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!

Author: Connie Wilson Page 1 of 114

Biographical Information

Connie (Corcoran) Wilson graduated from the University of Iowa and earned a Master’s degree from Western Illinois University, with additional study at Northern Illinois, the University of California at Berkeley and the University of Chicago. She taught writing at six Iowa/Illinois colleges and wrote for five newspapers and 7 blogs. Her stories and interviews have appeared online and in print and her work has won prizes from “Whim’s Place Flash Fiction," “Writer’s Digest” (Screenplay), E-Lit award for 3 works, Illinois Women's Press Association Silver Feather awards, Pinnacle award (NABE) and recommendations for the Bram Stoker award. She is the author of 4 nonfiction published books, 4 short story collections, 1 novel and there are 2 novels ready for publication (the trilogy beginning with "The Color of Evil.") She reviewed film and books for the Quad City Times (Davenport, Iowa) for 12 years and wrote humor columns and conducted interviews for the (Moline, Illinois) Daily Dispatch.

Dominion Voting Machine Conspiracy Theories: Only Crackpots Need Apply

Julian Sanchez of the Cato Institute warns that the crack-pot Dominion Voting Machine conspiracy theories are harming cyber-security:

BEE GONE: A POLITICAL PARABLE

Last week, Julian Sanchez wrote about a crackpot conspiracy theory making the rounds: The allegation that voting machines or tabulation software produced by Dominion Voting Systems had somehow been “hacked” or “rigged” to alter the outcome of the presidential election. At the time, I worried I might be giving undue attention to an outlandish claim that—given how thin and easily debunked was the “evidence” for it—would surely fade away on its own. Apparently, I need not have worried. Since then, the Dominion Theory has not only led to the firing of Chris Krebs, the well‐​respected head of the Department of Homeland Security’s cybersecurity agency, but featured in a press conference held by Trump attorney Sidney Powell, who made it the centerpiece of a wildly implausible case that Donald Trump had won the presidency by a “landslide” and been deprived of victory by massive and systematic vote fraud. According to Powell’s increasingly byzantine version of the theory:

“The Dominion Voting Systems, the Smartmatic technology software, and the software that goes in other computerized voting systems here as well, not just Dominion, were created in Venezuela at the direction of Hugo Chavez to make sure he never lost an election after one constitutional referendum came out the way he did not want it to come out.”

None of this is true. Dominion and Smartmatic are separate companies, and indeed competitors; the tenuous connection between them is that Dominion once purchased assets from a firm that had been owned and sold off by Smartmatic years earlier. Smartmatic is an American company, though its founders are Venezuelan, and its software was not used in any of the swing states currently under scrutiny. (It has provided software used in Venezuelan elections, but the company itself has called out electoral fraud there.) Powell’s claim appears to be little more than an effort to insinuate guilt by (very indirect) association with an authoritarian regime.

The other supposed “evidence” for chicanery linked to Dominion is equally shoddy. Election‐​night tabulation errors in Michigan—detected and corrected almost instantly—were speculatively attributed to Dominion software by online conspiracy theorists, but local election officials have since explained that they were the result of human errors, not computers misbehaving. Claims amplified by Trump that millions of votes had been “deleted” in Pennsylvania were unequivocally refuted by state officials. Trump appears to have picked up the notion from a report on the One America News Network, which got the idea from a blog post citing data from the polling firm Edison Research—though Edison itself had produced no such report.

Evidence against the theory is overwhelming, and has only become stronger in the week since my original post. Georgia recently completed a manual recount of paper ballots, supervised by the Republican secretary of state, and found no sign of any significant tabulation errors. (The states electronic voting machines generate voter‐​verifiable paper records, and in most battleground states the in‐​person votes that would have used such voting machines favored Trump, with Biden having the advantage in hand‐​marked mail ballots.) In an open letter, 59 of the country’s most prominent election security experts said they’d found no evidence of systemic fraud—cyber or otherwise.

None of this, alas, was enough to save Chris Krebs, until recently director of the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency within the Department of Homeland Security. For the sin of issuing a statement that the agency had found no evidence of voting systems being compromised, Krebs was summarily terminated by tweet, with Trump declaring the agency’s expert analysis “highly inaccurate.”

“We have it totally under control.” (Jan. 2020)

Since the evidence‐​free Dominion theory is unlikely to persuade any court, Krebs’ dismissal may be its most damaging consequence, at least in the short term. This is not merely because Krebs was widely respected and viewed as highly competent, but because the firing sends a clear signal to all government employees: if your own analysis contradicts the president’s claims about vote fraud, you shouldn’t expect to remain employed for long. This undermines CISA’s core mission, which includes assisting and coordinating with states which may lack the federal government’s capabilities when it comes to monitoring and detecting sophisticated cyber‐​threats. Now the specter of political interference hangs over any warnings the agency may provide in the future. The agency may now hesitate to provide state officials—and the general public—with reassurances about the integrity of local elections, while warnings about actual threats may be viewed with suspicion given Trump’s clear desire to find evidence of fraud. Nor is the harm limited to CISA. The Intelligence Community at large is on notice: produce reporting at odds with the president’s public claims, and you place your career at risk.

This is particularly poisonous because it distorts what’s known as the “intelligence cycle”: the process by which agencies gather intelligence, analyze it, disseminate reporting, and then use that information to allocate resources and prioritize the next round of intelligence collection. Any distorting effect on what is reported—either because employees feel obliged to emphasize information that confirms what the president wants to hear or suppress information that contradicts his presuppositions—risks creating a feedback loop, infecting the next round of planning and intelligence collection, and diverting resources and energy away from genuine threats and toward spurious ones. We should hope the president‐​elect has the wisdom to avoid such potentially toxic interference.

Trump Power Grab Is Going On Now: Pay Attention

“Bee Gone: A Political Parable”

Trump exhorted his far-right army to mobilize for a sustained conflict over the election results. He refused to say whether he’d accept a legitimate loss. And he confirmed he’s expecting the Supreme Court to help invalidate countless legally cast ballots.

Can Trump can pull off one of his most-discussed means for rigging the election: getting a GOP state legislature to appoint substitute pro-Trump electors to the electoral college, regardless of the popular vote in that state? That’s what is going on right now.

Trump is telegraphing his scheme.

At the debate, Trump said he “can’t go along” with a result tallied up from millions of mail-in ballots, which will mean “fraud like you’ve never seen.” He urged supporters to “watch” the voting “very carefully,” i.e., to engage in voter intimidation. When his own GOP appointed cyber-security official, Christopher Krebs, who had done a good and honest job, testified that it was the fairest election in history, DJT fired him.“We did it right. Defend Today, Secure Tomorrow,” wrote Krebs, a former policy director at Microsoft whom Trump appointed to his role in 2017 after Russia’s 2016 election Interference campaign.

It is unconscionable that the man in charge of keeping foreign countries from interfering in our elections, who has, by all accounts, done an admirable job, is being punished for doing his job well. Trump is also playing with fire in replacing the Secretary of Defense and other high ranking officials, just as is done in tin-pot dictator countries before a coup d’etat. The Republicans in the House and Senate, so far, are simply going along with these anti-democratic acts and making excuses for the man-child orchestrating them.

Asked what he expects of the high court and his most recently appointed Supreme Court Justice Amy Conan Barrett, Trump said: “I’m counting on them to look at the ballots.” He is dragging his feet as long as he can, demanding recount after recount, even though none has changed the results. He is seeking to sow dissension in the ranks of his loyal-to-the-bitter-end followers and to get their public outcry to the point where red state officials will feel confident in saying that they are sending in their own electors for the Dec. 14th Electoral College vote. So far, only a few GOP Senators have had the cojones to even congratulate the rightful winner and I know of only two who have spoken out at all about any portion of this travesty.

We are in deep water, here, folks, and there doesn’t appear to be anyone throwing us a life line. The Senate won’t, as they demonstrated during the impeachment opportunity. Bill Barr won’t, as he’s the guy who helped Reagan out during Iran/Contra and has already demonstrated how he will work to undercut the Mueller Report by releasing his own Cliff’s Notes version early and supporting Trump in many other unethical ways.

“We have it totally under control.” (Jan. 2020)

Trump did also say he might not “need” the court to settle “the election itself.” But that only inadvertently confirms that he believes the court is at his beck and call to hand him the presidency, despite the fact that he lost the election by over 5 million votes. His supporters in Michigan have already tried to refuse to certify that their state vote went to the Democrat.

As far-fetched as it seems that a state legislature might appoint pro-Trump electors, it’s important to note that some Republicans are already claiming that the fictional mass fraud in large-scale mail balloting could serve as the justification for doing just this.

As one Trump legal adviser said, they might say: “We don’t think the results of our own state are accurate, so here’s our slate of electors that we think properly reflect the results of our state.”

And so, when Trump casts doubt on the legitimacy of a prolonged count after Election Day — as he did at the debate — he’s opening the possibility of using exactly this justification for precisely this endgame.

 

Nero Fiddled While Rome Burned; Trump Sulks While A Quarter of a Million Die

The editorial below appeared in the Nov. 12th Quad City Times and was written by Michael Gerson (WaPo). When you’re right, you’re right and I’m sure Gerson has said this better than I could:

************************

BEE GONE: A POLITICAL PARABLE

President Donald Trump will be remembered for many things.  For the audacity of his mendacity.  (* He just fired the head of the cyber security team).  For his ready recourse to prejudice.  For his savant’s ability to rile and ride social resentment.  For his welcoming of right-wing crackpots (QAnon?) into the Republican coalition.  For his elevation of self-love into a populist cause.

For his brutal but bumbling use of force against protesters.  For his routinization of self-dealing and political corruption.  For his utter lack of public spirit and graciousness even to the very end.

And, to be fair, for the remarkable achievement of winning more than 73 million votes with an appealing message, without significant achievements, without a discernible agenda for the future (and after 240,000 U.S. citizens lay dead because of his inattention to duty.)

But although Trump will be remembered for all these things, he will be judged for one thing above all: When the pandemic came and hundreds of thousands of Americans died, he didn’t give a damn.

How do we know this? It is not easy to read a man’s heart, but it is easy to detect that organ’s absence. Trump is not only refusing to provide leadership during a rapidly mounting health crisis, he is also sabotaging the ability of the incoming Biden administration to cooperate with leaders at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the National Institutes of Health and other government agencies.  By disrupting the presidential transition during an unfolding Covid-19 disaster, Trump is engaging in history’s most dangerous sulk.

Even before his re-election loss, Trump had trouble expressing empathy for victims of the virus and their families. Even after his own bout with Covid-19, Trump did not seem capable of feeling or imagining the suffering of others. (*We saw this in Puerto Rico when his sole presidential act was to throw paper towels to the suffering populace.)

This may reflect some psychological incapacity. But it also indicates a certain view of pandemic politics.

From the start, Trump did not believe the disaster itself was a true enemy.   Rather, he viewed the public perception of widespread disease as the real threat—the threat to his political future. So, the fewer Americans who believed in the disease’s spread, the better. And the less attention the victims of the disease received, the better.

This helps explain Trump’s own explanation given to the Washington Post’s Bob Woodward at the start of the pandemic.  “I wanted to always play it down,” the president said.  “I still like playing it down, because I don’t want to create a panic.” A panic, after all, might spook the stock market, or make him appear responsible.

This is a distorted way to view both illness and politics.  Interpreted as an attack on him, Covid-19 should be minimized.  In reality, the disease was—and is—an attack on the American public, which can be fought only by elevating attention to the disease and warning against indifference.  It was Trump’s monomania that dictated the path of denial and inaction.

At one point early in the unfolding crisis, a senior official urged Trump to take leadership and “own the problem.”  But that is exactly what the president wanted most to avoid.  As the danger became undeniable, the president doggedly denied it.  “It’s going to disappear,” said Trump.

The goal was not to calm the public, but to anesthetize it.

In this cramped and selfish view of the world, every Covid-19 victim who is highlighted by the media is perceived by the president as an attack on himself. And the public expression of sympathy on his part would be self-sabotage, an admission of his failure.

So when Trump recovered from the disease, he did not say, as former Governor of New Jersey Chris Christie did, “I should have won a mask.”  Instead, Trump pronounced himself “immune,” held dangerous largely mask-free rallies, and used his own recovery to play down the seriousness of the disease.

Covid-19 Test Site.

Recovery from Covid-19 did not change Trump’s perspective, and neither has electoral loss. The president is apparently too busy moping, golfing, fuming and lying to assume leadership during a spiraling health crisis. (*Today, however, he took time to fire the head of cyber-security for the election and to make an attempt to disenfranchise all of Detroit.).

He has roused only enough interest to take personal credit for a prospective vaccine.  Once again, Trump does not seem to regard Covid-19 as a threat to the country requiring responsible action  He sees the pandemic as an attack on his person to be downplayed or denied.

This is egotism, turned cruel and deadly. (*The nation’s Top Psychiatrists say that Trump is, indeed, a malignant narcissist. This means narcissism, anti-social personality disorder, paranoia and sadistic tendencies rolled into one and created to describe Hitler.)

The country will not be delivered by appealing to Trump’s better angels, who fled in disgust long ago.  It might help if elected Republicans stopped ignoring and enabling Trump’s lethal tantrum.  But the hours until noon, January 20th, still move too slowly.

 

Thoughts, Post-Election, Regarding the Presidential Election of 2020

BEE GONE: A POLITICAL PARABLE

I have purposely refrained from writing anything “post election,” hoping that I could post something very hopeful and positive.

Instead, although former Vice President Joe Biden prevailed and has won enough votes to be declared the winner of the presidential race by everyone except hard-core Trump supporters, the news from the front was not as rosy as Democrats might have hoped. Cheri Bustos, who was Chairperson of the DNC, has stepped down amidst the news that the “blue tsunami” that many thought was going to happen did not materialize.

I never felt that there was going to be a “blue tsunami.” I was still coping with the debilitating news that Trump was going to be our president, rather than Hillary Clinton. Mind you, I was not an avid Hillary supporter, but I did think she would be competent, which was not at all clear with the mercurial temperament of DJT.

I felt the way I did when Stephen Colbert had set aside his entire late night talk show to revel in Hillary Clinton’s victory and, instead, had to consume the champagne in a much-less festive fashion.

Since the polls closed on November 3rd I’ve waited for a sign that a smooth transition of power was taking place and our long national nightmare with DJT might be over. It will be two full weeks tomorrow and Biden’s popular vote continues to rise. However, the Trumpers are in the position that those of us who backed Al Gore in 2000 were placed in after the hanging chad election in Florida. Only worse.

There is far more evidence, this time, that the citizens of the United States wanted to be rid of Donald J. Trump. That enthusiasm for change did not, however, extend down the ballot, and the mere fact that 170 million people could still bring themselves to vote for Donald J. Trump is disconcerting.

After reading many “post election post scripts” in these 2 weeks, I have settled on tapping the thoughts articulated by Leonard Pitts of the Miami “Herald” and here are this Black American’s thoughts, published on November 9th:

Recognizing Who We Are: Faced with a clear choice between good and evil, America did the right thing, barely.  That is sobering and profoundly disappointing.

“Forgive me for being the ant at the picnic.

Certainly this is a glad moment, an ecstatic and delirious moment.  The election of 2020 has ended at last.  Joe Biden is finally the president-elect and Donald Trump is finally consigned to the dank well of ignominy he so richly deserves.

As Gerald Ford once said in the aftermath of a less dire threat, “Our long national nightmare is over.”  As the Munchkins of Oz once sang, “Ding dong! The wicked witch is dead.”

But if gladness is mandated, caveats are required.  America needed an emphatic rejection that left no doubt that the chaos, lies, lawlessness, bigotry and ignorance Trump represented were not, as some of us are overly fond of claiming ‘who we are as a people.’ We needed to deliver him a thundering, emphatic rejection.

And we did not.

To the contrary, a victory that should have been an overwhelming landslide had to be eked into existence.  Indeed, even in defeat, Trump actually improved on his 2016 popular vote count by, at this writing, roughly 7 million votes.

Think about that.  After he bungled a pandemic (240,000 Americans dead; 420,000 by March 1st), after he botched the economy (nearly 5 million jobs lost—more than any president since WWII), after he alienated our allies and emboldened our enemies, after he undermined every institution, down to and including the National Weather Service, after he extorted Ukraine, occupied Portland and declared war on Lafayette Square, and, after he embraced an agenda of brazen white supremacy, after, in other words, they lost the excuse of ignorance, because they knew exactly what Trump was, 7 million more people cast their ballots for Trump.

Joe Biden in Independence, Iowa, on the Fourth of July, 2019.

Yes, he lost.

Yes, Biden tallied more votes than any candidate in history (78,789,001, 50.9% for Biden to 73,167,876 votes, 47.3% for Trump) and, of course, won the Electoral College. But the caveat looms large.

Faced with a clear choice between good and evil, America did the right thing, barely.  That is sobering and profoundly disappointing.

And it strips bare all the glossy claims about who we are as a country, underscoring the fact that in a meaningful sense, we are not one country at all anymore, but two sharing the same borders.  The last time that happened, it took four years and 750,000 lives to force us back into some semblance of oneness.  Even then, the seams of the fracture were always visible.

Unlike that break, this one is not starkly geographic: South versus North. No, this one is city versus country, college educated versus high school educated, and, most significantly, future versus past.  Meaning that yesterday, this was a nation where white people were the majority, and tomorrow it will be one where they are not.

The fear and resentment that inspires in many white people cannot be overstated.  It has warped our politics for years, culminating in the disaster of Trump.

Now, Biden is elected on a promise to heal those breaks, but that will require more than a good man’s good intentions.  It will require white Americans to divest a system of white supremacy that, let’s face it, has been very, very good to them.

Unfortunately, it has been less good for the country.  So a moral reckoning is required here.  It is time more white Americans finally recognize that white supremacy is not something you compromise with or rationalize.  It must be a deal breaker, always.  And it isn’t, as evidenced by the fact that the man who called Mexicans rapists and Haiti, El Salvador and the nations of Africa “shithole countries,” who described neo-Nazis as “very fine people” and told four Congresswomen of color born in this country to “go back where they came from” just won 7 million more votes than he garnered in 2016.

That’s “who we are as a people.”  Let’s stop kidding ourselves about that. And start figuring out how to become what we said we were all along.”

 

 

“Stormchaser” Is Well-done Short Film by Gretl Claggett

Stormchaser”

Filmmaker Gretl Claggett both wrote and directed a short film/narrative pilot called “Stormchaser.”

I’m not sure which Midwestern state is portrayed in this 27 minute film, but the license plate said Missouri, so I’ll take a wild guess that it was, indeed, Missouri.

Gretl’s indie film, which might morph into a pilot if all goes well, won the AMC Networks’ Best Female Creator Award at the Stareable Fest 2020 and is traveling throughout the festival circuit now. She will be my guest on my podcast Weekly Wilson on November 19th at 7 p.m. (CDT) talking about this film and her burgeoning career. The film will be screening at Film Girl Film Festival in Milwaukee November 13th through November 20th.

So, what is the plot of “Stormchaser”?

I expected it to be up-close-and-personal information on tornadoes and their devastating effects on those trapped in them.

Not the case.

“Stormchaser” is about Bonnie Blue (Mary Birdsong of “The Descendants”), who grew up chasing tornadoes with her dad and now is making a statement for female empowerment. She’s trapped in a  demeaning job as a sales person for Flip Smith’s shingles and siding business, where “Flip the Switch” is the go-to phrase for the sales people.  (Nice acting on the part of Stephen Plunkett, who has been recognized at several film festivals.)

The film begins with a young Bonnie sliding into the cab of the truck next to her father as they seek to chase a tornado, described as “a gift from the infinite universe.” They encounter “a great river of air” and are off to the races.  Later, a radio preacher is heard burbling about “a visual manifestation of turmoil just beneath the surface.” By that point, the turmoil has pretty much broken through to the outside world.

Oddly enough, I wrote this review in my basement (hoping I would not lose power and the internet while working) during a tornado warning for the Chicago area and  Illinois on 11/10/2020, which lasted until 3 p.m. It is a classic gesture of serendipity that I was actually hunkered down in my basement avoiding the possible consequences of a tornado while watching “Stormchaser.”

The film becomes a story about a woman of a certain age—only female in a male-dominated workplace—standing up for her rights. She’s disconnected, up against a recession, and facing down a boss (Stephen Plunkett of “The Mend”) who deserves everything that comes to him in the course of the film.

Mary Birdsong (“The Descendants”) portrays Bonnie Blue and does a fine job. Plunkett won Best Actor awards for his role as Flip Smith at the Grove Film Festival (New Jersey) and the cast won Best Ensemble Cast at the Richmond International Film Festival. Plunkett also was nominated as Best Actor at the Idyllwild Film Festival.

Filmmaker Gretl Claggett said, “I created ‘Stormchaser’ as a darkly funny allegory, in which the main characters represent different facets of our sociopolitical system, from the Old America and culture of entitlement to the changing face and values of a New America struggling to find its way.”

Tune in on November 19th at 7 p.m. (CDT) when Gretl and I talk about “Stormchaser” and her past and future film projects. 

 

“76 Days:” Engrossing Doc About the Outbreak of Covid-19 in Wuhan (Free Online)

“76 Days” is a 93-minute documentary about the outbreak of Covid-19 in Wuhan, China, a film directed and written by Hao Wu, Weixi Chen (the cinematographer) and an individual who chose to remain anonymous. One wonders how the team managed to record this battle within a Chinese hospital and whether the anonymity is because the Chinese government might disapprove of the telling of this story.

The film is shot within the Wuhan Red Cross Hospital, beginning on January 23, 2020, in that city of eleven million people. The 76 days will end on April 8th and air raid sirens will mourn the dead in the city on April 4th.

The documentary opens with a dramatic scene of sick people trying to crowd into the hospital from the cold, despite the institution’s 45 stated maximum occupancy for patients.  This siege will not end until April 8th, the lockdown that the city endured.

The patients seem to be primarily elderly, although one young girl, a hospital employee, is seen wailing throughout the opening scenes. She keeps saying “I want to say good-bye. I’ll never see my papa again.” We track the mourning family member outside, where she once again pleads for one last glimpse of her deceased loved one, who is being taken away in a hearse.

We see Dr. Wang exhorting his colleagues to “unite as a collective whole and win the battle to protect Wuhan.” One volunteer explains that he had “a hero’s dream to go support Wuhan.”

Trang Dingyuan came from Shanghai to help. The first supporters (volunteers) arrived from Sichuan, but others drove all the way from Shanghai to help staff the hospital in Wuhan. It is an 8 hour and 47 minute drive from Shanghai to Wuhan. The universality of what New York later experienced is experienced, but with more PPE amongst the employees.

Mostly, the film is a testimony to the chaos that the epidemic has caused, with no hospital beds and resuscitation failing on several patients as the cameras record the desperate struggle.

Some humorous relief is provided by an elderly man, referred to as “Grandpa.” Grandpa, who has dementia, will not stay in his room and continues to wander the hospital corridors, usually while muttering things like “I’m already one foot in the grave.” He cannot read and there is a heated phone discussion with his son about how long he has been an upstanding member of the Communist party. [His son seems to think he should set a better example as a proud Communist, but, instead, Grandpa is mostly crying in his room—when he’s not out wandering around and causing problems.] Even when the hospital is trying to release him back into the world, Grandpa starts wandering in the wrong direction, back into the hospital. The staff applauds when Grandpa is finally released upon the world.

In the midst of all this death, a young woman in childbirth (whose water broke 2 days earlier) must be delivered by Caesarean section. She had Covid-19, which she has passed on to her newborn daughter. We follow that drama through to the end as the child—a chubby female with a full head of hair whom the staff nicknames “the hungry penguin”— is whisked away to another area of the hospital and an incubator.

A box of cell phones collected from the dead and dying is introduced early in the documentary. It is at the end of the documentary that Yang Li, head ICU nurse, draws the unenviable duty of sorting through the abandoned phones and calling the next of kin to tell them to come pick up their dead relatives’ belongings. Usually,Yang Li seeks to return a phone to the relatives. One deceased woman’s bracelet is retrieved for her daughter, despite the fact that it is against regulations and the deceased, Grandma Luo Jinsong, had swollen arms at the time of her death, causing difficulty in retrieving the jewelry.

When she completes the task of returning the bracelet and the phone to a young girl who is sobbing, Yang Li expresses her condolences. She turns from the camera and appears broken, numb. It reminds of the line from earlier in the film, “How could it have come to this?”

The beleaguered hospital employees work tirelessly to try to save their patients and to preserve order within the hospital. I was surprised to hear patients being asked if they had “vomiting or diarrhea,” since neither of these symptoms received much air play on American television. I was also surprised to learn that ICU is emblazoned above the doors to the Chinese facility, much like Intensive Care Unit appears above these areas in American hospitals.  I assumed that all signs would be in the language of the country. There was also a much better degree of PPE in this Chinese hospital than during the early days of the pandemic in the U.S. and most of the doctors and nurses appear as masked and fully covered workers.

Writer/Director Hao Wu helmed “All in My Family” in 2019 and “People’s Republic of Desire” in 2018. His documentary about underground Chinese churches (2006) earned him a detention from the Chinese government. “76 Days” has had 3 wins on the film festival circuit: Best Documentary at AFI Fest, Grand Prize and Social Impact Award for Heartland International Film Festival, and 3 additional nominations, including at the 43rd Denver Film Festival. After premiering at Toronto, it will release on December 4th.

“Drowning” (2020): Mom Obsesses Over Son’s Service

“Drowning” is a Melora Walters film, produced by Sergio Rizzuto’s Potato Eater Productions, in conjunction with Room in the Sky Films, Eight Trick Pony and Hero LA . Walters wrote, directed, and stars in the film. She has 110 credits as an actress, including “Boogie Nights,” and “Dead Poets’ Society.” She has 3 credits as a writer and 4 as a director.

This film premiered in North America in Austin, Texas, at the Austin Film Festival on October 29, 2019 after its World Premiere in Rome. The log-line is “A mother deals with the grief associated with her son going off to war.” It is based on Walters’ own life. Sometimes, when we are very close to the story, we need someone who isn’t integrally involved to step up and give us honest feedback. Stay tuned.

The cast in this one is quite experienced. They all do a fine job.  Since Melora Walters is Mira Sorvino’s best friend, we even have a few minutes onscreen of the 1995 Best Supporting Actress Oscar winner (“Mighty Aphrodite”). Others include Gil Bellows as her boyfriend Frank (produced “Temple Grandin,” acted in “Ally McBeal,” “Shawshank Redemption”), Jay Mohr as Henry (“Suicide Squad,” “Last Comic Standing”) and Joanna Goings as Catherine (“Search for Tomorrow,” “Another World”). Goings plays Ms. Walters’ therapist; interesting side-note, both women were once married to Dylan Walsh (“Nip Tuck”). Also, Sergio Rizzuto as Charlie, the son, and Jim O’Heir in a brief part shown on a television screen.

Here’s the problem with the film (and some suggested fixes):

After we establish that Rose (Melora Walters) is concerned to the point of obsession about her adult son’s going off to war (Iraq and Syria), her concern becomes quite tiresome very quickly. Here’s one line from the script, “It just feels like I can’t breathe until he comes home.” I have a friend who once said, as her son was getting married, “I don’t know what I’ll do if I can’t see him every day.”

Advice: Get over it! He’s getting married. He’s an adult now. (Yes, I have 2 adult children).

Another scripted line, “We have no control. We cannot even protect ourselves We want to say it will be all right, but we can’t.” A well-meaning casual acquaintance tries to counsel Rose, telling her, “Everything about you says you’re sad.  I’m talking about the will to live.”

Rose’s boyfriend, played by Gil Bellows, wants her to move to New York with him, but she repeatedly turns down his invitation to the point that her nervous worrying about her adult son in the Army (“You sound like a parrot over and over and over.”) causes Frank (Gil Bellows) to finally say, “You just need to calm the fuck down, Rose.”

Unfortunately, that never really happens and there really isn’t any more to the story.

That much is for sure. Rose tries therapy, but the photography and swimming lessons with Jay Mohr don’t seem to be helping much.

I have these suggestions for ways in which the script could have been transformed from one long whine fest to something more dramatic. We might have had 82 well-acted minutes that actually go somewhere:

  • During the swimming lessons, Rose seems to have a suicidal moment, and there is a similar moment (pills?) when in her apartment. Why not let one of these attempts come close and put Rose in the hospital, where she has a Eureka Moment and realizes that—among other unresolved plot lines—she supposedly has a daughter in college studying chemistry that she should continue trying to stay alive to mother (in addition to her adult son)? Maybe it will sink in, as scripted, that the young soldier had drug abuse issues before he enlisted, so his enlistment was all for the best (Rose’s boyfriend, Frank, tells her this.) The Eureka moment could involve (a) Rose’s boyfriend, Frank (b) Rose’s hitherto not-heard-from college-age daughter and/or (c) the mysterious guy with the hat who stops by in a restaurant and calls her a “beautiful, sad woman” while quoting Schopenhauer. (“The only salvation is to live life.”)
  • Why not have son Charlie (Sergio Rizzuto) actually get injured while in Iraq? There any number of dramatic opportunities that could occur if Charlie had some sort of injury. (Not saying that Charlie should die, since Rose would probably not survive that. Just a scare, perhaps, that makes both of them aware that life is a gift and we should all make the most of it.)
  • Why not have Rose accept Frank’s offer to re-locate to New York City? It could be presented as a break-through moment. The Schopenhauer quote could be worked in somehow. One way to show that Rose is turning the corner on her fixation over her son’s service obligation would be to have her quit being so obsessed with answering her phone. Watching someone answer a phone is almost as exciting as watching someone driving. Both of these pursuits dominate a lot of screen time.

These plot suggestions are just the most obvious ones. It could be something totally off-the-wall like an unexpected romance with one of the much younger men who enter the bookstore where Rose works. Example: Rose is working and Peter (who is actually Mira Sorvino’s husband, Christopher Backus) comes in and flirts with her and, even though he is 17 years younger than Rose, they become a couple.

Again, the carpe diem refrain is no matter what the age difference, as Woody Allen once famously said, “The heart wants what it wants” and at least Rose would be advancing towards something other than lying on her fabulous green velvet couch eating potato chips. Maybe she could start up with the pool guy (Jay Mohr).

Whatever is decided upon from the options above, I’m available, if they want to work on getting an ending for this character study shot in and around Los Angeles. [And, yes, I’ve written 3 award-winning screenplays that will probably never see the light of day.] This one can be seen on YouTube.com.

 

 

 

“One of These Days:” A Snapshot of Small-town Texas Life at Hands On Contest

 Bastion Gauthier (Writer/Director) takes the topic of an annual endurance contest (Hands On) in Texas to win a pickup truck and turns it into a small-town tragedy. The contest promises thrilling entertainment to spectators and the chance of a lifetime for the participants, but it ends in real tragedy.

The contest organizer, Joan Dempsey, well-played by Carrie Preston, will be remembered by fans of television’s “The Good Wife” for playing Elsabeth Tascioni, a slightly off-beat but brilliant attorney. Carrie played the part in 14 episodes from 2010 to 2016 and won a Primetime Emmy Award for Outtanding Guest Actress in a Drama Series in 2013. She was nominated again in 2016. Joan is organizing the competition for Boudreaux’s Auto and Truck Dealership and she is very believable as a small-town employee of that car dealership.

The central contestant role is played by Joe Cole as Kyle Parson. Kyle and his wife and infant child are struggling, financially, and, as the script says, “He really needed a win.”

The rest of the cast of competitors who show up to try to win the truck by outlasting the others is a motley crew, with 20 people who seem to fit the bill often described as “poor white trash,” one of whom declares that what they are doing “isn’t rocket surgery.”

THE GOOD

In addition to Carrie Preston, who is always good in her roles, the “bad guy,” Kevin, played by Jesse C. Boyd, becomes a central figure. There are a variety of types that we can recognize from small-town life, whether it is the completely self-absorbed ear-bud wearing guy beating rhythms to the song that only he can hear on the truck’s chassis or the Bible-quoting Fundamentalist who occasionally requests that they all number off. We get a pretty good idea of the twenty competitors still standing, during the 119 minute movie, and there are those we root for and those we’d like to see quit or be disqualified—perhaps just on the basis of general nastiness.

The film won a special mention at the Zurich Film Festival and was a nominee for awards in Nashville.

THE BAD

Three things really detracted from the film:

#1) Cinematographer Michael Kotschi felt it would be a good idea to have the camera action be jerky at times, shooting forward down streets without any real attempt to focus. We can’t really call it “cinema verité (“Z”). It’s Cinema “F” as in “Failed.” The effect did nothing to enhance the film, but it did a lot to detract from it. I gave my GoPro camera to two eleven-year-olds to film a wedding over Labor Day; they did a better job of filming. The only good thing is that Kotschi did this hand-held herky-jerky treatment primarily on shots of streets, not when we were focused on the inter-action of the contestants in the parking lot of the Hands On contest. My advice to Michael Kotschi: STOP THAT!

#2)  For reasons I do not understand Writer/Director Bastion Gauthier ended the film and then added 20 to 30 minutes of additional background on our male lead, Kyle Parson. The information conveyed to us at the END of the film, (when Kyle is no longer a factor in the competition to win the truck), helps us to understand the plot’s events.. Adding the information at the end of the film was an odd and not very logical placement. It definitely belonged in the film, but chronological order would have been a better choice than tacking it on at the end.

#3) We never learn who won the truck.

I found the film to be interesting, aside from the three complaints mentioned above, but it had the potential to be more.

“On Fellini’s Footsteps” Retraces Fellini’s Career

Frederico Fellini

Meandering through Rome and Cinecittà, Gerald Morin, who worked with Fellini for over a decade, creates a touching portrait of the man, enriched by anecdotes from Fellini’s most important collaborators. The write-up on IMDB says it  “throws us back to an era that is engraved in our collective memory.”

I’ve been reviewing film non-stop for 50 years, so, yes, I have the era “engraved in my collective memory.” I still remember the Anita Ekberg scene in the Trevi fountain in Fellini’s “La Dolce Vita”, and I recall that Fellini’s films were dream/nightmare fantasy experiences.

Fellini was a visionary who “saw” exactly what he wanted to put on film, but he often didn’t “see” it util he arrived on set,  in a free form sort of creative inspirational style, of which one cameraman said, “We don’t know, the day before, how we will shoot. His mind is like a camera.”

Sometimes, Fellini would change the actors’ lines while they were filming. It was all in the service of inspiration and, as Fellini himself told a “New Yorker” interviewer (Lillian Ross):  “I am trying to free my work from certain constrictions—a story with a beginning, a development and an ending. It should be more like a poem with meter and rhythm.” It was Fellini’s devotion to being “in the moment” that often saw him go to bed with one idea and wake up with another.

Still, “8 and ½” (so named because that was how many films Fellini had made to that point) was named one of the 10 Best Films Ever Made and he was awarded a Lifetime Achievement Award by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences in April of 1993, his 5th Oscar.

A talented artist, Fellini was constantly making sketches of both his sets and the costumes he wanted the actors to wear. Said Norma Giacchero, his script supervisor, “His sketches were very helpful.” His set designer said, “Fellini’s world was his own. The real world didn’t interest him.” Cameramen who worked with Fellini talked about his use of the zoom, which he employed while the camera was moving. He did this to change the focal distance and width of the shot. He worked by sequence and used the zoom in unusual ways, going from 50 mm. to 250 mm. long range.

Among the adjectives that his co-workers used to describe him were charming, obsessed, never satisfied, impatient, prompt and demanding. Still, many of his long-time collaborators mention his sense of humor and his “desire to dominate matter.”

“8 and ½” began shooting May 9 of 1962 and completed shooting October 14, 1963. Stumped by the plot he wanted to film, Fellini finally decided it should be about a director who no longer knows what film he wants to make. He described it as having past, present and conditional (fantasy) elements and it was soundly condemned by many, who considered it immoral. Still, it was nominated for the Palme d’Or and received 12 Oscar nominations, 4 of which it won, including Best Foreign Language Film and Best Costume Design in Black and White.

During this documentary, which was shot in 2013, a glimpse is shown of an ecclesiastical fashion show (red-robed Cardinals) where nuns and priests roller skate past shipwrecks of cobwebbed skeletons, scenes from 1971’s “Roma.” As a former colleague put it, “Nobody touches Fellini for bringing dreams to life.”

Although the film does not allude to Fellini’s fascination with and dabbling in LSD and Carl Jung-ian psychiatry after he fell into a depressive period, the films after 1963 often reflected those interests.

Fellini tried working with Hollywood stars (Broderick Crawford, a stand-in for the ailing Humphrey Bogart in the unsuccessful 1955 film “Il Bidone” and Donald Sutherland as Casanova in that film.) His collaborations with Marcello Mastroianni are best remembered. Antonio Bardini, his barber, said, “Marcello wanted to be Fellini and Fellini wanted to be Mastroianni.”

Fellini died at 73 of a heart attack one day after celebrating his 50th wedding anniversary to  wife Gulietta Messina in 1993.

“The Comeback Trail” Will Leave You Laughing—and That’s Just What We Need!

George Gallo and Josh Posner took an old idea (based on a 1982 film of the same name  by Harry Hurwitz) and tweaked the basic idea of “The Producers” to give us the comedy “The Comeback Trail.” The movie stars Robert DeNiro, Tommy Lee Jones, Zach Braff, Morgan Freeman, Emile Hirsch and there is an uncredited cameo from Jason Bateman.

Gallo was the creative force behind “Wise Guys,” “Midnight Run,” and “Bad Boys,” among other amusing films. This is a World Class Cast and the music by Aldo Schllaku and cinematography by Lukasz Bielan are top-notch. Budget was estimated to be $25 million.

Here’s the plot in a nutshell (as revealed in numerous trailers): Max Barber (DeNiro) and his nephew Walter Creason (Zach Braff) have just released “Killer Nuns” (“They’re nuns with a bad habit.”). It’s another bomb from Miracle Pictures. [In fact, the Miracle Pictures slogan is, “If it’s good, it’s a miracle.”]

Walter borrowed $350,000 from Reggie Fontaine (Morgan Freeman) to make the picture, and Reggie wants his money back. Since Reggie isn’t kidding about wanting repayment, Max goes to James Moore (Emile Hirsch), a wealthy investor, and James (call him Jamie) demands that the great script for a film called “Paradise” be signed over to Jamie, in exchange for helping bail Max out.

It is while at Jamie’s mansion, where filming is taking place on yet another picture, that Zach Braff, seeking an autograph, inadvertently causes Frank Pierce, the star of the picture (uncredited cameo by Jason Bateman) to fall off a building.  (I wondered if Frank Pierce was modeled on Tom Cruise?) Pierce is killed,— but he was insured for $5 million.

That is the germ of the idea for Max: Hire an over-the-hill movie star of yesteryear, insure him heavily, and kill him off while making a picture. Then, collect the insurance. This isn’t too far off the idea behind “The Producers” when another Max planned to make a terrible Broadway bomb and collect for its failure. That original film with Dick Shawn (“Springtime for Hitler,” anyone?) unfortunately goes on to be a roaring success, which ruins Zero Mostel’s (Max Bialystock’s) plans.

Tommy Lee Jones is the over-the-hill Western star, Duke Montana, who is reduced to doing commercials for Big Earl’s Used Cars, while living in a retired actors’ home, where he is suicidal over his long-lost love, Bess.

THE GOOD

The dialogue frequently references famous movies of yesteryear. At one point, for instance, Morgan Freeman tells Max’s character that, if he is not promptly paid within 72 hours, “I’ll hunt you down like Redford and Newman in ‘Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.’” There is an amusing exchange when Morgan Freeman—a frequent investor in numerous film projects—-marvels to his sidekick, Devin, that they are on the movie set where “Gunga Din” was filmed.

“This is where they shot Gunga Din!” says Morgan’s character.

Devin responds, “Who is Gunga Din and why did they shoot him?”

It’s throw-away lines like this, plus the stunt horse Buttermilk (an homage to Dale Evans) that will tickle the fancy of true movie buffs.

The horse (Buttermilk) has various tricks that he’ll perform upon the uttering of a code word. Say “rocket” and he’s off running like one. Say “mattress” and he’ll lie down. Say “Rhubarb” and watch out! There is also a bull whose intentions towards the cast are deadly and a hanging footbridge over a canyon that makes Duke ‘fess up that he is afraid of heights.

THE BAD

I’ve never thought that Robert DeNiro played comedy as well as drama. He always seems to be over-the-top hammy in fare like “Meet the Fockers,” but the movies were still funny. His mugging for the camera (again) doesn’t keep the lines and situations from being laugh-out-loud humor at a time when we desperately need more laughter in our lives.

The movie was filmed in and around Albuquerque, New Mexico, and will be streaming by December 18th. Be sure to stay after the credits to see the hilarious phoney ads for “Killer Nuns” and films like “Cows from Beyond” by the mythical Miracle Films.

 

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