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: Reviews (Page 2 of 25)

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).


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.


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.


“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.


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.)

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.)

New Film “Claire in Motion” Echoes “Gone Girl”

You will recognize Betsy Brandt in the film “Claire in Motion” immediately if you ever were a fan of “Breaking Bad” or are now a fan of “Life in Pieces.” In “Breaking Bad” she played Walter White’s sister-in-law, Marie—the one married to the FBI agent. In “Life in Pieces” she is Heather, the wife married to the goofy doctor.

In “Claire in Motion,” she portrays Claire Hunger, the college professor wife of Professor Paul Hunger, who teaches ornithology at Ohio State University. Paul has been taking off and walking into the woods on survivalist missions that seem risky, at best, where he lives off the land and disappears for 4 or 5 days at a time. When the film opens, he is leaving on one such adventure and is saying good-bye to his sleeping wife.

She urges him to “be careful” and, after responding that he will “see you in a few days” he says, “You know me.” Discordant music is heard in the background as the film opens, which reminded me of nothing so much as a band or orchestra tuning up. (The original music was by Xander Duell, who was born Alexander McMahon and is the founding member of the 5-piece band Inouk).


Betsy Brandt is a fine actress, and the other performers match her scene for scene. The subsequent search for her missing husband which leads her to uncover a world of secrets, is a promising premise for a film. After all, “Gone Girl” took the idea of the missing wife and ran with it quite successfully, but “Gone Girl” had an innovative twist-y plot with that (hard-to-achieve) surprise ending.

Brandt is terrific in her role.

In this film, three weeks after Claire’s husband Paul (Chris Beetem, “Black Hawk Down”) has disappeared, others have given up on the search, but Claire has not. Claire is still learning new things about the man she thought she knew well. There is a graduate student in art, Allison Lorn (Anna Margaret Hollyman) who may or may not have had an affair with the professor.

For sure, Allison shocks wife Claire with the existence of art work(s) that her now-missing husband was working on when he disappeared. To say Paul was a “closet artiste” is putting it mildly. [Judging from the artwork used in the film to represent Paul’s efforts (which resembled my Christmas tree lights, inextricably bound up in a giant mess adorned with feathers and rope) keeping his art in the closet was probably a good idea].

But keeping her attention focused elsewhere and not being present in the now for her spouse may have been Claire’s fatal flaw in what seemed a happy marriage, complete with a young son, Connor. Several times we see the same piece of home movie film replayed, in which an obviously preoccupied Claire is asked to “look at me” by her husband, the cameraman. Claire responds, in an annoyed fashion, “I’m looking at you.” Paul retorts, “No, you’re not. Not really.”

Co-writers/directors Lisa Robinson and Annie J. Howell said, “With this film, we were interested in telling a story about something that’s been lost—both physically and spiritually. It was intriguing to give Claire a life crisis that leads to a bigger mystery, one that unravels her perception of all she thought she knew to be true. We wanted this experience to be closely observed and to bring intimacy to every element of the film: the acting, the landscapes, and especially the camerawork (which is quite good and courtesy of Andreas Burgess).”

The writer/directors went on to say: “Claire’s quest to understand her shifting world after a crisis is a metaphor for more universal questions. How do we keep changing throughout our lives?…Can we ever really know anyone? These were the ideas we explored through the writing and directing of Claire in Motion.”


I write fiction—both novels and short stories—and have for decades. Writing a kick-ass ending, long or short, is hard. Every time you step up to the plate, you don’t hit a home run. Sometimes, you are grateful just to score a single or a double. You don’t want to have to bunt or—worse yet— to strike out. Ideally, you’ll be able to hit that story finale out of the park every single time.

Halfway through “Claire in Motion” I said to my spouse, “This is really good. I’m liking everything so far: the acting, the cinematography, the music, the setting, the plot. I just hope we’re not going to have one of those Sopranos/Nocturnal Animals moments at the end, where, story-wise, we’re left high and dry.”

There’s enough good content in the first hour of this film to justify a thumbs up and pronounce it a triple (acting/cinematography/theme). I just hope the talented filmmakers keep swinging for the cheap seats when scripting. Because movie-goers (or readers) always seem to crave a denouement that knocks their socks off (or, at least, ties things up neatly at the end). Maybe that’s just what I’ve experienced, but, if you agree, keep this reservation in mind when viewing “Claire in Motion.”

“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.


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.


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.


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.

Carrie Fisher Dies at 60: “Bright Lights: Starring Debbie Reynolds & Carrie Fisher” Gives Us Her Story

With the sad news that actress Carrie Fisher has died at age 60, I am posting this review of the documentary about her life, “Bright Lights: Starring Debbie Reynolds and Carrie Fisher” again, in memorium. i inserted an Oprah interview with the two that is well worth watching. I hope Carrie finds the peace in death that she sought so desperately in life, seemingly finding it belatedly if at all.

Bright Lights: Starring Debbie Reynolds and Carrie … – The Movie Blog

Mel Gibson Tells the Story of Desmond Doss in “Hacksaw Ridge”

Mel Gibson’s first directorial effort in 10 years (since 2006’s “Apocalypto”) is “Hacksaw Ridge,” the true story of conscientious objector Desmond T. Doss, a 7th Day Adventist who served as a medic in WWII in Okinawa and elsewhere in the Pacific Theater. As Gibson said, “He was an ordinary man doing extraordinary things under the most difficult of circumstances.”

Gibson went on to explain that, in one 12-hour period, Doss saved 75 men and subsequently was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor by then-President Harry S. Truman. Some say Oscar may come calling. I’m not one of them, but all things are possible in this era of Marvel Comic book movies and Andrew Garfield does the role justice.

I was reminded of Mel Gibson’s arrival on the scene starring in “Gallipoli” in 1981, when only 25 years old. Of that film, a war movie in which he starred as Irish-Australian soldier Frank Dunne, Mel said, “It’s not really a war movie. That’s just the backdrop. It’s really the story of two young men.” (*Note: Mel cast his 6th child, son Milo, age 26, as Lucky Ford in the soldiers-in-the-barracks scenes.) We could say the same thing of “Hacksaw Ridge” and call it a film about faith or a movie about true love, but the battle scenes are what you’ll remember. (I can’t think of another film where 9 people were listed as “flame and fire technicians;” there is also a credit for a “flame compositor.”)

In November of this year film critic Matt Zoller Seltz described Gibson, who won an Oscar as Best Director for “Braveheart” in 1995 (a film in which he also starred) as “the pre-eminent religious filmmaker in the U.S.”

This film certainly falls into the religious category, as Andrew Garfield re-enacts the heroism of Seventh Day Adventist Conscientious Objector Desmond Doss, who, as Gibson described Doss’ character “honed his spirituality while he was in hell. He never lost his equilibrium. He stayed true to himself.” Doss was the first Conscientious Objector to be awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor by President Harry S Truman and one of the best things about the movie is the opportunity to see and hear the real Desmond T. Doss speaking to us at the end of the film. (He died at 87 in March of 2006.) We also hear from one of the men he saved, the real Captain Jack Glover, in archival footage. (Doss’ humility is a refreshing change in the closing days of Donald Trump’s presidential run).

I learned from Gibson’s Oscar-winning effort in directing “Braveheart” or his 2004 film “The Passion of the Christ” that you need a strong stomach to sit through Gibson’s cinematic vision(s). Often, his films involve non-stop violence. It would be good to remember that fact when selecting a movie for the weekend (the film opened wide on November 4th.)

From the first shot of soldiers on fire, there are numerous lengthy scenes of hand-to-hand bayoneting, one memorable scene of decapitation, lots and lots of fire (and rats….Mel likes fire and rats), grenades blowing people up and more gory mayhem.

The violence and depiction of bodies blown up or set on fire or decomposing/bleeding/blown apart are some of the lengthiest and goriest battle scenes this side of “Saving Private Ryan’s” D-Day invasion. Michael Phillips of the Chicago “Tribune” said something to the effect that it might be the goriest religious movie ever made. But, then again, we’ve got “The Passion of the Christ,” and it’s rumored Gibson may direct a sequel to that savage cinematic gem (the highest-grossing “R-rated” film made.)

Most critics compared “Hacksaw Ridge” to “Saving Private Ryan” with its D-Day Normandy Beach re-enactment. Some mention the more recent “American Sniper,” Clint Eastwood’s 2014 film with Bradley Cooper. No one brought up “The Hurt Locker” or the two I kept being reminded of, which were Clint Eastwood’s 2006 films “Flags of Our Fathers” and “Letters from Iwo Jima,” films shot from both points-of-view: Japanese and American.

Perhaps I felt that way because Okinawa seemed much more like the Iwo Jima of Eastwood’s 2006 films. There is a jarring shot, underground, of a Japanese soldier (Hoshi Kosuga) who, defeat imminent, has hanged himself. Desmond stumbles onto the corpse without warning. It’s like the scary moment in a horror movie in its unexpectedness: the hand reaching up from the grave in “Carrie;” the quick flashes of horrific visions in films like “The Conjuring” (or this coming December’s “The Autopsy of Jane Doe.”) Viewers are also treated to shots of two Japanese officers, deep underground in tunnels, committing Japanese ritual seppuku (suicide by disembowelment) as impending defeat looms.

So, don’t say I didn’t warn you, if you are faint of heart (or stomach).

The film intercuts the lengthy scenes of soldiers bayoneting one another (and setting fire to one another—don’t forget the fire) with family background of young Doss as he grows up (young Desmond is played by Darcy Bryce) with young brother Hal (Roman Guerriero) and an alcoholic, abusive father (Hugo Weaving of “The Matrix”) who has PTSD following his service in WWI at Belleau, France. Doss, Sr., occasionally physically goes after Desmond’s mother (played by Rachel Griffiths, the nymphomaniac from television’s “Six Feet Under”) in his alcoholic rages.

In an almost-too-chaste-to-be-true romance, Desmond meets and falls in love with Dorothy Schulte, the woman he will marry (played by Teresa Palmer) when he accompanies a young accident victim to the hospital where she is a nurse. Thanks to Desmond’s good instincts in applying a tourniquet to the severed artery in the boy’s leg, the young accident victim survives and Desmond’s lifelong interest in medicine is born. He decides he will volunteer to be a medic, but he will not bear arms. As Desmond says, “While everybody else is taking life, I’m going to be saving it.”

Only an actor as good as Andrew Garfield could make this part believable. In less certain hands, it could have been mawkish, overly sentimental or just plain bad. Corny is the word that comes to mind. But Andrew Garfield is a fine young actor and, as one of the film’s producers, Bill Mechanic, said, “Some people have said that this film does what films used to do—tells a story and lets people see it the way they see it.”

Some of the lead-up to the intensely violent battle scenes seems overly saccharine.
The romance with Dorothy Schulte (Teresa Palmer) falls into that category. It’s very old-fashioned. Also, the training scenes are not very fresh with tough-talking drill sergeant Vince Vaughn cast as Sergeant Howell. At one point, during rigorous training, Vaughn has to utter the line, “We’re not in Kansas any more, Dorothy.” Blame the screenwriters (Robert Schenkkan and Andrew Knight.)

The cast of disparate fellow soldiers took me back to “the old days” of war movies with character actors like Aldo Ray who played these parts, over and over, in war movie after war movie. There’s one of every ethnicity; someone for everybody. Now ninety-year-old comedian Don Rickles even received praise back in the day (starring alongside Clint Eastwood, Telly Savalas, Carroll O’Connor and Donald Sutherland) for his 1970 screen appearance as a character named Crapgame in “Kelly’s Heroes,” another war movie peopled by old-fashioned stereotypical cardboard cutout soldiers. But screenwriters Robert Schenkkan and Andrew Knight get the blame (or credit) for the sometimes sappy dialogue, most of which is assigned to Vince Vaughn. (I kept remembering Vaughn as “Fred Claus,” Santa’s bitter older brother, in that 2007 movie, so I was prepared to laugh at almost any dialogue assigned Vaughn, without blaming him for the misfortune to be known as much for silly comedies as for serious roles.)


If you can take the nearly unremitting violence, Andrew Garfield’s performance is worth the price of admission. Shooting on a budget of only $40 million, (one-half of the budget for “Braveheart”) in Australia, and over only 59 days, Gibson has told the story of a real war hero. As Gibson described Doss’s exploits, apparently the director didn’t even use a scene that was true-to-life but judged to be just too much heroism for one real-life man.

Doss, who is being carried off on a stretcher with a wound, kept getting off the stretcher to rescue others nearby. Gibson did a good job of making war seem like Hell on Earth and, as he said, he had to do it on a budget because, “If you’re not wearing spandex today, you don’t get a big budget.”

Sadly, in the Marvel world, too true. (Who cares about a real war hero when we have Captain America?)

“Arrival” Arrives at 52nd Annual Chicago Film Festival on October 27, 2016

Director Denis Villeneuve (“Sicario”) was in Budapest filming a remake of “Blade Runner” with Ryan Gosling, so no Red Carpet action for the closing film of the 52nd International Chicago Film Festival.

Amy Adams plays a linguist named Louise Banks who is drafted by the military to figure out how to communicate with aliens who land in 12 locations around the globe. Forest Whittaker has a small part as the reasonable representative of the military who fetches Adams for duty The reason for the appearance of these extra-terrestrial beings is a mystery to all, but figuring out how to speak to them would certainly help solve the question, “What do they want? Why are they here?”

Jeremy Renner co-stars as a theoretical physicist also assigned to the case. You just know that, at some point, there will be a romance between the two, but let’s not go there just yet. Let’s take a stroll down Memory Lane and examine other movies about extra-terrestrial visits. The most noteworthy, of course, would be “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” (1977) which holds its own against this film. “Close Encounters” is, after all, the Gold Standard. I also thought of Jodie Foster’s “Contact” and even such oddities as “The Man Who Fell to Earth” (David Bowie) and the primitive “The Day the Earth Stood Still” first released in the fifties and remade in 2008. All of these films have laid the groundwork for “Arrival”, so nothing wrong with examining “Arrival’s predecessors, even if it’s just a kids’ movie about an alien who wants to phone home. (“E.T.”).

The sounds the aliens make are very reminiscent of “Close Encounters” and the noises that whales make, coupled with moans, breathing noises (from Adams and Renner in their haz-mat suits), whooshing sounds and loud brass instruments. All of that sort of thing we’ve seen (or heard) before.

The alien ship itself resembles the Hindenburg, a black oval standing on end. It’s been described in other terms, but suffice it to say that, yes, it is creepy and effective as an alien spacecraft and the aliens are equally strange-looking.

What do they look like, you ask? They are heptapods, which means that they have 7 legs like a squid or an octopus. I jotted down the word “mollusks” and “starfish” at various points. There is so much dry ice fog in every shot that I almost got the feeling that the aliens were part of a rock band. (I haven’’t seen that much dry ice white fog since it totally blocked out Isaac Hayes playing the “Shaft” theme from that 2000 movie at the Academy Awards).

Early on, we learn that Amy Adams had a daughter she lost to an incurable disease
. Fortunately, the film doesn’t dwell on this plot point, but there are frequent flashbacks to Amy’s relationship with her daughter. I remember finding it odd that the father’s face was not shown, but I think I understand why now—if it’s the “right” interpretation. I thought of Sandra Bullock in “Gravity,” who has also just lost a child before going into space as an astronaut, so apparently it’s a pre-requisite for women undertaking dangerous missions in space that they be emotionally fragile following the death of a child.

I will say that this film seems like it should give way to a separate film that focuses exclusively on Amy Adams’ character, as she seems to have the ability to “see” the future. It was surprising, to me, that so little interest was shown in her unique abilities as the film winds down. Odd, that. She asks a poignant question of Jeremy Renner near film’s end, “If you could see your whole life from start to finish, would you change things?” Prior to that, she says, “Despite knowing the journey and where it leads, I embrace it and I welcome every moment of it.”

Some other plot points that might help you figure out one probable interpretation of the plot, (hopefully without actually giving it away), are these lines: “Memory is a strange thing. It doesn’t work like I thought it did. We are so bound by time, by its order. I remember moments in the middle…There are days that define your story beyond your understanding.”

I’ve described both the alien spaceship and the aliens themselves and anyone who has seen a sci fi movie since the fifties will know that there is always some government stooge who immediately wants to blast the aliens. In this movie that role is played by Michael Stuhlbarg as Agent Halpen. The experts can’t figure out why the 12 ships have landed in the selected locations (in the U.S., it’s Montana) At one point, they throw out the theory that all of the countries where the 12 alien ships have made an appearance were countries where Sheena Easton had a hit in the eighties. (Pretty sure that was a joke, Son.)

One other important plot point that viewers planning on attending this movie should know is that the aliens have a very fluid concept of time. This seems to be a characteristic they share with the writers. At one point the idea is thrown out that, if you learn a foreign language, you might think in a different way due to being immersed in the language…a sort of “brain training.” The line “You can see time the way they do” is thrown out at one point, and it certainly does seem that Louise has some major-league “gifts” that we normal folk don’t have, when it comes to seeing what the future may hold.

The movie is based on the short story “The Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang, with a screenplay by Eric Heisserer. I have a feeling that some of the movie-going public are going to go away very confused by the film and the way in which the plot jumps around in time.

The rest of you—real movie buffs—are going to enjoy discussing this film at length in the same way that serious movie buffs enjoyed discussing the meaning(s) hidden in “2001: A Space Odyssey” and “Twelve Monkeys.”

“Olympic Pride, American Prejudice” Screens at Chicago Film Festival

This film from Director Deborah Riley Draper examined the 28 athletes who traveled to Berlin in 1936 for the Olympic games held when Hitler was in power. Everyone remembers the name Jesse Owens from those games. But there were 17 other African American or Jewish athletes who participated as part of the U.S. team of 400 who remain largely forgotten, and this film tells their story.


Over four years of time, newsreel footage was assembled of all the participants, including spending much time in Berlin and Cologne. German families who had attended the Olympics contributed family photos. Director Draper told the crowd at the Chicago screening, “It came to life for me here. It was very special. It was a confirmation of stories we had been told. They were powerful and extraordinary and beautiful.”

Even more interesting was Draper’s acknowledgement that she was originally working on a story of a woman from the South who had been imprisoned in a Nazi prison. But, as she said, “These athletes competed 30 years before Wilma Randolph. The irony and paradox of that was intriguing. It was astonishing to know that these women had been part of the 400-member Olympic team.” Draper hinted that the story of that female prisoner in Germany might still get her day on film in the future.

Asked if there were other black athletes participating, Draper mentioned those from Haiti, Brazil and Egypt, but reinforced that Hitler wanted to use the Olympics as a propaganda machine to sell his theory of white racial superiority. Hitler was sorely set back in this goal when Jesse Owens won 4 gold medals and the black athletes, as a group, won half of the total U.S. medal count, including 8 gold medals. The African American contingent won all but 2 events in which they competed. In fact, Hitler stormed from the stadium after one such African American win and the Olympic committee had to tell him to either greet all winners or none. He chose the latter, but met with German winners privately in his box to congratulate them on their victories.

Draper’s film not only documents the lead-up to the games (some felt the U.S. should boycott the Olympics entirely, as the U.S. did in Russia under President Jimmy Carter), but there is a post that tells what happened to the athletes after the games, and it is nearly as heartbreaking as the stories of racial prejudice and religious injustice that are documented by the film.

The injustices were not just perpetrated on blacks. Two Jewish athletes who were supposed to run track and field (Glickman of Syracuse and Stoller of Michigan) were pulled from competition in order to use Caucasian runners at the last minute, prompting Jewish contestant Marty Glickman to confront the coach and ask, “Is it because I’m Jewish that I wasn’t allowed to run?”

The same pulling at the last minute technique occurred with Louise Stokes, who was replaced at the last moment and never got to run another race because of racial politics, while the women’s 80-meter-hurdles contestant, Tydee Pickett of Chicago, broke her foot when the hurdle in German didn’t “give’ as they had in the U.S.

One of the worst cases of the unfairness of Hitler’s regime was the story of Greta Bergmann, a German national who fled to England and was slated to compete for the British team when Hitler sent word that she needed to return to Germany and compete for the Motherland. Bergmann returned, but was refused the right to participate and, to add insult to injury, had all her records expunged. Bergmann, who was still alive, described the ordeal as “a terrible time.”

Two boxers who traveled the 10 days across the ocean on the S.S. Manhattan to compete, Joe Church and Howell King, were sent home with weak excuses that they were “homesick.” Howell King was even told he would have to box against the man he had already beaten once (Rutecke), which he did, beating him again on board the boat.

The black athletes were frequently chased from the movies shown aboard ship, were not able to train, in some cases (notably, Tydee Picket) were seasick and the ship had to stop in England to take on more food during the 10-day voyage. The Olympic Black Gang, as they were known, or the Black Eagles as the boxers were called, were, however, treated extremely well by the Germans, who wanted to dispel rumors of Nazi persecution of minorities. The Nazis orchestrated every aspect of the games, staged them, choreographed them, for propaganda purposes, with Lennie Riefenstahl (“Triumph of the Will”) documenting it all on film for the Third Reich after convincing Hitler that the films would prove the Aryan race was superior.

There were 100,000 spectators in the stadium with the (doomed) Hindenberg shown hovering overhead, and 49 nations competing. As the U.S. athletes entered the stadium to the strains of “The Star-Spangled Banner” German authorities orchestrated it in such a manner that the German team then entered and 5,000 German voices sang the Hallelujah chorus and “Deutschland Uber Alles” while hordes of pigeons were released, drowning out the United States national anthem, which ceased being played. Werner Viehs, a spectator who was aged 10 at the time. remembered the spectacle. All agreed that some of the pigeons left their mark on the U.S. team before they departed the stadium.

Mack Robinson, older brother of Jackie Robinson, was one of the competitors, winning a silver medal.
He could only get a job sweeping streets after his return and wore his Olympic jacket at night to stay warm. Jesse Owens was penalized for not touring other European countries to help raise money for the Olympic Committee. He was banned, stripped of his amateur status and ended up having to race against racehorses to make money upon his return to the U.S. As Draper put it, “The country turned its back on him.” It was a far cry from the German frauleins who stood at the dock in Germany waiting for the World Record Holder to disembark, many holding scissors so they could snip parts of his clothing off as a souvenir.

Athletes who competed were Dave Albritton (high jump), John Brooks, James Clark (boxing). “Cornelius Johnson (high jump), Willis Johnson (heavyweight boxer), Howell King (boxing), Dr. James LuValle, Ralph Metcalfe (track), Art Oliver, Jesse Owens (track), Fritz Pollard Jr., Mack Robinson (track and field), John Terry, Archie Williams, Jack Wilson (bantamweight), John Woodruff, and the 2 African American women, Tydee Pickett and Louise Stokes, both track standouts with Tydee a hurdler. Nearly all are dead, although we heard the voice of competitor Dr. James LuVelle, who went on to earn a Phd from UCLA and went on to become one of the Tuskegee airmen. Narrating the film was Blair Underwood, who executive produced with Deborah and Michael Draper.

Throughout the film we hear commentary from famous folk like Isaiah Thomas, Carl Lewis and Andrew Young who confirm the message that filmmaker Draper conveyed to the crowd: “These 18 are the ones who paved the way for those of us who are here today.” The jump from 1936 to the black salute of 1968 to Jackie Robinson playing major league baseball 10 years later would not have happened at all or as quickly without these trailblazers who proved their mettle at the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin.

Draper’s film not only documents the lead-up to the games (some felt the U.S. should boycott the Olympics entirely, as the U.S. did in Russia under President Jimmy Carter), but there is a post that tells what happened to the athletes after the games, and it is nearly as heartbreaking as the stories of racial prejudice and religious injustice that are documented by the film.

As the film underscored, “This was an incredibly important moment in human history,” not just in sports history, but also because of the principle of racial justice and equality that started the slow climb upwards at this much-heralded event. As an Iowa graduate, I noticed one athlete wearing an “Iowa” shirt in the still photographs that are part of a collage effect, and I’m going to have to do some research to determine which one of the 18 names above was given a chance at my Midwestern alma mater.

The film will air on HBO in December.

“Kaleidoscope”: Toby Jones Takes Us Into Anthony Perkins “Psycho” Territory with Psychological Thriller

Kaleidoscope is a taut, psychological thriller that explores the inescapability of a destructive relationship between a middle-aged man and his mother. At the heart of this modern-day “Psycho” are some unsettling questions: Can we ever escape the role in which we are cast by early circumstances? Is a perpetrator first a victim?

The film starred Toby Jones, the well-known actor who portrayed Truman Capote and, more recently, portrayed the mad scientist on television’s “Wayward Pines.” It is the first original feature film by Toby’s brother, writer-director Rupert Jones.

Rupert Jones has had success with shorts, pop promos, television and theater work, but, as he told the audience at the end of the film, he had presented brother Toby with 4 other feature film projects and this was the first time that he agreed to star in this psychological drama.

There are some very interesting camera angles throughout the film (staircases, apartment cubicles, etc.), which tells the story of a rehabilitated ex-convict, Carl Byrne (Toby Jones) who tries to return to the dating game while adjusting to life on the outside. A hopeful date night is shattered by the unwelcome appearance of his dreaded mother, whose mere presence sends Carl into a psychological tailspin with deadly consequences.

This twisted Hitchcockian tale of mother and son gleefully explores how just the right push can send anyone over the edge. Toby Jones’ co-star in the film as his mother, Anne Reid, is well-known in Britain for playing comic parts. Said Rupert, “She was very keen to sully that reputation.”

As for the sets, Rupert Jones said, “I knew it had to be a one-bedroom flat. I sort of had it specifically in my head. The ground floor was to be a place of seduction; the kitchen was the public space and then there was movement, light to dark.” Rupert Jones also shared another stylistic device: “I wanted to start a film with a dead body.”

A disgruntled audience member at the end of the film when the lights went up shouted out her question: “So can you tell me what happened in this film? Did he kill her or was it all in his head or what?”

Confusion reigned supreme for some of the audience members.

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