‘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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‘Eighth Grade’ Never Shies From the Terrors of Being a Teenager

Eighth Grade movie poster

I remember eighth grade very well. It started with me running cross country and being elected Treasurer to the student council. I stole a line from Chevy Chase as I told my fellow students, “Hi, I am Ben, and you’re not.” They laughed hysterically and cheered me loudly, and I lived for this kind of reaction back then. I felt like I was on top of the world, but then things changed to where I felt completely out of place and unsure of how to talk or act around people my age. I became socially awkward and felt very isolated from everyone around me, and the year ended on what seemed like a disastrous note as I became the center of attention in a negative way, something I hoped and prayed would never happen.

Those memories were brought right back to the surface as I watched “Eighth Grade” which stars Elsie Fisher as Kayla Day, a teenage girl on the verge of graduating from junior high school. When we first meet her, she is making her latest YouTube video in which she is telling her audience about the importance of being yourself, and she comes off looking very confident. But then we see her in the real world and discover she is a deeply introverted young woman who is socially awkward and introverted. Her class ends up voting her “Most Quiet,” and the look on her face when she is told this says so much as even she cannot deny this being true.

Granted, Kayla is growing in a time where social media is everywhere, and she is addicted to her cell phone as much as the next person. But while I did not grow up in a time of cell phone addiction, social media oversaturation, Facebook, Instagram or Twitter among other things, the feelings she experiences as she navigates the cruel realm of middle school feel very real, and I relate to them more than I ever could have expected to after all these years.

Eighth Grade” has many moments which speaks volumes. The scene where the mother of Kennedy, the most popular girl at school, invites Kayla to her daughter’s birthday party is one of the most emotionally piercing. As the mother speaks, the camera has her face out of focus and instead offers a closeup on Kennedy who refuses to even look at Kayla, her face full of disgust to where she looks like she wants to say to her mom “do we have to invite her?” Being on the receiving end of a face like this when you were a teenager always felt really brutal, as our emotions at that age always felt epic to where dejection felt more common than happiness.

This is followed up by the movie’s most horrifying scene: a pool party. Just seeing Kayla stare out a window at the kids laughing and having fun in the pool as if she were a prisoner behind bars proves to be as unsettling as watching Dawn Weiner look for place to sit in the school cafeteria in “Welcome to the Dollhouse.” Kayla suffers a panic attack as she puts on her swimsuit, and when she does go into the pool, I kept waiting for her to have a Dustin Hoffman “Graduate” moment when she finds solace underwater. Kayla, however, can only stay underwater for so long as the noise in her head proves to be louder than everything going on outside of her.

Kayla does get a reprieve when she attends a high school shadow program and meets a really nice young woman named Olivia (Emily Robinson) who is very eager to introduce Kayla to the new school she will soon attend. Watching Kayla interact with Olivia reminded me of how I got along better with kids older than me than I did with those my own age. Her newfound friendship, however, hits a major snag when one of Olivia’s friends invites Kayla to play a game of truth or dare. I kept praying Kayla would not say the word “dare,” and when she does…

While watching “Eighth Grade,” I was reminded of the following exchange of dialogue from Sofia Coppola’s “The Virgin Suicides:”

“What are you doing here, honey? You’re not even old enough to know how bad life gets.”

“Obviously, Doctor, you’ve never been a 13-year-old girl.”

Writer and director Bo Burnham, one of the first performers to become a star on YouTube, has brilliantly captured all the angst, horror and awkwardness of these crazy years we would rather put behind us. Clearly, he was never a teenage girl himself, but this quickly becomes irrelevant as anyone who has ever felt left out or at the bottom of the social ladder can easily relate to what Kayla experiences from start to finish. His screenplay feels very true to life, and not once does this movie feel like an average episode of “Saved by the Bell” or “Beverly Hills 90210.”

As Kayla, Elsie Fisher has such a winning presence to where you root for her right from the start. Her face, which has evidence of pimples, is not the kind we see in Clearasil commercials, and I applaud her for not trying to cover this up. In moments where she has no dialogue, Fisher shows us exactly what is going through Kayla’s mind as she is unable to hide the confusion and uncertainty of how to act around others. It’s a wonderful performance which feels true to life, and Fisher makes her final moments in “Eighth Grade” count for so much as she prepares to start the next stage of her life with newfound confidence.

The other performance I loved was from Josh Hamilton who plays Kayla’s father, Mark Day. At first, it looked like he is portraying a hapless dad who is simply here for comedic effect, but Hamilton gives this character dimensions which truly surprised me. Mark could have been like any other father we often in see in movies, but Hamilton digs deep to find the bruised heart of one who is just trying to do the best he can. It all leads to a wonderfully acted scene where Mark tells Kayla how she can never make him sad, and it is one of the more original moments I have seen between a parent and their child in recent years, and I am certain I will never forget it.

It gives me great pleasure to add “Eighth Grade” to my list of the best and most realistic motion pictures ever made about teenagers. Movies like “Pump Up the Volume” proved to be a godsend for me as they dealt with real teenagers going through problems I could actually relate to, and kids today need these movies as a healthy alternative to the more flaccid and shallow portrayals of their age set which do not reflect their reality. While much of what I saw was unnerving to where I was instantly reminded of far too many embarrassing moments from my junior high school days, it is always refreshing to get a movie from a filmmaker who takes the time to listen to teenagers instead of talking down to them. John Hughes may be gone, but there are other filmmakers more than willing to carry his torch for another generation.

Regardless of its R rating, I hope those who are in the eighth grade or have just graduated from junior high school get to check this movie out as I believe they will benefit greatly from watching it. I also have to say if adults are intent on saying the word “lit” in videos aimed at teenagers, they need to understand how kids use this word. Trust me, kids see through your façade, and your attempts to look cool to them will make you appear far too desperate for their approval.

* * * * out of * * * *

‘Take Me to the River’ Dives Right Into the Deep End

Take Me to the River poster

I came into “Take Me to the River” with little knowledge as to what the movie was about, and perhaps this is the best way to approach it. At first it looks to be a tale of a gay teenager dealing with his conservative relatives who have yet to understand how human nature really works, but then it takes a sharp left turn to reveal it is really about deep dark family secrets which are revealed in a wordless way, and the psychological impact it ends up having on its audience is far more profound than we could have ever seen coming.

We are introduced to Ryder (Logan Miller), a gay California teenager who is going with his mom Cindy (Robin Weigert) and dad Don (Richard Schiff) to a family reunion in Nebraska. Ryder is intent on revealing his sexuality to everyone there, but his parents encourage him not to. Shortly after he arrives, he is treated with suspicion from others as his red shorts look like a pair of swimming trunks and his glasses resemble something which came out of the 1980’s. His cousins, however, are crushing on him as he makes them special drawings, and they find him wonderfully rebellious. But then things go awry during a moment between him and 9-year-old Molly when she comes out of a barn with a bloodstain on her dress. Ryder is immediately suspected of abuse by his uncle Keith (Josh Hamilton), but he makes clear he didn’t do anything to her.

Now revealing more about “Take Me to the River” from there is a bit tricky because it is better not to know too much about the movie beforehand. For a time, I thought I knew where the movie was going to go, but then it becomes more like a thriller. This is especially the case when Ryder is invited to a supper with Keith and his family where Keith looks to make amends with him, but his laser-like stare indicates he has something quite devious planned for his nephew, and we are just as in the dark as Ryder is.

This movie marks the feature film directorial debut of Matt Soebel who also wrote its screenplay, and he does an excellent job of putting us right in Ryder’s shoes. Like Ryder, we have little idea of what’s going on and it leaves us with an inescapable feeling of dread.  And like “The China Syndrome,” it doesn’t have, or even need, a music score to underscore the tension which continually builds up. We don’t really hear any music until the very end, and when that final song comes on, I felt like breathing a sigh of relief as the tension finally lifted.

This is also a motion picture which derives its power from what is not said more than what is. Soebel is not interested in spelling everything out to us as our imaginations are capable of generating things far more frightening, and when the story comes to hint at a deep dark family secret, we cannot help but be unsettled at what that secret could be.

But as much as “Take Me to the River” sounds like a thriller, it is also a coming of age story as Ryder comes to better understand the people around him and develops a stronger compassion than he ever had before. The fact he is gay eventually becomes a tiny issue as their bigger things to undercover which has left his family members with very nasty emotional scars. This is saying a lot because many coming of age movies don’t come constructed like this, and it makes this one all the more unique.

I was very impressed with Miller who left a strong impression on audiences in “The Stanford Prison Experiment.” We never catch him portraying a typical teenager, let alone a gay teenager, but instead a regular kid who is caught up in a situation he can’t stay one step ahead of. I also liked Hamilton’s performance as Keith because it shows him to be quite the poker player. But the most impressive performance in “Take Me to the River” comes from Robin Weigert as Cindy. At first, she makes Cindy an overprotective mother, but her actions come to reveal someone who has suffered a serious trauma she can never fully make peace with. Weigert, just with a look, shows us how deep her emotional scars go, and it’s always impressive to see any actor pull this off without having to spell it out for the audience.

There’s always something to be said for a movie which catches you by surprise, and “Take Me to the River” is certainly one. I went into it not knowing much about it, and it took me on a ride unlike few others I have been on in recent years. In a time where movies are bound by formulaic standards and studio executives who are hell bent on starting the next big franchise, it’s nice to know there are still filmmakers out there making movies which go against the grain. Not everything can be the same, and in the end, everyone needs some variety as they can get easily bored.

If you love movies which break the mold, then “Take Me to the River” is one you need to check out. When it comes to humanity, there’s always something more to a person than meets the eye. While you might think individuals can be easily divided into groups of people you feel you can easily identify, this movie comes around to remind you this it is not as easy as you think. Family secrets are never easy to unveil, and this movie serves as a reminder as to why. I look forward to what Sobel has in store for us next.

* * * ½ out of * * * *