SXSW 2018: ‘Blaze’ is a terrific portrait of the artist as a poetic screw-up

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Let the word go forth from this time and place: Ethan Hawke, director of the excellent Blaze Foley biopic “Blaze,” is apparently extremely good at getting stunning performances out of non-actors.

Ben Dickey, a 40-year-old musician from Arkansas, already has been feted at Sundance for his performance as Foley in “Blaze,” but nothing quite prepares you for seeing it on the big screen. It’s a tour de force of oversized charm and verve, a living ballad of song-writer-as-ramblin’-man (and almost compulsive screw-up).

Gauzy without being cloyingly mythic, Hawke lets us know Foley’s tragic end right up front — he died in 1989 at the edge of 40, shot during an altercation over his friend’s disability check, a death that might have been too strange and pointless and heroic and sad to even make for a good song.

After we meet Foley, in full Duct Tape Messiah mode, screwing around the studio with friend and running buddy Townes Van Zandt (Charlie Sexton, equally excellent in a completely different tone than Dickey), we flash back over a decade (we think) and see Foley as a younger man doing construction work in a theater.

RELATED: Going out in the Blaze of glory at tribute concert

He meets Sybil Rosen (Alia Shawkat, earthy and vibrant), a young aspiring actress in … Arkansas, we think. (It is Rosen’s memoir upon which the film is based.)

Soon they are inseparable and living in a treehouse/cabin thing in the Georgia woods (right?). He is working on songs and dispensing almost Zen koans about life and art, she is acting and keeping a sort of vague house — they are Southern, post-hippie bohos of the first rank. Dickey and Shawkat do a phenomenal job embodying a relationship that neither of them really ever got over, such was its perfection.

We flash forward and back over the years as Hawke loosely braids a few plot threads.  We see Townes and  Zee (Josh Hamilton) conducting a myth-building radio interview about Blaze. We see Foley as a near-constantly drunken troubadour, small band in tow, cutting a live album at the Austin Outhouse that he cannot help but interrupt by getting into a fight.

We see Blaze and Sybil meet her parents (it seems entirely possible Sybil is the first Jew Blaze ever encountered; during the hang with her folks, the only one he can think of is Zero Mostel). We see them head to Austin, then Chicago, wherein their relationship reaches a point of untenability. Then Blaze heads back to Austin (right?) and the legend builds.

We see the start of the fight where Blaze died. We see his pals try to convey his epic character to a barely interested radio host. We see record execs try to make Blaze a star. We see him die (but, cannily, not shot). We see him missed by those who loved him.

Again, Dickey is luminescent throughout. He is almost never not on-screen and it’s the sort of part that gives veteran actors the shakes. But Dickey gives Foley a bearish charm, self-medicated instability and a swaggering desperation.

If the film has one constant frustration, it is that, in the possible service of timelessness and tonal ramble, Hawke is really vague about when and where things take place. Unless you know Foley well — and most don’t — you have to head to Google to know that his career ran from at most, around 1977 to his death in 1989. A few dates popping up on the screen would not have lessened the mood, Ethan.

But then, this is not a soup-to-nuts biopic. It’s an ode to the artist-as-emotional-outlaw, with all the good, bad and ugly that implies.  At one point, Foley tells his then-wife Sybil that he wants to be a legend rather than a star.  Bullseye.

Grade: B+

MORE SXSW: See all our coverage

For Rachel Bloom and writers of ‘Most Likely to Murder,’ looking back can be cathartic

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Director and co-writer Dan Gregor said “Most Likely to Murder,” which had its world premiere at South by Southwest, came from the idea of high school classmates getting back together for Thanksgiving and noticing a change in one another.

Members of the cast and crew of “Most Likely to Murder” at the Highball in Austin on March 13. From left are producer Petra Ahman, co-writer and actor Doug Mand, actor Adam Pally, actor John Reynolds, co-writer and director Dan Gregor, and actor Rachel Bloom. JAMES GREGG/AMERICAN-STATESMAN

Co-writer “Doug (Mand) and I were kind of obsessed with that ‘night before Thanksgiving,’” Gregor said in an interview at the Highball on March 13. “Where everyone goes to the local bar, everyone’s back in your hometown … and you are just sort of seeing all of these people from your past.”

Mand noted the vulnerability of the situation.

“You’re going there and you’re like, “What am I now?” he said. “You’re very exposed in that moment, and you’re watching everyone else. And you’re checking in on how everyone’s changed.”

“Most Likely to Murder” is a thriller comedy that follows Billy (Adam Pally) as he returns home for Thanksgiving, prepared to relive the glory days. Instead, he ends up discovering that his friends have changed and his ex-girlfriend, Kara (Rachel Bloom), is dating the high school geek, Lowell (Vincent Kartheiser), whom everyone, especially Billy, used to pick on. As a way of setting things straight, Billy attempts to prove that Lowell is a murderer.

Gregor and Mand’s decision to combine the comedy and thriller genres derived from their interest in noir and Alfred Hitchcock films, with the goal to make the emotions in this movie more intense.

REVIEW: Trying to hold onto the glory days of high school? That’s funny and scary in ‘Most Likely to Murder’

Gregor talked about his own experiences being both a bit of a nonviolent middle school bully and the subject of bullying in high school, and said the film was one way for him to express what he wishes he knew then.

“This movie in a lot of ways is a way for me to express that regret and that apology, too,” Gregor said. “I wish I could go back and talk to my former self and teach him empathy even younger. And just say people are people.”

Bloom, best known for her work on “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,” said her experience playing Kara gave her former teenage self some release. During one scene, Kara gets to tell Billy off, years after he broke her heart.

“The ability to act that out in a scene, I really, really related to it. It was very cathartic,” Bloom said. “And I think a lot of girls feel that you look back on that guy that you were in love with in high school, who seemed so cool. But then you think about it in hindsight and think, he wasn’t cool. He just quoted ‘Family Guy’ a ton.”

Gregor said they wanted to give Billy an appropriate ending, one that didn’t fall into the male fantasy trope that one decent act can undo all the bad things done over a lifetime.

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Bloom said that one of the things she admires most about Gregor and Mand’s comedy writing is that they are able to incorporate emotion and heart that explores the human condition in their jokes.

“I really love how emotionally deep the movie gets,” Bloom said. “Something that really sets them apart as comedy writers is that a lot of guys who write comedy write it very mathematically. And they write it very like it’s all about the premise, and that it’s mathematically hitting the best jokes possible, and the sensibility tends to be kind of mean with that.”

“Most Likely to Murder” is Gregor’s feature film debut. He and Mand have previously written and produced for TV shows such as “How I Met Your Mother,” and “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.”

Gregor spoke to the differences of working on a film versus working in TV, noting that while TV directors are immensely talented, the job of a TV writer more closely resembles that of a film director.

“The writers on a TV show are much more the auteur voices and shepherds of the whole project,” Gregor said. “So in that regard, as writer-producers on TV for many years, Doug and I, that was really a vast majority of training for directing film. In film, the director is sort of the shepherd of the process.”

Pally, who has acted on shows such as “The Mindy Project” and “Making History,” said he was excited to have the premiere at SXSW.

“I love South by,” he said. “Everyone’s been so nice to us, and it’s really cool to have a festival where the fans can get in and see the movie, and it’s not just industry. It’s great.”

“Most Likely to Murder” will be available on digital, VOD and DVD on May 1.

The moving ‘If I Leave Here Tomorrow’ chronicles Lynyrd Skynyrd

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“Musicians are a rare breed — once it gets in their blood, they have to go after it” — Judy Van Zant, widow of Ronnie Van Zant

Are you in the market for an incredibly well-made, super professional, smartly-edited, fully licensed and extremely unlikely to be controversial documentary about an interesting musician or group?

Then, brother, Stephen Kijak is your man.

Starting with his outstanding “Scott Walker: 30 Century Man” (2006), Kijak has made excellent docs on the Backstreet Boys, Jaco Pastorius, the Rolling Stones and X Japan. He works his slick magic again with the moving “If I Leave Here Tomorrow,” bankrolled by CMT and likely airing on the network later this year.

Rising out of a Jacksonville, Fla., garage band called One Percent, Lynyrd Skynyrd took their name from both the name “Leonard Skinner” from “Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah” and a high school coach who happened to have the same name.

RELATED: 10 docs to watch out for at SXSW

The band honed its chops the old-fashioned way, rehearsing and writing morning, noon and night at “Hell House,” a cabin in the middle of nowhere where the band could work out music. It was also close enough to water than Ronnie could go fishing while writing lyrics in his head, Biggie Smalls-style. These were the salad days — as one member puts it, “Hell House was the reward.”

Al Kooper, who helmed the first two albums, was floored by the band’s airtight prowess on even the guitar solos. Those records cut like butter, while the rest of their output was sometimes marred by writing-in-the-studio and, um, lifestyle choices.

Kijak talks to folks who are around and gets tremendous archival footage (and stunning bell bottoms) of those who are not. There’s guitarist Gary Rossington and Ronnie’s brother Johnny Van Zant, who lets us see the Jacksonville neighborhood where the band was born.

There’s the fascinating Artimus Pyle, the “left wing liberal hippie” who replaced original drummer Bob Burns (who all but had a nervous breakdown due to, well, the hazards of being in Skynyrd).

PHOTOS: “If I Leave Here Tomorrow” red carpet

“I think they felt (the band was) supposed to smoke every cigarette and drink everything provided and eat whatever they wanted and throw the rest against the wall,’ Pyle says. “That was our road manager’s duty – to carry a briefcase with probably $250,000 in cash to bail people out of jail and placate hotel owners.”

There’s Ed King, the California kid who hailed from the Strawberry Alarm Clock, co-wrote “Sweet Home Alabama,” and filled out the three guitar lineup until he bounced in ’75 after Van Zant’s temper got to be a bit much.

Kijak also cuts between band history and an inevitable look at the October 1977 plane crash that killed Ronnie Van Zant, King’s replacement Steve Gaines and Steve’s sister Cassie (as well as assistant road manager Dean Kilpatrick, pilot Walter McCreary and co-pilot William Gray), effectively ending the band for a decade. Surviving members recount the horror of crashing in the middle of nowhere in the farmland of Gillsburg, Mississippi (“like hearing 10,000 baseball bats on the side of the fuselage” as they started to hit the trees).

“The one thing I want the world to know about my band is how bravely my band met their death,” Pyle says in the documentary. “Everyone knew it was gonna end badly. There was no panic, no chaos; everybody was in prayer, in deep thought.”

“If I Leave Here Tomorrow” plays again at 1:45 p.m. March 17 at Alamo Ritz 1. Grade: A-

Mia Wasikowska and Robert Pattinson flip the script on gender roles in a Western

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Westerns may not be as popular as they once were, but their impact on pop culture and their notions of masculinity have remained embedded in our world. The picture of a rugged cowboy on a horse, often rescuing a damsel in distress, is something most everyone is familiar with.


“Damsel,” the latest film by the Zellner brothers, works almost as a parody of a Western. The film first follows Samuel (Robert Pattinson) and a parson he recruits (David Zellner) on their journey to rescue the love of Samuel’s life, Penelope (Mia Wasikowska). He wants to marry her, painting an ideal picture of their would-be life together to the parson, and he believes he can be her hero.

The real hero of the story, however, is not Samuel or any of the supposed chivalrous men in the film. It’s Penelope.

To see such a strong female character on screen handling her day-to-day struggles at the hands of such oblivious men — fighting off repeated marriage proposals and the sort of “damseling” that they all put on her — was cathartic and thought-provoking. And though Penelope’s tired of it, she’s also more than capable of standing her ground.

The story questions stereotypes of masculinity. All the men in the film have an over-exaggerated idea of themselves that would be glorified and rewarded in a traditional Western. The cowboy rescues the damsel, and the damsel is forever thankful. That’s not Penelope’s story, though, and she doesn’t want it to be.

The only real issue with her character is that she’s not as fleshed out as she could be. While the narrative makes a point to highlight her as the toughest of the bunch, we don’t get much about her story or who she is outside of her rough exterior when she’s not fighting off idiots. That said, we also don’t get much of anyone else’s background, either, which at times makes the level of engagement in the film fall slightly. Ultimately, we’re rooting for Penelope, mostly because we want her to get away from all these ridiculous and terrible men, but we have no idea where she’s going afterward.

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However, it also is clear the backstories are kept hidden in large part to make the reveals throughout the film more surprising. And the story does interesting work following different characters throughout, almost like it’s teasing the possible rise of a traditional Western protagonist.

While the film may begin as a Western, though, there are a few aspects that work against the genre. This includes shots from the beach, a break from common Western settings, and more comedic elements. The shift in narrative and play on comedy was a welcome approach, making the story lighter and more fun to watch.

Overall, the film overall is a fun tale if you’re not a die-hard traditional Western fan. But the story doesn’t diminish its predecessors; it’s clear there are parts of it that revere the genre. Rather, it just provides an alternate look at gender roles so commonly displayed in Westerns, giving the damsel a chance to shine in her story.

“Damsel” premiered at South By Southwest on March 12. It screens again at 11:30 a.m. March 16 at Zach Theatre and at 11:30 a.m. March 17 at AFS Cinema. A wider release date hasn’t been set. Grade: B+

SXSW 2018: Steven freakin’ Spielberg introduces ‘Ready Player One’ premiere

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“This is not a film that we’ve made. It is, I promise you, a movie.” — Steven Spielberg introducing “Ready Player One,” March 11, 29018, Paramount Theater.

Well, that happened.

Steven Spielberg, as in THE Steven Spielberg, showed up at the Paramount on Sunday night to introduce the world premiere of his new movie “Ready Player One.”

Not this guy:

But this guy:

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As you might imagine, the assembled were very excited indeed.

After a very brief introduction from SXSW Film head honcho Janet Pierson, out came Spielberg with the cast of “Ready Player One,” along with screenwriters Zak Penn and Ernie Cline, the Austin author whose book upon which the film was based.

Spielberg noted that while you don’t have to be a gamer to enjoy the fil– uh, movie, he himself has been a gamer for longer than much of the audience had been alive.

“I’ve been a gamer ever since 1974 when I played the first Pong game on Martha’s Vineyard filming ‘Jaws,'” he said.

PHOTOS: “Ready Player One” red carpet arrivals at SXSW 2018

He also noted that while he directs some films from behind the camera, others he directs from the audience — this was the latter. “Your reaction is everything,” he said after the screening.

While the film (review forthcoming) was well received by the packed house, an interesting thing happened at the movie’s very climax: The sound cut out. Then the picture froze.

Everyone had the same thought: “Wait, is that part of the movie? No, it’s not. Someone make sure Janet isn’t having a stroke. Can I stand up for a second? I am going to stand up, my leg is asleep.”

Everyone was chatty and chill about it. Pierson came out and said they weren’t sure what happened, and then another funny thing happened — after a few long minutes, the glitch was repaired…

SXSW 2018: A few things we learned from the “Ready Player One” VR experience

Readers, I have gone to many an event at the Paramount over the past 17 years or so: concerts, movies, stand-up, the works.

I have NEVER, EVER heard a sound like the screams of triumph when the sound and picture was restored, when it was clear the movie would conclude.

Not once, not ever.

This was a moment when everyone was rooting for everything to work and for the movie (not film) to deliver all its punches.

And when it did, the roar was legitimately deafening. It was one of the most joyous (and possibly slightly drunken) sounds I have ever heard, certainly at the Paramount.

SXSW 2018: Bill Hader talks ‘Barry,’ LeBron James, ‘SNL’ and more with The Ringer’s Bill Simmons

Wry, nimble, absurd, likable, self-effacing and brilliant, Bill Hader proved himself to be all of the things one imagines of the “Saturday Night Live” veteran when he appeared at Vox Media’s Deep End for a taping of The Ringer’s Bill Simmons podcast.

Bill Hader (left) and Bill Simmons at Vox Media’s The Deep End at South by Southwest. (Matthew Odam AMERICAN-STATESMAN)

Simmons, whose Ringer masthead of Chris Ryan, Juliet Litman and Sean Fennessy sat front row, knowingly commented that Hader looked a little rough. The slightly disheveled and five-o-clocked-shadowed Hader admitted that he’s not a big drinker but that he ended up putting back about 20 Electric Jellyfish IPAs the night before and got really drunk, as he sat around after the world premiere of his HBO show “Barry” and watched reviews from the trades start to flow in. He followed that night with a morning of breakfast tacos, so it sounds like the man who gave life to Stefon is fitting into the town nicely. The night before was apparently Simmons’ first trip to an Alamo Drafthouse, and the longtime veteran of ESPN announced that is was “one of the greatest things anywhere.”

Hader was ostensibly there to talk about his new show, which follows a Midwestern hitman who heads out to Los Angeles to murder an actor and ends up falling in with a class of struggling actors taught by a guru played by Henry Winkler. Hader describes his titular as a hybrid of De Niro’s Travis Bickle (“Taxi Driver”) and Clint Eastwood’s Bill Munny (“Unforgiven”) ends up meeting the characters in “Waiting for Guffman.” It’s a “tonal tightrope,” and Hader says that most places would have dismissed the idea out of hand but that HBO was totally on board, a story of another creative praising the vision and freedom of the network.

While we didn’t get an Eastwood impression from Hader, he did riff on some J.B. Smoove, imitating the former SNL writer’s brash but casual confidence in pitching absurd ideas in the show’s writers’ room. Sadly, the world never got to experience the drive-by in a snowstorm. Hader also had the crowd in stitches with his unproduced sketch about a super genial Jame Gumb (“Silence of the Lambs”) hosting a late-night talk show with the girl in the well as his sidekick and another talk show where “To Catch a Predator’s” Chris Hansen walks in on unsuspecting guests on a set resembling the creepy NBC show and offers the shocked guests milk to go with the cookies they took from a plate in the fake kitchen.

The hour-long conversation jumped from Hader’s time as a production assistant on a Playboy TV show to his big SNL break. Below are a few more highlights of the podcast that will likely be posted soon

  • Megan Mullaley was responsible for Hader’s big break. She saw him perform at an improv show and loved him. He heard from her soon after. “I had dinner with Lorne Michaels and told him about you,” and then I was on SNL, Hader said. “She just happened to be there on a night i was funny. And, thank god.”
  • Maya Rudolph was apparently a stone-cold killer on SNL, able to jump in and out of sketches at the drop of a hat. She also had a wicked sense of play. One show, as they were counting down to air, Rudolph stuck her finger in a visibly anxious Hader’s butt. “It was sweet,” Hader sad, the playful move allowing Hader to get out of his head before performing.
  • Hader, who has written extensively for “South Park” said that doing satire on Donald Trump is hard. Referencing an old comedy axiom of stacking too many jokes on top of each other and losing their effect, Hader said satirizing Trump is “like putting a hat on a hat, like putting a joke on a joke.”
  • Hader starred in “Trainwreck” with LeBron James and said the future Hall of Famer was super easy to work with and totally game for any comedic bits Hader offered. During the scenes where the notes Oklahoma City Thunder fan played one-on-one with the Cavs star, Chris Rock was apparently off camera feeding comedic lines to James.
  • Paramount Pictures once let Hader and writing partner John Mulaney know that if they wanted to make a Stefon movie, the opportunity was there, but Hader said the duo had no interest. “The sketch made no sense, so a movie wouldn’t work.” Some things were just meant to be legendary Weekend Update bits.
  • Hader’s favorite SNL character he didn’t play? Phil Hartman’s Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer, in a bit that Hader said really cracked open his mind about the possibilities of sketch.
  • Hader’s first SNL pitch: that Steve Carrell playing Bobby Flay on an episode of “Iron Chef” where the celeb chef gets electrocuted. The idea was pulled from Hader’s real life, as he served as a PA on that show.
  • He doesn’t think of pieces as comedy or drama. He thinks in terms of story. In discussing the blending of the two forms and tones, he referenced that two of his favorite writers are Tobias Wolff and George Saunders.
  • Hader doesn’t talk junk about anyone publicaly ever. Except Justin Bieber, whom Hader said brought a massive entourage and a disrespectful attitude to the taping. “He had more than people than Obama.”

”Barry” premieres on HBO on March 25.