Weekly Wilson - Blog of Author Connie C. Wilson

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

Author: Connie Wilson Page 1 of 97

Olivia Colman in “Them That Follow” Is Snake-Handling Pentecostal in Appalachia

 

Alice Englert, 25-year-old lead of “Them That Follow.” (Photo by Connie Wilson).

 

“Them That Follow,” from Directors Britt Poulton and Dan Madison Savage, is described in the SXSW program this way:  “Set deep in the wilds of Appalachia, where believers handle death-dealing snakes to prove themselves before God, “Them That Follow” tells the story of a pastor’s daughter who holds a secret that threatens to tear her community apart.”

The film benefited mightily from superb casting, scoring Olivia Colman, fresh off her Oscar win for “The Favourite,” and the always charismatic Walton Goggins, previously known for playing Boyd Crowder in 74 episodes of “Justified” between 2010 and 2015. “Them That Follow” has just been selected by the Chicago Critics Film Festival as one of the first seven films to be shown at its film festival slated for May 17-23 at the historic Music Box Theater.

(L to R) Kaitlyn Dever, Thomas Mann and Alice Englert, who are Dilly, Augie and Mara in “Them That Follow” at SXSW. (Photo by Connie Wilson).

Walton Goggins’ preacher, Lemuel, is “in” to snake handling and his young daughter is an ardent follower of his church. However, she has fallen in love with Augie (Thomas Mann), son of Olivia Colman’s storekeeper and ardent church-going woman of the Pentecostal faith.

Olivia’s husband is played by Jim Gaffigan as Zeke. It is certainly true that  comedian Gaffigan must be one of the most ubiquitous actors working, as he also turned up in “The Day Shall Come” at this year’s festival and at “You Can’t Choose Your Family” at last year’s SXSW. I have to admit that I hadn’t really ever thought of Olivia Colman and Jim Gaffigan as man and wife, but they give it their all.

The fanatical preacher (Walton Goggins) has no pesky wife to interfere in his stewardship of his daughter Mara (Alice Englert), but Mara has a best friend, Dilly (Kaitlyn Dever), who brings new meaning to that old cliché, “With friends like these, who needs enemies?”

Thomas Mann (Augie) and Alice Englert (Mara) are the young lovers of “Them That Follow” at SXSW. (Photo by Connie Wilson).

Mara’s proposed marrying off to Garret (Lewis Pullman), despite her unprofessed love for the unbeliever Augie, is what sets the plot in motion. As you can imagine, there are many scenes of snake handling and tests of faith when Lemuel (Walton Goggins) learns that Mara is pregnant and, relying on the Bible (“Woman—Eve—is the first sinner and she must be cleansed!”) subjects Mara to a test of faith and a cleansing by way of the poisonous rattlesnakes the Congregation uses in its worship services.

Lead actress Alice Englert, the 25-year-old Australian-born Mara in the film, and  directors Britt Poulton and Dan Madison Savage provided much insight into the film and its origins in the Q&A that followed its showing.  Said Poulton, “I’ve had a lifelong fascination with Pentecostal evangelism and snake handling.  I felt an incredible sense of urgency.  This was an attempt to take audiences on a journey of empathy and understanding. I grew up in a religious family in The Church of Latter Day Saints. It wasn’t easy for me to discover me.  As you take steps towards your own identity, the pressure on you is intense.  How do you, in this world, reconcile faith and coming of age and coming into your own self?  I was fascinated by the YouTube videos of snake handling. I was bitten (laughter from the audience). It was electrifying to me.”

L to R) Dan Madison Savage (Director); Kaitlyn Deaver (Dilly); Thomas Mann (Augie); Alice Englert (Mara) and Britt Poulton (Director) of “Them That Follow.”

This was the duo’s first feature film and they were asked, “What was it like to have such a great cast?”

A:  “It’s a miracle. Such a gift.  We leaned on them so much.  We were so lucky to have this experience with them. The friendships forged in the woods were so incredible.  That is why I think the families feel so real.”

An audience member asked the directors this question. Q:  “It’s almost like a horror movie.  Did you want to take it to this extreme level?”

The answer from the directors was, “We wanted to show some of the consequences of this kind of extreme faith.  They’re really wrestling with the conflict between the faith and the extraordinary stakes of their lives. These are people making choices that put their lives on the line.”

A second audience question about music listened to by the actors as they prepared went nowhere, but the film’s Mara shared that she did a great deal of research, as she was from Australia and all of this was new to her. She read “Salvation on Sand Mountain” by Daniel Covington about a journalist who got deeply involved in the practice of snake-handling and, also, “Hillbilly Elegy.”

Said Alice, to audience laughter, “I’m from Australia. I had to do some homework.”

The cast did share that the rattlers are not REAL rattlesnakes (“Those snakes were friendly. Stumpy was a delight.”) but relatively harmless snakes who have, over the years, changed their appearance to mimic the dangerous rattlers for protective camouflage purposes.  The cast also worked with a dialect coach, Judy Dickinson.

See it. It’s good, and well worth the investment of time and money.

“Shrill,” New Aidy Bryant Series on Hulu, Out March 15th

Aidy Bryant, Chicago’s Columbia College graduate and “Saturday Night Live” cast member, is the star of Hulu’s new series “Shrill,” released March 15th, produced by Elizabeth Banks. (SXSW Photo).

Aidy Bryant’s new Hulu series “Shrill” drops today (March 15th). To promote it, Chicago’s Columbia College alumnus Aidy Bryant, her producer Elizabeth Banks (“30 Rock,” “The Hunger Games”), author Lindy West (“Notes from a Loud Woman”), writer Ally Rushfield, and co-star Lolly Adefope were in Austin at a SXSW screening of the first two episodes of “Shrill.”

There are few comedy frontiers left for writers. Jokes about ethnic groups are out and, (other than President Trump), making fun of the handicapped is verboten. Midgets, once comic fodder, are now “Little People.”

But fat people and old people are still fair game.

With Ms. Bryant as the lead, this serio-comic series focuses on how overweight people cope with the constant barrage of negative remarks and actions they are subjected to in real life. But it’s not played solely for laughs.The “Shrill” material is both funny and touching.

It helps that the main character’s Annie’s mother is played by comic pro Julia Sweeney (after 18 years away from performing) and that her sickly father is played by Daniel Stern, who has been acting since the age of 17 (45 years). [Stern first earned kudos as Cyril in “Breaking Away” (1979) and in Barry Levinson’s“Diner” (1982)].

Elizabeth Banks (“30 Rock,” “The Hunger Games”) directs a remark to the author of the “Shrill” source material, Lindy West.(Photo by Connie Wilson).

Special praise should go to Annie’s (Aidy Bryant’s) best friend, played by Lolly Adefope, who was great in the two episodes we saw. Aidy, herself, brings a vulnerability and poignancy to the role that reminds of Melissa McCarthy in her Oscar-nominated turn this year in “Can You Ever Forgive Me.” Annie (Aidy) has the likeability to make you want to root for her; her visual reactions to indignities like her boyfriend asking her to sneak out of his apartment the back way to avoid meeting his roommate brothers: heartbreaking, but all too human.

The opening episode cuts right to the chase. Aidy becomes pregnant by her sometimes boyfriend. She has been using the Morning After pill, but the pharmacist failed to tell her that the pill would be ineffective if the woman weighed more than 175 pounds. (“Oh, yeah…that guy,” says a co-worker at the pharmacy. “He’s very bad at his job.”)

The write-up in the SXSW program says: “From Executive Producer Lorne Michaels and Elizabeth Banks comes Shrill, a comedy series starring Aidy Bryant (Saturday Night Live) as Annie, a fat young woman who wants to change her life—but not her body.  Annie is trying to start her career as a journalist while juggling bad boyfriends, a sick parent, and a perfectionist boss.”

(L to R) Janelle Riley, Editor of “Variety;” Aidy Bryant (“Saturday Night Live”); Writer Ally Brushfield; Producer Elizabeth Banks, and author Lindy West at the Q&A following “Shrill.”

Following the screening of Episodes #1 and #2 from “Shrill,” Janelle Riley, editor of “Variety,” moderated a panel consisting of the author of the source material, Lindy West, whose book of essays “Notes from a Loud Woman” served as the inspiration for the series;Elizabeth Banks, actress and producer, was onstage with writer Ally Rushfield and Aidy. The first question was, “What was your first job?”

The author responsible for the concept (Lindy West) admitted that she had not had much of a goal in life of becoming a writer. “I wasn’t one of those who wanted to be a writer. My first real writing job was for “Where” magazine in Seattle.” She described the task of trying to make the Space Needle fascinating in every issue as difficult.

Aidy Bryant, who married her boyfriend of ten years on April 28, 2018 (she met him when they both were part of Annoyance Theater in Chicago), described her first job as “musical improvisation in Indiana and Ohio, which nobody wanted to hear.”

The writer in the group, Alexandra (Allie) Rushfield said her first job was, “A video store, because I’m middle aged.” She also admitted to a stint with the Groundlings Comedy troupe.

Elizabeth Banks, known to audiences for her role as Effie Trinkett in “The Hunger Games” and for her continuing role as Alec Baldwin’s girlfriend on “Thirty Rock,” has a production company with her husband, Max Handelman. Her first-job answer was, “I was a latch-key kid and my first job was when I  played Pontius Pilate in ‘Jesus Christ, Superstar.’” She then regaled us with a few bars from her big musical number.

Elizabeth Banks (L) and Lindy West (“Notes from A Loud Woman”) during the Q&A after the new Hulu series “Shrill.” (Photo by Connie Wilson).

Moderator Janelle Riley, mentioning that “Notes from a Loud Woman” was “a great collection of essays,” wanted to know how or when they were envisioned as a series. Elizabeth Banks answered that it was “pretty quickly after the book came out and there were a lot of option meetings.” We were told  that Aidy was actually the first person considered for the role.

Aidy (Bryant) said, “It was the first time I ever saw myself in a piece solo. They let me be involved in the writing and producing, which was huge for me.”

The big question many of us had was this: How much personal experience did you bring to the character?

The cast  noted that they were initially referring to the main character as “Lindy” (the author’s name) but changed the character’s name to Annie, since it is not a bio-pic. One noted that the series was “the child of many mothers.”

The cast members railed against Twitter (“Please all quit Twitter and put it out of business and make the world a better place.”) where random strangers gather to hurl insults. “What a joy to be called a fat disgusting pig constantly,” said Aidy Bryant. She shared that an incident in the first episode actually happened to her.  A thin, beautiful trainer grabs her wrist and comments on what a small frame she has, saying, “There’s a thin person inside of you trying to get out.”

In the episode, Aidy laughs and responds, “Well, let’s hope she’s okay in there.”

She also shared that, when she has played Sarah Huckabee Sanders in skits on “Saturday Night Live” half of the viewers who sent messages called her “a fat, disgusting pig” and half said, “Aidy shouldn’t be playing this strong, independent woman.”

All agreed: “People are not used to seeing fat people do anything on camera.” (One possible exception to this might be the character on “This Is Us,” Kate Pearson, played by Chrissy Metz). Elizabeth Banks said, “I think this is very revolutionary.  I think our entire cast and crew wanted to empower women and get rid of the people who are always telling you you aren’t good enough.”

Lindy West, the author, said, “You never see fat people doing anything except being fat.  The world intrudes on you and tells you constantly that you aren’t living up to its standards. Society reminds us all day, every day, that if you’re a fat woman, there’s something wrong with you.”

One aspect that the second episode touched on was the “very complicated relationship with your mother and her body. That represents a lot of love and pain for many women.” I can certainly attest to this.

I had a mother who harped about my weight gain after I gave birth to my son. She never missed an opportunity to insert a diet or recipe reminder in her letters. Then, after I fasted for two full months on liquid protein and lost 72 pounds, and showed up at home at exactly the same weight I had been when I graduated from high school, she never made a single positive comment. I have a good friend (and former college roommate, Pam) who has told me how uncomfortable it was for her to be around and hear her mother say things like, “Why can’t you be thin like Pam?” or, on other occasions, “Why can’t you be thin like your sister?” My mother, like Lindy West’s, is of Norwegian (and Dutch) heritage. Is that a clue?

Said writer Allie Rushfield, “The deal in the writing room is that we would find the universal themes…that period in one’s late teens and early twenties when it’s all about appearance.” Aidy, the series lead, said, “I remembered how much I hated my own guts then. I felt sad for myself—for all the time I wasted when I was sold the bill of goods about how I was worthless unless I was thin.”

Added the writers (Alexandra Rushfield, Lindy West, Aidy Bryant): “I feel like the entire world is shifting, too.”

Let’s hope so. In the meantime, I ordered up Hulu for my husband’s March 21st birthday, primarily because of this series—[although, let’s face it, I’ve not been able to see Elisabeth Moss’s “The Handmaid’s Tale,” either, and obviously that is required viewing in the age of Trump].

So, how much did I like “Shrill”? At least $72 worth, minimum, and that’s probably on the low side (depending on whether you opt out of the commercials or not).

I also want to thank the publicist who got me in and let me sit in the Reserved seating area. Thank you very much. I never did gain admission to “NOS4A2,” despite writing repeatedly and once interviewing Joe Hill. That’s all I’m going to be writing about that other new series for a loooong time.

 

“Bluebird” Is SXSW Documentary about Nashville’s Bluebird Cafe Launching Pad to Songwriting Stardom

Director Brian Loschiavo of “Bluebird.” (Photo by Connie Wilson).

“Bluebird” premiered at SXSW on Thursday, March 14th, with Director Brian Loschiavo and many of the crew in attendance, including the now-retired owner of the 1,000 foot café in Nashville on 16th Avenue, Amy Kurland. Director Brian Loschiavo, a Philadelphia film school graduate, spent 10 years in Los Angeles as a freelance screenwriter and Senior Producer with Disney, ABC, and other TV networks, until signing up to be involved in the show “Nashville,” which made him into a believer. He moved to Nashville permanently and was soon tapped to film this documentary about the Bluebird Café.

The Bluebird is a small café in Music City that helps provide a place for songwriters to perform their songs and has launched the careers of megastars like Garth Brooks, Taylor Swift and Faith Hill. Other well-known names (Trisha Yearwood, Maren Morris, Vince Gill, Jason Isabell, Steve Earle, Connie Britton, Charles Esten) appear, but the magic of the place is that the unknowns behind famous songs—those who actually wrote the words and lyrics—have a place where they can perform and become known for their talent.

Amy Kurland, founder with daughter Barbara of the Bluebird Cafe in Nashville, at SXSW. (Photo by Connie Wilson).

As Thom Schayler called it, “The Bluebird is a place to come and be found.” Owner and founder Amy Kurland, with her daughter Barbara, did not originally intend for the Bluebird to be a music venue. It opened in 1982, not in mid-town, not in downtown, but in a strip mall next to a beauty shop and a dry cleaners, featuring all kinds of music.

Owner Amy described it, originally, as “A place for women to come to eat after they had their hair done. Minnie Pearl came to eat at the Bluebirt after she had her hair done.” She added, “When we first opened, it was all kinds of music,” and shared that they would sometimes put on the Talking Heads at max volume to drive out those lingering over a late lunch.

Said Amy, “The goal was to hear not a star, but a great songwriter.” Over time, the proscenium stage gave way to playing in the round in the center of the small room. Thom Schuyler described it as “The most fun I ever had with my clothes on.”

Brian Loschiavo of “Bluebird.” (Photo by Connie Wilson).

Snippets of the greatest Nashville songwriters of the day are heard, performed in some cases by the artists who made them famous, but more often by the songwriters who initially poured their heart and soul into the song to create the piece. Over the years, the Bluebird became known as a place to give aspiring songwriters a chance. Said one veteran: “They nurture the songwriter as an artist. I learned in that room that being a songwriter is a legitimate job.  Sometimes the performance by the writer of the song is more intimate than the famous version.”

With Open Mike on Monday nights, 60 singer/songwriters audition on Sunday night. Garth Brooks was one such aspiring singer/songwriter who had been turned down by every major label but was discovered by someone in the audience at the Bluebird. Taylor Swift was another who joined forces with her manager in that space, as he was just starting out with his own label and she was an 8th grade songwriter from Pennsylvania. (*Full disclosure: my daughter, a music business graduate of Belmont in Nashville, worked for Taylor Swift for 2 years.)

After the screening, talent producer Shawna Strasberg, who had to line up all the famous folk to appear, said that it “took six months to a year to figure out Taylor Swift’s schedule.” She added that most artists said yes “because it was the Bluebird.”

Props were also given to the elaborate set recreating the interior of the Bluebird, built for the TV show “Nashville,” which has popularized the place. The goal was to make you feel like you were in the room. Previously, as one cameraman said, “The opening scene was shot under a table, through someone’s legs with a handheld camera the whole time. It’s a challenge to shoot music.”

Founder and former owner Amy Kurland, who was present the night of the premiere, described herself as someone who grew up on Broadway musicals. She was so dedicated to having the Bluebird remain a place for up-and-coming songwriters to potentially get their shot that she signed over the café to the NSAI Nashville Music Association to make sure that it remains a launching pad for talent now that she has retired.

She looked back over her time since 1982 and said, “Those first few years I knew we were legitimate when Don Everley agreed to come play there.” Given a standing ovation by the appreciative crowd, Amy said, “I didn’t take a salary for a long time. If you’re in it to make a killing, I’d have been better off with a sports bar” to laughter.

It was the success of the TV show “Nashville” that took the struggling café from break-even to money-maker. Now, large crowds gather outside and, while approximately one-third of the café’s revenue comes from merchandise sold, there are routinely 200 to 300 people in the parking lot seeking entry to the small 90-seat venue. (A $25 cover charge is mentioned by the doorman at one point.)

“Bluebird” musicians close out the March 15th World Premiere showing at the Paramount Theater at SXSW. (Photo by Connie Wilson).

Director Brian Loschiavo acknowledged during the Q&A that “The hardest decision, hands down and a great challenge, was that we had to be stewards of the story.  A lot of cutting room stuff we had to lose.” With former owner Amy Kurland smiling and saying, “I really didn’t expect it to be so lively. I’m so grateful” a six-piece band onstage serenaded us as we departed.

Truly a heart-warming, entertaining, and informative film—especially if you dream of becoming a songwriter and wonder how to go about getting your big break in Music City (Nashville).

“Sunset Over Mulholland Drive” @ SXSW Proves You’re Never Too Old to Be Creative

“Sunset Over Mulholland Drive” is a behind-the-scenes look into the Motion Picture and Television Relief Fund’s Hollywood retirement home and grounds. The piece was a German entry into the documentary spotlight at SXSW, directed by Uli Gaulke with writing assistance from Marc Pitzke. It was produced by Helge Albers. When I failed to gain entrance to “Us” (Express passes at SXSW went in 9 seconds!) this 97-minute documentary having its North American Premiere here was Plan B.

A look at the retirement community that is home to many of Hollywood’s former leading men and women sounded like it would be right up my alley. Director Gaulke admitted, in the Q&A after the film, that he was thinking about himself when he decided to make the film after he read an article about the motion picture retirement community in California. And now the documentary has had its North American premiere at SXSW. He had hit a bad patch, endured a divorce, and he was hitting mid-life.

The odd thing about the entire project is that it was made by Germans. (What’s up with that?) Uli read the article, contacted the home and, roughly 4 years and 70 to 80 hours of material later, after shooting for a year with 6 people traveling between Berlin and Hollywood,  it premiered here at SXSW. The film inspired the director who said, “They were very open to telling me their stories.  Then I found Jerry (Selby Kaufman), my favorite…They were not only thinking of their own past, but the most important part was to follow them and to see that they can be creative when they are old.”

[Whew! THAT was a load off my mind!]

(L to R) Producer Helge Albers and Director Uli Gaulke of “Sunset Over Mulholland Drive” at the North American Premiere in Austin, Texas at SXSW. (Photo by Connie Wilson).

The Q&A after the film was delightful because, besides speaking excellent English, Uli would punctuate his remarks at key points with a “Ya?” that was reminiscent  of “Fargo.”

Uli said, “I always learn something. For me, personally, in my mid forties and fifties, I was glad to learn that life becomes a little more interesting, but that it is a continuation and that stamina is the key.” He added, “The challenge was getting them (the residents) to be working together and that was where the UCLA scriptwriting class helped.”

This reference was to a creative writing class that asked the residents to think of Ilsa and Rick from “Casablanca” and what they might be like if they met again twenty years in the future. This brought out a veritable plethora of ideas from the creative community. We also see the residents shooting a short film directed by Jerry (a former director) that is called “Santa for All Seasons,” where Santa’s close friends and wife and co-workers talk about him frankly.

One of my very favorite anecdotes in the film was provided by Joe Rosen, who became an apprentice film editor in 1957. He had a meeting with then-studio head Jack Warner and, during the course of their conversation, the subject turned to which actor should play a serious part then up for casting. Although Jason Robards was available, Jack Warner wanted to cast Troy Donahue, instead, causing Joe to say, “You have to be incompetent to make a statement like that!”

Joe Rosen was subsequently banned from the studio grounds.

(R) Director Uli Gaulke of Berlin, Germany, at the North American Premiere of “Sunset Over Mulholland Drive” at SXSW. (Photo by Connie Wilson).

We hear Wright King, now 94, telling us that he had wanted to be an actor since the age of 6 and that he once looked at Vivian Leigh onscreen in “Gone with the Wind” and said, “Some day I’m gonna’ kiss her onscreen.” And he did, in “On the Waterfront,” which we see in a brief film clip.

There is the charming older couple (married 62 years), Joel and Deborah Rogosin. Deborah is legally blind and Joel is obviously devoted to her, but he talks non-stop and she largely ignores him. One of the most touching moments in the film is when Joel sings “Always” to his bride: “Days may not be fair always. But I’ll be loving you always. Not for just an hour. Not for just a day. Not for just a year, but always.”

Joel finishes up that lovely serenade by saying, “I forget.  Did you use the word ‘obey’ in our marriage ceremony?”  Deborah responds that she most certainly did not, and Joel says, “Well, that accounts for it!” A gifted writer, Joel and Deborah have been working on a book together for most of their 62 years of marriage, entitled “How to Stay Married Without Killing Each Other.” They bicker over the title and the contents of each chapter. At one point, as they remember a long-ago romantic dance in the rain when they were young, Joel writes: “I wish that special glistening rain would fall and make us young and beautiful again.”

The entire documentary was delightful and charming. In retrospect, I’m glad I saw it instead of “Us,” (which opens wide soon.)

I highly recommend this stroll down memory lane in “Sunset Over Mulholland Drive.”

Celebrities Hit the Red Carpet for “The Beach Bum” at SXSW in Austin, TX

Isla Fisher at the premiere of “The Beach Bum” at SXSW. (Photo by Connie Wilson).

Jimmy Buffett at the premiere of “The Beach Bum” in Austin, Texas, at SXSW. (Photo by Connie Wilson).

Star of “The Beach Bum” Matthew McConaughey with wife Camille and his mother on the Red Carpet at SXSW. (Photo by Connie Wilson).

Jimmy Buffett and Martin Lawrence at the Red Carpet for “The Beach Bum” at SXSW. (Photo by Connie Wilson).

Harmony Korine, Director of “The Beach Bum” on the Red Carpet at SXSW. (Photo by Connie Wilson).

While the flow of movie stars to SXSW continues, the Red Carpet opportunities seem fewer than in previous years.

Nevertheless, there have been some names showing up and here are a few of the celebrities who walked the red carpet for “The Beach Bum.”

Much of the action this year seems to be in the Convention Center for panels involving politicians who all seem to have a goal of running for President in 2020.

Here’s a rogue’s gallery of a few famous faces that have appeared for films like “The Beach Bum” (Matthew McConaughey, Jimmy Buffett, Martin Lawrence).

And then there was Scott Rogowsky for H.Q. trivia “live,” for the first-time ever.  Camp Sandy in the Hill Country pitched us with a free Uber ride, a free Turtle Car Wax if you drove your own car, and Music in the Van. (I went out to Camp Sandy for Low Cut Connie and Wyclef Jean, but the other Connie had lost his voice singing outside in the rain. He performs again for free on Friday night outside in downtown  Austin.)

“For Sama,” Named Best Feature Documentary at SXSW: Behind the Scenes of the Siege in Syria

 

 

https://images.sxsw.com/OmkWk_NPatsx2ymZWMOMnGzSbME=/878x0:4955x2912/images.sxsw.com/57/e1a26cc7-d574-4707-8f13-52848b9384e8/under-a-falling-sky-142452 Photo of Waad al-Kateab, documenting the violence in Aleppo, Syria (SXSW Press Still)

“For Sama,” Waad al-Kateab and Edward Watts’ searing documentary about the Syrian crisis, was named Best Documentary Feature at SXSW on March 12th. Said the judges, “This extraordinary and harrowing documentary captures an epic personal story of a mother’s love for her daughter and a wife’s love for her husband through the lens of the bloody and brutal siege of Aleppo.”

Waad al-Kateab stayed in Aleppo, where she had been a student in the fourth year of an economics degree at the university. When the rebellion against Assad’s corrupt regime broke out—much of it initially fomented by university rebels—the protesters were hopeful. Waad al-Kateab, a photo-journalist who continued filming for the duration, said, “To try to live a normal life in this place is to stand against the regime.”

Waad al-Kateab’s husband, Dr. Hamza el-Koteab, was one of only 32 physicians who chose to stay in the besieged city to care for the remaining residents; it is clear Aleppo’s remaining residents feel abandoned by the world. “We’re crying out to the world: Help us! ..But no one does anything to stop the regime.”

During the time that Waad al-Kateab spent in Aleppo  across a 5-year span and during 6 months of constant bombing, she and Hamza fell in love, got married, and had their first child, Sama. The film is entitled “For Sama,” their daughter, because Waad wanted to let her daughter know what they were fighting for in staying behind long after others had fled. As Waad says, “Our new life with you felt so fragile…as fragile as our life in Aleppo.”

The family eventually ends up actually living in the hospital, but the hospital is constantly being bombed by the Assad regime with Russian air support. At one point,  8 of 9 hospitals in East Aleppo have been destroyed; Hamza’s is the only one left, seeing 300 patients a day. Waad al-Kateab and Hamza had one hospital bombed while they were out of the facility, which killed 53 people, including the doctor who delivered Waad’s daughter.

There are many heart-rending scenes of adults and children being brought to the make-shift hospital only to die there or be declared DOA. There are dead bodies literally everywhere within the hospital;  one of the most ghastly scenes is of the victims of a mass execution, all of whom were civilians but showed signs of torture and had been shot in the head. Their bodies—at least 30 corpses— laid out in the street as a warning. The burial pit that forms their mass grave instantly summons memories of Nazi Germany. The scenes of the hospital being bombed evoke the “Sixty Minutes” segment that visited Aleppo hospitals  while they were under fire. One heart-warming but tragic moment is of the emergency C-section of a 9-months pregnant woman. Her child is saved, with difficulty; the mother is beyond help.

Ultimately, after 6 months under siege (December, 2016) the United Nations calls Dr. Hamza, who has become a voice for the Syrian people and whose face has become known to the world saying, “If you surrender, they will spare your lives.” The couple faces a harrowing decision regarding their small daughter. The  thought is this: She has a better chance of making it if they (the authorities) don’t know that you are her parents.

Waad al-Kateab cannot leave her daughter behind, however. The couple and their neighbors, who have three children, attempt the perilous journey out of Aleppo and into exile. As they drive, sharp shooters shoot at the ambulance. Waad says, “The silence makes you feel the city is dead.” Each check-point is dangerous. Will they all make it out alive?

The bombed ruins of a once-beautiful city confirm the diagnosis that the city, along with many of its inhabitants, is dead. Waad’s husband, Dr. Hamza says that in 20 days they saw 6,000 patients and performed 890 operations.

This is a must-see story of survival under siege from directors Waad al-Kateab and Edward Watts which had its World Premiere (financing by the UK) at SXSW. Hopefully, it will air soon on PBS.

“Lowland Kids” Attests to the Effects of Global Warming: World’s First Climate Change Refugees

Director Sandra Winther. (SXSW Photo).

“Lowland Kids,” a documentary short showing at SXSW directed by Sandra Winther and beautifully shot by Director of Photography Todd Martin tells the story of America’s first climate change refugees.

Brother and sister Juliette and Howard Brunet are being raised by their Uncle Chris Brunet, who is handicapped and confined to a wheelchair. The parents of the teen-agers apparently died from drug addiction, although Howard, when asked, says, “I don’t want to talk about that.”

The two siblings and their Uncle Chris live on Isle de Jean Charles, Louisiana and, as Chris explains their predicament after 3 generations of living on the island, their island is losing one football field of earth every hour because of the oil and gas company building canals and due to natural disasters. The rising water is going to take over the island, the lowlands, and, as Uncle Chris says, “This is home. You really can’t get that again.”

The government has pledged to build houses to relocate the entire lowland island because, “The ground is sinking.  You’re looking at mass relocation.” When asked how they feel about moving in questions like, “What are you gonna’ miss about this place?” Chris answers “Everything, Man!” It is clear that the teen-agers feel the same way. Explains Chris, “That’s just it. It’s the simplicity.”

While the house they live in is not much, the scenery is gorgeous with beautiful sunsets and trips by boat to hunt alligators. The young people spend a lot of time driving all-terrain vehicles around the lush and isolated grounds and Howard says, “Moving off the island is gonna’ change a lot. Nobody really wants to lose their hometown.”

Howard shares that he is an aspiring football player and adds, “If you’re good at it, you shouldn’t just waste your time.” He hopes to get a college scholarship to help him go to a college or university in the future. He is shown watching a Saints/Vikings showdown on his cell phone and practicing his throwing.

Juliette shares that, “The person I respect the most is Uncle Chris…in a wheelchair and raising two teenagers.” She seems to have made her peace with the deaths of her parents, saying she doesn’t need a female role model because, “They died for a reason. To me, it’s cool.” The only hint that the loss of their biological parents really isn’t so “cool” for them comes from a family friend, Mike, who talks about her brother Howard being “in a bad way” at one point, but all of them rallying to care for the orphaned children.

The place and its loss is front and center, with gorgeous cinematography and comments like,”They say there’s not too much here. That’s the thing—it’s just implicit.”

There are so many unanswered questions in the short (approximately half an hour) documentary: What happened that confined Uncle Chris to a wheelchair? Is Uncle Chris their true, biological uncle, or is that an honorary title? What do Chris (and, for that matter, Mike) do to earn money to live?  How do the Brunets get around the lowland island and, for that matter, off the island, when the comment is made that floods frequently shut off the ability to get to the mainland? How much is the relocation of 180 to 200 families going to cost the government or the families affected? Are the oil and gas companies that Chris says are responsible in large part for this erosion going to pay for some or all of the moves that are supposed to take place by 2022?

See this one for the beautiful shots of the Watery Island lowland paradise of which Uncle Chris says, “I would like to find a place like this with good friends and family…Home, you really can’t get that again.”

“The Boy Band Con: The Lou Pearlman Story” Premiering on Wednesday, March 13th at SXSW

“The Boy Band Con: The Lou Pearlman Story”: in the good old days. (Photo used by permission of YouTube, Pilgrim Productions & Lance Bass Productions)

The Boy Ban Con: The Lou Pearlman Story is a You Tube Original documentary, presented by Pilgrim Media in conjunction with Lance Bass Productions.  It premieres at SXSW on Wednesday, March 13th, 2019 at 3 p.m. at the Paramount Theater.

Lance Bass is onscreen discussing Pearlman’s defrauding of the boy bands he formed, as is Bass’ mother and Justin Timberlake’s mother and several members of the boy bands N’Sync and The Back Street Boys, including A.J. McLean, Ashley Parker Angel, Chris Kirkpatrick, J.C. Chasez, Johnny Wright, Lynn Harless (Timberlake’s Mom), Aaron Carter, Nikki DeLoach and Diane Bass (Lance Bass’ Mom). Justin Timberlake does not appear in the film, except in old footage. Director Aaron Kunkel paints a picture of a very bright, but very dishonest man.

Pearlman used falsified Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, AIG and Lloyd’s of London documents to win investors’ confidence in his “Employee Investment Savings Account” program. He used fake financial statements created by the fictitious accounting firm Cohen and Siegel to secure bank loans for his Airship Enterprises, Ltd. (Essentially, an airline without any planes). Trans Continental Records followed. The Backstreet Boys became the best-selling boy band of all time, with record sales of 130 million, hitting gold, platinum, and diamond in 45 different countries. Pearlman  then repeated this formula almost exactly with the band *NSYNC, which sold over 70 million records globally.

Lou Pearlman is presented as a consummate ponzi scheme artist, with little emphasis in this documentary on the pedophile claims that came to light later, revealed in a Vanity Fair article, “Mad About the Boys” by Bryan Burrough (August 21, 2016.)

Pearlman died in prison 3 days before the article appeared, but he had denied such accusations of sexual impropriety in a 2014 Hollywood Reporter interview from prison. Pearlman’s death was caused by surgery to replace a heart valve, which he had undergone a week before his death. He developed an infection of the lining of the heart valve.

Defrauding people of over half a billion dollars through various schemes is what sent Pearlman to jail for 25 years, where he died at 62 on August 19, 2016. His tentative release date from prison would have been 2029.

The judge offered Pearlman one month off each year of his 25-year sentence for every million dollars recovered, but only $38 million dollars was ever recovered, most of it from the sale of Church Street Station, a historic train station in the heart of Orlando which Pearlman had purchased in 2002. That sale, alone, recouped $34 million.

Here, with Lance Bass shepherding this 99 minute project as Executive Producer and one of the principal talking heads exploring the Lou Pearlman phenomenon, the documentary is focused almost exclusively on how an overweight, relatively friendless man started two boy bands between 1993 and 2006. Other less successful bands followed.  (Pearlman even asked the Judge, after his sentencing, to allow him Internet access from prison so that he could continue to manage. The judge declined).

After viewing “Finding Neverland” the idea of a rich, powerful and/or famous man in a position to advance the career(s) of young talent(s), causing naïve and gullible young people to be victimized, is not difficult to believe. It has occurred many, many times. Hollywood coined the term “the casting couch” for the promises made to innocent young actresses.

Lou Pearlman had been custom-fitting airplanes for famous bands to travel and became aware of the tremendous amounts of money these artists were making. He immediately set his sights on forming such a band and becoming a promoter.

The way in which he got the seed money to be able to underwrite expenses for the venture is pure Lou Pearlman: he defrauded an insurance company of $3 million by insuring a blimp he bought for $10,000. Pearlman painted the blimp gold to be used as advertising for Jordache. McDonald’s was another signed advertiser.

When the blimp crashed, Lou had his seed money; he used it to audition a $3 million-dollar talent search and form the boy bands that were then supplanting the Seattle grunge scene as those bands (think Kurt Cobain in “Nirvana”) fell victim to their own successes.

The members of the Back Street Boys and NSync fell victim to Lou Pearlman presenting himself as a paternal father figure, but also insisting that he was “the sixth member of the band”( much like Billy Preston was once dubbed “the Fifth Beatle.”) In Lou’s case, this meant a monetary cut equivalent to the young men who were practicing their dance moves 16 hours a day, but also cuts as the producer, marketer, etc. Lou Pearlman was triple-dipping. Pearlman presented the boys with a lavish party house for them to “bond” in and paid for the recording studios and, also, for lavish meals in eateries like Lawries.

The climax of the film seems to come when all of the boys are invited to such a dinner and told to bring their parents. It is far into the group’s success; they are pulling down millions. An envelope appears on each boy’s plate. They can only dream of the riches they now will receive for their hard work, since the per diem allowance to date has only been $35 a day, plus their comped food and living expenses.

When the checks were for only $10,000, Lance Bass says he went home and tore his up.

Lawsuits ensued, with the boy bands finding out that the contract(s) they had signed were very very good for Lou Pearlman but very very bad for them.

Then Lou went a step further and ultimately defrauded investors in Trans Continental Airways of half a billion dollars, of which only $38 million was ever recovered. Over two hundred investors lost all of their money. Some are interviewed in the film. Most are elderly couples who could not afford to lose their only inheritance.

Lou’s sole childhood friend, Alan Gross, had been a model plane assembler as a hobby. Pearlman took one such plane, painted a logo on the side of the model, and held it up with his hand against a backdrop of mountains to make it appear that he had an airline, Trans Continental. He didn’t.

Ultimately, Lou Pearlman died in disgrace at age 62 on August 19, 2016.

H.Q. Trivia Goes “Live” in Austin at SXSW with Scott Rogowski—And You Are There!

The inimitable host of H.Q. trivia, Scott Rogowsky, hit SXSW in Austin, to conduct a first-ever “live” version of H.Q. on Sunday, March 11th at 90 Rainey Street in Austin Texas at 4:15 p.m.

An avid player, I made certain to get in to the small bar, where we were given tickets good for 2 free drinks. I nailed down a seat right in front of a large-screen TV to watch Bohannon (of Iowa) take his final shot against Nebraska which was blocked in overtime, resulting in a 93-91 loss.

Over 2,500 of us were playing, after we entered in a special “code” that was handed out on site. (You had to be there to win).

Scott Rogowski, Host of H.Q. Trivia, “live” in Austin at SXSW. (Photo by Connie Wilson).

Scott Rogowski, “live” from SXSW at 4:15 p.m. on March 10, 2019. (Photo by Connie Wilson).

Scott Rogowski congratulates one of the 72 winners of the $10,000 prize on March 10, 2019 at SXSW in Austin. (Photo by Connie Wilson).

Scott Rogowski, host, and one (of 72) winners of the first-ever “live” game of H.Q. in Austin, Texas at SXSW on March 10 at 4:15 p.m. CDT. (Photo by Connie Wilson).

The prize money was $10,000 for answering 12 questions in 10 seconds or less, per question. Having just attained Level 7 during the season that ended on February 28th, I was feeling pretty lucky—but, then, I’ve never won (although I won The Cash Show 7 times and then they folded and never paid me my $20!)

As always, the first three questions were the easy ones.  (Q1:  Where is SXSW held? A1: Austin, Texas. Q2:  What song did Phoebe on “Friends sing to her cat? A2:  Smelly Cat. Q3:  What did the soup Nazi on “Seinfeld” yell at his customers on occasion?  A3:  “No soup for you!”

Then, things got interesting. And difficult.

Had I known there would be a question about which chef had not been a judge on a cooking show, I would have paid more attention when trapped in the nail shop in Chicago where that is all they ever have on TV. Or, I would have phoned a friend. And who knows what the MS in MSNBC stands for?

The rest were right up my alley. Q6:  What famous actress does George have a date with on “Seinfeld?” A6:  Marisa Tomei, of course.

Q7:  Which Saturday Night Live performer has amassed the longest tenure?

A7:  Kennan Thompson

Q8:  Which one of “The Office” cast members was not in its first episode, Jan, Kevin or Andy Bernard?

A8:  Andy Bernard, of course. By this time, 566 were still in the game.

Q9:  In the mid 70s which one of these acts appeared on the first “Saturday Night Live”:  Paul Simon, Billy Preston or the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band? I KNEW this was Billy Preston, but only 183 others did. (Most said Paul Simon, who got 328 votes and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band got 56.)

That one was declared a “savage” question and I temporarily forgot to write down what was asked next, but I can tell you that the final question, with 943 competitors in attendance, was: “Which of these shows did not appear on NBC: Today, Tomorrow or Late Show?” I was positive it would be the Late Show, and it was—although my 2 much younger seat mates were not in agreement.

Seventy-two winners split the prize (one is pictured with Scott Rogowski, the host) and took home $138.89 apiece.

Carry on, Garth.

Has James P. Allison Found the Cure for Cancer? The Nobel Prize Committee Awards University of Texas Researcher the 2018 Prize for Medicine

James P. Allison

James P. Allison

     [Nobel Media Phot0]

James P. Allison of Alice, Texas, was inspired to try to develop a cure for cancer when he was eleven years old in 1959. That year, Jim’s mother died of lymphoma. As the years went by, one brother died of prostate cancer and one developed metastatic melanoma. Jim, himself, has faced down cancer three times, so far, in his seventy-one years.

BACKGROUND

Said Jim of his life’s work and ambition:  “If you’re gonna’ do these things, you oughta’ at least do things that help people.” He thought back to his own childhood and reminisced, “They thought I was a troublemaker. I just knew I was right…If you disagree with someone or something, you just have to stand your ground.” When he finally found a way to put his discovery into drug form, it took many years spent overcoming “all kinds of things that stood in the way.”

Young Jim’s father traveled frequently, so he often spent time with another family that had a son about his own age after his mother’s death and, always, he played the harmonica and relied on music to release some of the pain and the pressure in his life. His friendship with Willie Nelson is illustrated, with an appearance onstage at Austin City alongside his musical idol.

After graduating from high school at the tender age of 16 in 1965, Jim went on to become a researcher in the field of immunology—using the body’s own defense system to cure cancer tumors. It was for his discovery of a drug dubbed Ipilimumab or Ipi (known commercially as Yervoy) that he was awarded the 2018 Nobel Prize in Stockholm for medicine or physiology.

BREAKTHROUGH, THE DOCUMENTARY

Director Bill Haney, winner of a Silver Hugo, the Gabriel Prize, short-listed for an Oscar, and winner of accolades from Marine Conservation, Genesis, Amnesty International and Earthwatch weaves an engrossing tale around Allison’s achievements, narrated by Hollywood’s Woody Harrelson. He inserts scenes of James Harrelson with his wife and son alongside the expert testimony of some of the other leading researchers in the field, including the University of Chicago’s Jeffrey Bluestone, whose own discovery challenged Ipi in the field at the time.

Another effective visual method for the audience was to find the dramatic patient—the one whose participation in the clinical trials for Ipi saved her life. That patient was Sharon Belvin, who was diagnosed with terminal melanoma at the age of 22. With metastatic melanoma, she was told she would not live more than 7 months. As we see in the film, Sharon has not only lived decades beyond her original diagnosis, she has been completely tumor-free since receiving Ipi, is married, and has two children.

We even get to have a happy ending of James Allison “getting the girl,” in this case, prominent fellow researcher Dr. Padmanee Sharma, whom he married after his marriage to wife Malinda fell victim to his work.

THE STORY

Jim struggles throughout to make it clear that Ipi is NOT an anti-cancer drug. It all started with the belief that the immune system played an important role in responding to cancer and that the T cells of the immune system needed to be studied. “I really wanted to understand T cells and the immune system,” James Allison says. Tyler Jacks, a fellow scientist, tells us: “Jim doesn’t care that he is not following convention. He’s an iconoclast. They are always thinking beyond the work. They’re creative people.” Jim felt that tumors caused T-cell receptors to turn off the immune system, but if you inserted an antibody, then the T-cells would be free to attack the tumor. His experiments with mice were amazing as the mice that had received the antibodies just before Christmas became tumor-free.

But now the real work began.

OBSTACLES TO OVERCOME

Jim spent ten years trying to get his discovery of the antibody that would turn the immune system into a fighting force against tumors made into a drug for cancer patients like Sharon Belvin. He had written his first paper (“Enhancement of Anti Tumor Immunology by CTLA-4”) in 1996, but things went South fast.

Interferon 2 was in the news then, but it took “two years and nobody would listen.” This is the period of time when Jim’s brother, Mike, was diagnosed with metastatic prostate cancer in his fifties. Two of Jim’s uncles had also died of cancer. Jim’s urgency escalated. But clinical trials take deep pockets; no big pharma firms wanted to shell out for them. If a drug is deemed safe in Phase 1, it goes on to Phases 2 and 3. As one fellow researcher said on camera, “Mainstream medicine was ignoring the immunology crowd. And pharmaceutical companies don’t know if something is promising or deadly.”

James’ P. Allison’s drug, known commercially as Yervoy, became the first to extend the survival of patients with late-stage melanoma. Follow-up studies show 20 percent of those treated live for at least three years with many living beyond 10 years— unprecedented results. Additional research has extended this approach to new immune regulatory targets with drugs approved to treat certain types and stages of melanoma, lung, kidney, bladder, gastric, liver, cervical, colo-rectal cancer, and head and neck cancers as well as Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

The documentary premiered at SXSW on March 9th. If you have a close friend or loved one affected by cancer (and who doesn’t?) you should see this one.

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