‘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 * * * *

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‘Duck Butter’ Examines the Joys and Perils of Intimacy

Duck Butter movie poster

When it comes to the films released under the banner of Duplass Brothers Productions, I have found many of them to be fearless in the way they deal with intimacy and vulnerability. We come into this world feeling free and uninhibited, and then we get our hearts broken in a way which leaves a scar that never disappears. From there, we build up our defenses to keep strangers from getting too close because we don’t want our feelings getting gutted, and the thought of being vulnerable with another person can seem terrifying sometimes. Movies like “The Skeleton Twins,” “Tangerine” “The One I Love” and “Blue Jay” have dealt with these themes effectively, and they are presented in a very intimate fashion to where you don’t feel like you are watching a movie, but instead real life unfolding before you. It serves as a reminder of how much we want intimacy and of the euphoric highs and terrifying lows which come with it.

The latest Duplass produced movie to deal with this is “Duck Butter,” and if you want to know what its title means, you have to watch it to find out for yourself. Alia Shawkat stars as Naima, an aspiring actress in Los Angeles who has just snagged her biggest role in a movie written and directed by Mark and Jay Duplass. But while Naima may find a certain freedom in acting, we see she is a bit repressed emotionally and has developed a bleak worldview as the daily news is filled with nothing but bad stuff like the inability of humanity to control global warming which, by the way folks, is very real. For those who do not believe me, please check out Werner Herzog’s “Encounters at the End of the World.”

At night, Naima goes to a club where she meets Sergio (Laia Costa), an aspiring singer who is everything she isn’t: a free spirit who is open to taking risks the average person would be quick to avoid. Sergio asks Naima to dance with her, and it gets off to an awkward start to where Sergio has to shake Naima’s arms in order to get her to loosen up. I remember a female friend having to do this with me, and it did work in releasing the stiffness which has enveloped certain parts of my body. It certainly works between these two women to where they just fall into each other’s arms in a way which spells out how they have found a strong connection not easily discovered.

From there, Naima spends the evening at Sergio’s house with friends of hers, all of whom encourage Naima to come out of her protective shell and express herself freely. After that, the two of them are left alone with each other and make love in a way which feels not the least bit choreographed and totally authentic. Both discuss the dissatisfaction they have had in dating and romantic relationships which came to be destroyed by dishonesty. So caught up they are in their truly intense chemistry, they decide to spend the next 24 hours together, having sex every hour on the hour in the belief they can transcend the deceit which usually plays a part in most relationships.

Van Halen, when Sammy Hagar was their lead singer, once sang, “How do I know when it’s love?” Watching Shawkat and Costa here is to know, or so it seems at first. Their intense connection is intoxicating to witness, and I hope to discover it in my own life sooner rather than later. These actresses make their attraction seem not only real, but exhilarating. As a result, I really got caught up in their relationship to where I didn’t want to see it fail. But as “Duck Butter” moves on to its second and third act, you can sense things will fall apart to where you wonder if things can ever be made right again.

Like many Duplass Brothers Productions, “Duck Butter” was made on a very low budget and with a shooting schedule which never seems long enough. Movies can suffer as a result from these factors, but this one benefits from them as the two main characters are confined to whatever locations they end up at to where we feel completely stuck with them. Intimacy can be a wonderful thing, but it can also be seriously scary when things fall out of our control and understanding.

“Duck Butter” was directed by Miguel Arteta who cowrote the screenplay with Shawkat. He is best known for directing “Star Maps,” “Chuck & Buck,” “Youth in Revolt” and “Cedar Rapids.” Each of his films deals with the insecure relationships people have, and this one is no exception. I reveled in the connection Naima and Sergio have with one another to where I wanted nothing to come between them. But as the story rolled along, I sensed something would, and it made me both nervous and resigned to an inevitable fate the even the writers could not avoid.

Shawkat is best known for her work on the television shows “Arrested Development” and “Search Party,” and we are long past the point where we have to realize what a talented actress she is. Watching her take Naima from being a repressed individual to one eager to embrace the love she has found is entrancing. From start to finish, she makes Naima an individual desperate for a connection she feels has been denied to her, but she also makes us see a character who eventually comes to see how her own needs are equally as important as her partner’s.

I am not familiar with Costa’s work, but she did win the Lola, the biggest award one can get from the German Academy of Cinema, for her performance in the critically acclaimed “Victoria.” Costa makes Sergio into the free spirit many of us wish we could be, and she makes the character into a romantic force to be reckoned with as she tests Naima to come out of her protective shell more than she has already. Costa appears like such a free spirit to where I wanted to be swept up in her orbit, and this is even though speed bumps in this relationship felt inevitable.

What I admired most about “Duck Butter” was how emotionally naked these two actresses were. Whatever you think about the art of acting, this is not as easy as many think it is. Both Shawkat and Costa have to break down their own defenses to make the plights of their characters all the more real, and you have to admire what they pull off here as their emotions infect us in a way we are not typically prepared for. We revel in the chemistry these two have, but we also fear their intimacy will lead them down a path which will destroy it irrevocably.

Many may see “Duck Butter” as a gay relationship movie or a part of queer cinema, but we are now in a time where putting things into one particular category only speaks of a person’s limited worldview. The screenplay originally had a heterosexual couple instead of a homosexual one at its center, but the trials and tribulations of love are the same no matter what side of the sexual spectrum you reside on. This movie shows how love can be exhilarating and damaging all at the same time, and I was captivated by it from start to finish.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

“Duck Butter” opens in Los Angeles and New York on April 27, and it will premiere on digital formats starting May 1.

Exclusive Interview with Cherien Dabis on ‘May in the Summer’

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May in the Summer” may look like the typical romantic comedy on the surface, but it’s really much more than that as it delves into a culture many of us have not seen. Cherien Dabis who wrote, directed and stars in this movie as May Brennan, a sophisticated New Yorker and an acclaimed author who travels to her childhood home in Amman, Jordan to prepare for her wedding. But shortly after reuniting with her sisters and her divorced parents, May begins to question whether she should go through with the marriage after experiencing a number of familial and cultural conflicts.

It was a pleasure talking with Dabis while she was in Los Angeles. While she talked at length about her movie, she also described just how much Jordan has changed from when she was a child. In addition, she spoke of the challenges she faced of acting and directing at the same time, what she was proudest of being able to capture onscreen about Jordan, and she talked about how actors Bill Pullman and Alia Shawkat came to be cast.

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Ben Kenber: What I really liked about “May in the Summer” is that it gives us a unique look into a culture that most people have seen from a distance, and in some cases a rather biased distance. How was it for you capturing Jordan on film?

Cherien Dabis: It was great. Jordan’s a country I know very well. I’ve been traveling there since I was a kid. My parents are Palestinian and Jordanian and I was born and raised in the US, but we would return to Jordan almost every summer. For the last three decades I’ve watched the country grow and change so much that it’s been really shocking the amount of growth and change. I knew I always wanted to do something there because what I find really particular to Amman specifically is that it’s not only become super westernized, but it’s also quite Americanized. There’s a lot of American schools popping up, there are a lot of young people who are speaking English with an American accent, there’s so much American culture and American products; there’s fast food chains and Starbucks. So it’s just the side of the Middle East that I didn’t think people would find really surprising, and I wanted to feature that and to be able to feature the country and parts of the country that I’d been going to since I was young and places where I really discovered myself. It was really, really cool.

BK: You both acted in and directed this movie. Initially, you were looking to cast someone else in the role of May, correct?

CD: Yeah, I didn’t write the role for myself. I spent about a year looking for someone to play the part and I wasn’t finding someone who I felt was really authentic to the culture and language, but also someone who really embodied the spirit of the character. At the same time, I kept getting people, like random people, who would suggest that I consider myself for the part. It was really shocking to me that people kept saying that to me, but enough people said it that I just finally was like okay, this somehow feels like I am meant to do this. I am meant to consider this, that maybe this is part of my journey. I think ultimately that’s what I found. I very hesitantly put myself forward. I put myself on tape, I watch myself back and it’s always such a trip to do that for the first time. It took a little while for me to find a sense of objectivity or at least as close to objectivity as I could, but I saw something there that was raw enough that felt like I could work with it and that embodied the spirit of the character and what I had been looking for, and I surprised myself a little bit. So I called myself back, I made myself go through this rigorous casting process only to discover that wow, I think I might be able to do this. It was kind of an amazing journey and one in which I kind of paralleled May in a way. May is on this journey of self-discovery, and by putting myself in the film I was also on a journey of self-discovery in having to make myself vulnerable just like the character in the film. And when I realized that I was like oh God, now I really have to do it. It really feels like the right choice for the film, but it was a tough one to make given all of the hats that I was wearing.

BK: In terms of acting, did you have someone looking out for you when you stepped in front of the camera?

CD: I did. When I made the choice to do it, I brought on someone who became a very good friend. He’s an acting teacher in Brooklyn and he became somewhat of an acting coach to me. So I worked with him for about a year and a half before making the film, and it was great because my training was really about getting as much experience in the skill of acting and directing and not back and forth in directing myself. It is a very specific skill and I wanted to have as much experience in it as I could before getting to set, and it was really important that I did that because I would’ve been a mess if I hadn’t. But he came to set and he was there for me. He was sort of my eyes and by then we had a short hand because we had been working together for so long, so it was really great to have them there.

BK: I really loved how the Dead Sea looked in this movie. It’s just beautiful to the point where the name seems a little contradictory considering how lively the atmosphere out there seems.

CD: Right, and yet strangely appropriate given what’s on the other side of the Dead Sea. It’s (Palestine) so close. The Dead Sea’s so small and narrow, and the other side of the shore is the West Bank. It’s sort of shocking when you’re standing there looking out and you’re at a resort where there are these really beautiful infinity pools and spas and food and drinks and people partying by the pool. It’s a very contradictory paradoxical experience, and that was something I wanted to capture in the film.

BK: What would you say you were the proudest of being able to capture in this film about Jordan and its culture?

CD: That’s a really good question. I think the surrealism almost of being in a place. I have not seen that yet in a film, and I do think that what sets this movie apart from other Middle Eastern films, or Middle Eastern themed films, is that it really explores family. It’s a story about family and it’s a story that’s really relatable about relationships, and it looks at divorce but through a wedding. In some ways, it’s a sort of a divorce drama disguised as a wedding comedy. So it’s this really relatable film that’s set in this really specific part of the world, and it shows a part of that world that we don’t ever really get to see. The surrealism of that world I think is really interesting. Being in a place like Jordan which is just surrounded by conflict is at times really surreal because you can find yourself living this totally seemingly normal existence where you are going to cafés with friends or going out to dinner. You’re just going about your work, your life and you’re interacting with family, and then a fighter jet flies by and it rocks your entire world and you suddenly remember where you are and you remember that anything could happen at any moment. It gives you this incredible sense of perspective on your life where suddenly what you’re going through is not so bad and your problems seem really trivial and you remember the greater suffering in the world. I think it affects you in your life and your choices and who you are in a way that’s very unique to that part of the world, and that’s something I really wanted to capture and I think that’s something that’s there in the film. It’s something that I don’t think you get to see very often.

BK: We see a number of women in “May in the Summer” wearing a full hijab (a veil which covers the head and chest). Is it something that’s still imposed on women in Jordan or is that something women do by choice?

CD: Both. I think a lot of women do it by choice, but for a lot of women it’s not a choice. It’s imposed on them by their families or by society or by the culture. I do think this is a movie that looks at expectations like that. Our main character is definitely on a journey of self-discovery where she’s trying to figure out what kind of future she wants. She’s trying to strip away a familial expectation, a parental expectation or a societal expectation or even a political expectation, and she’s really trying to connect with her own inner voice and her own truth. That’s the only way she can really move into her own future, so it looks at those levels of expectations.

BK: Bill Pullman plays your character’s father and it’s great to see him here. Was it hard getting him cast in this movie?

CD: Surprisingly not and I was really presently surprised by that. My producer sent the script to his agent and he really responded to the script and the role. He’s just a very adventurous spirit so he wanted to travel to Jordan, he wanted to have that experience and he really wanted to go to Petra which was amazing. He was just fabulous. The moment he arrived in Jordan he just immersed himself in the culture and he wanted to just soak it all in. He was making friends right and left and he was having dinner with people he just met on the street. Within the first day of shooting, he knew everyone’s names. He was really just a special, special person and I’m so glad that he came over and wanted to be a part of that. People appreciated him so much for being so open in the culture.

BK: Alia Shawkat, who plays your sister Dalia, is also wonderful here, and she was also terrific in “The Moment” where she acted opposite Jennifer Jason Leigh. How did you go about casting her?

CD: Well I had worked with Alia on my first film, “Amreeka.” I was a huge fan of hers from “Arrested Development.” I just loved her. My executive producer on “Amreeka” actually told me that she’s half Iraqi which I had no idea, but I was very excited by that because I’m always looking to cast very authentically. So when I found that out I approached her for a role in my first feature, and when I met her she just so was that character in my first feature. When I worked with her I just absolutely loved her. We had a great time and we became friends and we kept in touch. When I conceived of the idea for “May in the Summer,” I immediately thought of her for the role of the sister, Dalia. She just has such a similar voice to that character; witty, sarcastic and subversive.

BK: Was there anything that you wanted to put into “May in the Summer” but were not able to for one reason or another?

CD: Well there are always things like that. You quickly realize when you’re making independent films that you have limited resources and there always comes a time when you have to make really painful decisions, and I definitely did on this film. I had to cut things out that I think would’ve added a lot of fabric and texture. There were a number of sequences, one where May goes downtown and we see a whole other part of the Middle East and we see it go from the really nice sort of upper-class neighborhood to the more downtown, shoddy kind of refugee camp neighborhoods. We are more used to seeing that probably on the news, and I wanted to show that transition and a little bit more of the society and give a little bit more of the political context of Jordan and the refugee situation. But ultimately the heart of the story is this family, and I had to keep the essence of that story. When I had to make those difficult decisions, Fort Lee a lot of that texture had to be cut out because we just didn’t have the time or the resources to capture it.

BK: My understanding is there’s a film industry growing in Jordan right now.

CD: Yeah that’s right, there’s definitely a burgeoning film industry. The Royal Film Commission in Jordan is great; they’ve been there for I think about 10 years now and they help facilitate production. They were enormously helpful to us and the crews are gaining a lot of experience. Kathryn Bigelow’s last two movies were shot there and a lot of the people I worked with worked on those movies. Also, John Stewart’s movie (“Rosewater”) was shot in Jordan which was another great experience for the country. It was exciting to be a part of that, to be a part of the really up-and-coming film community.

My thanks to Cherien Dabis for taking the time to talk with me. “May in the Summer” is now available to own and rent on DVD, Blu-ray, and Digital.

Exclusive Interview with Jane Weinstock on ‘The Moment’

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Jane Weinstock, 2003

Filmmaker Jane Weinstock follows up her directorial debut of “Easy” with “The Moment,” a compelling psychological thriller starring Jennifer Jason Leigh, Martin Henderson and Alia Shawkat. In the movie, Leigh plays Lee, a photojournalist who has just ended a tumultuous affair with troubled writer John (Henderson). But when she goes to John’s place to get her things, she discovers he has disappeared and is nowhere to be found. The stress of not knowing his whereabouts causes Lee to have a nervous breakdown, which in turn lands her in a mental hospital. During her recuperation, Lee reconnects with her estranged daughter, Jessie (Shawkat), and ends up meeting Peter, a fellow patient who somehow looks a lot like John. As Lee struggles to get a grip on reality and learn the truth behind John’s disappearance, the clues she is given lead her to the most unexpected of places.

Just as with “Easy,” “The Moment” has Weinstock dealing with the contradictions of human nature and psychological realism. It was fascinating talking to her about this movie, and we discussed the challenges of writing a highly complex screenplay, what it was like working with Leigh who is very serious in her approach to playing a character, and how her studies in psychoanalytic theory and semiotics came to inform this film.

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Ben Kenber: Regarding the screenplay, how difficult was it for you and your co-writer Gloria Norris to write it?

Jane Weinstock: Well our starting point oddly enough was the Edith Wharton novel “The Mother’s Recompense,” but we weren’t able to get to the rights to that. We didn’t want to do a period piece, but we wanted to sort of take the basic structure of this extremely complicated mother/daughter relationship and make a movie out of it. So once we realized that we couldn’t even get the rights, we just kept that relationship as our starting point and then we went on to write this piece. We decided quite early on to make the character of Lee a photojournalist because we have a fascination with danger, and at the same time a kind of ethical commitment to try to do good in the world. We both love Hitchcock, so I think there were Hitchcockian elements that we gravitated towards, and it also changed in various rewrites. We worked on it for a very long time so we rewrote it a number of times.

BK: When it came to the subject matter, did you do a lot of research on photography as well as depression, anxiety and posttraumatic stress disorder?

JW: Yes, I definitely thought of researching PTSD first. We actually showed it (the movie) in New York to a posttraumatic stress disorder specialist at Hunter College, and she felt that we really got it right so that was very gratifying.

BK: There’s a scene in the movie where Martin Henderson’s character is eating sardines which he says are good for those suffering from depression. Is that true?

JW: No, not really (laughs). They are good for your brain and they don’t have a lot of mercury.

BK: Jennifer Jason Leigh is well known for her method approach to the characters she plays. How did she approach the role of Lee in this movie?

JW: Well I did a lot of research and I gave her my research and she looked through that, and she’s known photographers before and she just was her many ways. During rehearsal we worked on the script together. We made some changes as we were rehearsing, and she’s a writer/director so she’s very, very good at that. She also looked at different cuts of the movie and made suggestions, so she was very involved creatively and not just as an actress.

BK: There is a moment in the movie where Peter is standing in front of his place of work and Lee is taking pictures of him, and he is covering up part of the word “storage” to where only “rage” can be seen. What was your reasoning for shooting the scene like that?

JW: It was just a little reference that I thought not many people would get, but you got it. He is a character who was filled with rage. He was imprisoned for five years for a crime that he didn’t commit, so he’s got a lot of rage that he turns against himself and feels towards the world as well.

BK: Alia Shawkat is fantastic as Lee’s daughter, Jessie. How did she get cast in the film?

JW: Well Jennifer had already been cast, so we had her read with several actresses. They were all great, but when I asked myself, ‘could this actress be capable of murdering somebody,’ I always came up with the answer no except for Alia. I really wanted her to feel like someone who is capable of murder, and I also really liked the fact that she looks like she’s part Iranian, and she is part Iranian, so we could give her an Iraqi father.

BK: How much time did you have to shoot this movie?

JW: We shot it in 22 days, and then we had two days for re-shoots.

BK: With movies like these, the shooting schedule always seems to get shorter and shorter.

JW: I know. It’s crazy.

BK: I read how while you were at New York University you focused on psychoanalytic theory and semiotics. Did any of those studies factor into the making of this movie?

JW: You know it must have especially in terms of the writing and having a psychoanalyst be in the movie. But there’s also a way in which I had to drop a lot of my theoretical knowledge and just make it more organic, and at other times I could get very heady.

BK: In some ways “The Moment” is timely because our reality keeps getting distorted by technology and in other ways as well. By the movie’s end we’re not entirely sure if Lee is even dealing fully with reality. With technology today we are getting closer to the truth, yet at the same time we’re being taken further away from it. Was that something you thought about during the making of this movie?

JW: I guess something I thought about most in terms of that kind of general theme of the movie is that we live precariously in an uncertain world which is partly a function of technology but also a function of the times and all the wars we’ve been living through. The last 20 years has been a very, very uncertain time, and then the reaction to this kind of need for certainty comes up in the form of the Tea Party and other kinds of very fundamentalist types of positions. I thought about it in terms of that more than in just technology specifically.

BK: It seems like these days people are not fighting for the truth necessarily, but more for the truth as they see it. “The Moment” reminded me a bit of David Lynch’s “Lost Highway.” It’s a very different movie, but like with Bill Pullman’s character, Lee is trying to get a grip on all that is happened to her. Still, we’re not entirely sure she has succeeded in doing so.

JW: Yeah, people have compared the film to David Lynch’s work. He’s not somebody who I respond that strongly to. I’m much more of a Hitchcock person, but I can see that. Another big theme in the movie which is definitely Hitchcockian is guilt, and even if none of these people actually killed John, is that really the end of it? Can people carry guilt with them, or for the moments that they have created that may or may not have led to John’s death? For example, the moment where Lee kisses John, at that point there’s no turning back. This has to end badly, right?

Thanks to Jane Weinstock for taking the time to talk with me about “The Moment,” a film that constantly challenges your perception of reality throughout its running time.

Green Room

Green Room movie poster

Green Room” is a nasty piece of work which sticks the knife into the viewer and sticks it real deep. Like “Assault on Precinct 13” (the original, not the remake), it is a siege movie but not the one you are necessarily used to seeing. The characters are really fleshed out to where the actors are inhabiting them more than acting, and the violence is not the usual PG-13 bloodless action. For those of you who like your movies seriously intense, ultra-violent and filled with characters who look and feel real, “Green Room” is one you want to check out. For those who do not care for violent movies in the slightest, you would do your best to avoid this one. If you thought “Harry Brown” was dark and bleak, wait till you get a load of this.

The movie opens on The Ain’t Rights, a punk band about to complete their long and largely unsuccessful tour, and their last show has them going to a rural place outside of Portland, Oregon. But upon arriving there, they discover it is a neo-Nazi skinhead bar located deep in the woods, far from the prying eyes of the police among others. Their show goes fine even though things get off to a rough start as they do a cover of Dead Kennedys’ “Nazi Punks Fuck Off” which has some audience members hurling beer bottles at them, but they still manage to get off the stage in one piece. But then they stumble upon a crime never meant for their eyes, and they soon find themselves trapped in the bar and at the mercy of the skinheads who, desperate to cover up their extra-curricular activities, have no plans to let them leave while they are still breathing.

There’s something endlessly fascinating about human beings being driven to the limit of survival. We start having what seems like an ordinary day which we often sleepwalk through, and then something happens which threatens our livelihood and activates our survival instincts to where they cannot be turned off. These punk band members are trapped in a horrific situation not of their own making, and they will soon find themselves acting in their most primal state as death constantly looms around the corner.

What surprised me most about “Green Room” was how real and complex all the characters were. These are not just a bunch of character types simply designed to infuriate moviegoers or immediately gain their sympathy. They all feel like real people caught up in a situation we hope never to be in, and they cannot escape the possibility of a grisly fate. Heck, even a simple negotiation between one character and another takes on a more sinister edge here as the intensity is ratcheted up to a level to where this movie feels like a blood relative of Sam Peckinpah’s “Straw Dogs.”

Plus, you cannot help but be deeply affected by the violence displayed here. Not once is it ever glorified as it is presented in an ugly and visceral form you will react very strongly to. One character gets their arm slashed in a way that reminded me of Naomi Watts’ gaping leg wound from “The Impossible,” and I could not help but gasp in response. Regardless of how many ultra-violent movies you have seen, you cannot leave “Green Room” feeling unaffected by what you have witnessed.

“Green Room” was written and directed by Jeremy Saulnier whose previous film, “Blue Ruin,” received a lot of critical acclaim. I have not seen that one yet, but you can sure bet I will be checking it out soon. He takes what is essentially a genre picture and upgrades it to one that feels far more potent than most. He also gives the punk band which occupies it an authentic feel as nothing they do onstage ever comes across as generic. Clearly this director has been around bands like these for a good portion of his life, and he knows how they operate as they work hard to keep their music from being easily corrupted.

Saulnier also benefits greatly from having a top notch cast which grounds their characters in a reality that feels all too real. Chief among them is Anton Yelchin who plays Pat and who is forced to get to his most primal state in a way he never expected to when he got up in the morning. Also effective is Alia Shawkat as Sam, the band’s sole female member who manages to control her fear enough to keep one step ahead of the skinheads looking to eliminate those in their path. Joe Cole and Callum Turner give memorable turns as the other band members Reece and Tiger, and Macon Blair leaves a strong impression as Gabe, a skinhead who actually grows a conscience in the midst of all the chaos.

One real stand out performance in “Green Room” comes from Imogen Poots who plays Amber. When we first meet Amber, she comes across as a helpless victim who is in over her head and becomes trapped with the rest of the band. But quickly, she becomes a very enigmatic character capable of violence the others are not. We only learn so much about Amber throughout, but Poots imbues her with what seems like a dark history filled with violence that she has somehow managed to survive in spite of her circumstances. Amber knows what’s at stake, and she’s willing to do anything she can to stay alive, anything.

But, of course, the biggest star in “Green Room” is Sir Patrick Stewart who plays a man who is the polar opposite of Jean-Luc Picard or Professor Charles Xavier. Stewart portrays Darcy Banker, the leader of this skinhead gang. What’s especially chilling about Stewart’s performance is how he makes Darcy into an ordinary guy capable of such insidious evil. Not once does he try to chew the scenery or turn Darcy into your typical skinhead villain drunk with power and hatred, but someone who has dealt with unfortunate situations like this before and has long since handled them in a calm fashion. Stewart never has to overplay the part as he conveys just how comfortable Darcy is in his belief structure and psychosis to where taking a human life is not all that different from swatting a fly.

“Green Room” is not high on originality and features situations we have seen in countless movies before, but arguing about this is a waste of time. It’s a heavy duty thriller that takes no prisoners and is unafraid in dragging us into an ultra-violent realm of society we would never want to see in person. If you like your movies claustrophobic and filled with an intensity which really jacks up your adrenaline, this one is for you. For those who do not like these kind of movies, don’t bother. Some movies are meant to be infinitely disturbing and effectively so, and this is one of them.

Copyright Ben Kenber 2016.

* * * ½ out of * * * *