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!

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“The Fabelmans” Is Steven Spielberg’s Memoir Moment

Dad  Arnold, played by Paul Dano, is presented as a genius light years ahead of his time in working on and designing computers. He also seemed to be more “in charge” of making decisions on where the family would live and work. You have to feel some empathy for the man whose wife left him for his best friend after 21  years of marriage.

Spielberg has said his father was a workaholic. His parents eventually divorced when Steven was 19. His mother, Leah Posner Adler, divorced his dad in 1966 and married  one of his best friends, Bernie Adler, in 1967 in Phoenix. Portrayed as Uncle Benny Loewy in this film, Seth Rogen plays “the other man” within the Spielbergs marriage, and Rogen said he shaved his hairline back to play the part (commenting that nobody noticed and that they just thought he was balding!)

Steven stayed on in California with his father. He was not the brainiac his father had been in engineering complicated computer systems. He did not like the academic life, especially mentioning his dislike of algebra. From the beginning, he wanted to be a filmmaker. Uncle Boris, portrayed by Judd Hirsch in another Oscar-caliber role, perhaps nourished that seed more than any family member beyond Spielberg’s mother. According to Wikipedia, Spielberg was diagnosed as dyslexic at the age of 60; his creativity and imagination via his film work are legendary.

I usually take notes during a movie (a throwback to the days before IMDB, when you had to take notes, even if it was in the dark), I forgot my notebook this evening, or I would have recorded, verbatim, the line spoken by Michelle Williams as Spielberg’s Mom, which basically said that people should follow their hearts and nobody should give up their own life to satisfy others. We are told that his classical pianist mother gave up a promising career to marry in 1945, with young Steven born in December of 1946.

The film suggests that Steven’s Mom loved two men at the same time, one of them her husband, one of them his best friend Bernie Adler, dubbed Uncle Benny. Since Steven’s father had moved the entire family from Phoenix to California without much family discussion of whether his wife and the four children were in favor of that program, his mother’s departure in the film to return to Phoenix and Bernie (Uncle Benny)  with Steven’s three younger sisters (while Steven stayed in California with his Dad) made sense.

The film addresses Spielberg’s being bullied because of  his Jewish background, especially when he was the new kid in high school in Phoenix (a move from New Jersey, although the Spielberg roots in Cincinnati seems to have been glossed over). Once again, the young Spielberg (or Fabelman, here) turned to film, making a film for the Class of ’64 Ditch Day. He got revenge against all those who had been mean to him in high school onscreen; his film was well-received, but that segment of the film is not as interesting as the family divorce dynamic or, perhaps, some of his success in later life. Getting David Lynch to play Director John Ford, a true story, was more interesting than the Beach Blanket Bingo feeling of Spielberg’s Ditch Day project.

I have to believe that the anecdote involving filmmaker John Ford that ends the film is true (sources confirm it is) and that his mother really did buy a monkey; my neighbor across the street bought a monkey, so, to me, that was not the most outlandish concept to wrap my mind around. Otherwise, the office interaction of a young Steven Spielberg with an old John Ford bears little relevance to the plot itself, which traces the young filmmaker’s genesis from nerdy Jewish kid cast adrift in a Christian world right up to the very brink of his success in Hollywood. You almost feel that this should be a series that traces Spielberg’s soon-to-come successes, one by one.

The usual suspects aided Spielberg in this autobiographical memoir film. The cinematography is, once again,  Janusz Kaminski, who has received multiple Oscar nominations and wins while working with Spielberg. Tony Kushner co-wrote the screenplay.  The music by John Williams is their 29th collaboration. Williams has done the score for all but 5 of Spielberg’s films.

In addition to a nearly sure-fire Oscar nomination for Best Picture, the standoouts in their respective roles are Michelle Williams as his mother and Judd Hirsch as his Uncle Boris. The 20-year-old Canadian actor Gabriele LaBelle as Sammy Fabelman scored the role from among 2,000 applicants and does a very credible job. LaBelle has recently appeared in the television version of “American Gigolo,” portraying the younger version of Julian Kaye, the gigolo character portrayed by Jon Bernthal.

 

“American: An Odyssey to 1947” Profiles Orson Welles at Austin Film Festival

Director Danny Wu

“Director Danny Wu takes us back to the 1940s with a collection of stories leading to the year 1947. Most notably exploring the life and politics of Orson Welles from his days at the Todd School for Boys in Woodstock, Illinois, to his shocking decision to leave for Europe in the prime of his career.” So says the IMDB synopsis, but there is a story about Civil Rights pioneer Isaac Woodard and Japanese interment in WWII also shoe-horned into this interesting documentary.

Chinese director Danny Wu can (and has) done it all. He is listed as a producer, director, cinematographer, editor on this 102 minute documentary and apparently did everything except the music, which is credited to Sean William. The Canadian picture was akin to watching one of the documentaries that Ken Burns releases, which inform us and educate us while entertaining us. The documentary was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at the Austin Film Festival; it was released October 20th in the U.S.

There is so much information crammed into this film that explains some of the enduring cache of “Citizen Kane,” long regarded as one of the best (if not THE best) films of all time. I came away feeling that it wasn’t just the quality of “Citizen Kane,” —-although, for a director releasing his first picture, the excellence was astounding—but the crucifixion of Orson Welles at the hands of William Randolph Hearst and J. Edgar Hoover, finally leading to his exile from his native land for the last 20 years of his life, that may account for some of the enduring popularity of “Citizen Kane.”

For me, the realization of how politics shaped the world’s reception to “Citizen Kane” was akin to the realization that Elizabeth Taylor deserved to win an Oscar, but probably not for “Butterfield 8.” Why then, did Taylor win in 1960, when she didn’t win in 1957, 1958, or 1959 (“Raintree County,” “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” “Suddenly, Last Summer.”) Explanation: she nearly died just prior to her win in 1960 and suffered a tracheotomy. Was her role as Oscar-worthy in “Butterfield 8” as it was in “Raintree County,“Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” or “Suddenly, Last Summer?” No. Politics entered the decision.

In Orson Welles’ case, born in 1915 in Kenosha, Wisconsin, he was exceptional early on. His mother’s death when he was 9 and his alcoholic father’s death at 15 left him in the care of the Todd School at a time when its new director, Roger Hall, had taken the boys’ school in a very progressive direction. The school had a very good drama department and young Orson excelled at acting and directing and became the drama department head’s right hand man while very young.

Following his schooling, the young Orson went to Ireland and was hired to be the villain (Jew Suess) in a production at the well-regarded Gate drama school. While the job did not last, later, at a cocktail party hosted by the University of Chicago, he met Thornton Wilder and, when telling Wilder about himself, learned that the playwright had seen the performance and been quite impressed by it. Wilder put him in touch with drama mavens Katharine Cornell and Alexander Woolcott and his performance in a Shakespeare play was seen by John Houseman, who believed in him deeply. Orson Welles’ early luck was quite fortuitous.

However, Orson Welles’ early good luck would turn to bad luck when media baron William Randolph Hearst took offense at “Citizen Kane,” feeling it was modeled on his own life. With the assistance of J. Edgar Hoover,  Hearst began a campaign to attack Welles’ reputation. The fact that the attack was largely political is supported by the fact that an FBI file on Welles was not opened after the world famous Mercury Theater “War of the Worlds” broadcast, which made Welles an international celebrity. The file did not start after that October 30th, 1938 broadcast, but, instead, in 1941, when Hearst had become more and more disenchanted with FDR, especially FDR’s plans for a graduated income tax, which Hearst vehemently opposed.

Welles was a big supporter of FDR and, in fact, once stood in for him in a debate with opponent Thomas Dewey. It was Orson Welles who gave an eloquent eulogy at FDR’s funeral. FDR’s WPA project, which gave the arts in the United States $6 million 700 thousand dollars to put unemployed Depression-era citizens back to work, was a great impetus to painters and actors and artists of all kinds in the U.S. During the WPA’s hey day, Welles was put in charge of the Negro Theater at the age of 19 and produced a historic version of Macbeth with a huge cast.

Unfortunately, one of the victims of Hearst’s wrath, was the WPA funding, which fell victim to Hearst’s conservative beliefs. Hearst had originally supported FDR for the presidency, but he had fallen out of love with FDR; the axing of the money for the arts was offered up to placate Hearst. Hearst also blocked “Citizen Kane” from appearing in any of the theaters he owned, and that ultimately led to the film incurring a loss of $150,000 as a result of being  available in so few theaters of the day.

Nelson Rockefeller approached Welles, soon after he had filmed (but not edited) his second movie, “The Magnificent Ambersons,” to travel to Brazil and do a somewhat light-hearted look at Brazil at Carnival time in Rio. This was part of FDR’s concerns about Latin America possibly selecting the wrong side to support in WWII.

Welles thought he would be able to edit his second film while in Brazil, but things were taking a turn for the worse and he was not only evicted from his Mercury Theater but the studio—which was supposed to have given him Final Cut on all his film projects—took over his second film and ruined it. There had also been a change of ownership at the top of RKO and the previous head of the studio, who had stood behind Welles’ auteur-ship, was replaced by a hostile force.

All of Welles’ previous good luck seems to have turned to bad luck after “Citizen Kane” and, with the formation of the House Unamerican Activities Committee, with 4 screenwriters actually sent to jail and many others hounded about Communist ties, Welles saw the writing on the wall. Famous names like Ring Lardner, Jr., and Dalton Trumbo had their lives ruined. Orson decamped for Italy for an acting role and remained there for the rest of his life.

At this point, two other documentary topics enter the Orson Welles story. One of them is fairly well-connected, because the abuse of Isaac Woodard, a decorated soldier in the Pacific theater in World War II, was a cause that Welles took up at the request of the NAACP.

Woodard was in uniform and riding a bus in the South, when he asked to use the rest room on the bus. The driver objected, based on the “whites only” Jim Crow laws of the time. Welles was opposed to all such racial inequality and began broadcasting the story of Isaac Woodard on his radio show, reading Woodard’s affidavit to the police on July 18, 1946, aloud and continuing to inform the U.S. public about Woodard’s ordeal (until Welles lost his radio show and was removed from the air in October of 1946, a continuation of Hearst’s persecution.).

Woodard continued on the bus to the next stop (after his bathroom request) where police confronted him and asked him if he was still in the Army. Unfortunately, he admitted that he had just been mustered out; the police who confronted him beat him and gouged out his eyes, blinding him. Welles campaigned to find out the name of the assailant (Lynwood Shull), but the kangaroo Southern court took only 20 minutes to acquit the assailant, falsely claiming that Woodard had been “drunk and disorderly.”

Welles was also instrumental in the benefit concert for Woodard, at which performers like Nat King Cole, Billie Holliday and Joe Louis sold 36,000 tickets, turning away another 10,000 would-be attendees. The money raised helped Isaac Woodard to start a foundation to fight for racial equality. Julian Bond—a hero of the Civil Rights movement of the Sixties—said that Isaac Woodard was a true originator of the Civil Rights movement that consumed the 60s.

This nominee for the Grand Jury Award at the Austin Film Festival does lose its way a bit when, into the mix of Orson Welles’ career and his assistance to black Civil Rights pioneer Isaac Woodard  an entire segment about the atomic bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima and the interment of Japanese American citizens during World War II is inserted.

The information was riveting and interesting, involving, as it did, the eye witness testimony of a Japanese American survivor of the Hiroshima blast who was at the very epicenter, yet survived with his brother and his grandparents.  It detracts from the focus of the film. The film is supposed to be primarily about the career and times of Orson Welles. The Japanese interment during WWII deserves a documentary of its own. Its inclusion and the testimony of the Hiroshima eye witness, one of the few survivors at the epicenter of the blast, seems to lack focus.

Peter Bogdanovich

Having said that, the documentary is a terrific achievement to have gathered all this archival footage and all the testimony of the best scholars and authors who have written about Welles. I couldn’t help but think of the appearance of Peter Bogdanovich at the Chicago International Film Festival in 2018. He was there with Orson Welles‘ long-delayed film The Other Side of the Wind, which was filmed in the 1970s and featured a prominent supporting role by Boganovich. Bogdanovich had long hoped to complete it, was released by Netflix to critical acclaim and shown at that year’s Chicago International Film Festival. Bogdanovich, who began life as a film historian, would have been a great interview subject for Director Wu, but, unfortunately died in January of 2022 from Parkinson’s Disease at the age of 82.
“American: An Odyssey to 1947,” through rare archival footage and 3D modeling, immerses the audience in the era. We do discover much about one of cinema’s most iconic directors, and how he shaped the culture of Hollywood. The information about his enlightened views on race relations were welcome, but the Japanese segment needs (and deserves) its very own documentary, my only criticism of an excellent and absorbing documentary.

“The Fire That Took Her” Screens at Austin Film Festival on October 29, 2022

Ohio mother-of-two Judy Malinowski was doused in gasoline and set on fire by her crazed ex-boyfriend, Michael Slager. Judy would go on to become the first person to testify at the trial for her own murder. “The Fire That Took Her” is a 94 minute documentary directed by Patricia Gillespie that examines the defects that exist in protecting abused women like Judy from their abusers.

As Gillespie told “Screen Rant” in an October 20th interview the day before the film began screening in theaters, “The police, try as they might, didn’t have the systems in place to protect her or the laws in place to prosecute repeat domestic violence offenders like Michael Slager.  You can clearly see in his records that he was ramping up to commit a crime like this, and he was pretty much uninterrupted.”

Gillespie, with the assistance of cinematographers Tom Hurwitz, Martina Radwan and Lisa Rinzlerloin and the astute editing of Emiliano Battista, goes inside the landmark case with extensive interviews with Malinowski’s family, including her mother, Bonnie Bowes, her children (daughters Maddie and Kaylyn), her siblings, and the police and justice systems involved in bringing Judy’s murderer to trial.

Judy Malinowski in “The Fire That Took Her.”

Danielle Gorman, Judy’s sister, upon seeing her in the hospital immediately after the assault, burned over 95% of her body, went into the hallway of Wexner Medical Center at Ohio State University and vomited. As the film says, “Nothing could possibly prepare you for the condition she was in.”

Judy had begun dating Slager after they met on the Internet. His many tattoos caused mother Bonnie to urge her rebellious daughter not to let her children near Slager. But Judy, over the years, which began with having two children in her twenties and continuing through a drug dependency brought on by surgery for ovarian cancer, had become addicted to pain pills and was in a downward spiral. Still, meeting Michael Slager was the beginning of the end. Said her mother, “Everything went downhill when Michael Slager came into her life.”

Slager, it turns out, was the kind of man who made a practice of preying on women with addictions. He would then become their “supplier” and  be able to manipulate them in any way he wished, including physical abuse. Slager had something like 38 convictions for everything from receiving stolen property to domestic abuse to burglary to rape (plea-bargained down) and even attempted to manipulate Judy’s mother, leading her to believe that money she would give him to “take care of” Judy was being used for that purpose, when he actually was securing drugs for her with the cash, moving on to heroin.

The couple began dating in April of 2015 and Slager moved in with Malinowski and refused to leave. Near the end, Judy is trying everything she can think of to rid herself of the toxic relationship, including telling the police that Michael had threatened to kill her if she left him. Nothing was done, because he would paint her as a drug-addicted liar.

Finally, Judy decided to enter Parkside Rehabilitation Center on Sunday, August 2, 2015. Michael offered to drive her to the rehab center, where she hoped to escape from him once and for all. On the way there, he pulled his truck into a gas station near the Heartland Bank. They argued and Judy threw a cup of pop on Slager. Retaliating, he went to his truck, took a full gas can from it, and poured gasoline over her body, from the head down. He then went to his truck but returned to the woman in 32 seconds, now on the ground. Witnesses said it looked as though he intended to punch her. Instead, he used a green plastic lighter to set fire to his ex-girlfriend, who said, “I just remember crying and begging for help. His eyes turned black.”

Later, Slager—who refused to admit that his actions were intentional—would say that Judy had asked him for a cigarette and he had no idea that lighting it would set her on fire, although Judy’s testimony was that Slager said, “How do you like this, bitch?” among other taunts. Judy’s remembered some of the gasoline going down her throat, burning her internally, which would put the lie to his story, even if cameras at the nearby Heartland Bank had not captured the entire incident on film.

Said Chad Cohagen, the lead detective who is filmed asking Slager about his actions, “I had never seen trauma like that to a human body that wasn’t deceased.” When Judy reached the hospital she was “clearly processing” her ordeal and detectives tried to get a statement right away, in case she should die immediately, which most thought would be the case. Judy, when asked about the attack said, “I don’t think I can express what it feels like to have your whole body set on fire. It was beyond excruciating.”

It should be noted that Michael Slager reached out to the film’s director, Patricia Gillespie, and wanted to be interviewed, but each time she showed up at the prison to interview him, he had committed some new offense that made him unavailable. The best summation of Michael Slager came from Judge Julia M. Lynch, when Slager agreed to plead “no contest” rather than risk having a jury trial. Judge Lynch said, “You’re one of those people who has no soul.  You need to be incarcerated.  Take him out.”

Unfortunately, under Ohio law, the maximum sentence she could give Slager for his attempted murder of Judy Malinowski was 11 years. Recognizing the gross injustice of this light a sentence for such a heinous crime, Franklin County Attorney General Ron O’Brien and Warren Edwards, Franklin County Prosecutor, set about to try to make it possible for Judy to testify in Slager’s trial from beyond the grave, via videotaped statements made from the hospital bed she occupied for nearly 2 years before dying.

The Ohio  House Bill 63, known as Judy’s Law, passed the Ohio house and moved on to the Senate, where it passed, making penalties for such acts much more severe and acknowledging harsher sentences for those who intentionally attempt to mutilate or disfigure their victims in the course of an attack. Judy also testified that, in her opinion, a just punishment for her former boyfriend would be life in prison without the ability to be paroled, as she did not believe in the death penalty. The film ends by saying that they hope Judy’s Law will become national law in 2022; I have heard no talk of that happening and the year will be over in 2 months.

Judy Malinowski courageously began weaning herself off pain medication in order to be allowed to testify. The question was not only about whether she would be coherent and lucid, but also was an attempt to keep from embarrassing both the victim and the prosecutor’s office. When she did get the green light to testify on her own behalf for the first time in a court of law, a precedent-setting opinion that will affect future trials, Judy went without many pain pills to keep her comments coherent and testified for 3 full hours. Her assailant demanded the right to be present in the room and to cross examine the woman he tried to kill; that motion was denied. One thinks about victims like O.J. Simpson’s wife Nicole and wonders if she had left more than just photos of the abuse she suffered at O.J.’s hands, would the verdict have been different?

Judy spent nearly 2 years in the hospital, undergoing over 50 surgeries and coding 7 times. Her nurse, Stacy Best, testified to her courage and spirit in working towards the goal of testifying in her own murder trial. As one prosecutor said, “It’s the first time I ever had a conversation with a homicide victim.” Her mother said, “It’s terrifying to feel this way.  There’s nothing that’s okay about this.  I want him to be sorry because she’s a human being.”

Judy’s Down’s syndrome younger brother is shown reciting some of the lyrics to the Beatles song “Let It Be” and the family is shown accepting the verdict of life without parole, because that was what Judy wanted, and, more importantly, in the words of the chief investigator, “I wanted Judy’s voice to be heard as quickly as possible.”

After years of trying to get help against pure evil, Judy emerges as a courageous voice for all abused women, a force for change. Human interest stories in the Columbus Dispatch and other papers followed the case and even defense attorney Bob Krapence admitted that what his client had done was inexcusable.

As Judy’s mother says more than once in the film, we don’t want to accept that anyone could willfully do that to another human being. Yet it is clear that this horror completely destroyed Judy Malinowski’s life and that of her family and loved ones.

The documentary is 94 minutes long, but it is well-paced, a tribute to the editor. The MTV documentary certainly makes its point, aided by Katy Jarzebowski’s music and the testimony of all involved (with the notable exception of the convicted murderer.)

One particularly effective stroke—beyond the actual footage of the attack—is the use of frames of film that appear to be burning up. “The Fire That Took Her” was shown at the Austin Film Festival on October 29, 2022, and will be screening on Paramount Plus in late November. Don’t miss it. The truth is not always pretty, but, as Chief Investigator Chad Cohagen said, “We are about the truth.” This documentary was truly disturbing. To quote Cohagen of the attack on videotape, “That scene has played out in dreams more times than I can count.”

 

“Sam & Kate” Makes World Premiere at Austin Film Festival with Star-Studded Cast

“Sam & Kate” cast onscreen at the Austin Film Festival on October 28th.

October 28th was the World Premiere of the film “Sam & Kate” at the Paramount Theater in Austin, Texas, during the Austin Film Festival.

“A life affirming family dramedy that takes place in a small town in the heart of the country. Dustin Hoffman plays BILL, a larger-than-life Father to Sam (Jake Hoffman) who has returned home to take care of Bill and his ailing health. While at home, Sam falls for a local woman, Kate (Schuyler Fisk). At the same time, Bill starts to fall for her mom, Tina (Sissy Spacek).”  That is the synopsis provided by IMDB, but the movie is far more intricate than that.

Darren Le Gallo, husband of Amy Adams and a first-time director, was present at the World Premiere of “Sam & Kate,” which featured veteran Oscar-winner Dustin Hoffman and Sissy Spacek appearing as the parents of their real-life offspring.  Hoffman plays Bill, the father of Jake, and a crusty old guy in the tradition of Clint Eastwood’s character Walt Kowalski in “Gran Torino.”

Writer/Director Darren LeGallo.

Sissy Spacek, mother of co-star Schuyler Fisk, gives an outstanding performance as someone afflicted by a hoarding disorder. Her bathroom scene is one of the best examples of Oscar-caliber acting from a female put onscreen this year.

There is also a back-story for her daughter, Kate, too, which makes Kate, a bookstore owner, unwilling to become romantically involved with the persistent Jake of the title, well-played by Jake Hoffman.

The stars of the film took the stage at the Paramount for a Q&A after the film screened, and both agreed that they’d been looking for something to do together when this script came their way. “It was just serendipitous,” said Spacek.

Dustin Hoffman in Austin, Texas, on October 28th.

Hoffman the elder commented that, “People get set in their ways if they’re single for too long” as explanation for why the younger couple are  older than those still single in society. Jake Hoffman’s character of Sam remarks that he can’t believe that Kate is still single, since she is obviously a beautiful and eminently eligible woman.The younger couple shared a funny story from the stage. There is a post-coital scene when Sam and Kate finally do spend a night in bed. During the set-up for filming the scene, the younger Hoffman said, to Schuyler Fisk, “I want you to come to my (real-life) wedding.” Jake also told the audience how his father told him about the script in the first place, asking him if Jake wanted to play the part of his son. When Jake heard the title of the film (“Sam & Kate”) Dustin Hoffman said, “Yeah, you prick.  You’re the lead.”

Sissy Spacek remarked on the “wonderful layered relationship” of the characters and said that doing the film “Was a no-brainer.” She described working with her daughter as “thrilling” and “exciting.”

Hoffman ended his remarks from the stage by commenting on the different ways of working that a director may select. “Some directors,” he said, “have a vision in their heads as the filming begins and they want you to duplicate what they see in their heads.  By allowing you the liberty—and, amazingly, it’s his first time out—Director LeGallo let us take the film outward and into ourselves.” He also remarked on the audience that sat patiently waiting for the Q&A with very few audience members leaving, saying, “You’re a very special audience. You were gold.” (This remark also would extend to the Opening Night audience for “The Whale” on Oct. 27th.)

 

The film was a sad, but ultimately uplifting tribute to love and kindness. Jake (as Sam) tells Kate (Schuyler Fisk) after his crusty father’s death, “It got me thinking about what I would regret, and that’s you, Kate. I can’t imagine dying without telling you what you mean to me.”

 

Elizabeth Faith Ludlow (Mary) and Elizabeth Becka (Beth) in Austin at the World Premiere of “Sam & Kate.”

Also quite good in the film was the music by Roger O’Donnell and the appearance by Henry Thomas (of “E.T” fame) as Ron, complete with singing and guitar-playing. The supporting roles of Mary (Elizabeth Faith Ludlow) and Beth (Elizabeth Becka) were also completely on target as supporting players. The duo sat together in the audience and enjoyed the film’s World Premiere.

 

“Sam & Kate” is a small indie film that Vertical films allowed the festival to screen for this Writers’ Festival, where it was definitely appreciated and enjoyed.

 

 

 

“Empire of Light” (Sam Mendes) at the 58th Chicago International Film Festival

Micheal Ward and Olivia Colman in the film EMPIRE OF LIGHT. Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. © 2022 20th Century Studios

 

Sam Mendes, director of such wonderful films as “American Beauty,” “1917,” “Road to Perdition,” “Skyfall,” and “Revolutionary Road,” wrote and directed thr 2-hour love letter to the movies, “Empire of Light.” It is Mendes’ first attempt at scripting the films he directs. It shows.

 

Olivia Colman—the Oscar-winning actress of 2018’s “The Favourite”—plays Hilary Small, a theater manager of the Empire Movie Theatre complex, which her boss (Colin Firth), Donald Ellis, describes as “the South coast’s finest film emporium.” Filming was actually done in Margate, at Dreamland, and down the coast of Kent. (I was once an exchange student in Chislehurst in Kent.)

 

Micheal Ward as Steven, a 25-year-old Black man, comes to the Empire Movie Theatre to work. Steven and Hilary (Olivia Colman) begin a romance. Olivia is nearly twice Steven’s age, but they bond over saving a wounded pigeon. Perhaps it is Mendes’ intention to show how at certain times in one’s life, another caring concerned human being can serve as a life-line to help an individual through a tough time. In the case of these two individuals, each needs someone to lean on; Steven cares about Hilary, while Hilary cares about Steven.

 

Times are tough for Micheal because he is waiting to try to get into architecture school. He is living in a very prejudiced time associated with Margaret Thatcher and Skinheads and racist acts against minorities.

 

Times are tough for Hilary (Olivia Colman) because she recently had a nervous breakdown and was committed to St. June’s Mental Health Hospital. Historically, she had a  bad relationship with her father and feels she is being taken advantage of by men, including  her boss at the theater, Colin Firth, who views her as “a nutter” and “unemployable.” Donald Ellis (Colin Firth) had agreed to take her on as an employee at the theater, because he would “keep an eye on her.” He took advantage of her frail mental state to demand sexual servicing,  and Hilary rails against all men, saying “All these men will have their comeuppance.”

 

Cheating on his wife is but one of the boss’s failings. Donald will be spectacularly  and publicly called out by Hilary for his two-timing of his wife during the premiere for “Chariots of Fire.”

 

The film seems to have at least three themes that it tries to weave into a coherent screenplay. One theme is simply the love letter to movies which Mendes rightfully calls an escape. The second theme, (which doesn’t blend well with the movie theme), is a denunciation of racism. Steven  (Micheal Ward) and Hilary bond over helping heal the broken wing of a pigeon and begin an unlikely affair. The Black/white divide comes to the fore as a theme when a group of miscreants breaks into the theater and beats Steven to a pulp. He ends up in the hospital, with Hilary paying him visits. There, Hilary meets Steven’s Mom, who recognizes that they have a genuine affection for each other that has sustained them during  rough times.

 

The last theme in the film is that having mental issues is not the individual’s fault. As Steven (Micheal Ward) says to Hilary upon learning of her diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia, “It’s not your fault. It’s a medical condition.”

 

The acting by everyone is top notch. Olivia Colman and Micheal Ward are ably supported by Toby Jones as Norman, the theater projectionist, Colin Firth as Donald Ellis, and Tom Brooke as Neil. The music from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross is perfect, slow piano chords that fit the themes perfectly. The cinematography is wonderful, especially the shots of New Year’s Eve fireworks with Steven in the foreground. The theater is also a marvel and the set and art decorating are wonderful.

 

So, what’s wrong with the movie? It follows the theme that Mendes says unites all his movies: “All my films are linked by similar concerns, if you look below the surface. They’re all about one or more people who are lost and trying to find a way through.”

 

One critic went way out on a limb and said it was the best thing Sam Mendes had ever done. I  disagree.

 

Not only did Mendes win an Oscar (for “American Beauty”)—his very first directorial job— he has done so many great films that this one, by comparison, while a nice character study urging understanding for sufferers of mental issues and acceptance of all races without prejudice against the backdrop of the love of the theater—-just doesn’t work. The disparate themes, as scripted, did not gel.

 

The idea that each individual is going to go on with his or her own life by film’s end was logical.  But the screenplay had a hard time fitting such disparate elements into one homogeneous script. Since this was Mendes’ first solo screenwriting outing, could that be the problem?

 

The movie premieres  December 9,  2022.

Meanwhile, the Austin Film Festival kicks off tomorrow, and I’ll be reviewing from there.

Jennifer Lawrence Produces and Stars in “Causeway” at the 58th Chicago International Film Festival

“Causeway,” Jennifer Lawrence.

Jennifer Lawrence has been largely quiet, of late, perhaps primarily because she got married (2019) and had a child, Cy (2022).She founded a production company, Excellent Cadaver, and that company, with Lawrence as producer and star, just completed “Causeway,” co-starring Brian Tyree Henry and directed by Lila Neugebauer. The film screened at the 58th annual Chicago International Film Festival and will open November 4th, 2022.

The weakest thing about the film is the screenplay , written by Luke Goebel, Ottessa Moshfegh and Elizabeth Sanders (who, it should be noted, are fiction writers converting to the screenwriting game). The plot meanders around with little depth or direction. It has no real “ending.” Various facets of the lead character, Lynsey, are explored and dropped into the plot, much like someone making soup out of whatever ingredients might be on hand in their refrigerator. Lynsey is a veteran. Lynsey wants to return to active duty, despite having been brain-damaged by the explosion of an IED in Afghanistan. Lynsey is a lesbian. Lynsey knows sign language and has a deaf brother, who dealt drugs and is in prison (where Mom has never visited him.) There was never any prior lead-up to the deaf brother facet of the film, but it appears to have been a desire to work with the actor Russell Harvard, who is deaf in real life and whose work Lawrence and company admired.

At the beginning of the film, we learn that Jennifer’s character (Lynsey) has been in an accident, since she is checking into a residential facility to be assisted with things as basic as brushing her teeth.  It did not immediately scream IED explosion in Afghanistan, but we gradually find this out. She improves rapidly returning to her childhood home in New Orleans and revisiting a troubled relationship with an unreliable mother (played by Linda Emond).

There are little more than fleeting references to Lynsey’s long-term issues with her mother. That is just one of the unexplored bits of business, like her brother’s earlier drug addiction, imprisonment, or deafness.

The most important relationship that is developed after Lynsey’s return from Afghanistan (and release from the residential treatment house)  comes about when her mother’s truck breaks down. Lynsey takes the vehicle to a garage where James Aucoin (Brian Tyree Henry, Lemon in “Bullet Train”) befriends her and becomes her sole friend. Birds of a feather flock together, and both are dealing with memories of horrible traumas that nearly killed them, and changed the course of their lives forever.

This willingness to drop a juicy potential plot conflict into the soup and then walk away isn’t just a flaw for Lawrence’s character. It  extends to co-star Brian Tyree Henry’s traumas, including the loss of one leg in a bad car accident that killed a small child and injured his live-in lady love. The exact nature of this accident is very briefly limned. All the details remain slightly confusing and unexplored.

This film takes us back to Jennifer Lawrence’s break-through role in “Winter’s Bone.” “Causeway” has that grainy feeling of genuine reality. You realize, while watching it, that this is no expensive blockbuster film the likes of Lawrence’s most famous roles, but is an indie film, well-acted by the principals. She is very good in it; I was disappointed that the writing was not more expertly crafted for the actors’ skillful interpretations. It’s not the only fine effort limited by the weakness of the script.

The problem is that the script goes nowhere, has no “ended” feeling, and simply leaves us scratching our heads and wondering why the writers opened up multiple myriad plot lines  and then abandoned most of them.  It’s nice to see that Jennifer Lawrence is still willing to appear in such slice- of -life films, but—aside from her as-always competent job— “Causeway” is eminently forgettable. It lacks a coherent conflict-based structure that can sustain the audience’s interest. It just rambles to a close with the feeling that none of the plot avenues laid out has reached any sort of conclusion, which is a disappointing cinematic experience for the audience.

This Apple original film premieres on November 4, 2022.

 

 

Rian Johnson’s “Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery” at the 58th Chicago International Film Festival

 

Kathryn Hahn accepts a Career Achievement Award from Festival Artistic Director Mimi Plauche on Octobrr 18th at the Music Box Theater.

The October 18th, 139-minute Centerpiece of the 58th Chicago International Film Festival was a showing of “Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery,” preceded by a Career Achievement Award to Kathryn Hahn, who appears in the film.

Benoit Blanc returns to peel back the layers in a new Rian Johnson whodunit, a sequel to “Knives Out.” This fresh adventure finds the intrepid detective (Daniel Craig) at a lavish private estate on a Greek island, but how and why he comes to be there is only the first of many puzzles.

Blanc soon meets a disparate group of friends gathering at the invitation of billionaire Miles Bron for their yearly reunion. Among those on the guest list are Miles’ former business partner Andi Brand, current Connecticut governor Claire Debella, cutting-edge scientist Lionel Toussaint, fashion designer and former model Birdie Jay and her conscientious assistant Peg, and influencer Duke Cody and his sidekick girlfriend Whiskey. As in all the best murder mysteries, each character harbors their own secrets, lies and motivations. When someone turns up dead, everyone is a suspect.

The cast of this one is just as star-studded as the cast of the first “Knives Out” movie. The central figure is a rich industrialist (think Zuckerberg) who may have stolen the idea for his success from his former girlfriend, Cassandra Brand, played by Janelle Monae. Miles Bron is played by Edward Norton.

Others in the group of dissidents include Dave Bautista as Duke Cody, Whiskey (Madelyn Cline) Birdie Jay (Kate Hudson), her assistant Peg (Jessia Henwick) Lionel Toussaint (Leslie Odem, Jr.) and the brief random appearance by Ethan Hawke. Even more noteworthy: the film is the last appearance by Angela Lansbury, who died recently, and of Stephen Sondheim, who died in November of 2021.  Daniel Craig reprises the role of Detective Benoit Blanc, complete with the Kentucky accent.

Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery (L-R) Edward Norton, Madelyn Cline, Kathryn Hahn, Dave Bautista, Leslie Odom Jr., Jessica Henwick, Kate Hudson, Janelle Monae, and Daniel Craig. Cr. [John Wilson/Netflix © 2022.]

The set design and costume design people deserve special kudos. For me someone who was not ga ga over the first one, will find that this one was bigger, louder and less appealing. The “mystery” part was too easy to figure out from the outset. While it is a harmless frolic, it doesn’t really have any Big Truths to impart, even though Rian Johnson (who wrote and directed both the first and second “Knives Out” film) says it is a commentary on the unequal division of wealth.

The film is going to play in 3 different theater chains for a limited period in November (23-29) hitting over 600 theaters at once, and then will stream on Netflix beginning December 23rd.

“Pfiaff” Has U.S. Premiere at 58th Chicago International Film Festival

When her sibling Zara suffers a nervous breakdown, the introverted Eva is forced to take on Zara’s job as a Foley artist. She struggles to create sounds for a commercial featuring a horse. The commercial is for a mood stabilizer known as Equili, which, among other side effects, can lead to high blood sugar inducing coma and death.

The title “Pfiaffe” derives from a diagonal dressage movement and from the French verb “to strut” or “to paw the ground”.  The film is German, with subtitles and was shot in Berlin.

“Pfiaff” director Ann Oren.

“Pfiaffe” won the Best International Feature at the Calgary International Film Festival and the Junior Jury Award at the Locarno International Film Festival. Here in Chicago, the film was nominated for the Gold Hugo New Directors Competition. Its showing on October 20th was its United States premiere.

When a ridiculously coiffed director tells Eva that her sound work for the Equili commercial is not up to snuff, he suggests to her that she actually go out and learn what a horse sounds like. Eva does so and seems quite smitten with horses, in general.

The director explained that, as in the beginning of the film “Nope,” this was related to the few minutes of film thought to be the very first moving picture image ever captured. The short piece of film was captured by 19th century inventor and adventurer Eadweard Muybridge in 1878. Muybridge had been commissioned to study the movement of a galloping horse.

Then, a horsetail starts growing out of Eva’s body. Empowered by her tail, she lures a botanist into an affair through a game of submission. Lots of erotic imagery, including Eva swallowing an entire rose, stem and all.

PIAFFE is a visceral journey into control, gender, and artifice. It is sexy and proves that men always want to get a little tail. (small joke there).

But, seriously, the horse tail really works for Eva (Simone Bucio). She commences the strange affair with the botanist  and dances with abandon at a night club. We also learn a lot about how ferns are self-fertilizing hermaphrodites.

Piaffe is Ann Oren’s first feature after a decade of working as an artist. The director said, “The film began, for me, with images.” She called the film “a playful drama with comic interludes.”

She also described the lead actor having to rehearse via zoom from Switzerland, because it was shot during Covid.

Director Ann Oren of “Pfiaff.”

Asked about the choice of Simone Bucio to portray Eva, Director Oren said, “Some actresses just didn’t get the voyage of the character.”

Of Bucio’s audition, Oren said, “I saw something very special in her. Every one of her takes was so powerful.”

Director Ann Oren was present at the screening on October 20th and said, “I don’t know what to compare it to. It’s its own thing.” The film opens wide in the U.S. on November 3rd.

 

UPDATE:

Silver Hugo: October 21, 2022
PIAFFE (Germany)
Dir. Ann Oren
The audacious, unconventional PIAFFE’s emphasis on the texture and process of cinema can be seen both in its aesthetic and its engaging characters. Ann Oren’s work is a sensual journey into the erotic and unpredictable. The extraordinary sound design and use of overexposure in particular encourage a new faith in the power of cinema.

 

 

“Call Jane” with Elizabeth Banks at the 58th Chicago International Film Festival

Call Jane, with Elizabeth Banks.

“Call Jane” revisits the bad old days of the sixties and early seventies when it was illegal to get a therapeutic abortion in the United States. Elizabeth Banks plays Joy Farrell, the wife of an attorney (Will, played by Chris Messina) and the mother of a teenaged daughter, Charlotte (Grace Edwards).

Elizabeth finds herself pregnant. In the first three months, she develops a cardiac condition, cardiomyopathy, which could well prove fatal if she continues the pregnancy through to the end. She and her husband petition the hospital board to allow Joy to have a therapeutic abortion. In turning her down, the all male board announces that they had only given one such dispensation in 10 years.

I am probably one of the few reviewers who lived through this era. In fact, I had a friend, a fellow classmate on campus at the University of Iowa, who died because she attempted to self-induce an abortion. It was the odor of her body decomposing that alerted the authorities in her apartment building near campus that something was amiss. For me, movies like this are not ancient history. They are what I lived through.

The entire concept of “Call Jane” feels real, to me in 2022, with the attack on women’s rights by the GOP. The old French saying, “La plus ca change, la plus ca meme,” (The more things change, the more they stay the same) seems relevant.

What didn’t feel real to me was a twist the plot takes late in the game when “Dean” (played by Cory Michael Smith), the lead OB/GYN doctor, is let go and a person with no qualifications to perform an  abortion takes over. That, to me, seemed to sum up the desperation of the times, but I question whether the individual really went that far out on that limb of illegality.

Although Elizabeth Banks’ participation in the film is noised about, little is said about Sigourney Weaver’s turn as the original “Jane,” Helen, who spearheads the effort to provide services to desperate women, or about Kate Mara, who plays a neighbor. (Mara’s role could have easily been dispensed with entirely).

Chris Messina (“Damages,””Argo,” “The Newsroom”) plays Joy’s husband, with a bad haircut from the era. All of the male haircuts looked strange. However, the flip that Elizabeth Banks sports throughout the film looked quite timely. I smiled at the line in the script when a character is asked, “Do you smoke?” and the response was, “Everybody smokes.” (Very true).

This thought, articulated by writers Hayley Schore and Roshan Sethi, also rang true: “You think you’re in control of your life, and, just like that, you realize you’re not.” Another good line, given to Banks’ daughter, who does not want to know about unpleasant things, was, “I don’t wanna know about babies dying, or people getting shot, or periods, or Vietnam.” Director Phyllis Nagy does well with a good cast, and the cinematography from Greta Zozula is equally good.

With the current Supreme Court outlawing Roe v. Wade and throwing the country into chaos over the right to an abortion that women had enjoyed for the previous 50 years, the theme was certainly very topical. Earlier iterations of the film had Elizabeth Moss and/or Susan Sarandon attached.

The 2 hour and 1 minute film premieres on October 28th, just 5 days after the 58th Chicago International Film Festival ends.

 

“Pray for Our Sinners” at the 58th Chicago International Film Festival Has United States Premiere

Pray for Our Sinners (2022)

“Pray for Our Sinners,” a documentary written and directed by Sinead O’Shea with music by George Brennan had its United States Premiere at the 58th Chicago International Film Festival. The 1 hour and 21 minute film documents the abuse of women and children in Ireland in decades past, perpetrated with the approval of the Catholic church.

The abuse took place in Ireland for literally decades until at least the 1980s.

Sinead O’Shea focused on her own home town of Navan in central Ireland and interviewed women who, as young teenagers, were sent away to mother and baby homes and forced to give up their babies. She interviewed female victims who had suffered this fate when just teenagers, and also spoke with now adult victims of brutality in the schools, suffered as children. Much of her conversation was with Dr. Mary Randle, who, along with her doctor husband, fought against the injustices. One of the topics was the local parish priest of those years, Father Andy Farrell. (It seems that Father Farrell discovered malfeasance in church finances and was spirited out of his post when he reported it.)

In 1921 Ireland earned its independence from England, but by 1937 the Catholic Church had managed to incorporate its beliefs into Irish law. In a country where 91% were church-goers, 6% said they attended occasionally, and only 3% said they never attended church, Ireland had more people institutionalized than any other civilized country. A citizen could be sent to an institution for all manner of misbehavior, as viewed by the church. For instance, if you talked about your feelings you could be declared “hysterical” and put away.

God was everywhere. That was the point. Few women worked. There was a law forbidding women from working after marriage. Women were to be submissive and produce children. However, unwed mothers were shamed into submission and forced to go to mother and baby homes, where the nuns who ran them made it their mission to “punish” the pregnant girls. There were at least 21,000 illegal adoptions from these homes during the era. According to a 2021 study, 9,000 babies and their mothers died in the homes.

Pregnant girls were treated like criminals. Even during delivery, they would be chastised for their bad behavior in becoming pregnant in the first place. Contraception was not available if the doctor did not want the woman to have access; divorce was forbidden. As one former resident of one of the homes said, “Your mail would be read. You were made to wash floors, even when 9 months pregnant. There was no breastfeeding. They wanted to do something to hurt you.”

Writer/Director Sinead O’Shea.

If women were mistreated, children were also targeted. The Catholic church ran the schools. Corporal punishment was the norm in towns across Ireland. Into this sea of misery a husband and wife doctor team in Navan, Mary and Patrick (“Paddy”) Randle, chose to speak out when others were too cowed to do so.

A 10-year-old boy. Norman, was beaten with a leather hose with metal inserts because he was left-handed. When Paddy Randle found out, he spoke up and demanded that such abuse cease. Twenty children who were brave enough to speak out were gathered. Since the local paper would not tell their story, the “News of the World” in London interviewed the children and ran a story on Sunday, May 4, 1969, under the title “Children Under the Lash.”

When the local priests in Navon learned that the paper was going to run the story, the newspaper was seized as it was entering the city. Norman was kicked out of school by the church authorities at the age of 9 and, even today, he has no papers to document his life in Ireland. He is like a ghost without a country in “Europe’s last theocracy.”

As Dr. Mary Randle described her efforts and those of her now-deceased husband to help the struggling women and children of their small Irish town. She said, “It was like a whole empire designated to punish girls and children.It’s just, yet again, a diminishment of women, how they were treated.”

I am Irish Catholic. My home county in Iowa, the Dubuque diocese, was very Catholic. Back in the sixties, drugstores in Dubuque, Iowa, would not sell the birth control pill to unwed girls. When I was in the hospital, having just given birth in 1968—a married woman, age 23—one of my doctors (who was a devout Catholic) refused my request for a prescription for the pill. He would pass such requests along to his Protestant partner, who had no such reservations.

There are political forces abroad in our land right now who would like nothing better than to deny United State females the right to purchase the birth control pill, because the ability to choose when (or if) to have a child empowers a woman. The immediate battleground is the issue of abortion, but the signs are there that that is just the first stop on the path of the current Conservative Supreme Court.

As for corporal punishment, when I was introduced to my very first classroom in the fall of 1969, a fellow teacher handed me a paddle and instructed me on the “proper” way to use it to paddle misbehaving students. I was appalled. I threw it away immediately. This disciplinary method had been ongoing in the district. If you think nothing like these Irish stories could ever go on in the United States, guess again. You just have to be old enough to have lived it, as I have.

I remember all the pregnant girls in my high school who were “drummed out of the Corps.” Once it was determined that a girl was pregnant out of wedlock, she was banished from attending class. (The boyfriend who had impregnated her suffered no such punishment.) The expectant mother would disappear to a mother and baby home run by the Catholic church. The home would house her until she delivered her child.

As one of the women in the film testifies, “There’s no point in talking about today and then, because it was so different.” Yes, it was. I remember it well. I am saddened to see the same power play(s) being perpetrated upon this generation of women in the United States via the currently red hot abortion issue. It’s done in the interests of refusing to empower women.

The most important decision a woman will make in her lifetime is whether or not to give birth. It will affect every facet of her life from that time forward. It should be her decision, in consultation with her doctors and her family. It should not be legislated or decided by a group of men in Washington, D.C.

Director/Writer Sinead O’Shea does a nice job of painting a picture of yesterday that I lived through and remember only too well. By quoting Dr. Mary Randle (“There is always a way to resist”) and painting a picture of the abuses of the Catholic Church against the weakest among their charges, O’Shea has vividly illustrated how irreparable harm can be done in the name of religion.

The law banning corporal punishment in the schools of Ireland passed in that country in 1984. Divorce is now legal and laws banning women from working are a thing of the past. The attempts to roll back Roe v. Wade in the United States under the cover of religion are ongoing and on the ballot in November.

Another documentary by Sinead O’Shea is 2017’s “A Mother Brings Her Son to Be Shot.”

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