‘Judas and the Black Messiah’ Movie and Blu-ray Review

The following review was written by Ultimate Rabbit correspondent, Tony Farinella.

Judas and the Black Messiah” is certainly a timely film with all of the issues that exist in the world today regarding racism.  Even though some strides have been made, we still have a long way to go until things are where they need to be in this world.  Systemic racism is a serious issue, and it doesn’t seem like there is a day that goes by where we are not hearing about a black man or woman being killed by someone in a position of power.  It is why films like this one are so important.  Many people do not watch or read the news.  When they see it in a major motion picture, it can sometimes raise their level of awareness.  That is the power of cinema at its finest.

Our film starts off in the late 1960’s when we meet William O’Neal (Lakeith Stanfield), a small-time criminal who goes around waving a badge in order to steal cars.  As he says in the film, the badge carries more weight than a gun because everyone knows there is an army behind that badge. When he is caught, he is forced to enter into a deal with Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons) to work undercover for the FBI.  If William does not accept this deal, he is facing eighteen months in prison for stealing a car along with five years for impersonating an officer.  He has to go undercover to keep an eye on what is happening with the Black Panther Party in Illinois, which is run by the charismatic and powerful Fred Hampton played by Daniel Kaluuya in an Oscar-winning performance.

Both Kaluuya and Stanfield were nominated for Best Supporting Actor for their work here, but I would have to say that I’d give the edge to Stanfield as he has to play a dual-role as a member of the Black Panther Party while also trying to keep Roy and the FBI happy.  While Kaluuya had to give more of a boisterous and in-your-face performance, Stanfield has to balance all of the moral dilemmas his character has to endure throughout the film. He wears all of this on his face and on screen with his stunning performance.  That being said, I understand it can be difficult to compare performances in different films let alone the same film and the same category.

As soon as Fred Hampton starts to gain some steam and bring people together to form the Rainbow Coalition, which is all-inclusive and a real threat to the infrastructure, greed, and abuse of power which is happening all around Illinois, he is sent to jail on some phony ice-cream theft charges.  This is when William O’Neal starts to have more responsibility put on his plate with the Black Panther Party.  He is up for the task, and he holds his own especially when it comes to security.  There is another element for Fred to consider and that is his budding romance with Deborah (Dominique Fishback).  She gives a vulnerable yet commanding performance as a young woman who is not afraid to have Fred’s back.

When Fred is finally released from prison, things get even more complicated with the Black Panther Party and the FBI’s director J. Edgar Hoover (Martin Sheen).  They are starting to see that Fred Hampton is a real threat and is bringing about real change for people.  The fact he is able to unite so many people of different races and cultural backgrounds is nothing short of amazing. He’s a true hero. At this point, William O’Neal is forced to make some difficult decisions for himself.  He has the Black Panther Party, which is, at times, suspicious of him.  He also has the FBI, which wonders if he really believes in what Fred Hampton is fighting for, each and every single day.

I’m a huge fan of the adult drama that is inspired by true events in Hollywood.  I think whenever a film can entertain and educate an audience, it’s really something to behold, and this film really stayed with me long after it was over.  It’s a powerful piece of filmmaking that is one of the best films of 2020. It features fantastic performances from top to bottom.  I mentioned the two supporting actors earlier, but to me, they are both the leads in this film.  I just feel as though Stanfield is on screen longer and has a meatier role than Kaluuya in this film.  There also must be credit given to Plemons.  Even though he is the bad guy in the film, there are a lot of layers to him.  It’s not a cardboard cutout bad guy. It must also be noted from a historical point of view, this was the first film with an all-black producing team to be nominated in the Best Picture category at the Academy Awards.  This is a well-acted, well-written, and supremely intense film from start to finish. I can’t recommend it enough.

* * * * out of * * * *

Blu-Ray Special Features:

Fred Hampton for the People

Unexpected Betrayal

Blu-Ray Info:

“Judas and the Black Messiah” is released on a single-disc Blu-ray with a digital copy from Warner Brothers Home Entertainment.  The film has a running time of 126 minutes and is rated R for violence and pervasive language.

Video/Audio Info:

The film has a 1080p/2.39:1 High-Definition transfer which really enhances the look and feel of the late 60’s into the early 70’s.  The audio is featured on the following formats: DTS-HD MA: English 5.1 and English Descriptive Audio with subtitles in English, French, and Spanish.

“Judas and the Black Messiah” is the kind of film which reminds me of why I love moves in the first place.  This is not a feel-good movie if you are familiar with the story at all, which I was not prior to watching it, but it proves a serious point that needs to be made.  It creates conversation, and it shows off some of the best acting I’ve seen in a very long time.  As mentioned earlier, I’ve always felt film is at its best when it tells stories which are worth telling and can open minds to what others in the world and are going through in their day-to-day lives.  The Blu-ray looks and sounds great, but I would have enjoyed a few more special features and maybe a detailed documentary on the real-life story.  Still, this is a film that you should add to your collection for the phenomenal acting and storytelling which is on display throughout.

Luca Guadagnino’s ‘Suspiria’ is a Truly Baffling Remake

I have to admire the hutzpah of any filmmaker who dares remake Dario Argento’s “Suspiria.” The 1977 horror classic remains one of my favorite movies ever as well as one of the most beautiful films, let alone horror films, I have ever seen. Having just purchased and watched it on 4K Ultra HD, I love it even more as the lavish and exaggerated colors Argento utilized now feel more orgasmic than ever. Who would dare step into the shoes of Jessica Harper who portrayed Suzy Bannion? Is there an artist or a band that can create a music score as original and haunting as what Goblin gave us? Is there a cinematographer, other than Roger Deakins, who can match the incredible lighting design of Luciano Tovoli? And, most importantly, is there a filmmaker who take this material and make it their own?

David Gordon Green, who hit horror gold with his reboot of “Halloween,” was originally set to helm this version of “Suspiria,” but it ended up falling into the hands of “Call Me by Your Name” director Luca Guadagnino who was determined to make something which was more of an homage than a remake. It certainly has its own look, a terrific cast, an original and haunting score from Radiohead’s Thom Yorke, and Tilda Swinton among other things. But long before the end credits came up, this “Suspiria” became one of the most perplexing motion pictures I have sat through in a long time. And as this two hour and 32-minute horror film lurched its way to a rather baffling conclusion, I found myself impatiently waiting for Jessica Harper’s cameo to come up as I had given up trying to make sense of everything going on in the story.

This “Suspiria” takes us to 1977 Berlin which was at the height of German Autumn, and here we find Susie Bannion (Dakota Johnson) auditioning for the Markos Dance Academy. Unlike Harper’s Suzy from the original, this Susie proves to be far more confident in her dancing abilities as she wows the teachers almost immediately, especially Madame Blanc (Swinton). Meanwhile, another student, Patricia Hingle (an unrecognizable Chloe Grace Moretz) confesses to her psychotherapist, Dr. Josef Klemperer (I’ll let you figure out who plays him), that the academy is run by a coven of witches who worship the Three Mothers – a trio of witches who once roamed the Earth (Mother Tenebrarum, Mother Lachrymarum, and Mother Suspiriorum), and we all know this cannot be good. Once the main players have been established, we wait for hell to boil over and students to die the most painful of deaths because a story like this cannot have a happy ending. Or can it?

The first thing I should note about Guadagnino’s “Suspiria” is its visual style as he, along with cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom, has gone out of his way to go in the polar opposite direction of the visual palate Argento gave us. Perhaps this is because it was the only real way for Guadagnino to make this film his own without it seeming like a copy. He uses little in the way of primary colors and instead opts for a winter-ish approach to highlight the bleakness of the setting and time period the story is situated in. But as unrelentingly bleak as this approach is, both Guadagnino and Mukdeeprom do give us some striking images as they delve deeper into the lives of the characters and the academy’s strange history. Still, I wonder if the cinematography was much bleaker than it ever needed to be.

The screenplay by David Kajganich delves into themes involving motherhood, the nature of evil and matriarchies, but neither he or the director ever seem clear about what they want to say precisely about them. A friend of mine attended a Q&A with Guadagnino, and he described the director as looking like a deer caught in the headlights when he asked questions about the themes. In retrospect, I wonder if everyone involved with this remake succeeded in making it so abstract to where even they could not describe what they intended.

There is also the inclusion of real-life events such as hijacking of Lufthansa Flight 181, bombings, and numerous kidnappings perpetrated by the Red Army Faction, and they feel like unneeded distractions as they are brought up. The terror of real life doesn’t quite mesh with the terror at the dance academy, and it would have been better for the filmmakers to focus on the academy instead of adding historical elements which deserve their own movie.

It’s all a real shame because the cast of this remake makes many scenes worth watching. Dakota Johnson, completely unrecognizable from her role in those god-awful “Fifty Shades of Grey” movies, who gives everything she has physically and emotionally to her performance as Susie Bannion. I read she spent two years training in ballet in preparation for her role, and it shows from start to finish. Watching her enter the academy with such elegant confidence as she goes through a violent period of self-discovery is something I could never take my eyes off of.

The other cast members include Moretz, Mia Goth, Angela Winkler, Ingrid Caven, and Fabrizia Sacchi who succeed in throwing themselves completely into their characters with complete abandon. And then there is Tilda Swinton, one of the few actresses my dad would pay to read names from the phone book to him. She remains a stunning presence in each project she appears in, and this film is no exception.

And yes, the dancing, which played only a small part in the original, is brilliant in the way it is staged. Like I said, these actresses didn’t just inhabit these characters, they threw themselves into them both physically and emotionally. For what its worth, this remake does boast quite the ensemble.

Still, I have to be honest and say, despite its positives, this “Suspiria” proved to be a great disappointment. I did not go into it with a mission of comparing to Argento’s original as Guadagnino as made something which stands on its own, but none of it ever struck me as being the least bit scary. Sure, there are some shocking moments like when a young dancer finds her body forcibly contorted into excruciatingly painful positions Ronny Cox would never have been able to pull off in “Deliverance,” but one or two scenes does not a horror film make. Instead, this remake proves to be a meandering mess which never quite knows how to deal with its numerous themes in a satisfying or truly fulfilling way.

There is no doubt in my mind that Guadagnino and everyone else here will bounce right back from this misguided film, and I look forward to what he has in store for us next.

Oh, and just one more thing: I just love how these movies involving dancers always have teachers who smoke an endless number of cigarettes. Here they are mentoring these passionate students to keep their bodies at their peak and make sure they remain healthy throughout their training, and yet they do nothing to hide their intense nicotine addiction. I have seen this in so many movies to where I wonder if being a dancer or a dance instructor is as stressful as it looks. The drinking I get, but the smoking? Hopefully someone will be able to explain this to me someday.

* * out of * * * *

The Initial Reaction Audiences Had to ‘Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer’

John McNaughton’s “Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer” was made back in 1986, but it did not get a theatrical release until 1990. All these years later, it remains a very disturbing look at a murderer lacking a conscience who essentially kills at random. For those who’ve seen “Henry,” you know how unnerving it gets, and the fact it got released at all is amazing.

Michael Rooker, who plays the Henry of the movie’s title, appeared at the Egyptian Theatre back in 2011 to talk about audience’s initial reaction to it. Neither he nor anyone else involved in its making believed it would ever get any response whatsoever. They filmed what they thought people wanted to see, a scary movie, but this was no average horror flick like “Halloween” or “Friday the 13th.” “Henry” involves real life horror, the kind we often do not go to the movies to see. And in the end, what’s scarier than real life violence?

Chuck Parello, who would later direct “Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, Part II,” managed to get the film screened at the 1989 Chicago Film Festival, and this later led to it being shown at the Telluride Festival. Rooker recollected about the first time he saw “Henry” in a theater, and he said there was around forty people in the audience. There were not a lot of sounds coming from them, and no laughter. This led Rooker to say that, after you’ve watched “Henry” twenty times, you begin to see the humor in it. For the record, I completely agree with him on this.

“Henry’s” most disturbing and controversial scene comes when Henry and Otis (Tom Towles) do a home invasion and murder an entire family. We watch these two as they view the video they shot of them killing each member, and Otis finds watching it once is not enough. After this scene ended, Rooker said more than 60% of the audience left after this scene, and they all left at the same time. Many of them were vocal about what they had witnessed:

“Fuck this shit!”

“This is bullshit!”

“This is what cinema’s coming to?”

Rooker was sitting with the producers when this happened, and he freely admitted how they all loved the response “Henry” was getting.

People came out of the film stunned and silent, and Rooker remembered seeing one guy walking out of the Nuart Theatre in Los Angeles with his hands shaking. The actor also said a friend of his yelled at him because the film made him think “those thoughts.” There were no car chases, no gratuitous violence, and the violence shown in “Henry” is mostly minimal. Many of the murders Henry commits are never shown but heard as the camera circles around the bodies of his victims as we hear them take their last breath over the speakers. It ends up leaving a lot of room for imagination as you can’t help but think about what you didn’t see. Sometimes it is what you don’t see which is the most frightening thing of all.

But the most memorable incident for Rooker happened when he arrived late to one screening. As he headed into the theater, a woman, who was not walking but running out of the movie, ran right smack dab into him. When she realized who he was, she screamed and raced to the women’s bathroom. The ushers and producers had to come out and calm her down, saying to her over and over, “He’s really an actor. “

“Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer” is seriously disturbing, but for good reason. Unlike other horror movies which revel in blood, gore and vicious fantasies, this was one which dealt with horror of real-life viciousness. Every once in a while, you need a film like this one to remind people of the ugliness of violence, and to make us realize we are not as desensitized to it as we may think. If “Henry” didn’t cause a good portion of moviegoers to walk out, then the filmmakers would not have succeeded in making this point clear.

Michael Rooker on ‘Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer’

WRITER’S NOTE: This article is about a screening which took place in 2011.

Actor Michael Rooker appeared at the Egyptian Theatre for the 25th anniversary screening of the film in which he made his acting debut, “Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer.” Even with the passing of time, it remains as infinitely disturbing as it did when it was first released. Rooker discussed how he got cast and of what went on during its making. He also told the audience this was the first time he had seen the film since it first was released back in 1986.

Rooker said he started out as a theatre actor in Chicago after graduating from the Goodman School of Drama. At the time casting began for “Henry,” he was in a play called “Sea Marks,” and the director was doing the prosthetics for it. Rooker said he didn’t care if the screenplay was good or bad because he just wanted to do a movie. Doing “Henry” was a test for Rooker to see how working while shooting out of sequence would work for him.

For research, Rooker said he read several books about serial killers which were written by doctors, but he found them to be “mostly crap.” He ended up getting more from the Texas Rangers who interviewed the man this film was more or less based on, Henry Lee Lucas. Also, the director, John McNaughton, asked him and the other actors to write character sketches. Rooker said he did not want to do that though because he did this endlessly in college and was now “sick of writing stuff down.” Instead, he recorded an audio tape of himself speaking in character.

During shooting, Rooker said he tried staying in character all day long. This led to a lot of strange times on set as actors and the crew were not sure if they were talking to him or Henry. McNaughton also got him a room for him to hide out from the actors and crew, and it was filled with mirrors which Rooker later covered up with trash bags. He stayed in the room all day until he was called to set.

The budget for “Henry” was a mere $120,000 according to Rooker, and the guy selling him cigarettes towards the film’s end was the one who financed it. Being an independent film, the filmmakers had no permits and had to hide whenever the cops were in the area. Once they were gone, the crew went right back to filming. They did, however, get busted during a pivotal scene in which Henry is shown throwing a body into the river. While shooting, four police cars came out of nowhere, and one policeman got out and asked, “Are you throwing bodies into the river?”

Once they looked in the bag Rooker was about to hurl over the side, they started laughing uncontrollably and ended up leaving the crew alone.

“Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer” opened up a lot of doors for Michael Rooker, and it even scored him a role in John Sayles’ “Eight Men Out.” His terrifying performance is still embedded in the minds of so many who dared to view it either on the silver screen or on their own television sets, and they still cannot get it out of their heads. Since then, he has had a great career which has allowed him to play both good and bad guys with relative ease. Michael still has many great performances left to give, but don’t count on him doing a “Henry” sequel unless he can be convinced it can be turned into a musical.

Joaquin Phoenix on His Brutally Physical Performance in ‘The Master’

WRITER’S NOTE: This article was written back in 2012.

It has been two years since we saw him in “I’m Still Here,” the mockumentary on his alleged retirement from acting and bizarre transformation into a hip-hop artist. Now, thankfully, Joaquin Phoenix has returned to acting in Paul Thomas Anderson’s cinematic triumph “The Master.” Justin Craig of Fox News calls Phoenix’s performance “brutally physical,” and Peter Travers of Rolling Stone says the actor gives “the performance of his career” as Freddie Quell, a deeply disturbed World War II veteran. Just watching the various movie trailers for “The Master” reminds us of how emotionally raw Phoenix can get whenever he is onscreen, and it is both amazing and scary as there is no doubt as to how far he will go in preparation to play a character.

It turns out Anderson had Phoenix in mind when he was writing the role of Freddie, and he admitted to being amazed at Phoenix’s acting abilities and of his discipline while on the set.

“He’s like Daniel Day-Lewis in his level of concentration. He just got in character and stayed there-for three months he didn’t stop. Joaquin is very unpredictable. A lot of the time I didn’t know what he was going to do,” Anderson said.

Phoenix himself only says so much about how his preparation for a role as he compares actors to magicians in that they “don’t talk about how their tricks work, because people would go, ‘Oh, that’s all you do?'” He did say, however, how Anderson set up two cameras for certain scenes between him and Philip Seymour Hoffman who plays the charismatic Lancaster Dodd. This allowed both actors to “be in the moment and not be worried about shooting the one side and then re-lighting and shooting from the other side.” Phoenix described this as making a huge difference for him while portraying Freddie.

There is also the story of how Anderson showed Phoenix a video of a monkey falling asleep and told the actor the monkey was him.

“Paul called me Bubbles on the set,” Phoenix said. “Bubbles was Michael Jackson’s pet monkey, and I was Paul’s pet monkey. The key to Freddie is an animal, just pure id. For the scene where he’s arrested and put in jail and all that, I just watched videos of wild animals that get into suburbia. If you’ve seen video of a deer or a bear that finds its way into suburbia and the cops have to tranquilize it, it seems as if the brain stops working. If they’re cornered, they’ll slam into walls, or one leg tries to go left while the other is going right. Its complete fear and chaos. They can’t control themselves at all. That was the key to Freddie. And Paul certainly called me his pet monkey.”

While Phoenix still says he experiences problems with acting, it does look like he has rediscovered his love for it in “The Master.” Hearing him talk about being an actor shows how much he has struggled with his gift to where he had to rediscover a whole new way of doing it.

“Part of why I was frustrated with acting was because I took it so seriously,” said Phoenix. “I want it to be so good that I get in my own way. It’s like love: when you fall in love, you’re not yourself anymore. You lose control of being natural and showing the beautiful parts of yourself, and all somebody recognizes is this total desperation. And that’s very unattractive. Once I became a total buffoon, it was so liberating.

“I’d see child actors and I’d get so jealous, because they’re just completely wide open. If you could convince them that something frightening was going to happen, they would actually feel terror. I wanted to feel that so badly. I’d just been acting too long, and it had kind of been ruined for me. I wanted to put myself in a situation that would feel brand-new and hopefully inspire a new way of approaching acting. It (“The Master”) did do that for me.”

SOURCES:

Justin Craig, “Joaquin Phoenix’s performance in ‘The Master’ has Oscar written all over it,” Fox News, September 13, 2012.

Peter Travers, “The Master” movie review, Rolling Stone, September 10, 2012.

David Ansen, “Secrets of ‘The Master’,” The Daily Beast, August 20, 2012.

Jessica Winter, “‘The Master’s’ Joaquin Phoenix on Animal Inspirations, Curb Your Enthusiasm and the Pleasures of Discomfort,” Time, September 13, 2012.

Jake Gyllenhaal on His Intense Police Training for ‘End of Watch’

As Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) officer Brian Taylor, actor Jake Gyllenhaal finally gets to play a cop for the first time in “End of Watch.” Written and directed by former South Central Los Angeles resident David Ayers, the movie follows two young police officers played by Gyllenhaal and Michael Pena who are marked for death by a notorious cartel after they confiscate money and firearms from them. Although it was shot in 22 days on a budget of just $7 million, Gyllenhaal did not skimp on the details and went through a seriously intense preparation which extended far beyond him simply getting a buzz cut.

Gyllenhaal underwent five months of serious training with the LAPD, and this included going on 12-hour ride-alongs through various crime-ridden neighborhoods. These ride-alongs had a schedule which started at 4:00 p.m. and went through to 4 a.m., and he went on them as much as three times a week.

“On my first ride-along in Inglewood, someone was murdered. We were the second car on the scene,” Gyllenhaal said of his experience. “That was definitely a wakeup call. We were involved in stolen vehicle chases. You see domestic violence, disputes that turn violent. You really see your city differently after that.”

Gyllenhaal admitted to getting a little nervous at times as he and the police rode up on crimes involving domestic disputes, attempted murders and stolen cars. The actor pointed out, however, that he was with some pretty amazing officers who made him feel very protected in such a dangerous environment. In addition, he went to a dojo in the mornings for fight training and also got a lot of exposure to weapons and tactical training as well.

“We did training with live ammunition and training with the SWAT Team a few times a week for six-hour sessions,” Gyllenhaal said. “We had to learn tactic exercises and moving exercises with live ammo and then we did fight training in Echo Park. David Ayer, our director, his best friend has a dojo, so we trained there in MMA (Mixed Martial Arts) fighting too. Eventually, after getting the crap beaten out of you and being on the street, you start to actually come into the role and feeling like you really can play the part.”

But one of the most interesting stories regarding his preparation to play Officer Brian Taylor involved him getting shot by a taser.

“I did get tased. We were at the police academy, and they asked us if we wanted to try it out and me being me said, ‘Yeah, of course, yeah!’ Actually, they gave us a choice between pepper spray and being tased,” Gyllenhaal recollected.

When it came to choosing getting tased or pepper sprayed, Gyllenhaal’s decision proved to be a well-informed one:

“Pepper spray is long and painful, it lasts for like 45 minutes and the taser just lasts for five second,” Gyllenhaal said. “But afterwards it’s actually kind of relaxing. After you’ve had thousands and thousands of volts of electricity going through your body.”

It looks like Gyllenhaal’s preparation for “End of Watch” has really paid off as he is getting some of the best reviews of his career. It is clear playing a police officer has had a tremendous impact on him as he talked of the stigma cops constantly deal with when they are out on the street in uniform. He has also gone on to say how the experience of making this movie has completely transformed not just his idea of law enforcement but of Los Angeles as well. When all is said and done, watching this film will do the same for the audience.

SOURCES:

Colin Covert, “Jake Gyllenhaal’s education on the mean streets,” Star Tribune, September 22, 2012.

Zac Shull, “Q&A: Jake Gyllenhaal Talks ‘End of Watch,’ Training with Police & If He Gets Pass for Speeding,” Baller Status, September 21, 2012.

Justin Harp, “Jake Gyllenhaal: ‘I was tased while preparing for End of Watch,'” Digital Spy, September 18, 2012.

‘Hard Candy’ Strikes You Right At The… Well, Just Watch The Movie

Hard Candy” is a low budget psychological thriller released back in 2005, and it was one of the many movies which I rented from Netflix which has gathered far too much dust before I finally took the time to view it. But view this movie I finally did, and shame on me for putting it off for so long. These days, it feels so rare to find a thriller which touches on such controversial issues like pedophilia or the uncertainty of online dating. I mean, do you have any idea who is on the other end of the computer screen? Aren’t you afraid to find out? I’m not saying you shouldn’t go through with it, but after watching this movie, you’ll be going into it with extreme caution even from the waist up.

We see 14-year-old Hayley Stark (Ellen Page, now Elliot Page) meeting up with 32-year-old photographer Jeff Kohlver at a nice modern café. They have been communicating with each other via the internet, but this is the first time they have seen one another in the flesh. After the inevitably awkward introduction, they get comfortable enough to where Hayley goes back with Jeff to his house on the hills. In the process of having so much fun, however, Jeff passes out and awakens to find himself tied to a chair. Hayley has turned the tables and makes her intentions to him very clear; she accuses Jeff of being a sexual predator and is aiming to make him pay for the hideous crimes she believes he has committed.

Watching “Hard Candy” reminded me a lot of Ariel Dorfman’s “Death and The Maiden” which was later made into a Roman Polanski film starring Sigourney Weaver and Ben Kingsley. Weaver ends up interrogating Kingsley because she believes he was the one who viciously tortured and raped her years before. The problem is she only has his voice to go on as she was blindfolded and never saw who it was assaulting her. You spend your time wondering if he is innocent or not, and if Weaver’s character is overreacting.

“Hard Candy” is a lot like “Death and The Maiden” because, until the very end, you are not sure what to believe. Hayley seems pretty damn certain of Jeff’s dark nature, but he is very convincing in proving to her and the audience that she has the wrong guy. But if Jeff really is the bad guy, you have to wonder who is the sicker of the two. Hayley is more than prepared to turn this guy into a late blooming opera singer with quite a falsetto, and her lack of hesitation in doing so suggests she is not mentally balanced.

When these two first appear onscreen, we know as much about them as they about one another, so we are put into their mindset as we try to figure out what their intentions might be. Can they trust one another? Can we? If so, which one should we trust more? “Hard Candy” teases us with the possibilities of what could go wrong with this date. It’s unsettling enough that you have a 30-year-old guy hanging out with a girl who’s not even of legal driving age, but how vulnerable will she allow herself to be around him? Then again, teenagers are not as dumb as many make them out to be.

“Hard Candy” is one of those movies which stayed with me long after I have finished watching it, and there are sequences that play more on what you think you see instead of what you actually see. The effect of those moments is truly unsettling to where I almost would compare “Hard Candy” to Michael Haneke’s “Funny Games.” Furthermore, the two main characters are not just two stock characters that could only exist in the movies; they are real people thrown into a situation which we ourselves hope never to get caught in. The questions it raises of justice, conscience, sickness of the mind, and others on top of them will have you delving into long conversations with those you just witnessed the movie with.

Now a 14-year-old person taking control of an older man and having a surprisingly strong knowledge of medical procedures may feel totally unbelievable as it may seem like something out of a John Grisham novel like “The Client.” This, however, just highlights the brilliance of Page’s performance as Hayley Stark. “Hard Candy” proved to be her big breakthrough in America, and she made this one before “X-Men: The Last Stand” and “Juno.” Page handles all the complexities of this character like a pro, making her seem all the more frighteningly real. The camera locks right into Page’s gazing eyes which show a determination of action she can never be easily pulled away from. She is truly amazing to watch here.

Patrick Wilson essentially plays the more reactive role, and watching him is painful as it truly looks like he is suffering more than he is acting. It’s not surprising to hear he passed out in one very intense scene (trust me, you will know which one I am talking about), and he gives an excellent performance in a role most actors are not necessarily in a hurry to play. Over the past few years, Patrick has given strong performances in movies like “Little Children” and “Watchmen,” but this easily stands out as some of his best work. You remain suspicious of his character throughout, but darn it, seeing him suffer makes you feel for the guy even if you don’t want to.

“Hard Candy” marked the directorial debut of David Slade who made music videos for various artists including Stone Temple Pilots and Tori Amos. I liked how he captured the sterile appearance of Jeff’s post-modern apartment and of how it is forever changed by the vicious actions of these characters. He also maintains a strong level of suspense and tension throughout the movie, something which never seems easy to do these days. Since this film, he since gone on to direct “30 Days of Night” and “The Twilight Saga: Eclipse,” but I’m guessing neither have the power this one film has.

Made for around $1 million, “Hard Candy” is a very effective thriller for those willing to plumb its dark psychological depths. The power of suggestion of certain scenes will be more than enough to drive those lacking a strong stomach out of the room, but if you like this kind of movie, it no doubt delivers. It’s also a hell of an acting showcase for Wilson and Page, but even more so for Page who has since gone on to a great acting career. The movie leaves its mark on your consciousness and will stay with you long after the credits are done. There are only so many movies I can say that about these days.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

Philip Seymour Hoffman Talks About Portraying ‘The Master’

WRITER’S NOTE: This article was written in 2012. Philip, you are still missed.

Oscar winner Philip Seymour Hoffman remains one of the best character actors in movies today, and his role as Lancaster Dodd in “The Master” is yet another brilliant performance on his never-ending resume. The movie reunites Hoffman with filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson who has cast him in five of his six movies. From the gay and painfully timid boom mike operator in “Boogie Nights” to the infinitely angry mattress store own Dean Trumbell from “Punch-Drunk Love,” Hoffman has gone from playing one unique character to portraying one who is the complete opposite, and makes one wonder how he goes about preparing to play each role he takes on.

In an interview with Rolling Stone film critic Peter Travers, Hoffman made it clear he was not out to turn Lancaster into some sort of bizarre human being with scary ideas.

“The thing is that this character needs to be as accessible as possible,” Hoffman said. “That when you meet him in the film and then when you get to know him in the film that you don’t judge him so much. I think we (he and Anderson) succeeded in that you actually take him in. He’s a real person, and you can almost see how he’s brought so many people close to him or been so successful. You could see how he can function in the world. You know he’s not too idiosyncratic or too eccentric even. He’s full of passion for his ideas, and some of his ideas are really good ones.”

Hoffman said it was those things he and Anderson wanted to concentrate on as opposed to the “oddity” of the character. When it came to Lancaster Dodd, he never looked at him as the head of a cult or even a religion. In his mind, the character was really the leader of a movement and not a fraudulent person.

Of course, much has been said about how “The Master” was inspired by L. Ron Hubbard and Scientology to where many are already nauseated at hearing this said over and over. When talking to the Wall Street Journal’s Rachel Dodes, Hoffman tried to clear up this issue as best he could:

“The idea that L. Ron Hubbard and that movement (Scientology) was the basis for some story in the film is accurate, but it’s really not a film about that, so it isn’t accurate enough for me to play L. Ron Hubbard. And so, I didn’t,” Hoffman said. “It wasn’t enough of that kind of story to do that. So, I wanted to think about other people because it was a fictional thing and the character is a very fictional character. So, I thought about other people who had that kind of charisma and moved people and people followed them, and what that meant for me. I steered clear of anything having to do with ‘The L. Ron Hubbard Story’ because it’s too specific and the film wasn’t going to support that, so I thought it would be confusing.”

From there, Hoffman was a bit cryptic as to what individuals he based Lancaster Dodd on. Dodes told him she heard Orson Welles was an inspiration for this role, but Hoffman said he never tried to emulate the “Citizen Kane” actor and director in “The Master.”

“It’s like when you are thinking about something, a lot of ideas go through your head, and references go through your head but ultimately you are just looking for something in yourself. There are certain behaviors, the way people sound. I didn’t really try to play anybody if that’s what you’re looking for.”

Like his co-stars Joaquin Phoenix and Amy Adams, Philip Seymour Hoffman is getting serious Oscar consideration for work in “The Master.” The fact he already has one Academy Award for “Capote” doesn’t seem to matter to anybody because the general feeling is he will get a second one at some point in the near future. Whether he does or does not, it is for certain we can expect many more great performances from this actor as his attention to character remains impeccable.

SOURCES:

Peter Travers, “Philip Seymour Hoffman on New Film, ‘The Master’,” ABC News, September 13, 2012.

Rachel Dodes, “‘The Master’ Star Philip Seymour Hoffman: ‘It’s Not a Scientology Movie’,” Wall Street Journal, September 7, 2012.

Amy Adams Shows a Menacing Side in ‘The Master’

WRITER’S NOTE: This article was written in 2012.

While Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman are getting some of the biggest raves of their career for their work in “The Master,” Amy Adams proves to every bit as good as Peggy Dodd, the wife to Hoffman’s charismatic leader of “The Cause.” From the outset, this looks like yet another role where Adams gets to be all sweet, but as Peggy, she proves to be tough and hotly determined to further her husband’s work and silence every single doubter who ridicules his beliefs. While the male characters revel in the effect they have on others, it is Peggy who exerts the most control over the people around her.

Peggy has been described by many as being a Lady Macbeth-like character as she is able to manipulate her husband into doing things he might not otherwise do. That this character cannot be mistaken for an easy pushover appealed greatly to Adams as well as the challenge of acting against Hoffman, whom she adores.

“It was fun to get to go toe-to-toe with him as a person of power,” Adams said. “In some past roles I’ve been a bit more submissive, so it was great to get to overpower Phillip in ‘The Master’ – because that’s the only time that’s ever going to happen in my life.”

Still, the role proved to be emotionally demanding for Adams, and she talked with Stephen Schaefer of the Boston Herald about why this was the case:

“I had to lose myself in a character to which any similarities I had were not similarities that I want to bring out of myself,” Adams remarked. “To lose myself in a character like that, well, it doesn’t feel as good at the end of the day. Let’s just put it that way.”

Of all the characters in “The Master,” Peggy proves to be the most mysterious as we never get much of a backstory on her or discover how she first met Lancaster Dodd (Hoffman’s character). In an interview with Scott Simon on NPR’s Weekend Edition, Adams explained how she went about playing Peggy and of what she brought to the role:

`”I tend to try to fill in the blanks as much as possible for myself,” Adams said. “One of the things that I really thought about was a long time ago I read a book called ‘The Feminine Mystique.’ In ‘The Feminine Mystique’ she (author Betty Friedan) talked a lot about women’s roles in World War II and sort of how that translated post-World War II. Their roles were a little less traditional than they’d been before, and then when the men came back, they sort of went into the background again. And I saw my character as somebody who was very focused on education, was very educated, very smart, but given the climate, felt like she was more powerful behind a man than in front of a man.”

Adams also made clear how Peggy is a true believer and not a blind follower like some might suspect her of being. Throughout the movie, Peggy does see the positive outcome of her husband’s philosophy, and she defends it without question. This leads her to be very hard on Phoenix’s character of Freddie Quell whose doubts and violent ways typically get the best of him.

While Amy Adams may still seem to us like America’s sweetheart, she has defied that image to give us some hard-edged characters like the one she played in “The Fighter.” “The Master” is the latest example of just how far her range as an actress goes, and hearing her talk about the similarities between her and Peggy shows there is more to her than her image suggests:

“I can be really steely, maybe not to such effect, but I’m definitely not always warm and cuddly and sunshine and lollipops, so it’s nice to sometimes get to bring that to a role. Although I do love playing characters with a sunny disposition, it just takes a little bit more energy some days.”

SOURCES:

Stephen Schaefer, “Amy Adams’ acting skills put to test by ‘Curve,’ ‘Master’,” Boston Herald, September 19, 2012.

Justin Harp, “‘The Master’ Amy Adams: ‘I adore Philip Seymour Hoffman’,” Digital Spy, September 19, 2012.

Scott Simon, “Amy Adams: A Steely Wife Stands Behind ‘The Master’,” NPR Weekend Edition, September 15, 2012.

Nick Nolte and Paul Mazursky on Mike the Dog from ‘Down and Out in Beverly Hills’

DOWN AND OUT IN BEVERLY HILLS, Nick Nolte, Mike the dog, 1986, on all fours

WRITER’S NOTE: As the first paragraph states, this article was written back in 2011.

As great as Nick Nolte, Richard Dreyfuss and Bette Midler were in Paul Mazursky’s “Down and Out in Beverly Hills,” they were almost completely upstaged by Mike the Dog. If there was ever an animal in movie history that deserved an Oscar, it was Mike. Forget Benji, Rin Tin Tin, and Lassie, Mike had them all beat in portraying the nasty and incredibly neurotic Scottish border collie Matisse. His reactions to his owners, the Whiteman family, and his affection for Nolte’s character of Jerry Baskin made him as much a character as anyone else in this classic comedy. Mazursky and Nolte were enthusiastic in telling stories about Mike when they appeared at the Aero Theatre on August 14, 2011 for this movie’s 25th anniversary screening.

One memorable scene had Nolte on his knees trying to get Matisse to eat his dog food by eating it with him. Determined to see this through, Nolte said he went to a nearby grocery store and bought all kinds of dog food, mostly of the meat variety. When he started dispensing it into different bowls, however, he noticed that to the side there were other dog bowls filled with peas and corn. Nolte went up to Mike’s trainer, Clint Rowe, and asked why these bowls were out. To this, Rowe replied, “Mike’s a vegetarian.”

OOPS!!!

Mazursky had even more stories to tell about Mike and the big star he was. Reminiscing about an Air France jet he flew on to Europe, he saw Mike sitting in first class and reading a magazine (he didn’t remember which one). People ended up making their way up to first class just to see him. Things got even more bizarre when Mazursky got off the plane as there were photographers out in full force at the gate. Mazursky said he greeted them kindly, but they instead went right past him to shoot pictures of Mike.

Things eventually reached a final straw when Mazursky went up to his hotel room and found he was not in room 704, but 804. Guess who was there to greet him when he opened the door? That’s right, Mike. At this point, Mazursky looked him dead in the eye and said, “Out!”

Mike complied and ran off.

Mike went on to play Matisse in the short-lived TV version of “Down and Out in Beverly Hills” and also appeared in various commercials. He has since passed away and is hanging out with Spuds McKenzie and the Taco Bell Chihuahua in doggie heaven. Still, his talent has never been lost on anyone who watched him in the 1986 comedy, let alone those who helped make it. Even during dallies, film editor Richard Halsey kept telling Mazursky:

“That fucking dog is stealing the movie!”