Documentary Review: “Hail Satan?” sows comic confusion among Church and State Conservatives

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Alarming, inspiring and yes, laugh-out-loud funny, “Hail Satan?” is a delightful documentary dissection of America’s favorite anti-religion, The Satanic Temple.

Director Penny Lane (“Our Nixon,” “Nuts!”) traces the group from its hoaxer origins, coming to life as political protest performance art, growing into a national movement battling the ever-blurring lines between church and state advocated — adherents say — by evangelical activists intent on creating an American theocracy.

It might be the funniest civics lesson you ever see on the big screen, as clear an assertion of American freedoms as “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” — and with more laughs.

Lane captures moments of origin, the “church” forming as Florida’s “Tea Party” governor, Rick Scott, called for bringing religion into the state’s schools.

Fine, the future Satanists said. We see them find an actor to be their spokesman, with an earpiece allowing founder Lucien Greaves (not his real name) to feed him lines. They dress him and several followers at a costume shop.

We watch the actor rehearse lines and a special effect (fire flying out of his fingers) for a rally at the Florida State Capital in Tallahassee. A PR person alerts the Florida media.

And then the big day — “Hail Satan! Hail Rick Scott!” It is, our actor declares, “a Great day to be a Satanist!”

Sure, a heckler yells, “You’re gonna go to HELL!”

“I believe it,” our spokes-model improvises. “And I’m very excited about it.”

The idea was to “show the hypocrisy of what Rick Scott is doing,” singling out a religioun his backers support for special treatment and enshrinement in Florida law.

Scott, already nicknamed “Governor Voldemort” by much of America, did not realize it. But his efforts to “bring prayer back to public schools” had just launched a global political movement that mocks superstition and super-naturalism, appeals to reason, civil rights and the “religious pluralism” that America’s founding fathers decreed.

All this as they rally, stage self-invented rituals, file civil rights lawsuits and stick a joking thumb in the eye of Evangelical America.

Lane uses interviews, images of protests and rallies, snippets of religious and patriotic films and archival news footage to tell this admittedly lopsided story of The Satanic Temple’s quixotic pursuit of the secular America that, as scholars and historians remind us, only was seriously unraveled by the rise of Billy Graham and political evangelism in the 1950s.

The Satanist’s secret weapon? Demanding, and getting equal time and the equal treatment ensured under the law. Here’s Chris Hayes of MSNBC summing it up nicely with, “Basically, the argument being ‘You open the door to ‘God,’ you open the door to ‘Satan.'”

Want to put prayer in your schools? The Satanists want to lead the prayers, on occasion. Allowing Bible study clubs to hold meetings on campus? The Satanic Temple has comic book reading matter your kids would just love. A prayer opens Phoenix city council meetings? Let a Satanist into the rotation of religious leaders brought in for that.

Lane’s film traces the “Satanic scares” of the 1980s and 90s, when “Satanic rituals,” sacrifices and other boogeyman threats were trumpeted in the supermarket tabloids and local and national news (and didn’t actually exist) to the invention of this new “church” as “a counter-balance to the dominant religious privilege in America.”

Christianity’s Satan, whom the group’s members allow they don’t actually believe in, “is the symbolic embodiment of the ultimate rebel against tyranny.”

“Blasphemy is a declaration of personal independence.”

Satan, in other words, “was the original ‘troll.'”

And they’re out to puncture superstitions, expose hypocrisy and ridicule religious groups that inject themselves into American life and American politics. That “Satanic scare?” “Transference” and projection, one interviewed member declares, comparing it to the then-ongoing Catholic Church pedophilia scandal, covered-up until about the time the “Satanic scare” withered away.

The group, many of whose members appear interviewed in shadows or with their faces blurred, admit to quickly learning how to grab media attention — a rally here, a “pink mass” right there.

That’s how they went after the Westboro Baptist Church’s hate-mongering leader by performing a ritual at the grave of Fred Phelps’ dead mother. Twisting Mormon reasoning, they declared her a “lesbian in the afterlife” announcing that “Satanists…turn the dead gay.”

A Salem, Massachusetts headquarters and gift shop, and bigger protests against a sudden mania for installing religious monuments in stage capitals all over the Bible Belt followed.

“I don’t mind when people are offended,” Greaves, the face of an organization of former Goths, outsiders, tattooed metalheads and agitators, says. They want to “force people to evaluate their notions of the United States as  a Christian nation. We’re not.” We are, he reminds us, and a scholar or two backs him up, a “secular  nation of religious tolerance.”

 

Where Lane’s film and the group morph from amusing to moving is in their biggest ongoing fight, attempts to put The Ten Commandments into statehouses and courthouses, something a historian traces back to Cecil B. Demille’s promotional efforts for his movie, “The Ten Commandments,” in the Billy Graham-mad, anti-communist 1950s. The producers of the modern “God’s Not Dead” movies would like to do the same.

As we meet cynical legislators and devoutly monomaniacal true believers — some toting Christian and Confederate flags to rallies, and hear the shouting from Christians who get neither the joke nor irony, it’s hard not to take Satan’s side in all this. The alternative just might be, as the Satanists say, submitting to “Christian Supremacy” and the theocracy that implies.

As they create statues of Baphomet (see the photo at top), modeled on the punk rocker Iggy Pop (not the goat’s head, mind you) and demand equal billing next to whatever Ten Commandments this or that cynical politician wants to arouse his base with by placing in public space, as they deal with shouting, protesting mobs at every public appearance,  “Hail Satan” gives you a stark choice — the devout, or the jokers who have a point.

“The more hate that was thrown at us, the more important this seemed,” lawyer Stu DeHaan realized.

However it began, whatever some of its more loopy adherents “believe,” American democracy needs the outliers, the agitators, to evolve and weather the regressive changes in the political climate.

As one wag in this church of wags reminds us, “The Devil’s work is never done.”

3stars2

MPAA Rating: R for graphic nudity, and some language

Credits:Directed by Penny Lane. A Magnolia release.

Running time: 1:35

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Movie Review: Oh, the things we go through “Making Babies”

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Take every movie or sitcom gag about the trials of trying to conceive and put them in one movie, and you’ve got “Making Babies.”

It’s a perfectly pleasant sit-through of a couple-trying-to-become-a-triple comedy, even if pretty much every single situation, from first scene to its last, slaps you in the face with “Where’d I see THAT before?”

Eliza Coupe (TV’s “Happy Endings” and “Casual”) and Steve Howey (TV’s “Shameless”) make a genial if not exactly must-see-Moo-vie married pair we follow through the ordeal of a “difficult” conception.

Supporting players Ed Begley Jr. and the late Glenne Headly (in her final film) give better comic value as a fertility doctor and Catholic mom respectively, and first-time writer-director Josh F. Huber creates a few conflict points that show promise.

That it never amounts to much, or anything surprising, is a bit of a shame.

Katie and John take on a new home that’s “a LOT of house” for just two, Katie observes. Let’s do something ABOUT that, John responds. And we’re off — sex (off camera), home pregnancy tests.

He’s a software engineer whose dream is to open his own craft brewery, following “500 year old German beer laws.” Good luck with that, older brother Gordon (Bob Stephenson, never quite funny) grumps. He’s mid-midlife crisis, taking on a motorcycle, joining a dojo.

His wife Maria (Elizabeth Rodriguez) urges Katie and John to go camping and make “a sleeping bag baby,” reassuring them that if that or a fertility doctor can’t help, “I’ll give you one of my kids.”

The first comic spark of life comes from that doctor,, an eccentrically indiscreet California cliche played by Begley.

“Katie, let’s talk about your uterus,” he says,, solemnly. Oh, not to worry, “It’s a real SHOW stopper.”

Thus begin assorted tests and treatments, discussions of IUI vs. IVF, more frustration, consulting a “healer” (Jon Daly, not that funny in a slam dunk part) creating a whole doctor-“witch doctor” conflict. Meanwhile, John is laid off and takes on an Uber job and Katie finds herself confronting “working mom lunch” conflicts at work and a Catholic mom she has to hide their pursuit of scientific solutions to their inability to conceive from.

“A life isn’t something that should be ordered from a CATALOG or online!”

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There’s potential all over this picture, but the only real laughs are the “leprechaun” accent Katie/Coupe affects when “assisting” John’s “sampling.” Huber doesn’t do much with the doctor vs. healer conflict, does too little with the sibling rivalry and probably too much with the comically graphic indignities of sperm donation.

That and the general over-familiarity of the topic make “Making Babies” more of a chore than a joy, pun intended.

1half-star

MPAA Rating: unrated, sex jokes, masturbation scenes, profanity, alcohol abuse

Cast: Eliza Coupe, Steve Howey, Ed Begley Jr., Glenne Headly

Credits: Written and directed by Josh F. Huber. A Samuel Goldwyn release.

Running time: 1:26

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BOX OFFICE: “Us” headed for $68 million opening weekend

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All these people calling Jordan Peele “the New Master of Suspense?” On the money.

Two movies into his Hitchcockian thriller/horror career, Peele is a brand unto himself, and “Us” has the opening to show it. A big Thursday night led to a HUGE Friday and early projections of a $40-50 million weekend quickly went by the boards.

$68 is now the top end of expectations, Deadline.com says.

That’s better than most original horror titles — or sequels. Not better than “It!” But heck, in an era of endless comic book sequels, that’s serious coin.

Never bet against an old “Twilight Zone” remake. Hollywood never does.

Saturday’s take will be telling, because as I have been saying and Deadline.com’s reporting of Cinema Score tracking verifies, the picture has people talking — and audiences complaining about the overall pic and the ending in particular. Not great exit interview scores.

That probably won’t suppress the rest of the weekend’s take, as filmgoers in this genre have to see for themselves, but second weekend? Watch out or “Get Out.” Comparing “Us” to Peele’s last film isn’t going to do this one any favors.

And ask the LAST guy everybody compared to Hitchcock — M. Night Shyamalan — what a burden that is. It took “Split” to bring him back.  Early kudos tend to go to filmmakers’ heads. They do. People don’t remember how many bad movies Hitchcock made, just the masterpieces.

“Captain Marvel” is falling off, finally, with a $33 million weekend showing a steepening drop (if not in real money…yet). It’s over $300 million, over $320 by weekend’s send.

More interesting to me is the teen weeper “Five Feet Apart,” well-made and well-cast and holding onto audience like gangbusters. It’ll be over $30 by Tuesday.

“Gloria Bell,” the best new release in theaters, has cracked the top ten — over $1.5 million earned from over 600 screens. Not bad.

 

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Next Screening? A life of abuse makes Olivia Wilde “A Vigilante”

Love the color palette, here, the brittleness it underlines.

Wilde popped up on the screen (“TRON Legacy”) as the pale female screen beauty perfected and has spent the ensuing years proving she’s a lot more than that.

“Vigilante” opens March 29, in theaters and Direct TV VOD.

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Documentary Review: “Hurley” remembers a Racing Legend in his Day, Closeted and Gay

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It wasn’t “Stop the PRESSES” news last year when racing driver Hurley Haywood came out to the world that not only was he a five-time 24 Hours at Daytona, three-time 24 Hours of Le Mans and two-time 12 Hours of Sebring race winner, but that he did all that as a gay man.

Sports car racing is still regarded as a rich gentleman’s sport in this country, so big “news” there doesn’t reach far beyond the asphalt. In the sporting world, it’s lower-profile, save for the occasional movie star (Paul Newman, Patrick Dempsey) who dips his toe in it.

The wealthy-preppy “movie star handsome” Haywood fit right in with that crowd. And his sexuality rarely came up in his 1970s to early 90s heyday. He wouldn’t let it.

“Pretty quiet” is how he thinks others saw him, when asked about his reputation among others in his sport in the new documentary, “Hurley.”

“I was super shy…almost throwing up if I had to get in front of a microphone.” He admits that in his early days, he even gave thought to driving off the course and losing “so we wouldn’t win” and he wouldn’t have to face the press.

That’s how he comes off to this day, a legend in his sport but a retiring man who shows up at the big races, shakes hands and poses for photos with fans, but keeps his private life to himself.

“It’s not easy to talk about,” he tells filmmaker Derek Dodge, and his mannerisms and demeanor back that up. He makes little eye contact in on-camera interviews, back then (archival footage) and even in the present day.

But behind the wheel, he was something else. Haywood might modestly say he just “keep my foot down longer than the guy next to me” was the secret to his success. But contemporaries, peers and admirers all insist it was more than that.

Patrick Dempsey says “He won in any type of car he could drive…a legend.”

One and all express admiration for Haywood’s “discipline,” which the film never quite links to Haywood’s self-control in keeping his sexuality and lifestyle secret, though Dempsey hints at that.

“He’s the quintessential race car driver,” but “there’s a vulnerability there,” Dempsey says. “He IS different. He’s been different since the moment he was born.”

“Hurley” tracks Haywood’s life, with his former debutante sister Hope filling in the blanks about the early years — behind the wheel at 12 — on through his move to Jacksonville for college, where he won a Corvette autocross race, edging local star driver Peter Gregg. Gregg promptly recruited the young Haywood for his Brumos Porsche racing team and years of glory followed.

Haywood was winning races on the track, meeting his future husband Steve Hill at a Jacksonville gay bar, and keeping it all on the era’s stigmatizing “down low.”

But there were whispers, even back then, winking headlines in stories about Gregg and Haywood, the “Batman and Robin” of sports car racing.

Haywood says “my core people knew,” but he was “indiscreetly” warned by a colleague “You don’t mix business and pleasure.” Hill, his partner and now husband, confesses to feeling hurt by being unable to share in Hurley’s decades of big moments, watching him with friends in the winner’s circle “through a chain-link fence.”

Sister Hope notes the many ways Haywood had to “keep his racing life and his personal life separate.”

Even today, longtime friends and colleagues become evasive when asked if they think Haywood “lost sponsors” or suffered other discrimination back when homosexuality was kept out of the spotlight and “macho” was in on the tracks.

Not every off-camera question screenwriter turned documentary filmmaker Dodge asks — “How did Peter (Gregg) find out?” — earns a straight answer.

“People could just think what they wanted to think.”

The film gets at the sometimes thorny relationship with the abrasive “Peter Perfect” Gregg, which led to the winning team’s breakup. Even that didn’t slow Hurley Haywood’s ascent to the pantheon of his sport — winning big races from the ’70s into the ’90s.

 

In the film and in life, Haywood got and is still getting his wish, that he be judged for how he performed on the track, “winning with any kind of car they put him in” as Dempsey puts it.

To that end, “Hurley,” like its subject, is most as home at the track. Much of the film was shot at Daytona International Speedway and we see Hurley, consulting with Dempsey and his team, overseeing timed driver-changeover practice, taking us on a tour of Victory Lane, showing us the placard at the track listing his achievements.

Dempsey is here not just as a cheerleader (“a legend of the sport”) who regards Haywood as a mentor, but to explain endurance racing (teams of three drivers sharing behind-the-wheel duties) and deliver context — about how vastly different attitudes towards sexuality have changed.

That may have been the hook that got “Hurley” made. But Haywood’s as in control in the movie as he has been in his life — not giving much away, even his “intimate” life treated with discretion and an arm’s length detachment. He lets Dodge and us in, but not that far in.

2half-star6

MPAA Rating: Unrated, adult subject matter

Cast: Hurley Haywood, Patrick Dempsey

Credits: Directed by Derek Dodge. An Orchard release.

Running time: 1:22

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Preview: John Wick: Chapter 3 — Parabellum”

Yes, the BIG Keanu news this week was the announcement that barring anything UNFORESEEN — he and Alex Winter, now an acclaimed documentary filmmaker, will reprise their roles as “Bill & Ted” in “Bill & Ted Face the Music.”

But Reeves’ bread and butter action franchise with Lionsgate isn’t letting the cobwebs settle over John Wick.

Oscar winners Halle Berry and Anjelica Huston join Laurence Fishburne and Ian McShane, all of whom do the light lifting while Keanu handles the epic knife fight this May 17 release, “John Wick: Chapter 3 — Parabellum” promises.

My favorite character has to be Charon, the concierge at the Hotel for Hitmen. Silky smooth Lance Reddick brings those scenes to life.

 

 

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Weekend Movies: Will “Us” open at $50, dethrone “Captain America?”

us.jpgA $6 million Thursday night in “previews” points towards a $40 million+ opening weekend for Jordan Peele’s highly-anticipated horror tale, “Us.”

As a follow-up to “Get Out,” it’s outperforming that film as of this writing, and “A Quiet Place.” The comparison to those two is useful as both of those fright-fests had word of mouth build and cause their opening weekend take to swell, and kept them in theaters for months.

Will “Us” manage that? Box Office Mojo is speculating that the film, built around Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o, will clear $50 million this weekend — an epic haul for a non-franchise horror film to manage on its opening weekend. An epic haul for pretty much anybody without “Pixar” or “Marvel” in their opening credits.

Reviews have been uniformly positive, if not exactly rapturous (It lacks the bite and frights of “Get Out”).

I don’t know if this is going to have the “Dude, you’ve GOTTA see this” word of mouth of “A Quiet Place” or “Get Out.” It doesn’t have the cultural resonance, the satiric edge, of “Get Out” or the sheer nerve-rattling terror of “Quiet Place.” But we’ll see. $40 million or $50 million, you’ve got to figure Lupita N’s quote is going up and Peele will have Blumhouse sized blank checks from whatever studio gets hold of him, long term.

HOWEVER…If “Us” tails off at all, and $40 becomes an iffy proposition, “Captain Marvel” could very well win another weekend. It’s on track to do another $35-38 million, and any under-performance by “Us” could leave it on top.

“Gloria Bell” is the BEST movie to go wide this weekend, after a short time in limited release. It hangs on a tour de force turn by Julianne Moore and is well worth your time, but it won’t crack the top ten on just 640 or so screens.

Nothing else is opening wide, so all the teens flocking to “Five Feet Apart” will keep it in the top five and “No Manches Frida 2” will hang around the top ten in a mere fraction of the theaters that “Us” and the rest are playing in.

 

 

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Preview: Creative Brothers vie to be “The Last Black Man in San Francisco”

A city of beauty, history, culture and affluence — a city that has, as the film’s title implies — almost emptied of the people who helped make it what it is.

This poetic and reflective A24 release, “The Last Black Man in San Francisco,” offers a nice curtain call role for Danny Glover, and starring roles for Jimmy Fails and Jonathan Majors. It goes into limited release June 14.

 

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Movie Review: Drifters and Desperadoes have it out in a town called “Big Kill”

 

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If you want to film a Western, you could do worse than Bonanza Creek (Movie) Ranch in Sante Fe, New Mexico. It’s got a vivid sense of a place and time, unspoiled vistas and striking topography.

And there are nicely aged leftover Western buildings — saloon, hotel, the works — settings used when TV’s “Comanche Moon” “Lonesome Dove” prequel filmed there over a decade ago.

But nobody there will be bragging about “Big Kill” using it as a location. This foot-dragging C-Western has a few “names” to dress it up and make it sellable to financiers — Jason Patric, Lou Diamond Phillips, Michael Paré and Danny Trejo show up in supporting roles.

From it’s dopey and inept opening — explicit sex interrupted by a noisy if clumsy shoot-out — to its laughably drawn-out climax, this is one poor excuse for a horse opera.

There are no cattle or wild stallions involved. So the roundup here is of worn out Western cliches — the Eastern tenderfoot forced to take up arms, the good-bad men, the “preacher” who is too handy with a pistol, the gunfighter dressed like a 1970s TV pimp.

Give-aways that what you’re about to watch is going to be indulgent, tin-eared and just…off? The unknown writer-director (Scott Martin) has written himself a co-starring role. Another? Running time.

Editing is the heart of filmmaking, and that doesn’t just mean cutting the footage in a coherent and professional way. Clint Eastwood always took scripts and stripped two thirds of the dialogue out before the camera rolled for a reason.

Having Paré, ending his glorified opening act cameo as a Cavalry officer say, “Now, if you gentlemen will excuse me. I have things to take care of” is the very definition of unnecessary, leaden lines sucking the life right out of the script.

The other kind of editing rears its head in ugliness, too. The film’s opening shootout — two thieving, womanizing cowpokes (Clint Hummel and Scott Martin) have to shoot their way past General Danny Trejo’s Mexican troops (Couldn’t get Danny to cut his hair into something more soldierly?).

Cut to a medium  shot of a soldier felled as he stands on top of a wall, cut AGAIN as he hits the ground — an obviously short “bend over” tumble that this “dead” man braces for — just as obviously.

Martin gives his “names” star entrances — filming them from below or above and behind. Gives them lines he should have cut. And then makes the movie about Travis and Jake (Hummel and Martin) teaming up with Philly accountant Jim (Christoph Sanders) as they mosey across Texas and New Mexico, making their way to Big Kill, Arizona.

That’s where Jim’s brother runs the saloon. It’s a silver strike boom town, so Jim says. He doesn’t know. The boom has gone bust.

There, the guys run afoul of unfriendly locals, from The Preacher (Patric) to the shovel-wielding undertaker, Digger (Paul Blott), Bartender Fred (Toby Bronson) to the gunman Johnny Kane (Phillips).

Did I mention there’s a hooker named Felicity Stiletto (Stephanie Beran)?

Situations, characters and lines feel recycled from a hundred earlier Westerns, the Mexican Army posse that dares to cross the U.S. border pursuing Jake and Travis, for instance.

“They can’t DO that!”

The Preacher recruits his flock at the saloon.

“You boys’ve been a little REMISS with your devotions…See you Sunday.”

Random killings, murders in the street, the “You don’t belong here” shopkeeper’s daughter (Elizabeth McLaughlin), the Big Black Man (Jermaine Washington) that some fool calls “boy,” the tenderfoot who eschews firearms.

” I notice you ain’t heeled…why don’t you pick up a Colt before we leave?”

Among the cast, the younger leads aren’t bad, if a little starved of screen charisma. Patric just makes you wonder, “What HAPPENED to you, man?”

Phillips and Trejo acquit themselves well, even when delivering cliches.

“I heard you were fast!”

The troops are here, and the tropes. It’s just that none of this pewter-plated “Silverado” knock-off amounts to much — outdoor scenes all shot in the early morning sun, sunlit interiors looking authentic, but with only the most banal dialogue and action (save for a pretty unexpected stabbing) animating them.

I love the genre and appreciate any effort in this cinematic field. But you’ve got to do something with the cliches, realize what you can cut out (83 minutes of movie in a two-hour+ picture?), figure out what you can show visually instead of having characters explain and for the Love of God don’t cut to an extra falling three feet when we’ve just seen him tumble off a ten foot wall.

1star6

 

MPAA Rating: R for violence, some sexuality and brief language

Cast: Scott Martin, Clint Hummel, Christoph Sanders, Jason Patric, Lou Diamond Phillips, Danny Trejo, Stephanie Beran, K.C. Clyde, Audrey Walters and Michael Paré

Credits: Written and directed by Scott Martin. A Cinedigm release.

Running time: 2:02

 

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Preview: Park Ranger Wendy is spooked the night she guards the “Body at Brighton Rock”

Creepy. Writer-director Roxanne Benjamin finds terror in a woman alone in the wilderness. “Body at Brighton Rock” arrives in theaters and VOD at the end of April — April 26 to be exact.

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