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 121

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.

The Royal Sands, April 3-10, 2021

Daughter Stacey and granddaughters Elise (l) and Ava (r).

Week One in Cancun is in the history books.

We visited several extremely fancy (and equally pricey) restaurants, including “Harry’s,” “Tabu,” “Rosa Negra” (the Black Rose), Captain’s Cove and the Veranda at the Royal Sands.

The daughter and the grandchildren encountered a pig on the beach, being walked by its owner. Naturally, photo opportunities arose.

Our room (C5108) became party central for games and we played euchre, poker, Balderdash, Code Words, and other games.

Uncle Mark (Wilson) arrived from St. Louis a few days in and left a few days early. All of the Covid-19 tests required came back negative and, of our party of 12, only Jessica, Chris Poffenbarger and the granddaughters had not received at least one shot. Masks are required at the facility, but not around the pool. The crowds appear to be about half what they normally would be, but the restaurants mentioned above are teeming with patrons, who are being bombarded by high decibel noise.

The son and daughter-in-law and granddaughters and daughter left today (for Austin and Nashville,

Stacey holds Moira, the pig.

respectively). The Poffenbargers left for St. Louis and Macomb, Illinois.

The weather was sunny every day, but especially windy and, for the first 5 days, I did not get in the pool (nor, in some cases, remove my cover-up) because it was not that hot. On one day (Tuesday) the women visited the spa. I had an aromatherapy massage and, for the first time, I was not pummeled into a week of pain. The daughter has shared that the foot reflexology massage was her favorite.

On Wednesday Scott rented a boat that carried ten of the group out to go snorkeling.

I’m not a big fan of snorkeling. I did not ever get it quite “right” when we visited Hawaii, and I haven’t gotten it right since. Getting in and out of the boat has always been a challenge and I really don’t like fish rubbing against my body, which actually happened in Hawaii when we took a bag of frozen peas and lured fish toward us at Hanama Bay. It’s not a good memory.

For those reasons and others, I did not accompany the group that went out on the boat (which, also, cost $180 an hour). Craig hit his head hard on something on the boat and has a big scab on the top of his head now. He and Mark also commented on the strong current in the ocean, where the snorkeling led them.

Beach at the Royal Sands.

The boat captain also noticed their distress in a strong ocean current). Stacey cut her foot on the sharp coral while swimming back to potentially render aid. The hole in the bottom of her foot concerned me for the rest of her time with us, as I got cellulitis through a sore foot a few years ago, and it was not a laughing matter.

But all have returned home to the U.S. safely, save us. One more week in Paradise.

Cancun, Mexico.

Cancun, April 3-10, 2021.

Elise holds Moira.

“Roe v. Wade”— Film That Premiered at CPAC— Is Boring Biased Hit Job

“Roe v. Wade” follows Dr Bernard Nathanson (Nick Loeb), the narrator of the 1984 anti-abortion film The Silent Scream, from his first interaction with abortion in 1949 – when his girlfriend at the time terminated her pregnancy – to his change to a virulent anti-abortion stance in 1985.”By film’s end, Nathanson changes sides as dramatically as the real Jane Doe (Norma McCorvey) did. While on the subject, try to find the 2020 documentary “AKA Jane Doe,” helmed by Nick Sweeney, because it is one thousand times better than this release. That film involves a death-bed interview with the real woman at the center of “Roe v. Wade,” Norma McCorvey.“AKA Jane Doe,” the 2020 documentary, is more authentic and much more entertaining.

It’s hard to know where to start in critiquing this slow-moving, poorly paced polemic.

The 2020 “Roe v. Wade” is co-directed by Nick Loeb and Cathy Allyn and the writing credits go to those two and Ken Kushner. There are other films with an ultra-conservative point-of-view, like this one, that smeared Obama and slandered Hillary, written and directed by Dinesh D’Souza. Those films were equally biased, but at least they were well done.  Here, viewers are subjected to 112 minutes of poorly staged treacly, unconvincing monologues, delivered by a motley crew of actors.

Among the veteran actors who signed on for the paycheck are Robert Davi (“Die Hard”) as Justice Brennan, Jamie Kennedy (“Tremors: A Cold Day in Hell”) as Larry Lader, Joey Lawrence (“Blossom”) as Robert Byrn, Corbin Bernsen (“L.A. Law”) as Justice Blackmun, Steve Guttenberg (“Three Men and a Baby”) as Justice Powell, William Forsythe (“Cold Pursuit”) as Justice Stewart and Jon Voight (“Midnight Cowboy”) as Justice Warren Burger.  Former Fox news personality Stacey Dash (“Sharknado 4: The 4th Awakens”) appears as Dr. Mildred Jefferson.

Dr. Bernard Nathanson, the lead, is portrayed by Nick Loeb (Loeb is also the writer/director and producer). It seems to be Loeb’s vanity project for reasons both personal and philosophical. The press kit insists that this version of events is accurate because facts and figures were made up by Roe v. Wade supporters. (Of course, we are to accept that every point-of-view presented here is Gospel, including the general rock-throwing at Planned Parenthood.)

When the wives and daughters of various Supreme Court Justices weigh in at their family dinner tables onscreen as being in favor of abortion rights for women, the inference is that these women are to blame for the court’s ultimate decision. Actually, according to a new NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist Poll, 77% of Americans favor retaining Roe v. Wade as the law of the land, but most citizens want restrictions (most of which already exist).

Only 3% of Planned Parenthood’s services are abortions.  Planned Parenthood provides American women pap smears, pregnancy testing and services, diabetes screening, breast cancer screening, STD testing/treatment and prevention, male infertility screening/treatment and menopause treatment. But never mind those worthwhile services comprising 97% of what Planned Parenthood does for the community. Let’s paint 100% of their services as bad and move on.

The character of Larry Lader (Jamie Kennedy) is  interested in making money from the abortion trade. Lader convinces Dr. Nathanson, who is, at first, very enthusiastic about earning blood money by providing abortions on demand. To show this, the script unwisely has Nathanson (Loeb) and the others in the room sing a song about abortion as follows: “There’s a fortune/In abortion/You never bother/The real father.” Later, when he recants, Loeb has a scene that is far beyond his acting range, which we can call the Norma McCorvey Reversal scene.None of the people in the scene can sing. Not a lick. The scene is excruciatingly bad, but it’s not the worst in the film. There are plenty more to come. Buckle up.

Writer/Director/Producer/Lead Nick Loeb, of “Roe v. Wade.” (Courtesy of “Roe v. Wade”).

Playing the lead in this film would be a stretch in the hands of a good actor, since abortion is a sensitive, controversial, complex topic that deserves a sensitive, competent actor as the lead. Here, Loeb is out of his depth as a thespian. Loeb has said, in  interviews, that he decided to play the part because two of his former girlfriends had undergone the procedure and he now regrets their actions. (He has since become the father of a daughter).

The film does have seasoned, competent professionals who attempt to carry off this anti-abortion hit job, but the writer/director/producer and actor are all Loeb, along with fellow writers Cathy Allyn and Ken Kushner. Loeb’s tuneless off-key serenade was just a small taste of the bumpy road ahead.

There are several long, boring monologues that come off as preachy and embarrassingly bad. [It was really a chore to get through the scene with the actor reading as though he were an unborn fetus.] Robert Daniels (“The Guardian”) called these speeches “mawkish grandiose speeches that ring hollow.” Daniels was being kind. Daniels dubbed the film “An Anti-Abortion Film of Staggering Ineptitude.” He went on to single out Loeb as the worst of the cast, while calling the acting of the others “tacky.”“The Daily Beast” revealed that Loeb and Allyn were initially supposed to be simply producers of the film. They had to assume directing duties when the film’s director and first assistant director bailed.

There were more problems, as Daniels shared  (3/25/2021 review):  “In a 2018 Hollywood Reporter piece, Loeb explained that the crew’s electrician told him “F***  you,” threw her headset on the ground and quit the project. The costumer left, too.” Regarding filming at Louisiana State, “We were told we were rejected due to our content, even though it will be a PG-rated film.” From The Hollywood Reporter: “They refused to put it in writing, but they told us on the phone it was due to content.” Tulane—Loeb’s alma mater— refused to accommodate the crew, as did a New Orleans synagogue.

The script calls feminism “destructive” and invokes Mother Teresa and Susan B. Anthony as pro-life while tearing down Margaret Sanger, the founder of Planned Parenthood. Sanger drew a sharp distinction between birth control and abortion and was opposed to abortion throughout the bulk of her professional career, declining to participate in them as a nurse. Sanger, however, felt that in order for women to have a more equal footing in society they needed to be able to determine when to bear children.

Speaking of “determining when to bear children” and having a pro-choice right to determine what happens with your own body, if female, there has been speculation that Nick Loeb’s desire to make this film stemmed from his failed 4-year relationship with Sophia Vergara (“Modern Family”), which ended in 2014. (A year later, she would marry Joe Manganiello).

Vergara and Loeb, when a couple, froze her fertilized eggs, undergoing IVF together in 2013. In 2017 Vergara filed legal documents to block Loeb from being able to use the embryos without her written consent. Loeb fought for the right to bring the embryos to term via a surrogate. Recently, a California judge has permanently blocked Loeb from using the embryos without Vergara’s  permission. [ The entire dispute embodies, in a microcosm,  the film’s main theory about who should have total reproductive control.]

I lost a friend to a self-induced abortion gone wrong in 1963.  Despite my Catholic upbringing, I think women deserve a choice in what happens to their bodies (and their eggs). The ultimate decision should be between the woman and her physician, with strict guidelines (as has always been the case), not a decision by a group of old white men like those portrayed in this film, or by just one party in an IVF scenario. I wouldn’t be thrilled if my former fiancée decided to take my eggs and bring them into the world without my consent.

Millions have been spent on the “Roe v. Wade” film project (figures ranged from $6.5 to $8 million). The film seems to be a single-minded attempt to convince the world of the “rightness” of the POV of its writer/producer/director and star and the conservative community. If you have enough money and know how to manipulate the levers of power and use propaganda, you can weaponize that propaganda to seize and hold power. [We’ve seen that lesson as recently as January 6th.]

This is not a good screenplay. Many of the weak performances simply add insult to that injury. “Roe v. Wade” also offers inarticulate editing, patriotic tableaux, repetitive flat compositions (often involving static Supreme Court goings-on), ineffectual camera zooms, insufferably grandiose speeches, tuneless singing and a cast that reminded of “The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight.” In this case, the “shooting” is disseminating pro-life propaganda for a paycheck.

No doubt some of the principals are deeply committed to the premise that abortion is a scourge; nevertheless, the more well-known the actor, the more detrimental to his or her body of work this film will be. It’s really difficult to believe that “Roe v. Wade” won any awards, although Jon Voight is a well-known Oscar-winning actor (“Coming Home,” 1978). At almost eighty, Voight is playing Warren Burger, who was then 66.

It is surprising to me that any reputable actor or technician wanted to be involved, unless they were in Pro-Life Crusader mode. (As reported elsewhere, the gig was not universally embraced by cast or crew.) In a March 3rd article in The Hollywood Reporter (“Nick Loeb’s ‘Roe v Wade’ Actors Cry Foul Over No-Show Paychecks),  New Orleans SAG-AFTRA actress Susan LaBrecque complained that, after 2 years, she and as many as nine other actors have yet to be paid for the New Orleans shoot in 2018, despite the film’s premiere at CPAC last month. They’ve now gone to SAG-AFTRA for resolution. [Co-director Cathy Allyn responded to The Hollywood Reporter that the funds had been released to SAG as of Feb. 10. “They have the money and it’s up to SAG to release it.”]

Loeb hosted the world premiere of his film, Roe v. Wade, on Friday, February 26th at the CPAC (Conservative Political Action Committee) host hotel, the Hyatt Regency Orlando. The Conservative gathering featured Donald J. Trump as its keynote, Trump’s first post-presidential appearance.  Loeb arranged for the movie to premiere in order to sell tickets to funnel into marketing costs ahead of an April 2nd release on Amazon Prime, iTunes and PVOD.

In a “Hollywood Reporter” interview, Loeb said, “But it’s not a preachy, pro-life, religious movie.”

Yes, Nick, it is. And, unfortunately, not a very well-done one.

Dave Grohl & Foo Fighters Respond to “We Are the 1,000” Documentary with Concert in Cesena, Italy

The heartwarming story of a small Italian town (Cesena, Italy) and its wacky crusade to convince Dave Grohl and the Foo Fighters to come give a concert in that town is the central drama of “We Are the Thousand,” a film written and directed by Anita Rivaroli.

Even more inspiring in this story about Fabio Zaffagnini’s creative approach to the problem of getting one of the most popular bands on the planet to visit a town of roughly 100,000 residents is the joy that the participants created in organizing and launching their hare-brained project and, in the process, creating an enduring musical monster.

Make no mistake: this was a Herculean task that the team worked on for over a year.

“We Are the Thousand” (SXSW Photo).

The idea was to gather 1,000 musicians and have them all form one big band. The first (and only) song they were all going to try to learn to play together was Grohl’s “Learning to Fly.” The crew set to work crowdfunding and trying to raise the roughly 40,000 Euros that was the bare minimum needed for the project. Among the problems: not enough headsets for everyone and no money to buy them.

There also was the matter of the distance that sound travels and how the members of the group would manage to play in synch, when they were going to be filling the Parco Ippodrome, a large outdoor race track area near Cesena. That was when one of the organizers thought up the idea of a visual metronome, like a stoplight, which the drummers could see and, therefore, keep on the beat together.

Musicians from all over Italy and Europe, hearing about the project, sent in videos of themselves playing their instruments or singing. From those rough “auditions” the 1,000 were selected and—at their own expense—told to show up on July 26, 2015, to be part of the event.

The “Rockin’ 1000” were from all walks of life: truck drivers, doctors, perfume shop workers, you name it. One said, “We’re forced to live a normal life to support our dreams. So we keep our shitty jobs to keep our dreams alive.” Another shared, “It was about achieving something.” Termed “a sociological and musical experiment,” the band is shown taking a pledge not to showboat and/or show off during the practice sessions. Then they begin rehearsing.

The drummers, all drumming in unison, “felt like an earthquake” said one participant. Another said it was as though a shock wave had gone through the arena, as the musicians were “flooded by sound.” And the sound is pretty good!  As the organizers said, “An engine like this can take us a long way.” Another added, “It gave me goosebumps in every language in the world.”

With the guitars, singers and drummers playing their hearts out—(although cautioned, “Don’t hit the drums like a madman!”)— the one thousand became “the biggest rock band on Earth.” Said one, “What we did here is just a huge, huge miracle.”

After the video shoot of the gigantic rock band performing at Cesena’s racetrack, the plan was to post the video, asking Grohl and the Foo Fighters to come play a concert in the small Italian town. Once posted, on July 30th,—four days after the performance— the video began to climb in hits: 10 million hits—-15 million hits in 3 days—-26 million hits. It finally got Dave Grohl’s attention. He explains (in Italian), “Well, now we have to come. It’s f***ing amazing!”

“We Are the Thousand” (SXSW Photo).

There are then the scenes with the band members attending a Foo Fighters concert and, for some of them, playing alongside Dave Grohl. Fabio’s crowd-surfing to the stage was one of the highlights of the film. Actually getting to meet their idols is obviously life-changing for the band members. “It changed the spiritual current. It changed how people think,” said one.

Fabio from Fasignano does not disappoint, continuing his efforts to maintain “the biggest rock band on Earth” and entering the arena dressed in a robe that says, “The Italian Stallion” (a nod to the movie “Rocky”).

The extreme joy of producing music with others is not to be under-estimated. Renato—a participant from Perugio who had just received a bad health diagnosis—described the act of playing in the band as better than any therapy he might have asked for and, one year later, is still playing with “the Rockin’ 1000.”

Cinematographer Pasquale Remea has captured the elation of the crowd and the joy in human community that music can and does provide. It’s a feeling that those who have participated in a band or an orchestra or a chorus or a choir can relate to and even some of our most influential films have acknowledged that music is “the universal language,” as Spielberg’s “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” testified.

This documentary (in Italian, with English subtitles) is a feel-good film for our time. It goes on well past the triumphant Dave Grohl scenes to show that the sheer joy of producing harmony is as euphoric, in its own way, as making a dream come true through hard work, creative thinking, dedication, and an influential video that achieved its goal.

 

Happy Birthday Night in Downtown Austin (March 20/21)

Birthday dinner in downtown Austin at Fogo de Chau.

This will be a stream-of-consciousness retelling of last weekend’s Birthday Weekend in downtown Austin.

It was my husband’s birthday AND we had secured appointments for our second Pfizer Covid-19 shots at the HEB store on 7th Street. That is truly something to celebrate, since we are supposed to fly to Mexico in early April and who wants to fly to a foreign country if unvaccinated?

We started our weekend adventure about 11:15 a.m. (for a noon appointment) and went to HEB first (did you know that the last name of the owner of HEB is Butts? Just wondering…). There was really no line, so we were done there in record time and picked up all kinds of stuff for our room: pop, beer, fruit plate, doughnuts (for the morrow), vegetable plate and dip, chips, etc.

We then drove to the hotel on Rainey Street and checked in early. We found out upon checking in that it was going to cost an additional $50 to park the car overnight. Later, we would find out that it would cost an additional $20 to watch a movie in the room. So, the tab was now soaring to over $550.

Our first shot weekend, the entire bill was $150, at the Stephen K Austin Sonesta Hotel downtown on Congress Avenue,  and it was quite quiet there.

Jessica and I celebrate at the Hotel VanZandt in downtown Austin.

The “live” band across the street played until midnight and then some idiot outside kept revving a motorcycle until 2 a.m. I had forgotten my omnipresent wind machine. Also, there had been no mention of their much-vaunted pool deck being under construction. (The one I show in my photo is an apartment building across the street). Nor did they mention “work on the outside of the building,” which meant that we were to keep our blinds closed unless we wanted to flash someone. I will attach a photo of the bathroom, which had a large tub overlooking the city—or, in this case, the workers outside.

There are robes in the room, but mine did not fit. There were no coffee pots. We asked that one be brought up when we checked in. It took 7 hours to get it. It made one cup of coffee and then would not work.

So, we hunkered down with the son, daughter-in-law and granddaughters to enjoy our goodies and watch Iowa in their first round of play. That went well, although Iowa would subsequently lose to Oregon, so there goes the season.

We also took advantage of the wine happy hour (5 to 6 p.m.) and, after that, went to Fogo de Chau, which I have probably misspelled, and ate.

Rainey Street on March 20-21st, Austin, TX.

This is directly across the street from the Convention Center downtown and was fairly busy. It is a chain (Brazilian Steakhouse). I think the price was $54.95 per person, but this was the son’s treat for his father’s birthday, and it was delicious. Waiters circle throughout the room constantly with roasted meats (sirloin, prime rib, chicken, pork, lamb) and they bring a very small dish of mashed potatoes to the table. Then there is a salad bar. Weirdly enough, they issue you a plastic baggie thing to use on your hand, like this is (somehow) going to protect you from spreading germs, were you to be infected with a disease of any kind. I don’t generally do much salad bar stuff, but I did take some potato salad (very bland) and two olives and some bread with butter packets. It was good that I took the bread, because the girls mainly wanted to eat bread and, at one point, they ran out of bread, which is odd. (Later, they brought some additional bread to our table, by request).

The dinner was delicious and very much appreciated. We then went back to the hotel, where we rented “Let Him Go” (Kevin Costner and Diane Lane) and Craig—who had his shot first on Saturday—experienced some after-effects—(fever, chills) that put him out early. I stayed up until 2 a.m. and was very sorry that I had not brought my wind machine. I was finally forced to press my phone into service, as it has a not-that-satisfactory version of my wind machine on it.

Hotel Van Zandt, Austin, Tx.

Hotel VanZandt. Corner room. Austin, TX.

When we awakened the next morning, my phone was nearly dead and we had to check out immediately to make it to my 12:30 appointment back at HEB. We were supposed to check out at 11 a.m.. but had asked for a slightly later check-out, so we left at 11:30 a.m. As a result, we got there around noon and—fortunately—there was no one there but me, at first. They were looking for someone named “Emily.” Another Hispanic gentleman signed in with his paperwork right after me. He was first; I was second, and then the MIA Emily showed and was given her shot, following mine. It is now Monday and I have not had any fever or chills or unusual fatigue or headaches, all good things.

So, we are both vaccinated for Mexico and the birthday—which included shirts, an Amazon gift card, a Home Depot gift card, and the room, itself, (with a complimentary lime pie dessert at the restaurant) feted Craig’s 76th year on the planet.

Demi Lovato: “Dancing with the Devil” Premieres at SXSW Film Festival 2021

“Demi Lovato: Dance with the Devil” (Credit: OBB Media @ the SXSW Online Film Festival 2021.)

The opening night film for this year’s SXSW Online Film Festival was the documentary “Demi Lovato: Dancing with the Devil.” It premiered on Tuesday night, March 16th and was directed by Michael D. Ratner.

Last year, on March 6th, SXSW in person was canceled. In 2019 the festival’s financial benefits to Austin were estimated to be $356 million, up 1.5% from 2018’s $351 million. A loss of that magnitude has been catastrophic for Austin’s live music venues, its hotels, and its restaurants. Some festival-goers are angry that they are being offered future admissions to the festival, rather than their cash back. Tickets for the online festival went for $1,600 the last year it was held in person (2019); a ticket this year for the all-online festival goes for $325.

The films this year are primarily documentaries, and “Demi Lovato: Dance with the Devil” is the opener, featuring an attitude of complete disclosure from Lovato and her staff.  One staffer on the hot seat says, “I can’t believe you all are doing this.  This is just lit, but okay.” She and the others—including fey best friend Matthew Scott Montgomery—proceed to describe the near-fatal overdose. There is also film from a 2018 documentary that was shot while Demi was on her “Tell Me That You Love Me” World Tour, but never released. There is footage of D.J. Khalid praising Demi’s 6 years of sobriety as she sits at the piano. Super-imposed is the information that one month later, she relapsed. Three months later she was fighting for her life in a hospital intensive care unit.

Demi’s overdose involved smoking heroin laced with fentanyl. She suffered a heart attack, three strokes, brain damage that has left her visually impaired, pneumonia and multiple organ failure. If her former assistant Jordan Jackson had not entered her bedroom when she did, Lovato would have died within five to ten minutes. The world quickly learned that Demi Lovato had overdosed, but most did not realize how serious her overdose was. As her assistant related, she looked completely blue when found and the doctors had to re-circulate her blood through a large machine in the intensive care unit to purify it before returning it to her body.

As the documentary continues and we learn of Demi’s heritage from her father, I feared for her continued health. Indeed, near the end of the piece, she claims that she is going to try the “moderation” route and former addict Elton John testifies that this approach just does not work.

Demi’s own father—who suffered from both bi-polar disorder and schizophrenia—was an alcoholic, a drug addict, and physically abused Demi’s mother, Dianna DeLaGarge (who was a former Dallas Cowboys cheerleader). Demi shares that he died alone of a drug overdose and his body was not found for days, if not weeks.

Demi says, “You really figure out who is there for you when your whole world falls away under your feet.” It appears that there are many faithful friends in Demi Lovato’s life. She was also fortunate to be able to afford expert help at the Cirque Lodge Rehabilitation facility.  Demi also shared information of two previous rapes, one by the very drug dealer who brought her the near-fatal overdose that night.

I fear for Demi Lovato’s continued good health and wish her and everyone else suffering from  addiction issues the very best. The incidence of fentanyl abuse has increased 540% over the past three years.

Justine Bateman Directs “Violet” at SXSW 2021 Online Film Festival

“Violet”, Olivia Munn in the SXSW Online Film Festival entry.

Justine Bateman—sister of Jason Bateman—who once played Mallory Keaton during a 7-year stint on “Family Ties,” ending in 1989— directed her first feature film at SXSW entitled “Violet.” It was supposed to premiere here in 2020, but we all know what happened there.

The film seems roughly biographical, with a voice constantly telling the lead character, Violet Calder, that she is inadequate. The “inner voice” voicing all of Violet’s insecurities is portrayed by Justin Theroux. Other veteran actors like Bonnie Bedelia (“Heart Like A Wheel,” “Die Hard”), Laura SanGiacomo (“Sex, Lies and Videotape”), and Jim O’Heir (Jerry Gergich on “Parks & Recreation”) are tapped for small parts in the film, but Olivia Munn (“Newsroom”) and Australian actor Luke Brace (“Little Fires Everywhere”) are the leads.

Justine Bateman wrote a book entitled “Fame: The Hijacking of Reality,” released in 2018. In it, she talked about how fame after playing Mallory Keaton on “Family Ties” led to post-fame -problems.  One revealing statement, both from the book and from an interview with “Vanity Fair” when it was released, said, “I think you have to have a really good sense of yourself to be able to talk about life post-fame.” She describes “the leper effect” of not being as famous as you once were and how debilitating fame can be. “Most of the time, you’re so overwhelmed with the fame that it’s hard to have your wits about you as it’s happening. And then it’s over quickly.”

Bateman related how, after fame seemed to have passed her by, she googled herself and found fans online saying she “looked old.” (She was only in her forties at the time, but is now 55). Her reaction? “I was just kicking myself to the curb and deciding they were right and I was wrong.  I then absorbed their view of me for a while, and it f***ed me right up. Took a while to get rid of that.”

This film seems to confirm that, despite a great number of accomplishments (she graduated from the University of California, Los Angeles, with a B.S. degree in computer science and digital media management and holds a pilot’s license) there may be a lot of Bateman’s own insecurities in this story about 31-year-old studio executive Violet who is trying to shepherd a pet film project through the studio despite a Neandrethal boss (Tom Gaines, as portrayed by Dennis Boutsikaras). Violet is quite insecure, but her story arc is going to have her overcome her crippling fear of doing things “wrong.”

The film has a jarring opening credit sequence, which I did not enjoy.  The use of Justin Theroux’s voice-over—the voice in her head—at all times and the cursive scrawl onscreen were experimental touches that worked, for me.  But this was about the third film in the SXSW day that revealed deep-seated issues with mother/daughter relationships or the expectations placed upon the lead characters by others.

In one memorable sequence, Violet is called and told that her mother has died unexpectedly of a heart attack. The writing onscreen (Violet’s interior dialogue) says, “I tried to make her love me. I tried so hard. So many times.” Violet makes a decision not to attend her mother’s funeral, but to stay and attend her boyfriend Red’s party, instead. While it may be okay to learn to say no, attending the funeral of a parent is probably not the place to start. There is an awkward conversation with Violet’s older brother after he protests about her no-showing, which ends with her saying “Never call me again.”

In a “Vanity Fair” interview, Justine Bateman shared this thought: “I think, generally, nowadays, people seek out fame and respect it, because they’re assuming a sort of state of being that will solve a lot of the things that they dislike in their lives.” I had just watched a horrifying documentary about women who left their countries to join ISIS and are now stuck in refugee camps in northern Syria. They were being used as human shields by ISIS, starving, living without water or enough food, and completely miserable.  Somehow the “inner voice” telling a privileged studio executive that she isn’t good enough doesn’t seem like such a Big Problem after that. I was reminded of Oprah’s advice to write messages of daily gratitude. Maybe a good place to start?

Olivia Munn (“The Newsroom,” “X-Men Apocalypse”) plays the lead role in “Violet.” She does a great job. It is easy to see her as a surrogate for Justine Bateman, post “Family Ties.” The male lead, Red, is played by Australian actor Luke Bracey (“Little Fires Everywhere”). Interesting to note that Bracey (born in 1989) is 9 years younger than Olivia Munn (1980). That was a pleasant reversal of the norm of male leads playing opposite much younger women.

Jerry O’Heir (Lenny in “Middle Man” and Jerry Gergich on “Parks & Recreation”) at the Chicago Film Festival.

I liked the film, but found the “woe-is-me” POV difficult to sympathize with when Violet is so much better off than 98% of the rest of the world. Perhaps it was slogging through the grueling story of women held captive in northeast Syria or the incredibly difficult health crises portrayed in another SXSW film that affected me in this way.  I was happy when Violet—after a sexist confrontation with her douchebag of a boss—tells him off and recognizes her own worth and immediately goes over to the much better job offered her by the head honcho at Phoenix Films (played by Chicago’s very own Jim O’Heir, who was Jerry on “Parks and Recreation” for many years).

So, in no particular order, I could relate to the theme of insecurity that we all sometimes fight within our heads. I enjoyed the performances and think that Justine Bateman showed a better “feeling” for what makes an interesting film than her counterpart Robin Wright (formerly Robin Wright Penn).

I thought the opening credit sequence was jarring,— and not in a good way.

I liked the music used (Vum). The cinematography by Mark Williams (“Lost in Translation,” “Any Given Sunday”) was good. Likewise, the editing by Jay Friedkin (“Ordinary People,” “Babe”) was fine, as was the acting by one and all.

This directorial debut by a female star was much more expert and enjoyable than Robin Wright’s “Land” earlier this festival season, which was a real snooze-fest.

In researching remarks by Justine Bateman from her book or a “Vanity Fair” interview, I found this one particularly timely:  “It isn’t enough to just work hard and be a good person or anything like that.  The American dream shifted over the years.  It’s now either to win the lottery, be famous, or make as much money as possible—and make sure everybody notices

“The Return: Life After ISIS” Paints Grim Picture of ISIS Women in Refugee Camps (SXSW)

The Return: Life After Isis” at SXSW Online 2021.

This film from Alba Sotorra Clua goes inside the Syrian refugee camps where citizens from 56 different nations and their children are trapped in a hellish existence. After the West withdrew and left the Kurds on their own and thousands of ISIS families faced defeat in Syria, there were over 100,000 captives who ended up living in camps throughout Syria. This camp contains a group of 1500 women and children i tent cities in Qamsall and Beghouz in Northeast Syria.

The newspaper headlines from various countries tell their story: “No regrets. No remorse. No re-entry.” As the women tell their stories, some say they were naïve teenagers who fell victim to the lure of ISIS on propaganda videos they saw on Twitter. Regardless, the countries from which they came do not want them back. Their children might make be accepted, but not the adult parents.

Some women held in the tent city were already married to young men who went off to fight with ISIS. When that happened to Hafida Nawal of the Netherlands, she was six months pregnant. She followed her husband from Holland to the Middle East.  Her husband, too, became disillusioned by the entire experience and agreed that both of them would try to escape, just before he was killed in battle. He said to her, “At least now you have a chance because the women and the children can go, but they (ISIS) will never let the men go.” She describes horrible hunger and how her child was reduced to eating grass, but says she doesn’t know if the hunger or the bombing is the worst. “She now realizes, “Real freedom is what we have in Holland” and says that the realization “doesn’t stop me from regretting.” In June of 2020 the Dutch courts ruled against repatriation.

Hoda Muthana of the United States and Shamima Begun of the United Kingdom voice similar regrets. Shamima was only 19 when she left Britain to join ISIS saying, “I always wanted to be a part of something.  I wanted to feel useful. I feel really bad, as a Muslim, leaving them behind.” She described her upbringing in an Islamic household as one where she was not close to her strict parents, had no friends and turned to Twitter for friendship. She fell victim to the propaganda videos that promise “the path of glory” and “living the true glory” and “surrendering to jihad.’ Shamima, however, was one of the more active online spreading ISIS propaganda as @Ummjihad and says, “You don’t realize you are brainwashed until you snap out of it.” She gave birth in Syria; her son died. Her best friend was killed in a bombing raid. She says “This was just a cult that ruined many people’s lives.” Her citizenship, as well as that of Hoda’s, has been revoked.

The film traces the group for 2 years. It is 2 years of unrelenting horror, deprivation and loss. One woman who emerges as a heroine is Sevina Evdike, a Kurdish woman who continues to work with the women. She urges them to write to anyone who might be able to help them, but no positive word is heard.

The German woman onscreen shares that she felt discriminated against in Germany, but that it is much worse here in Syria.  Kimberly from Canada and the others look cold in their burkhas with strong winds and dust blowing throughout the ramshackle camp. They describe blood running through the makeshift hospital tent after attacks and women showing up who appear to have been beaten all over their bodies with a pipe, despite being pregnant at the time. The Canadian captive says that many do not survive such grievous wounds. They describe the sale of women in marketplaces and there is film footage of such a sale, (shot discreetly from a distance).

All express the same refrain, “I really regret for the rest of my life. I wish I could just erase it.” After Shamima’s son dies, she says, “He was my last hope, the only thing keeping me alive.”

No water, no food, women sold into slavery or used as human shields. It’s a grim companion piece to the similar film “Sabaya” by Hogir Horiri, recently shown at Sundance. (A “sabaya” is a female sex slave.)

All have condemned themselves to a life of unremitting pain and suffering, but, when asked what they have learned from the experience, two positive statements emerge: (1) How strong women can be, and, (2) The value of a human life.

 

“The United States Versus Reality Winner” Screens at SXSW 2021

 

Reality Winner, accused NSA whistleblower (Wikipedia).

This expose of the persecution of Reality Winner (yes, that is really her name) was made possible  because of a Freedom of Information Act that finally  resulted in the release of the audio of Reality’s interrogation by eleven FBI agents.

The director of this based-on-fact film is Sonia Kennebeck. A famous name, Wim Wenders, the 75-year-old thrice-Oscar-nominated German director, served as executive producer.

Another famous face and voice is that of international whistleblower Edward Snowden, interviewed onscreen,  who released NSA classified documents to the Washington Post and The Guardian in June of 2013 and has been in exile ever since. Snowden makes the point that the only thing the authorities want to hear from you in such a case is a “yes” or a “no” to the question of whether or not an NSA employee with a Top Secret Security Clearance voluntarily released information.

Reality Winner—so named by her deceased father, because his wife picked the name of their firstborn, so he was allowed to select the second child’s name—was a supporter of Bernie Sanders. In the course of her work in Augusta, Georgia, she came into possession of the documents that proved that Russia was trying to meddle in the presidential race of 2016 at a time when this fact was being disputed by the Republican party.

Reality was held over a year in jail without bond and charged with the crime in violation of 18 USC/793, the Espionage and Censorship Act, written in 1917 for World War I. The law makes it a crime to provide national defense information to a foreign government, even though the document did not endanger national security.

Despite the fact that Reality Winner had a spotless background and had, in fact, served 6 years in the Air Force, her decision to make public the document that proved Russian meddling has cost her everything—her freedom, her job, her life. She not only was held one full year without being granted bond, she is one of only 8 people ever to be sentenced under the act. She received the toughest sentence of any of them: 63 months in prison, plus 3 months of supervised release.

At first, Reality denied sending the document to “The Intercept.” She said she remembered she had folded the document and put it in the burn bag. After being held in jail without bond and without trial for a year, she admitted that she folded the piece of paper and smuggled it out in her pantyhose. She sent it (with a Georgia postmark) to The Intercept for publication. Matthew Cole and Richard Esposito, two reporters for “The Intercept” contacted the FBI. Another such individual (who spent 2 years in prison for a similar crime), said, “They single-handedly got her arrested.”

When the eleven agents swooped down on Reality’s home, they were aware that she had written online, “The most dangerous thereat is the orange threat we let into the White House.” They knew of her support for Bernie Sanders. They did not, however, ever bother to read her her Miranda rights and did their best to get her to confess guilt in a casual fashion.

Then, the government sat on the documents for over 2 years. The document that proved Russia’s involvement in meddling in our presidential election is now public. It never imperiled our national security. It is fairly obvious that Reality Winner was going to be made into an example to dissuade “leakers” within the Trump Administration. She was recently denied a pardon on compassionate grounds.

The feeling you come away with after the film is that Reality Winner was trying to live up to a patriotic ideal that her father and mother had imbued in her since birth. She held out for a very long time before admitting to the mailing of the document. Conviction was a foregone conclusion, as the paperwork bore a certain “code” that would prove it had been her duty to handle it (she usually handled questions about Iranian air space and spoke Farsi, Darsh and Pashto). The details about the folded paper, plus the postmark, marked this native of Kingsville, Texas for a tough road ahead. As Reality said to her sister, “That’s my whole life. That’s all I had.”

She did put up a good fight, writing, from jail, “This is the worst summer camp ever.  There aren’t even any bears.”

Reality was 25 when indicted and her actions at no time put United States security into jeopardy, but her actions did clear up the unanswered question about whether or not the Russians were actively working to subvert our free and fair elections. The revelation put us in a much better position to safeguard our 2020 election from any foreign interference.

It’s a cautionary tale for our time. It’s certainly not the last or only unfair thing we are learning about Donald J. Trump’s time in office.

“The Drover’s Wife: The Legend of Molly Johnson” at SXSW 2021 on Thursday, March 18th

 

This Australian project was written by Leah Purcell, based on her 2019 book and stage play. She portrays Australian drover’s wife Molly Johnson in the film, which was shot in New South Wales, Australia.

The film turns out to be a message movie campaigning for women in mid 19th century Australia (and the world) to be free of fear of abuse from their husbands. It is also a strong statement about racial acceptance, as we suffer through Molly’s marriage to a loutish brute of an unfaithful husband and her struggles to raise four children alone.

As the movie progresses, we learn that Molly, herself, might be the product of an inter-racial couple. Coming on the heels of the Oprah interview with Megan Markle, the discussion of mixed race children is timely, especially when there is a legal effort to take the children away from Molly, because they are “octaroons.” (Son Danny, age 12, overhearing the conversation, asks his mom what an “octaroon” is.

Molly is among the toughest women portrayed in any western— and this isn’t even a western, since it is Australian. She is a crack shot with a rifle and, in the course of the film, dispatches at least 5 people for various justifiable reasons. Will the law view it that way?

The vistas captured by cinematographer Mark Wareham are gorgeous, with shots of Molly riding across the landscape, rifle at her side, silhouetted against majestic snowy vistas. Months after the filming ceased in the Snowy-Monaro region, a brushfire raced through the Selwyn and Adaminaby areas in rural New South Wales destroying some of the buildings used as sets.

The acting throughout is good, although a less appealing heroine would be hard to find. Aside from her complete devotion to her four children, Molly is not a good-looking woman; it is hard to fathom her appeal to the Aborigine man whom she aids, as they rarely seem to have much interaction at all. It was hard to see why he would urge Molly to run away with him, given the  relatively sterile relationship portrayed see onscreen.

Molly’s early aid to the new lawman in town, Sergeant Klintoff (Sam Reid) and his London-born wife Louisa (Jessica De Gouw) early in the film inserts the theme of women’s rights to protest abusive treatment from spouses.  Louisa’s goal in life is to publish a newspaper for women. She says, “I was trying to give women a voice about an issue that’s been kept quiet for far too long.”

Despite Louisa’s articulation of the women’s rights theme, the end of the movie was a bit much. I won’t give away what Louisa and friends do to publicize this problem. Let’s just say that there’s a time and a place for everything; maybe their choice is neither the time nor the place.

Special acting kudos go to the young boy who plays 12-year-old Danny Johnson. He isn’t listed on IMDB.com, but the “Introducing Malachi Dover-Robbins” onscreen makes me think it is young Malachi who is tasked with reacting the many injustices piled upon Molly and, ultimately, is an essential player in saving the lives of all of Molly’s children. Malachi does a good job.  [I hope I’ve spelled his name correctly in trying to give credit where credit is due.]

I love Australian films. My daughter spent an entire year working and traveling in Australia—which means that I, too, ended up visiting Australia and New Zealand. Whenever I get the chance to take in an Australian film, I jump at the prospect. This one, while daunting in its bleakness, is a cinematic treat and a terrific achievement for its star/writer/director, Leah Purcell.

“Tom Petty: “Somewhere You Feel Free” Premieres at SXSW on March17, 2021

Tom Petty: Somewhere You Feel Free” documentary premieres at SXSW Online on March 17th. Photo of Petty and Producer Rick Rudin by Robert Sebree.

The Tom Petty documentary “Tom Petty:  Somewhere You Feel Free,” directed by Mary Wharton, depicts his career and his personality using film shot by Marlyn Atkins between 1993 and 1995, during the taping of the “Wildflower” album.

At that time, Tom would have been in his mid-forties and a long way away from his untimely death after just completing the Heartbreakers’ 40th Anniversary tour on October 2, 2017.

Tom’s daughter Aida is listed as an Executive Producer. There will not be undue focus on his death, as that sad event was 24 years in the future when the unused film was discovered and refurbished for use in this story of Tom Petty’s views on life and work.

One thing that comes through is that he was an easy-going guy with a good sense of humor. Aside from conflict with one long-time band member who left after many years (without saying good bye, according to Wikipedia.org), he got along well with his bandmates. There are concert shots and  songs performed in the recording studio that Petty had set up. Other scenes are in a room literally crammed with a variety of guitars.

Petty’s move away from record producer Jeff Lynne, who had produced most of the Heartbreakers albums, towards Rick Rubin is addressed.   Tom says, “You don’t want to stay in just one little circle all the time.” He had spent 20 years with the Heartbreakers with Lynne producing and, although Rubin had been told that his desire to work with Petty was not going to bear fruit, it did when Petty, himself, called Rubin up about collaborating.

At one point, a band member says, “How can there be this many good songs from one person?” Petty sold over 80 million records and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2002. He described (Wikipedia.org) his desire to become a singer/songwriter as stemming from meeting Elvis Presley when he was 10 years old and referred to the Rolling Stones as “my punk music.”

Never close to his somewhat abusive father, Tom dropped out of high school at seventeen to play bass guitar and dated his desire to have his own band from when he saw the Beatles appear on “Ed Sullivan.” Petty says he knew he could do that, and adds, “I didn’t have any choice. I just did it.  I feel very fortunate, because it all worked out.”

While he began in 1976, by 1979 he had a hit with “Don’t Do Me Like That.” Born on October 20, 1950, Tom was married for 22 years to Jane Renyo. Their daughter Adria relates how she knew her parents were splitting up when she heard the songs he was working on for “Wildflowers” in 1994. In fact, Tom and Jane split up in 1996. It would be five years before he would remarry Dana York in 2001.

One period that is glossed over in the documentary came after the recording sessions that provided the basis for the film. From 1996 to 1999 Tom Petty had addiction issues to heroin. He made a decision to break that cycle on his own and went into treatment.

Petty had just finished the Heartbreakers’ 40th Anniversary Tour when he died on October 2, 2017.  His wife said he was in a lot of pain from a hip that was fractured and needed surgery. Tom had put off the surgery until the end of the tour, since so many other musicians were counting on him.

The autopsy on Petty’s body showed he did have a fracture. It also showed these drugs in his system: fentanyl; oxycontin; acetylfentanyl; temazepam; alprazolam; and citalprum. He also suffered from emphysema. He smokes, non-stop, during the film, which makes that seem likely.

I saw Tom Petty “live” once, in a concert in Moline, Illinois at the Mark of the Quad Cities. He was in his prime. I was a fan, but not a fanatic.

One interesting later career tid-bit that came out of researching his career: 12.5% of the profits from Sam Smith’s album “Stay With Me” had to be paid to Petty for using much of “I Won’t Back Down” in Smith’s song. The statement from Petty was: “All my years of songwriting have shown me these things can happen. Most times you catch it before it gets out the studio door but in this case it got by. Sam’s people were very understanding of our predicament and we easily came to an agreement”.

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