreign titles. That an American filmmaker can take the rather idyllic pair of movies Before Sunrise and Before Sunset and revisit a couple during not just a difficult period but a rather banal moment 18 years after they first fell under each other’s spells allows for a rather unique opportunity. Director Richard Linklater and his co-writers and stars, Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke, do not blow the opportunity.

Before Midnight picks up almost 10 years after 2004’s Before Sunset, when Celine and Jesse rekindle a desire for each other after only having the memory of a perfect meeting 10 years before that on a train and an evening in Vienna before Jesse has to catch a plane back to the U.S., in 1995’s Before Sunrise. Now the couple has produced a pair of twin girls and Jesse must split his life between them and Celine and his young son to his ex-wife. before-midnight-julie-delpy-ethan-hawke-600x421During a vacation in Greece, the couple find a rare chance for an evening alone to walk the ruins of the Southern Peloponnese and have some private time in a luxury hotel suite. What unfolds may upset many who fell in love with this couple in the ideal vacuum of not one but two first meetings in Before Sunrise and Before Sunset respectively.

Relationships are a funny thing, as anyone who has shared a 10-year journey or more with another might know, and cinema can hardly ever honestly capture that. There’s a cruel fallacy at play when movies end with weddings because it is only after the honeymoon that the mettle of the relationship enters the flames of a true trial. With Before Midnight, Celine and Jesse have passed some difficult bumps to have made it together as long as they have, yet many unresolved issues have seeped out of the cracks of their relationship that only become magnified when they find themselves alone together. It’s a dark, but real step in that relationship, and it will rile up the idealists of love stories in film in a very unique way.

Linklater has grown marvelously as a director since his 1991 Generation X-defining debut Slacker.  He immediately proved himself as a thoughtful director who knows how to impress larger existential ideas beyond his intelligent dialogues. His films have always been about the larger picture and this trilogy of films stands as his masterwork. before-midnight09The film opens with a dynamic goodbye at the airport between Jesse and his son Hank (a perfectly low-key Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick dabbling in solemn repressed suffering). The revelations into their dynamic comes with break-neck humor and poignancy unique to the cinema of the Before trilogy that also raises it to a new level. All is not well in this once dreamy relationship as the irritating burs of reality have taken hold and are threatening to fester.

This film features scenes with other people, offering a distinct diversion from the earlier films, which both only focused on conversations between the couple. In this third (and hopefully not last) film in the series, Jesse mostly has alone time with other people to talk, including the terrific opening scene with his son that is allowed resonance throughout the film. There’s a conversation between he and the other men he’s visiting with on this Greek vacation and a dinner table conversation featuring the couple and other couples, younger and older, which captures the various stages of enlightenment and naiveté that comes with time as a couple. In the end, a widow gets the last word: “We appear and we disappear. We’re passing through.” Nothing like death to define a life.

Like the other movies, all the drama and conflict comes from how people talk with each other in several long scenes. The climax of which comes in the bedroom of the lux hotel, which includes the longest conversation with a nipple in a man’s mouth ever committed to film. before-midnight06Delpy gives a brazenly shameless performance to capture the casual and lax quality this relationship has taken a turn into. Jesse seems tired and long-suffering of her pushy dominance that often shifts to insecurity. There are several references to the summer of ’94, when the two first met. It is an idealized time that can never return. Celine longs for that mystery and Jesse tries to play games to keep her interested that constantly backfire. It’s a sad state for the once idealized couple, but it’s an honest portrayal that captures the reality of evolution in love. It’s not about the arguments, but the sincere affection these two have for being with the other, which fuels the arguments. Though often full of tumult, the conversations are as much about loving the other during a very important moment in the relationship that hardly signals an end of it as much as the continued journey.

Hans Morgenstern

Before Midnight is Rated R (It’s frank and real in a way most youngsters could never appreciate) and has a run time of 108 minutes. Sony Classics invited me to a preview screening for the purpose of this review. It opens in Miami-Dade theaters today, Friday, June 7:

Coral Gables Art Cinema
Regal South Beach
AMC Sunset Place 24

It will expand into West Palm Beach and Fort Lauderdale theaters next Friday, June 14. It is also playing in limited release in certain locations in the U.S., so check the film’s official website here for all screening dates (that’s a hotlink).

(Copyright 2013 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)