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!

“A Marriage Story” Highlights Divorce in Oscar-Worthy FIlm

 

Director Noah Baumbach (“The Squid and the Whale”) directs Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver in a  movie about  a marriage coming apart at the seams and its effects on the couple, their 9-year-old son, their friends, and everyone else involved. It’s a darkly comic, yet serious, film that offers opportunities for Driver and Johansson to really show their acting chops. There is Oscar buzz.

First, some background. Baumbach seems to make very personal films that often reflect his own childhood or adulthood. His film “The Squid and the Whale” had a lot to do with the divorce that he lived through as a child. Baumbach was married to actress Jennifer Jason Leigh (whom he lived with for 4 years before marriage)  and she gave birth to the couple’s  son at 48 years of age (Baumbach is 7 years younger). Baumbach began working with Greta Gerwig as his leading lady and he and Leigh subsequently divorced shortly after the birth of their son Rohmer Emmanuel Baumbach on March 17, 2010. Much like the fictional couple of “A Marriage,” the wife was arguably the bigger star of the two when the marriage began, but, over time, her theatrical director husband saw his star rise, to the point of even winning a MacArthur Grant for his work in the field of drama.

Now linked, professionally and romantically, with his frequent leading lady Greta Gerwig, (who moved into directing herself with the acclaimed film “Ladybug,”) Baumbach told interviewer Eric Kohn of “IndieWire” (7/24/2019), “Divorce is like death in a way.  When it happens to you, people can speak about it, but no one really wants to speak about it who’s not in it. I just felt like there was a way to make a movie that was very much about this subject and also totally transcends it.”

Enter Baumbach’s great and good friend Adam Driver, who plays Charlie Barber in the film. He is married to Nicole (Scarlett Johansson), who was the more successful of the two theater people when they married and she began starring in his New York City off-Broadway plays. One dynamic that you can almost see at work in the film is the situtaion chronicled so many times in “A Star Is Born,” where one partner in a marriage is established and then the partners change place in terms of fame and it destroys the relationship.

THE GOOD

There are some great lines in the film and some equally great performances. Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver do the honors as the doomed married couple and the script is unprepared to make either one out to be a villain. Both are honorable people and never badmouth one another intentionally. The principals—with one exception—are almost always reasonable. Until they’re not.

The scene where the two attempt to work out the details of their divorce themselves, which quickly disintegrates into a name-calling scene, is horrific, as lines like the one where the husband mourns the loss of his twenties to their marriage, saying, “Life with you was joyless.” The wife says, “I was your wife.  You should have considered my happiness.”

The script should be an Oscar contender, regardless of any other facet of the film. A couple of examples:Nicole: “I realized I never really came alive for myself.  I was just feeding his aliveness…I got smaller.”

I didn’t even know what my taste was any more.  He just put me off. He didn’t see me as something separate from himself.” (She adds that he also slept with the stage manager of his theater company. Ahem.)

Charlie says, “I feel like I’m in a dream.”

Then the lawyers get involved.  Laura Dern, Ray Liotta and Alan Alda add a great deal to the plot with convincing portrayals of representatives of the legal profession. Laura, playing the shrewd Nora Fanshon, tells her client (Nicole) in a throwaway line that is a reference to a Tom Petty song, “Waiting is the hardest part.” Dern and Liotta are terrific as cut-throat shark-like attorneys, while Alan Alda is the soft-hearted divorce attorney who has been through the mill himself numerous times, and understands where the rapids are in the river.

Dern adds, gleefully, to her client, “I represented Tom Petty’s wife in the divorce.  I got her one-half of that song.” Nicole says, to Charlie, that they might become friends with Nora, [her lawyer].

He responds, “Why do I feel like THAT will never happen?”

There are plenty of remarks that reflect Nicole’s unhappiness with the status quo of their ten-year marriage. She says, “The dead part wasn’t dead.  It was just in a coma” in announcing that an offer from L.A. to shoot a pilot for a television show was like a lifeline thrown to her. She seems to make up her mind rather quickly that she wants a divorce, although Charlie does not seem to realize that she is quite so determined to end their relationship for good. He seems to think she is going to return to New York City, where they have been living, once the pilot is either picked up or dropped. To me, that was not very clear, but many details of what propelled the two towards the exit is unclear.

Nicole, instead, goes to her mother’s home (well played by Julie Hagerty of “Airplane” fame) and begins rebuilding her life. When Charlie is to arrive to visit their son, she tells her younger sister Cassie (Merritt Weaver of “Nurse Jackie”) that she is to serve Charlie the divorce papers by handing them to him in an envelope. This leads to some fairly amusing scenes where Cassie is nervous and upset at the prospect  of acting as an official “server” of divorce papers, and Nicole is coaching her on the right time and place to hand over the paperwork and say, “You’ve been served.”

Charlie must find a Los Angeles lawyer, as his wife and child are now California residents, the minor child is enrolled in school in California, and his wife was born and grew up there. (Charlie is an Indiana-born boy who has become “more a New Yorker than most New Yorkers.”) Charlie first falls into the hands of a rapacious type, played by Ray Liotta, who quickly outlines his salary demands: $950 an hour and a $25,000 retainer.

Charlie leaves Ray the shark. With the help of Nicole’s mother, he finds a much more modestly priced attorney named Bert Spitz, well-played by Alan Alda. Spitz breaks the news to Charlie that “Most people in my business make up the truth so they can get where they want to go.” Alda’s character adds that he has been through 4 marriages, himself, and says, “You remind me of myself on my second divorce.” Bert’s salary demands are much more reasonable, and, for a while, it looks as though Bert and Nora will work together amicably to settle the issue of who gets what and who will get custody of young Henry (Azhy Robertson).

Unfortunately, things deteriorate further. Or, as Yeats put it, “Things fall apart; the center cannot hold.” Charlie shows up in court with the barracuda barrister played by Ray Liotta, and things begin to get nasty

Acting and script are top-notch. Cinematography by Robbie Ryan is great, with lots of close-ups, which Baumbach felt worked best. The music by Randy Newman is good. The script has some wonderful sardonic humor, including a humorous encounter with a social service agency representative which ends with Charlie accidentally slitting his wrist in front of her and then trying to pass it off as “no big deal” while bleeding profusely.

At one point, when the vicious lawyer is asking whether Nicole has ever had a drinking or drug problem, Charlie shares that she had an addiction to Tums for a while. “She was up to a roll a day.” This does not seem to be what the attorney wanted to hear.

THE BAD

Since this is roughly autobiographical, the husband of the piece—(who did cheat with his stage manager during the couple’s 10 years of marriage)—defends his misstep, saying, “I didn’t do that until you quit having sex with me and I was sleeping on the couch.” Charlie is painted as being just a little bit TOO nice in all respects. Nicole, too, is wonderful. They each write out lists of all the wonderful things about one another, and one of the more touching scenes in the movie is when Charlie reads aloud the list that Nicole has written about him, because son Henry has found it and is trying to read it  on his own with some difficulty.

You get the distinct feeling (especially late in the film, when Charlie does accept some work that will keep him in California for at least part of the time) that these two people should have been able to work out the kinks in their marriage, unless you ascribe to the point of view that a marriage is like a flower and has a cycle during which it grows, blooms and then dies.

The ending is probably considered “positive,” since the two principals are not actively name-calling or being horrible to one another, but it just makes someone like me (married 52 years) wonder why they didn’t give a good marriage counselor a try. The entire “We’re getting divorced” movement seems to have been rushed and premature, as even Nicole’s mother suggests.

The reason for the divorce?

Apparently the best reason given for an actual divorce without any sign of marriage therapy or even a trial separation, is “It doesn’t make sense any more.”

After the trauma that Baumbach knows his own parents’ divorce visited upon him as a child, you’d think he’d be a bit more savvy about how much damage personal instability can wreak on the children of the divorcing couple.

We learn that Adam Driver can sing when he gets up in a nightclub (where he is hanging out with his theater family) and delivers a Stephen Sondheim song:

Someone to hold me too close.
Someone to hurt me too deep.
Someone to sit in my chair,
And ruin my sleep,
And make me aware,
Of being alive.
Being alive.

Somebody need me too much.
Somebody know me too well.
Somebody pull me up short,
And put me through hell,
And give me support,
For being alive.
Make me alive.
Make me alive.

Make me confused.
Mock me with praise.
Let me be used.
Vary my days.

But alone,
Is alone,
Not alive.…

Up until the point that Adam Driver as Charlie takes to the stage, grabbing the microphone, there was no indication that this was meant to be a musical. It seemed—-strange—no matter how well the lyrics fit the situation. It reminded me of the ill-fated attempt by the “Hill Street Blues” creator to put a series on television (involving police) where all the lines were sung. There was a film like that at the Chicago International Film Festival with Anna Kendrick. It didn’t work well then, either. Adam Driver does a respectable job of carrying a tune but it struck me as odd. Use the excellent Sondheim lyrics, but maybe work them into the film in a more logical way?

There is also a use of the children’s story “Stuart Little,” specifically this passage: “The way seemed long, but the road was bright and he felt like he was headed in the right direction.”

That is the way marriage works in today’s world, Folks. Easy in, somewhat easy out— but with some bumps along the road. Everybody lives happily ever after with their fourth wife, (a la the Bert Spitz character.) Change the marital vows from “till death do us part” to “until it doesn’t work any more.”

I feel like the character that Seth Meyer plays on his late-night talk show, who puts on his sweater and begins with the phrase, “Back in my day….” So, let me say, “Back in my day, we worked very hard to smooth out any rough patches in that long and winding marital road.” The reward was having shared history with one spouse who knew you way back when and knew your parents (before they, as parents do, died). The marital road today is shorter and more diverse with more stops along the way. Maybe that’s why young people often just don’t bother to get married at all any more, but simply co-habit until “this doesn’t work any more.”

It’s just a thought, and not an accepted one in Los Angeles—or, probably, anywhere else in the land of Trump.

Andy Warhol Exhibit at the Art Institute of Chicago

Andy Warhol exhibit at the Art Institute in Chicago.

We took in the Andy Warhol exhibit in Chicago this past week. We selected a weekday, because the exhibit has been well-received and we thought it would be very crowded on the weekend.

Elvis.

As an advertisement illustrator in the 1950s, Warhol used assistants to increase his productivity. Collaboration would remain a defining (and controversial) aspect of his working methods throughout his career; this was particularly true in the 1960s. One of the most important collaborators during this period was Gerard Malanga. Malanga assisted the artist with the production of silkscreens, films, sculpture, and other works at “The Factory“, Warhol’s aluminum foil-and-silver-paint-lined studio on 47th Street (later moved to Broadway).

Early illustrations of shoes (the subjects of one of his very first exhibits) showed that Warhol had a thing for gold. Many of the pieces in the display reflect this, including the large painting below.

Gold painting.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Warhol began as a magazine illustrator in the fifties and continued into the sixties, establishing a studio in New York City called The Factory.  Within the exhibit are some pieces of film taken within the Factory, whose walls were said to be lined with silver foil.

The Art Institute of Chicago Andy Warhol exhibit.

Warhol was an admitted homosexual, at a time when being gay in America was not accepted. Although his image was that of a libidinous lifestyle, he told an interviewer as late as 1980, when he was 52, that he was still a virgin (born in 1928).

Biographer Bob Colacello provides some details on Andy’s “piss paintings”:

Victor … was Andy’s ghost pisser on the Oxidations. He would come to the Factory to urinate on canvases that had already been primed with copper-based paint by Andy or Ronnie Cutrone, a second ghost pisser much appreciated by Andy, who said that the vitamin B that Ronnie took made a prettier color when the acid in the urine turned the copper green. Did Andy ever use his own urine? My diary shows that when he first began the series, in December 1977, he did, and there were many others: boys who’d come to lunch and drink too much wine, and find it funny or even flattering to be asked to help Andy ‘paint’. Andy always had a little extra bounce in his walk as he led them to his studio.[73]

Attempted murder (1968)

On June 3, 1968, radical feminist writer Valerie Solanas shot Warhol and Mario Amaya, art critic and curator, at Warhol’s studio.[42] Before the shooting, Solanas had been a marginal figure in the Factory scene. She authored in 1967 the S.C.U.M. Manifesto,[43] a separatist feminist tract that advocated the elimination of men; and appeared in the 1968 Warhol film I, a Man. Earlier on the day of the attack, Solanas had been turned away from the Factory after asking for the return of a script she had given to Warhol. The script had apparently been misplaced. Some of the skull paintings that are shown in the exhibit are said to reflect Warhol’s subsequent musing on life, death and mortality.

One interesting painting in the display looked exactly like Melania Trump and, of course, there were the famous Marilyn Monroe, Elvis, and Marlon Brando pictures.

 

 

 

Marilyn Monroe.

Marlon Brando.

 

 

Des Moines businessman immortalized by Andy Warhol.

Melania look-alike at Warhol exhibit.

“Parasite” Is Lauded As One of the Best Films of the Year

Now seems like a good time to mention the film “Parasite.”  It’s being hailed as one of the best films of the year and is playing at the local Davenport theater(s), even though it is sub-titled because the South Korean leads speak only that country’s language. It is a new offering from fifty-year-old director Joon-ho Bong as Bong Joon-ho. (The rest of the names don’t get any easier, so bear with me). Since the film obviously managed to get widespread distribution, why not dub it for English-speaking audiences? (No idea what the answer to that may be.)

As we left the theater, one of the theater employees tasked with cleaning up, asked, “Is it any good?”

With only a second or two to respond, I said, “Yes, it’s worth seeing, as long as you don’t mind sub-titles. It’s original.” Indeed, it has been described with many other superlatives, including “brilliant,” “hysterical,” “astonishing,” “amazing,” “inventive” and whatever other positive terms you care to select. It did well at Cannes and has had 23 wins and 26 nominations in various competitions. I was told by a friend whose opinion I respect that it was her “favorite film at TIFF.” (Toronto International Film Festival)

So, having warned my companion that we were in for a foreign language film, but one with a director responsible for “Snowpiercer” (2013), “Okja” (2017) and now this, we were not unhappy viewing the original tale of a South Korean family and how they schemed together to fleece their rich employers. Line from script:  “If you have a plan, nothing works out at all.”

If you watch the trailer, you will see that the family was not living on easy street. In fact, they weren’t living ON a street at all, but in a sub-terranean sub-basement of sorts that looked awful (especially after a heavy rainfall that floods it). The mother and father and their nearly adult son and daughter are out-of-work. They are shown folding pizza boxes to make money early on in the film.

One thing you can learn from this film is what the job market is like in South Korea. The answer is that, for every chauffeur job that opens up, there are roughly 500 college graduates waiting to fill it. Getting an education is stressed as very important and the idea of hiring tutors, which is essentially Asian,  aided me immensely in my nearly 20 years as the owner of a Sylvan Learning Center.

Because the job market is so tight, and because North Korea is so close to its neighbor, this film might not be as easy to move from its South Korean setting to a setting in the United States. Why not?

THE SETTING

Ninety per cent of the plot hinges on the house where the rich family lives—a family which ends up hiring all of the poor family’s members, without even knowing that they are related. Only the small boy in the well-to-do family figures out that they all smell alike, and he isn’t really given that much credit for having figured out the poor family’s secret connection. The son is a spoiled brat of a rich kid, yes, who paints primitive paintings that his doting family hangs on the walls and who insists on camping out in the back yard inside his American Indian teepee, but the small child’s perceptive realizations (“And a little child shall lead them”) are largely ignored by his family until disaster strikes.

The out-of-work have-nots get a foothold in the rich family’s good graces through their son, who goes to work as a tutor for the rich family’s daughter. After that, the now-trusted tutor brings in his sister (who is told to say her name is Jessica and that she attended art school at Illinois State) as an art therapist for the seemingly disturbed little brother in the home. One humorous scene involves the boy’s framed art work, which the young tutor assumes is of a monkey, only to be told that it is the young child’s “self portrait.” (“The schizophrenia zone is the lower right corner.”) Eventually, the tutor’s father becomes chauffeur to the household and the tutor’s mother replaces the old housekeeper.

Getting Mom into the house as the new housekeeper means getting rid of the old housekeeper. The old housekeeper’s allergy to peaches is used as a method to discredit her in the eyes of the master of the house, with the suggestion that she has contagious tuberculosis. She doesn’t, of course, but she does have a husband hiding in the basement of the home, a key point in the second and third act development of the plot.

We wondered if the owners of the house were fully aware of this subterranean underground home that rests beneath the main house, or if its existence was not admitted to them by the famous architect who designed the home with this “fail safe” bunker, in case North Korea were to launch rockets aimed at South Korea.

It is this plot detail regarding the hostile North Korean neighbors to the north that makes me wonder if this film’s plot could easily be lifted and moved to America, as was done with “In the Order of Disappearance” when it became “Cold Pursuit” with Liam Neeson. In that case, the Scandinavian setting was replaced with Denver and Las Vegas, which didn’t really work for me, but this film has to have a house with an underground tunnel-like bunker built beneath it. That underground house, as it turns out, has become home to the housekeeper’s unemployed spouse, who has lived there for three and one-half years!

The husband of the old housekeeper is “kewl” with living underground and rarely venturing forth because he is also unable to claim a government-funded pension when he grows old. The reasons have to do with the way the South Korean government operates. I don’t pretend to understand all of that. It reminded me of a report on “Sixty Minutes” about Chinese families who had more than one child and that “illegal” child becomes “stateless” because the government used to have an “official” policy of only one child per family. You might liken it in this country to being an illegal immigrant who has no documents of the sort that American workers are expected to have, such as social security or Medicare/Medicaid cards. Undocumented workers probably exist in every country to some extent (Arabs working in Israel, for example), but, in this case, it is his bleak future as an unemployed and unemployable worker that keeps the old housekeeper’s husband happily imprisoned in a downstairs series of rooms where much of the second-half of the film’s action takes place.

The film is obviously a commentary on the “haves” of South Korea versus the “have nots.” Bernie Sanders would fit right in decrying the status of the “have nots.” The down-and-out family that is taking advantage of their rich benefactors represent way too many people on the planet, and the wealthy 1% represent “the Korean dream.”

In that context, the oldest son does, in a sense, eventually achieve the Korean dream, but at what price glory?  Script line: “If you make a plan, life never works out at all.  With no plan, nothing can go wrong.” Or right.

Four of the Best Casino Scenes in James Bond Films

If there’s one man who has single-handedly popularized casinos, it’s James Bond. First introduced in the novels by Ian Fleming, Bond has quite the penchant for high-stakes action. In the film franchise, we see 007 take on pretty much every casino game under the sun. Baccarat, Roulette, Poker, and even Sic Bo – he’s played them all. There’s even a Roulette strategy named after Bond, and actor Sean Connery had a real-life casino win of his own at the wheel. In homage to this, let’s take a look back at some of the greatest scenes in the film franchise.

  1. Casino Royale (2006)

Casino featured in “Never Say Never Again.” (Photo by Connie Wilson).

What better place to start than with the winner of the
Best Movie Poker Scene poll? Based on the first novel in the Ian Fleming series, from 1953, the film goes back to the beginning, with Bond embarking on his career as a secret agent and earning his license to kill. He’s put on an assignment to bankrupt terrorist financier Le Chiffre.

A large portion of the film takes place in the casino, as 007 enters a tense high-stakes game of Texas Hold’em. It isn’t smooth sailing for our hero, who loses his stake, but CIA agent Felix Leiter stakes him. Midway through, Bond is poisoned and leaves the table, but later returns. All’s well that ends well, and the final hand scene is iconic. The game is down to the last four players. With $120 million in the pot, Le Chiffre believes he’s the winner with a Full House. He is until the final player Bond reveals a Straight Flush to come up trumps.

          2. Dr. No (1962) 

From one of the most recent films to the first now – and an iconic scene. The game of choice for Bond, this time played by Sean Connery, is Baccarat. The film opens with 007 sitting in a casino, playing Chemin-de-Fer. While he’s at the table, he notices a woman observing his game. Bond gazes back at her, before introducing himself using the famous lines: “Bond… James Bond”. The focus may not have been solely on the casino, but the scene alone defined the character and made the role difficult for other actors to emulate.

              3.  Diamonds are Forever (1971)

The seventh film of the franchise is the last time we see Connery play Bond. Throughout the film series, we see the secret agent dispatch of his nemeses in many ways. In the opening credits, 007 eliminates a villain by jamming his head against the Roulette wheel. Okay, so not the most glamorous portrayals of a casino, but a memorable title sequence. You can channel your inner-007 with the best Roulette games online, too. Bond goes on to play Craps at the Whyte House, the casino owned by Willard Whyte – and it’s the only film where he plays Craps. Jill St. John appeared in the film, but it’s here that he meets Bond girl, Plenty O’Toole (Lana Wood, sister of Natalie), and of course, in true Bond style, he wins the jackpot.

Monte Carlo Casino used in “Never Say Never Again.” (Photo by Connie Wilson).

  1. 4. Skyfall (2012)

The Macau casino, which featured in one of the most recent films of the franchise isn’t actually in China – it was filmed at Pinewood Studios in London. The fictional casino was based on a real floating establishment, and is still impressive. The Floating Dragon casino features 300 floating lanterns, giant dragon motifs, and beautiful ornate décor. We don’t see much of Bond playing Sic Bo during the scene, as he soon retreats to the bar. But we’ve included it because the casino itself is pretty spectacular.

James Bond and casinos go hand-in-hand. While we’ve listed our four favorite scenes from the movies, there’s plenty more to watch and dissect. Leave a comment  if we’ve missed your favorite.

Watch All the Originals: Netflix, Amazon, Hulu & Now Apple

The battle for viewers is ramping up on streaming services, with Apple’s entry into the field, competing with the more established Netflix, Amazon, Hulu and—also—with channels such as the Sundance Channel. Add to that services like Showtime and HBO and the competition for viewers becomes even more fierce.

A recent entry on Netflix, which began streaming on Friday (November 1, 2019) was the second season of “Jack Ryan,” starring John Krasinski. I watched season one, which was set in the Middle East. While it was well-done, I am enjoying season two, set in Venezuela more. Perhaps that is because I have actually visited Caracas, whereas I have not visited the Middle East and don’t expect to any time soon. I say that while realizing that shooting probably did not take place in that currently chaotic country, but there definitely was on-location shooting for the series. It looks expensive to film.

I’ve been enjoying the series “Castle Rock” on Hulu. It’s related to the genre in which I have published, with 3 novels in “The Color of Evil” series and 3 books in “Hellfire & Damnation.” Watching the pre-cursor of Kathy Bates’ “Misery” character, played by Lizzie Caplan (previously of “Masters & Johnson”) was interesting. The writing and execution, with talents like Scott Glenn, Frances Conroy and Sissie Spacek involved in various stories, has been well above par. Hulu also has another season of “The Handmaid’s Tale” to entertain, which we haven’t gotten to yet. Meanwhile, there is the “Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” the much-acclaimed comedy series with Rachel Brosnahan, Alex Borstein and Tony Shaloub. It has garnered numerous Emmy awards for its stars. I’m also eagerly anticipating friend Jonathan Maberry’s vampire series, filmed in Canada, which premieres in early December with star Ian Somerhalder.

Then there are the “Don’t Miss” movies of the season as the race heats up heading towards Oscar season. Films like “The Irishman,” which Netflix bankrolled to the tune of $150 to $200 million, are being shown in theaters in select cities to qualify for the Oscar race, after which “The Irishman” will premiere on Netflix—all 3 hours and 20 minutes of it—-on November 27th.

I just returned from the Chicago International Film Festival. I am still reviewing film(s) from the Denver Film Festival, long distance. It is impossible to watch ALL of the films offered, but I managed to squeeze 42 films into a brief 2-week span. The day that I attended “The Torch” at 10 a.m. (a Buddy Guy documentary), followed by “Seberg” (Kirstin Stewart and Jack McConnell) for over 2 hours, followed by “The Irishman” for 3 hours and 20 minutes, followed by the late-night showing of “Into the Vast,” (a sci-fi epic about strange noises coming over the radio in a small town that set the town’s DJ and friends off on a search for the origin of the noises can best be summed up by these script lines, “They’re here. They’re really here.”) was a l-o-o-o-n-g day.

Of all the 42 films and documentaries that I took in between October 13-27, the two that are Don’t Miss are “Ford v. Ferrari,” with Christian Bale and Matt Damon, and Martin Scorsese’s epic “The Irishman,” with Robert DeNiro, Al Pacino, Joe Pesci, Ray Romano and a host of others. It is definitely a worthy and classic film in the Scorsese cannon. I highly recommend it if you have enjoyed Scorsese gangster films (“Mean Streets,” “Taxi Driver,” “Goodfellas”) over the years.

 

“Knives Out” Opens Denver Film Festival & Entertains in Chicago

The Denver Film Festival opened on Halloween (Oct. 31, 2019) with a showing of Rian Johnson’s (“The Last Jedi”) film “Knives Out.” The director was there in person to accept the John Cassavetes Award and discuss the film in a Q&A afterwards with John Wenzel of the Denver “Post.”

The film is a throwback homage to the Agatha Christie-style films that often starred Angela Lansbury…films like “Death on the Nile,” with a tip of the hat to television’s “Columbo.” Johnson admitted as much in Chicago when he said, “I just unabashadly love Agatha Christie.” His goal was to “hide a who-dun-it behind a thriller.” Like many Hitchcock films, the audience is even let in on who the guilty party is mid-film.

If you’re a fan of “Succession” on television, imagine that the scion of that family (Brian Cox) dies and there is a suspicion that one of his heirs has done him in. That, in a nutshell, is what we have here—murder or suicide?  The opening scene of German Shepherd guard dogs patrolling a house that looks like a haunted “Downton Abbey” owes much to production designAll Categorieser David Crank. (“The guy practically lives in a Clue board.”) The house really is a big part of the film’s plot in many ways.

At first, it appears that the successful thriller novelist head of the Thrombey family (Christopher Plummer as Harlan) has committed suicide by cutting his own throat. The plot, as they say, thickens. An anonymous party hires noted private investigator Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) to investigate the death.

Michael Shannon and Director Rian Johnson at the Chicago premiere of “Knives Out.” (Photo by Connie Wilson).

Daniel Craig, who was hired first for the star-studded project, plays the investigator as a cross between Foghorn Leghorn and Hercule Poirot. For me, he was the least effective cast member. After all, audiences had Michael Shannon (the second hire), Don Johnson, Toni Collette, Jamie Lee Curtis, Chris Evans,Jaeden Martell, Frank Oz, M. Emmet Walsh, Lakeith Stanfield, Noah Segas and new-comer Ana de Armas in the pivotal part of the nurse, Marta Cabrera, to share screentime. Some of the cast have little to do, as a result. The true perpetrator of the movie’s mayhem is pretty easy to spot early on, but there are still a few unique twists.

One of the enjoyable and unusual aspects of the who-dun-it plot is that Johnson incorporates a lot of humor. You may have seen the scene where Chris Evans (“Captain America”) enters and says, “CSI? KFC?” Or there is the put-down of “Gravity’s Rainbow,” the 1973 novel by Thomas Pynchon that was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize, (even though the committee found the book’s content to be offensive and it was described as “unreadable, turgid, overwritten and obscene.”) After a mention of the work, a character says, “I’ve never read it.” “Neither have I,” comes the response, “Nobody has.”

Another source of humor is the inability of the Thrombey family to remember what country the nurse, Marta, is from. The attempts to make a point about the immigrant crisis and inequality of income don’t really “work,” but the fact that the characters who claim to feel that Marta is “a member of the family” don’t even know if she is from Ecuador, Uruguay, Brazil or Paraguay is telling. Point made.

Ana de Armas, who plays Marta Cabrera, is central to the plot. Director Rian Johnson said, “I wasn’t really aware of Ana.  Her part was really, really tricky and it’s a lot to step into the middle of a cast like this. It was really critical.” He added, in an interview from the Toronto International Film Festival where he predicted great things ahead for the actress.  The filming began in January, after 4 years of making the Star Wars film, and the shooting was finished by the following Christmas.

The night I saw the film, Johnson was joined by Michael Shannon in Chicago, for Shannon’s very first viewing of the film. He commented that it was “a pretty remarkable cast” and added, “I don’t really think Walt is reprehensible.  He’s just not fully formed.” Shannon described the appeal of the role as “I had never done a movie like this in a genre like this.” It was quite obvious that director and star became close friends during filming, as Shannon draped his jacket over Johnson’s head on the Red Carpet and Johnson joked that, “I want to do a version where Shannon plays every character.” The director also identified Shannon as the second actor to sign on to the project after Daniel Craig, saying, “He was actor bait.  This film has got some real talent!”

The director also gave major props for the humor in the film to Shannon’s improvisational nature, saying, “Basically, all the funniest lines in the movie are ones that Michael just spouted out on the day.”

Chicago actor Michael Shannon greets the crowd at the AMC Theater in Chicago at the premiere of “Knives Out.” (Photo by Connie Wilson)

On a serious note, Michael Shannon was asked about the recent passing of Robert Forster, with whom he worked in 2018’s “What They Had.” He shared that his father, a former DuPaul college professor had recently died, and said, “When they both died, it was rough.” Of Forster, Shannon said, “He was very kind, a very sweet man.  Something that has never happened to me on a set before was that Robert brought all of us—including my wife whom he had never even met—a present.” Seriously (in what was otherwise a light-hearted series of exchanges) Shannon said, “He was a very kind and sweet man and one of the most grateful actors I’ve ever met.  I did two movies with him.  He was a very lovely person, and I’ll miss him very much.”

Genre:  Comedy/Drama

Writer/Director:  Rian Johnson

Cast:  Daniel Craig, Michael Shannon, Don Johnson, Jamie Lee Curtis, Toni Collette, Chris Evans, Christopher Plummer, Jaeden Martell, Frank Oz, M. Emmet Walsh, Lakeith Stanfield, Noah Segan.

Length: 130 minutes

Cinematographer:  Steven Yedlin

Opens in U.S. Nov. 27; in UK Nov. 29; In Australia Nov. 28th

Celebrities Walk the Red Carpet in Chicago at 55th Chicago International Film Festival

Chicago actor Michael Shannon greets the crowd at the AMC Theater in Chicago at the premiere of “Knives Out.” (Photo by Connie Wilson)

The Chicago premier of “Knives Out” took place in Chicago at the AMC Theater and Writer/Director Rian Johnson (“The Last Jedi”) attended, along with cast member Michael Shannon, who has a longstanding connection to Chicago. The film was well-received in its Wednesday premiere and a Q&A was held following the film.

On Saturday night, Gael Garcia Bernal (Mozart in the Jungle), actor-turned-director, received a special Artistic

Director Rian Johnson at the Chicago premiere of “Knives Out.” (Photo by Connie Wilson).

Award and screened his second directorial effort, “Chicuarotes.” The crowd was very enthusiastic about Bernal’s attendance at the festival and presented him with a Mexican flag, while one entire row wore tee shirts that bore the name of his new film. (His first film was also screened at the festival some years ago, and he shared that the first award he ever won was given him by the Chicago International Film Festival.)

Gael Garcia Bernal on the Red Carpet in Chicago on October 26th. (Photo by Connie Wilson).

“The Aeronauts” Is A Gorgeous Cinematic Adventure

Eddie Redmayne (“The Theory of Everything”) at the Chicago premiere of “The Aeronauts on Oct. 23rd. (Photo by Connie Wilson).

Eddie Redmayne, who won an Oscar

Director Tom Harper and “The Aeronauts” star Eddie Redmayne at the Chicago premiere on Oct. 23rd. (Photo by Connie Wilson).

for playing Stepen Hawkings in “The Theory of Everything,” and Felicity Jones, who played Jane Hawkings in that film, are cast opposite one another again in the Tom Harper directed film “The Aeronauts.” Hamish Patel—who was so good as the lead in “Yesterday”—also has a supporting role.

The film recounts the exploits of pioneering balloonists (aeronauts) in 1862 England. Felicity’s role as Amelia Wren casts her as “a wildcat,” as she explained in Toronto, who is fearless and, along with her late husband, Pierre, followed the dictate, “Surely the sky lies open; let us go that way.”

Eddie Redmayne recounted a terrifying story of a crash into a forested area on their first day of filming and confided that Director Harper used some of their terrified screaming in the finished film. (“No use in having it go to waste,” said the director from the stage of the AMC Theater in Chicago on Wednesday, October 23rd.)

Redmayne’s character of James Glaisher wants to establish the science of meteorology and needs Amelia’s help to take to the heavens and record what happens, with scientific precision and intent. So, they do.

(L to R) Chicago International Film Festival Artistic Director Mimi Plauche, Director Tom Harper, and star Eddie Redmayne at the Chicago premiere of “The Aeronauts” on October 23rd. (Photo by Connie Wilson).

Based on the book “Falling Upwards” it is easily one of the most beautiful films cinematically (kudos to cinematographer George Steel) and the duo is able to attain a height of 37,000 feet (7 miles), shattering previous records.

If you are afraid of heights, this is not the movie for you! (The woman next to me literally covered her face for 75% of the film). Also, next time, if you’re an aeronaut take gloves.

Opens wide December 6th. (101 minutes) An Amazon Original  Dec. 20th.

Scorsese’s “The Irishman” Is One of the Best of the Year

Martin Scorsese, at 77, still has it. He had a film at the Chicago International Film Festival 52 years ago (“Who’s That Knocking At My Door?”) in 1967. Now, he’s the undisputed master of this sort of crime drama, sharing the throne with Francis Ford Coppola. The fact that you can be so thoroughly interested in “The Irishman” for 3 hours and 20 minutes is proof that he’s still in top form.

Robert DeNiro, Joe Pesci, Al Pacino, Ray Romano, Harvey Keitel, Bobby Cannavale, Anna Paquin and a host of other great actors appear in “The Irishman,” which airs on Netflix beginning November 27th   and will play in select Chicago theaters beginning November 1st. This is Pacino’s first collaboration with Scorsese, although not his first pairing with DeNiro.

When you see DeNiro and Pacino in scenes together, it’s like a Master class in acting. The film is about what happened to Jimmy Hoffa, according to the hitman who, late in life, claimed credit for killing him. The film is based on the 2004 book “I Heard You Paint Houses” by Charles Brandt, comprised of interviews with the hitman, Frank Sheeran. Proving it’s all true is up to somebody above my pay grade, but it’s a fascinating story.

Frank Sheeran (Robert DeNiro) is a World War II veteran who spent 411 days in combat with the 45th infantry and 122 days at Anzio. He learned to kill efficiently. That skill becomes his calling in life once he throws in with Russ Bufalino (Joe Pesci) of the Pennsylvania crime family. Prior to becoming the go-to hit man for the Mob, he drove a truck delivering meat and, as he says in court about his job, (when an entire truckload of meat goes missing and ends up in Bobby Cannavale’s restaurant), “I work hard for ‘em when I ain’t stealin’ from them.”

As the movie progresses, each Mob power onscreen has a placard onscreen that tells when and how he met his end. It is fascinating, but also hard to keep up with so many deaths, some of them in slow-motion close-up.

THE PLOT

Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino) has a habit of shooting off his mouth. As he admits in Steven Zallion’s screenplay adaptation, “I get that way. I get abrupt.” Mob bosses at the top would like him to dial it back. When Hoffa is newly out of prison after a 4-year stretch for fraud, he plans to take the Teamsters Union back from former sidekick and incumbent president Frank Fitzsimmons, saying, “At the end there’s only one thing that’s real. This is my union.”

Although Hoffa is repeatedly warned that he should just take his $1.5 million pension and retire , he won’t budge. He seems to think he is invincible, that the Mob bosses (Joe Pesci as Russ Bufalino of the Pennsylvania crime family and the under-used Harvey Keitel as Mob kingpin Angelo Bruno) wouldn’t dare put out a hit on him. His attitude towards the capos In the Mafia who want him to shut up and stop making waves is a little like his attitude towards the Attorney General (Robert F. Kennedy) who is prosecuting mobsters: “He’s (RFK’s) not gonna’ get what he wants. I don’t care what he wants, he’s not gonna’ get it.” There is one last attempt to talk sense to the hot-headed Hoffa, one last try at a sit-down with the gangster known as Tony Pro, Tony Provo, the Union City, New Jersey capo. Unfortunately, Hoffa and Pro can’t stand each another and their meetings don’t go well.

THE GOOD

The acting is great. The cast includes DeNiro, Pacino, Harvey Keitel, Ray Romano, Jesse Plemmons, Bobby Cannavale, Joe Pesci (who came out of retirement to make the film), Anna Paquin as Sheeran’s daughter Peggy, and Steven Van Zandt as a lounge singer. Everyone is good, although Pacino tends to chew the scenery a bit in a few scenes.

The cinematography is compelling; Thelma Schoonover’s editing over the years has made Scorsese’s films masterpieces. It is hard to believe that three hours and twenty minutes could go by so quickly without unnecessary draggy baggage in these days of 200 minute-plus movies, but this one was so well-done that I saw no one exit early. I even had a ticket for a late-night film that would have meant leaving slightly early, but the film was too well done and  interesting to leave.

The story starts out in the nursing home where Frank Sheeran now lives in old age;  it ends in the same nursing home. There is a valedictory feeling, as though Scorsese is saluting his own illustrious career, and also those of the great actors who have brought the movie characters in his classic films to life. The old-timers in the cast were excellent. This longest (3 hrs. 20 mins) and most expensive ($150 to $200 million) of Scorsese’s many movies is one of his best.

The screenplay by Steven Zallion makes use of the phrase “It is what it is” frequently and creates a scene in a car that will rival Tarantino’s scene where Le Grand Royale as terminology for a cheeseburger in Paris is debated. This time, it is a discussion about fish, with Jessie Plemons (“Breaking Bad,” “Fargo”) driving and the others talking about what kind of fish Chuckie (Hoffa’s surrogate son) had in the car earlier. (“Never put a fish in your car. You’ll never get the smell out.”)

There is also a scene discussing how you have to “spill a little beer along the way” that showcases DeNiro and Pacino, once again, and another in a restaurant where they await the tardy Tony Pro that is great. It’s such a pleasure to see these two talents  onscreen together in good material crafted by a master.

The music by Robbie Roberson is spot-on, with “In the Still of the Night” still echoing in my ears. (I would have liked to have heard the Chairman of the Board crooning “My Way” at some point, but nevermind.) The cinematography by Rodrigo Prieto is wonderful. The visual de-aging work by Industrial Light and Magic worked  well.

THE BAD

While it is a pleasure to watch DeNiro and Pacino onscreen together, there are a few scenes, especially one in his office where Hoffa rants about RFK, where Al tends to go slightly overboard and off the rails. There’s even a line spoken by Joe Pesci, regarding Hoffa, that could apply to Pacino.  Russ Bufalino (Joe Pesci) says of Hoffa, “He likes to talk, don’t he?”

Pacino was never physically “right” to play Hoffa, who was a big man, but what Al lacks in stature he makes up for in sheer bluster. However, in the RFK office scene Pacino risks portraying Hoffa as a total buffoon. Still, when Zallion gives a talent like Al Pacino this line: “There’s only one point. I don’t wanna’ do it and I’m not gonna’ do it” you can’t really fault Al for taking his hot-head character and making the most of the script and the characterization. Pacino’s in some pretty awesome company, after all, and working for Scorsese for the first time.

I was delighted to see that Scorsese (et. al.) can still deliver the goods. Spielberg’s last outing in “Ready Player One” was underwhelming, but Marty Scorsese is still hitting it out of the park while treading familiar terrain. Clint Eastwood, now 90, says he is going to hang it up. Brian DePalma, William Friedkin, George Lucas and Peter Bogdanovich are gone from the scene. Even Quentin Tarantino is saying he may direct only one or two more films. Yes, there are good new talent(s) coming up, but many of us still miss the brilliance of Hitchcock, so seeing that Scorsese, 3 years shy of 80, is still in fine form is satisfying and reassuring. The audience will have a ball with Scorsese’s latest, and even if we are saluting the end of an era, it’s a good film to do so.

THE VERDICT:

It’s a great movie, a classic. It drives home this message from the script, “You don’t know how fast time goes by until it goes by.”

Genre: Crime drama

Director:  Martin Scorsese

Actors:  Robert DeNiro, Al Pacino, Joe Pesci, Harvey Keitel, Bobby Cannavale, Anna Paquin, Jesse Plemons.

Writer: Steven Zallion, from the book “I Heard You Paint Houses” by Charles Brandt

Length: 210 minutes

 

 

At the Movies (55th Chicago International Film Festival) With Me

Connie Wilson Preview of the Chicago International Film Festival

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