‘The House That Jack Built: Director’s Cut’ is More Subversive Than Shocking

The House That Jack Built poster

“Wanting people to listen, you can’t just tap them on the shoulder anymore. You have to hit them with a sledgehammer, and then you’ll notice you’ve got their strict attention.”

-John Doe from “Seven”

Lars Von Trier loves getting our strict attention too, and he does this yet again with “The House That Jack Built” which stars Matt Dillon as a serial killer. On November 28, 2018, IFC Films presented his director’s cut for one night only, and the advertisements boasted of how over 100 people walked out of it at Cannes, and that those who stayed gave it a 10-minute standing ovation. Give IFC some credit as they have seized upon the film’s controversy to great effect. they are showing Von Trier’s cut before releasing an R-rated version in December, and the advertisements make it clear how this version may not be your cup of tea. As for us proud Von Trier veterans, we know exactly what we are in for. Or do we?

What surprised me most about this cut of “The House That Jack Built,” is that it is nowhere as shocking as I was led to believe. In fact, I found the violence at times rather tame especially compared to the scenes of mutilation in “Antichrist.” This is in many ways the result of many people writing about the movie’s most graphic scenes in scorching detail from one article to the next, but we are also living through a tumultuous time where few things can shock us the way they used to. Or perhaps the images our minds generate will always come across as more shocking than what any filmmaker can put on the silver screen.

The violence shown is extremely brutal and very bloody, and what Jack does with the bodies is just as disturbing. But Von Trier keeps us at a distance from the action to where we are fully in Jack’s mindset, treating his soon to be murdered victims as parts of major work of art. Many may cringe at the images Von Trier thrusts upon us with a twisted glee, but in the end, this is only a movie, not real life.

The movie is constructed of five episodes, each of which shows Jack murdering one or more people and it takes place over 12 years in Washington State. Each murder serves to illustrate Jack’s development as a serial killer, one with a serious case of OCD. And throughout we hear him having a conversation with a man named Verge (played by Bruno Ganz) about the murders he has gotten away with, and their talks take many twist and turns as it leads to a grand finale in one of the darkest places on earth.

The first chapter entitled “1st Incident” has Jack picking up a stranded motorist (played by Uma Thurman) who proceeds to taunt him by saying he might be a serial killer, and it serves to set up an ironic tone which will dominate much of the movie. It’s almost impossible to take things seriously as Von Trier is practically begging us to root for Jack to kill her as she cannot shut her mouth and even goes as far to say where he can bury her body.

Another surprising thing about Von Trier’s serial killer film is that it’s actually quite funny. This is clearly the case in the “2nd Incident” in which Jack attempts to con his way into the home of another woman (played by Siobhan Fallon Hogan, whose expressions are priceless) in a pathetic fashion. He first tries to pass himself off as a policeman, but his explanations for why he doesn’t have a badge on him are just hopeless, and yet he does not give up easily. And thanks to his OCD, he is convinced he has left evidence of her murder to where he keeps going in and out of the house several times.

The violence does become even more brutal and nihilistic as “The House That Jack Built” goes on, and men, women, children and animals are never spared from this wrath. I’m not going to bother going into specific descriptions as, again, the gory details have already been written about in various articles, but I will say this movie is not shock for shock’s sake. If you want that, check out the god-awful “Human Centipede 3.”

Von Trier has said in interviews how he was inspired by “the idea that life is evil and soulless” as well as the rise of Donald Trump. Indeed, many live in anxious uncertainty as the former reality television show host never ceases to give us one headache after another, and seeing him and his cronies (several of whom have since been indicted) threatens to make us apathetic to his inescapable crimes. Jack exists in a world too apathetic to realize the horrible things he is doing to others, and he keeps getting away with murder as a result.

A key scene for me was when Jack corners his girlfriend (played by Riley Keough) who slowly realizes who he really is. She screams for help, and Jack does the same in a mocking fashion. When he opens a window and cries to anyone who can hear how “nobody wants to help,” this helps illustrate just how apathetic the world is to the cries of someone in danger. If there are people willing to help someone, none of them are in a close enough vicinity to do so. If they are, they must have their own problems to deal with.

Another key subject involves art and what constitutes the greatest works of it. Neither Jack or Verge can come to a consensus of what makes great art as Verge believes you cannot have any without love as love, like intimacy, is an art unto itself. Jack, however, sees violence as playing a huge part in art and, he sees the murders he has committed as being more creatively stimulating for him than building a house.

David Bowie’s song “Fame” is played many times throughout, and I kept wondering why. Well, let’s look at the first set of lyrics:

“Fame makes a man take things over

Fame lets him loose, hard to swallow

Fame puts you there where things are hollow (fame)

Fame, it’s not your brain, it’s just the flame

That burns your change to keep you insane (fame).”

Is Von Trier attempting to say something about fame? Perhaps. Jack looks to gain infamy by sending photographs of his corpses to the local newspaper under the name of “Mr. Sophistication,” and they do not go unrecognized by the general public. But whether Jack is a serial killer or a singing star, his life is so cut off from others, and his existence will always be a hollow one. Regardless of how things end up for Jack, any fame he could hope to have will not succeed in making his life different.

There is also a moment where Von Trier features clips of his past movies like “Breaking the Waves,” “Dancer in the Dark,” “Antichrist” and “Melancholia” among others as Jack says the following:

“Some people claim that the atrocities we commit in our fiction are those inner desires which we cannot commit in our controlled civilization, so they’re expressed instead through our art. I don’t agree. I believe Heaven and Hell are one and the same. The soul belongs to Heaven and the body to Hell.”

Is Von Trier explaining how he works or apologizing for the crazy things he has brought to the silver screen? Indeed, the realm of art and fiction are places where we can exorcise our darkest thoughts and angriest emotions, and I for one will always be thankful for this. For the Danish filmmaker, it’s a must as he continues to deal with endless phobias and clinical depression, and he always looks to be exorcising some malady he could do without. But with Jack, he is dealing with a character who is a soulless vessel who can no longer see the line between right and wrong or fact and fiction, so maybe the filmmaker is wondering if he truly has gone too far.

How long have we been watching Matt Dillon onscreen? Have we seen him play a role like this before? If so, none quickly comes to mind. He is in just about every frame of this 155-minute movie, and he gives a frighteningly authentic portrayal of a serial killer at their most banal. Dillon makes Jack into the same kind of killer John Doe described himself as in “Seven” in that he is not special and has never been extraordinary, and it’s fascinating to see the actor refusing any opportunity to chew the scenery as many others would. He mines the role for all its pathos and morbid black humor, and it’s one of the best performances I have seen in a movie this year. Having said that, it is highly unlikely will receive an Oscar nomination. Need I say why?

“The House That Jack Built” will not go down as one of my most favorite Von Trier movies as it does drag on for far too long, but it is as fascinating as any he has previously made. There is much more to this cinematic experience than you will see at its gory surface, and you will ponder the many things Von Trier has dared you to explore on a deeper level.

I am glad Von Trier is still making movies as we need filmmakers willing to push the envelope and unsettle us in an effort to get us to see a bigger truth we too often turn away from. Say what you will of him as a person, but I always look forward to what his movies. As much as he may shock you, he also gets you to think. Right now, there are only so many filmmakers who can do that.

Still, I have a feeling the upcoming R-rated version will be far more shocking. The MPAA will most likely censor the movie’s most graphic moments to where our imaginations may have to spell out what we think we saw. In the process of trying to protect American audiences, this archaic body usually, and thoughtlessly, makes a movie more traumatic than anyone intended it to be. I guess I’ll have to wait and see.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

‘Shoplifters’ is an Emotional Rollercoaster and One of the Best Movies of 2018

Shoplifters movie poster

Hirokazu Kore-eda’s “Shoplifters” is one of the most emotionally resonant movies I have seen in 2018, and it is a real gem in a cinematic year dominated by, big surprise, superhero blockbusters and endless sequels. The hope and warm emotions which emanate from it feel like the kind I have not been witness to on the silver screen in ages, and the movie dares you to ponder what the word family really means. While many see families being bound by blood, “Shoplifters” suggests there is more to it than that.

Things start off with Osamu Shibata (Lilly Franky) arriving at a supermarket in Tokyo, Japan, and we will eventually see how this movie got its name. With him is the young Shota (Jyo Kairi), and they use hand signals with each other to indicate when the coast is clear to take what they want and need. Put aside the fact no parent or adult figure should ever be teaching a child to steal; these two have an effective system which leads to them obtaining the goods they need without going through the checkout line or setting off an array of alarms. More importantly, it shows the strong connection between these two, and it is not one which is easily formed.

Upon arriving home, we see they with several other people in a cramped apartment which was made for two people at best. Among them are Osamu’s wife, Nobuyo (Sakura Ando), who works an unforgiving and low-paying job at a local laundromat, their daughter Aki (Mayu Matsuoka) who performs sex shows for anonymous customers, and grandmother Hatsue Shibata (the late Kirin Kiki who steals every scene she is in) whose residence they all reside in. Everyone here is suffering through an unsteady economy dominated by recession, so these characters are forced to steal items such as food and clothes in order to get by. Yes, Hatsue does have her late husband’s pension to fall back on, but it is never enough to fulfill their needs.

Then on one cold evening as Osamu and Shota are returning after another successful day of shoplifting, they come across Yuri (Miyu Sasaki), a 5-year-old homeless girl sitting all alone by herself. As the temperature decreases rapidly, and you could do a drinking game for every time a character says “it’s cold,” they decide to take her home for the night. With their apartment overcrowded, Nobuyo suggests they return Yuri home, but a visit to her residence reveals her parents are abusive to one another and to Yuri as well. As a result, Osamu and Nobuyo find themselves informally adopting her.

What struck me most about “Shoplifters” is how genuine its emotions feel. From a distance, the description of the plot might make it seem something along the lines of “Three Men and a Baby” or maybe even “Raising Arizona,” both of which featured characters who become parents in unorthodox ways. But Kore-eda is not out to manipulate our emotions for a single second as he lets life unfold before us in a way which feels real and unpredictable. No one appears to be acting here, and every single actor inhabits their roles to where you are seduced into the movie’s wonderful atmosphere with what seems like relative ease.

The affection everyone in the small apartment has for Yuri feels wonderful and hopeful to take in, and her presence has a profound effect on them all. The scene where Nobuyo and Yuri burn the 5-year-old’s clothes in an effort to start fresh in life speaks volumes. The two share scars of past abuse, and Nobuyo cuddles her and says how people show their love for one another through hugs, not violence. If there has been a more genuinely sweet scene in a 2018 movie, I missed it.

As for the others, Osamu and Nobuyo find an intimacy in their relationship which has eluded them for far too long, and Aki yearns to get closer to one of her customers as she can no longer keep him at a distance. Shota slowly begins to bond with Yuri to where he feels comfortable calling her sister, but this later leads him on a journey to find himself in a way which will have inevitable consequences for everyone that we don’t really see coming.

Revealing more of what happens in “Shoplifters” would be criminal, but I can tell you the last half is truly devastating as everything we thought we knew about these characters is turned upside down. One of Kore-eda’s masterstrokes as a writer and director is he never judges the characters, and as a result, neither did I. Even as the local news reports of Yuri’s disappearance, Osamu and Nobuyo justify their actions by saying they did not kidnap her since they never asked for a ransom. It’s a weak defense to be sure, but seeing the connection these characters have with one another deeply moved me to where I actually found myself giving them a pass which I never would have in real life.

With “Shoplifters,” Kore-eda aims to look at what makes a family. While we collectively believe it is blood which makes a family, he wonders if there is more to a family than that. At a key moment, one of the characters says if having a baby automatically makes you a parent. Well that goes without saying, but considering the love and affection these characters grace Yuri with, I had a hard time finding enough of a reason to separate her from them.

Kore-eda was also influenced by the Japanese recession, and he uses this to deal with the declining social statuses many are forced to deal with in the country. Then again, “Shoplifters” could be about any country where greed continues to wreak havoc due to corporations valuing the size of their profits over the rights of the workers who helped get them those profits. We Osamu trying to get whatever work he can, and the work he gets never pays enough. Nobuyo’s job offers her a pathetically low wage, and then later we get a scene where her boss forces her and her co-worker to decide amongst themselves who should get fired when it is determined there is only enough money to keep one of them on the payroll.

“Shoplifters” is a movie which will stay with you long after you have watched it. I was deeply moved by it from start to finish as its humanity really made me appreciate the value of family in a way no other movie has in a long time. We are at a point where there are far too many movies to keep up with, but this is one I highly recommend you check out above others. This one took me for quite the emotional ride and left me fully wringed out by its end, and the experience was one of the most rewarding.

* * * * out of * * * *

‘Widows’ is a Fiery Thriller and Not Just Another Heist Movie

Widows movie poster

It’s always cool when a filmmaker sneaks something up on you when you least expect it. On the surface, “Widows” looks like an average heist movie to where I went in thinking it would be another “Ocean’s Eleven,” but I can assure you this is not the case (and we did already have “Ocean’s 8” earlier this year). While this film provides audiences with the requisite action and violence, it cannot be boiled down into one sentence as it deals with themes of class divisions, political corruption and of the lengths many will go to just to make ends meet. What results is a hell of a thriller, and it’s a timely one as the struggles these characters face is all too real in this day and age.

“Widows” starts off with an introduction to the wives before they lose their spouses. Veronica (Viola Davis) shares an especially passionate kiss with her husband Harry Rawlings (Liam Neeson), Linda Perelli (Michelle Rodriguez) haggles with Carlos (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo) over money she needs for her clothing store, Alice Gunner (Elizabeth Debicki) cannot hide the black eye her abusive husband Florek (Jon Bernthal) gave her, and Amanda Nunn (Carrie Coon) is busy with her newborn baby as her significant other Jimmy (Coburn Goss) darts out the door. These scenes are interspersed with these men pulling off a robbery which goes horribly awry and results in their fiery deaths. The editing by Joe Walker is one of the best I have seen in any 2018 movie as he interweaves the different vignettes in a way which feels especially powerful.

From there, the four women attempt to pick up the pieces of their shattered lives as reality comes down hard on them in ways they are not prepared for. Things are especially precarious for Veronica when she is visited by crime boss and aspiring politician Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry) who informs her Harry robbed $2 million dollars from him, and this money was lost in the fire. Jamal demands Veronica pay back this debt sooner rather than later, and the way he holds her dog during this scene will have pet owners gripping their armrests. Following this, Veronica gets together with the other widows to carry out a robbery which will net them the money they need to pay off said debt, and we watch as they take matters into their own hands in a way they never have previously.

I have a confession to make; this is the first movie by filmmaker Steve McQueen I have watched. McQueen has previously given us “Hunger,” “Shame” and “12 Years a Slave” which won the Oscar for Best Picture a couple of years ago. I certainly need to catch up on his work as his flair for filmmaking is clearly on display in “Widows.” Some of the long shots he pulls off here are amazing as the actors are forced to maintain an intensity which is not always easy to do in front of a camera, and it results in highly suspenseful and shocking moments which had the audience I saw it with gasping audibly.

At the center of “Widows” is Viola Davis who has long since proven to be a force of nature. Ever since I first saw her in “Doubt,” she has proven to be a no-nonsense actress and her performances are never less than stunning. As Veronica, she provides the story’s center of gravity as she forces the other women to join with her in a mission no one can easily prepare for, and she does this even as her heart is shattered by a grief she cannot keep inside forever. Even in moments where she doesn’t say a word, Davis makes us see what is going on in her mind without having to spell it out for us. Watching her here, I was reminded of the lethal presence she gave off in the disastrous “Suicide Squad” and of how she would have made a better Joker than Jared Leto.

One actress who really needs to be singled out, however, is Elizabeth Debicki. As Alice, she takes her character from being an abusive pawn for her husband and her equally nasty mother Agnieska (a wickedly good Jacki Weaver) to becoming a person who finds the strength and self-confidence which has eluded her for far too long. She makes Alice’s transition both natural and subtle to where she inhabits the character to where you can never take your eyes off of her.

McQueen and co-writer Gillian Flynn of “Gone Girl” fame adapted this movie from the British miniseries of the same name, one which I’m fairly certain my parents have seen. In this movie’s 129-minute running time, they manage to fit in so many different layers to where “Widows” feels much longer than it already is, but I never lost interest in what unfolded. We get a strong sense of the desperate lives each character leads as they live in a world where no superhero can save them. The two have also moved the story from England to Chicago and, as David Mamet once said, “In Chicago, we love our crooks!”

An interesting subplot which emerges in “Widows” involves a political campaign between Jamal Manning and Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell), for alderman of a South Side precinct. We already got a glimpse of Jamal’s criminal activities, but Jack is not free of corruption himself. Even worse, his father Tom Mulligan (Robert Duvall, great as always) does nothing to hide his racist attitudes and believes this office is theirs by blood regardless of what the voters end up saying. Farrell is terrific as Jack in showing the shadowy corners he is forced to navigate through in politics. It’s a position he doesn’t want to be in, but he is stuck in the shadow of his incumbent father who is not about to see his son lose the election, and he proves to be as morally compromised, if not more so, as his political adversary.

This also leads to a brilliant scene as McQueen follows Jack as he gets into a car with his associate, and the camera stays outside as we watch them travel from the poor neighborhood he is campaigning in over to the affluent neighborhood where he lives. Is there another scene in a 2018 movie which shows the disparity between the haves and have nots without the use of words? If there is, I haven’t seen it.

Michelle Rodriguez remains as badass as ever, and its great fun watching her hold her own opposite Davis. Cynthia Erivo, who showed us what a great voice she has in “Bad Times as the El Royale,” is furiously good as Belle, a babysitter and beautician constantly running off to the next paying gig as her desperation to keep her head above water keeps her apart from her daughter. And Daniel Kaluuya, who had scored one hell of a breakthrough with “Get Out,” is a devilish delight as Jatemme Manning, a cold as ice psychopath who doesn’t think twice about ending someone’s life, and his presence is enough to frighten the most jaded of filmgoers.

Does “Widows” have plot holes? Perhaps, but I was too caught in the story and performances to really give them any notice. Any questions this movie proved to be refrigerator questions. As for the meaning of that, look to Alfred Hitchcock. This is a thriller which digs deep into the lives of those undone by history and inequity, and it’s hard not to root for them as they take matters into their own hands in a desperate attempt to reach for the life they dreamed of but which is cruelly denied to them. It is full of surprises, many of which I did not seem coming, and McQueen holds us in his cinematic grip from start to finish.

Another thing to take into account about “Widows” is how it deals with the five stages of grief. Getting through them is never easy, but you knew this already. Seeing these characters struggle with their individual grief is not something which draws attention to itself right away, but the ending, which features a character breaking out into a smile she worked hard to get to, shows how one can get to the other side and move on. You could say this only happens in the movies, but this one does not take place in the land of superheroes and comic books. Reality can be harsh, and “Widows” never lets you forget that.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

David Gordon Green’s ‘Halloween’ is the Sequel We Have Been Waiting For

Halloween 2018 theatrical poster

Why do filmmakers constantly insist on doing a retcon of the “Halloween” franchise? Every once in a while, the continuity of the series is tossed to the wayside, usually for profit and greed, but perhaps deep down there are those out there who remain infinitely eager for another and more fulfilling showdown between Laurie Strode and Michael Myers. We thought we got it in 1981’s “Halloween II,” but even Michael couldn’t stay down after being burned beyond recognition. Then there was “Halloween H2O: 20 Years Later,” but that was really a “Scream” movie disguised as a “Halloween” movie, and what resulted did not feel particularly compelling.

But just when you thought it was time to lay this long-running franchise to rest, along comes the simply titled “Halloween” which wipes the slate clean to give us the true sequel fans of the series have been waiting 40 years for. Once again, Michael Myers breaks free and heads back to Haddonfield, Illinois for a bloody homecoming. But this time, Laurie Strode is ready and waiting, and she is not about to take any prisoners. As this “Halloween” unfolds, you will see what Sylvester Stallone meant when he said, while in pursuit of Wesley Snipes in “Demotion Man:”

“Send a maniac to catch a maniac.”

In this alternate timeline, Michael did not escape at the end of John Carpenter’s “Halloween,” but was instead captured and sent back to Smith’s Grove Sanitarium and has remained there for the last 40 years. His latest psychiatrist, Dr. Ranbir Sartain (Haluk Bilginer), insists Michael can talk but chooses not to, but this doesn’t stop a pair of true-crime podcasters, Aaron Korey (Jefferson Hall) and Dana Haines (Rhian Rees), from trying to make him say something, anything. But once Aaron pulls Michael’s old mask out of his bag, we know it won’t be long before they are reminded of what curiosity did to the cat.

This particular “Halloween” was directed by David Gordon Green and co-written by him, Jeff Fradley and actor Danny McBride, and the respect they have for Carpenter’s 1978 horror classic is on display throughout. They even bring back the serif font from the original’s credits as they are determined to make us accept this is a direct sequel to the one which started it all. I admired how the credits started off with a pumpkin which looks to have been stomped on one too many times and which reforms slowly but surely. It’s almost like a metaphor for this franchise as many continue to resurrect Michael, or “The Shape” as he is often referred to, with varying results.

Green is one of those filmmakers who can go from making independent films like “All the Real Girls” and “Joe” to more mainstream fare such as “Pineapple Express” and “Stronger” with relative ease. With his “Halloween,” he gives a slow-burn thriller which thankfully doesn’t peak too soon. Many horror movies give us their best moments far too early these days, so it’s nice to see Green not making this same mistake here as he gives us a deeply suspenseful thriller which builds up and up to its much-anticipated climax.

I also have to give Green and his collaborators credit for giving us characters we care about. It is impossible not to relate to them in one way or another as we remember having their same needs and desires when we were their age. Many of the “Friday the 13th” sequels kept giving us characters we couldn’t wait to see get killed off as we were made to hate them, but when the residents of Haddonfield are killed off, you cannot help but feel for them, and not just because they never got the chance to lose their virginity.

The real big news, however, about this “Halloween” is John Carpenter is back. It marks his return to the franchise he created for the first time since “Halloween III: Season of the Witch.” I imagine money was a big motivating factor, but I do believe Carpenter when he said how enthusiastic he was about Green and McBride’s pitch for this movie. In addition to acting as executive producer, Carpenter also scored the movie along with his son Cody Carpenter and Daniel Davies, and they give the brutal proceedings here an extra hard kick in the ass (click here to check out my review of the soundtrack).

But let’s face facts, the real star of this “Halloween” movie is Laurie Strode. Jamie Lee Curtis returns to her iconic role with a real vengeance, and she plays Laurie to the hilt in this installment. When Curtis first played Laurie, she was a kind, shy and innocent young woman. 40 years later, Laurie is a shell of her former self as her life has been severely undone by PTSD, alcoholism and agoraphobia. She has spent the past few decades training to be a survivalist as her life is now dedicated to removing Michael from the face of the earth, and it has all come at the expense of caring for her own family.

Curtis has always put in a great performance in each movie she appears in, be it a good or a bad one, but she really hits it out of the park here. She succeeds in turning Laurie Strode into a bad ass warrior who is never determined to suffer in the same way she did before, and at times she threatens to be more frightening than Michael herself. Just check out the scene when Laurie breaks into her daughter Karen’s (Judy Greer) house and reminds her bluntly of how unprepared she is for the oncoming slaughter.

Moreover, Curtis really makes us sympathize with Laurie Strode throughout. We know all what she has been through, and to see the effect it has on those closest to her is heartbreaking. We learn she has been divorced twice, and her daughter Karen wants little to do with her and constantly begs her to get help. Even when Laurie absent-mindedly takes a drink from a glass of wine like as it it were was an automatic impulse, we feel for her as no one can see Michael Myers as being the embodiment of pure evil the way she can.

Watching Curtis as Laurie here quickly reminded me of a line the late Natasha Richardson said in “Patty Hearst:”

“I finally realized what my crime was, I lived. Big mistake. Very messy.”

The cast overall does really good work, and they are made of very likable and dependable actors which include Judy Greer and Will Patton who make their characters seem very down to earth in a way you want them to be. One real standout here is Andi Matichak who plays Allyson, Laurie’s granddaughter and the only one capable of having a meaningful relationship with her. Matichak proves to be a very appealing presence here, and she makes Allyson into a strong and defiant young woman who is not about to suffer fools in the slightest.

As “Halloween” builds up to its inevitable climax, Green keeps increasing the tension throughout. He smartly leaves Michael in the shadows, and you can’t help but wondering when he is going to jump out next. Green also leaves you wondering if we might actually see Michael’s face or even hear him speak. Does he? Wouldn’t you like to know?

This “Halloween” is not at all groundbreaking, but then again neither was Carpenter’s film. The 1978 “Halloween” owed a lot to the works of Alfred Hitchcock among others, but it also managed to give a freshness to the horror genre in the same way “Psycho” did years before. With any “Halloween” follow-up, we can only hope for it to be as good, if not better, than the original. There’s no way you can top what Carpenter pulled off 40 years ago as none of us saw Michael Myers coming. But with this “Halloween,” we get the true sequel the original never quite received, and it proves to be well worth the wait.

There is also something very cathartic about watching this one in the midst of the #MeToo movement. Essentially, we are watching a woman take revenge on a man who thoughtlessly ruined her life years before, and seeing her do battle with him makes this “Halloween” especially thrilling. Lord knows women have been forced to be silent for far too long, so seeing one get her revenge feels much, much overdue.

By the way, I think I’m going to start calling this one “Halloween: 40 is the New 20.” It seems appropriate, don’t you think?

* * * ½ out of * * * *

WRITER’S NOTE: A lot of people have been getting mad at Jamie Lee Curtis recently. We see her wielding many different weapons and firearms in this movie as Laurie Strode, but some have been quick to call her a hypocrite for doing so as her stance on gun control and the need for it has been well-documented. Why is she appearing in this movie armed to the hilt and yet complaining about gun violence in real life? Ladies and gentlemen, what Curtis is doing in this movie is called ACTING. SHE IS PLAYING A CHARACTER. Whatever happened to make believe anyway? Not all actors are out to put their political issues into each movie they do. Do yourself and everyone else a favor and stop blurring the line between fiction and non-fiction. That is all.

Soundtrack Review: ‘Halloween’ (2018)

Halloween 2018 soundtrack cover

As I write this, I have not yet seen David Gordon Green’s “Halloween,” the movie I am looking forward to the most this fall season. I was, however, lucky enough to get a copy of its soundtrack while at the “Halloween: 40 Years of Terror” convention this past weekend in Pasadena, California. I had preordered the soundtrack on iTunes, but anyone who knows me has no doubt of what a die-hard fan I am of Carpenter’s music as well as his movies, so of course I had to purchase a physical copy even if it meant spending more money.

This 2018 “Halloween” movie marks Carpenter’s return to this undying horror franchise since “Halloween III: Season of the Witch,” and it is also the first film score he has composed since 2001’s “Ghost of Mars.” With this score, he joins forces with his son Cody Carpenter and godson Daniel Davies to not only build on the themes he made famous back in 1978, but to give us new ones as well. What results is a highly effective score which I have been listening to endlessly ever since I purchased it.

The “Halloween Theme” is a musical piece impossible for most to ever get sick of, but listening to it on this soundtrack reminds me of how no one can play it better than Carpenter. Along with Cody and Daniel, he makes this theme as potent as ever especially with its ticking sound in the background which spells out how evil will be arriving in Haddonfield before we know it.

“Laurie’s Theme” sounds much different this time around. Whereas her theme in the 1978 “Halloween” and 1981’s “Halloween II” highlighted Laurie’s innocence and lack of awareness of the horror she would be forced to endure, this version acknowledges how haunted she remains after Michael Myers almost killed her 40 years ago. As we should all know by now, Green’s “Halloween” serves as a direct sequel to Carpenter’s 1978 original, wiping the slate clean of all the other sequels and reboots. So, the Laurie Strode we see here as long since become hardened by her terrifying encounters with pure evil to where it appears she only lives for revenge.

Carpenter does bring back some of his old musical stings which are always welcome, but there are other stings which come at us more furiously than ever before. There is an unrelenting edge to tracks like “Michael Kills” or “The Shape Kills” which go far beyond the original “Halloween’s” simplistic musical design. Evil sounds even more furious than it did previously, and the driving rhythms of the music here promises us a thrilling good time at the movies.

John Carpenter once said he can play just about any keyboard but that he cannot read or write a note. Regardless, nothing has stopped his growth as a musician or a film composer. His son, Cody Carpenter, has since proven himself to be a very talented musician in his own right, and his additions to this score only heighten the tension in it. Daniel Davies sounds like he is having so much fun experimenting with guitar sounds, and they add a real edge to a score which proves to be anything but an exercise in nostalgia.

The soundtrack concludes with the track “Halloween Triumphant” which is an epic piece of film score as it combines John’s unforgettable “Halloween” theme with the musical additions of Cody and Daniel who help update his themes for a new generation. Listening to it brings a smile to my face as the three men have composed what feels like an ode to the enduring legacy this 1978 horror classic continues to have on filmgoers everywhere, and it sounds like a victory march in more ways than one.

When John Carpenter composed the original “Halloween” score in just three days, it is clear how he and his collaborators had more time to develop one more multi-layered for Michael Myers latest cinematic onslaught. This is not just a return to the musical themes John made famous years ago, but it is also an opportunity to expand on them as the filmmaker and composer is clearly not content to just give us the same old thing. Along with Cody and Daniel, he gives us a superb soundtrack which I find myself listening to endlessly as the music proves to be more complex than I expected it to be.

The 2018 “Halloween” soundtrack is a must buy, and I encourage you to buy it when it is released on October 19, 2018.

‘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 * * * *

‘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 * * * *

‘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 * * * *