‘Bad Times at the El Royale’ Invites You to Peel Back its Many Layers

Bad Times at the El Royale poster

Bad Times at the El Royale” is one of those movies I have really come to deeply admire as it is like an onion you keep peeling at continually to see what’s underneath. Just when I thought I knew where things were heading, the story heads in another direction to where what we were initially introduced to is not all what it seems. As Bo Diddley once sang, you can’t judge a book by looking at the cover, and while this movie’s poster tells us what we need to know before going into the theater, there is more to discover than we could ever anticipate.

The El Royale of the movie’s title is a hotel which, at one time, was one a glorious place to visit, but it has since fallen into disrepute. The first sequence shows a man entering a room there, digging beneath its surface to play a bag of money beneath it. He is later greeted by another man who he kindly welcomes in, but who quickly shoots him dead with a shotgun. It’s a wonderfully elaborate sequence which brings us into a motion picture which promises not to be the usual mainstream fare.

We then move to 10 years later when a number of visitors arrive at the El Royale to stay for a night or two. They include the kindly priest Father Daniel Flynn (Jeff Bridges), aspiring singer Darlene Sweet (Cynthia Erivo), vacuum cleaner salesman Dwight Broadbeck (Jon Hamm), and a young hippie named Emily Summerspring (Dakota Johnson). All of them are greeted by the hotel’s concierge and apparently its only employee, Miles Miller (Lewis Pullman), who gleefully illustrates the location’s history and amenities for all of those willing to hear him out.

Revealing more from here would spoil one too many surprises as we discover not everyone is who they appear to be, but I can tell you the characters soon find themselves on a road to hell as their sins rise to the surface for everyone around them to see. In one way or another, everyone is either trying to escape their past or reclaim it in a way which offers no promises, and not everyone is going to make it out of their predicament in one piece.

“Bad Times at the El Royale” was written and directed by Drew Goddard who wrote the screenplays for the highly-entertaining “Cloverfield,” “World War Z” and “The Martian,” the one Ridley Scott movie in recent years which we can all agree on (in that it was great). Goddard also wrote and directed the horror comedy “The Cabin in the Woods,” a movie I should have seen already, but anyway. He composes this movie in vignettes just as Quentin Tarantino composes his with chapters out of a novel. Each one allows us to learn more about the characters and what brought them to this once glorious resort. The question is, do they all know about the valuables buried beneath one of the rooms?

I enjoyed how Goddard kept peeling away at each of these characters’ identities as we learn more about them in ways which are both illuminating and shocking, and it kept me guessing as to where things were going to go next. There’s even a scene of shocking violence involving a wine bottle which just comes out of nowhere, and it slammed me back into my seat in a way such a scene has not in recent years.

The movie, however, does suffer as it goes on. You should have heard the collective gasp from the audience at the press screening I attended when they were told the running time would be two hours and 21 minutes. Most Hollywood studios these days would never dare to let one of their releases last more than 90 or 100 minutes, so the amount of freedom Goddard got here seems astonishing in retrospect.

I have nothing against movies which last over two hours as long as they are able to justify their length. It is far too easy for a filmmaker to become self-indulgent. In retrospect, “Bad Times at the El Royale” could have used some tightening in the editing room as the story slowly drags towards its conclusion which involves a charismatic cult leader named Billy Lee (Chris Hemsworth, taking a much-needed break from the Marvel Cinematic Universe) and his much-too devoted follower, Rose (the wonderfully possessed Cailee Spaeny). By the time we finally arrive at the ending, it feels like everything is concluding on the wrong note. This could have been an even more frustrating ending than the one in “The Matrix Revolutions,” but saying so is a little too punishing.

Still, there is much to admire here such as the cinematography by Seamus McGarvey, the terrific set and art direction and, of course, the great cast that tears into their roles with great gusto. Jeff Bridges continues to remain one of our finest actors as he inhabits his role of Father Daniel Flynn in a way few others could. Cynthia Erivo proves to have quite the vocal chops here as her singing left the audience I saw this movie with in almost total silence. Dakota Johnson, finally freed from those god-awful “Fifty Shades of Grey” movies, gets to show an enigmatic side of her acting that makes it clear how we have no business dismissing her as just another pretty face. As for Jon Hamm, he is as charming as ever, and watching him hustle the other characters almost effortlessly makes me believe he will be the next Batman.

“Bad Times at the El Royale” is a flawed movie, but for me, its strengths more than outweigh its weaknesses. I am curious to see how audiences end up reacting to this as it is coming out in a cinematic time dominated by superheroes. Goddard’s film definitely stands outside the norm, but my hope is audiences will take the time to discover something a little different from what they are used to.

Whatever you think of “Bad Times at the El Royale,” you have to admit it allows Jeff Bridges to utter one of the best lines of dialogue in recent years:

“Shit happens… Get the whiskey.”

* * * out of * * * *

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‘Pet Sematary’ Remake’s First Trailer is Unearthed For All to See

Pet Sematary 2019 Teaser Poster

The cinematic adaptations of Stephen King’s novels have been a mixed bag, but ever since the phenomenal success of “It,” Hollywood has been desperate to adapt his works more than ever before. But moreover, they are also not afraid to remake those films which have already been made from them like “Carrie,” “The Shining” and “Salem’s Lot.” It was only a matter of time, and an eventual escape from development hell, that we would get a remake of “Pet Sematary,” and now its first trailer has been unearthed for all to see.

To be honest, I never cared much for the 1989 version of “Pet Sematary” directed by Mary Lambert. Some of the performances were rather weak, and King, who wrote the screenplay, ended up cramming too much of the novel into the movie to where not all the plot threads were tied up in a satisfying way. Having read “Pet Sematary” myself, I can confirm it is one of King’s scariest works which left me unnerved, especially with its wonderfully ambiguous ending. Now that we are finally getting its latest cinematic incarnation, I cannot help but be intrigued.

From its trailer, it is clear directors Kevin Kolsch and Dennis Widmyer (“Starry Eyes”) are intent on making this version their own. The sight of children marching to the beat of a drum through the cemetery while wearing animal masks is a scary sight even if one of them reminded me of the rabbit mask from “Donnie Darko.” Granted, it starts off in a routine fashion with Louis and Rachel Creed (Jason Clarke and Amy Seimetz) driving their kids to their new home in Maine. As they get their first glimpse of it, a truck comes roaring by without warning as if a gale force wind suddenly swept by, leaving trees shaking endlessly. It’s a strong moment as we are reminded of the terrible tragedies which will eventually befall these characters.

This trailer doesn’t spell out the story for its audiences, and we only glimpses of other characters like Church and Victor Pascow. Interestingly enough, these proceedings are dominated by John Lithgow who plays Jud Crandall, and he speaks his dialogue in an increasingly ominous tone and without a New England accent. It’s great to see Lithgow here as his presence lends much to what we see here. He does, however, have to contend with the shadow of the late Fred Gwynne who played Jud in the original. Whatever you may have thought about the 1989 film, there’s no denying Gwynne was perfectly cast and the best thing about it.

Overall, this trailer left me intrigued at the possibilities the remake has to offer. It features Clarke who, whether he’s in “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes,” “Knight of Cups” or “Chappaquiddick,” is one of the most dependable actors working in movies today. However, I have to say the trailer for the original was much more frightening, especially with Dale Midkiff standing in the middle of his kitchen yelling into his phone, “WHAT DID YOU DO??!!” Even more chilling was hearing Gage’s voice saying, “Now, I want to play with you.” My hope is the next trailer for “Pet Sematary” is even more chilling than this one. My other hope is that the filmmakers will get to retain the ambiguous ending of the novel in this version. Thanks to test screenings, the 1989 movie was denied this, and I am still annoyed to this day at its conclusion.

“Pet Sematary” is set to open in April 2019. Please check out the trailer below.

Wes Craven’s ‘The Last House on The Left’ Remains a Highly Disturbing Cinematic Experience Years Later

The Last House on the Left 1972 poster

“To avoid fainting keep repeating,

It’s only a movie

…Only a movie

…Only a movie

…Only a movie”

Exploitation movies, or “video nasties” as they are called in certain countries, have a power most do not have. They shock even the most jaded and seasoned of movie fanatics, and they burn into your subconscious in a way which cannot be undone. A lot has been written about Wes Craven’s “Last House on The Left” and of the impact it had on audiences upon its release. Like Gaspar Noe’s “Irreversible,” it’s a movie I was bound to see at some point. Many would prefer to stay far away from movies like this, but I don’t want to be like everyone else. I don’t want to be put off watching a movie just because it shocks more than half the world. Who am I to talk or criticize a particular movie if I haven’t seen it anyway?

“The Last House on the Left” was Craven’s directorial debut, and he made it with future “Friday the 13th” director Sean S. Cunningham on a very low budget. While many of Craven’s later movies deal with horror on a fantasy level like “A Nightmare on Elm Street,” this one deals with the horrors of real life. It deals with real people and situations any of us could fall victim to. While it was made back in 1972, it still has the power to completely unnerve anyone who sits through it to this very day. Even though I had a pretty good idea of what was in store, this movie proved to be a true endurance test more than others of its genre. And like many horror movies of the past, it just had to be remade years later.

To dismiss “The Last House on The Left” as pure exploitation is not altogether fair. There is extreme violence, naked bodies and a lot of blood and gore, but there is more going on here than what we see on the surface. Throughout Craven’s long career, he has made movies which work on an intellectual level as well as a visceral one, and this one is no exception. Craven said he made this movie in response to the Vietnam War which was going on at the time. I can certainly see that, but I think it also deals with the death of the 1960’s as well as the destruction of innocence. This film also deals with humanity at its most depraved and animalistic and of how no one can ever go back to who they once were. Everything is changed when the movie is over, and so are we for having watched it.

This movie’s story is somewhat inspired by Ingmar Bergman’s “Virgin Spring,” and it follows two teenage girls, Mari and Phyllis, as they head into the city to go to a concert. While in town, they decide to score some grass and go to a total stranger named Junior who ends up taking them back to his place. But what the ladies find instead are a couple of escaped convicts and their girlfriend who proceed to torture them to their last dying breath. You can see why the tagline fits the movie so perfectly. You have to keep reminding yourself this is only a movie as everything we are forced to witness is all too evil to process right away.

As this twisted family of psychos viciously rape and torture the two girls in the woods right near where one of them lives, it is intercut with scenes of one of the girl’s parents baking a cake and preparing a birthday party for her. There is an innocence on display in these scenes with the parents, and it serves to make all the sheer brutality even more disturbing to sit through. You don’t watch a movie like “The Last House on The Left” as much as you experience it, and movies don’t get much bleaker than this one.

Once the group has finished their dirty work, their car breaks down and they end up staying as guests of one of the girls’ parents who just welcome them into their home, completely unaware of who they actually are. They even take the time to make dinner for their guests and give them wine to drink. You would never ever see that happening today, ever. Perhaps it was the custom of people in the 1960’s to be hospitable to total strangers.

During the evening, however, the wife discovers a necklace one of their guests is wearing as being the same one she and her husband gave to their daughter before she went off with her friend. This leads to her discovering bloody clothes in one of their suitcases, and she and her husband rush off to the lake where they find their daughter dead. From there, both carry out bloody revenge against their guests, and it leads to one of the bloodiest conclusions ever in a motion picture.

To watch a movie like “The Last House on The Left” is to witness how brutal human nature can get, and it makes you wonder how someone could do something so incredibly. It’s easy to see why Craven saw this movie as a response to the Vietnam War. We went into that country and raped it without much thought of what would happen to us, and this conflict bled deeply into our country and its citizens. This war been covered in many movies like Brian De Palma’s “Casualties of War” and “Redacted” as well as Oliver Stone’s “Platoon.”

You have to give the actors a lot of credit here as they don’t play their characters as much as they inhabit them. Medals of bravery should be given to both Sandra Cassel and Lucy Grantham who play Mari and Phyllis as both are forced to suffer indignities no human being should ever endure. They are beaten, humiliated, stripped naked and violated in the worst ways imaginable.

But it’s not just the girls who die, the killers do as well, but not just in the literal sense. There is a perverse ecstasy they take in degrading their hostages, but killing them off leaves them with nothing much in the way of emotion. Seeing the looks on their faces after killing the girls proves to be one of the most fascinating moments in “The Last House on the Left” as we can see how each has lost any chance at redemption they could ever hope to get.

The late David Hess gives us one of the most despicable and vile villains in movies as Krug Stillo. There is no redeeming value to this character, and he sinks even deeper into a moral black hole when you realize he controls his son, Junior, through the use of drugs. Hess also did the music score which, to put it mildly, sounds utterly bizarre.

One other important thing to note is this is not the kind of movie where you cheer on the good guys. When the parents get their revenge, there is no joy to be taken in it and you are as emotionally drained as they are when the screen fades to black. Many people complain about the unspeakable violence in this movie, but then they go out to see the latest action extravaganza which features dozens of exploding limbs and severed body parts (not that there’s anything wrong with that). Don’t get me wrong, I like those movies as well, but it is hypocritical to get furious at one violent movie while excusing another one.

I should also add that one of idiotic cops we see in this movie is played by Martin Kove, the same actor who would go on to play Kreese in “The Karate Kid” movies. Kove seems to have been the only actor here to come out of this movie with a successful acting career.

With all the unpleasantness surrounding “The Last House on The Left,” why would I give it a positive review? Because it stands out from the average exploitation fare of the time, and there was a good deal of thought put into it. No, it is not enjoyable to sit through, but not all movies are meant to be enjoyed. Craven doesn’t hold anything back, and he gets to the ugliness humanity has to offer the innocent and the unsuspecting.

It says a lot about a movie when it can still retain its power to shock and unnerve audiences even decades after its release. “The Last House on The Left” belongs in the same company with the original “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” as neither have lost any of their visceral power. You don’t like unpleasant movies? Stay miles away from this one. For those willing to endure it, just remember it’s only a movie …Only a movie …Only a movie …Only a movie …With an utterly bizarre music score!

* * * ½ out of * * * *

All-Time Favorite Trailers: ‘The Last House on the Left’ (1972)

Even in this day and age, people still complain of how Hollywood doesn’t do enough to warn them of how infinitely disturbing certain movies are. Regardless of the specific descriptions the MPAA lists in an R-rated movie such as graphic violence, nudity, blood, and gore, many still insist more needs to be done to warn audiences, and that’s even though they were warned extensively beforehand. Heck, you can have the whole movie spoiled for you when you visit its Wikipedia page as it often contains a plot synopsis of everything which happens. Regardless, parents still drag their children to movies they have no business watching at such a tender age just because they won’t spend the money to hire a babysitter.

I bring this up because the trailer for the 1972 exploitation horror movie “The Last House on the Left” does what most trailers these days never bother to do; warn prospective audiences of a seriously disturbing motion picture which will arrive in a theater near them very soon. The narrator speaks ominously of how the house rests on “the very center of hell,” and the musical stings are enough to send shivers down the spines of the most jaded filmgoer. And of course, there is the line of, “To avoid fainting keep repeating, it’s only a movie, only a movie, only a movie.” These days, this refrain may seem laughable, but when it comes to this cult classic, this is a really good piece of advice to keep in mind.

It’s a relatively short trailer, but it shows how Wes Craven, who made his directorial debut with this one, shot “The Last House on the Left” in a documentary style to where it felt like we were watching something real and not staged. The only actors we see here are Sandra Cassel who played Mari Collingwood and Lucy Grantham who portrayed Phyllis Stone. These characters are put through absolute hell, but we do not see the full extent of their hell in the trailer. Instead, we get glimpses of the pain and torture they are put through, and it forces us to imagine the worst things they have been forced to experience. For myself, this trailer made me infinitely intrigued to check this movie out as it seemed like the kind most audiences would be quick to avoid. Having seen it, I can assure you this is not the easiest cinematic experience to sit through in the slightest, and you have to give credit to those who put this trailer together as even they were more than willing to make this point very clear to even the most adventurous of movie goers.

I love how “The Last House on the Left” trailer does an effective job of warning its prospective audience about how disturbing a movie this will be for them. These days, I tempted to think any studio releasing it would be much more focused on starting a cinematic universe regardless of its highly disturbing material. Just think of what could have been: “The Next to Last House on the Left,” “The Last House on the Right,” “The First House on the Left,” “The Last House to be Demolished on the Left,” etc. The possibilities may be disturbing, but they are also endless.

The Last House on the Left 1972 poster

‘Venom’ is a Mixed Bag But Never Boring

Venom movie poster

My feelings about “Venom” are decidedly mixed. On one hand, I came out of it thinking a better movie could have been made out of this material. On the other, I cannot deny I found what ended up onscreen to be very entertaining. There are times where I wanted filmmakers to realize how less is more and how silence can be golden, but you don’t go into a comic book movie like this expecting a Terrence Malick film, and its tagline of “the world has enough superheroes” serves as a way to make it stand out among others of its genre. With this one, we can expect a little more nastiness than usual, albeit of the PG-13 variety.

The character of Eddie Brock and his alter ego of Venom has been begging for a proper cinematic treatment ever since he made his debut in the highly disappointing “Spider-Man 3.” In that ill-fated sequel, Venom was introduced almost as an afterthought to where it seemed like the bosses at Sony and Columbia Pictures forced Sam Raimi to add the character into a movie which was already overflowing with them. Well, this time Venom gets his own movie which feels long overdue, and he is played by the great Tom Hardy who has played his share of larger than life characters to where he is right at home with this one.

“Venom” starts off like the average “Predator” movie does, with a spacecraft of some kind crashing down violently on planet Earth and introducing a foreign organism, in this case a symbiote, which will soon wreak havoc on humanity. This, however, doesn’t stop Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed), a brilliant inventor, from experimenting on them with the help of desperate human subjects who just want a place to sleep and food to eat.

Meanwhile, we are introduced to Eddie Brock, an investigative journalist who is infinitely determined to get to the truth no matter what the cost. Eddie has a nice apartment in the great city of San Francisco and a loving girlfriend in district attorney Anne Weying (Michelle Williams, who looks lovelier in each movie she appears in), but all of this disappears when he goes after Carlton in an effort to expose his corruption. But with greed taking precedence over ethics, Carlton succeeds in ruining Eddie’s life and gets him fired from his job, and Anne breaks up with him upon learning he got into her email which contained confidential information. It makes you want to smack Eddie for not realizing he could have clicked on the “mark as unread” button to cover his tracks.

“Venom” then moves to several months later where Eddie is now living by himself and lamenting his present state where, when someone asks if he is Eddie Brock, he responds he used to be, a cliché which has been used one too many times. However, he gets a chance to be an investigative reporter again when the ethical and concerned Dr. Dora Skirth (Jenny Slate) informs him of the experiments Carlton is doing with the alien symbiotes. But when Dora sneaks Eddie into the Life Foundation which Carlton oversees, he ends up getting infected by a symbiote and inherits superpowers no mere mortal can easily handle.

It takes a bit for “Venom” to get things going as the filmmakers are not quick to see Eddie get infected by a symbiote. Once he does get infected, it provides Hardy with an interesting acting challenge as he has to play someone inhabited by another personality. Steve Martin did this to perfection in “All of Me,” and it is never as easy as it looks. As Eddie struggles to maintain some semblance of sanity while Venom seeks to dominate his body and soul, Hardy illustrates this uneasy balance with believability and a good dose of humor. Seeing him dive into a lobster tank in a restaurant just to bring down his temperature is a gas, let alone watching him eat constantly and not look like he’s gaining weight.

I was also surprised at how good Hardy’s American accent is here. The trailers for “Venom,” which did not do this movie many favors, made Hardy’s accent sound bizarre and out of place, so it’s a relief to see him pull it off without any hitches. In addition, the actor provides a perfectly ominous voice for Venom which comes close to equaling the one he gave Bane, and it is fun to watch Hardy essentially talk to himself as he races through the streets of San Francisco and reaching heights Steve McQueen never did in “Bullitt.”

The story reflects present day events as we have watched the most ethical of reporters get hammered by certain people who have made the terms “fake news” and “alternative facts” unforgivably popular. Fake news may just be smoke, but for some it is thick enough to hide behind. It’s also interesting to see Riz Ahmed play his villainous character of Carlton Drake as if he were a variation on Elon Musk. Ahmed portrays Carlton not so much as an evil mastermind, but instead as someone whose ambition cannot be reigned in, and it gets to where all sense of morality is lost to him as he convinces himself he is the one to save humanity from certain destruction.

“Venom,” however, does get bogged down a bit by needless clichés which I could have done without. As we watch Eddie drink away his sorrows in a lonely bar, someone asks if he is Eddie Brock. His answer of “I used to be” is a piece of dialogue I have heard far too many times. After watching “The Predator” in which Shane Black laid waste to a number of action movies clichés, I came into this one hoping Ruben Fleischer, the director of “Zombieland,” would inject a bit more freshness into these proceedings than he did.

Also, is it just me, or does Scott Haze, who plays evil henchman Roland Treece, look like Billy Corgan? Haze doesn’t get much of a chance to make Roland more than the average bad guy, and I kept waiting for Eddie to tell Roland he liked him better as the lead singer of Smashing Pumpkins. No such luck though.

The movie climaxes in a chaotic fashion with loud noises and explosions, and there are a couple of post-credit scenes which do deserve your attention. One of those scenes promises a follow-up with a character who aims to be as brutal as his name. There’s also a kick ass theme song done by Eminem in which the artist continues to spit out rhymes at lightning speed, although it might have been cooler to see it put at the movie’s beginning instead of being played during the end credits. I also could have done with more of Jenny Slate in the movie. She disappears from it way too soon.

Again, I left “Venom” with mixed feelings as I felt a better version of this material could have been brought to the silver screen. Still, what I did see was never boring, and watching Tom Hardy taking on such an iconic role was alone worth the price of admission. How you feel about the movie may depend on how familiar are with this comic book character. I myself never really read many comic books as a kid, so I am unsure how the most die-hard of fans will react to this finished product. My hope is more of them will get a kick out of it than not, but they can be infinitely critical to no end.

* * * out of * * * *

‘Love, Gilda’ Shows How the Late ‘SNL’ Comedienne Never Really Left Us

Love Gilda poster

You cannot help but fall in love with Gilda Radner. Even in death, her spirit radiates with a power nothing can destroy. Her smile stretched for miles whenever she appeared on “Saturday Night Live,” and it never faded from our sight even as she fought a tough battle against ovarian cancer. When she passed away on May 20, 1989 at the age of 42, it really felt like a national tragedy, and I remember Steven Martin paying tribute to her on the “SNL” stage while on the verge of tears. After showing a video of him dancing with Gilda, he said the following:

“You know when I look at that tape I can’t help but think how great she was and how young I looked. Gilda, we miss you.”

It’s now been almost 30 years since Gilda died, and she is still missed. But with the documentary “Love, Gilda,” she is brought back to life for a time, and we get to see sides of her many have not seen previously. Granted, her life has been documented endlessly on various shows and in numerous books, but we get to see home movies of her youth and journal entries, most of which were previously unseen. Whether or not you think this documentary touches on anything new, just the chance to spend time in her company makes it a must see.

Among the most memorable images we get of Gilda are in home movies made when she was a child. Even back then she had a big smile on her face and a zest for life which never faded. We also see how she was overweight as a child to where she talked of how kids at school teased her viciously. One family member told her to make a joke about her weight if they made fun of her again, and this proved successful. From there, I think it’s safe to say comedy was Gilda’s weapon of choice for all the obstacles life would throw at her.

It’s a treat to watch “SNL” regulars like Amy Poehler, Maya Rudolph, Bill Hader and Cecily Strong among others reading from Gilda’s journals as it is clear on their faces the love they had for her work, and of the effect she had on theirs. Poehler even admits many of the characters she created on “SNL” were essentially B-versions of Gilda’s characters, but her work still stands on its own regardless. I envied these celebrated performers as they got a glimpse of Gilda’s actual handwriting which gives a glimpse into her wonderful mind.

As “Love, Gilda” moves on, we see her reflecting on the fame she achieved through “SNL” and the overall effect it had on her. I believe her when she reveals how she was unaware of how famous she had become until the cast visited New Orleans. We also come to see how fame at times served to keep her chained to a certain place in life, and of the pressures it brought on which made her eating disorder even worse. Once again, comedy becomes her weapon as she finds ways to make fun of being famous as her spirit remains strong. While she came to fame in a time before the advent of social media and cell phones, being in the public’s eye probably wasn’t much easier.

This world can really beat you down to where we become overcome with disappointments and bitterness, and many often feel like happiness is a commodity far out of their reach. So, it’s always great to know that one person who maintains a strong spirit and a wonderful view of life in the face of personal tragedies. Even as we watch Gilda Radner in her most harrowing moments, going through chemotherapy and losing the ability to bear children, she still has a big smile on her face and an infinitely strong spirit which never faltered even in her dying moments. She also had the love of her life, the late Gene Wilder, at her side through it all. I can only hope to be as lucky.

Could director Lisa D’Apolito, who had the privilege of appearing in my all-time favorite movie, Martin Scorsese’s “Goodfellas,” have dug deeper into Gilda’s life? Perhaps. Some parts are given short shrift like her brief marriage to guitarist G.E. Smith and her movie career which ended after the critical and commercial failure of “Haunted Honeymoon.” D’Apolito also uses audio of Radner reading from her autobiography “It’s Always Something,” which remains one of my favorite books ever. Anyone who has read it can testify just how revealing Radner is about her struggles, and it threatens to make this documentary pale in comparison.

Regardless, D’Apolito does excellent work in making us see what a strong human being Gilda Radner was, and of how her spirit and influence remain incredibly strong even years after her death. The “SNL” cast member was made to endure terrible things in her life and left us at far too young an age, and yet she came out fighting and left us laughing hysterically. She even found humor in her cancer battle and demonstrated this when she guest starred on “It’s Garry Shandling’s Show,” and her entrance was one full of victory. Nobody dared to make jokes about cancer back then, but she showed no fear in making fun of the most hideous of diseases. Even if it feels like there could have been more to this documentary than what we are shown, D’Apolito makes us see how Radner lives on in many ways.

Wilder founded “Gilda’s Club,” an organization where people with cancer can meet to build emotional and social support, after her death, and there are now over a dozen of them throughout America. Her book “It’s Always Something” is still in print, and I cannot recommend it more highly. And, of course, you can always catch her in “SNL” reruns which continue to entertain audiences of many generations. She may be gone, but “Love, Gilda” shows she never really left us. With a spirit as strong as hers, she never will.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

‘Fahrenheit 11/9’ is Michael Moore’s Angriest and Most Vital Documentary to Date

Fahrenheit 119 teaser poster

It’s bad enough Donald Trump is still living in the White House, so making a movie about the damage he is doing is pointless, right? Well, Michael Moore’s documentary “Fahrenheit 11/9,” you may be surprised to learn, is not just about Trump. In fact, we only see Trump on screen for 20 minutes at the most here. Instead, Moore is far keener to explore the state of America and how it led to the former host of “The Apprentice” to being elected to the highest office in the country. It has been almost two years, but even Moore still asks the question many of us asked on election night, “How the fuck did this happen?” What results is Moore’s angriest documentary yet, and one of the most vital he has ever made.

Like Dinesh D’Souza’s propaganda colostomy bag “Death of a Nation,” Moore takes us back to the months and days leading up to the election as we see George Clooney declaring Donald Trump will never be President, and media pundits laughing at the thought of it ever becoming a reality. Like many, I assumed Hillary had the election in the bag, but Moore knew better than anyone Trump would end up in the White House, and he takes us right back to the night of November 8, 2016 which started out with hope and euphoria, and ended with utter devastation as a certain victory proved to be anything but certain, and the man who captured the Presidency did not look all that excited about his win. Moore is in a perfect position to tell us “I told you so” in this documentary, but I appreciated the fact he did not.

“Fahrenheit 11/9” is of course a play on the title of another Michael Moore documentary, “Fahrenheit 9/11,” but it also refers to the date of November 11, 2016 in which the Electoral College, a political body which truly needs to be abolished, certified Trump’s victory after bringing in their ballots to Congress in containers which Moore loving describes as “baby coffins.” The fact Hillary steamrolled Trump in the popular election by almost 3 million votes did not matter as the Electoral College had the final say, and the world just had to live with it.

Moore does spend some time on Trump, reminding us of the unhealthy and troubling attraction he has to his daughter Ivanka, of how he walked in on Miss America contestants while they were naked, and of how he gleefully plays the media for suckers. There’s a montage of a press conference he arrived very late to, and we watch as the media outlets continue their coverage while endlessly waiting for him to appear. As tempting as it is to call Trump stupid, he is very smart in the ways of manipulation, and those at major networks (Les Moonves in particular) revel in the amount of money they are making off of his campaign.

But soon afterwards, Moore switches gears as he knows much of the information he is presenting us is nothing new, and we have certainly become attuned to Trump committing his crimes in plain sight. So instead, Moore focuses on the state of our union leading up to his shocking victory, and he makes us realize how we should have seen this coming as his political campaign was not as unique as we believed.

One of Moore’s big targets is Michigan Governor Rick Snyder whose actions in part led to the poisoning of Flint’s water supply and its residents developing high levels of lead, the kind of mineral which never leaves the body. What I did not realize about Snyder beforehand was how he had no political experience before taking office, and he was best known back then as one of the richest men in America. Moore ponders if Trump looked at what Snyder did, privatizing public services in order to make more money, and used this as one of many excuses to run for President. Looking at Snyder ends up reminding me and others of how Trump was never the first person to get elected despite having no political experience, and we are again made aware of how many Americans continue to vote against their own best interest.

Once again, Moore visits his hometown of Flint, Michigan to observe its still constant decay as it has long since become the town America has forgotten. Residents are eager to move, but no one will buy their homes. Medical professionals and social service workers alert Snyder and his cronies to the water poisoning situation, and they are silenced. Others complain about how high the water bill remains and of having to decide to pay it instead of getting food. Moore’s first documentary, “Roger & Me,” showed Flint at the beginning of its economic devastation, and it is devastating to see the city in an even worse condition now.

But while Moore has the Republicans in his sights, he is not about to leave Democrats off the firing line. Despite supporting the campaigns of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, he doesn’t hesitate to go after them, nor should he. President Obama gets it especially hard as his visit to Flint, Michigan resulting in filling his supporters with hope, and instead leaves them devastated to where they lose faith in the political system. Like Moore, I believe Barack Obama is the greatest American President of my lifetime so far, but the barbs Moore hurls at him here are justified as he attempts to drink a glass of Flint water and instead merely wets his lips with it.

Hillary gets some harsh criticisms thrown her way as well and for good reason. In reviewing her loss, we see the glaring mistakes her campaign made such as not visiting states like Wisconsin, and her ties to Wall Street were impossible to ignore. And yes, there were those damn emails which were brought up constantly. Despite many Americans getting sick of them being brought up, her political opponents never let the subject go.

But perhaps most damming is when Moore reveals how the Democratic National Committee, not Hillary, threw the election to ensure that Bernie Sanders would not get the party’s nomination. In an all-too-brief interview with Moore, Sanders admits the Democrats saw him as big threat to their platform, and had he clinched the nomination, he probably would have won the Presidency. As much as I wanted to believe the DNC would not stoop to such levels, the evidence presented here is impossible to deny. We even see a supporter from a certain state hold up a sign saying how Sanders won all the counties even though its delegates went on to favor Hillary.

But as bleak and angry as “Fahrenheit 11/9” is, there are moments of humor and hope. Moore limits the number of shenanigans this he performs time around, but we do see him trying to maker a citizen’s arrest of Rick Snyder and later spraying his mansion with water from Flint, Michigan. He even pulls an Erin Brockovich on one Snyder’s advisors by inviting him to drink a glass of Flint water, and the man’s reaction is not a big surprise. One of the biggest laughs comes when Moore accuses Gwen Stefani of being the reason why Trump decided to run for President as Trump discovered she was getting paid more for being a judge on “The Voice” than he was for being the host of “The Apprentice.” Granted, this is probably not altogether true, but considering how thin-skinned Trump is, it makes a hilarious amount of sense.

However, Moore makes us see there is still hope for America as we are shown images of its citizens marching against gun violence and in support of underpaid teachers as they are doing what he wants all of us to do, make our voices heard and to do something about our anger. We see people like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez running for political office out of a need to make things better for Americans and make things like health care available for all. Susan Sarandon remarked recently how the election of Trump has inspired many people of color and different faiths to run for office. I initially rolled my eyes after hearing this, but after watching “Fahrenheit 11/9,” I believe she has a point.

We also see Moore with survivors of the Parkland, Florida shooting including David Hogg whose activism has become an inspiration to many horrified by the number of school shootings in the United States which continue to occur with frightening regularity. As teenagers, we become quick to see through the hypocrisy of adults and are much more tuned in to issues many politicians will not even acknowledge. Hogg has taken things further with his fellow classmates as we watch them have an effect on the realm of politics and encouraging others to help bring about a much-needed weapons ban.

I came out “Fahrenheit 11/9” shaken and saddened as, like Moore, I wonder if the democracy Americans continue to fight for ever really existed in the first place. Many of the assertions he makes may not stand up to scrutiny, and the documentary at times seems a bit unfocused, but his point of view remains as strong as ever. His critics will be quick to call this one liberally biased, but Moore shows no real bias here as he shows we are all complicit in America being where it is today, and that we will be even more complicit if we don’t get out the vote in November. After all these years, Moore is still passionate about fighting for America its citizens deserve, and he is not about leave it behind.

And yes, Moore does take the time to make comparisons between Trump and Adolf Hitler. Just keep this in mind: Like Trump and Snyder, Hitler had no political experience when he took office.

* * * * out of * * * *

‘Where to Invade Next’ Proves the American Dream is Still a Reality, Just Not in America

Where to Invade Next poster

With his documentary “Where to Invade Next,” Michael Moore comes into it looking more run down than usual. It’s been a few years since “Capitalism: A Love Story” in which he railed against the economic order of America and the consequences of runaway greed, and since then he has weathered through numerous events including a divorce and a bout with pneumonia. However, he still has enough energy to continue his fight to make America a better place.

“Where to Invade Next” starts off with a brief history of America and the countries it has invaded, and it also makes clear how World War II was the last big war America ever won. Since then, America has been engaged in highly unpopular conflicts in Iraq and Vietnam, and it has suffered greatly in the wake of 2008 economic crash. In an effort to find ways to make America better, Moore decides to playfully invade other countries to steal their good ideas and bring them back stateside to be put to good use.

As always, Moore gives us a very entertaining time filled with unforgettable moments and laughs designed to stick in your throat when you realize how workers in other countries have it better than Americans. He interviews an Italian couple who describe in detail how they get eight weeks of paid vacation time, and they look utterly shocked when he tells them Americans only get two. There is a scene where he sits with a group of French children at lunch and sees how they are eating very healthy meals of the high-end restaurant quality, and none of them drink Coca-Cola. When those same kids look at the school lunches Americans have, they understandably recoil in disgust.

Yes, Moore is cherry picking facts here and all these countries seem to look rosier than they probably do outside of this documentary, but he admits early on he is there to “pick the flowers, not the weeds.” He’s not here to give us an in-depth overview of the places he visits, but instead to show how other countries treat their people and workers as compared to how they are treated in America. One country does not charge college students tuition, so the term “student debt,” a huge problem in America, has no real meaning. Another country offers its citizens a yearlong maternity leave as they feel the bond between a parent and their child must be formed as soon as possible. A lot of these ideas are frowned upon in the United States, and the documentary leaves you wondering why this is the case.

In some ways “Where to Invade Next” covers the same ground as “Sicko” as Moore talks with Americans who have since moved to other countries where they discover more opportunities than they ever had back home, and he talks with people of other cultures who react with horror as to how America handles education, health care and workers’ rights. It gets a little old after a while as he’s treading through familiar territory, but you have to applaud those educators who say America should do away with standardized testing.

The documentary does have one pivotal moment, however, when Moore visits Norway and talks with a father whose son was murdered. The man who committed the crime is about to be sentenced, but the father doesn’t wish him dead or yearn for revenge. His reasoning is it will not make his or anybody else’s life any better and will just crush his spirit. Now there are many people in America who think like this, but the whole “eye for an eye” saying in the Bible seems to be more preferable to the most vocal of its citizens.

Many prefer to label Moore as being “anti-American” among other things, but he’s still living in America and looking for ways to improve life for its inhabitants whether they are immigrants or natural-born citizens. Why doesn’t he just move to another country if he finds so many others to be better, you ask? Because he loves America and continues to speak out against those who greedily take away from the middle and lower classes just because they can.

Seriously, who in America thinks two weeks of vacation time is more than enough? There are many who work 40 hours a week and yet still live in poverty. Despite the advances of the Affordable Care Act, many in America cannot afford health insurance. Those who lost their jobs and savings have ended up taking jobs offering no benefits of any kind because they have little choice. If none of this bothers you, then you need to take a much more observant look of the country you live in. Many say America is still the greatest country in the world, but there’s more than enough evidence to suggest it is not even close.

More importantly, “Where to Invade Next” shows Moore at his most hopeful. He doesn’t have an axe to grind this time around and does not lash at anyone in particular. Considering how he comes to use the words of our last few Presidents against them, this never comes across as a liberal or a conservative documentary. This is one any audience can and should be able to appreciate even though it will mainly appeal to his base and not those outside of it.

But what’s especially invigorating about “Where to Invade Next” is it shows the American dream is still alive and well. Looking closely at other countries, Moore shows how their ideas have been shaped by ones which originated in America. Now if we could only make that dream a reality again in America, things would be much better.

“Where to Invade Next” may not be one of Moore’s best documentaries, but it is still very entertaining and will have you laughing as well as informed about the world around you. Moore does look beaten down after all these years, but he’s still there fighting for his home country and looking for ways to make it great again, unlike the current resident in the White House.

For those who still think this Oscar-winning filmmaker doth protest too much and should shut up, keep in mind this following quote from Oliver Stone’s “Born on the Fourth of July:”

“People say that if you don’t love America, then get the hell out. Well, I love America.”

* * * ½ out of * * * *

‘Blaze’ Gives a Late Musician the Audience He Never Got in Life

Blaze 2018 movie poster

There have been a number of music biopics in the last few years like “Straight Outta Compton,” “Love and Mercy” and “I Saw the Light.” Looking back, I wonder if my enjoyment, or lack of, was the result of how much knowledge I had of their main subjects: the rap group N.W.A., Beach Boys singer Brian Wilson, and country singer Hank Williams. Typically, biopics focus on people we know of, and I went into them wondering if the filmmakers had anything new to say about these iconic figures. Biopics are, of course, “based on a true story,” so you can expect many liberties will be taken with the source material, so this just complicates things even more.

I bring this up because “Blaze” deals with a country singer and songwriter whom I am not familiar with, Blaze Foley. Many consider him a cult figure in the realm of country music, especially in Austin, Texas. What results here is an absorbing motion picture which delves into the life of a musician whose life, like many of his ilk, was cut short at far too young an age. Part of me wonders if my enjoyment of this movie would have been affected had I known more about Blaze Foley before I walked into the theater, but considering how much I liked it, I suppose the answer doesn’t matter much.

Based on the memoir “Living in the Woods in a Tree: Remembering Blaze” by Sybil Rosen, “Blaze” weaves together three different timelines which examines this musician in life and death. We see him develop a loving relationship with aspiring actress Sybil Rosen (Alia Shawkat) to where she becomes his muse. Then we see him being discussed post-mortem by his close friends Zee (Josh Hamilton) and Townes Van Zandt (Charlie Sexton) on a radio show, and they reflect on his life with both respect and bafflement. And then there is the Blaze’s last night on earth which is presented in an unspectacular fashion, and we come to mourn a loss which was deeper than many realized at the time.

The narrative of “Blaze” shifts back and forth quite often, but I never lost track of where the story was going. This is saying a lot as the editing job on this movie could have rendered it into a complete mess, but it instead makes “Blaze” into an especially interesting motion picture as I was never sure which direction it would end up taking. Viewing a person’s life while they were alive and after they died proves to be endlessly fascinating here as we see all sides of the man in a way which feels both subjective and objective.

While watching “Blaze,” I kept thinking of “I Saw the Light” which focused on the life of Hank Williams. While it featured a stellar performance by Loki himself, Tom Hiddleston, the movie was a narrative mess even though it was told in a linear fashion. There were moments where it took me some time to figure out what was happening as events jumped from one place to another with very little warning. “Blaze” could have been a similar mess, but Hawke never lets us lose sight of where things are going, and kept my attention throughout as I was intrigued to see where the movie would head next. I can’t say that for a lot of biopics these days.

When we first see Blaze Foley, he is a complete mess and screwing up a recording session to where a producer does little to hesitate in throwing him out of his studio. But then we rewind back to when he was an up and coming musician who showed the great love he had for music. Sybil asks him if he wants to be famous, but Blaze replies he how he instead wants to be a legend. As the movie goes on, we see him struggling with being a true musician and becoming a star in a way which he feels will dilute everything he does. When the movie started, I felt it would be like Oliver Stone’s “The Doors” which made Jim Morrison into the kind of musician you thought you would like to spend time with, but ended up wanting to avoid at all costs. Instead, the movie dares to look at Blaze’s life in a way which evokes both sympathy and pity.

In his unorthodox way of wooing Sybil, we see Blaze defying ordinary conventions in showing his love to another human being. As the movie goes on, we watch as he struggles with both his artistic ambitions and the fear he has of becoming a commodity which may make him a rich man, but will also rob him of any artistic integrity he ever hopes to have. Clearly this is a musician who wants to leave his mark on society, but like any stubborn artist, he wants to leave his mark on his own terms. The trouble is, does anyone get to leave their mark on this world on their own terms?

“Blaze” was co-written and directed by Ethan Hawke, an actor who has struggled with his place as a celebrity. We know him for acting in box office hits like “Dead Poets Society” and “Sinister,” but he is also well-known for delving into movies which defy mainstream convention like the “Before Sunrise” trilogy. I can see how the story of Blaze Foley appealed to him as Blaze is an artist who wants to be true to his art, but he is also subjected to the pressures of commercial success, or the potential for it, to such a degree that they fold under the pressure or have an overwhelming fear of being seen as a sellout. Hawke continues to walk the fine line between Hollywood and indie movies, and I believe it when he says how long it took for him to become comfortable with the fame he had achieved.

Hawke has directed a few movies previously such as “Chelsea Walls” and “The Hottest State,” both of which had their share of flaws but showed him to be a filmmaker willing to take chances even if critics questioned his methods and material. With “Blaze,” he has given us a motion picture which feels assured in its vision, and it features some of the most ingenious editing I have seen in movie in some time.

Playing Blaze Foley is musician Ben Dickey, a man who has never acted before. But in a movie like this, the actors are meant to inhabit their characters more than play him, and Dickey ends up inhabiting Blaze in a way few others could. His life is similar to Blaze’s in a number of ways as he also has music running through his blood and has traveled throughout America playing songs filled with cinematic imagery which deal with life at its most hopeful and at its darkest.

As Blaze. Dickey gives the movie its heart and soul as we see him traveling through life wanting to be pure as an artist while dealing with a past and a heartache that will never let him be. He is matched perfectly with the fantastic Alia Shawkat as Blaze’s wife and muse, Sybil. I admired her work in a movie which came out earlier this year called “Duck Butter,” and she brings same emotionally raw power to the role of a person who lives to be another’s muse until it becomes too much to bear.

My only real complaint with “Blaze” is it never digs too deep into the singer’s life. We get only hints and implications of how troubled his childhood was, but no real specifics are given so we can only guess what led him to be such a tortured soul. We do get a nice cameo from Kris Kristofferson as Blaze’s father who is seen asking everyone for a cigarette, but it only tells us so much about their relationship. Perhaps Hawke felt it was better to imply certain things without spelling everything out to audience.

Hawke has had quite the year with this and “First Reformed,” and “Blaze” shows he has long since arrived at a place where he can do passion projects like this and Hollywood films to where he can transition from one to the other with relative ease. More importantly, he makes Blaze Foley into a complex human being who may have alienated many people close to him, but we never lose our empathy for the struggles he endures. I have seen many biopics which try to present a complex portrait and have failed to get below the surface, and it says a lot that Hawke doesn’t make the same mistake here.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

‘The Trump Prohecy’ – Yes, it is Real, and it Looks Awful

The Trump Prophecy poster

I learned of this movie’s existence through an article on the Birth Movies Death website, and its headline declared its trailer to be “one of the worst things we’ve ever seen.” Just when I thought I wouldn’t see a worse movie in 2018 than “Death of a Nation,” this one just might beat it for that unenviable title. But after watching this trailer, I’m not really eager to see it after sitting through Dinesh D’Souza’s latest historical garbage-fest.

The Trump Prophecy” is a Christian drama which tells the story of fireman Mark Taylor who believes, in April 2011, God told him Donald Trump would one day be elected President of the United States. Well, this makes sense, right? Because we know God talks to the sanest people on planet Earth all the time, right? And why wouldn’t God want Trump move into the White House? Could there be another white man who can personify what a true Christian is other than the host of “The Apprentice?”

Yes, I’m being sarcastic, but you can tell. “The Trump Prophecy” looks to defy all reasonable logic to make its audience believe Trump was anointed by God to become President of the United States. The trailer starts off with us being introduced to Mark Taylor (Chris Nelson) who talks about having seen everything as a fireman. But then we see him suffering through a nightmare, and the acting on display is as bad as any in “Death of a Nation.” Remember the beginning where Eva Braun dies a most unintentionally hilarious death? Mark’s bad dream threatens to be even worse.

From there, we people praying endlessly for what one character calls “the Commander-in-Chief prophecy.” Basically, Mark thinks his dreams are God’s way of talking to him. We are then shown headlines which say how Trump has no chance of winning the election, but Mark is intent on leading others in prayer as he looks to make America great again in a way which defies logic. There’s even a bible verse mentioned which I guess is used to justify this movie’s title. The description of this movie is hilarious enough, but watching its trailer has my eyes rolling all the way in the back of my head.

Look, many have a strong bias against faith-based movies like “God’s Not Dead” as they are made with an agenda in mind which results in a product which is an unforgivable insult to our collective intelligence. I try to keep an open mind to them as not all of them are out to do this, but “The Trump Prophecy” clearly is as there still many supporters who are determined to support Trump in spite of all the damage he has done so far. By now, it should be clear to the majority of Americans, let alone people around the world, that Trump is anything but a true Christian. He cheated on his wife with Stormy Daniels, his administration is full of corrupt people, several of who have since been indicted, and he clearly holds his own self-interests above all others.

“The Trump Prophecy,” like many faith-based movies, was made on a very low budget ($2 million to be exact) and in cooperation with the film department at Liberty University, the evangelical Christian school founded by the late Jerry Falwell. It is also directed by the head of that school’s film department head, Stephan Schultze. Only evangelical Christians would dare make a movie like this as they remain convinced beyond a doubt that Trump deserves to be President above all others, including those who are actual politicians.

Yes, I am tempted to see it in the same way I rush out to see Dinesh D’Souza’s movies, so I can analyze everything wrong with them. But this time I think I will pass as there are many others worth my time as Oscar season is heating up. Learning of “The Trump Prophecy” and watching its trailer simply serves as a reminder of how people willfully blind themselves to horrible truths, and of why Christianity and evangelical Christianity need to be seen as two very separate things.

Right now, I keep thinking of John Carpenter’s “Pro-Life,” the “Halloween” director’s second episode for the Showtime series “Masters of Horror.” That episode featured a religious fanatic played by Ron Perlman who was determined to rescue his daughter from an abortion clinic, especially after he hears a voice telling him to save her baby. But in the end, the voice he hears is revealed to be a demon who looks to unleash literal hell on earth. Perhaps it is unfair to compare Mark Taylor to Ron Perlman’s character as I am sure he is a decent man looking to lead a peaceful life, but hey, both said God talked to them.

Fathom Events will be screening “The Trump Prophecy” two days only, October 2 and 4, 2018, in theaters throughout the United States. While watching the trailer, which is included below, you may hear a voice talking to you. If this voice is telling you “save your money,” you are not insane.