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Montclair 2018: Disobedience, Blaze & Hal

May 6, 2018

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I didn’t attend as many events at this year’s Montclair Film Festival as I usually do, but if I can identify a theme that links the ones I did, it would be this: disobedience. That’s the title of the film Rachel Weisz discussed when she sat down for a Q&A with Stephen Colbert at the Audible Theater (a fancy name for the retrofitted auditorium at Buzz Aldrin Middle School). I had already seen Disobedience, a provocative Orthodox Jewish lesbian romance starring Weisz and fellow Rachel McAdams, before the festival began, which put me one-up on everyone in the auditorium — excuse me, Theater —  except Colbert and Weisz. One of the inexplicable quirks of MFF is they often do Q&As with actors before screenings of their films, and in separate locations, as opposed to the traditional post-screening talks. It must’ve been frustrating, if not infuriating, for audience members to hear Colbert discuss specific scenes and plot twists about a film they hadn’t seen yet (and in some cases, were just about to see).

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Luckily, Colbert’s entertaining, thoughtful Q&A with Ethan Hawke before the screening of his latest directorial effort, Blaze, didn’t diminish my enjoyment of the movie, since I hadn’t seen it yet. A biopic of outlaw-country singer Blaze Foley, it refreshingly eschews the genre’s hard-road-to-fame cliches to take a more impressionistic approach to its subject. Hawke cast Ben Dickey, an Arkansas-born musician with no screen acting experience, in the lead role, and the gamble pays off. He brings a rough-hewn verisimilitude to the role, and he’s matched by Alia Shawkat as Sybil Rosen, his unlikely Jewish love interest, with whom he resides in a treehouse for numerous years (Hawke co-wrote the film with Rosen, based on her memoir).

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Hawke makes an extended vocal cameo as a DJ interviewing Foley’s pal Townes Van Zandt (Charlie Sexton, another musician delivering a remarkable performance), and the flawless ensemble includes Kris Kristofferson in a poignant turn as Blaze’s mentally ill father and Sam Rockwell, Steve Zahn and frequent Hawke collaborator Richard Linklater as oilmen who sign Blaze to a recording contract. The story jumps back and forth in time as it explores how creativity can come from two different wells: love and anger. Blaze is at once self-destructive and achingly vulnerable, and the movie captures the bittersweet spirit of his songs. He didn’t play by the rules of country music (or life in general) and neither, admirably, does Blaze.

Another true rebel, director Hal Ashby, gets the documentary treatment in Hal, director Amy Scott’s affecting profile. A Utah-born hippie who learned how to make movies via his Oscar-winning editing of director Norman Jewison’s In the Heat of the Night, among other films, Ashby reeled off one of the great creative hot streaks in cinematic history. Consider this run in the ’70s: Harold and Maude, The Last Detail, Shampoo, Bound for Glory, Coming Home and Being There.

But when Hollywood changed in the ’80s, emphasizing high-concept blockbusters over the shaggy, humanistic tales of real people that Ashby favored, he was a man out of time. Scott interviews his cohorts (Jewison, Jon Voight, Jane Fonda, Beau and Jeff Bridges) as well as his disciples (Judd Apatow, Lisa Cholodenko, Adam McKay) and most heartbreakingly, the daughter who only really knew him through his movies. Ashby’s father killed himself when Hal was 12 — which explains a lot about the suicide gags in Harold and Maude — and perhaps as a result, he was never able to settle down with a family. He was married five times (much like Warren Beatty’s Shampoo character, Hal loved the ladies), and the film makes good use of one of the most revealing scenes from an Ashby movie: the painful reconciliation between a degenerate gambler (Voight) and the little girl he barely knows (Angelina Jolie, in her film debut) in the criminally underrated 1982 dramedy Lookin’ to Get Out.

Blaze Foley and Hal Ashby died too young, yet the films that bear their names leave you elated about the power of self-expression. To quote Cat Stevens from Harold and Maude, “If you want to sing out, sing out/and if you want to be free, be free/’cause there’s a million things to be/you know that there are.” Blaze and Hal did.

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