The Sisters Brothers (2018)

   Director: Jacques Audiard With: Joaquin Phoenix, John C. Reilly, Jake Gyllenhaal, & Riz Ahmed. Release: Sep 2, 2018 R. 2 hr. 1 min.

Director: Jacques Audiard
With: Joaquin Phoenix, John C. Reilly, Jake Gyllenhaal, & Riz Ahmed.
Release: Sep 2, 2018
R. 2 hr. 1 min.

 

“The Sister Brothers” is frontier road-trip that is continually reinventing itself, improvising at every twist and turn, from graphic body humor to witty, and ultimately moving brotherhood. It’s a film that evolves from its Wicked-style affairs to an action-filled and bloody shootout of wit and guts. It is absurdly revising the stereotypical shoot em’ up effects of a genre built upon gunfire and surface level emotions. Becoming both nostalgically familiar and inescapably nuanced, at least it's that way for the second half of its 120-minute runtime.

The backdrop is the Gold Rush, with that of Eli (John C. Riley) and Charlie (Joaquin Phoenix), the sister brothers, as our central pair to follow. They’ve been tasked with the job of tailing and killing and even torturing a chemist named Hermann Kermit Warm (Riz Ahmed) who has discovered a way to allow gold to appear in water glaringly. One of their illustrious and intellectual partners, Morris (Jake Gyllenhaal) is tracking this man and soon discovers this trick. Perceiving it as a way out to escape the thumb of ‘the Commodore,’ a feared crime boss who enacts a policy of reaping what you sow, so when these men barrel out of their deals to him, they find themselves on the receiving end of a bounty.

It’s a tale that doesn’t begin to grow on you until the latter half when we actually start to peel away the skin of these characters. Grasping the roots behind them, in what turns into a somewhat emotionally conflicting tale. The first half is quite the opposite, a lot of it is shrouded with meaningless set-up and road-trip backgrounds. The film builds itself as a traveling journey between these brothers, they bicker and argue and interact with nature in formidable fashions. They’re no slouches when it comes to surviving. The film opens with the fireworks of a shootout. The sparks of gunfire lighting the midnight sky.

We soon learn they’re a pair of cold-blooded hit-men, without much thought of the consequences of their actions, or the bodies that pile up behind them. They are cowboys in the truest sense of the word, antiquated and shortsighted. The film becomes that of a battle of brothers in a way, the older one looking for a way out for his brother, the other to covered in the muck of bloodshed to see anything ahead.

Charlie is the younger brother, one with a darker past than expected, a history that isn’t brought to fruition until the latter half of the film where it begins to pick up. Nonetheless, he’s a natural born killer in a way, one who is unable to escape his sinful past and actions that have caused so many bodies to pile up along the way. His older brother, Eli, is more soulful and gentle-natured.

Joaquin Phoenix is exceptional in this role, as is John C. Reily. Both of whom fabricate some surreal chemistry that mounts to a duo of performances that is some of the year’s best. Their pair of dancing partners in Jake Gyllenhaal and Riz Ahmed are fantastic as well, reuniting from their time on “Nightcrawler.”

These two pairs become paralleling stories. Two men are feeling as if they’ve known each other for longer than they actually have, forging a path for themselves that is struck with gold. The other, a pair of brothers who have, literally, known each other for the entirety of their lives, attempting to discover a way out of their experiences of mayhem.

The biggest problem with this entire period-piece of familial ties though is that the first half amounts to nothing more than a rehashing of a dialogue-heavy plot without meaning. It’s meandering, wallowing, and rambling to its ultimate point of story; it never begins to ignite itself, to allow it's the meat of the story to take hold of the screen until the inevitable finale. Perhaps it's the transitioning from the slow-burn, humanistic character studies to one of American cinema’s most infamous genres, the western, that French director Jacques Audiard struggled with; unable to capture the crux of the story being told until the bitter-sweet end.

The film is painted beautifully though, Audiard captures the old-west with vignette brilliancy and a level of rawness to its landscape as well, but that same level of tactile, of tangibility is lost upon the story for so long that you begin to feel as if your wandering in circles. When the bitter-sweet duality and the guilt-ridden relationship of brother take hold, both the performances and the story follow the grand, scope of the cinematic language laid forth.

“The Sister Brothers” is a movie without bite for most of its runtime, but when it does eventually begin to reach out and grab you and force your attention; “The Sister Brothers” becomes a quite moving film for both brothers and non-sibling audience members alike, but that long wait for relation makes it feel hollow and empty. Like the old west, it took quite a while for the Cowboys to discover their morality; when they did though, it was a beautiful thing to see.

Blaze (2018)

   Director: Ethan Hawke  With: Benjamin Dickey, Alia Shawkat, Josh Hamilton, Charlie Sexton, Sam Rockwell, Wyatt Russell, Steve Zahn, & Kris Kristofferson.  Release: Aug 17, 2018 R. 2 hr. 7 min. 

Director: Ethan Hawke
With: Benjamin Dickey, Alia Shawkat, Josh Hamilton, Charlie Sexton, Sam Rockwell, Wyatt Russell, Steve Zahn, & Kris Kristofferson. 
Release: Aug 17, 2018
R. 2 hr. 7 min. 

 

Ethan Hawke’s “Blaze” is a Texas-sized story with a southern hearted tone. It’s easy to like and full of notable and simplified deep-south wisdom like that of “Rain doesn’t try and fall, it just falls," it also tells these elongated jokes that are simplistically amusing. Feeling southern rooted in more ways than one, it’s the kind of tale meant for audiences in favor of both that blues/folk/country style music and those who find themselves head over heels for the lone star state. As a Lonestar native myself, I can’t help but admit that my heritage belongs to the Banner state, but my soul has belonged to the northern and western ways of life for a good while now. That’s not to say this movie is meant for prideful Texans only though, “Blaze” has more to it than it's Texas foreground. 

It’s a spiritual chronology through one-man’s life, one that has a lot of relatability within it, as well as some gaping holes that are soaked with wasted potential. Inspired from his work in “Born to be Blue,” the Oscar-nominated actor/writer/director/producer displays his affinity for the folk-tale music legend of Blaze Foley (Ben Dickie). It’s not a biographical journey through his life as much as it is a cinematic translation of Foley’s (Ben Dickie) music. Providing a soul-filled glance at how his art developed through his life, how his interactions, affairs, romances, and journey’s through his wistful life affected his music. 

If you’ve never heard of Blazy Foley (Ben Dickie), then you’ll feel the same confusion I did in understanding what made this man the talk of East Texas. He was something of a contemporary of musicians, having a reminiscent flair for country music legends like Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson, who recorded one of his songs, bet you didn’t know that. I bet you were also unaware of his intimate friendship with country legend Townes Van Zandt, infamous for his heartbreakingly despairing works of songwriting. Telling stories that are sure to crack the coldest of hearts, and Foley’s (Ben Dickie) is something of the same breed. 

The story condenses itself into three major storylines, a wise movie from veteran filmmaker Ethan Hawke, choosing to avoid the typical bumps and back roads of the traditional biopic. Each of these three narratives takes place from separate times in Foley’s (Ben Dickie) life. Opening with a radio interview between Townes Van Zandt (Charlie Sexton) and his long-time friend and collaborator; Zee (Josh Hamilton; whose year of indie prominence is worth noting). The two gentlemen reminisce on their times with Foley (Ben Dickie), telling stories of someone who was a legend to one of them, and a real-life friend to another. It’s a duality of storytelling that could’ve been focused more upon, but I’ll get into that later, as the story flashes back to his final moments. His last performance in a podunk bar in the middle of a nowhere town. He’s drunker, sadder, and poetically philosophical throughout his final 24 track recording session. The last echoes of a folk-hero. 

In the midst of that final outing, we are given an anchoring glance through his life, especially his once in a lifetime kind of love with Sybil Rosen (Alia Shawkat), a young Jewish girl he met inside of floundering artistic community. She became his muse. He became her anchor. Each of them in desperate need of one another’s companionship, but both needed to learn how to love each other from afar. It’s one of the year’s best romances, one that eclipses the stereotypical standards of the genre; perhaps it's the reality breathed into it from Hawke. 

His visuals are predominantly responsible for that, painting these grungy but sunset colored manners that echoes the heart of small-town Texas, despite the majority of the story being filmed in Louisiana. The use of colors is also something worth noting, as Hawke and cinematographer Steve Cosens fashion some of the year’s most striking silhouettes. From Foley’s (Ben Dickie) portrait imagery to the heart-wrenching imagery of a dying father hearing his children sing, maybe for the last time. All of it echoes a heart that cannot be matched, but it begins to derail from its prominence the further it goes on. 

Forgetting to match the story with technical brilliance, Hawke lets the music overstay its welcome. The use of montages borders between the lines of cinematic adaptation and an over-long music video, manifesting an aloofness to the emotion buried beneath the happy nostalgic trails of Foley’s (Ben Dickie) life. It’s not just that protracted walk through the highlights of Foley’s (Ben Dickie) past that thwart the film’s prominence. It's the negligence for potential. 

Hawke sets the foundation for more magnificent storytelling points, assembling a groundwork that dissects the themes of remembrance, an artist’s conflict, and even the dissection of small-town America. He sees these recipes for success, he also begins to let them breathe, but he plays the film safe. When Foley’s (Ben Dickie) music becomes the focus of our storyline, the film succeeds, allowing the most outright critics of country music to fall in love with the soft-acoustic rhythms of this pseudo-musical romantic biopic, but “Blaze” could have become so much more than that, placing itself in the forefront for best indie-pic of the year. 

Hawke’s hesitance becomes a noticeable gap in quality, Ben Dickie is the complete opposite of that notion, standing outright and head and shoulders above everyone else. He’s not only the star of this film but the commanding voice behind the film’s best aspects. He’s a musician in real life, and it shows throughout his time as Blaze (Ben Dickie). Being able to perform the wistful and songbird exceptionality of the musical excellence were given witness to. He describes the struggle being in the matching of Foley’s (Ben Dickie) pitches and tones with the chords. He along with co-star Alia Shawkat provide performances that are lived-in, breathing a sense of long-grated experience to them at every point and time. 

It’s a talented piece of work, put together through a multitude of proficient filmmaking from both Hawke’s visual acuity and his direction of both his breakout star and young up and comer. It’s a cohesive body of work that accomplishes its task in bringing more eyes to the forgotten legacy of Blaze Foley. It’s much like the line delivered by Ben Dickie when asked if he want’s to be a star he replies, “I don’t want’st to be a star, I want’st to be a legend. Stars shine bright, but they, eventually, go dark. Legends last forever.” 

“Blaze” is a star of a movie, shining bright and flying high, eventually fading into darkness though, becoming a film that missed it's potential by a noticeable margin, like that of it's subject. Remaining one of Hawke’s best outings as a filmmaker thus far and a prominent introduction to the star quality of Ben Dickie, but nowhere near as great as it could’ve been.