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!

Category: Movies Page 1 of 43

Connie has been reviewing film uninterruptedly since 1970 (47 years) and routinely covers the Chicago International Film Festival (14 years), SXSW, the Austin Film Festival, and others, sharing detailed looks in advance at upcoming entertainment. She has taught a class on film and is the author of the book “Training the Teacher As A Champion; From The Godfather to Apocalypse Now, published by the Merry Blacksmith Press of Rhode Island.

“Red River Road” Explores an Internet Virus Threatening the Schuyler Family

“Red River Road,” for the Schuyler family, is the answer to the question, “What did you do during the pandemic?”

The talented Schuyler family can honestly say, “We made a movie.” Considering the challenges of being both the stars of the film and the entire crew, it’s quite an impressive movie, at that. Paul wrote, directed, was the cameraman, and helped score (along with Cindy O’Connor) the music for the film.

The plot: “A family of four isolating against a pandemic virus that spreads through the Internet and robs you of your ability to perceive reality—often violently—begins to unravel when they suspect one or all of them might be infected.” One screenplay line: “That’s how it gets in here. It steals reality right out from under you.” Personally, as the parent of teenagers who were very creative at securing their phones after hours, I could relate to the two boys managing to get their phones back and access the Internet (when they were not supposed to do.)

 

Paul Schuyler (“Wasted,” 1996; “Runner”, 2017) organized his family of four into a cast to film this horror/thriller indie film. The acting is top notch. Wife Jade does a great job of portraying the worried Mom, Anna, of two teen-aged brothers, Quinn and Shaw. Paul is Stephen for the purposes of this fictional story. [His woodworking with a blade saw put me on edge.]

The flashbacks that occur intermittently in the plot are all formed from old home movies of the family, whether they are shots at the beach or the family climbing the Eiffel Tower. This was very effective.

Shot in 10 days on a budget of $225,000 in Harwich, Massachusetts, the trivia as to HOW one both films and acts simultaneously was interesting to me and worth sharing:  “Any shots that featured director Paul Schuyler and any other family members had to be blocked and framed prior to action being called. Whichever actor was closest to the camera would ‘roll camera’ then enter the scene to start ‘action’. Only after the scene was shot could they go back and look at the take to make sure everyone was properly in frame. Multiple takes were required to get a usable take, as there was no one there to operate the camera.”

There are multiple dolly shots that include the entire family. With no crew, the only way to achieve this was to connect the dolly to an array of ropes and pulleys that were manipulated by one of the actors in the scene. Usually using another actor to block any “giveaway” movements that would reveal what they were doing.

Brody, the dog, also performed admirably, creating tension at key moments in the generally well-paced one hour and 29 minute film.

The film won a Special Festival Award, the Spirit of Independent Filmmaking, at the Stony Brook Film Festival; it is easy to see why. “Red River Road” is able to be rented ($4.99 and up) on Amazon Prime.

Nice work, Schuyler family. Definitely answers the question “How I spent my pandemic quarantine enforced vacation.”

“Sheet Music” by Jaran Huggins Screens at Nashville Film Festival

It’s hard to grab an audience’s attention in 15 minutes. The attention span of the average audience member is about that of a gnat, especially these days, with so many things competing for our attention.

That being said, if I had been in Writer/Director/Producer Jaran Huggins’ shoes while writing directing his short “Sheet Music,” I would have started the 15-minute short with the song that concludes “Sheet Music.”

What song?

“The Song We Sing,” is the song,  performed by Chloe Kibble, a Nashville girl whose father was one of the members of the group “Take6.” She is truly wonderful delivering the closing original song; her gold dress is the perfect wardrobe choice.

Kudos to the writer of the song, Bryard Huggins, who wrote the lyrics. He is an accomplished performer who tours with Gladys Knight as her featured guest artist. Bryard has released 6 albums and 7 singles. Bryard Huggins is the brother of “Sheet Music” Writer/Director/Producer Jaran Huggins, a recent graduate of Temple University (MFA in Film and Media Arts.)

“Sheet Music”—the 15-minute short that Jaran created, which screened at the 53rd Nashville Film Festival— has some things going for it, but most of what it makes it truly riveting happens in the final frames, when Chloe Kibble lets loose with “The Song We Sing.” Yowza! That girl can sing! I wanted to hear more of Chloe and to hear her sing much earlier in the short.

The plot, according to the press notes, “Tells the story of two Black performers who are able to find their liberation in the roots of oppression.” There really is not much evidence of “oppression” onscreen, other than the white usher failing to bring the about-to-perform female singer a glass of water.

For the first approximately 13 minutes, nothing happens.

Two Black performers wait backstage to perform in a white establishment in a Black neighborhood. The two are Adryan Coogan Jr. (played by Ty Norwood Jr.) and Leilani Drakeford (played by J.C. Willis). Leilani did a credible job with a not-very-riveting script. Her inability to get the white usher to bring her a drink of water is our clue that she and her accompanist are victims of oppression, along with a less-than-welcoming white doorman who opens the club door for the duo.

The production designer (Kimberly Redman) has done a fantastic job of reproducing a slightly down-at-the-heels small dressing room of the era. There are appropriate posters and, as J.C says, the dressing room is a small closet that might have belonged to the janitor. Then again, are dressing rooms in small, seedy establishments glitzy, as a general rule?

The conflict that Jaran shows us comes from Adryan forgetting the duo’s sheet music. The lead singer (J.C. Willis)—one half of the team billed outside as “Adryan Coogan Jr. and J.C. Willis” of “The All American Ragtime Blues” duo—doesn’t seem that concerned about the missing sheet music. However, the pair is waiting for their call to go onstage, which is imminent. Because of the MIA sheet music, the pair ultimately walks out, hand-in-hand down the alley.

This struck me as a poor way to launch a singing career (or any career). I was not overwhelmed at the logic of the two getting a shot at performing in front of an audience (that will be mostly white) and simply walking out, leaving the club owner to deal with the fall-out.

So, to sum up: 1) Slow opening

2) Not very interesting dialogue; the first 13 minutes dragged.

3)  Adequate articulation of the dialogue (better from Leilani Drakeford than from Ty Norwood, Jr.). For me, the couple’s decision to stiff the owner of the night club and run off was a very bad idea for a duo trying to jump start their performing career.

4) Great sets and costumes. (Kudos, Kimberly Redman).

5) Great performance of the song  “The Song We Sing.”

I’m not sure whether this short was originally created for a thesis at Tulane or if it is merely a way for Jaran to launch a film career, but, if he is as talented as his brother Bryard, his anticipated move to Los Angeles may prove fruitful. There wasn’t enough of the music, but the one song was thoroughly enjoyable. After 13 minutes of waiting for it, it was like a cool drink after a long hot walk up a steep hill.

This Harriet Tubman quote from the press notes is prominent: “Every dream begins with a dreamer who dares to dream.” I don’t  want to get into a debate with Harriet Tubman, but the quote made me think of that other oft-used quote (author unknown): “Every journey of 1,000 miles begins with one small step.”

Both are true, but it would be a good idea to have talent, drive, stick-to-it-iveness, and maybe some influence with somebody at the top who can help you as you dream your dream or struggle towards your goal(s).

I wish Jaran Huggins the very best as he sets about making his dreams come true.

As for me, I would have started with the show-stopping song and lost most of the dialogue that preceded it. The conflict was not that evident in the dressing room scenes that lead up to the song.

Sitting through the pointless dialogue at the outset was still worth it, to hear Chloe Kibble, who was glorious. I wish she had had more to do (and sing) in the film.

 

“Program 1: Obsession, Compulsion and Disorder” at the 53rd Nashville Film Festival

Program 1: Obsession, Compulsion and Disorder.

I watched the films in the streamed package twice. There were 6. At the end, there was a discussion group with 9 films discussed. Not sure what happened to 3 of the films, but they didn’t reach me in Illinois.

Here are capsule summaries of the 6 I saw:

“Inevitable”

“The Inevitable”

Iranian Director Milad Faraholahi has created a very dark short that is synopsized this way:  “A disturbed girl has a horrible nightmare in which two muddy figures ask her to open a mysterious box.  To get rid of that, she decides to kill herself in her nightmare just to wake up.” I felt I needed to know more about what, exactly,  unhinged the lead. Suicide is a pretty dire solution to a problem. As far as the scary quality of the house in which the young girl finds herself, thanks to excellent sound effects and music from Milad Movahedi and cinematography from Hashem Moradi, all of the tried-and-true things that are guaranteed to scare us are used super effectively. Creepy sounds. Lights that turn on and off. Dripping water. Mysterious footprints. A door handle that turns menacingly. Knives in water. Blood on pages of a book.  I think some subtitles during the phone conversation would have helped, as my four years of French did not prepare me to know what was said. I could barely hear it; I did not understand it, as a result, although, at one point, my computer coughed up the directive “Une erreur imprevue d’est produite” so my complete comprehension of the plot was definitely compromised. Apologies. I did think the creepy sets and the unhinged performance of the lead served the piece well and that the director has  a real future in making more shorts or longer films. There are many talented Iranian filmmakers and one, in particular, who caught my eye at SXSW and directed “Everything Will Be All Right” came to mind immediately. I hope this young director (and his crew) pursue more creepy, scary films, because this one was one of the most frightening that I saw…and I mean that in a good way!

“Bowlhead”

Would someone’s skull really make a good bowling ball? (Food for thought; it’s hard to say.)

The Winnetka Bowl has a dedicated bowler in Joe Harsley as Henry. I was immediately reminded of the 1986 film “Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer” starring Michael Rooker. This Henry is just as diabolical as that Henry, and his ruse of attempting to return a wallet lost at the bowling alley to a hapless victim leads to a scene that shows Henry overpowering the female victim and then making his victims’ heads into bowling balls (hence the title). Henry definitely comes off as someone who is “not right” and the rest of the plot proves it. (*Note to self: do not go bowling in Winnetka.)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“A Home Invasion”

Maddie Downes and Evan Marshall collaborated to make this serio-comic “AHome Invasion” short, which, they said, was inspired by the couple in Missouri who were seen brandishing firearms and threatening Black Lives Matter protesters in their front yard. The couple is seen fighting at the beginning of the piece, removing their wedding rings, and arguing about who will get custody of the dog, Cooper ( played by Scoober). Then, a friend (Nathan) finds the runaway dog outside the couple’s home and, while attempting to return the pooch, ends up uniting the bickering mates, who pull out guns and plan to face the assailant, (who is only trying to do them a favor.) Nathan is shot, for his troubles.  Travis Prow handles the cinematography (nice shot at the opening, coming into the house through the window from outside) and the music is courtesy of Joshua Rutkowski.  The cast of players, in addition to Evan Marshall (who was promoted to lead actor after an older actor dropped out) includes Jessica Bishop, Henry Koly and, of course, Scoober the dog (as Cooper). A sarcastic commentary on America’s fixation on guns (which seems to override all other preoccupations).

A Home Invasion”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Black Dragon”

“Black Dragon,” filmed on location in Alamanee County, North Carolina, is one of the most polished of the shorts. It was inspired by the 1968 My Lai Massacre during the Vietnam War, which wiped out a Vietnamese village but resulted in only a 3 and ½ year prison sentence for those involved in the Ukrainian style war crime of wiping out an entire village. Matthew Del Negro  from “City on a Hill” plays Colonel Palmer who has a small son (Eddy, played by Chris Day) about the age of the Vietnamese girl in the short, Chau, who is played by Celia Au. Chau has the power to bring the dead back to life. Eddy, the Colonel’s son, has suggested that his dad “has an angel watching over ” him. The angel is going to make some demands of the Colonel that will result in many deaths.  Alex Thompson directed and co wrote the piece with Nathaniel Hendricks and Harper Alexander handled the cinematography while Jeffery Alan Jones was in charge of sound design. It is a very professional and polished short piece. If you click on Matthew DelNegro (see link above) you’ll recognize him from “City on a Hill” and it was a nice touch that his surname (DelNegro) fit the title of this short (“Black Dragon”).

Black Dragon”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Lemons”

Lemons

Parker Gayan wrote and directed this short film about what would happen if you cut into a lemon and found a USB drive. He has a conversation with a Black friend (Stephen Guma) about his discovery, and there is an appearance from The Lemon Man. I was particularly taken with the idea that Parker is wearing a neck brace throughout the piece. When asked if the neck brace had anything to do with the lemon theme, he said, “No. It was an unrelated accident.” Parker’s attempts to look up something_something.lemon, which results in nothing, was also amusing. I couldn’t help but think of the simpler days before computers, which someone like me remembers. Not only would we never have imagined cutting into a lemon to find a USB drive, we didn’t have USB drives back in the dim dark ages of my youth. It also reminded me of a skit one of my 7th grade English classes once put on for our Ad Campaigns in the Classroom unit, where the young boys who created a Mole-busters van also came into the classroom to the strains of the famous Ray Parker, Jr., “Ghostbusters” theme song (“Who you gonna’ call? Mole-busters!”)  I enjoyed this loopy short way too much considering its lack of gravity and  excess of levity. (The director, in an interview that followed the film, said you can get a really inexpensive Lemon Guy costume on Etsy, in case you were wondering.) I apologize for the random mention of the “Mole-buster” unrelated class unit, but it did win a Scholastic Books contest, at the time, naming me “one of the 10 Most Creative teachers in America” (it came with a cash prize). Somehow, this clip summoned such unrelated memories of random merriment, and random happy thoughts are always welcome.

Lemons” by Parker Gayans.

 

 

 

 

“The Unlocking”

This one and “Inevitable” were probably the 2 creepiest shorts, although “Black Dragon” is close. Certainly a giant lemon is not creepy and the bickering couple with the guns, while concerning from the standpoint of safety to the community at large, is not “scary” or “creepy.” Both “Inevitable” and “The Unlocking” were. This is a Thomas Brush film and he certainly demonstrates an over-active imagination, as the character even says, “Please fix my brain!” It was interesting to me that the house where this was filmed  was actually a childhood haunt, a home where a friend of the director’s lived . The director had always considered the house “creepy.” He got permission to use the house as the setting for the film  (cinematography by Joshua Murray).  This story of a completely bonkers guy in a tutu who will ultimately attack our hero and do substantial damage to him was frightening in the same way that a strange noise in your own kitchen late at night can be terrifying if you are home alone. First, we see the protagonist walking around in the house in the dark trying to investigate who might have come in when he left the door unlocked ( he was advised by others to leave the door unlocked; chaos ensues) but the OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder) from which the main character suffers is not misplaced over-anxious worrying, but honest-to-God real-life danger,realized at the film’s climax.

“The Unlocking,” by Thomas Brush.

The filmmakers spoke about their films afterwards, often giving contact information and extra details (such as that regarding the house that is the setting for “The Unlocking.”) There were 2 additional shorts discussed at length, but I was not sent either short.

Nashville Film Festival Screens “Still Working 9 to 5” on Sunday, October 2, 2022

Back in 1981, Dolly Parton’s theme song snagged an Oscar nomination for the film “9 to 5.” (Her song lost to the theme from “Fame”).

Some 42 years later the documentary “Still Working 9 to 5” by Camille Hardman and Gary Lee is playing the Nashville Film Festival. It is a documentary that heralds and memorializes the struggles of working women for “raises, rights and respect.” Women have, historically, been valued less than their male counterparts in the work force. That realization caused star Jane Fonda, in partnership with Gary Lane, to try to make a film that would be informative on this topic.

In 1970, one in every three women in the work force was engaged in clerical work, generally as a secretary. There were 20 million such office workers in the 1970s and they were routinely subjected to sexual harassment, poorer wages than their male co-workers and many other inequities. Not only were the women’s good ideas co-opted by male superiors (and then presented as the men’s own) but the women were often not promoted when they were as qualified (or more qualified) than the male worker (whom they had often trained). The men got the promotion. One line from the film that particularly resonated with me, an excuse for this obviously unfair labor practice: “Well, he does have a family to support.”

My own father (born in 1902) refused to support me in my desire to go to law school after completing my undergraduate degree, because there was a perception that there were “women’s jobs” and “men’s work. One male interviewee on the street articulated it this way in the documentary: “They (women) should do feminine work.” In the 60s, feminine work was being a nurse, a secretary, or a teacher. Other fields were not “suitable” because we women would just be taking up space that should rightfully be occupied by a male head of a family. (Oh, how time have changed!)

It was attitudes like these that were foisted on the American female work force and caused one worker, Lilly Ledbetter, to ultimately sue, when she learned that she was one of four managers doing exactly the same job as her three male co-workers, but the men were being paid $6,000 a month while she was being paid only $3,000 a month. Women in general, made only 60 cents on the dollar in the late 70s and the gender pay gap In the U.S. meant that we ranked #51 on a list of the world’s most equitable work forces. A white woman worker at the time the film was released (1980) made 79 cents on the dollar in comparison with a male worker, while a Latino female worker fell even further behind, making only 54 cents on the dollar  when compared to a man.

When Lilly Ledbetter sued in Alabama, the resulting bill, the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Restitution Act was the first bill that Barack Obama signed as President in 2009. The characters in the original “9 to 5”—Lily, Violet and Doralee—needed their jobs. They were not simply working to supplement their spouse’s incomes. They were career women before society allowed women to have lucrative careers. Only 6 out of every 100 of the clerical staff, if female, ever advanced to management in the 70s.

As nearly the only girl in my group of 10 high school female friends with a working Mom (a schoolteacher), I lived through that era. It was “okay” for a woman to be a nurse, a secretary, or a teacher, but when I mentioned becoming a lawyer, my father  expressed the same sentiments that the men on the street in this documentary articulated. It was (then) okay for a woman to have a job to supplement her husband’s income, (or as a hobby), but “real work” was for men.

This double standard caught the attention of Jane Fonda, well-known (and often vilified) for embracing and examining important cultural issues and trying to make a difference. Some called “9 to 5” a “militant feminist cry.” Others termed it “a breakout cultural moment.” As a busy rebel and pusher of causes, Fonda knew she wanted Lily Tomlin for the cast. Dolly Parton entered, Fonda said, when she heard Dolly singing on the radio; it occurred to her that Parton could probably act as well as sing.  One of the screenwriters had originally envisioned the film focusing on 5 women, but that number was whittled down to 3.

Fonda also realized that “a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down.” She and Gary Lane understood that comedy rather than drama was the best way to get their message across.  Colin Higgins—writer of such hits as “The Best Liittle Whorehouse in Texas,” “Harold and Maude,” “Foul Play” and “Silver Streak” —was brought in to write and direct.

Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin, and Dolly Parton in ‘Still Working 9 to 5.”

The studio wanted a movie star, not a television actor.  Dabney Coleman (now 90) was known for television appearances on shows such as “The Love Boat,” “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman,” and “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.” The studio preferred that either Steve Martin or Richard Dreyfuss play the part of Frank Hart, the sexist, egotistical, lying, hypocritical bigot (think Trump on steroids).

The film went on to become the second highest-grossing film of the year, second only to “The Empire Strikes Back,” taking in $100, 409, 707 at the box office. This documentary—which reunites Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin, Dolly Parton, Dabney Coleman, and other commenters, like Rita Moreno—  is shot against the backdrop of the turbulent years of the ERA (Equal Rights Amendment) movement, with Phyllis Schlafly’s Eagle Forum mobilizing opposition to giving women equal rights under the Constitution. (The ERA bill missed the deadline for passage and so never became law; my silver bracelet is still in my jewelry box.) The Clarence Thomas Supreme Court hearings are also revisited.

When asked if they intended to light the fire of feminine revolt against injustice back in 1980 with their movie “9 to 6” Fonda said, “Secretaries are lighting the fire; we’re just fanning the flames.” As one protest sign said, “Women are pissed off about being pissed on.”

When the Broadway version of “9 to 5” came to Broadway in 2009 (and again in a 2019 revival) it was quite interesting to see Harvey Weinstein (THE Harvey Weinstein), an investor in the play, say, “This play could run forever simply on the attitude of employees toward their boss. I know that everyone in my company wants to kill me.”

It was a great film back in 1980 and it’s a great documentary for the U.S to contemplate.— then and now. There’s also a new rendition of the Oscar-nominated theme song, featuring Kelly Clarkson and Dolly Parton.

“Alta Valley” Screens at Nashville Film Festival

“Alta Valley” screens at 53rd Nashville Film Festival.

“Alta Valley” screened on October 1st at the 53rd Annual Nashville Film Festival. The synopsis for the film says, “To save her dying mother, Lupe, a Mexican Navajo mechanic, bands together with an outlaw cowgirl.  She is bound to Maddy Monroe by accidentally helping her rob a pawn shop.  Lupe and Maddy must outrun the men from the pawn shop, travel to Alta Valley, and confront Lupe’s father Carl for the first time.  Upon their arrival Carl’s many injustices are revealed, including his mistreatment of Lupe’s Navajo family, forcing Lupe to stand up to the corruption.”

The plot seemed primarily a vehicle to show off the blonde cowgirl, Maddy (who is unfortunately given the surname Monroe). At the outset, Maddy-with-the-long-blonde-hair extensions is in trouble with the man connected to the pawn shop and his sons. We never really find out exactly what was the nature of Maddy’s beef with the pawn shop person, but her purse from a rodeo bucking bronco appearance is totally devoted to paying him back.

That $10,000 is deemed inadequate. Maddy needs even more money to satisfy the violent boss, so she throws in with the young Navajo-Mexican girl (Lupe, played by Briza Covarrubias), who is in the pawn shop to pawn valuable Indian jewelry needed to get her ailing mother treatment for a brain tumor.  Maddy is on her way to seek a handout from Carl (the man she has recently discovered was her biological father). She thinks Carl owns Alta Vista. The request? $50,000 for medical treatment for her mother’s brain tumor. If Maddy travels with Lupe, maybe there might be money in it for her, too.

[*An aside: two famous people who died in the not-that-distant past of a malignant brain tumor were Ted Kennedy and John McCain. No amount of money can successfully treat a malignant glioblastoma, a very aggressive brain tumor with an average life expectancy of 14 months. Also, the mother seems to fall into and out of a coma in a willy-nilly fashion. But nevermind about that…back to the lightweight plot.]

The beautiful blonde with the long blonde hair extensions, (who, by film’s end, rides a black horse in to save the day,) is played by Allee Sutton Hethcoat. She reminded me of the blonde co-star of “Big Sky,” Katheryn Winnick, who played Jenny Hoyt for 37 episodes on that TV series.

I was puzzled by how eager everyone was to shoot guns at each other in this one, although it is a western. These people spend inordinate amounts of time shooting at each other as they crouch behind cars. (Doesn’t say much for their marksmanship.)

The mountain vistas were gorgeous. It reminded me very much of what you see when traveling cross country on Route 66 from Chicago to Santa Monica  (which I once did, collecting ghost stories). Kudos to the cinematographer, Jesse Edwards, (who also wrote and directed).

Early In the movie, Lupe’s mother, Adamina (Paula Miranda) tells her, “One day, you, too, must do the unthinkable and leave what you know to protect the greater good.” She explained to her young daughter how she fled from Cedar City to Alta Valley years earlier. (What she didn’t tell her young daughter was that Lupe’s father was an unscrupulous liar, whom she was fleeing.)

As it turns out Carl (Micah Fitzgerald) was a married man with a wife and 2 children. Mom chose to keep the specifics of Lupe’s parentage from her, but Lupe and Maddy will discover it together. After the “meet cute in the pawn shop” unlikely  alliance of Lupe and Maddy, we are also going to be treated to an equally unlikely scene where the two females on the lam must join a group of Hispanic dancers onstage to avoid the men pursuing them. Of course, the two men pursuing them  sit in the crowd and watch the dancing, apparently oblivious that the two girls they have been chasing for miles are onstage  (even though Maddy is not “in costume” but still wearing the obligatory black jacket, black hat, and holstered pistols, as well as the long blonde hair extensions).

The plot did not seem too well thought out; Carl (Micah Fitzgerald) is either overplayed or overwritten. He is both unattractive and mean, with no redeeming social characteristics, but his demise still seems abrupt and unmourned. (However, it made as much sense, plotwise, as the flamenco dancing scene, so— whatever.)

Mostly, I found the film forgettable. I saw it immediately after watching “Jacir,” which had a lot to say and said it well. “Alta Valley” doesn’t have much of a message. It is not a film I will think about again or one that conveys many universal truths.

Perhaps the one universal truth that we can point to that is articulated in “Alta Valley” is, “There ain’t nothin’ more important than family,” a plot point that has resonated since at least “The Godfather.”

If that is the main “message” of the film, the finale directly contradicts the film’s one universal truth.

I wondered “Why this film at this festival?” Writer/director/cinematographer Jesse Edwards—who has won 3 National Emmy awards and been nominated for 30 more—is the co-founder of the Nashville based Evolve Studio.

Documentaries at the 53rd Nashville Film Festival

Nuisance Bear

Nuisance Bear (2021)

I signed on to see the “New Yorker” documentary about a polar bear who was known as the “Nuisance Bear.” No dialogue, just the bear, rooting around in the garbage or running away from vehicles.

Thousands of people flock to Churchill, Manitoba, to watch bears wandering around at certain times of year.

The star of this film was a big white polar bear who could be seen banging on a metal fence, hanging around garbage pails, running from vehicles and, ultimately, being shot with tranquilizers so it could be airlifted via helicopter in a net to some far-flung more suitable location.

I couldn’t help but wonder if this was a male or female bear. Regardless of what gender the bear was, it was going to wake up wondering, “What happened?” (I’m sure many of you have been there.)

The Panola Project

This documentary from Rachel Decruz and Jeremy S. Levine made me think of my daughter’s temporary job during the pandemic, helping distribute the Covid-19 vaccine for the state of Tennessee. At the time, she was on hiatus from her normal job as a flight attendant for Southwest Airlines and also helped conduct the census.

In this short documentary Dorothy Oliver of Panola, Alabama, is working hard to get 40 people from the Panola community of only 350 people to agree to come be vaccinated, so that the state team would come out. Apparently, the minimum number for which they would agree to bring the vaccine to the patients was 40.

Dorothy said, “It’s in my heart to do what I need to do to help people,” making me think of another Nashville Film Festival feature film, “Jacir,” where a Syrian refugee living in Memphis had the same sort of good heart (and suffered for it).

It was 39 miles to get the patients to the vaccine and, as Dorothy remarked, many of them did not have cars.

Original music and dancing by Jermaine “Mainframe” Fletcher.

Freedom Swimmer

Between 1950 and 1980 during the Cultural Revolution more than 2 million Chinese residents attempted to swim from China to Hong Kong.

The narrator of this animated film said, “Every young person in China wanted to leave.” He cited the greater freedom that was associated with Hong Kong in those days, which is now abating because of the prospect of mainland China cracking down on these freedoms.

The narrator said he had been trying to make it to Hong Kong for 15 years and started trying to emigrate at age 14. If a Chinese citizen was caught trying to escape he (or she) was branded a “capitalist” and would be jailed. He was unemployable in China thereafter and the narrator said he had been jailed 3 times.

He talked about the 3 routes that one might take: East had sharks. The central route was by train. The Southwest route was by water, but it was heavily guarded. Plus, our storyteller had to build a raft to allow him to take his small daughter with him.

They set off on Chinse New Year when the water was freezing, convinced that the authorities would not think any sane person would seek to travel at such a terrible time. They had a live chicken and gifts with them as their cover story (visiting relatives), no real food to eat except scraps, and it took 13 hours just to reach the beach. The journey, itself, took 8 hours.

When his small daughter, now grown, asked him if he was frightened at the prospect of the trip, he said, “There is no fear when there is no hope.”

The Australian documentary went on to say that, upon arriving in Hong Kong, the husband and his wife were given free clothing. He chose bell bottoms (then in style) and she took 3 free sweaters. The father worked 3 jobs, sometimes working 20 hours a day, trying to give his family a headstart in their new country.

Haulout

This film by Maxim and Eugenia Arbugaeva followed marine biologist Maxim Chakelev in Chukotka in the Siberian Arctic as the walrus population gathered, as they do annually.  A lot of it was Chakelev sitting around in his hut and eating something that looked gross out of a can. Chakelev has done this for at least a decade and, this year, the news from the front was not encouraging.

Unfortunately, because of global warming, the ice floes that the walruses normally rest and feed on as they sweep into Chukotka, have largely melted and the walruses arrived exhausted and hungry. Then, they were overly crowded on the beach.  A scene that will linger in my mind for many moons, was an estimated 96,000 walruses crowded together on land, with another 6,000 in the water. There’s no dialogue, as the biologist, no doubt, speaks Russian, but there are a few informational subtitles.

Panics and stampedes happened several times a day and the biologist is seen counting the dead corpses of 600 walruses that did not make it and died on the beach, the most ever, in 2020.

The Sentence of Michael Thompson

Michael Thompson was, by all accounts, a pretty good guy living in Michigan with a relatively good job with General Motors and a family.

However, in May of 1996, he was caught trying to sell 3 lbs. of pot and, in a particularly rigid bit of sentencing, was given a sentence of 40 to 60 years for this non-violent crime. One of the mitigating factors was that he had access to a firearm, although the gun was not with him when he was dealing the pot, but was at home in a different location.

Still, Michael went to jail and spent 25 years behind bars for what is now legal in many states. In that respect, he represents 40,000 other prisoners in jail for pot offenses.

The film was directed by Kylie Thrash and Haley Elizabeth Anderson and it drags quite a bit, despite being only 25 minutes long. You pretty much know where this is going from the outset and  it took way too long to get there.

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Jacir” Opens Up Worthwhile Discussion of U.S. Attitudes Towards Immigrants at Nashville Film Festival on September 30, 2022

“Jacir” at the 53rd Nashville Film Festival.

“Jacir” screened on Friday, September 30th, at the 53rd Annual Nashville Film Festival. It is the story of a refugee, Jacir, as he flees Aleppo (Syria) and tries to assimilate into the ghetto (Memphis, Tennessee). Written and directed by Waheed AlQawasmi, the 1 hour and 44 minute film is filled with great performances, good rap music, and a variety of profound insights into what life as an immigrant in the United States is like.”

Synopsis: “JACIR follows the life of a young Syrian refugee (Malek Rahbani) on the streets of Memphis, Tennessee, as he faces the stark reality of chasing the American dream. He finds himself alone, living in poverty, without knowledge of the culture, and struggling with his poor English… very far from the ideal new life he imagined.” (”Land of the free. Bullshit!”)

Jacir is a Good Samaritan who tries to help others. This propensity for being there for others gets him into trouble with the immigration authorities and his sponsor, Adam (Tony Mehanna). The authorities, represented by Agent Simmons (Mark Jeffrey Miller), just want refugees to become ghosts. Don’t make waves is the operating mantra.

Jacir, however, is the kind of person who tries to help others out of empathy and instinct. He saves his neighbor’s life on one occasion and intervenes when she is being robbed by burglars. This causes his name to appear on police reports, which brings ICE authorities down on him, causing increased scrutiny of his paperwork and an actual chase through the streets of Memphis. He faces deportation until a climactic moment when others reach out to help him.

A strange new environment is the least of Jacir’s problems. He befriends a cat, Morty, who belongs to his next-door neighbor, Meryl Jackson (Lorraine Bracco) “Good old Meryl” is a conservative Caucasian lady who is an opioid-addicted shut-in and former blues singer. Her character represents a large swath of America who reflexively reject people from another country as interlopers, reacting with suspicion and hostility, no matter how friendly the stranger appears. Unwelcoming is an understatement.

Tremendous Thespian Trio

“Jacir” at the 53rd Nashville Film Festival.

The three leads portraying Meryl, Jacir and Jerome are terrific. They are ably supported by the actors playing the restaurant boss, Adam, and his daughter, Nadia.

Lorraine Bracco, who plays Jacir’s next-door neighbor, is an Oscar, Emmy, and Golden Globe nominee known for her turns in Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas and David Chase’s The Sopranos, among many other films and TV projects. Bracco gets the line, “I’m not good at a lot of things, but I am good at listening.” I’m certain I’m not the only “Sopranos” fan in the audience who immediately thought of Bracco’s stint on that show as Tony Soprano’s psycho-therapist, Dr. Jennifer Melfi, a role she played from 1999 to 2007. That whiskey quality in her voice made her character’s back story as a blues singer very believable and gave her singing of the song “Night by Night” authenticity. Meryl, as a widowed woman estranged from her only son, finally “does the right thing” and accepts Jacir’s overtures of friendship and good will, instead of continuing her initial racist diatribes. Her performance is in line with her outstanding role in “Goodfellas” in 1990 for which she received an Oscar nomination as Best Supporting Actress at the 1991 Academy Awards.

Malek Rahbani is the grandson of Mansour Rahbani, the Lebanese composer, musician, producer, and one-half of the Rahbani brothers. Malek grew up surrounded by artists, music, and poetry. His TV career includes playing Tiger on Chawareh Al-Zill and co-writing and acting in the Jungle Law series, which he worked on with his brothers, Mansour and Tarek. He is one of a formidable trio of lead actors in this thoughtful film, gradually growing close to “good old Meryl” and experiencing rejection from his employer and sponsor, Adam, who tells him, “I curse the day I sponsored you.”

The third member of the Terrific Trio of actors in this exploration of the refugee experience in the United States is Black comedian and actor Darius “Tutweezy” Tutwiler, a  comedian and social influencer with over 700,000 followers on Instagram. Jerome, a co-worker of Jacir’s at the Arabic restaurant shares the realization that they are both outcasts in this country, shunned and discriminated against. At one point, Jerome tells Jacir that he is “one step closer to being a Memphis n—-.” Jacir’s showing up in a Trump/Pence shirt that says, “Making America Great Again” is a nice sarcastic touch (Jerome makes Jacir change).

Justin Toland composed the music; Al Kapone executive produced the rap song. The music is an integral part of the film. Like America itself, reactions to Jacir are a polyglot mélange of racist views that one might hear from the MAGA crowd (especially prominent in a restaurant scene). Against that fabric we see the hopeful attempts to fit in and be useful from the good-hearted Jacir, the general indifference of white residents like Meryl and the immigration officials, and the brave souls who recognize that Jacir is deserving of their compassion and empathy.

The script is insightful and thought-provoking. The character of Jerome makes it very clear that being Black in America is not much better than being an immigrant refugee; the destruction of the restaurant where Jerome and Jacir work, with graffiti saying “Sand N——” underscores the truth of what Jerome says. (“We go through the same shit, fool!”) Cinematography by Ryan Earl Parker depicts Memphis’ Beale Street almost as though it were a fever dream reflection of the nightmares that afflict Jacir routinely as he remembers the war-torn Syria from which he fled.

I nodded my head in agreement when the screenplay articulated the thought, “It’s just so much easier to tear things down than to build them up.” These are concepts that people like Steve Bannon should take to heart. Convicted con-man Bannon promotes “the second turning” of complete destruction of all established norms and authorities in interviews. (See “American Dharma”).

As the script points out, it seems as though “Everyone (in America) is just out for themselves.” But Jacir is living up to his mother’s words that he should stay strong and composed no matter what happens. He is one of the “good guys” whose assimilation can make our country stronger and cancel out the evil deeds of immigrants like those who perpetrated the Boston Marathon Bombing. It is easier to understand why a foreigner might strike out against his adopted country when we experience life seen through Jacir’s eyes. And, on the eve of Hurricane Ian, we must remember that good does still exist in this country, with strangers reaching out to help their fellow man, side-by-side with those who would collaborate to use pandemic funds set aside for hungry school children in Minnesota to buy personal luxuries. Even World Famous quarterbacks are implicated in immensely selfish behavior, but good people still exist, just as welcoming citizens balance out the racist isolationists.

At one point, Jacir cries out in agony, asking where he is supposed to be at home, since he has been driven from his own homeland and is now being rejected by his adopted country. However, as Jacir says, “When you have a couple of bullets fly past your head—at that point neither religion, money or citizenship will help you out.”

This is a great film with a Terrific Trio of three lead actors who make it work. The love interest is Leila Almas Rose as the feisty Nadia and the critical look at the U.S. and how we treat immigrants is both scathing and long-overdue. Both newcomers, “Tutweezy” and Malek Rahbani, do themselves and the film proud on what I hope will be the beginning of many future film appearances for each of them.

“223 Wick” Is an Amazon Offering With Lots of Explaining to Do

This “thriller/fantasy” film caught my eye, initially, because it was very moody and scripted by Melanie Clarke-Pettiella and Jess Byard. I’m always in favor of letting more females write horror, (as a former active voting member of the Horror Writers’ Association), so I bought into this Amazon Prime movie, filmed on location in Youngstown, Ohio.

Let’s start with the good things: the music (Rolaz) is good—with the possible exception of a song at the end with the lyric “trapped under the ice.” There is no ice in sight; that line made about as much sense as the rest of the plot.

But on with the positive: great settings, although, if the film had answered an early question asked in the script (“What is this place?”) we would all have been better off.

The synopsis on IMDB says, “Plagued by visions and nightmares, a Catholic priest is ousted from his parish. With nowhere to turn, he follows the sinister visions calling him and discovers a deal he alone must stop.”

That synopsis bore little resemblance to the movie’s plot, [such as it is.]

Father John, played by Alexi Stavros (he has a great voice!) is a priest in a seminary who seems to be locked in a power struggle with the Dean of the seminary, Father Murphy (played by Jack Dimich). There is a second priest named Father McAndrew (Eric Vaughn) and a third named Arthur, who is played by Director Sergio Meyers’ son, Sergio Meyers II.

The film really does establish an appropriately creepy vibe, but almost nothing makes sense from that point on. Father John is not really “ousted from his parish.” He is admittedly in conflict with the head priest (Father Murphy) but he seems to get in a cab of his own volition and asks to be taken to 223 Wick Avenue, which is a building just as creepy as the seminary building he has just exited.

The plot becomes even more incomprehensible once Father John has relocated, starting with much falling and the fact that, for the rest of the film, he will wear a bloody bandage around his head. Why would he agree to spend the night at 223 Wick St. simply because he took a slight fall on the front steps? And, if he did agree to spend the night because he might have sustained a concussion, how does that lead to what seems to be an extended stay? Not likely. And not explained well (or at all).

Visions do plague Father John (migraines), but the vision is pretty much the same one, over and over. It looks a bit like a nuclear explosion. Another character who resides at 223 Wick Ave. (Paul) also seems accident prone. At one point, after Father John has spent the night at 223 Wick (because he fell down on the front steps and hit his head?),  Paul asks Father John to bless the building, room by room, before he leaves, because its owner (Kat, played by Dawn Lafferty) thinks the building is haunted.

The dialogue is stilted, along the lines of “Give humanity back to the Ancient Ones” and “Come with me. Rule like a god.” Or, “This place will always call out for the energy it needs to feed.”

Most of the prinicipals in this largely incomprehensible plot do not live happily ever after [or at all.] The Brixtons own 223 Wick Ave. and there is some mumbo-jumbo about “secret societies” and an all male fraternal order that is over 100 years old, but we see little of that. The relationship between Kat and her sister is also shrouded in mystery and will remain a secret throughout the film.

The writers really needed to pick up the writing pace if women in horror are going to gain a better footing in the field than they had back when I dabbled in the horror/thriller genre a decade or so ago.

The setting, music, cinematography: okay. The plot: not okay.

Overall, this was a moody mess with no idea where it was going and no ability to convey a coherent plot to its puzzled audience.

“Wannabe” Screens at the Nashville Film Festival on September 29, 2022

 

“Wannabe” is a 13 minute 33 second short written and directed by USC graduate Josie Andrews that will screen at the Nashville Film Festival, which opens September 29th.

It is bound to impress, as it is very slick, sophisticated, and timely—not necessarily in that order.

Quite apart from the original song performed in the short (“Control,” written by Michael Lloyd, Greg O’Connor and Writer/Director Josie Andrews, and performed by the Alley Kats), two things stood out, to me, about this impressive short.

First, the Director’s statement (from Josie Andrews), who graduated Salutatorian of her USC 2018 film class, and, second, the setting of the short, of which Director Andrews said: “We were lucky enough to shoot our performance + exterior scenes at Sunset Strip’s iconic Viper Room before its demolition while all backstage spaces were replicated and built on stage at USC.”

Director Josie Andrews with lead Jada (Margo Parker) on the set of “Wannabe.”

Here, in her own words, is Josie Andrews’ story of the inspiration for the short film’s story:

“Although I knew I wanted to be a storyteller from the day I was born, this is not a story I ever thought I’d tell.

I got my toes wet doing community theater and by second grade I was scouring backstage.com for auditions in New York, calling everyone in my parents’ phone book, begging someone to take me.  To all of our shock, I booked my first national tour at 8 years old and continued on to perform full-time.

While my many years onstage taught me what it meant to be a good collaborator, it did not teach me what it meant to be a woman navigating Hollywood.  Graduating early and moving to L.A.on my own at 16, other women’s stories in acting classes reinforced that objectification and harassment were commonplace and not to be questioned.  So, when I entered USC as an undergraduate acting major and utilized my student status to intern at places such as Lionsgate, NBC Universal and The Weinstein Company, I thought I had no choice but to tolerate explicit texts and inappropriate advances from my superiors.

1st Assistant Director Becca Han with Margo Parker, Victoria T. Washington and Daisy  in “Wannabe” at the Nashville Film Festival.

It wasn’t until an unknown assailant broke into my hotel room and raped me while I was traveling out of the country that my capacity for abuse reached a boiling point. For the first time in my life, I went to the police only to be told that despite security tapes and witnesses, pressing charges would involve staying in the country for a lengthy trial, thus not returning to school.

While my body returned to school, my spirit did not. Void of confidence, I dropped my major and stopped performing altogether, losing my identity.  But hiding in the back of a cinema studies lecture, I had a revelation:  perhaps I was still a storyteller, just a different kind than I initially thought. Perhaps the real agency lay behind the camera; perhaps that’s where I had to be to regain my own.

Wannabe is not just a plea to believe those who have come forward, but a cry to consider the thousands who have not.”

Ms. Andrews has woven the story of a girl band from the raw material of her personal experience coping with rape. In these days of MeToo, the mention of Harvey Weinstein is enough. It took investigative journalism by Mia Farrow’s son Ronan and brave victims to ultimately bring Weinstein to justice after years of abuse.

Daisy Lopez getting touched up in “Wannabe.”

From this raw material, Josie Andrews has fashioned the story of a girl band trio. the Space Girls, that is auditioning in the hopes of catching on with a producer who can help them achieve stardom. The role of the record producer who offers them a helping hand is played by veteran music producer Peter Zizzo as Landon.

Zizzo, in real life, has a lengthy history of musical successes in producing records for many well-known groups and soloists, including Jennifer Lopez, Celine Dion, Avril Lavigne, Jason Mraz, Billy Porter, Brie Larson, M2M, Pixie Lott,
BeBe and CeCe Winans (Grammy Winner: Best Gospel Album). Here he plays a straight dramatic supporting role.

 

As the female trio concludes their performance of the (original) song “Control” the lead singer, Jada (Margo Parker, known from Lifetime’s “If Walls Could Talk,” “Girls Night Out,” and “Retrograde L.A.”) recognizes the man taking notes on a clipboard leaning against the bar as her rapist. He feigns complete ignorance and innocence of the crime.

The Space Girls—lead singer Jada, Sky (Daisy Lopez) and Bianca (Victoria T. Washington)—are eager to be given that Big Break that every wannabe group dreams of, but should Jada agree to work with the man who raped her but suffered no consequences?

The fabled L.A. Viper Room.

She is obviously torn, and the group members are, as well. There is even a suggestion that Jada may not be positive that Landon (Peter Zizzo) was the true culprit.

This was the first USC post-pandemic production, and it is the product of a largely All Female cast. Cinematography was by Luke Evans; Production design by Colin Sheehan; Art direction by Hannah Kelly; Costume Design by Cristina Acevedo; Music by Greg O’Connor and Michael Lloyd; and Editing by Foustene Fortenbach.

Aside from the performance by the fictional group, which is good, the recreation of the Viper Room on a back lot is impressive. The L.A. hang-out was  partially owned by Johnny Depp until 2004.  It was the famous location outside of which actor River Phoenix collapsed and died on October 31, 1993, almost 30 years ago. River Phoenix was only 23 years old. He died of what is popularly known as a speedball, ingested at the club. (A speedball is a combination of heroin and cocaine.)

The once-thriving nightclub the Viper Room is being razed. If you ever wondered what the Viper Club looked like inside, this might be your only chance to find out.

Kudos to the nearly All Female cast and crew that has produced “Wannabe.” Very well-done and very professional in every respect. You get the impression that the “wannabes” are on their way to becoming successful in the film industry.

(Pictured, Writer/Director Josie Andrews with star of “Wannabe” Margo Parker, as Jada.)

Best Poker Movies of the Past 25 Years

When it comes to movies,  setting can be everything.

Movies about love, conflict, redemption (and any other theme) are judged as much by where and when they’re set as on their themes.  Take “Titanic,” for example.  It’s a love story, but it is set against the backdrop of that well-known tragic disaster, adding to the poignancy of the romance.

“Forrest Gump” was the biggest live action film of 1994. This Tom Hanks/Robin Wright/Sally Field film utilized multiple locations to present a complicated tale of equality and acceptance. “Forrest Gump” was popularized using numerous nods to history, including some instances in which star Tom Hanks is inserted into actual photographs of the time, “Zelig” style. Along with references to Elvis Presley, there were historical references that made the movie accessible to any audience and helped emphasize Director Robert Zemeckis’ messages. (I met Robert Zemeckis in Chicago when he was publicizing the 2012 film “Flight” with Denzel Washington.)

Choosing the right backdrop and setting can make or break a film.

Poker is a setting writers use to accentuate tension. When poker is included in a film, it can leave you feeling like you have been dealt a royal flush. Worldwide, it is a popular game, with complex rules. Audiences are generally familiar with common poker terms and rules, which helps sell the film. Taking the tension of a high stakes poker game and interpreting it in writing, however, can be a difficult task. But when poker is incorporated skillfully into the plot of a film, it can enhance the viewing experience.

The iconic poker movie  was “Rounders,” released in 1998. The film featured Matt Damon, Edward Norton and Gretchen Mol in a plot that IMDB.com describes this way: “A young, reformed gambler must return to playing big stakes poker to help a friend pay off loan sharks, while balancing his relationship with his girlfriend and  his commitments to law school.”

That classic aside, here are three of the best, albeit, lesser-known poker films of the past 25 years:

“Finder’s Fee” (2001) dropped just before the original poker boom, which changed poker overnight.
Rather than raising the stakes, it folded quickly, which is a real shame. This Ryan Reynolds, James Earl Jones, Matthew Lillard film is overlooked among poker films. The central character finds a $6 million winning lottery ticket. The twist come when he finds himself embroiled in a backroom poker game where the stake is a simple lottery ticket. The action takes place over a single night.

Released in 2017, “Molly’s Game” is the best poker movie to hit  screens in the past five
years. It features Jessica Chastain as Molly Bloom, the real-life organizer of illicit poker games between high profile stars.
The film is based on Molly Bloom’s book of the same name and was Aaron Sorkin’s (“The West Wing”) directorial debut.
Kevin Costner and Idris Elba also appeared in the all-star cast with characters based on real-life poker-playing personalities, such as Tobey Maguire. Michael Cera (Player X) and Jeremy Strong, Emmy-nominated this year for his role as Kendall Roy in “Succession,”also were featured in the cast. “Molly’s Game” won several awards, including Best Screenplay for Aaron Sorkin at AARP’s Movies for Grownups Awards.  It is just one of many Jessica Chastain strong roles that were overlooked prior to her Oscar win last year for “The Eyes of Tammy Faye.” (“Take Shelter” was another, in support of Michael Shannon.)

“Lucky You” (2007) attempted to seize upon the popularity of poker during the boom. Filmed on location in Las Vegas, $58 million was invested in this story of Huck Cheever (Eric Bana), a young talented poker player who made it to the World Series of Poker while striving to move out of the shadow of his poker-playing father (Robert Duvall). The movie made only $8.4 million at the box office, opening opposite “Spider-Man 3.” Eric Bana, Drew Barrymore, and Robert Duvall starred, directed by Curtis Hanson (“8 Mile,” “L.A. Confidential”) who co-wrote the screenplay with Eric Roth (“Forrest Gump”). As with “Rounders,” the film has stood the test of time, although it did not find an audience at the time of its release.

 

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