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: Of Local (Quad Cities’) Interest (Page 1 of 17)

“Hurry Up, Lady! I’ve Got Places to Go!”

It is entirely possible that I was the lady walking “really, really slow.” if this darling child had gone through my legs, I probably would have fallen and broken a hip, but she had “places to go and things to do.” (I probably did not).

I like it when she says, “I don’t want to.” Our friends, Bob and Judy DeJonghe, have documented that their daughters (now both grown) used to say, “I can’t want to” when it came to be bed-time, so it is nice to see that “la plus ca change, la plus ca meme,” which, roughly translated, means: “The more things change, the more they stay the same.”

Review: “It Comes At Night” Brings Psychological Paranoia & Terror This Summer

Secure within a remote desolate home in the woods as an unnatural threat terrorizes the world, the tenuous domestic order that Paul (Joel Edgerton of “Loving” and “Midnight Special”) has established with his wife Sarah (Carmen Ejogo of “Selma”) and son Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr. of “Birth of a Nation”) is put to the ultimate test with the arrival of a desperate young family seeking refuge in “It Comes At Night.
“The movie is about the unknown and the fear of the unknown. Death is the ultimate unknown.” So says Writer/Director Trey Shults of his impressive new thriller “It Comes At Night,” which opens wide on June 9th. The minimalist story is not a typical genre thriller, according to Shults, but, as he said (quoting Mies Van der Rohe), “Less is more.” The basic story is about a family trying to survive in a cabin in the woods while some sort of virus ravages an apocalyptic land. “Imagine the end of the world— Now imagine something worse,” says the A24 press handout.

The second man who brings his family to the remote cabin seeking haven and the necessities of life is headed by Will. Will is played by Christopher Abbott, who was excellent in “James White,” where he portrayed a young man nursing his dying mother (Cynthia Nixon of “Sex and the City” and “A Quiet Passion”) through terminal cancer. Will’s wife, Kim, is played by Riley Keough (Elvis’ granddaughter, “American Honey”) and his small son Andrew is played by Griffin Robert Faulkner.
Despite the best intentions of both families portrayed in the film, paranoia and mistrust boil over as the horrors outside creep ever-closer, awakening something hidden and monstrous within Paul as he learns that the protection of his family comes at the cost of his soul.

There is also, as the film opens, the harrowing death of Travis’ grandfather, Bud, played by David Pendleton. One of the unusual things that happens to someone dying of the mysterious contagious disease is that the victims’ eyes fill up completely with pupil; no “whites of their eyes” as they are decimated when death draws near.

Shults said, during a Q&A following the film’s showing in Chicago on June 1st, that he was fascinated with questions about topics like genocide. He is definitely focused on death and man’s mortality in this film, which is not about zombies or monsters, but is every bit as horrific as he examines the lengths people will go to to protect their own and to survive.
Since the original impetus for Shults’ film came from helping his own father through terminal pancreatic cancer, the mood of the film is grim, grimmer, grimmest. Shults has said that, following his father’s death (they had been estranged for 7 years prior), he sat down and wrote and “It just came spewing out of me.” He’s certainly in good company in musing on the temporary nature of our existence on this planet. Woody Allen has examined the topic in any number of comedies and Ridley Scott just trotted out another “Alien” film (“Alien: Covenant”) which has some thoughts on the same eternal question.

But Shults has made death as scary as anything you’ll see this summer, and perhaps as scary as anything you’ll ever see in any season on the universal topic of man’s mortality. What lengths will a man go to to “save” and protect his family? What would happen if we were facing an unbeatable disease with no modern medicines or hospitals to help us? Many in the world are facing these questions right now, in real time, but Shults is still struggling with the deaths of two close family members (his father and his cousin), with memories which clearly haunt him to this day.
Award-winning filmmaker Trey Edward Shults (John Cassavetes Award, 2016; Independent Spirit Breakthrough Directors Award (2016); Gotham Award (2016)) follows his incredible debut feature KRISHA,(which starred family members and debuted at SXSW in 2015), with IT COMES AT NIGHT, a horror film following a man (Joel Edgerton) as he learns that the evil stalking his family home may be only a prelude to horrors that come from within.
The uncomfortable subject matter of “It Comes At Night”, says Shults, is “drawing from heavy personal experiences and placing it into a fictional narrative, hoping the same emotions come through. At its heart, this is a movie about mortality.”
The script for “It Comes At Night” was actually written before “Krisha.” When “Krisha” was a big hit at SXSW, Shults got a 2-picture deal from A24. This is that second film, but he has been learning from the best since the age of 18, working on 3 Terrence Malick films, starting with “Tree of Life” in Hawaii.

The film is beautifully shot and paranoia is justified and created with the skillful use of camera, sound and light (see my interview with Trey Shults on www.TheMovieBlog.com for details). This is a riveting, horrific picture of a future we can only hope never becomes a reality. I am still thinking about it today, four days later. Yet Shults resists calling it a horror film, and believes it is far more about psychological horror than a genre flick with monsters or things that go bump in the night (as they literally do in this one.)

For some, the questions we are left with as the film ends will cause criticism. There are times at the “end” of a piece (remember the finale of “The Sopranos”?) when viewers feel they have been shortchanged or cheated by the ending. For me, this was not an issue, as it was pretty clear what was probably going to happen next. Still, I understand those who want more of a “Breaking Bad” type of ending, where things are wrapped up neatly and some characters live and some characters die (and spin-offs are even made possible by the “concluded” feeling.)

Two other things that may cause Shults some criticism from some sources will be his intentional intermingling of the dream sequences (nightmares, really) with reality. They will say (truthfully) that it is sometimes difficult to tell what is a dream and what is reality.

Again, this did not cause me any problems. After listening to Shults explain why this was intentionally done, it made even more sense. He explained that he saw the dream sequences as a way into Travis’ mind. (And Travis = Trey). It is Travis’ point-of-view through which we see the story, even though it is his father, Paul (Joel Edgerton), who is dictating the terms of Travis’ young life.
And last, some will say, “Why is it called ‘It Comes At Night’?” Shults explained that night is the time when he is at his most creative and it was a title that sounded good. Hopefully, he said, it helps put you in the heads of the main characters. It is not a literal interpretation of what occurs in the film but more a metaphor, so be warned.

This is the beginning of a bright future for a very gifted filmmaker.

Genre: Horror/psychological thriller/Mystery
Length: 97 minutes
Writer/Director: Trey Edward Shults
Cast: Joel Edgerton, Christopher Abbott, Carmen Ejogo, Riley Keough, Kelvin Harrison Jr., Griffin Robert Faulkner, David Pendleton
Reviewer: Connie Wilson

“Obit:” A Documentary Look at New York Times Obituary Writers


Obit: The Obituary Writers at the New York Times Discuss Their Craft

Genre: Documentary
Director: Vanessa Gould
Length: 95 minutes
Actors: Bruce Weber, William McDonald, Margalit Fox, Paul Vilella, Douglas Martin, Jeff Roth
Cinematographer: Ben Wolf
Original score: Joel Goodman
Reviewer: Connie Wilson

Once, 30 people helped maintain the basement archives of 10,000 drawers in the basement of the New York Times offices, drawers stuffed with obituary clippings that documented the lives of the rich and famous. Now that staff is down to one. Say the few obituary writers at the New York Times who are left, “You can count on one hand the number of obituary writers left on staff.”

Why have old newspaper clippings in the day of the Internet? “We like to keep the paper copy because we don’t know if the online sources are going to work.”

This surprisingly light-hearted, entertaining and engrossing documentary doesn’t just interview writers. There are many film clips of the famous, such as the September 26, 1960 JFK/Nixon debate held in Chicago. The first of four televised debates, it was estimated that 70 million people tuned in; it is still considered the turning point in making the photogenic John Fitzgerald Kennedy a media darling who would go on to win the Presidency, beating Eisenhower’s Vice President, Richard M. Nixon, who showed up looking haggard, sweaty and unshaven.

The obituary this day was that of the first television media consultant (William P. Wilson, 86) who insisted on the single support podium and ran 2 blocks to purchase powder puffs and make-up for JFK, while Nixon eschewed any cosmetics and his image suffered afterwards as a result. Naturally, I perked up my ears at the news that his surname was “Wilson” and I found his savvy recognition of the fact that the far trimmer and fitter-looking Kennedy would photograph well on television with his perfectly-fitted suit, while Nixon (who had been ill) looked pallid, sweaty and nervous, was the beginning of that entire field of television on-air consultants.

There were also stories of last-of-their-kind individuals like Manson Whitlock, who repaired typewriters until his death
. When asked about “prepared ahead” obituaries, the writers said that, generally, if a person was in their prime and relatively young, no advance obituary existed. That’s what made writing up the deaths of individuals like Prince, Michael Jackson, Carrie Fisher, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Robin Williams so daunting. Who does the NY Times have on file now? “Stephen Sondheim, Meadowbrook Lemmon of the Harlem Globetrotters, Mort Sahl and Jane Fonda—although we hope we don’t have to use them any time soon.”

Say the few mostly male and mature obituary writer, “You’re always wrestling with a way to fold the facts in, if we can. We don’t want to stop the narration. We’re trying to weave a historical story and entice the reader. It’s a one-time chance and you can’t do it again.”

Bruce Weber, featured prominently in the documentary, gave some of the essentials of a good obituary. First, following the unfortunate announcement that a Russian ballerina had died (when she is still alive and well today), the death must be confirmed by a reputable source—possibly a family member, the police or the hospital. Says Weber, “I had to call all the Wallaces in Champaign-Urbana when (writer) David Foster Wallace died.”

Second: avoid flowery sentimental language.
“No Hallmark card language to give the obituary an emotional cast.” Douglas Martin, originally from Clear Lake, Iowa, read aloud from his great grandmother’s obituary that appeared in the Clear Lake Mirror and violated that rule to the max. No euphemisms for dying are to be used, like “shuffled off this mortal coil” or “passed away.”

Third: always provide the cause of death.
It has long puzzled me why obituaries tip-toe around the cause of death, often not mentioning it at all. Weber confirms that readers want to know what killed the person, especially if the individual was young.

Fourth: get it right! Weber tells the camera that he regrets a small error in an obituary (of William P. Wilson, 86) that ran that day. He had identified William Wilson’s grandfather as a Democratic Congressman from Illinois; the family has reported that Granddad was Republican. “That was such a small thing. I could have simply left out his political affiliation and it would still have been good. I regret that.”

The length? Depends on the fame of the subject. Obituaries can run 500, 800 or 900 words, but it is the more important celebrity types that garner the greatest space. Also mentioned was the pressure of getting the obituary into print on time if the celebrity—-as with Michael Jackson—dies unexpectedly, has a large body of work, and dies in the afternoon. MJ was declared dead late in the day, around 3 p.m., and that made it difficult to get it written well by 8 p.m. when the paper went to press at 9 p.m. (“We had to really scramble.”) Philip Seymour Hoffman, by contrast, was found dead early on a Sunday morning, which helped the work pace of the writers. However, in this Internet age, “the competitive pressures of journalism have increased exponentially.”

This film is an amazing piece of documentary work. The pacing was great and the quick flashes of celebrities as varied as David Bowie, Amy Winehouse, Carrie Fisher and Prince—flickering by in quick, well-edited cuts—was a good way to spice up an otherwise potentially dry, boring topic.

What sorts of unusual stories have been written by these obituary writers?
There was the obit of Svetlana Stalin (daughter of the U.S.S.R.’s Josef Stalin), who defected to the U.S. and died in Topeka, Kansas. The inventors of the Slinky and the television remote were profiled. There was the sole survivor of the landmark court case Brown Vs. the Board of Education decision, an African American woman educator. Jack Albert Kenzler who averted the scrubbing of a space mission with his inventive tinkering and died at age 74, was newsworthy. The pilot of the Enola Gay who dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. Manson Whitlock, who repaired typewriters all his life and died in 2014, among the last of that dying breed.

Margalit Fox noted, “Obituaries are inherently retrospective things. It used to be that the only people allowed to be players on the world stage were overwhelmingly white men, but that is changing.” The obituaries point out the changing technology (from typewriters to computers), the advances of women and minorities, and the creation of brand new jobs in this sophisticated age, such as the television media consultant William P. Wilson, shown in a film clip onstage at the Kennedy/Nixon debate scene. Each person mentioned earned a film clip or photo of them during life, many of them very amusing and all of them interesting.

Doesn’t writing about death every day become dreary and depressing?

“No,” says Bruce Weber. “We want to know, ‘How did people get to be the way they are? How did the world get to be the way it is?….We’re trying to write an entertaining piece about history for those who may not know that history. Art also makes you a permanent piece of people’s history. A lot of people my age (Weber is 57) begin to think of their mortality. Seeing the full circle, the full arc. Am I accomplishing anything? Did I leave a mark? The appreciation of the universality of dying intrudes. There’s nothing you can do about dying.”

“The Wall”: Character Study That Gets Old Fast

This will be a stream-of-consciousness review of “The Wall,” starring John Cena and Aaron Taylor-Johnson, in the hopes that it will save some locals who (still) read my movie reviews a few dollars. I just returned from viewing it at what used to be called the Showcase Cinemas in Davenport (IA) [now called “Rave” by Cinemark] and I really wish I hadn’t wasted the time. The money wasn’t bad, since I chose to go at 2:10 p.m. on a Monday afternoon, but, of course, there is always the snack bar ready to drive the price up. (The Jr. popcorn @ $5 and some Junior Mints: $8.99, with no drink).

One thing I want locals to know is that I’m pretty sure that the 2 O’Dells mentioned at the end in the credits are Spike O’Dell’s nephews. If you don’t know who Spike O’Dell is, you won’t care (the teen-aged girl sweeping up obviously did not know who Spike was when I shared this information), but for those of us who grew up with “Spike at the Mike,” [or interviewed him, like I did for the Dispatch when he made his first move away from KSTT (to North Carolina, as I recall, before Chicago)], you might find it interesting that Spike’s brother’s kids (Spike’s nephews) actually work at making movies.

I learned this while sitting at the Chicago Film Festival about 2 years ago from my seat-mate, who identified himself as Spike’s relative and told me about his sons and their career when I told him I was a member of the Chicago Independent Film Critics’ Circle in Chicago, reviewing for www.TheMovieBlog.com and www.QuadCities.com. He shared that he was originally from the Quad Cities, too.

I was happy to see the name Brandon O’Dell (and another, who, I think, is his brother….Michael?) drift past in the credits. I made a mental note to share this with local readers who are movie buffs.

What I also want to share with local readers who are movie buffs is that this film is not that great. If you’ve seen the trailer (above), you’ve seen all the interesting parts. There is almost no action and the dialogue is largely a string of “f**s” in various formats.

Hearing the “F” word does not offend my delicate sensibilities, but it got old fast. So did the lack of any music. I realize that Amazon put up the money to make this film, and with just 2 “real” characters onscreen (the third is simply the voice of Laith Nakli playing the role of the Islamic sniper Jubah, the ghost, the Angel of Death and responsible for 35 U.S. casualties) it must have been a pretty inexpensive film to shoot.

There is no set except for a rock wall in a desert, with some debris and some dead bodies around it. Eight pipeline workers have been shot and killed and John Cena and Aaron Taylor-Johnson have been sent out to see if they can find the sniper responsible for the mayhem. As you can see from the trailer, they do find the sniper, but he quickly gets the upper hand, and the rest of the film is simply Aaron Taylor-Johnson stuck behind a wall talking.

Don’t get me wrong: Aaron Taylor-Johnson is an up-and-coming talent whose star turn in “Nocturnal Animals” as the crazed rapist murderer earned him the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor this year, so he does a good job of playing a guy pinned down for hours with a leg wound, no water, and no idea how he’s going to get out of the situation he finds himself in. But that wasn’t really what I thought I was going to get in this “war movie.”

When Isaac (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) attempts to call for help, he quickly figures out that the voice at the other end of his radio is not someone from “his” side. The sniper has managed to hack into the radio (he actually tells our main character that he purposely hit his water bottle and his radio antenna) and wants to talk about war as seen from the other side.

He tells Isaac, for instance, that “You’re hiding in the shadow of Islam” because the wall Isaac is crouched behind used to be the wall of a school, and the sniper used to be a teacher in such a school. Isaac responds, “No, I’m hiding in the shadow of death.” The two have a loooong conversation about the meaning and purpose of war, with the bottom line being that who is the terrorist “depends on the angle you look at it from.”

This insight is not particularly new or fresh. Any of us would agree that American incursion on the soil of another country makes us the invading colonial power (no matter what reason/excuse is given for the invasion) and, naturally, those who live in the land invaded are probably not going to be pleased at the death and destruction that U.S. forces—whether mercenaries or enlisted—have wreaked on so many Middle East locations.

This country, just to be clear, is supposed to be Iraq in 2007, soon after “W” declared victory in Iraq while wearing that ridiculous flight suit(with the cod piece), with “Mission Accomplished” on a banner behind him. It could have been Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Syria, Kuwait, Afghanistan, Iraq or any number of other countries where U.S. citizens have fought and died in the past 50 years. Even Korea if you want to go back to the fifties. It is hardly a CNN BREAKING NEWS news flash that we have managed to make ourselves pretty much “persona non grata” as a country everywhere in the world and it’s certainly getting a lot worse with Donald J. Trump running the show….for however long that may be.

As we all now know, the mission in Iraq in 2007 was hardly “accomplished” and at the rate we are going as a country, it seems as though we will never be free of war.
One thing that Dwight Eisenhower said he was most proud of as his presidential legacy was that he “kept us out of war” (a direct quote) as President. Obama also kept us out of war.

The others in between and now? Not so much. Some speculate that JFK was shot in Dallas in November of 1963 because he was going to withdraw from the black hole that Vietnam proved to be, and LBJ certainly did not keep us out of war, nor did George W. Bush or George Herbert Bush—although the smarter of the two knew enough to make it short and sweet with lots of allies assisting. (If anything, he plunged us even deeper into the hell that war represents.) Even Reagan had that invasion of Grenada, which was an interesting small war.

So, while I’m in complete agreement with the sentiments that screenwriter Dwain Worrell has articulated here, I didn’t find much dialogue that screamed “Big Insightful Moment” and I do not agree that “Screenwriter Dwain Worrell has a knack for believable, expository dialogue.” There was almost NO dialogue, really, beyond grunting and groaning, the “F” word, (liberally sprinkled with the use of the word “shit”) and some implausible action involving Cena, who seems to come back to life for a while. I don’t disagree that “this is how soldiers really talk” but the exposition was really, really slow and did not break any new cinematic ground in any meaningful or striking way.

Our local critic wrote: “It’s simple, yet it brims with complex issues.” Uh….not really, no.

Another POV I don’t ascribe to: “‘The Wall’ is one incredible war movie that utilizes a handful of characters to make a statement about what motivates soldiers to fight and what motivates countries to go to war.”

Well, there was really nothing about “what motivates countries to go to war.” Right now, what might motivate us to go to war is our current President needing a diversion from the independent investigation into Russian involvement in our last presidential election and the Trump campaign’s possible collusion with the Russians. The REAL reasons countries go to war are always somewhat hidden, like the underbelly of an iceberg. We learn in school that the assassination of the ArchDuke Franz Ferdinand and his wife touched off WWI and that Hitler’s savage genocide and his invasion of Poland were the reasons behind WWII, but if you are a real scholar, you’ll learn that, just like the Civil War, there are many, many reasons why we get into these unwinnable situations, slavery being just one of the many causes that sparked the Civil War in 1861. (Surprisingly, our current occupant of the White House, Agent Orange, didn’t seem to know that the South’s dependence on free labor in the form of slaves was a Big Sticking Point in the 1861-1865 conflagration that pitted brother against brother on our native soil, but he doesn’t seem to know much about a lot of things, so what’s new?)

I would like to give you some “credentials” of the cast and crew at this point, mentioning that this seemingly low-budget foray by Amazon (and Big Indie/Hypnotic/Roadside Alliance with The Molecule responsible for visual effects and Fuse FX working on it, as well) was directed by Doug Liman, who directed “Edge of Tomorrow” and “The Bourne Identity.”

I do not agree that: “You’ll find yourself on the edge of your seat within the first 15 minutes.” There were 3 people present when I saw it today (Monday afternoon, May 22, at 2:10 p.m.). One was a middle-aged woman and one was a middle-aged man and me. The middle-aged man got up and LEFT the theater a full FIVE TIMES! (He was really way more than “on the edge of his seat; he was OUT of his seat and in the lobby more than he was in the theater, I think.) I haven’t seen that many trips in and out of a movie since I was the one exiting “Les Miserables” during its interminable run. The small theater that “Rave” was showing the picture in was so far from the lobby that we were almost in the parking lot. Not auspicious placement for this low-budget film.

So, again: my advice is to save your money. It’s NOT edge-of-your-seat thrilling. The only action is in the trailer above, and, after that, it’s all talking. Yes, we learn a few interesting things about how Isaac really doesn’t want to go back home because he screwed up on a previous tour of duty and feels great guilt for the death of his friend and fellow soldier Dean, and, yes, there is (sort of) a finale that might make you think after you leave the theater.

What it made me think is that I wasted my time and money and I should wait until Aaron Taylor-Johnson is in a movie that is truly action-worthy. This movie looks like all it cost was for the 2 name actors who appear onscreen and, after that, the producers didn’t even spring for a score. NOT RECOMMENDED.

Go see “Alien: Covenant” or rent “Life” for more action and, in the case of the 8th “Alien” film there is some spouting off about the meaning of life, so you will get the pan flute solo with David/Walter (Michael Fassbender) to satisfy your need to be bored silly.

Wilson Out!

“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.

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.”

Super Bowl Sunday: Not Feeling So Super

I’m posting this before I begin to attempt to clean up and go off to a Super Bowl party.

Being a newcomer to Austin (TX) as a snowbird, I cannot afford to turn down any invitations, but I am in the throes of a head cold that has rendered sleep somewhat peripatetic and caused my nose to run.

Here in Austin, the biggest and closest grocery store is one with the name H.E.B. I have no idea what “H.E.B.” stands for, but “Help! Everything is Bolloxed!” comes to mind. On the bad side, you walk for miles trying to find anything. The store is roughly the size of a Sam’s Super Store in the Quad Cities. On the good side, the prices see far lower for most things (although the quality of the meat is suspect).

Let me be specific: all I wanted was a Coricidin type cold remedy that would staunch the runny nose I am experiencing, which, I think, I may have caught from my son, who also has a cold. I gave son Scott the last of my cold remedy medication from home and the Tylenol thing I bought yesterday does not mention stopping a runny nose. Nor has it done so.

On the bright side, I could breathe in the night, but I turned like a chicken on a spit, tossing and turning as I experienced all the fun drainage of a cold.

Two days ago, it was 83 degrees here, tying a record set in 1963. Then, it dropped about 40 degrees and spit rain. The problem (besides exposure to the virus somewhere) is that I had to go out in the spitting rain 2 days in a row, to secure the necessary vitals for a Saturday night dinner. I also wanted to purchase a painting to put on the wall of the guest bedroom, as the one I had originally seen at a store called “Tuesday Morning” had sold in one day. I like the painting and the son with the cold was going help the husband hang it on the wall of the guest bedroom IF I had it. So, 2 days in a row when I already felt sort of punk and the weather was not ideal I went out in the spitting rain and visited a minimum of 3 stores each time.

Now, I’m paying the price. Oh, well, last year there was no moisture at all in the entire month of February, so hopefully the predicted warm-up will take my cold with it.

On another front, gas here at some stations is $1.83.

As for the Super Bowl, I could care less who wins or who plays, but I would root for the underdog (Atlanta) in any contest and most certainly would do so when it is common knowledge that the Quarterback of the Patriots is a big buddy of the Trumpster. Go Falcons!

Carrie Fisher’s “Wishful Drinking” to Show

I read that HBO was going to re-show Carrie Fisher’s “Wishful Drinking” one-woman show on Sunday.

I cannot testify that this is true, but, if you were a fan, as I was, you might want to check it out and see if this information turns out to be accurate.

I know there is a heartbreaking scene in the documentary I saw that shows her with her father just days before he died. (Eddie Fisher died 10 days after having knee surgery). That scene was used in “Bright Lights: Starring Debbie Reynolds and Carrie Fisher,” although Director Fisher Stevens said she was at first reluctant to have it included and ran from the room when it was shown in rough draft form.

I know I will be checking to see if, indeed, this one-woman show based on her book is showing this Sunday, or any time in the forseeable future. The networks are still trying to decide when to air “Bright Lights.” (I was checking on that, as well, and that’s all I could find, other than testimony from Director Fisher Stevens and his co-director wife about how shocked they were that both Debbie and Carrie are now gone, so soon after this project.)

“Blood on the Mountain” Documentary Recaps Plight of West Virginia Coal Miners

Genre: feature-length documentary
Length: 90 minutes
Director: Mari-Lynn Evans and Jordan Freeman
Producers: Deborah Wallace, Mari-Lynn Evans and Jordan Freeman
Release date: November 18, 2016 from Abramorama
Reviewed by: Connie Wilson

The opening scenes from the impressive documentary “Blood on the Mountain” show the beautiful forested hills of Appalachian coal country from the air. West Virginia, second in the nation in coal production (and second poorest state in the nation), looks beautiful from hundreds of feet overhead.

And then we go to ground and reality rears its ugly head.

A litany of mining disasters is listed: Hawks Nest, West Virginia: 764 African-Americans in unmarked graves with 10 to 14 dying in the mine(s) daily.

The conflict at Blair Mountain.
Buffalo Creek (125 killed, 4,000 homeless, engulfed 17 towns with coal slurry).
Brushy Fork Slurry: 9 billion gallons of coal slurry released to bury nearby towns.
52 dead under Donald Blankenship’s Massey Energy.
Sago Mine Explosion, Jan. 2, 2006.
Aracoma Mountain Fire, in 2000, 2 dead.
Upper Big Branch Explosion, April, 2005, in the #9 mine. Seventy-nine went in; 50 came out—“the worst explosion since 1984”—29 dead.

And yet Don Blankenship’s (Massey CEO) e-mail, read into the Congressional record during the post-disaster investigation, said: “You need to ignore them (federal rules and regulations) and run coal.”

Anyone who wants to know what a mine that is trying to evade regulatory efforts might resemble need only take in Antonio Banderas’ 2015 film “The 33” about gold and copper miners trapped underground in Chile for 69 days before rescue (Banderas played Mario Sepulveda, the group’s leader). The precious metal may be different, but the methods to avoid ensuring the health and safety of the mine workers comes very close to coal mining in 2016. Any time a federal regulator was on the way to make an inspection, the word was put out; efforts were made to avoid detection/correction of any infractions of rules put in place to safeguard the health and safety of the workers.

THE GOOD:

Blood on the Mountain starts with a brief history of the rise of coal at the end of the 19th centur
y. Because of the abuse of workers, unions began to form to fight for the rights of the working man. (Sylvester Stallone’s 1978 film “F.I.S.T.”, for which I attended the World Premiere, was about the fight to unionize in the face of brutal opposition from management). A voice onscreen says, “That’s how we got the New Deal.” FDR in a Fireside Chat is shown telling the nation that government should “seek the primary good of the greater number.” Between 1935 and 1938 Roosevelt championed the New Labor Act and the Fair Labor Act and progress was made.

But the demand for coal as a cheap energy source peaked in the 1920’s and there are only 500 mines left in the United States today.

Of that number, those in Wyoming are far and away the biggest producers of coal (4x more than West Virginia), but West Virginia, long associated with coal mining, is second. It is also the second poorest state in the Union.

Once the heady days of the passage of Fair Labor Acts were past, Homer Adam Holt, Governor of West Virginia in 1939, tried to amend educational literature in the schools to make it more to his liking. Changing history by writing it to the Governor’s liking was recommended by those in power this way, “It is better to have a mediocre book than to antagonize the Governor.” Corrupt governors abounded before and after Holt.

The comment, prescient and predictive today, is made that “industrialists have been able to get by with whatever they want” and, as the documentary attests, “there were a continuous stream of accidents and treatment of others as less important” by those in power.
(*Recent Reference: “Deep Horizon” Mark Wahlberg film about the BP catastrophe in the Gulf.)

Corruption of the officials in West Virginia was a given. Between 1984 and 1991, under Governor James Manchen, more than 75 state officials went to jail. While this does not seem unique to West Virginia (witness Illinois and Louisiana officials, for openers), Davitt McAteer, head of mine safety and featured as a talking head in this documentary, does lay out their repeated attempts to break up unions, beginning in 1984.

The miners, for their part, are quoted in Blood on the Mountain this way: “You have a kid to feed. Do your job.” McAteer says, “A proud heritage came to a crashing end in the 1980s,” referencing the UMWA (United Mine Workers Association) looking out for the health, pensions and safety of its members. As a former worker said, “Production was the name of the game at all costs…We had to produce to keep our jobs.”

Cecil Roberts (a mine worker) refers to “the power of intimidation” and talks about one mine administrator with a wife with cystic fibrosis whose medication cost $5,000 per month. Threaten that mine worker with loss of his position if he does not do your bidding. If someone tried to stand up to then-president of the UMWA, Tony Boyle, as Jock Yablonski did in 1969, that individual risked his life. Murder was used as a tool. Wikipedia entry: Joseph Albert “Jock” Yablonski (March 3, 1910 – December 31, 1969) was an American labor leader in the United Mine Workers in the 1950s and 1960s. He was murdered in 1969 by killers hired by a union political opponent, Mine Workers president Tony Boyle.”

Therefore, the number of mine workers steadily declined from a high of 500,000 to, currently, 80,000—and all but 14,000 of those members are retired. It is obvious that, like Social Security where those taking out money are outnumbering those paying in money, the funds to support miners in their retirement or ill health are drying up, while, simultaneously, the demand for coal (and coal miners) is declining.

While President Obama’s regulations against coal are used to urge coal miners to vote for the opposition, the reality is that such EPA regulations began under Republican President George W. Bush. The reasons for the precipitous decline in jobs in West Virginia mining coal are many and varied and blaming “tree huggers” just won’t fly in the face of facts.

Mechanization and automation has idled thousands. “Appalachia is a shell of its former self…Parents are telling their children to go.” No less an authority than Jay Rockefeller is seen telling his audience, “It’s a disservice to coal miners and their families to pretend that things can be as they were.” Coal is a finite mineral and mining has been going on since the 1800s. Is it any wonder that now you have to go deeper and deeper into the ground to mine? Instead of even trying, mines have resorted to simply blowing off the tops of the mountains using explosives, which damages the environment and the topography of the state.

Despite the fighting words “Coal IS West Virginia,” coal mining is a dying industry. 80% of coal mines are owned by out-of-state corporations. Mines have destroyed 352,000 lush forested acres using explosives as of 2009. Wendell Berry is heard to say, “The global economy is built on the principle that one place can be destroyed for the benefit of another.” [What comes to mind is the Brazilian rain forest and attempts to save it, or the Arctic and attempts to ban drilling beneath the polar ice caps.]

In addition to silicosis (“black lung disease”) which has made the average miner’s life expectancy only 42 years of age, in Charleston, West Virginia, “They poisoned people’s water and commerce goes on.” The chemical MCHM used by Freedom Industries to process coal caused a Flint, Michigan, water situation (for different reasons) where water could not be consumed, used for washing, or considered safe in any way. Dr. Rahul Gupta, a medical director, is shown speaking to that issue, and Chris Hedges, an author, says, “They tried to make it appear to be an anomaly.” Nine counties were affected and a state of emergency was declared. Bottled water had to be delivered to anyone living in those nine counties.

Immediately thereafter, on January 17, 2014, Freedom Industries declared bankruptcy.

The declaring of bankruptcy is a common ploy used by unscrupulous coal companies to avoid having to pay reparations or retirement sums due or health care promised to workers when they began in the mines. It’s a bit like the plot of “The Producers” (i.e., Gene Wilder and Zero Mostel plan for a play to fail so they can use it as a tax write-off) where a mine is set up to fail and then bankruptcy can be declared, relieving the unscrupulous mining company of any obligations to the men who risked their lives underground mining the coal. Seven thousand coal mining jobs have been lost in West Virginia since 2011. In 2015, over 11,000 coal miners lost their jobs, according to “The Hill.”

“The Hill” goes on to attempt to blame the loss of coal mining jobs on federal regulations, but the truth is much more complicated.

To wit:

1) China is trying to clean up its pollution problem, so the Asian demand for coal from places like West Virginia did not measure up to expectations.
2) Clean, renewable energy sources are cutting into the concept of coal as king. Natural gas, for one, is cheaper and the head of Exxon is all for using natural gas rather than coal for power. In fact, the day the Paris Climate Control Pact took effect, the head of Exxon announced his support for the climate initiatives the Paris act endorsed, which included cutting back on coal to eliminate pollution and global warming.
3) Although Donald Trump hates wind turbines because they clutter his Scottish golf course view and kill birds, Obama supported wind and solar efforts, and, even in the coal state of Illinois where I live (Illinois is 5th in coal production), the nuclear power plant in Cordova (IL) recently received a death sentence reprieve from Republican Governor Bruce Rauner which is good for the next decade, despite consistently losing money operating it.
4) If the demand for coal were still high, eastern states have cleaner coal and it is easier to get Eastern coal to market.
5) Australia also is capable of producing coal for export.
6) Mechanization and automation, mentioned previously, have cut into the need for coal miners.
7) Changes in how coal is extracted from the ground also reduces the demand for coal miners.

THE BAD

Blood on the Mountain is a documentary with a point of view and those who do not accept climate change and global warming as fact will dispute its point-of-view. It also did not address the life-and-death struggle in the halls of Congress ongoing in December of 2016 to help save miners’ pensions and retirement benefits, gutted by unscrupulous companies who do not believe that promises should be honored. There is footage of a UMWA rally in September in Washington, D.C. regarding Senate Bill #1714, the Miners’ Protection Act.

After a huge coal miners’ strike in 1946, Harry Truman nationalized the mines and, in order to end the strike, hammered out a deal with UMWA President John Lewis and Interior Secretary Julius Krug that would guarantee coal miners certain benefits, like pensions and health care. That, to the miners and the UMWA, is the promise made that should be kept, but there are those who argue that the promise was not forever and not the government’s responsibility.

If you accept the premise that coal mining is a dinosaur industry that is dying a slow, tortuous death, quotes like this one from Jeremy Nichols, spokesman and director of climate and energy for Wild Earth Guardians are incendiary. When asked about the plight of coal miners in West Virginia (and elsewhere) Nichols said, “My initial response is tough shit…Keep it in the ground.” There is an obvious disconnect between the blue collar miners and the college-educated environmentalists who they see as a threat to their livelihood—even though the threats are far more wide-ranging.

The Wild Earth Guardians brought a suit in 2013 that threatened to shut down Colowyo and Trapper mines in Colorado, saying that the environment was “inadequately protected under the National Environmental Policy Act.” The mines were sued by the United States Office of Surface Mining.

Headlines in primarily Republican organs (“The Hill” was one) read: “Happy Birthday Clean Power Plan, Thanks for the Job Losses and Billions in Costs.” Another read: “Clean Power Plan: All Pain, No Gain for West Virginia” (The Hill). The same source made the dire prediction of 24,000 coal mining jobs displaced by the year 2020 blaming it all on EPA regulations and cited rising cost for electricity if coal were cut out of the power equation.

But the truth is that MANY factors play into the fall of coal as a power player. It is NOT just EPA guidelines that have put coal miners in the position of losing their pensions and their health care by Dec. 31, 2016.

The UMWA pension system is irreparably broken. No union members to pay in; no union money to pay out. “The looming insolvency is due to the precipitous drop in demand for coal in recent years…” say the experts. Union busting mine owners helped destroy the organization that had fought for workers at the turn of the century, and that began in earnest in 1984.

TODAY:

December 5, 2016:
Senate Democrats staged a last-ditch attempt to pass a stop-gap measure for miners who face the loss of their pensions and health care NOW (i.e., Dec. 31, 2016). Senate Bill #1714, the Miners Protection Act, was co-sponsored by Virginia senator Tim Kaine and it passed out of committee 18 to 8, with 8 Republican Senators voting with the Democrats to take millions earmarked for the cleaning up of abandoned mines and put it into a fund for displaced and retiring mine workers. Republicans who crossed party lines to vote for the bill included Orrin Hatch (R, Utah), Mike Crapo (R, Idaho), Pat Roberts (R, Kansas), Richard Burr (R, NC), Rob Portman (R, Ohio) and Pat Toomey (R, PA). Saying “Congress, in my view, has an obligation to the Miners Protection Act” this group tried to bring the bill to the Senate floor for a vote. But House Republican Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who has no love for the UMWA or President Obama, refused to allow a vote. (*Note: McConnell’s wife was just named Secretary of Transportation.)

Meanwhile, a variety of mining companies (Peabody, Freedom, Alpha Natural Resources) continue to file for bankruptcy and the courts have relieved the bankrupt companies of their obligation to pay retiree benefits. All of this hits home here in the Rust Belt when I think of the waning days of International Harvester, which went under and took many pensions with it.

Let’s also not forget how we all suffered financially in 2008 when the economy nearly collapsed and was rescued only in the nick of time by the stewardship of the incoming administration. Pension funds—like all of ours—took a hit then, too.

He’s not in Blood on the Mountain, but Joe Stowers, age 72, from DuQuoin, Illinois, a retired miner who worked 28 years, is thinking of coming out of retirement to try to find a job because, as many who were interviewed for “Blood on the Mountain” said, “I thought my tomorrow was safe. Apparently, it’s an entirely different story.” As of October 5th in a letter sent to 12,500 union members, Peabody Energy, Arch Coal, Patriot Coal, have all told their union employees that their health care coverage will be lost on December 31, 2016 unless Congress acts. Following on the heels of those three companies are Walter Energy and Alpha National Resources, who have sent out letters announcing similar losses to miners in March and July of 2017.

In a December 9, 2016 article in Mother Jones, Katie Herzog wrote: “President elect Trump campaigned on bringing back those same coal miners’ jobs, through sorcery, perhaps. Someone is working to help miners, but it ain’t Trump—or many Republicans, for that matter.”

One coal miner quoted in this truly grim-but-important film says, “We’re like lepers. Put us in a colony and let us die off. We’re not losing it (the land); we’re sacrificing it for the good of mankind and we’re sick of it.”

About Connie Wilson

Connie (Corcoran) Wilson (www.ConnieCWilson.com ) was the Quad City Times film and book critic for 15 years and has continued reviewing film uninterruptedly since 1970. She also publishes books (31 at last count) in a variety of genres (www.quadcitieslearning.com), has taught writing or literature classes at 6 Iowa/Illinois colleges or universities as adjunct faculty, was Yahoo’s Content Producer of the Year 2008 for Politics, is the author of It Came from the 70s: From The Godfather to Apocalypse Now, and writes on a variety of topics at her own blog, www.WeeklyWilson.com.

“It Came from the 70s” Named Top Indie Read

Just wanted to share that “It Came from the 70s: From The Godfather to Apocalypse Now,” which came out earlier, was named one of this year’s Top Indie Reads by “Shelf Unbound” digital magazine in its December/January issue.

Also, I am supposed to be at the Gallery Hop on Friday night (Dec. 9) inside something known as “The Star Block.” From what little I can tell, this is a condo building still undergoing renovation, it has no tables for us to use, and I am one of four people (artists) there.

Good luck to us all.

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