Weekly Wilson - Blog of Author Connie C. Wilson

Welcome to WeeklyWilson.com, where author/film critic Connie (Corcoran) Wilson avoids totally losing her marbles in semi-retirement by writing about film (see the Chicago Film Festival reviews and SXSW), politics and books----her own books and those of other people. You'll also find her diverging frequently to share humorous (or not-so-humorous) anecdotes and concerns. Try it! You'll like it!

Looking For Christmas Gifts? Give These Books A Try

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The Christmas Cats In Silly Hats Cover

The illustrated cat book “The Christmas Cats in Silly Hats.”

I have a series called “The Christmas Cats in Silly Hats” (www.TheXmasCats.com), ;which I began writing for my granddaughters when they were three years old. The books are “throw-back” books to what I learned in elementary schools of the fifties when early readers featured Dick and Jane and the policeman on the beat was always your friend. The books resemble Dr. Seuss books in that they rhyme and the cats of the title are a troupe of hardy do-gooders who go about helping other animals in distress.

The Christmas Cats Chase Christmas Rats

Click the cover to buy from Amazon.

The first book ‘s illustrations were drawn by Andy Weinert of East Moline (IL), a friend of my daughter’s, when I had two cats that were constantly fighting. I learned that Andy’s mother was Rita Mankowski, one of the smartest 7th graders I ever had in nearly 20 years of teaching 7th and 8th grade Language Arts at Silvis Junior High, and that sealed the deal. Andy was then a high school student who showed much artistic promise. (He has gone on to earn a Master’s in graphic design). When I asked him to draw a series of cats wearing “silly hats” he did a wonderful Grandma Moses-style treatment and the rhyming text shows the cats learning to get along with others, rather than constantly fighting with them (Lesson #1). However, AuthorHouse lost one-half of Andy’s original drawings (a bad lesson learned about dealing with AuthorHouse) and, when it came time to try to make the book just from the scans in my computer, years had passed and I drafted the girls’ Venezuelan nanny, Emily Marquez Vlcek to help finish the message and do some additional drawings linking the story to the season.

The Christmas Cats Encounter Bats

Click the cover to buy from Amazon.

The second book, “The Christmas Cats Chase Christmas Rats”, featured the intrepid cats checking in on lab rats at Green Laboratories, to make sure they were being treated well. The message was “Do not judge others without knowing, or prejudice you will be showing” So, DON’T BE PREJUDICED. A good lesson for all time, but especially for these times.

Book #3, “The Christmas Cats Encounter Bats” featured bats wreaking havoc at South Park Mall (there is one in Moline, IL, as well as in the Dallas/Fort Worth area) and the cats teach the lesson that all life has value and every creature has a place in the Universe. Hallmark artist Gary McCluskey can also take credit for creating the first upside-down Christmas tree, far ahead of this year’s fad. (Bats hang their Christmas trees upside-down, you know.) Austin people, you’ll love this one!

The Christmas Cats Fear For The Deer

Click the cover to buy from Amazon.

Book #4, “The Christmas Cats Fear for the Deer, featured beautifully drawn deer in Scott County Park (Davenport, IA), who, although well within the city limits, were in danger from hunters allowed to “thin the herd.” The Cats came to the rescue, spiriting them from the park by means of the CatCopter and ferrying them to the North Pole, where they were fitted with prosthetic antlers and fly with Santa. This book exists in hard cover format as well (although only available by contacting me, only in limited quantities, and costing $25 plus $3 postage). The color copies were run by ColorWise Press of Indiana and are gorgeous. The back of the book contains interactive activities for children, including puzzles and coloring book pages and we encouraged children to send them to the series dedicated website, www.TheXmasCats.com. Because only limited copies were run, the books were among the most beautiful in terms of color and quality, but paying $19 a book (the publisher’s price) means that one of these books in hard cover, plus postage, is going to set readers back $28, so it remains something that is only able to be purchased by contacting me via ConnieCWilson.com or WeeklyWilson.com or on LinkedIn. It is available through Amazon in paperback and e-book.

The Christmas Cats Care For The Bear

Click to buy on Amazon.

The fifth book in the series is “The Christmas Cats Care for the Bear” and it has an anti-bullying message, as the cats spring into action to help a little bear who is being bullied by others because he is pudgy and has funny hair. It is a book made for today’s youth and the interactive pages at the back of the book were increased, while the cost of running the book dropped dramatically as we transferred the book’s publication to Ingram Spark. The hard cover book is in the $12.95 range, from Amazon, while, paperbacks and e-books are also available.

"The Christmas Cats Flee the Bee," sixth book in the Christmas Cats series (www.TheXmasCats.com).

Click to buy from Amazon

I always said I would write the books until the girls turned 10 which has passed so the sixth and FINAL book is “The Christmas Cats Flee from the Bee.” Gary McCluskey was still available to lend his fantastic illustrations to another story with a message. This story is about a golden-haired bee that hates the Queen Bee and does everything he can to destroy her, but soon faces his own come-uppance when the rest of the hive unites to drive him from their colony.

I hope you enjoy ALL of the existing books, which will be going on various discounts throughout the months of November and December. If you want to know WHEN those FREEBIES and DISCOUNT days are, then you should subscribe to my newsletter or you may miss out! HAPPY HOLIDAYS!

 

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Four Short Films for the Holidays from Argo

Argo is a global curator of films under 40 minutes and a social streaming platform. Argo’s mission is to support upcoming filmmakers everywhere and connect the world through incredible stories. Every week you can find new playlists curated by the top film festivals and filmmakers.

Here are the four I viewed, with a brief description, listed in the order of my enjoyment of them:

Jackie Weaver in “Florence Has Left the Building”

#1)  “Florence Has Left the Building,” written and directed by Mirrah Foulkes with cinematography by Jeremy Rouse. Florence is a resident of the Marigold House Assisted Living Facility and she’s not a bit happy about it. In her mind, she is still a sweet young thing and she wants out.

In this 13 minute and 37 second film, two dueling Elvises come to her nursing home Eden to entertain the residents. There is gold Elvis (Eden Falk), red Elvis (Justin Rosniak) and the star of the piece, Florence, portrayed by the great Jacki Weaver, who has been twice Oscar-nominated, once for 2011’s “Animal Kingdom” and once for playing Robert DeNiro’s wife Dolores in “Silver Linings Playbook.” (Best Supporting Actor) Florence plots to make her escape with Red Elvis.

The film is totally relatable and enjoyable. I will be showing it to my college roommate when she hits my house this coming weekend. This one gets an “A.”

“Santa Is A Psychedelic Mushroom”

#2)  “Santa Is A Psychedelic Mushroom” – This film is all about magic mushrooms, or the Amanita Muscaria. It makes a connection between a shaman from Lapland and the Santa story, with flying reindeer, a fat little man in a red suit who comes down the chimney, etc.

Great story.

Wonderful animation.

Good advice about thinking more about the spiritual side of our lives.

Terrible music.

Maybe Santa this year is giving us the gift of reflection?

Grade of “B+”

Marius in “The Christmas Gift”

#3)  “The Christmas Gift” -This little gem (23 minutes long) from Amanda Muscaria features a young boy, Marius, who writes a letter to Santa in which he asks for gifts for himself (a locomotive) and for his Mom (a purse) and for his Dad (that the then-dictator Nicolae Ceausescu would die.)

This one required some reading up on the Romanian Revolution of 1989, for me. Here’s the Wikipedia short story:

“The revelation that Ceaușescu was responsible (for the deaths of citizens in the streets of Timisoara, Romania) resulted in a massive spread of rioting and civil unrest across the country. The demonstrations, which reached Bucharest, became known as the Romanian Revolution—the only violent overthrow of a communist government in the course of the Revolutions of 1989. Ceaușescu and his wife Elena fled the capital in a helicopter, but they were captured by the military after the armed forces defected. After being tried and convicted of economic sabotage and genocide, both were sentenced to death, and they were immediately executed by firing squad on 25 December, 1989.”

This small historical snippet helps explain how the mere mentioning of how the populace wanted the repressive dictator overthrown could cause one to end up dead. Ceausescu had unleashed the military upon the populace in Timisoara on December 17, 1989, and many were killed.

Imagine how upset the father is to learn that his son has exposed him to potential arrest and imprisonment.

Most of the rest of the short film involves Dad threatening Marius with physical violence, which did not appeal to me. Marius seems like a really good kid, and he didn’t deserve the screaming fit. I even wondered whether this was really his biological son, as Dad seemed like as big a tyrant as Ceausescu.

Ceausescu seems to have pretty much ruined Romania during his years in power (1955 to 1989) and the economy suffered mightily.

Most of the rest of the film hinges on how Dad might get the letter out of the post box Marius has placed it in, or how he might damage the mail within the post office box so that he doesn’t get arrested.

The very end of the film has actual newsreel footage of the Romanian Revolution, which, to be honest, I barely remember, although the name of this infamous dictator I did remember.

The acting was good and I could relate to this faux pas on the small boy’s part. I wrote a Letter to the Editor once that similarly parroted my own teacher mother’s feelings about non-certified teachers being allowed to teach in Amish schools in Iowa (she was opposed) and I got the same reaction from my parents (although my high school’s principal called me in to congratulate me on having my letter selected by the Des Moines Register for publication.) I was 16 at the time. My father—the town banker—had a lot of Amish customers and he wasn’t thrilled that I had let his wife’s views on this touchy subject of teachers with no more than an 8th grade education being allowed to teach in Amish one-room schoolhouses.

Grade of B.

#4 –“December in Toronto” – This is a trip to Toronto over 6 days. It seemed like a home movie that some friends had put together. It only runs 6 minutes and 11 seconds.

Not my cup of tea, but I love Toronto at any time of year. It always reminds me of a mini-Chicago, just as Lisbon (Portugal) reminds me of a mini-Paris.

Grade of “D.”

Reminder: Today is December 2nd and the XmasCats Deer Book is ON SALE!!!

The Christmas Cats Fear for the Deer

This is a reminder that the 99 cent price for “The Christmas Cats Fear for the Deer” is on TODAY, and it will be on for 3 days. This is a good one, and you may want to pick it up in paperback for a Christmas gift, because there are puzzles and coloring book pages in the back.

This is the first of the XmasCats.com books that had a hard cover book, but I did not go through Ingram Spark and that, my friends, has led to it being a “limited edition.” The small Indiana company that did the hard cover did a phenomenal job. The colors in the deer illustrations are gorgeous! I love the drawings that Gary did for this one, and I love the story, which we “story-boarded” at the Bettendorf Public Library, when people who had come to hear about the first 3 books in the series suggested plot twists (the “Cat Copter,” for one).

Unfortunately, having the small Indiana publisher do the book made it costly. It is $25, from me, if you want a hard cover version, and you will have to contact me here to get one. They are definitely a “limited edition.”

After this book comes “The Christmas Cats Care for the Bear,” an anti-bullying book that has one of the most germane and relevant messages for today’s youth.

And—last but not least—the Donald-Trump-look-alike bee of “The Christmas Cats Flee the Bee.”

Look for specials on the remaining books in the series in the remaining weeks before Christmas, but “get them while they’re on sale and hot.”

Merry Christmas!

“The Christmas Cats Fear for the Deer” is 99 Cents on Dec. 2, 3 and 4

The Christmas Cats Fear for the Deer

I checked out the special for my favorite XmasCats.com book and it is 99 cents in e-book this coming weekend, for three days only. I have to admit that this one, in hard cover (which is a limited edition and only available in hard cover by contacting me) is my favorite. I had it done by a small Indiana press and the illustrations and color are superb.

The NEXT book (#5), “The Christmas Cats Care for the Bear” may be the most timely, as it is an anti-bullying tome, but I really love “The Christmas Cats Fear for the Deer,” which is a true story about the deer in Scott County Park and rescuing them, flying them to the North Pole, and making it possible for them to fly with Santa.

The sixth (and final) book will be the final FREE offering in a couple weeks, but this coming Thursday, Friday and Saturday (Dec. 2, 3 and 4) pick up a 99 cent copy of “The Christmas Cats Fear for the Deer.” And the following week, check out “The Christmas Cats Care for the Bear.”

Last FREE book will be “The Christmas Cats Flee the Bee,” and I’ll have more to say about that as that weekend gets closer.

The Blog is Back: Happy Post-Thanksgiving!

Some mysterious person messed with WeeklyWilson in September.

GoDaddy got right on that and now, in December, after shutting me down for a week, WeeklyWilson is back up and running.

The Christmas Cats Fear for the Deer

This is good, because, currently, my 6 children’s Christmas books are either reduced to FREE or 99 cents on various weekends from now until Christmas. Please sign up where indicated and you will receive a notification. I know that Book #1 has already been given away for FREE (but only for 3 days) and Book #2 was reduced to 99 cents (but only for 3 days) and most of the give-aways are happening on the weekends between now and Christmas, but, quite frankly, it has been quite frustrating to be talking to the PTB 3 times a day and learning that the “problem” was “the servers.” All this happened over Thanksgiving, when we were traveling to and from Texas for Thanksgiving and to hear the Rolling Stones at the Circuit for the Americas.

I hope to print more about that potentially final performance (maybe their last big stadium performance?), but, for now, I simply wanted to weigh in and indicate that we are back and are “live” and you, too, can pick up some e-books for a song if you sign up where indicated on the blog.

My apologies that it has taken until December (since September’s incident) to “fix” this. (Sigh)

Always when I’m promoting a book. It never fails.

[Just printing a picture of Jennifer Lopez to cheer you all up. It has nothing to do with my blog woes.]

“Cow:” A Documentary About a Cow’s Life – See It At Your Own Peril if You Eat Meat

 

 

“This film is an endeavor to consider cows. To move us closer to them. To see both their beauty and the challenge of their lives. Not in a romantic way but in a real way. It’s a film about one dairy cow’s reality and acknowledging her great service to us. When I look at Luma, our cow, I see the whole world in her.” (Andrea Arnold, director of “Cow.”) During the Q&A, Andrea Arnold did say that Luma, the cow protagonist was suffering from mastitis at the end of the film.

In 2009 Arnold’s film “Fish Tank” won a Special Grand Jury prize and a Silver Hugo at the Chicago International Film Festival. Andrea Arnold—who directed her first feature film at the age of 45—also worked on “Big Little Lies.” Virtually all of her Season 2 work on  the television series Big Little Lies was extensively re-shot and re-edited by Jean-Marc Vallee, against her wishes, supposedly for “visual continuity.” When asked about this at Cannes, where “Cow” was shown, she refused to speak to that topic.

The film sticks to the point-of-view of one cow (Luma) and her daughter. Arnold, the director, called Luma “a particularly beautiful cow” and  said that she felt that the cow realized she was being seen.

There is no narrative or dialogue. All you hear is the music playing in the background as the dairy farm workers care for the cows.There is human perspective in the film, but the documentary is  focused on the cow.
The farm that let the crew film is shown breeding the cows, delivering the calves, feeding the cows, milking the cows,  trimming the cows’ hooves, etc.

The cows are essentially prisoners.

You definitely empathize with the cow. At the end of the film, the cow ends up the way most cows end up who are raised for public consumption. I felt I should become a vegetarian, but I don’t like vegetables much and was raised in the Midwest, where beef is practically a religion.

Andrea Arnold (“American Honey”) filmed “Cow” for 4 years and conceived of the project 7 years prior. In 2005 Arnold’s film “Wasp” won the Oscar for Best Short Film, live action.

I saw “Cow” in Chicago at the 57th Chicago International Film Festival on a big screen. Watching “Cow” on a big screen is disorienting because the camera work is very herky-jerky. I walked out feeling dizzy and sad.

Arnold said she wanted viewers to have their own different experiences. “I don’t want to say to you what you should come out with. I’m offering the film to you and you take away whatever you take away.”  She described the goal of making the documentary as: “To show consciousness of a non-human animal.”

“Cow” will be released in January of 2022.

Dorothy Parker Quotes To Amuse

 

“Their pooled emotions wouldn’t fill a teaspoon.” (quoted in Not Much Fun: The Lost Poems of Dorothy Parker)

For being asked for writing advice:

“If you have any young friends who aspire to become writers, the second-greatest favor you can do them is to present them with copies of The Elements of Style. The first-greatest, of course, is to shoot them now, while they’re happy.” (originally published in a review in Esquire, 1959)

For riding the subway in New York City:

“Not just plain terrible. This was fancy terrible; this was terrible with raisins in it.” (quoted in Chimes of Change and Hours by Audrey Borenstein)

For turning down a proposal:

“By the time you swear you’re his,
Shivering and sighing.
And he vows his passion is,
Infinite, undying.
Lady make note of this—
One of you is lying.” (her poem “Unfortunate Coincidence”)

For when you hate a book everyone else loves, and you know you’re right:

“But on second thinking, I dare to differ more specifically from the booksie-wooksies. . . . For years, you see, I have been crouching in corners hissing small and ladylike anathema of [author’s name here—in this case, it’s Theodore Dreiser]. I dared not yip it out loud, much less offer it up in print. But now, what with a series of events that have made me callous to anything that may later occur, I have become locally known as the What-the-Hell Girl of 1931.” (from a review of Theodore Dreiser’s Dawn in The New Yorker)

For Monday mornings:

“To my own admittedly slanted vision, industry ranks with such sour and spinster virtues as thrift, punctuality, level-headedness, and caution.” (from a review of Sinclair Lewis’s Dodsworth in The New Yorker)

“It has lately been drawn to your correspondent’s attention that, at social gatherings, she is not the human magnet she would be. Indeed, it turns out that as a source of entertainment, conviviality, and good fun, she ranks somewhere between a sprig of parsley and a single ice-skate.” (from a review of Favorite Jokes of Famous People in The New Yorker)

For every single day, reading the news:

“Civilization is coming to an end, you understand.” (The Paris Review)

“What fresh hell can this be?” (everyone’s favorite Dorothy Parker quote, though often misquoted, here reported in You Might as Well Live: the Life and Times of Dorothy Parker, by John Keats)

 

“Last Night in Soho:” Edgar Wright’s Much Anticipated Film Doesn’t Disappoint

This quote from “Last Night in Soho” director Edgar Wright is a good  jumping-off point, for talking about his newest film, “Last Night in Soho,” which opened October 29th after premiering in Toronto. Said Wright, “I’ve always been fascinated by horror films and genre films. Horror films harbored a fascination for me and always have been something I’ve wanted to watch and wanted to make.”

That said, “Last Night in Soho” (an area of London known for its sex trade) is not strictly a horror movie. Until the final 30 minutes of the 1 hour and 57 minute movie, I had no idea where we were being taken by Edgar Wright, director of such films as “Baby Driver,” “Sean of the Dead” and “Hot Fuzz.”

Initially, it didn’t seem as though it was going to be a horror movie at all. The set-up of “Last Night in Soho” seemed to be exploring the family dynamic of a young girl from the countryside (Cornwall) who is an aspiring fashion designer haunted by the suicide of her mother when she was just 7 years old.

We see Eloise “Ellie” Turner (Thomasin McKenzie) in rural Cornwall, where she lives with her Grandmother Peggy (Rita Tushingham), who is a seamstress; her mother also went to London to become a fashion designer.

“Last Night in Soho

Peggy is played by Rita Tushingham, a nice homage to the ingenue from 1961’s “A Taste of Honey” who was a vanguard of the Kitchen Sink school of British cinema. Not only do we see Tushingham, but Diana Rigg (the Bond girl in “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” in 1969), in her final film role; Rigg is a major character and pivotal to the plot. Teence Stamp (absolutely beautiful in 1962’s “Billy Budd”) also has a recurring role.

For me, this film was a stroll down memory lane. I was an exchange student in England in 1967 and made a special trip to Carnaby Street back in the days of mini-skirts and 60s fashion, including “the tent dress,” as worn by the second star of the film, Anya Taylor-Joy (“The Queen’s Gambit”).

Although I found the multiple tent dresses in Ellie’s fashion show to be pushing the entire idea of the “tent” dress of the sixties, I remember them well. One of the worst moments of my 7th grade school year was when Jimmy Cowell loudly proclaimed that I was wearing “a maternity dress,” when it was,in reality, that season’s new look, the tent dress. (When you’re 12 it doesn’t take much to embarrass you).

That did it.

I was impressed with costume designer Odile Dick-Mireaux’s work, and the 60s music, selected by music supervisor Kristen Lane is to-die-for. The cinematography is great and the special visual effects, which primarily depict the young Ellie communing in dreams (and, sometimes, in reality, it seems) with a girl named Sandy who once lived in the apartment she rents, are terrific. The multiple images of predatory men with faces blurred are original and appropriately frightening.

At first, the film, which builds slowly, seemed as though it were going to be about the country mouse coming to the big city (London) and dealing with all that entails. It seems as though Ellie’s struggle to become a fashion designer at the London College of Fashion and her ESP super-sensitivity, especially because of the loss of her mother, are going to be the primary focus of the film. Her bitchy roommate Jocasta (Synove Karlsen) says, “I’d lay bets on her slashing her wrists before Christmas.” And perhaps Ellie would have, had she had to endure rooming with the likes of Jocasta for more than one night.

Ellie quickly decides to rent a room of her own, which is advertised by a  kindly landlady, played by Diana Rigg in her final film role. (Rigg’s presence in the cast is also a nice salute to the 60s).

It seems odd to me now that Ellie never learns the landlady’ name until their final scenes together. Wouldn’t Grandma Peggy want to know the name of the woman who is now Ellie’s landlady? It wasn’t until the final scenes of the film that her name surfaced, however.

Anya Taylor-Joy as Sandi (with Jack) in “Last Night in Soho.”

I also wondered, “How did Ellie get her money back for the dorm room she would have had to pay for in advance?” These are practical things that bothered me, which have little to do with the plot. My own daughter spent a semester in Brooklyn and we had to pay for her lodging in advance. The fact that Ellie spent only one night in the dormitory and then moved out struck me as odd. Her Grandmother did not seem independently wealthy and yet Ellie acted as though money were not an object throughout most of the film.

One line from the film is, “There’s just something about the sixties that speaks to me.” It is uttered by Ellie, but it could have been me. I arrived in the United Kingdom in 1967 for my home stays in three communities: Chislehurst, Weston-Super-Mare, and Birmingham. Chislehurst was in Kent, just a short train ride to London, and I visited many clubs like those depicted (a Wright trademark) in the film and remember the “swinging sixties.” (My favorite was “The Three Witches” in Stratford-on-Avon).

It struck me as interesting how faithfully someone born in 1974 (i.e., Edgar Wright) has managed to recreate that era, but Quentin Tarantino (one of Wright’s close friends) did so in “Once Upon A Time in Hollywood.” Both are spot on. I say this as an expert who lived the sixties as a youth aged 15 to 25.  It was definitely THE best decade to be young in this or any country, (although my mother, who was that same age during the Roaring Twenties, might have disagreed.)

At night, in her newly-rented flat that is quintessential 60s, Ellie dreams of a young girl named Sandy, who came to London to be a singer. The young singer is played by Anya Taylor-Joy, who is brimming with the self-confidence that Ellie lacks. The cinematic choices and visuals that cinematographr  Chung-hoon Chung selects are stunning. The film is truly worth seeing for the music, fashion and cinematography alone. But we have the added bonus of a film that morphs from being (apparently) about a young girl trying to forge a career in the big city and dealing with the loss of her mother to suicide at the age of 7 into something completely different.

POTENTIAL SPOILER ALERT

In some ways, this film reminded me the most, thematically, of the Emerald Fennell Best Picture nominee of last year, “A Promising Young Woman” with Carrie Mulligan. In that film, Carrie seeks revenge on the predatory males who drove her best friend, a rape victim, to suicide.

Although Ellie’s Grandmother warns her about being careful in the Big City, the minute Ellie hits the city and gets a cab, the cab driver (Colin Mace) turns out to be a dirty old man.  All of this preying upon beautiful young women of the sixties is absolutely Gospel, but only now, in the wake of Harvey Weinstein and Donald J. Trump are there films about women speaking out and demanding some form of justice, or taking revenge, vigilante-style. I can remember being “hit on” by dirty old men and horny young men and, yes, it was always quite a daunting task to keep one’s self safe from  predators.

It doesn’t stop there.

In her nightly clairvoyant visits to the time that Sandi was trying to make it as a singer in Swinging Sixties London, we see Sandi (whose real name is Alexandra) being victimized by a “manager” named Jack (Matt Smith), who is a bigger predator than the skeevy cab-driver and wants to “turn her out” as a prostitute.

Just as I enjoyed “Antlers,” the horror movie showing across the hall from “Last Night in Soho,” I enjoyed this movie and found it to have the clearest claim to Best Costume Design for a film made this year since the Disney epic, “101 Dalmatians.”

The film cost $43 million to make. With its homage to 60s stars and fashions, it was a real kick for me. I’m old enough to remember all of the things being presented to today’s audiences as ancient history; I am glad I lived through it as a young person.

The music, cinematography, acting, writing (co-writer is “1917’s” co-writer, Krysty Wilson-Cairns) are all Top Notch, and I thoroughly enjoyed the movie from start to finish. If you are young, you’ll get a chance to experience the sixties. If you’re a child of the sixties, it will be like leafing through your old scrapbooks.

 

 

 

Rhino Poaching in Africa is Treated in Doc “The Last Horns of Africa” at Denver International Film Festival

“The Last Horns of Africa” is a film by director/cinematographer Garth de Bruno Austin that chronicles the endangered rhinoceros of South Africa. The film is shot in Kruger National Park, a 2-million acre park the size of Israel or Wales.

Regional Ranger Don English, whose father was a ranger in the park from 1963 on, has worked the area since 1985. Over the years, Don’s job has changed from conservation to guerilla warfare against rhinoceros poachers, who will stop at nothing to kill the rhinos in the park in order to remove their horns and sell them on the black market.

The Chinese belief in the medicinal properties of rhino horn powder, as well as the prestige of having a dagger with a rhino handle has made life difficult for the 450 ranger who try to patrol the large park. The job is virtually impossible since the ratio is one ranger for every 3,000 acres.

Also prominent in the telling of the story is the woman running the Care for Wild Rhinos Sanctuary, a rhino orphanage, Petronel Nieuwoudt. Petronel is plunged into deep grief over the death of Thor, a rescued baby rhino. Thor does not die at the hands of poachers, however, but as the result of frolicking with a herd of white rhinos, who somehow harm his spine.

There are only a few thousand rhinoceros left in Africa and something like 300 to 400 in Kroger Park. The pay-out of up to $8,600 for a rhino horn is irresistible to small teams of natives who have even resorted to murder of breeders, making it necessary to hire security and to keep the exact location of the rhino orphanage within the park a secret.

One breeder, John Hume, of Swaziland wants the government to legalize the trade of rhino horns, the money going towards the car and upkeep of rhinoceros to replenish the herd. His reasoning seems to make sense, as he is trying to save the lives of the animals and the horns, removed humanely, would not be sold on the black market but would allow the community to financially support the animals. And, as he pointed out, it might drive the high price of the rhino horn down if it were legalized. A vote is taken and fails, with only 26 yes votes, 17 abstentions, and 100 voting no.

One interesting analysis of the inability of the principals to agree reminded a lot of the current dilemmas in Congress between the GOP and the Democrats. As the narrator suggests, “They’re reluctant to sit down around the table and find a solution that works for everybody.”

The cinematography of the veldt, with a variety of wild animals pictured in their natural habitat, is visually stunning. Gorgeous landscapes abound. At one point, we see a rhinoceros come down to drink at the river, something Don England said he had never seen in his 44 years in the park.

Rhino numbers have decreased dramatically in Kruger National Park. According to recent rhino statistics, the rhino population in Kruger National Park has decreased by 60% since 2013. There are only 3,529 white rhinos and 268 black rhinos left in Kruger National Park. Rangers have recently voiced their frustration to the media about the courts taking too long to prosecute alleged rhino poachers who have been arrested. Many go free on bail only to commit more acts of rhino poaching.

The documentary could have played like a “Dateline” thriller, as the law, working undercover, attempts to shut down the two biggest illegal dealers, “Big Joe” Nyalunga and Mshengu (Petros Meduza). Finally, we see the raid on the property of Big Joe, as he and his colleague are taken down, as the result of an undercover officer, Lt. Colonel LeRoy Bruwer, who, along with the others, is successful in arresting the duo in September of 2018. Although the prosecution argues against bail for the defendants, they are released anyway. March 17 of 2020 the lead investigator is assassinated while on his way to work in Mbombela in Mpumalonga Province. He was 49 years old.

The film is long, but beautifully photographed and helped draw attention to a very real problem. According to the latest statistics, the problem is becoming somewhat better, no doubt because of efforts like those detailed in the documentary.

“Small Time:” Poignant Picture of How NOT to Parent

French/American female director Niav Conty made a short film called “Joy Ride” that won her the Best Director award at the Reno Tahoe Film Festival in 2017. The film featured “Small Time” star Audrey Grace Marshall riding on the back of Rick’s (Holter Graham’s) motorcycle. These characters soon expanded into the full-length second feature film “Small Time”from Conty, who wrote, directed, shot and edited this indie film set in Pennsylvania.

The film is worth seeing for the performance of young Audrey Grace Marshall, (“The Flight Attendant”) who was 7 when filming began. Over the 3 years the film took to make, Audrey grows into a beautiful, blonde 10-year-old. She is the second child actor whose debut performance I recently saw that gave the audience a polished-but-natural impressive onscreen performance. (The first was the 9-year-old star of “Belfast,” Jude Hill.)

The plot follows Emma (Audrey Grace Marshall) as she is more-or-less left to raise herself in rural Pennsylvania. Her mother, Jessie, (Jessie-Dominique Johnson), is a drug addict. Jessie overdoses and ends up comatose in the local hospital. There is a period of plot time when  the audience is left wondering, “What has happened to the child’s mother?”

It’s not quite clear, at first, either, who her biological father is. In time, we find out that it is Lonnie (Kevin Loreque) a veteran with severe PTSD.

Lonnie also has a Jesus-freak mother, Emma’s grandmother, Sadie, well-played by Maria Hasen in what appears to be her first role.

The film almost becomes a “What Not To Do In Raising A Child” manual:

  • Do not entrust a small, innocent child to a mother who regularly and routinely does drugs.
  • Do not let a friend of the mother have the very young child help her “cook” drugs.
  • Do not shuttle the child around to the point that we (the audience) are confused as to how she ended up in the living room of the Jesus freak Sadie, her son Lonnie, and Lonnie’s ne’er-do-well friends. (The fact that Lonnie was Emma’s father was unclear for quite a while.)
  • Do not take the child for a walk balanced on your shoulders while she is holding a gun that is sometimes pointed at your head.
  • Do not allow the child to fire the pistol at a bottle many yards away.
  • Do not expect the child to apologize for bopping a bully in the nose at school, when the other girl calls her mother “retarded” and her father “crazy.”
  • Do not have the minor child do drug exchanges in a local restaurant with a skeevy man, while said child is heavily made up.
  • Do not put the blonde child in excessive make-up not unlike that seen in children’s beauty pageants.
  • Do not offer a child under the age of 10 a beer.
  • Do not let the child tie up her best friend outside and leave him there for hours.
  • Do not let the child point a gun at her best friend’s head while he is tied up. For that matter, do not leave a gun under one of the pillows on the child’s bed nightly.
  • Do not let the child go on numerous drug deliveries with a drug dealer.
  • Do not let the child ride on the back of the drug dealer’s motorcycle.

It was at that last point that I said, “Watch. I’ll bet she isn’t wearing a helmet.”

Audrey Grace Marshall in “Small Time.”

Wonder of wonders! Emma WAS wearing a helmet! Hip hip hooray! She still doesn’t have a stable guardian situation, since the film opens with her Grandfather’s death. Apparently Gramps had inherited the task of being the responsible adult in her life.

After the funeral of her grandfather, Emma sits down next to a woman we don’t know and says, “Why are you here?”

The stranger says, “Well, he was my father.”

Now we are puzzled about what the relationship is between the strange woman at the funeral and Emma. Is this Emma’s biological mother? Did Grandpa have an older child and then father this much younger child? These are plot mysteries that we ultimately do figure out, but there had to be a better way to clue the audience in on plot points like, “Who is this woman at the funeral?” “What has happened to Jessie in the hospital? She is gone a long time from the plot and nobody seems to know or care.” “Why is there no agency responsible for checking in on poor Emma?”

The film makes good use of Camp Ballibay in Pennsylvania, producer John Jannone’s childhood home and of Towonda High School. Jannone is an important part of this film, producing, given a credit for the music; he even made it onto the list of caterers. Oren Moverman, who wrote “The Messenger” is also a producer for the film. The entire project reminded me a bit of “Shooting Heroin,” also filmed in Pennsylvania, with all of the director’s family hostessing the cast. (That was also a film about the opioid epidemic.)

This film is much more about a little girl named Emma who still loves life and believes in the Tooth Fairy, despite a series of extremely negative early childhood challenges to her normal development. She is a young actress that we may well see a lot of in the future.

“Small Time” is a noble effort and the performances are better than fine. My complaints are: (a) it’s too long at 1 hour and 44 minutes and (b) some of the plot points are difficult to figure out for extended periods.

For a first (or second?) feature film, however—an outgrowth of “Joy Ride”—it’s a noble effort by these two Brooklyn College instructors (Niav Conty and John J.A. Jannone).

It’s streaming now on virtual cinema and digital platforms.

Kenneth Branaugh and “Belfast” in Chicago for the 57th Chicago Interational Film Festival

Sir Kenneth Branagh came to Chicago for the Chicago International Film Festival and screened his semi-autobiographical film, “Belfast,” at the 92-year-old Music Box Theater on Thursday, October 21, 2021. He received a Lifetime Achievemet Award. The screening was preceded by the organist serenading the assembled audience with oldies like “You Ought to Be in Pictures” and “What Is This Thing Called Love?” The film to follow would be  touched by a similar sheen of sentimentality and shots of the fictional Branagh family at the movies felt quite sympatico with this opening. This one is going to be a big one at Oscar-time.

Following the showing of the film, Branagh thanked the organist for such a grand introduction. He praised Chicago for its “creativity, vitality and generosity,” and also thanked the audience, which had just viewed a highlights reel of Branagh’s many other films, movies which have yielded 5 Oscar nominations in a variety of categories. Said Branagh, “Thank you for watching that reel entitled ‘the history of my waistband.’”

Kenneth Branagh on October 21, 2021, with his Lifetime Achievement Award fro the Chicago International Film Festival.

Branagh shared that he had been thinking about making this particular film for half a century.  “It’s about something which happened to me when I was 9 years old.” Branagh revisited “the Troubles,” when Protestants and Catholics blew each other up over Catholic Ireland’s desire to leave the United Kingdom.

After a wide-screen aerial view of Belfast, shot by long-time cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos (“Thor”) in living color, the film reverts to black-and-white and the specific starting date flashes on the screen: August 15, 1969. Men had walked on the moon on July 20, 1969, roughly a month earlier.

Change and uncertainty were in the air and, for Branagh’s family, they would soon make the difficult decision to leave their family and friends behind and move to England. (One wag remarked that it was this move to England that allowed Branagh to lose the thick Northern Ireland accent. which American audiences will have trouble understanding. Some have said the film needs sub-titles, much to the amusement of the Irish.)

This was the day that violence came to Branagh’s Belfast neighborhood in Tiger’s Bay, County Antrim, Northern Ireland. It changed  the trajectory of young Kenneth/Buddy’s life forever.  Since it is Branagh’s own childhood memories we are seeing, it is appropriate that the film is shot from the point-of-view of young Buddy (the stand-in for Branagh), well-played by new-comer Jude Hill.

Branagh recalled, onstage, during the Q&A, how the onset of the pandemic, which also brought fear, chaos and uncertainty, seemed some sort of signal that it was time to make this film. Because the pandemic was raging worldwide, extensive time, effort and money was devoted to keeping the crew safe from the dreaded disease. The cast operated more-or-less in a bubble, by staying in the same hotel, which led to comraderie. He commented, also, on the building of sets based on Branagh’s remembrances of his childhood home, complete with barging into similar homes whose owners had volunteered to let the production crew measure each room so that it could be reproduced. (Branagh’s childhood street of row homes is gone.) As he said on Thursday, October 21st, at the 57th Chicago International Film Festival showing, “It was going to be too problematic in the time of Covid to shoot in the real world.”

The director also shared, “I could never have made this while my folks were alive.” He showed it first to his brother and sister (in real life, Branagh is one of three children), who approved. Memories of having to sign in and out of their row home in Tiger’s Bay and the way the street’s cobblestones had been ripped up to make into a barricade while he was having tea, leaving only sand in the previously paved street, added to the audience’s knowledge. (“I went in for tea, and when I came out, the street was just sand.”)

Some have complained that the couple portraying Branagh’s parents, Jamie Dornan (“Fifty Shades of Grey”) and Caitriona Balfe (“Outlander”), were too good-looking to be “real” parents, but, again, Branagh shared that, in the eyes of a nine-year-old boy, his parents were almost godlike figures. (The Denver International Film Festival is hosting star Jamie Dornan.)

Certainly the two stars have great onscreen chemistry and are extremely easy on the eyes. In one scene, Jamie Dornan sings—again. He’s been singing—and singing well—in other films of late, and, as he sings “Open Up Your Eyes” with flair, enjoy it.

The costume/make-up people, while working with the handsome actor and the beautiful leading lady, took them aside and showed them still shots of 60s “the look” envisioned for the duo.  There were many shots of a tousled-looking Brigitte Bardot and a young Marlon Brando. Again, the explanation from the director is that, in a child’s eyes, loving parents are quite handsome and larger-than-life.

ACTING:

(L to R) Caitriona Balfe as “Ma”, Jamie Dornan as “Pa”, Judi Dench as “Granny”, Jude Hill as “Buddy”, and Lewis McAskie as “Will” in director Kenneth Branagh’s BELFAST, a Focus Features release. Credit : Rob Youngson / Focus Features

The acting awards for this one will be rolling in for Dame Judi Dench, who has collaborated with Branagh over six times. She plays young Kenneth/Buddy’s Granny and her husband of half a century is portrayed by Cilian Hinds, who is equally good. The pair are definitely in line for nominations, and newcomer Jude Hill as the nine-year-old protagonist, carries the film on his slim shoulders quite effectively. He’s off to a great start.

There’s really not a false player in the entire cast. The charming blonde girl, Catherine, whom Buddy has a crush on is played well by Olive Tennant in a small part.

WRITING:

Branagh both wrote and directed this semi-autobiographical tale. If you can decipher the thick Irish accents, the screenplay contains both pathos and humor. The film won the Audience Award at the Toronto International Film Festival and the trailer highlights the young boy’s fear that, if he is forced to relocate, nobody will be able to understand him. As one line has it, “The Irish were born for leaving. Otherwise, the rest of the world would have no cops.” Among things mentioned specifically that an Irishman needs to be happy: “Guinness and sheet music for ‘Oh, Danny Boy.’”

There’s even a joke worked into the script (although a really old one), and the gentle back-and-forth ribbing of Cilian Hinds and Judi Dench is both touching and funny, portraying the elderly grandparents.

MUSIC:

(L to R) Mimi Plauche, Sir Kenneth Branaugh and Vivian Teng outside the Music Box Theater in Chicago at the 57th Chicago International Film Festival.

Van Morrison did the music: 8 old songs and 1 new one. Morrison grew up in Belfast. The 76-year-old musician is known for blending all styles of music. Among his compositions are the song “Gloria” (written when still a member of the group “Them”) and “Brown-Eyed Girl.” Some of the songs that Morrison selected for the film worked in the spot where they were inserted. Some did not. “My momma told me there’d be days like this,” coming on the heels of a tense discussion between the parents about whether or not to move away from Belfast seemed incongruous. Likewise, when his father is leaving on a bus (to go back to England for work), a jazzy tune plays. There is a frisking in the street and an up-beat song is playing in the background. One critic complained about the use of Dimitri Tiomkins’ theme from “High Noon” as shown on the television set, calling it “incessant.” On the other hand, using “Do Not Forsake Me, Oh My Darling” made a certain amount of sense in the context of the film’s friction between the parents over whether or not to move away from Belfast.

The use of western influences was mentioned by Branagh as both an homage to the cinema and as providing a moral framework for the young boy. As he explained, “Cinema was a place of escape for me. It was a ritualistic experience.” Branagh  mentioned other specific films he had thought of having the family attend together, beyond the actual use of “One Million B.C.” with Raquel Welch and “Chitty, Chitty, Bang Bang” (which causes Dame Judith to mutter upon hearing the name, ‘Oh, God! Now I’ve heard it all.’).

He said that “The Sound of Music,” “The Great Escape,” and “Yellow Submarine” were all in the running at one point, explaining that he wanted one of the sixties movies that had a big-screen Cinemascope feel. The family viewing the Dick Van Dyke classic about the flying car together and then leaning in as though they were really in a flying car was a bit hokey, but appealing in a saccharine fashion and a salute to late sixties state-of-the-art cinematic special effects. (Since Branagh had previously mentioned that each primary actor had contributed at least one extemporaneous line, I wondered if Dame Judith’s remark about “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” was her contribution.)

CINEMATOGRAPHY:

Kenneth Branaugh on the Red Carpet at the Music Box Theater on Thursday, October 21, 2021, at the 57th Chicago International Film Festival.

The film uses bursts of color interspersed  within the largely black-and-white film. The opening aerial shots are gorgeous and the color is meant to shock. As Branagh explained it, the color is evocative of creativity.

He said, “It represents the energy to dream. If you could dream, maybe you could dream yourself out of this nightmare.”

The film opens in theaters on November 12, 2021, and is bound to appear on many “Best of the Year” awards lists. Initially, it can only be seen in theaters.

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