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).

Category: Movies (Page 1 of 17)

World Premiere of “Muppet Guys Talking” @ SXSW

Secrets Behind the Show the Whole World Watched – World Premiere and Q&A

Genre: Documentary
Length: 65 minutes
Cast: Jerry Nelson, Dave Goelz, Fran Brill, Bill Barretta, Frank Oz
Reviewer: Connie Wilson

In 1955, creative genius Jim Henson created a troop of puppets known as The Muppets. By 1978 The Muppets” was the most-watched television show in history, with 235 million viewers in 102 countries, according to “Time” magazine. Henson’s untimely death at age 53 in 1990 left right-hand man Frank Oz (real last name: Oznowicz) more-or-less in charge of the troop, which came to fame on “Sesame Street.”

The world premiere of the documentary “Muppet Guys Talkiing” was on Sunday, March 12, at SXSW’s Paramount Theater. The film has been worked on for at least 5 years.

Frank Oz of the Muppets on the Red Carpet at SXSW in Austin, TX.

Frank Oz worked with the Muppets from 1963 until roughly 2000. After helping Hansen film “Labyrinth” (1986) he directed “Little Shop of Horrors” (1986) with Steve Martin, “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” (1988), “What About Bob?” with Bill Murray and Richard Dreyfuss in 1991, “In & Out” with Kevin Kline in 1997, “Bowfinger” with Eddie Murphy in 1999, “The Score” in 2001 and “Death & a Funeral” in 2007. He also signed on to voice Yoda in the “Star Wars” movies and, initially, to perform puppeteer functions for the character (before Yoda was digitalized). Yoda’s distinctive speaking style is credited to Oz, with Lucas giving him creative license to create the character.

Frank Oz’s second wife, Producer Victoria Labalme, suggested that the main puppeteers from Henson’s hey-day get together and talk about Henson’s influence on their lives and on the world. The five appearing in the film were the now-deceased Jerry Nelson, Dave Goetz, “new guy” Bill Barretta, Oz himself and only female puppeteer, Fran Brill.

The project, germinating since 2011, morphed into this short documentary “Muppet Guys Talking,” dedicated to original puppeteer, Jerry Nelson, (“the Count” on “Sesame Street,”) who died August 23, 2012.
Labalme suggested the project to her spouse shortly after their marriage on July 17, 2011.

Fran Brill, the only female puppeteer.

Fran Brill, the only female puppeteer, said, “Henson was the most incredible man I ever met. He dragged us literally all over the world and enriched our lives.” The group agreed that the creative and collaborative Henson “emphasized treating others well and, hopefully, you would be treated well in kind.” As one said, “I feel blessed to have been put in a place where I could communicate with so many.”

Onscreen, we were treated to vignettes of the most famous of the Muppets and were given behind-the-scenes stories of how each member of the cast came to join as well as the details of some of the difficulties of shooting certain famous Muppet scenes. All agreed that Henson would not ask anyone else to do something that he, himself, would not undertake. His stints in a sunken metal container with breathing apparatus, underwater, for hours (sometimes they worked all night) to make it appear that Kermit the Frog was sitting on a log in the water was diagrammed. Another scene involving shooting an apple off the head of a Muppet character was mentioned (the hired archer was a 17-year-old girl who had only 9 inches between success and disaster), and one particular scene in one of the Muppet movies where the characters appear to be scampering up a pole to escape marauding wolves was explained for the interested and appreciative audience.

Robert Rodriguez and Frank Oz on the Red Carpet at SXSW in Austin for “Muppet Guys Talking.”

Fellow filmmaker Robert Rodriguez (“From Dusk to Dawn,” ’96; “El Mariachi,” ’92; “Sin City,” 2005), an Austin resident, handled the Q&A onstage following the short film and the seasoned puppeteers explained that they often would find a personal flaw, isolate it, amplify it and try to make it lovable to distill their individual characters. All lauded “the sense of abandon and lunacy that Jim taught us” and one said: “I miss the sense of play that comes from a company owned by a person. Jim created a safe environment, but you felt you could be as free as you wished.” Puppeteer Dave Goetz said, “We all learned commitment from him. He was the hardest working person I’ve ever met.”

Among other accolades to the deceased Henson (who was raised a Christian Scientist) were: “He never threw his weight around. He never yelled; if he was mad, he’d get quieter. He was self-effacing.” The cast reminisced that Henson even wore a costume in the opening television scenes until others talked him out of it and handed the duty to others. Said the cast, “He was a harvester of people. He appreciated all sorts of people and brought them all together. He took a chance on sweetness. Disenfranchised people feel accepted in the Muppet world. He was promoting the oneness of the world and was generous and kind.”

Bill Barretta with Producer Victoria Labalme onstage at the Q&A after “Muppet Guys Talking.”

Individual quote: From Bill Barretta (“the new guy” even after decades) when asked about his job with the Muppets: “It’s a dream come true. To think that this is something that could happen. Unbelievable. It was an opportunity to do what I love.”

Fran Brill: “All of our lives were changed in such a way because we all met Jim Henson. He had more effect on me and my life than my parents. He treated everyone the same. This movie was made to champion what he did.”

(L to R) Robert Rodrigeuz, Frank Oz, Dave Goelz, Fran Brill, Bill Barretta and Victoria Labalme onstage at the Q&A after “Muppet Guys Talking’s” World Premiere at SXSW in Austin, TX.

Dave Goelz (who was working at Dell computers in Silicon Valley at the time): “I was unemployable in Silicon Valley. I think they were sick of me poking my home-made puppets over the cubicle dividers. I was just too crazy. On top of that, Jim dragged us all over the world. It is important to have diversity—something that we need right now.” The crowd present at the Paramount reacted positively to his statement.

(L to R) Dave Goelz, Bill Barretta, Fran Brill and Frank Oz. One participant in the project not present, Jerry Nelson, died in the interim and the film was dedicated to his memory.

Frank Oz: “I worked with Henson since the age of 19. He was just himself and we followed. Then he helped you with his kindness He wasn’t caustic. It was a collaborative effort and he was incredibly supportive.”

Reports of the lavish funeral ceremony that also lauded Henson’s basic human decency (Henson died of a virulent form of streptococcal toxic shock syndrome on May 16, 1990, 20 hours after experiencing a medical emergency).

We should all be remembered so fondly by our friends, family and colleagues.

“Nobody Speak: Trials of the Free Press” @ SXSW

Genre: Documentary Feature
Length: 95 minutes
Writer/Director: Brian Knappenberger
Principal Cast: Nick Denton, A.J. Daulario, John Cook, David Folkenflick, Floyd Abrams, Peter Sterne, David Houston, Margaret Sullivan, Jay Rosen, John L. Smith

The trial between wrestler Hulk Hogan and Gawker Media pitted privacy rights against freedom of the press, but ended up as a case study in how big money can silence media using legal means. This examination of the free press in an age of inequality echoes the “Vanity Fair” issue with an article by David Margolick entitled “V.C. for Vendetta.”

From that article, we learn that, outed as gay (“Peter Thiels Is Totally Gay”) by one of Gawker’s web sites in 2007, Silicon billionaire Peter Thiel ($2.7 billion as a co-founder of PayPal, and an early investor in Facebook) laid low until 2016, when he seized the opportunity to financially back Hulk Hogan’s invasion of privacy suit over a sex tape to bankrupt the entire organization.

In this documentary that interviews all the principals except Thiel (who is seen speaking at other venues), we learn that “what he’s done is to legitimize the idea that an uninvolved party can fund an effort by someone else in order to destroy a news organization. If billionaires and multi-millionaires can be behind the scenes doing this, that is conspiratorial and underhanded completely.” As Gawker founder Nick Denton, who was personally bankrupted, said, “We were outgunned here.”

Knappenberger dubs it, “abusing the justice system to go after journalists.” All these efforts have taken back a lot of 1st Amendment rights. Many others are mentioned in the piece: the Chandler family, the Salzburger family of New York, Jeff Bezos’ purchase of the “Washington Post” and, in greater detail, Sheldon Adelson’s purchase of Nevada’s largest newspaper, the Las Vegas Review-Journal.

John L. Smith, the editor of the Las Vegas Review-Journal wrote a book about early investors in Las Vegas’ history entitled “Sharks in the Desert: The Founding Fathers and the Current Sharks.” There was one line mentioning Sheldon Adelson. Adelson sued Smith for the one line in the book, and lodged the $15 million dollar suit at a time when Smith was bedside in a local hospital with his young daughter Amelia, who was suffering from a brain tumor.

Smith was offered all sorts of financial inducements not to publish articles about Adelson, but resisted. He was blackmailed regarding the one line in his book, and, as he said: “Bullies always act the same.”

Then, unexpectedly, the entire staff of the Las Vegas Review-Journal was brought in to a meeting cold and told the newspaper had been sold. They were not allowed to know who had bought them.
Rather than take this without investigating, the entire staff, including one employee who had been with the paper for 39 and ½ years, dug in to find out if Adelson was behind the purchase in the face of overwhelming obfuscation.

Smith said, “”Everybody came in and everybody stayed. For us, it was preserving whatever integrity we had. We knew it was a career-ending move. Some stories are worth losing your job over.” As Smith asserted, “Journalism is a calling for a lot of us.”

As a Journalism Major (Ferner/Hearst Journalism Scholarship recipient at the University of Iowa), this documentary spoke to me. I characterize myself as “”Old School” because my stint with 5 “real” newspapers began at the age of 10 and continues today, 6 decades later. I am of the generation that grew up with only 3 television channels trusting the voice of Walter Cronkite to tell us the truth. There was no Internet. There was no cable television, and we believed in presenting both sides of the story so that readers could draw fair conclusions with all the facts at their disposal.

The idea of “hacking” Internet accounts (there was no Internet) and Wiki Leaks style dissemination of documents from the e-mail of others was decades away. I find it personally offensive that anyone in a position of authority can level wholesale charges of bias and dishonesty against the hardworking men and women of the press. One of the least honest politicians (or human beings) of all time has underscored just how important a free and independent press is from his podium in the White House. No less an authority than Thomas Jefferson talked about the importance of a free press to keep the checks and balances of this country working properly.

This documentary was depressing in that it showed the extent to which being rich means being able to destroy the very institutions we all thought were inviolate. As we watch money corrupting the very fabric of society, we are simultaneously experiencing the intentional undermining of the free press and I, for one, view it as one of the biggest tragedies our Republic has experienced since its inception.

A very informative, relevant and concerning documentary
. Reading the “Vanity Fair” article by David Margolick explained much of the Peter Thiel/Nick Denton Gawker sex tape dispute in far greater detail, which added to my understanding of the film’s rehash of the trial, (which was surreal in so many ways). The revelations about the Las Vegas Review-Journal were new to me, but explained a lot.

Worth watching, if you care about remaining free and being part of an informed populace in a working democracy.

“Small Town Crime” Is a SXSW Gem Starring John Hawkes

Genre: Thriller
Length: 91 minutes
Writer/Directors: Ian and Eshom Nelms
Cast: John Hawkes, Octavia Spencer, Anthony Anderson, Robert Forster, Daniel Sunjata, Michael Vartan
Reviewer: Connie Wilson

When you come out of the new John Hawkes film “Small Town Crime” you know you’ve seen a special movie that has the potential to become a huge hit. Maybe even a franchise for P.I. “Jack Winter” (John Hawkes)? Written and directed by Ian and Eshom Nelms and embodying a “Dirty Harry” very sarcastic, sardonic tone, the movie follows alcoholic ex-cop John Hawkes (“Winter’s Bone,” “The Sessions”) as he attempts to solve a crime in the hope that it will provide redemption for his past sins, especially the death of his partner when he was a police Sergeant.

Initially, Hawkes is even hopeful that he might get his job as a cop back. However, that doesn’t stop him from interviewing for other positions. One interviewer asks him why he’d be good for a security guard post. He replies, “I don’t take any shit.” Asked to assess his life’s accomplishments in the work world on a scale of 1 to 10, where 10 is high, Hawkes responds, “2 on a 10 point scale.”

At the outset, Hawkes is shown riding with veteran partner, Officer Bill Burke (Michael Flynn), but Hawkes’ Sergeant Mike Kendall is drunk while on the job. They pull over a car and Officer Burke tells Hawkes to stay in the car, after commenting earlier that he “smells like a brewery.”

The unprovoked shooting of Hawkes’ partner that happens next brings Hawkes from the squad car to return fire and kill the attacker (and, also, unfortunately, as collateral damage, a girl tied up in the trunk).

The police department is unforgiving when Hawkes blows drunk on the breathalyzer. The suits feel that Hawkes’ dissolute drinking and behavior has gotten his partner killed. This is made clear by the attitude(s) of fellow policemen who interview him, played by Michael Vartan (“Alias”) and Daniel Sunjata (“Rescue Me”).

Mike Kelly’s career as a cop is over. Or on ice. Enter the nom de plume of Private Investigator Jack Winter, Hawkes’ new identity.

Scenes after his partner’s death involve Hawkes overdoing his drinking in places with names like the Dead Dog Saloon. He is often drinking with his brother-in-law Teddy (Anthony Anderson). We learn that Hawkes was raised with Octavia Spencer as his adopted sister and Anthony Anderson is his brother-in-law.

After one blotto night, he wakes up in a field, gets in his hot car (a loud, black stripped-down Nova that he drives like a bat out of hell) and, on his way home, the now-sober Hawkes discovers a young girl by the side of the road, badly beaten.

Hawkes rushes the young hooker to the hospital, where, later that night, she dies. His car’s interior is bloody. He takes it to the car wash (where he is told that this job will cost him extra). The carwash workers find the dead girl’s phone and Hawkes’ policeman instincts kick in as he begins to investigate this small town crime.

One thing leads to another and Hawkes is soon passing out hastily-made business cards that say “Jack Winter, Private Eye.” He contacts the dead girl’s family and, eventually, ends up with a commission from her wealthy grandfather (Robert Forster, as Steve, whom the filmmakers termed “a gentleman and a half”), a gruff and wealthy grandfather to the dead girl. He is also a crack shot with a rifle and scope.

The Q&A following the film with the film-makers brought the story that Octavia (Spencer), who is also an executive producer on the film, “was the guiding light in getting John Hawkes. She wrote Hawkes, who once lived in Austin, a letter and said, ‘We’ve been in 2 films together, but we’ve never had a scene together. All I’m going to say is we play brother and sister in this film.’”

Director of Photography Johnny Derango smiles at mention of his name by the Nelms Brothers.

Writer-Directors Ian and Eshom Nelms, Producer Brad Johnson and Director of Photography Johnny Derango (a Columbia, Chicago college grad), with whom I spoke at the showing also shared the story of trying to find a purple low-rider Camaro in Utah, where the film was shot, for Clifton Collins, Jr.’s character Mood to drive.

Mood is a pimp with style and Collins plays him like John Leguizamo on steroids.
I was reminded of Leguizamo’s turn with Bryan Cranston in “The Infiltrator.” Collins, a former member of the Crips in Venice in his youth, took it much farther, procuring exactly the right brand of cigarettes for his character to smoke and modeling his hair after consulting with some current gang members.

Said the filmmakers, “It was amazing. We skyped and Clifton shared that he had been a Crip in Venice in his younger days. We asked him if he could handle a gun, and he said, ‘I’m sponsored by Glock’ and pulled out a Tech 9 and a Mossberg. We borrowed him from ‘WestWorld’ where he was working. They told us not to mess with his hair, but that didn’t happen. Clifton brought a lot of authenticity to the role of Mood.” He certainly did, and, like Leguizamo before him, made a good run at stealing every scene he’s in. As for his ride, the purple low-rider Camaro, the Writer/Directors laughed that “It’s surprisingly difficult to find one in Utah.” Car clubs came to the rescue.

Other actors in the piece who deserve special mention are Dale Dickey, playing a hardened female bartender at the Dead Dog Saloon. The filmmakers have done previous films with the actress, who has a Melissa Leo vibe, and hope for more. The hit man in what turns out to be a story about snuffing out greedy hookers, (known as Orthopedic in the credits), was also an interesting character, with a gray beard and a hearing aid. Jeremy Ratchford does the part justice.

There are also hookers (see above), such as the first girl killed, Kristy (Stefanie Barr), Heidi (Caity Lotz) and Ivy (Stefanie Scott), great sound for the muscle cars, and wonderful cinematography by Johnny Derango (“Lost on Purpose”), [who, as the filmmakers said to the audience, “has the greatest name on the planet.”]

I foresee another film for Hawkes’ character, to whom adopted sister Octavia Spencer says in the script, “All we do is help you, and all you do is ruin people’s lives.” He’s got the Clint Eastwood “Dirty Harry” vibe down, with some Jack Reacher thrown in. The ending of the film (which I won’t reveal) leaves room for hope that we’ll see much more of this interesting character and this writing team. One great line involves Robert Forster asking Mood, “Do we have to listen to this?” in the souped-up Camaro on the way to a very well-done shoot-out scene set at a deserted railroad site.

I blew off 2 other scheduled SXSW offerings this day to see the final showing of “Small Town Crime” after nearly every single person in every single line I waited in (minimum one hour wait per film) said it was their favorite feature film at the festival. It certainly is mine.

CAST
Academy Award® Nominee John Hawkes (THE SESSIONS, WINTER’S BONE, Eastbound and Down)
Academy Award® Nominee Robert Forster (JACKIE BROWN, THE DESCENDANTS, MEDIUM COOL)
Academy Award® Winner Octavia Spencer (also an EP on film) (HIDDEN FIGURES, THE HELP, FRUITVALE STATION)
Emmy Award® Nominee Anthony Anderson (Black-ish, Treme)
Emmy Award® Nominee Clifton Collins, Jr. (STAR TREK, Westworld)
Michael Vartan (Alias, Bates Motel, NEVER BEEN KISSED)
Daniel Sunjata (Graceland, Smashed, THE DARK KNIGHT RISES, THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA)
James Lafferty (One Tree Hill, LOST ON PURPOSE, WAFFLE STREET)
Caity Lotz (Legends of Tomorrow, Arrow, Mad Men)
Don Harvey (Luck, The Black List, Blue Bloods)
Dale Dickey (Vice Principals, Justified, True Blood)
Stefanie Scott (INSIDIOUS: CHAPTER 3, JEM AND THE HOLOGRAMS, A.N.T. Farm)

World Premiere of “Life” with Jake Gyllenhaal & Ryan Reynolds Closes SXSW in Austin, TX on March 18, 2017

Genre: Science Fiction Thriller
Length: 103 minutes
Director: Daniel Espinosa
Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Rebecca Ferguson, Ryan Reynolds, Hiroyuki Sanada, Ariyon Bakare, Olga Dihvichnaya
Reviewer: Connie Wilson

Sony’s new sci-fi film (being heavily advertised on television recently), “Life,” with Ryan Reynolds and Jake Gyllenhaal headlining a cast from all over the globe closed the SXSW Film Festival in Austin Saturday night at the Zach Theater. Director Daniel Espinosa, who will celebrate his 40th birthday on March 23rd, typifies the international aura: he was born in Sweden of Chilean parents and attended the National Film School of Denmark. [His 2010 film “Easy Money” was Sweden’s biggest box office success that year.]

The rest of the cast supporting Ryan Reynolds and Jake Gyllenhaal in this Alien-esque film about a deadly monster that gets loose aboard the International Space Station while the crew is conducting the Mars Pilgrim Space Mission are accomplished actors whose very names scream “international”: Rebecca Ferguson as Miranda North (Swedish and raised in Britain); Olga Dinvichnaya as Katerina Golovkina (Russian); Ariyon Bakare as Hugh Derry (British); and Hiroyuki Sanada as Sho Kendo (Japanese).

If you’ve seen the trailer on television, you know that Hugh Derry, the science expert aboard the ship (Ariyon Bakare), should never have poked his gloved finger into the new organism the crew has discovered and is bringing back from Mars. As Ryan Reynolds’ character, Rory Adams, says: “You’re playing around with that thing like it’s your buddy. It’s not your buddy. I’m your buddy.”

Derry, who (in the plot) is partially paralyzed since childhood, thinks that perhaps the organism, named Calvin (through a national competition amongst elementary school children), will yield medical breakthroughs, since—much like Ridley Scott’s “Alien”—-the crew has re-animated the dormant creature, using electrical shock, glucose, variations of oxygen and carbon dioxide, and other tinkering.

Jake Gyllenhaal plays the medical officer. He’s been up in space for 473 days, longer than anyone previously. When asked why he doesn’t want to return to Earth, he reminisces about time spent in Syria and says, “I can’t stand what we do to each other down there.” He also says, “It’s hard to watch people die, isn’t it?” and that becomes a large part of our viewing experience after Calvin escapes from the lab and, as the script says, “It could be anywhere.”

The music by Jon Ekstrand is good. Seamus McGarvey’s cinematography was as impressive as “Gravity” or any other recent sci-fi opus. The sets and visual effects are great. The acting is spot on, and it was very nice to see the writers, Paul Wernick and Rhett Reese, receive credit from the director and cast as “brilliant.”

In the Q&A afterwards, the director hedged on whether sequels will be in the works, but the ending suggests that to be highly likely if the film is as successful as it should be.

Asked about why this Sony film closed out this year’s festival, Producer Bonnie Curtis said, “Austin is where it’s at these days.”

As to the origin of the plot idea, Director Espinosa mentioned “the usual suspects” like “Alien” and “Gravity” and even paid homage to John Carpenter’s “The Thing.” He also called “Life” a tribute to film noir and “The Twilight Zone.” I can think of other films going all the way back to Bruce Dern’s 1972 film “Silent Running” or Kubrick’s iconic “2001: A Space Odyssey” that might have been mentioned, and “The Martian” (Matt Damon) came up during the Q&A.

Jonas Rasmussen gets credit for the horrible look of the creature named Calvin, equal in awfulness to “Alien’s” monster. One interesting difference, pointed out during the Q&A, is that this creature is completely silent. Director Espinosa said it was scripted that way by the “brilliant”writers, (who were then called up onstage).

Director Daniel Espinosa shared that the first long prolonged shot involved the set rotating around the actors and took a month to film. We were also told that each one of the cast was simulating zero gravity, while actually rigged up with wires. Rebecca Ferguson, who plays Miranda North, shared that their movement coach, Alexander Reynolds, worked with the cast. She said, “One day I was floating so brilliantly that I forgot my lines.”

Asked what struck them as “memorable” about the shoot, Jake Gyllenhaal said, “Being able to wear socks with no shoes was my memorable moment. This might be the first shoeless zero gravity movie.” Reynolds, who was the more light-hearted of the two, in the manner of his character in “Deadpool,” when asked if the cast had worked weightlessly in zero gravity, said, jokingly, “We were given limited permission to go into space because they weren’t doing anything important in the space station that month.”

Ryan Reynolds’ most memorable moment?
“We spent so much time joking around that one day one of the producers said to me, ‘Quit joking around and get to work. You’ve wasted $100,000.’ And I said, ‘We’ve wasted $100,000 on this film, so far?’ and she said, ‘No. You’ve wasted $100,000 today.’”

One questioner in the audience asked facetiously why Matt Damon wasn’t hired for Reynolds’ part, since he’d already been to Mars,( referencing Damon’s recent film “The Martian.”) Reynolds, laughing, said, “F***** Matt Damon.” And added, “The fact is, he didn’t want to die in the first act.”

THE GOOD:

This is a professionally done, well-acted film. There are very few things to criticize. At different times, looking at the beautiful actresses onscreen, I was struck by their resemblance to a young Ingrid Bergman, (even with severe pulled-back hairstyles that would be appropriate for life in space). And a more dependable actor than Jake Gyllenhaal does not exist, with Ryan Reynolds easy on the eyes in the smart aleck-y role and manner that suits him.

THE BAD:

Because of the international nature of the cast, it was sometimes difficult to understand some of their dialogue. If I had been watching this at home on television, much as with Thomas Hardy’s series “Taboo,” I would have had the subtitles turned on. My only other criticism would be that “there’s nothing new under the sun,” so we’re seeing many things that are derivative of other science fiction films that have gone before, but they are still enjoyable, when done well. And the film is done well.

OVERALL:

It’s an engrossing film that will suck you in and keep you on the edge of your seat despite the nagging feeling that you have been down this cinematic road before.

“Hot Summer Nights” World Premiere at SXSW in Austin (TX) on March 13, 2017

Genre: Coming-of-age drama
Length: 120 minutes
Director: Elijah Bynum
Cast: Timothee Chalamet, Maika Monroe, Alex Roe, Maia Mitchell, Thomas Jane, William Fichtner
Review: Connie Wilson

Writer/Director Elijah Bynum of “Hot Summer Nights.”

On Monday, March 13th, 2017, at SXSW, Imperative Entertainment World Premiered first-time
writer/director Elijah Bynum’s coming-of-age film “Hot Summer Nights.” It played to a packed
house at the Paramount Theater at SXSW with all major stars in attendance.

Set in 1991 Cape Cod (really filmed in Atlanta, Georgia) , “Hot Summer Nights” stars Timothée
Chalamet (“Call Me By Your Name, “Interstellar”), Maika Monroe (“It Follows,” Independence Day
2”), Alex Roe (“The 5th Wave,” “Rings”) and Maia Mitchell (“The Fosters”), with appearances by
Emory Cohen (“Brooklyn,” “The Place Beyond the Pines”), Thomas Jane (“Hung,” “The Punisher”)
and William Fichtner (“The Dark Knight,” “Armageddon”).

Timothee Chalamet as Daniel Middleton in “Hot Summer Nights” at SXSW on March 13, 2017.

The film is told through the point-of-view of Daniel Middleton, a lonely and troubled teen-aged boy, despondent over the death of his father. In a voice-over from a minor character (who is not well identified) we learn, “This all happened a while back in the town I’m from.”

Daniel’s mother sends him away to his Aunt’s to spend the summer of 1991 in Cape
Cod
. Young Daniel at first finds himself friendless in Hyannis, Massachusetts..

Daniel’s not really a “townie” and he’s not one of the rich kids visiting for the summer. According to the voice-over, “Something changed inside of Daniel Middleton that summer he turned 13.” Thirteen seemed too young for what happens in the rest of the film. If Daniel is only there for the summer, how is he able to drive a hot car throughout the film, including in an opening scene car crash during a hurricane?

Alex Roe as Hunter Strawberry in “Hot Summer Nights.”


Daniel drifts into a friendship with the classic James Dean style bad boy in town,
a blonde hunk with the unfortunate character name Hunter Strawberry (Alex Roe)
. Hunter is
the stereotypical screw-up. He has been kicked out of high school and also has been kicked out of
the house by his widowed father. Now he sells marijuana to tourists and locals. Daniel throws in
with him with a vengeance, despite Hunter’s uncontrollable anger issues.

Maika Monroe as Michaela Strawberry in “Hot Summer Nights.”

Hunter’s sister Michaela (Maika Monroe) is angry with Hunter for not giving up selling pot;
it was their mother’s one request of her son during her final illness, when Michaela was eleven.

Maia Mitchell as Amy in “Hot Summer Nights” at SXSW.

Daniel becomes allied with cool-stud-in-town Hunter when he helps him out by hiding some weed
Hunter has on his person while he is being stalked by the local cop, Sergeant Frank Calhoun.

Hunter takes up romantically with Frank’s daughter, Amy Calhoun. This liaison is certain to
cause problems for Amy at home, if her parents find out.

Maika Monroe as Michaela Strawberry.

Meanwhile, Daniel unwisely finds himself irresistibly drawn to the brooding Michaela.

Hunter makes it clear that he is overly protective of his younger sibling and forbids Daniel (whom he
calls “Danny”) to date her. That, of course, soon goes out the window, setting up romantic
scenes between Daniel and Michaela.

Alex Roe and Writer/Director Elijah Bynum on the Red Carpet at SXSW.

Director Bynum shared with the audience, after the film, that the plot was one he heard while in college.

Said Bynum, “I’m from Massachusetts, but from a different part of the state. The story came
from a couple of kids I knew in college. They talked about two drug dealers who, as their business
grew, their friendship also grew, and then both disappeared. I was always intrigued by that.”

THE GOOD
The principal actors all did a good job in their roles, especially the two male leads. The
cinematography by Javier Julia was fine. He also worked in actual film footage from Hurricane
Bob, which was a key element in the plot. Those in charge of the music (Will Bates and Liz
Gallagher) also did a good job, including David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” and “All the Young Dudes,”
among others from the era.

THE BAD

The plot has some problems. For one thing, early on the lead character’s age (Daniel) is set at
thirteen. If Daniel is only thirteen, how can he spend most of the movie driving and doing a number of other things more appropriate for older teens)? And, when Daniel is driving, he is driving a car so hot that it would draw unwanted attention to a drug dealer trying to operate without being apprehended. Not only would the cops be a problem, what about Michaela Strawberry? Doesn’t she wonder where Daniel, who lives with his Aunt Bar (who is poor) has gotten the money for these wheels? And how could the young couple possibly hide their romance from her brother Or, conversely, how could Michaela not know that Daniel was her brother’s new accomplice in the drug trade? Also, given Hunter’s explosive temper, which we see unleashed with a fury when Daniel is threatened, what would the conversation with Amy’s policeman father (Thomas Jane) really have been like? It seemed unusually tame on both sides I also had problems with the way the writer/director has chosen to end the film.
I was never sure who the young person at the window was (supposedly doing the voice over)
and the ending is almost as bad and as big a trope as the themes that my junior high school students used to turn in
where the ending was always, “And then he woke up and it was all a dream.” It almost seemed as though no one had Beta read Writer/Director Elijah Bynum’s script before it got to the big screen. Each of the principal actors talked about the script as their reason for buying into the first-time director’s project, but, for me, the script had holes wide enough to drive a Mack truck through and an unsatisfying ending.

On the positive side, it’s a good first directorial effort, with good music, fine cinematography and
some promising newcomers in the cast. For me, Alex Roe was the break-out star, but all four of
the main characters are promising.

OVERALL

I’d give the film, overall, an “A” for effort and a low “B-/C+” for execution. However, I’ll be interested in watching the budding careers of the four principal characters as they are cast in other projects.

THE HERO with Sam Elliott Screens @ SXSW 2017

Genre: Drama with Western roots
Length: 90 minutes
Director: Brett Haley
Actors: Sam Elliott, Laura Prepon, Krysten Ritter, Nick Offerman, Katharine Ross

The mythic spirit of the western, our American archetype, is alive and well at the 2017 SXSW Film Festival.
I’ve seen two westerns in two days at the Festival. “The Hero,” which showed at the Zach Theater on Friday, March 10th, was the better of the two.

“The Hero” was an unusual picture because it focuses on a 71-year-old actor (Elliot) who has been playing western parts for most of his career. Now, he is in the twilight of that career, and most of his work seems to be voice-over work (primarily for a BBQ sauce). He’d like to get a feature like “The Hero” that catapulted him to fame back in the day, and he’s phoning his agent, looking for more work. And then he is derailed by a diagnosis of pancreatic cancer.

There are parallels here between “The Wrestler” that featured Mickey Rourke and this plot. Both men find they have a potentially terminal illness and are dealing with that knowledge the same way. Both are initially in denial and tell no one. Both have a daughter from a failed relationship (real-life wife Katharine Ross plays the ex) and both men want to make peace with their only child before it’s too late. But the daughters aren’t cooperating much in moving towards reconciliation.

I wanted to see Katharine Ross (“The Graduate,” “The Cincinnati Kid”) after all this time, if only to see how she has aged alongside her silver-maned real-life husband, Elliott, whom we have seen in the TV series “Justified” and, earlier, as the narrator in the Coen Brothers classic “The Big Lebowski.” There is no doubt that Elliott has the best hair of anyone his age in pictures. (Robert Redford might be a close second.) Sam Elliott and Katharine Ross were in “The Cincinnati Kid” together, way back in 1969, but did not officially meet and begin dating until 1978, ultimately marrying in 1984, 33 years ago. (They have one daughter born that year)
The love interest in this film is not Elliott’s true-life wife, but Laura Prepon, who played Donna on “That 70s Show” (“The Girl on the Train.”) (Prepon announced that she is pregnant by fiancé Ben Foster in January.)

The two meet cute through their mutual drug dealer Jeremiah, played by Parks & Recreation’s Nick Offerman. A budding romance erupts, although Laura’s character (Charlotte Douglas) nearly kills the romance at the outset by making fun of romancing older men during her stand-up comedy routine.

In the film, western star Lee Hayden is going to be honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award by an organization known as The Western Appreciation and Preservation Guild.
Since he also has just learned he has pancreatic cancer, he is struggling with the thought that his only chance at prolonging his life slightly may be a grim procedure known as the Whipple Procedure, which would remove part of his pancreas, his gall bladder and part of his small intestine. Even then, his odds don’t sound that great. And Laura actually seems interested in getting to know him better and agrees to be his date for the awards ceremony (after Lee’s estranged daughter turns him down).

THE GOOD

Elliott does some truly fine acting in the scenes where he is auditioning for a part in a film and must speak lines as though to his daughter. Real life impinges on fictional life as he is overcome with emotion. When Lee’s new female friend Charlotte reads Edna St. Vincent Milay’s poem “Dirge Without Music” to him, Elliott’s reaction is also spot on.

All the characters play their parts well, although it was difficult to understand how Elliott’s character of Lee Hayden was so forgiving of Charlotte, after her cruelty towards him onstage during her comedy act. The elderly: one of the few remaining groups under fire; it seems it is just fine to make fun of someone for being old. That is exactly what Laura Prepon’s character does, without mercy, in her act. Yet Elliott’s character, Lee Hayden, is quite forgiving.

During the Q&A, Director Brett Haley was asked why he has made more than one film about old age. (His 2015 film “I’ll See You In My Dreams,” starring Blythe Danner and Sam Elliott, was also about an older woman facing old age, death, and being alone.) Haley first responded that this film was built around Elliott’s persona, but went on to say, “This film is about legacy…about looking back on one’s achievements. There’s something very interesting to me about older people who are toting up their achievements in life and trying to cope with the end of it all. Ageism is a problem in film and it’s a problem in society. That’s just something I’m drawn to.”

There are many beach scenes in the film which cinematographer Rob Givens photographed beautifully. Haley shared with the audience that the crew shot all the beach scenes in one day but when they went back to film they had to find a cliff for the principal actors to stand on (Elliott and his daughter Lucy, played by Krysten Ritter) because 6 to 8 foot swells had covered the beach.

One very big positive about the film, for me, was the use of Edna St. Vincent Milay’s poem “Dirge Without Music.”
I asked Haley whether they had to pay the poet’s estate to use the film, and he said, ”They were very nice, and they let us use the poem for free. Her estate said, ‘Any time we can get the word out about her work, we’re happy.’” The director went on to say that, in his experience, “I think it is through music and poetry and film that we communicate. That’s what we all do. It’s why I have a recurring theme in the movie involving the Buster Keaton film clips. If I were dying and wanted to talk about death, that’s what I’d do. To me, it felt like a real thing that real people would do, and Milay is one of my favorite poets.”

Asked about Sam Elliott’s ability to roll a real joint for key plot scenes, Haley made it clear that Sam Elliott does not smoke marijuana, but knew exactly how to roll a doobie.
Nick Offerman (“Parks & Recreation”) playing his drug dealer and friend Jeremiah from co-starring in a television series, was very complimentary about Elliott’s work ethic and what an honor and education it was to work with the old pro.

Said Offernan: “On the set of Parks & Recreation (Elliott had a recurring role as Nick’s doppelganger), I always tried to show up early. So, to work with a giant like Sam Elliott, I wasn’t going to show up less than thirty minutes early or not knowing my lines. It’s the same way I felt working with Michael Keaton. These guys are legends. So, one morning we’re shooting at 4:30 a.m. and I show up half an hour early, and there’s Sam, already leaning against the truck.” (laughs)
Director Haley shared that the film was originally supposed to be called “Iceberg,” which had to do with a metaphor in the film and the image of an iceberg on the drug dealer Jeremiah’s computer, but, just before shooting began, the title was changed because, “’The Hero’ is a closer portrayal of what the film is about. The title came to me right before we shot, and some of the early producers weren’t as keen on it, but I think it works.”

THE BAD

There are some random scenes meant to show Lee Hayden’s career in movies. In one, Elliott emerges from a small pup tent, wearing a cowboy hat. When you see him in the scene, it is unclear whether this is a flashback, a flash forward, or simply present history. Likewise, a scene where Lee (apparently dreaming?) sees a man hanging from a tree is in the film, but the message it is supposed to be sending is unclear.

OVERALL: It was nice to see a film that acknowledges that some people do live into their 7th decade of life and are not necessarily total fossils. An examination of any woman’s magazine “beautiful at any age” issue would convince you that there is no woman (or man, for that matter) who lives past 60 and could be considered handsome or beautiful. The fact that Lee is also obviously still virile (there are numerous love scenes, chastely shot) is also a gift to the AARP generation. That was unexpected and nice. Only a few films of the past decade have focused on characters in their golden years and done so sensitively. This is one of them.

The Lego Batman Movie Has Something for Everyone

Genre: Animated children’s comedy
Length: 1 hour, 44 minutes
Director: Chris McKay
Stars: (voices) Will Arnett, Michael Cera, Rosario Dawson, Ralph Fiennes, Mariah Carey

Director (and sometimes vocal talent) Chris McKay gives the audience a solid sequel to the 2014 “The Lego Movie” with an opening that takes aim at skewering the opening of every Superhero saga ever made: black screen, ominous score, etc.

The hero is Batman, voiced again by Will Arnett, who hides out in his lair with his butler, Alfred Pennyworth (Ralph Fiennes). Another major vocal players are Michael Cera as Robin, aka, Richard “Dick” Grayson, who is adopted by Batman—sort of. Batman seems intent on being a loner and isn’t too keen on adopting the eager novice he meets at a social event, but Robin expresses his undying enthusiasm for Batman and bemoans his life in the orphanage, where “Kids call me Dick.” Arnett’s Batman says, “Well, kids can be cruel,” (providing one of the biggest adult laughs of the evening).

We were accompanied by eight-year-old twins who were well behaved and interested throughout. They seemed to follow the story of how Alfred shames Batman into adopting Robin and urges Batman to make real friends and not just depend on his vast array of enemies. Batman has famous enemies like the Joker (Zach Galifianakis), and it is the Joker who unleashes a plethora of other baddies on Batman (all of them previously confined in the fortress of Solitude in the Phantom Zone).

Batman must take action to put the bad guys back where they belong, but he will need help to do it. Young Robin is just the right assistant for the job (because he’s the right size), and Batman also adds the kicker, “He’s 110% expendable.” Alfred tries to set Batman on the path of good parenting, causing Batman to respond, “How dare you tell me how to parent my kid I just met!”

It is lines like those, the mystery of why Robin wears no pants, and lines like, “Alfred, you’ve been watching way too many Lifetime movies and drinking chardonnay” (to which Alfred responds, archly, “It’s pinot grigio.”) that cracked up those of us over the age of eight.

There are other pearls of wisdom, like, “Sometimes, to right a wrong, you have to do a wrong right” that seem timely, as well as this gem, “Sometimes, losing people is a part of life, but that doesn’t mean you quit letting them in.”

The gags fly by so fast that you can barely keep track of them, steering the plot toward a plot of family values, as well as the entire “No man is an island” John Donne message.

Along the way, you’ll laugh and enjoy the movie for entirely different reasons than your young companions.
I, personally, laughed very loudly at the fact that “Iron Man Sucks” was the computer password. I laughed even louder when I saw that the new Secretary of the Treasury under Donald J. Trump, Steven (“no chin”) Mnuchin was Executive Producer on the film.

Here is a partial list of the voices you’ll hear that could be considered “famous,” (some of them in very small roles):
Will Arnett as Batman
Michael Cera as Robin/Dick Greyson
Rosario Dawson as Batgirl/Barbara Gordon
Ralph Fiennes as Alfred Pennyworth
Siri as the Computer
Zach Galifianakis as the Joker
Conan O’Brien as The Riddler
Billy Dee Williams as Two-Face
Zoe Kravitz as Catwoman
Eddie Izzard as Voldemort
Seth Green as King Kong
Ellie Kemper as Phyllis
Channing Tatum as Superman
Jonah Hill as the Green Lantern
Hector Elizondo as Jim Gordon
Mariah Carey as the Mayor
Brent Musberger as Reporter #1, and
Chris McKay (the director) as Pilot Bill/additional voices

I laughed. I cried. I ate dinner (Alamo Drafthouse style). I cleaned up shakes spilled by twin 8-year-olds and made three trips for extra napkins.

Well, mainly, I laughed. It’s that “Toy Story” kind of movie that gives the kids the action they want while entertaining adults, too, complete with kitschy music (Lorne Balfe in charge) like “Wake Me Up Before You Go Go” and “Man in the Middle.”

“20th Century Women” Will Give You Laughs & Truth

Genre: Drama/Comedy

Running Time: 119 minutes

Actors: Annette Bening, Billy Crudup, Greta Gerwig, Lucas Jade Zumann

There are so many good lines in “Twentieth Century Women” and so much wisdom and information imparted that I can heartily recommend the movie on that basis alone. I’m going to share some of that wisdom with you momentarily.

Add to that the fact that Annette Bening turns in another great performance (she was Golden Globe nominated) and that the film has actually put titles of some of the better books on feminism and other idealistic pursuits onscreen at key moments, and it can certainly be considered educational. What books and films are cited? “Forever”, 1975, Judy Blume. “The Road Less Traveled”, 1978, Scott Peck. “The Politics of Orgasm,” 1970, Susan Lydon. Another by Zoe Moss about the aging woman, written in 1970, which professes that“It hurts to be old and obsolete and alone.” “A Crisis of Confidence” by Jimmy Carter. A film by Koyaanisqatsi, 1982, by Godfrey Reggie and Philip Glass. (onscreen, the dates for the film are listed as 1971-1975).

It’s also a very, very funny film. Who would expect that—right?

THE GOOD

As mentioned above, Bening gives a great performance, but so does the young boy who plays her son Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann), whom she often refers to as “Kid.”

Director/Writer Mike Mills hasn’t made a big movie for 6 years, but the movie he made 6 years ago, “Beginners,” won Christopher Plummer the Best Supporting Actor in 2010 for his role as an elderly widower who comes out to his adult son (Ewan McGregor) as gay at the advanced age of 75.

Mills, who has worked extensively in graphic design and has won many film awards prior to this film, is going to be around for a while, and he’s going to be doing good work, judging by this film. This effort made me think of Matt Ross’ “Captain Fantastic,” which was Ross’ maiden voyage into directing and was honored this year at Cannes. (It also was up for the Best Picture of the Year at the SAG awards, but did not win.)

Mills admits that “Beginners” was autobiographical in nature, and so is “20th Century Women.” Said Mills on IMDB: “Making a movie is so hard, you’d better make movies about something you really know about. And even more, it’s really good to make movies about things you need to figure out for yourself, so you’re driven the whole way through. It’s going to make things more crucial for you.”

The mother in this film is a woman who had a son in 1964 when she was 40. It is now 15 years later, and Jamie’s mother (Annette Bening) is trying to raise her son alone in 1979 California. She is worried about the lack of a father figure, but feels that she can draw strength and support from those close to her in the film and close to Jamie.

Dorothea Fields (Annette Bening) the pivotal character in the film, smokes Salems non-stop, wears Birkenstocks, drives a Volkswagon (Mills once did graphic design for the brand) and would have qualified as a bona fide hippy if her birth year weren’t 1924. She’s a bit too old for the communes of Berkeley (Mills, who was born in 1966, grew up in Berkeley), but Dorothea’s also young at heart. She works as a draftsman, the first woman to be hired by the Continental Can drafting department. Probably not coincidentally, Mike Mills’ mother worked as a draftsman.

The film opens with the car Dorothea and Jamie had left in a parking lot, a Ford Galaxy, ablaze.

Dorothea decides that the roomers in the large, old house she is renovating and one of Jamie’s friends from school (Elle Fanning as Julie, daughter of a therapist) can assist her in raising her son. Those two friends are the man working on her house, William (Billy Crudup) and a young woman fleeing from her previous life and parent and dealing with the fact that she may be infertile due to DES prescribed her mother in Santa Barbara while her mother was pregnant with her, Abigail “Abby” Porter.

Jamie asks his mother “Why are you fine being sad and alone?” He also chides Mom about her non-stop smoking. She responds, “When I started, they weren’t bad for you. They were just stylish—edgy.”

I’m a woman who had a son born in the sixties and, twenty years later, had a second child at 42. I could relate to mothering a son born in 1964 (although my son was born in 1968) and I could relate to being considered a fossil by the time my daughter was born, twenty years later. Dorothea’s response about cigarettes caused me to nod my head knowingly. I think I was the only one of my high school clique who didn’t take up smoking with a vengeance (“Winston tastes good, like a cigarette should!”) and most of them are still smoking up a storm today (and quite defiantly, I might add.)

Whenever Jamie finds his mother’s advice inconvenient, he’ll say, to others, “Don’t worry about her. She’s from the Depression.” I said exactly the same thing about my parents, who were considered old when they had me at 38 and 43 and actually were “from the Depression.” Nobody else had old parents but me. My parents didn’t “get” the music of my generation and neither does Dorothea, although she makes several efforts, with the help of the young Abby, to try to learn the difference between The Talking Heads and Black Flag. Her young teacher Abbie tells her that “pretty music is used to hide how unfair and corrupt society is.” Dorothea attempting to meditate with Billy Crudup is a hilarious scene.

Dorothea has some ironic and interesting observations about life and men. To wit:

“Having your heart broken is a tremendous way to learn about the world.”

“Wondering if you’re happy is a great shortcut to being depressed.”

“Men always feel like they have to fix things for women or they’re not doing anything.”

“Being strong is the most important quality. It gives you durability versus the other emotions.”

“Men don’t want to be contradicted. They just want to live in their fantasylands.”

“Whatever you think your life is going to be like, just know that it’s not going to be anything like that.”

“I just picked the best solution at the time.”

To her young friend Abby, Dorothea says, of young Jamie: “You get to see him out in the world as a person. I never will.”

The human situations in this movie are so real and portrayed so touchingly and realistically that patrons in the audience, including my husband (who didn’t want to go, but we had missed the start time of “Gold”) were laughing out loud. I can’t tell you the set-up for the best laugh of the movie without ruining it, but just know that it involves a fist fight that Jamie is involved in and why he comes home with bruises and a black eye.

THE BAD

Some people do not want to be given the complete backstory of a character, including his date of death. They like endings where they can read into it whatever they want and muse on the probable denouement. I’m not that person. I liked the way Mills chose to give us more information than I’ve ever had given me about every single character in a film, including where they end up after the film has ended.

If you ever watched the television show “Six Feet Under,” which completed its run by giving you the dates of death of every single major character, you’ll get the idea. You’ll either hate this technique, or, if you’re me, you’ll love it. Interestingly enough (no coincidences here), Mike Mills’ real-life mother died of lung cancer from smoking in 1999 and so does Dorothea Fields, the onscreen version of Mom.

The line in the film that sums it up is this: “I will try to explain to my son what his own grandmother was like, but it will be impossible.”

It’s that kind of movie, about a very unusual and quirky set of characters. It gives rise to a line in the film describing one of them: “How did you get to be this person that you are? You’re so unusual.”

I loved the movie and would highly recommend it. It comes out in Blu-Ray, DVD and digital HD on March 28th.

The 35 Best U.S. Films About Politics Ever Made

The 35 Greatest U.S. Political Films of All Time

By Connie Wilson

In preparing a list of “the greatest” of anything, you are limited by your own exposure to the films (i.e., ‘Did you see these movies?”) If you did see them, do you remember all of them?

Fortunately for those of you longing for a political fix that isn’t nauseating (but actually entertaining), I have personally seen every single movie on this list—some of them more than once.

I concentrated on the American political experience, not that of another country. For that reason, films like “Z” by Costa-Gravas, or his equally impressive “Missing” (Chile) or Helen Mirren’s“The Queen” were deleted, as they focus on the political process in other countries. Warren Beatty’s movie “Reds” would have qualified if we wanted to open the list to Mother Russia.

But my emphasis is on politics here in the good old United States of America. (Also known, recently, as the Divided States of America, but that’s a topic for another day.) Steve McQueen’s 2008 film “Hunger” about the Irish Republican Army prison inmates certainly deserves a place on a list of great political films, but not if we’re concentrating on America, American politicians, and American politics. Similarly “The King’s Speech” (2010) had to go. “V for Vendetta”(2005): out. “Metropolis” (1927): a classic, but not really a film about American politics.

And that brings me to another criteria for my list. The primary focus of the film had to be on politics or the political process or a political candidate. One other list I consulted while researching my list included “Children of Men” (2006) and “The Godfather: Part II”.

The second “Godfather” movie definitely brings politics into the plot. But let’s be honest about “The Godfather” films. They’re about the Mafia family the Corleones. They’re not purely about politics, except peripherally. When it seemed like it might be a good idea for the Corleone family to become involved in the political process, by hook or by crook, they were buying Senators, yes, and perhaps planning more, but the films do not scream POLITICS to me.

Nor was Coppola’s other masterpiece, “Apocalypse Now” a movie about politics (as one list would have had me believe). Yes, Martin Sheen is traveling up the river to find Kurtz (Marlon Brando), but don’t most of us think of “Apocalypse Now” as a war movie? I know I do; I was surprised to see it on lists of “greatest political films” and I was equally surprised to see Orson Welles’ 1941 masterpiece “Citizen Kane” or Gregory Peck’s turn as Atticus Finch in “To Kill A Mockingbird” listed as “political” movies.

Well, yes, there is politics involved in both,— if you really stretch the definition of what you want your list to represent. Were they really short of candidates when they made their list(s), because I had no problem at all listing 35 films that I guarantee you that you will find enjoyable, entertaining and informative. (No attempt to say, “THIS is the very best one.”)

I eliminated documentaries, such as Michael Moore’s “Fahrenheit 9/11” because it isn’t a feature film. A great documentary like the Oscar-nominated “The Look of Silence” about the Philippines therefore lost out on two counts: it’s a documentary AND it is not about the United States. There are any number of great Errol Morris documentaries (“The Fog of War,” “The Unknown Known”) that would have been included, if I included documentaries. But these are all feature films on this list, made about the U.S. and being recommended to you for future viewing.

For those of you still reeling from the election of 2016 who want to see a good movie that will both entertain and enlighten you and is about politics in the U.S. of A, this is the list for you!

I admit to having seen every single one of them, which demonstrates why I get so little real work done. After the thumbnail sketches of the films, I’ll list a few “oldies-but-goodies” that I admit woulda’/shoulda’/coulda’ made the list—if I had seen them. Or, in at least one case, if I remembered it, which, apparently, I do not, or I would have included it.

Most of those films pre-date my movie-going career, (which has been very, very long).

THE FILMS:

1949 & 2006: “All the King’s Men”
– Broderick Crawford won an Oscar for playing Huey Long in the original movie (and then moved on to television, where he had a long-running role on “Highway Patrol.”) Sean Penn took on the part again in 2006. I’ll take the original over the remake, especially for the scene featuring Huey’s violent death as he exits the Capitol building. The film was based on Robert Penn Warren’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel and here’s what IMDB says it is about: “The rise and fall of a corrupt politician, who makes his friends richer and retains power by dint of a populist appeal.” Amazing how these old movies retain their timeliness.

1962 & 2004: “The Manchurian Candidate” – For many years, this was my All-Time Favorite Flick. Laurence Harvey as the hit man who was brainwashed and is now the pawn of the evil Angela Lansbury (his mother) is magnificent, and Frank Sinatra is racing against the clock to prevent catastrophe in this plot that involves putting a Russian pawn in the White House. After the assassination of JFK, the film was withdrawn from release for many years, but re-emerged and the John Frankenheimer (“Black Sunday,” “Seven Days in May”) version was re-shot with Denzel Washington and Liev Schreiber in the title roles and the conflict updated to the Korean War. Direction in 2004 was by Jonathan Demme (“The Silence of the Lambs”). Both are good films, but I vote for the original 1962 version.

1962: “Advise and Consent” – Otto Preminger directed this film that starred Henry Fonda and Franchot Tone. The film was adapted from the Allan Drury novel that I once had to read for and with a young student from Chicago who was enrolled in a political science class at Augustana College and had been assigned to read the book for his class. The IMDB plot write-up: Senate investigation into the President’s newly nominated Secretary of State, gives light to a secret from the past, which may not only ruin the candidate, but the President’s character as well. (Nothing like this could ever happen in today’s world—right?)

1964: “Dr. Strangelove: or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb” – Stanley Kubrick’s film with Peter Sellers in multiple roles is so good that I once cornered my entire family and made them watch it on Christmas Day. After all, what is more entertaining than the sight of Sellers’ facing off against Sterling Hayden and George C. Scott. I’ll never forget the scene where Sterling Hayden is ordered to machine gun a Coca Cola vending machine and Hayden defiantly says, “Well, all right, but you’ll have to answer to the Coca Cola Company,” or words to that effect. The plot (IMDB): An insane general triggers a path to nuclear holocaust that a war room full of politicians and generals frantically try to stop. Oh! THAT could never happen in real life, now, could it? Slim Pickens riding the bomb. This film cries out for viewing in today’s political climate.

1964: “Fail-Safe” – Henry Fonda steps up to the political plate once again, in a film directed by Sidney Lumet (“12 Angry Men,” “Dog Day Afternoon,” “Network”) that features a rogue attack on the U.S.S.R. (Remember the Cold War when Russia was our adversary and not our good friend?). The launch a mistake caused by an electrical malfunction and the question is: “Can we avoid an all-out nuclear war?”

1964: “Seven Days in May” – John Frankenheimer directed the original film that starred Burt Lancaster, Kirk Douglas, Fredric March, Ava Gardner and Martin Balsam about a plot against the President of the United States by military leaders because the president supports a nuclear disarmament treaty and the military fears a Russian sneak nuclear attack. Nominated for 2 Oscars.

1972: “The Candidate” – I still have a political button that says “Bill McKay: A Better Way.” The theater gave them out to advertise this Robert Redford starring movie about a candidate running for the Senate in California and his handlers. Real Senators Alan Cranston, Hubert Humphrey and George McGovern had cameos. Howard K. Smith of ABC News played himself. I always felt that this treatment of the run for office was probably more accurate than most.

1974: “The Parallax View” – An ambitious reporter played by Warren Beatty gets in way-over-his-head trouble while investigating a senator’s assassination. Everyone who knew anything about the Senator’s death seems to be dying. He discovers a vast conspiracy involving a multinational corporation behind every event in the world’s headlines. Directed by Alan J. Pakula (“The Pelican Brief”) and co-starring Paula Prentiss.

1975: “Three Days of the Condor” – A bookish CIA researcher (Robert Redford) finds all his co-workers dead. (You never know what you’ll find your co-workers up to when you return from a coffee run). He must outwit those responsible and figure out whom he can trust. Directed by Sydney Pollack, Robert Redford’s kidnapping of Faye Dunaway (he needs a place to hide out while he figures things out) leads to some moody cinematography of her photography and, ultimately, to the salvation that releasing facts to the media (i.e., the “New York Times”) used to mean. Ah, for those good old simpler days.

1976: “All the President’s Men” – Starring Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford as Woodward and Bernstein of the Washington Post, the two uncover the details of the Watergate scandal (primarily from informant “Deep Throat” played by Hal Holbrook) that leads to President Richard Nixon’s resignation from office. Again directed by Alan J. Pakula, based on Bernstein and Woodward’s books. I showed this to a class at Eastern Iowa Community College to illustrate “whistle-blower” films, and the credits are of an old manual typewriter banging out the information, so its credit opening seems very dated.

1979: “Being There”
– The great Peter Sellers plays Chance, the gardener, and Shirley MacLaine co-stars. I’ll never forget Chance saying, “I just like to watch.” Jerzy Kosinski wrote the novel on which the plot is based and also wrote the screenplay for the film, which was directed by Hal Ashby (“Harold & Maude,” “The Last Detail”). A poor simple gardener becomes an unlikely trusted advisor to a powerful businessman and an insider in Washington politics (These days, that phrase is redundant). Is Chance really dumb, or is he crazy like a fox? Melvyn Douglas won the Oscar as Best Supporting Actor, but the film also had another 13 wins and 15 nominations for a variety of film critics’ awards that year.

1981: “First Monday in October” – This film starring Jill Clayburgh and Walter Matthau was about the appointment of the first woman to the Supreme Court. Jerome Lawrence wrote the play and the screenplay and Ronald Neame directed. Clayburgh is the Conservative (think Scalia) and Matthau is the liberal (think Ruth Bader-Ginsberg). It eventually leads to a romance not unlike that of the Ragin’ Cajun of the Democratic party, James Carville, and his Republican wife Mary Matlin—[before she bolted from the GOP, anyway].

1992: “Bob Roberts” – Tim Robbins wrote it. Tim Robbins directed it. Tim Robbins starred in it. Here’s the IMDB plot summary: “A right-wing folk singer becomes a corrupt politician and runs a crooked election campaign. Only one independent muck-raking reporter is trying to stop him.”

1993: “The Pelican Brief”
– Denzel Washington and Julia Roberts are on the trail of who murdered a Supreme Court Justice of the United States and why. Based on the John Grisham best-selling novel. Alan J. Pakula (“All the President’s Men,” “The Parallax View”) wrote the screenplay and directed.

1995: “The American President” – Aaron Sorkin wrote it, Rob Reiner directed it, and Michael Douglas and Annette Benning play the widowed President, who falls in love with a lobbyist. I actually knew the guy who made sure the dye in the carpet was the same as the real Oval Office. (He also dyed the Trump baby’s layette for a photo shoot for “Vanity Fair”, but that “baby” our current president’s second daughter, with Marla Maples, is now the young Tiffany Trump.)
1997 : « Conspiracy Theory » – Mel Gibson & Julia Roberts. A man obsessed with conspiracy theories becomes a target after one of his theories turns out to be true. Unfortunately, in order to save himself, Mel has to figure out which theory it is. Directed by Richard Donner (“Lethal Weapon”).

1997 – “Wag the Dog” – Shortly before an election, a spin-doctor (Robert DeNiro) and a Hollywood producer (Dustin Hoffman) join efforts to fabricate a war in order to cover up a presidential sex scandal. Directed by Barry Levinson (“Diner”) and co-starring Anne Heche. My favorite scene involved a young girl clutching a bag of potato chips to simulate a baby, which would be “green screened” into a touching war scenario that would distract from the REAL scandal. The movie is a hoot and a half and rings even truer today!


1998: “Primary Colors”
– A man joins the political campaign of a smooth-operator candidate for president of the USA, played by John Travolta and loosely modeled on Bill Clinton’s charisma. Directed by the late great Mike Nichols, who joins Alan J. Pakula in heaven as one of the best directors of a political movie since 1970. Based on the Joe Klein novel that hit New York Times best-seller lists as written by “anonymous.”

1991: “JFK” – Oliver Stone directed from a script that he and Zachary Sklar co-wrote. The bio-pic explores the assassination theories that New Orleans district attorney Jim Garrison believed to be true. Too many courtroom scenes, but a decent bio-pic about the assassination of President John Fitzgerald Kennedy, starring Gary Oldman as Lee Harvey Oswald, Brian Doyle Murray as Jack Ruby, Sissy Spacek, Kevin Costner (as Garrison), Tommy Lee Jones, John Candy, Jack Lemmon, Ed Asner, Vincent D’Onofrio, Wayne Knight and Michael Rooker among a very large cast.

1992: “Malcolm X” – Spike Lee directed from the book “Malcolm X” by Alex Haley (“Roots”). Denzel Washington, Angela Bassett and Delroy Lindo starred in this bio-pic about the Black Muslim leader who was assassinated in New York at the age of 39 on Feb. 21, 1965.

1995: “Nixon” – Anthony Hopkins, Joan Allen and Powers Boothe headed up the cast of this Oliver Stone bio-pic. I have to admit that I thought Hopkins was the wrong physical type to play Nixon, but he did his usual great job. Film was nominated for 4 Oscars. It got nominations for its screenplay, its original music, and both Allen and Hopkins were nominated, but did not win.

1998: “Bulworth” – Warren Beatty wrote this, starred in it, and directed it, with Halle Berry as his co-star. Bulworth is a liberal politician, Senator Jay Billington Bullworth, who is so suicidally disillusioned that he puts a hit out on himself. At that point, he feels that he can now be completely honest with his constituents. I did not like this movie as well as most of the others on the list, which was because the plot had Bulworth embracing hip hop music and culture as he waits to die. But it’s a Warren Beatty film and deserves to be on the list as an examination of to what lengths (or depths) politics can drive a candidate.

1999: “Election” – A very young (and obnoxious) Reese Witherspoon is Little Miss Goody Two Shoes in teacher Matthew Broderick’s classroom. A compulsive over-achiever, Broderick’s life becomes very complicated (and the film becomes very hilarious) when the campaign and run for Class President comes down to a vote or two against opponent Chris Klein (“American Pie”). I loved this movie and laughed out loud; it didn’t hurt any that the inexpensive film used the Midwest chain Younkers in the background of some shots, because you’re not going to see THAT every day! (Founded in 1856 in Keokuk, Iowa, Younkers stores only exist in 50 Midwestern locations.)

2000: “The Contender” – Joan Allen strikes again, this time as a Vice Presidential contender named Laine Hanson. Information and DISinformation threatens to derail her confirmation. What a cast! In addition to Allen, the co-stars include Gary Oldman, Christian Slater, Jeff Bridges, Sam Elliott and William Peterson. (I met Joan Allen at the Chicago International Film Festival a few years back, when she was being honored as a local girl made good. She is a Rochelle, Illinois native who attended both Eastern Illinois University and Northern Illinois University, my husband’s alma mater).

2005: “Good Night & Good Luck” – George Clooney wrote, directed and was one of the stars of this film about Edward R. Murrow’s attempts to bring down Senator Joseph McCarthy. Clooney admitted it was a passion project for him. David Straithorne played Murrow, with Jeff Daniels, Patricia Clarkson, Frank Langella, Matt Ross and Robert Downey, Jr., also in the cast. Nominated for 6 Academy Awards.

2007: “Charlie Wilson’s War” – Tom Hanks portrayed Texas Congressman Charlie Wilson, who attempted to covertly supply Afghan rebels with the weapons to defeat the Soviets in Afghanistan. The film’s tag-line was: “Based on a true story. You think we could make all this up?” Co-stars were Julia Roberts, Philip Seymour Hoffman (again), and Amy Adams from a script written by Aaron Sorkin, directed by Mike Nichols.

2008: “Frost/Nixon” – Ron Howard directed Frank Langella (Nixon) and Martin Sheen (Frost) in this film adaptation of the Broadway play that detailed the information that Nixon finally admitted during David Frost’s interviews of him on national television. It was essentially a two-man play, but the movie also featured such name actors as Kevin Bacon, Toby Jones, Sam Rockwell, Oliver Platt and the director’s brother, Clint Howard.

2008: “Milk” – Sean Penn beat out Mickey Rourke this year (in “The Wrestler”) to take home the Oscar for Best Actor in this drama about California’s first openly gay elected official. Emile Hirsch and Josh Brolin (as the shooter) star in this Gus Van Sant project.

2008: “W” – Josh Brolin portrayed George W. Bush in Oliver Stone’s bio-pic, with Thandie Newton as Condoleeza Rice, Richard Dreyfuss as Dick Cheney and Scott Glenn as Donald Rumsfeld. Toby Jones portrayed Karl Rove, Jeffrey Wright played Colin Powell, Ellen Burstyn was Barbara Bush and Colin Hanks played a speechwriter.

2011: “The Ides of March” – Ryan Gosling portrays an idealistic staffer for a candidate who learns more than he wants to about dirty politics. The play on which the film was based was written by a former Howard Dean staffer, Beau Willimon, who now helps helm Kevin Spacey’s “House of Cards” TV series. George Clooney, who directed and co-wrote, also played Governor Mike Morris. Others in the cast included Paul Giamatti, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Evan Rachel Wood (“Westworld on television now), Marisa Tomei and Jeffrey Wright.

2012: “Game Change” – Jay Roach directed from the book of the same name, in a film about Sarah Palin’s ascendancy to the vice presidential slot on John McCain’s ’08 presidential bid. The film starred Julianne Moore (as Palin), Woody Harrelson, and Ed Harris as John McCain. (These were “the olden days” when we thought Sarah Palin was the worst know-nothing candidate one could put on a presidential ticket.)

2012: “Argo” – Ben Affleck both directed and starred (along with Bryan Cranston and John Goodman) in this film based on Tony Mendez’ book “The Master of Disguise.” The book detailed how a team posing as filmmakers scouting a location for a sci-fi movie rescued 6 of the Iranian hostages in 1980. Won 3 Oscars, including Best Picture of the Year.

2012: “Lincoln” – Based on the Doris Kearns Goodwin book, Stephen Spielberg cast Daniel Day-Lewis as Lincoln and he won the Oscar this year as Best Actor for the bio-pic about Lincoln’s trials and tribulations as the Civil War raged. The film was also nominated as Best Picture. Co-stars were Sally Field (as Mary Todd Lincoln), David Straitharn (again), Joseph Gordon-Levitt, James Spader, Tommy Lee Jones, Jackie Earle-Haley, Hal Holbrook and John Hawkes.

2012: “Zero Dark Thirty” – Kathryn Bigelow helmed this story of the killing of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan by Navy S.E.A.L. Team Six in May of 2011. The film starred Jessica Chastain, Chris Pratt, Joel Edgerton and Kyle Chandler. It won one Oscar.

2014: “Selma” – Ava DuVernay directed from a script by Paul Webb. The film documents the Martin Luther King civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, in 1965. David Oyelowe played Martin Luther King, and would later make his mark again in “Twelve Years A Slave.” Carmen Ejogo portrayed Coretta Scott King. Won one Oscar.

I’d just like to add that 1964’s “The Best Man,” as well as 1939’s “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” and 1957’s “A Face in the Crowd” would have made the list if I had a better memory. I know I saw them, but they are lost in the mists of memory, while I do remember all others on this list. Also, haven’t seen “Snowdon” (Oliver Snow) and perhaps “Dave” with Kevin Kline and Sigourney Weaver could make the list, but I was trying for films with the stature of “Argo” and “Lincoln,” so some (like “War Games”) were intentionally omitted.

Enjoy!

M. Night Shymalan Returns in Great Form with “Split”

Genre: Horror, Thriller
Running time: 157 minutes
Stars: James Mcavoy, Anya Taylor-Joy
Review: Connie Wilson (www.ConnieCWilson.com)

M. Night Shymalan burst onto the scene in 1999 with the blockbuster “The Sixth Sense” and followed that up with “Unbreakable” in 2000.

Then some not-so-hot movies began.

Recently, he was responsible for executive producing the television series “Wayward Pines,” but loser films like 2006’s “Lady in the Water” or “The Village: caused some of us to stop waiting for the next big M. Night Shymalan film.

Those days are over and it’s a pleasure to welcome this Philadelphia-born Spielberg admirer back to the fold.

THE GOOD:

“Split” opened on Friday (Inauguration Day) with twice the numbers of “xXs: Return of Xander Cage” at $34 million. With 3,038 screens showing the film on Friday, January 20th, it netted $14.6 million. The film’s budget was under $10 million. “Split” premiered at Fantastic Fest on September 26, 2016.

James McAvoy does an outstanding job portraying a man with 24 distinct personalities, some of them female. His severe case of disassociative identity disorder (D.I.D.), i.e., multiple personalities represents the sort of acting tour de force that won Jo Anne Woodward an Oscar for “The Three Faces of Eve”in 1957. Sally Field also took a crack at playing a woman with multiple personality disorder in the television mini-series “Sybil” in 1976.

Within Kevin Wendell Crumb dwell 24 distinct personalities, including a 9-year-old boy named Hedwig, a stern dowager named Priscilla, a take-charge type called Dennis, and 21 others. To fluidly change from one character to another so convincingly was quite the challenge, and McAvoy more than met that challenge. As writer/director M. Night Shymalan told Joseph Hernandez in an exclusive interview, “So, on a particular day, we just had him (McAvoy) play Dennis, and then the next day Patricia, and tried to keep the characters he’s playing as separate as possible so that he was emotionally clear where he was.”

Veteran character actress Betty Buckley plays the friendly and sympathetic psychiatrist, Dr. Karen Fletcher, who attempts to help the troubled Kevin. The other major part of female captive Casey Cooke is played by Anya Taylor-Joy, who is nominated for the Rising Star Award by BAFTA (2017) and was nominated as Breakthrough Artist Award by the Austin Film Critics Association for “The Witch: A New England Folktale” (2015).

Taylor-Joy plays one of three girls who are kidnapped following a birthday party they were attending. They are taken to an underground location where they are held prisoner. The girls are not really close friends; in fact, one of them (Taylor-Joy) is a bit of an outcast, herself, due to childhood trauma, and one of my reservations about the film’s denouement concerns what, if anything, the kidnapping experience will lead to for young Casey. While imprisoned, the trio tries to determine why this strange individual has taken them and, also, attempts to figure out a way to escape.

The tension mounts as the three girls (Haley Lu Richardson of “The Edge of 17” and Jessica Sula portray the other two) try to agree on an escape plot. We see frequent flashbacks to Cassie’s childhood training in guns and hunting with the comment, “The thrill is whether you can or cannot outsmart this animal.” Young Casey is played as a five-year-old child in the flashbacks (that Shymalan has often employed) by talented newcomer Izzie Coffey. Never under-estimate Shymalan’s eye for childhood talent, also on display in “The Sixth Sense.”

The Cinematography is outstanding.
Michael Giouilaki, who helmed “It Follows,” has interesting shots of beautiful staircases and, in one scene late in the film, the stark silhouette of a parking meter. All are highly effective. The maintenance area/ basement of the Philadelphia Zoo setting adds to the film’s overall creepiness.

The music, this time, is not by James Newton Howard, but provided by West Dylan Thordson, who does a great job with pounding sounds that create mounting tension.

The crawling on the ceiling effect harken back to Japanese films; the technique has been used sparingly in other horror offerings.

The dialogue in the film presents us with this thought: “Have these individuals unlocked the potential of the brain? Is this where our sense of the supernatural comes from?” Dr. Fletcher in the film (Betty Buckley) offers the information that “They are what they believe they are. The brain has convinced them.” From there, she presents case studies of multiple personalities where one identity has high cholesterol, but another does not, or situations where the I.Q. of multiple personalities differs. Hedwig, the child in this film, is diabetic, but the others are not. The plot also says, “You protect the broken. They represent potential.”

Lured by the ads that show the 9-year-old identity, Hedwig, saying, “He’s done awful things to others and he’ll do awful things to you!” audiences flocked to see “Split” opening night. We were not disappointed.

THE BAD

My complaints about the film are few and far-between. I had questions about the plot’s resolution but listing them here would qualify as spoiler material, so I will not share any specifics.

Suffice it to say that this is one extremely fast-paced, action-packed film that will keep your interest from start to finish and a welcome return to form for M. Night Shymalan. (*Look for him playing the part of Jai, the computer geek.)

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