Weekly Wilson - Blog of Author Connie C. Wilson

"There is a tide in the affairs of men, which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune; omitted, all the voyage of their life is bound in shallows and in miseries." (Julius Caesar; Act 4, Scene 3).

Steve James Documentary Depicts Persecution of Abacus Bank in Chinatown

ffthroughdannyglover-025This is a saga of the Chinese immigrant Sung family who own and run the Abacus Federal Savings Bank in New York’s Chinatown. I remember reading the Matt Taibbi investigative piece on this case when it came out, which is in his book “The Divide.” (Taibbi’s last investigative work gave birth to the film “War Dogs.”) As local Chinatown activist said, “This case is about an attack on a community. It’s about exonerating our entire community.”

Maybe this documentary resonated with me so much because I am the daughter of a scrupulously honest man who founded a bank in 1941, a bank that just celebrated its 75th anniversary October 7th. Maybe it’s because the specter of the accused Chinese tellers being linked together in a sort of “chain gang” fashion and led into court was so unnecessary, abhorrent and unfair. Maybe it’s because this bank had, at its core, a man of the highest integrity in his community, Thomas Sung.

Thomas Sung once had to go outside in the streets of Chinatown and reassure panicked customers when there was a run on his bank caused by the arrest of a teller at one of Abacus’ branches in the eighties. My father had to sit up all night with a shotgun inside the Fairbank, Iowa, bank when the banks crashed in 1939. Both men were scrupulously honest and were trying to do something good for their communities.

Vera Sung, Hwei Sung and Thomas Sung.

Vera Sung, Hwei Sung and Thomas Sung.

Thomas Hung had a successful practice as an immigration lawyer when he decided it would be helpful to his Chinese-American community to have a bank where they could secure loans so they could own their homes. Banks would take deposits from their Chinese customers, but they would not loan to them. Thomas’ wife, Hwei, has gone on record as not being in favor of founding the bank, but Thomas wanted to serve his community.

It is quite clear that the Sungs were being persecuted rather than prosecuted. You really root for David to beat Goliath and, although it took 5 years and $10 million, justice does prevail.

Abacus wrote 3,000 mortgages in a 5-year period; only 9 of those loans ever defaulted during a period in time when the foreclosure rate, nationwide, went up 555%.
As one expert witness says, “If every bank had underwritten as well as Abacus, we wouldn’t have had a financial crisis.” Only 30 loans sold to Fannie Mae by Abacus had faulty documents, and some of that occurred because Ken Yu falsified some documents using his Chinese name (Chi Ben Yu) when everyone in the bank knew him as “Ken.” (He also lied repeatedly on the stand, proven by tapes introduced.)

ffthroughdannyglover-014Talking with Producer Mark Mitten on the Red Carpet, I asked him how he became involved in the story.
(At the time he was a Producer in New York on TV’s “The Apprentice,” which got a big laugh when he admitted it during the Q&A after the documentary showed.) Mark said, “I knew the Sungs and they were trying to do something good for their community. I had known Vera Sung (one of the Sung daughters who worked in the bank and was also an attorney) for years. I was present through much of the trial and it just smacked of hypocrisy.” I threw in the term “scapegoat” and Mark Mitten vigorously agreed that the Sungs were intended to be the victims thrown under the bus by the U.S. government as token scapegoats. As he said during the Q&A that followed the screening, “This was an atrocity. The New York Times only wrote 2 stories about it: one when it began and one 5 years later when the trial ended.”

Mark Mitten read the Matt Taibbi investigative pieces and contacted Steve James, a Chicago native whose documentaries “Hoop Dreams” and “The Interrupters” are well-known. As Director James told the audience, “There are 2 kinds of documentaries. One takes a position and one tries to remain neutral. This one takes the position that this prosecution was more a persecution and was a travesty. I’m dedicated to the idea that media can raise awareness. This is just an amazing story that no one knew about.”

On the night the film was shown, the Chicago Cubs were playing the second post-season game with the Los Angeles Dodgers. Scanning the crowd, James agreed with the programming director about to introduce him that the ¾ full crowd was a pretty good showing and even told the crowd, “I’m glad there are no Cubs fans here tonight” to laughter. He also said, “I think the worst (audience) I ever had was in Santa Monica where I had about 10 people. One was a homeless guy who fell asleep. The cops frisked him and hauled him out during the Q&A.”

ffthroughdannyglover-024Nobody would be hauled out during this Q&A, nor would anyone fall asleep. Anyone with a heart will find this documentary inspirational, especially with Mr. and Mrs. Sung and their daughter Vera present. The Sungs took on the U.S. government and agreed to let the filmmakers record their decision to stand up and fight before knowing what the outcome of the trial would be.

Unlike the big bank players like Goldman Sachs (et. al.), the Sungs were not offered the opportunity to simply pay a fine and walk away.
This small bank—the 2,651th largest bank in the United States—was going to be used by New York District Attorney Cyrus Vance, Jr. as an example. As a further irony, one of Thomas Sung’s attorney daughters, Chantelle (all are either lawyers or doctors) worked for Cyrus Vance at the time. She quit her job to help her family mount a defense against the unfair charges being leveled against them. The ordeal would last 5 years.

It all began with one rotten apple: a bank employee who was known popularly as Ken Yu, in December of 2009. Ken Yu was running a money laundering operation on his own and accepting money from loan applicants, telling them it was the “normal” when it was not. Not only did the Sungs fire Ken Yu immediately (and 2 other employees), they immediately reported his wrongdoing to the Office of Thrift Management when they learned that a couple who were trying to close on a home lost their 10% deposit because of Ken Yu’s dishonesty.

Rather than applaud the Sungs for honestly rooting out the very few corrupt employees and reporting those employees’ misdeeds, as they should have, Cyrus Vance, Jr., under pressure to do something to punish the big banks after the 2008 housing crisis, chose instead to lodge charges against this very small bank, accusing them of “engaging in a systematic scheme to defraud Fanny Mae.” As one expert said, “This wrongful prosecution was totally prejudiced and incorrect.”

“Why fight?” we might ask.

If convicted of even one felony, it would have very serious ramifications for the bank.
An innocent verdict gave the bank a shot at continuing, but it cost $10 million. $110 billion in fines was paid by the big banks as reparation for the $22 trillion damage their dishonesty did to our economy by writing $4.8 trillion in fraudulent mortgages, but this tiny bank and this one family was subjected to 5 years of persecution, required to be in court each day to clarify any of the 600,000 pages of documents they had to submit, and the Sung family and their innocent employees were humiliated.

Anyone who knows much about Asian cultures knows that “losing face” is one of the worst things that can happen. The U.S. government systematically attempted to humiliate this bank’s predominantly honest employees. One of them, in fact, is lodging a lawsuit against the government now that the trial is over.

Vera Sung, Hwei Sung and Thomas Sung.

Vera Sung, Hwei Sung and Thomas Sung.

\/>Standing in front of a Chicago audience this night, Thomas Sung (79) said “Our bank existed for 30 some years to serve the community. If we were just an ordinary bank, we could not have survived the run on the bank, etc…” He added, ruefully, “I help the people of our community become prosperous, but when they become prosperous, they move out of Chinatown and become customers of Citibank,” and then said, “We awakened the community to the fact that they need to be more conscious of their eligibility to vote and their need to exercise the rights given us.” He noted that 2 Chinatown residents have, in fact, run for office since the Sung family’s unfortunate experience.

Mr. Sung thanked the filmmakers saying, “For us, we are very thankful and we thought that it was a story that had to be told.” Mrs. Sung said, “It’s really strange to be standing here and to get my whole face back, meaning my honor and my integrity I’m so glad it’s over.”

“One Day Since Yesterday” & Life Achievement Award Focus on Peter Bogdanovich

bogdanovich101616-010Peter Bogdanovich, ex-wife Louise Stratton and the makers of a documentary on Bogdanovich’s career entitled “One Day Since Yesterday,” (Director Bill Teck; Producer Victor Brazo) attended a screening entitled “Peter Bogdanovich and the Lost American Film” at the Chicago Film Festival on Sunday, October 16th. The “lost American Film” in question is Bogdanovich’s movie “They All Laughed,” which starred his then-love interest Dorothy Stratten opposite John Ritter and was Audrey Hepburn’s last film, as the love interest for Ben Gazarra.

During the evening’s presentation of the Golden Hugo Award to Bogdanovich for his life achievements in film, the Bill Teck documentary was screened and Bogdanovich answered questions afterwards from Michael Phillips of the Chicago “Tribune” and talked about his storied career. [He didn’t take questions from the Chicago “Sun Times,” as that phone interview was canceled.] But the legendary director did convey quite a bit of information to the audience.

Peter Bogdanovich

Peter Bogdanovich

The audience was treated to clips from some of Bogdanovich’s greatest films (see chart at end of article) and interviews with those who know him well, like Jeff Bridges and Ben Gazzara.
When the portions of the film that focused on Dorothy’s heinous murder were reached in the documentary, Bogdanovich left the theater. About ten minutes later director Bill Teck followed, no doubt to check on him.

As he spoke to us, some grisly coincidences were revealed:
1) Dorothy Stratten was murdered by her psychotic husband/manager after she began her affair with Bogdanovich, seemingly ruining his life from that point on. (Dorothy’smurder was particularly brutal and heinous).
(2) “They All Laughed” was Audrey Hepburn’s last film (and that’s ignoring John Ritter’s untimely death at a too-young age)
(3) Bogdanovich directed River Phoenix’s last completed film, “The Thing Called Love,” before River Phoenix died of a drug overdose in 1993 outside the Viper Room in Hollywood; at the time, Phoenix was at work on a movie called “Dark Blood.”
(4) Ben Gazarra’s interview with Bill Teck that we saw this night was his last interview
(5) Bogdanovich, during his remarks, said that Bob Fosse’s making of “Star 80,” (which Bogdanovich objected to and said was not accurate, “killed him.” It was Fosse’s last film)

So, yikes! (Does the term “Kiss of Death” resonate, or is it just me?)

bogdanovich101616-008In the Q&A following the documentary, Michael Phillips of the Chicago “Tribune” asked a question that many might have posed: “How do you manage to remain friends with an astonishing number of exes?” Bogdanovich answered, “If one aspect of a relationship doesn’t work, why dump it all?”

His most lasting and well-known relationships were with wife Polly Platt, a working relationship and one that lasted from 1962 to 1971, producing two daughters, Antonia and Sashy (he put both girls in “They All Laughed”). In 1971, while making “The Last Picture Show,” he fell in love with its star, Cybill Shepherd, and left his wife. They were a couple until 1978. In 1980, while making “They All Laughed,” Bogdanovich became romantically involved with Dorothy Stratten, 1980 Playmate of the Year who was murdered in 1981. He married her younger sister Louise in 1988 when he was 49 and Louise was 20; they divorced in 2001.

Bogdanovich’s climb to director was not the traditional path through film school. Instead, he privately reviewed every movie he saw from 1952 to 1970 and sought out the great masters of film to interview them and write about them. A true student of the cinema, he has written extensively on all matters concerning film.

Hired as a film programmer at the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art in New York City in the sixties, Bogdanovich organized film retrospectives of Orson Welles, John Ford and Howard Hawks. One of those film retrospectives on Alfred Hitchcock I had the good fortune to see, taking my daughter from individual table-top computer to individual table-top computer to view such classic Hitchcock film scenes as the shower scene from “Psycho” or the attack scenes from “The Birds.”

bogdanovich101616-007Bogdanovich would ask publicists for invitations to movie premieres and industry party invitations. Roger Corman was sitting behind him at one of these events and, after a conversation in which Corman complimented Bogdanovich on a piece he had written for Esquire magazine, Corman offered him a job directing.

Bogdanovich accepted immediately, taking on the film “Targets” that starred Boris Karloff. Bogdanovich has said of this experience (undertaken under the pseudonym Derek Thomas), “I went from getting the laundry to directing the picture in three weeks. Altogether, I worked 22 weeks—preproduction, shooting, second unit, cutting, dubbing—I haven’t learned as much since.” (Quote from “What They Learned from Roger Corman” by Beverly Gray of MovieMaker magazine, spring of 2001.)

During his remarks this night, Bogdanovich articulated his dislike of numerous, obvious cuts, a style in vogue today (think Paul Greengrass and Matt Damon’s “Bourne” movies), which Bogdanovich called “the MTV School of filmmaking.”

Bogdanovich’s opinion: “I don’t like that. You cut for emphasis. I believe in the intelligence of the audience, (originally an Otto Preminger quote).”

When asked about how he developed his own style, he replied, “I never thought about style. I was interested in telling the story and using the craft to make the film the most effective way possible. I saw a lot of pictures and I’d say, ‘Why is the camera there?’ I was told always cut on movement. Then they’ll never notice the cut. The MTV influence, which I despise but which is in vogue nowadays, they want you to notice the cuts.” To make his point, Bogdanovich offered up Ginger Rodgers/Fred Astaire musical numbers or Gene Kelly’s dance numbers.

Asked if he had ever considered following some other notable directors into directing for television, Bogdanovich said, “I directed an episode of The Sopranos in the 5th season. But, to do the job right, you have to be in charge. I don’t look forward to it when you don’t know your cast, but I did know the cast of The Sopranos.” (from his role as Dr. Melfi’s psychotherapist, Dr. Elliot Kupferberg.)

bogdanovich101616-029Bogdanovich noted of his Sopranos time, “We couldn’t change a word of dialogue on The Sopranos without consulting the director. If you wanted to change anything, you had to call him (David Chase) up and ask him.” Given those strictures, he was told to ask Dr. Melfi (Lorraine Bracco) a question, but no question had been written for him. He improvised a question. The director said, “Ask a better question.” Laughing, Bogdanovich said he told the director that if he wanted a better question, he should write a better (expletive deleted) question for his character to ask.

Throughout the evening’s question and answer period, Bogdanovich, an avid film historian, kept repeating how much he had learned from studying other great directors. He repeated this nugget of information from an interview he did with Howard Hawkes in 1962. Hawkes told him, “It’s not about plot. The plot is people either getting together or not. Hawkes wanted to focus (in Rio Bravo) on the characters. I loved him. I learned so much from him and from Ford and Fritz Lang, Otto Preminger, Renoir, Alfred Hitchcock. I was so lucky. And they were all my friends. Well, maybe not Fritz so much.” (laughter)

Asked about his collaboration with Barbra Streisand and Ryan O’Neal in 1972, “What’s Up, Doc?” (and, especially, about Barbra’s reputation as a prima donna), Bogdanovich said that Barbra had seen an early cut of “The Last Picture Show” and wanted to work with him. He recalled mentioning to her how Barbra might read a certain line in the script (which Bogdanovich had written) and Barbra saying, “Oh, so now you’re going to give me a line reading?” Later, when Barbra was singing “As Time Goes By” in the film, he mentioned to her that she might put more emphasis on the word “can” within the lyric “on that you can rely” and Barbra retorted, “Oh…so now you’re going to give me line readings for the song lyrics?” He added, “She was fun to work with. I really loved her.”

bogdanovich101616-034Bogdanovich quoted Jimmy Stewart, whom he interviewed for the 1971 AFI documentary “Directed by John Ford:” “If you’re good and you’re lucky enough to have a personality that comes across, a good film is like giving the audience back little pieces of time.”

Here are the film “pieces of time” Bogdanovich has given us since 1968 (and he has written extensively):

Year Film
1968 Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women Alternative Title: The Gill Women of Venus and The Gill Women. Credited as Derek Thomas
Targets Alternative Title: Before I Die
Also Writer/Producer/Editor
1971 Directed by John Ford Documentary
The Last Picture Show Also WriterBAFTA Award for Best ScreenplayNew York Film Critics Circle Award for Best ScreenplayNew York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Director
Nominated – Academy Award for Best Director
Nominated – Academy Award for Best Writing (Adapted Screenplay)
Nominated – BAFTA Award for Best Direction
Nominated – Directors Guild of America Award for Outstanding Directing – Feature Film
Nominated – Golden Globe Award for Best Director
Nominated – Writers Guild of America Award for Best Adapted Screenplay
1972 What’s Up, Doc Also Writer/Producer
1973 Paper Moon Also Producer
Nominated – Golden Globe Award for Best Director
1974 Daisy Miller Also Producer
1975 At Long Last Love Also Writer/Producer
1976 Nickelodeon Also Writer Nominated – Golden Bear
1979 Saint Jack Also Writer Venice Film Festival for Best Film
1981 They All Laughed Also Writer
1985 Mask Nominated – Palme d’Or
1988 Illegally Yours Also Producer
1990 Texasville Also Writer/Producer
1992 Noises Off Also Executive Producer
1993 The Thing Called Love
2001 The Cat’s Meow
2007 Runnin’ Down a Dream Documentary
2014 She’s Funny That Way

The documentary “One Day Since Yesterday” was directed by Miami native Bill Teck and produced by Victor Brazo. It focuses on Peter Bogdanovich’s film “They All Laughed.” This was the Dorothy Stratten film. Said Teck of Bogdanovich, “I never met a more brave human being. He gave us unprecedented access to everything.”

bogdanovich101616-020Teck explained his fascination with Bogdanovich’s film work this way: “When I was 13 I went to the Art Theater in Miami and saw ‘They All Laughed.’ My movie is about that movie. I don’t know that anyone else embodies old Hollywood combined with the new more than Peter Bogdanovich. ‘They All Laughed’ is a valentine to love: love of his art, movie love and true love. I call it ‘The Lost American Film’ because it was Audrey Hepburn’s last film role, co-starred John Ritter and Ben Gazarra and, of course, Dorothy Stratten.”

Following the showing of the film, Bogdanovich commented on directing Audrey Hepburn in her final film.

Q: Why did Hepburn take the role?

A: “I think she did it because I told Audrey that Sean, her son, could be my assistant. But she was paid $1 million for 6 weeks’ work.” Said Bogdanovich of Hepburn: “She was very apprehensive, very shy, sensitive. In front of the camera, however, she had a steel-like intensity; it was all there. We had a limited budget for this movie. We couldn’t shut down 5th Avenue, so all the trailers and trucks were blocks away. She had no trailer. No chair. No dressing room. She was great. She was just great. She’d go inside the store and we’d use hand signals to let her know when we needed her to come out for shooting a scene and she’d come out and say, “Oh, look, Peter. They gave me this lovely umbrella.” (mimicking Hepburn’s accent)”

Ben Gazarra plays Hepburn’s love interest in the film, and documentary director Teck was fortunate enough to be able to record Gazarra’s last interview about making both this film and Saint Jack with Bogdanovich.

Tabloids buzzed after the brutal murder of Playmate of the Year Dorothy Stratten by her estranged husband/manager Paul Snider, who then committed suicide. The murder, in 1981, sent Bogdanovich into a tailspin from which he seems never to have fully recovered. His marriage to Dorothy’s younger sister Louise in 1988, when he was 49 and she was 20, did nothing to cause the memory of the brutal murder to recede into the past for the public nor, it would seem, for Bogdanovich to fully recover.

In fact, both with his master plan to buy back the film from the studio and distribute it himself through a distribution group he dubbed Moon Pictures, his actions since 1981 seem to have produced a long period of grieving for what he has lost in life. Descriptions of how distraught Bogdanovich was after Dorothy’s murder include his daughters testifying that he couldn’t walk, but crawled to them. Ex-wife Polly Platt, mother of his two children, thought that writing The Killing of the Unicorn: Dorothy Stratten 1960-1980 was probably good therapy for Peter at the time.

bogdanovich101616-016Perhaps it was, but it doesn’t seem to have worked that well.
His daughters remember August 14, 1980 as “the day we lost our father.”

Bogdanovich addressed the Bob Fosse-directed picture “Star 80,” (based on Pulitzer Prize-winning articles in the Village Voice) which featured Eric Roberts as Snider and Mariel Hemingway as Dorothy. When the film came out, Bogdanovich called up Bob Fosse, its director, whom he knew personally. “‘Why are you doing this, Bob?’ I asked him. Fosse said, ‘We think it’s a good story.’ It was Bob Fosse’s last picture. It killed him. All I know is that if this had happened to Bob, I wouldn’t have made a film about it.”

Producer & director of "One Day After Yesterday," the Bogdanovich documentary, smile on their way into the screening.

Producer & director of “One Day After Yesterday,” the Bogdanovich documentary, smile on their way into the screening.

Bogdanovich was forced to declare bankruptcy in 1985 and again in 1997.
The bankruptcy of ’85 was caused by his rash decision to buy back Stratten’s film “They All Laughed” (mortgaging his house to do it) from the studio and to try to distribute it himself. “We had no clout,” he said. (According to Wikipedia, at the time, he had income of $75,000 a month and expenses of $200,000 a month). “That was dumb,” he said during the Sunday event, of his attempt to self-distribute. Had it been a big success, however, he might have revolutionized the industry as singularly as Amazon has revolutionized the publishing industry with its Print-on-demand service.

More studio problems presented themselves when Bogdanovich helmed “Mask” in 1985 with Cher and Eric Stoltz. He became embroiled in a dispute with the studio over the replacement of Bruce Springsteen’s songs in the film with songs written by Bob Seger.

Whatever ups and downs Bogdanovich’s career and personal life have had, his 3 hits in a row (“The Last Picture Show,”1971, “What’s Up, Doc” in 1972, and “Paper Moon” in 1973) alone will forever cement his reputation as once being among the best of the best.

His extensive writing about film, preserving the wisdom of previous great directors whom he personally knew and interviewed, also justifies awards like the Gold Hugo Lifetime Achievement Award, bestowed upon the 77-year-old Bogdanovich in Chicago on Sunday, October 16th, 2016.

"In the Last Days of the City" (Cairo, Egypt in Dec., 2009).

“In the Last Days of the City” is Docu-Drama About Arab Spring in Cairo


“In the Last Days of the City” Depicts Cairo, Pre Arab Spring

Genre: Docu-Drama
118 minutes
Director: Tamer El Said
Writers: Tamer El Said, Rash Sulti
Actors: Khalid Abdalla, Laila Samy, Hanan Youssof
From Egypt: In Arabic with subtitles
Review by Connie Wilson, WeeklyWilson.com

This requiem for a lost Cairo follows Khalid, a filmmaker, in December, 2009, as he attempts to complete a film that is pieced together from footage of his hospitalized mother, his neighborhood, his girlfriend Laila and 2 friends, and street events, all caught on the eve of an approaching revolution. For Khalid and his compatriots, life will never be the same, nor will Cairo.


I was eager to see this glimpse of Cairo, Egypt, before the Arab Spring toppled Mubarek. I felt this was as close to the Middle East as I would ever get. All the countries mentioned—Egypt, Turkey, Yemen, Jordan, Syria, Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia—-are dangerous for westerners now.

Therefore, I was anxious to see this film about a filmmaker trying to capture the city of Cairo before it changed forever and also trying to make sense of the changes going on around him.
When he rides up in an elevator to look at a new flat, each floor has a bumper sticker plastered on the wall that reads “Thou shalt not look at women.” We see a worker in a department store taking western-style clothing off female mannequins, putting newspaper in the windows to obscure the view of the mannequins, and when the newspaper is taken down, all the mannequins are dressed in extremely concealing burkhas. Another sign on a building reads “The Quaran must rule” and “Praying is light.” A street preacher stresses that all must “obey God’s commandments. It’s God’s command. We can’t question it.” When Khalid and his real estate agent show up at one building for a pre-arranged viewing of a possible rental apartment, the veiled woman inside cannot allow him entry because no man is present. Khalid begins witnessing actual beatings (one of a woman by a man near his apartment building; one of a protester who is taken away in the bed of a truck by armed men); he seems shocked.


It is impossible to keep the characters straight and/or figure out what is going on.
Explanations, when they come, are never situated in the story near the appearance of the character. There are just way too many different characters and situations shoe-horned into this overlong docu-drama. One friend has already fled Baghdad for Berlin and urges Khalid to join him, saying, “Leave the downtown. It will kill you.” The friend adds, “He knows his city is full of death, corpses, and funeral banners, but he’s still there.” This friend says, “I want to live now and in the future. You insist on living in the past.”

A second friend is also resistant to leaving the city, insisting that the omnipresent danger deepens one’s enjoyment of life. (“Life deepens. You’ll find real meaning…You stop seeing because the images become like noise.”) But one day, that friend, too, finally leaves, saying, “All we do is hide.” Khalid told the first expatriate friend, “You’ll die missing Baghdad” to which his friend replied, “It’s better than dying in Baghdad. In Baghdad, you don’t choose. A stray bullet, you die.”

Khalid acknowledges that he is trapped in a state of stasis, saying, “There’s just too much.”
His western-style girlfriend is reluctant to take his calls. His mother may be dying (it took at least half the film before it was explained that the elderly woman in the hospital was his mother and we never do find out if she is seriously ill or simply old). He can’t find a new apartment and must vacate his old one by February. Rabble rousers in the streets are holding rallies and crying “Down with the tyrant. Down with military rule,” while a taxi driver says, disgustedly “They should get a job instead of protesting. The country is fine.”

Don’t bother. I really wanted to like this film, which had even won three awards. Buy a book with pictures of Cairo, before and after 2009 and read up on the rebellion. That was over 2 hours of my life I’ll never get back. Khalid’s film editor said it best: “We just go around in circles. I feel I’m wasting my time.”

“La La Land” Opens the 52nd Chicago International Film Festival on October 13, 2016

“La La Land”—that place where “they worship everything and they value nothing” (i.e., Hollywood and Los Angeles)—is the subject of Writer/Director Damien Chazell’s third film, following on the heels of his highly acclaimed “Whiplash” with Miles Teller. (Bad teacher J.K. Simmons even has a bit part in this one as Gosling’s boss in a supper club).

Miles Teller was originally supposed to play the lead in “La La Land,” Chazell’s attempt to make a musical like those from “the old days.” This is where I’m supposed to sing the merits of musicals of old (“Singin’ in the Rain,” “The Big Broadcast of 1940”) or mention the stylistic and tonal debt the film owes to Jacques Demy’s “Umbrellas of Cherbourg” and “The Young Girls of Rochefort,” but I was never a huge musical fan and this is a modern film in so many other ways. [My mother-in-law, were she still alive, would love this film! She always admired “Chicago” (the musical).]

But me? I’m more of a thriller type. I had to be won over.


If you’re going to send an actor to win me over, by all means send Ryan Gosling. I’d have accepted the equally talented Miles Teller in the part, (and I’m still hoping that Gosling will star in a remake of “Logan’s Run,”) but if it’s musicals we’re here to discuss, let’s have at it. Who can forget the onscreen chemistry Gosling already had with Emma Stone in “Crazy, Stupid Love” when he told her his signature move was the lift from “Dirty Dancing” and they replicated it?

I liked this one. I would like any musical where the camera lingers lovingly on Ryan Gosling; the fact that he sings passably well and can even do a bit of soft shoe added to my enjoyment. This is to be expected, given his stint on “The All New Mickey Mouse Club” and his early training in Ottawa at the Elite Dance Studio and the top Hat Dance School in his hometown of Cornwall. You have a male lead who can legitimately sing and dance. Emma Stone does an equally good job in both areas, but, somehow, you are less surprised when the female of the species can sing and dance.

Take into account that Gosling’s character of Sebastian is supposed to be a passionate jazz pianist (great lighting in the scenes where he’s playing the piano) and appears to actually be playing the piano, and I’m in. (And I haven’t been “in” to a musical since Leonard Bernstein and “West Side Story.”)

No review would be complete without giving much credit to composer/arranger Justin Hurwitz, with assists lyrically from Benj Pasek and Justin Paul for the great songs. There’s also one song contributed by John Legend.


When Gosling says, “I’m a Phoenix rising from the ashes” and “I’m gonna’ let life hit me and then I’m gonna’ hit back. It’s a classic rope-a-dope” you believe him. He’s so devoted to jazz that, says co-star John Legend (yes, the singer), “How are you gonna’ save jazz if nobody is listening. You’re holdin’ onto the past, but jazz is about the future.” Another conflict-laden scene where the young couple are being pulled apart by (initially) Gosling’s success featured dialogue that was largely improvised and included the line, “Maybe yu just liked me better when I was on my ass because it made you feel better about yourself.” (Ouch!)

Second theme is the age-old conflict between art and commerce, i.e., the need to make a buck versus the need to create art.

And, last, but certainly not least, I found echoes of two recent films struck me. Those 2 previous films were Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s 2009 film “500 Days of Summer” and Woody Allen’s even more recent film (2016) “Café Society” with Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart and Steve Carell.

Each of those non-musical predecessors suggests that there are a variety of people who might be “right” for you at one time or another in your life, and a variety of futures you might have with each person. And, at least in Woody’s film, you can see the wheels turning in Jesse Eisenberg’s head when his first love re-enters his life briefly at the end of the drama. (“Ah, what might have been!” he seems to be thinking.)

The music of Justin Hurwitz, with lyrical assists from Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, helps carry the themes of reaching for the stars and not giving up on your dreams. (Hurwitz also did the music and arrangements for “Whiplash”). With lyrics like, “Here’s to the fools who dream, crazy as they may seem. Here’s to the mess we make” the plot is carried along a brightly colored path where a young would-be actress and a young would-be jazz musician who wants to own his own club meet and fall in love, rather slowly by today’s standards. (In the age of Tinder, it was nice to see the slow build-up to the romance.)


Well, it’s a musical.

But it’s a good, witty musical that will garner awards at Oscar time, including a possible Oscar nomination for Emma Stone and the picture itself. If Emma gets a nod for the Best Actress Oscar and Ryan Gosling does not receive a similar endorsement for his skills, it will be a bit like Dustin Hoffman carrying the day in “Rainman” while Tom Cruise was ignored.

I also smiled at the scene when Mia (Emma Stone),who has thoughtlessly double-booked herself with her date Greg and is standing Ryan Gosling up for their spontaneously arranged movie date, gets up from the table and excuses herself, leaving Greg to join Sebastian. The actor playing Greg (Finn Wittrock) played the psychotic killer clown on the circus episodes of “American Horror Story” and was also featured in the hotel year episodes (with Lady Gaga). I think anyone in the theater who has seen old Finn in his psychotic clown make-up was seriously rooting for Emma to flee, not so much because we felt bad about her standing Ryan Gosling up, but because we half-expected Greg to attack her with a steak knife at the dinner table at any moment. I also recognized a second suitor at the very end of the film (Tom Everett Scott) from the 1996 Tom Hanks film “That Thing You Do” and wondered what he’s been up to since then.

Both of the leads, as well as the Writer/Director and everyone who did such a fine job on this film deserve recognition of how difficult it must have been to pull off a romantic musical in today’s crass times. Between all the talk of Donald Trump’s assaults on women and his genitalia and the specter of Bill Clinton’s trysts elevated to front row status at the second presidential debate, it’s really hard to remember more romantic times.

Those who loved musicals do remember, and this is the kind of film they’ll love, which really should be seen on the Big Screen.

So, “Here’s to the ones who dream, foolish as they may seem, I’ll always remember the flame.”

[*The Lionsgate representative on the Red Carpet on October 13th, when asked, said it would be perfectly fine to run a review now, as it was playing elsewhere, but it is slated to open wide in December.)

Opening Night of the 52nd Chicago International Film Festival on Oct. 13th


Claude LeLouch with interpreter.

Claude LeLouch with interpreter.

Now that I have your attention, may I mention that the lovely creature featured in the tribute above is the co-author of French director Claude LeLouch’s (2015) film “Un & Une?” You may recognize Valerie Perrine from her Oscar-nominated role as Honey Bruce, wife of Lenny Bruce, in the 1974 film “Lenny” or any of her many other film roles. She accompanied LeLouch to the opening night and is a lovely and vibrant 73-year-old (LeLouch is 79).

Damien Chazelle, Writer/Director of "La La Land" and "Whiplash."

Damien Chazelle, Writer/Director of “La La Land” and “Whiplash.”

The current hot director who attended the Opening Night of his film was Damien Chazelle, whose musical “La La Land” has been well-received virtually everywhere it has screened. In Venice, on August 31st, the opening sequence on a Los Angeles freeway received a standing ovation. Since then, the film has opened to kudos at Telluride and Toronto and Emma Stone won the Best Actress award for her role (She is being prominently mentioned as a Best Actress Oscar contender). The chemistry that Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone displayed in “Crazy, Stupid Love” (he told her his signature move was the lift from “Dirty Dancing”) remains.

Michael Rooker

Michael Rooker

Another classic flick brought back to life for the 52nd Chicago International Film Festival was “Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer”, an indie film directed by John McNaughton and starring Michael Rooker. The film premiered in Chicago in 1986 and has achieved cult status over the intervening 30 years. Rooker, himself, now 60, has gone on to appear in such films as “Guardians of the Galaxy,” “Days of Thunder” (1990), “The Bone Collector,” and as Merle in television’s “The Walking Dead.”

When McNaughton was asked his advice for aspiring filmmakers who want to make an independent film he said, “Ill give them the same advice my father gave me: become a dentist.”

Rosemarie DeWitt of "La La Land."

Rosemarie DeWitt of “La La Land.”

In addition to Writer/Director Chazelle of “La La Land”, actress Rosemarie DeWitt, who plays Gosling’s older sister in the film, came to Chicago and her comments to me about the film were, “I think Damien made something very beautiful and very fresh that is going to make you very happy and maybe even make you cry.”

“The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Maki”: Chicago Film Festival Film About Real Finnish Boxer

This debut film from Finnish filmmaker Juho Kuosmanen tells the serio-comic story of the real-life Finnish boxer dubbed “the baker of Kokkola.” Even the fighter’s nickname makes you smile. Usually, if a lesser-known fighter (like Chuck Wepner in this country, the real-life model for Stallone’s “Rocky”) selects a nickname, the nickname tries for a dangerous moniker like Wepner’s “the Bluffs Butcher.” Olli’s fights took place in the late fifties (Lucerne, ’59, Lightweight; Prague, ’57, Lightweight) or the sixties. The film won a top prize at the Cannes Film Festival and focuses on the World Title Featherweight Match between Olli and American boxer Davey Moore on August 17, 1962 in Helsinki, Finland. The fact that an international title fight was being held in Finland made Olli into a national hero.

Pay special attention to the end of The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Maki. That’s when you’ll see an old couple walking hand-in-hand. That old couple are the real-life Olli and Raiji Maki. Olli is now 79.

Olli is so low-key and such a nice guy that his big concern when he loses the title fight to the much more experienced Moore in only 2 rounds, is “Where are the flowers I brought to present to the winner?” His humble demeanor might earn him the title today of the Anti-Trump. He tells his trainer (Eero Milonoff), “I just want peace before the match” and Eero responds, “Welcome to professional sports.”

Davey Moore, at this point in his career, had fought 64 fights. He won half of them by knockout. Olli had only had 10 fights, 300 amateur bouts, and won the European lightweight title in 1959, placing second in 1957. You get the feeling that Olli knows, going in, that he is doomed. [*He did fight again after this climactic career point, in February of 1964, winning the European Boxing Union Light Welterweight title against Conny Rudhof).

Another charming aspect of the film— (once you get used to the fact that it is shot in black-and-white)—is its inventive newsreel-like feeling. The last film I may have seen that was intentionally shot in black-and-white was “Manhattan” in 1979 (Woody Allen) although “The Artist” in 2011 used it to good effect (5 Oscars). The black-and-white was definitely an anachronism. References to Rocky Marciano and Frank Sinatra, plus the black-and-white footage, make you feel that this is newsreel footage. Nostalgia reigns.

The “happiest day” was an apt title because Olli realizes, in the course of training for the title bout, that he is in love with Raiji. They make arrangements at a jewelry store to purchase engagement rings engraved with the date: Aug. 17, 1962. The couple’s stroll along the shore at the very end of the film is not heralded as being your one chance to glimpse the real Olli and Raiji Maki, so pay attention.

The film is serio-comic—not really all drama and not all comedy. Comic turns have the short Olli standing on a box next to a tall model for publicity stills and, along with his manager (Eero Milanoff), nearly forgetting to retrieve the manager’s child from a roadside bathroom. The comic touches like the nude shower scene, the car that won’t start (leading to a precarious bicycle trip to a wedding), the small child of Olli’s manager that Olli and his manager almost leave behind in the bathroom, and the fight between Eero Milonoff and his angry crockery-throwing wife detract some from the all-too-brief fight, which is over almost as quickly as it began. (I haven’t seen a title fight end that quickly since Davenport’s Michael Nunn knocked out Sumbu Kalambay in the 1st round in Las Vegas on March 25, 1989. I took my husband for his birthday; he went out to place his bet and the fight was over before he returned.)

It takes almost two-thirds of the film before Olli kisses the girl of his dreams, a slow pace for American audiences. There are extensive scenes of nude male horseplay in the showers with a dozen boxers letting it all hang out. In fact, the visiting dignitaries who have arrived for the fight are ushered into the showers where at least ten nude males have been having a water fight. The fighters, all going full frontal, politely stand there in their birthday suits, shaking hands with the clothed visitors. Besides being loopy (from an American perspective), it seems preposterous that this would occur exactly the way it is portrayed.

If you’re a fight fan and you like a humble champion and you don’t mind reading English subtitles while the actors speak Finnish, you’ll like The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Makki.

“A Quiet Passion” Is Emily Dickinson Bio-Pic Featuring Cynthia Nixon

Terence Davies, who directed “The House of Mirth,” portrays the life of poet Emily Dickinson in a joint U.K./Belgium production starring Cynthia Nixon (Miranda on “Sex & the City”). Jennifer Ehle co-stars as her sister Vinnie and Keith Carradine portrays Emily’s cranky, overbearing father.

Living in self-imposed isolation from the world in Amherst, Massachusetts, Emily seems quite attached to her immediate nuclear family and unwilling or unable to look beyond those parameters. Therefore, she pours out her thoughts and feelings in poetry that lives on to this day.

Dickinson and Edna St. Vincent Milay were always my personal favorites during my study for a Master’s in Literature. Therefore, I looked forward to the use of “I heard a fly buzz when I died,” since there were multiple scenes of death (mother, father, Emily), usually portrayed in somewhat grisly detail. I was disappointed when, following the seizures that beset Emily (who suffered from the incurable Bright’s Disease), the poem used was “Because I could not stop for death, he kindly stopped for me.” Also used was the favorite, “I’m nobody, Who are you? Are you nobody too?”

The lighting and costuming and period sets are wonderful (think “Downton Abbey”) but a grim tone pervades the movie as Emily struggles to come to grips with all those she loves leaving her, whether friends or family.

Lots of onscreen deaths, seizures and general unhappiness of mood and event.

“24 Weeks” Examines the Issue of Late-Term Abortion(s) in Germany at Chicago International Film Festival

The German film “24 Weeks” from Director Anne Zohra Berrached was screened in Chicago for 8 members of the press on Wednesday, October 5th. It is the story of a popular stand-up comedienne (think a German version of Amy Schumer) who finds herself pregnant by her live-in long-time love and manager, only to discover, several months into her pregnancy, that her unborn child will have both Down’s syndrome and a serious heart condition.

Movingly portrayed by German actress Julia Jentsch, this is not a “feel good” movie. Comedienne Astrid Lorenz (Julia Jentsch) shows every sign of being a woman on the fast track to comedy success. Onstage, she even jokes, “You can tell a decent joke and lactate,” to an adoring audience.

That is all before the couple discovers the health problems their second child will face.

Astrid’s partner, Markus Hager (Bjorne Madel) wants to go to any lengths to have this second child, who will be a younger brother to their daughter, Nele (Emilia Pieschke). The couple is preparing to accept the Down’s Syndrome baby into their lives and visit similarly afflicted youngsters, taking their young daughter. Then their housekeeper, Kati, announces that she is not prepared to stay on and help them, and they turn to Astrid’s mother, who seems to be Astrid’s last hope.

Astrid’s manager and live-in love of 8 years, Markus Hager (Bjorne Madel) is very pro-life and wants to do everything to make this second child happen.
(“It feels wrong somehow to decide whether a human being lives or dies.”) Astrid (Julia Jentsch) is initially in synch with her spouse’s wishes.

But, as time goes on, she becomes more convinced that, as she explains to their young daughter, Nele (Emilia Piescke), “I don’t think he (the unborn fetus) will have a nice life.” Accusations come her way from Marcus that she is only thinking about her career and I honestly was waiting for the entire relationship to spiral out of control. (“Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold.” William Butler Yeats).

I was the only woman in the theater today watching “24 Weeks.”

I sensed outrage amongst the male critics present when the hospital authorities told the frustrated father of the child, “In Germany, ultimately it’s your wife’s decision. That’s the law.” Markus (the prospective father) rails against any talk of a late-term abortion, which would be achieved by injecting potassium chloride into the fetus’ heart, after which the mother would go into labor and give birth to a dead child. Markus tells Astrid, “You can’t do it. Nothing else matters.”

This is a film about life-altering decisions and the people who have to make them.

It is extremely well acted and well written (also by director Anne Zohra Berrached). The topic is still an ongoing debate in this country and will continue to be after the upcoming election. Abortion and capital punishment are always “hot button” issues; that will probably always be the case.

And, no, I won’t tell you what Astrid decides to do.

That really would be a “spoiler.”


Bouchercon in New Orleans Brings Out the Big Names

Lee Child

Lee Child







Bouchercon in New Orleans (Sept. 15-18) was a party for over 2,000 authors and their families. For the second time in our lives we participated in a parade from the Marriott on Canal Street to the Orpheum Theater, where author David Morrell (“Rambo”) was interviewed by author Lee Child (Jack Reacher).

Also present and interviewed by romance author Heather Graham was R.L. Stine, author of the “Goosebumps” series.

Each participant took home 6 books of their choosing and the book room was packed with signings and books for sale. 13Thirty Books had a signing in the Napoleon Room from 3 to 5 p.m. on Thursday, in which I participated.
A good time was had by all.

Hitler Just Found Out Trump Has Caved on Immigration

I have to admit I laughed throughout this put-down of The Donald’s new position on building “the wall” and deporting 11 million illegal Mexicans.

The fact that it happened the very same day that Anne Coulter (the thin, blonde, ultra-Conservative mouthpiece most often seen guesting on Bill Maehr’s show, where she is always off her rocker) was just too much.

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