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!

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The category is self-explanatory, but it would include new or old businesses, political elections, trends, restaurants in town, entertainment in town, etc.

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.

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.

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.

 

Hundreds of Top Secret and Classified Documents Found in Mar-a-Lago Raid

The search at Mar-a-Lago on Aug. 8 found twice as many classified documents as Trump’s lawyers had turned over voluntarily, despite promising they had returned everything. This was also despite two attorneys (one named Evan Corcoran—hope he’s no relative) signing off and telling the FBI that those they had initially taken were the extent of it, when they were not.

The documents had been seen by members of the club, some of whom ratted The Donald out about his lax handling of the sensitive documents, marked Top Secret, Secret and Confidential. Regardless of how “sensitive” the documents were, they should not have been removed from the White House. It is not true that “they all do it” and that “Obama took some, too.” All previous presidents followed elaborate protocols for when and where they could even look at the documents, but Trump apparently kept some of his “mementos” in his desk drawer and would show it to casual Mar-A-Lago visitors. Among those items were the “love notes” from the North Korean dictator to Mr. Trump. Another he had removed was the letter left him by former President Barack Obama.

The blacking out (redacting) of much of the search warrant language was necessary to protect both the witnesses who have testified to seeing the documents in Mar-A-Lago and to the identity of other secret sources, whose very lives might be endangered.

Apparently, Trump considered anything he touched during his time in office “his.” He considered himself to be much like a king and everything was “his.”

Even if the documents were as ordinary as the menu for breakfast (and they weren’t) removing them from the White House was wrong and an obstruction of justice, and, since the many polite government requests to give them back ended with only a partial return of the papers, the FBI conducted its raid on Aug. 8th. And, to make matters worse, the ex-president and his cronies attempted to move the documents around to prevent the government from seeking their rightful return.

As the “New York Times” put it:

“The investigation into Mr. Trump’s retention of government documents began as a relatively straightforward attempt to recover materials that officials with the National Archives had spent much of 2021 trying to retrieve. The filing on Tuesday (Aug. 30)  made clear that prosecutors are now unmistakably focused on the possibility that Mr. Trump and those around him took criminal steps to obstruct their investigation.

Investigators developed evidence that “government records were likely concealed and removed” from the storage room at Mar-a-Lago after the Justice Department sent Mr. Trump’s office a subpoena for any remaining documents with classified markings. That led prosecutors to conclude that “efforts were likely taken to obstruct the government’s investigation,” the government filing said.

The filing included one striking visual aid: a photograph of at least five yellow folders recovered from Mr. Trump’s resort and residence marked “Top Secret” and another red one labeled “Secret.”

It is time. LOCK HIM UP!

The legal filing included a photo of documents seized at Mar-a-Lago.Department of Justice

Beware of So-Called “Questionnaires” Posing As Objective: It’s the GOP At Work

Future President of the United States Joe Biden in Independence, Iowa, on the Fourth of July, 2019.

This is a bit of a stream-of-consciousness comment, following the phone call I received yesterday that asked me to participate in a survey. It was a robo-call, automated, and purported to be objective, asking for how much knowledge you had about the candidates for Cheri Bustos’ former seat in Congress.

At first, it asked for things that seemed “normal,” such as age, income, and knowledge of the candidates running in the mid-term election.

I did notice that all of the Republican candidates (Esther Joy King) were mentioned first in each and every comparison to her Democratic challenger, Eric Sorenson. You had to punch 1 through 6 for some questions and, in some cases, such as your gender, there were only 2 buttons to click for male or female. A 1 would generally mean that you disliked the remark and a 6 (and just up to that) indicated strong support for the premise, with the middle numbers indicating more neutral stances.

After the routine, normal questions, the questionnaire took a nasty turn.

All of the scenarios that depicted Eric Sorenson (the Democratic candidate) were quite negative. All of the scenarios for the Republican candidate (Esther Joy King) were portrayed much more positively. The backgrounds of the prospective candidates were definitely being “cherry-picked,” for sure. For instance, Sorensen was depicted as just shy of a zealot regarding global warming and bound to spend all of your money on measures to counteract climate change. Quite frankly, as you watch the nightly news of each and every climate disaster, the charge that Sorensen wants to try to fix the flooding and fires seemed like a positive, to me, but the questionnaire found it objectionable that he was in favor of trying to reduce green house gases so that we might be able to get out of the horrible weather cycles we are currently facing. (One has to sigh heavily when thinking of how much more actively this entire situation would have been addressed under President Al Gore way back in 2000. We would have had 22 years to plan for what is now upon us, but “W” and the GOP did not believe in global warming and vocally castigated those who raised their voices with the scientific predictions that are coming true right now.

Most of the situations depicted were actually  accusations that Eric Sorensen, a former weatherman, had  little to do with. He hasn’t been in office, so he really doesn’t have a track record to mention. They were presented in the context of, “Eric is a Democrat and would support Joe Biden and Joe Biden did ______, ______, and ______.” The things that poor Eric was being accused of were pretty far out there and definitely neither his fault nor something his campaign necessarily ran on. To listen to the recorded voice, poor Eric was almost solely responsible for inflation. Any minute I expected the accusations to veer into criminal territory.

In other words, this so-called objective “survey” was a thinly-veiled advertisement for the GOP candidate.

If you answer your phone and hear that it is a “questionnaire” be warned.

Alexi Giannoulias

I was fortunate that I had researched all of the candidates in the primary and run an informational piece on all of them in both parties and on Alexi Giannoulis, who was running for office after years away from a position in Illinois government.

“Bullet Train”: A 2 Hr. 7 Min. Train Wreck

This Brad Pitt vehicle is—(dare I say it?)—a train wreck.

I had a very bad feeling about the film going in. This line from the script sums up my feelings about “Bullet Train:” “I haven’t got the time or the patience, let alone the interest.” I can’t recommend you take this one in at the Cineplex for actual cash.

If you do invest the time in “Bullet Train” when it streams somewhere, Brad Pitt is the best thing in this overlong fist-fest. He plays a hit-man who is trying to mend his violent ways and learn to solve problems in a more peaceful manner.

Code-named Ladybug in a “cute” discussion with his handler (Sandra Bullock) that already screams “Turkey,” among other pronouncements from Pitt are these: “Let this be a lesson on the toxicity of anger.” “A path to a peaceful outcome is an opportunity for growth.” “I just wanna’ get off this train and go see a Zen garden or some shit.” “When we are so quick to anger, we are slow to understand.” “If you do not control your fate, it controls you.” Not a lot of great original writing in those bon mots. The writing here is byZak Olkewicz (screenplay) and based on the book by Kôtarô Isaka.

Pressed into service in place of the mysterious Carver (Ryan Reynolds in a cameo), Ladybug is supposed to steal a briefcase on the bullet train. The case is being protected by 2 other assassins code-named Tangerine and Lemon. [Also cloyingly cute.] Tangerine is played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson, who was brilliant in 2016’s “Nocturnal Animals.” It’s a great part for the handsome actor, speaking in his native British accent, who was nominated for a BAFTA in 2017 for Best Supporting Actor for that role. His “twin” partner is Black actor Bryan Tyree-Henry (2018’s “Spiderman: Into the Spiderverse”). Also a forced joke, since they are obviously not biological “twins.”

One of the flaws of the film is that the director is David Leitch. As a former stuntman, himself, he has a passion for fight sequences (which is primarily what this movie is). He has been Brad Pitt’s stunt double 5 times and served as Matt Damon’s stunt double many times, including in “The Bourne Ultimatum.” Leitch co-directed “John Wick” (2014) with Chad Stahelski. He directed “Atomic Blonde” (2017) starring Charlize Theron. David also directed the box office smash/critically acclaimed “Deadpool 2” (2018). These movies all depend on non-stop action sequences; that is what you get in “Bullet Train.” Not a fan.

A second failing, for me, is that the plot is impossibly convoluted and not worth the time and effort to follow it. Lots of bathroom humor. (I mean that literally.) A particularly wasted co-star was Michael Shannon as The White Death. (I hate it when Michael Shannon’s considerable talents are wasted, and they are wasted here).

A third problem is that the music feels very dated. The musical director was Dominic Lewis, so lay the blame for selecting such songs as “Staying Alive,” “Holding Out for a Hero,” and “I Just Wanna Celebrate” at his feet.
. None of these songs are even remotely new. “Staying Alive” is almost 40 years old. “Holding Out for a Hero” was released in 1986 (36 years ago). “I Just Wanna Celebrate” was released in 1971, 51 years ago. There are also some oldies-but-not-goodies, including the one with the lyric “If you miss the train I’m on Hear the whistle blow 100 miles.” Yeah. Soundtrack sucked.

The entire film screams “Look how cute and hip we are.” Various stars make cameos (Channing Tatum, Ryan Reynolds, Sondra Bullock, Zazie Beetz) and, all-in-all, I felt cheated out of a decently themed movie with something to say. It was not worth the price of theater admission.

Other critics say it is going to be Brad Pitt’s new ongoing vehicle in the same way that Robert Downey, Jr., repeatedly rode “Ironman” to the bank. All I can say to that is, “Count me out.”

Besides the convoluted repetitive plot, the non-stop fight sequences, and the lack-luster musical score, the humor came off as forced and unfunny. The entire film was way too “cutesy” and much too dependent on CGI special effects (primarily of trains crashing).
The propping up of dead bodies to make them appear to be alive: not “funny.” I want to see Brad Pitt in the context of a well-written film with some depth and a message. I’m so glad we took in “Vengeance” (B.J. Novak) before “Bullet Train.”

At times I was confused about whether we were watching Japanese actors in Mexico or vice versa. I got the feeling that the entire movie was aimed at a Japanese audience that will enjoy the Bruce Lee vibe, and, to them, I say Sayonara. I really did not enjoy much of anything about this pastiche, but I do like me some Brad Pitt, (even though the line from the movie that sums up his sex appeal in this is, “You look like every white homeless man I’ve ever seen.”)

Having told you what I think of this Boomslang of a film, in good conscience I should report that others coming out of the theater were chatting about how much they enjoyed this mindless mess of  movie/ fight sequence. Something tells me that they have seen far fewer films than I have seen.

I found the humor strained and the entire undertaking a waste of money ($85,900,000 down the “Bullet Train” drain.)

“Vengeance” (B.J. Novak) Is A Great First-Time Film from “The Office” Star

The film “Vengeance” is written and directed by B.J. Novak of “The Office” fame. The synopsis of the plot reads: “A writer from New York City attempts to solve the murder of a girl he hooked up with, and travels down South to investigate the circumstances of her death and discover what happened to her.”

As the film opens, B.J.—who plays the main character Ben Manalowitz in a sort of early Woody Allen-esque fashion modeled on the “Annie Hall” template—is out and about in New York City with John Mayer, the singer. Mayer essentially plays himself. It is well-known that the singer (“Your Body Is A Wonderland”) has practically made a career out of dating numerous female pop icons. The conversation between Mayer’s character (John) and B.J.’s character of Ben, which seems to take place atop a New York City rooftop party, is all about hooking up with various women on a casual basis. The two are using their cell phones to revisit past and present conquests and agreeing with one another (without really communicating) with the rote response “100% !”

The next step in the plot has Ben (B.J. Novak) answering a late-night phone call from someone who says his name is Ty Shaw (Boyd Holbrook). Ty describes himself as the brother of a one-time hook-up of Ben’s named Abilene Shaw (Lio Tipton). Ty assumes that Ben will be coming South to Texas for Abilene’s funeral. Ben is at a loss to process this suggestion, as he barely remembers Abilene at all.

Where, in Texas, is this home town? Three hours from Dallas and five hours from Abilene, so literally in the middle of  nowhere in west Texas. Ben tries to beg off, saying, “I’ll be there in spirit,” which causes Ty (the brother) to respond that he will pick Ben up from the Spirit Airlines terminal at the airport.

Ben does fly to Texas, because he has the idea that his experiences in rural Texas might provide good raw material for a podcast topic he is pitching to a radio executive, played by Issa Rae as Eloise.

When Ty picks Ben up at the airport, he lays out a case for Abilene, an aspiring singer, having been murdered. They are in Ben’s pick-up truck and  Ben is quite taken aback, exclaiming “I don’t avenge deaths. I don’t live in a Liam Neeson movie.” This leads to a wry conversation with Ty about Liam Neeson movies, with Ty proclaiming “Schindler’s List” to be “a huge downer.” Hard not to laugh.

It also sets up the scene at the burial of Abilene where Ben—who barely knew the girl—is asked to get up and say a few words about his “girlfriend.” Ben does an excellent job of uttering platitudes along the lines of “I never expected to be in a situation like this.” He goes on to mention banal remarks about “spending more time” with someone (“All of us”) and mentions how she “loved music.” It should be mentioned that Jessie Novak actually wrote one of the songs entitled “I Finished My Shift at Claire’s” and B.J. Novak gets credit for one with a title something like “When I Get Signal.” Andrea Von Foroester was in charge of the music and Cinematographer was Lyn Moncrief in this Jason Blum production.

The eulogy from Ben graveside gets him off the hook with the family (re his relationship with Abilene) for the moment, but, because he needs more material for his podcast proposal, Ben is talked into staying at the family home and actually sleeping in Abilene’s old childhood bedroom. Ben keeps humoring Ty in his quest for vengeance, which, in one insightful line, the script explains is the new reality that the truth is too hard to accept, so people are always looking for someone to blame. There are also some deep nuggets concerning social media adding to the proliferation of conspiracy theories and those who hold forth their own opinions as everyone’s truth (without proof), so the film is not just all fun and games and searching for killers who may or may not exist.

The piece starts out to be a somewhat snobbish look down Ben’s nose at the fly-over country he is visiting, a land where, according to the locals, “In Texas, we don’t dial 9-1-1.” It ends up failing to endorse the proposal that all city folk are smarter and sharper and better. The sincerity of the locals cannot fail to impress. However, you do come away with the impression that the bright lights of the rural Heartland won’t win fame and fortune unless they move to a city where their talent can be recognized, so you tell me if that is a vote for west Texas or, like Sam Kinnison’s act, someone screaming, “You live in the desert. Move to the water.”

As it turns out, Abilene—(who initially is misrepresented as someone “who wouldn’t even touch an Advil)—did have a bit of a drug problem, and the reason seems to be the dead-end life she was living in rural Texas, her New York City dreams having not panned out.

Abilene attended a party near an oil field, where cell reception was poor. The party took place at the intersection of four competing jurisdictions off Highway 29. This meant that neither the local Banefield Police Department (Officers Mike and Dan), the border patrol, the DEA, nor Sheriff Jimeniz really would care enough to investigate a party like the one where Abilene died, which seems to have been a routine event in the area.

The Shaws are a family where the younger brother of Abilene’s (Eli Bickel as Mason) is routinely referred to as “El Stupido.” When Ben objects to categorizing the middle school-aged boy this way, Ty, his older brother, says, “It’s okay. He doesn’t speak Spanish.”

Ty is portrayed as “a good old boy” and a typical Texan. Only Quentin Sellers seems to have a clue about the Big City. At one point in the dialogue, Ashton Kutcher’s character mentioned that he had moved to this godforsaken spot from another state. I’d have to see it again to tell you if it was Iowa or Idaho, but we all know that, IRL, Ashton is from the Cedar Rapids/Amana area, so please let me know if Iowa got a plug.

The movie makes fun of the Texas fascination with the Whataburger franchise. The simplistic reason for liking it is given as “because it’s right there.” However, when Ty is pushed to explain further, he says, “You just love it, and that’s how love works.” This “heart to heart” theme comes off as perhaps superior to the lack of compassion or empathy evinced by city dwellers, early in the film.

Many of the snobby Jewish boy’s pre-conceived impressions about the South are shown up for what they are: prejudice. In a revealing debate with one of Abilene’s sisters (Isabella Amara as Paris Shaw) about literature, it becomes clear that Paris has actually read the source material, while Ben has not. (Harry Potter books abound in Abilene’s bedroom, thanks to 2 female set decorators who grew up in San Antonio and are about the same age as Abilene of the film.) Ben is merely reciting rote opinions without being as well-informed as this Texas high school girl, but he has retained an air of superiority. Alex Jones, without the shouting.

Ashton Kutcher, who has not appeared in a major movie role since roughly 2013 (“Jobs”) appears as Quentin Sellers. The Iowa-born native recently revealed that he had been suffering from “a super rare form of Vasculitis” that he contracted three years ago. The disease attacks the veins and arteries and is an auto-immune disorder that involves inflammation and can cause organ failure or aneurysms in its most severe form. Kutcher said, “Like two years ago, I had this weird, super-rare form of vasculitis,” Kutcher shared these experiences in an exclusive video clip released to “Access Hollywood” from an upcoming episode of National Geographic’s “Running Wild with Bear Grylls: The Challenge.”

“Knocked out my vision, knocked out my hearing, knocked out like all my equilibrium. It took me like a year to build it all back up.”

Therefore, it was a treat to see a healthy 44-year-old white-clad Kutcher playing Quentin Sellers, founder of the Quentin Sellers Music Factory in the middle of Texas. Quentin gives an inspiring speech about “all these bright creative lights with nowhere to plug in their energy,” as he holds himself out as a music impresario in the middle of nowhere. His wardrobe is a plus (mostly white) and he looks great.

The writing is extremely insightful. The actors do well with their parts, and, for a first-time director, Novak has hit a home run. The dry humor (see trailer) leaves you laughing out loud.

My only criticism would be the denouement of the film. It seemed out of character for the protagonist. I won’t say any more than that, because this is one you’ll want to rent and enjoy for yourself.

I look forward to B.J. Novak’s next writer/director outing.

Will the Texas Power Grid Prevail in These High Energy Times?

I’m sitting in the Illinois Quad Cities, where it is currently 95 degrees. And humid. Very, very humid. It’s 100 degrees in Des Moines and 91 degrees in my old hometown in northeast Iowa (Independence). Because of the humidity, it feels more like 107.

In Austin, Texas, our home away from home, it is 97 degrees. One wonders how the weird Texas power grid will hold up, given its spectacular failure in February of 2021. Texas wanted to have its very own power grid to escape and avoid federal oversight, but they are “on their own” in such power emergencies. And when it’s hot in the summer, AC is a power emergency. And when it snowed in Austin (a rare occurrence) it was a power emergency on the other side of the dial.

“Daily Kos” reported that “intensifying Texas heat is poised to test the power grid on Thursday with demand seen topping 80 gigawatts for the first time ever.”

Running turbines are expected to bolster electricity supplies, reducing the threat of outages as homeowners and businesses crank up air conditioners across the second-largest US state, according to data from the Electric Reliability Council of Texas Inc. [ERCOT]

We lived through the power outage in February of 2021 in Austin, Texas, that killed hundreds and cost many homeless people the total loss of their toes and/or feet. It was truly NOT a good thing. We had to melt down our snowman to be able to flush our toilets! We had to use Saran wrap on dirty plates because there was no water with which to wash dishes (or anything else). Not fun. The catastrophe totally upended businesses like the HEB food store shelves, which were largely bare for at least a week after the storm hit.

Elsewhere today (8/6/2022), near the White House, lightning struck and killed 3 people, critically injuring 4 people. Donna and James Mueller, grandparents from Wisconsin, died. Kentucky has been hit by floods. Missouri also experienced torrential downpours. The U.S. hurricane system will produce an above-average series of storms, up 60%, says the National Weather Service. Death Valley National Park has 1,000 people stranded there amid flooding, and water is becoming a precious commodity in the western part of our nation, where fires have ravaged states like California

The drought is so intense that there is no absorption of any rainfall. Fires have been everywhere in the west, while states like Washington, and cities like Seattle, where only 40% have A/C, are suffering in this nationwide heat wave. Yellowstone shut down. Our national parks are proving to us that these are different days and we should have fought harder to install Al Gore, who probably really won in 2000 and championed global warming. (Just think how much better off we would have been with a president who championed curbing climate change for 8 years, rather than one who started 2 unwinnable wars simultaeously.)

Cities are hitting 110 temperatures in Scottsdale, AZ, and in  Phoenix, the current temperature is 106. Heat stress is real. It takes a toll on our GDP. Emergency room visits; Health care costs. All are affected. Cooling centers and city planning will be affected in our murky future.

I hope that Texas’ weird power grid system makes it through this hot period, before I arrive in the fall. Personally, I think it is very unfair to turn the Texas Power Grid into a “money-making” scheme, operating much like surge pricing by Uber and Lyft. More is charged during “peak periods” and the bills, currently, are staggering in cities like Dallas.

By NOT being part of the East or West power grids of this country, the state also misses out on the ability to borrow power from other states in an emergency and on the ability to sell excess power to other states. Only El Paso escaped the chaos in February, 2021, as they had joined one of the two national power grids, which was wise.

Amidst all this chaos, the $369 billion climate investment of the new bill passed by the Democrats and the Biden administration seems very, very sound, if, arguably, not large enough.  The goal is to decrease fossil fuel emissions by 40% by 2030. [The bill that is passing today will also provide health changes, including capping Medicare out-of-pocket costs at $2 k and giving Medicare the power to negotiate some drug prices, while also extending the Affordable Care Act for 3 more years].

One wonders how much longer the GOP  will continue to maintain that there is no global warming, Donald J. Trump won the election, and Covid will go away when the weaather gets warmer.

 

“Low Cut Connie” Cuts Loose At Raccoon Motel on August 3, 2022

Low Cut Connie’s” Adam Weiner.

The live show at the Raccoon Motel on August 3rd, Wednesday, in Davenport, Iowa, featuring Low Cut Connie lasted for an hour and a half, beginning at midnight. It was like an All Night Energy Infusion, even if it was 1:30 a.m. on a weeknight when it ended.

The doors opened at 9 p.m. A lead-in group was scheduled prior to the main event. I actually called the venue in the afternoon and was told that the headliner (Adam Weiner) probably would not start before 10:30 p.m. or 11:00 p.m. We drove over around 10 p.m. and that projection was optimistic.

The main act did not commence until midnight, at which point headliner Adam Weiner expressed his relief that the crowd was still there at midnight on a Wednesday night. He expressed anxiety over whether the crowd would have gone home, but the roughly 100 fans present were rewarded with a true high energy rendering of the band’s songs.

I have some great video, but I have written to the publicist(s) for permission to post same, as I am currently on Double Secret Probation (or whatever they call it at YouTube) for posting one 30-second song from Bryan Adams’ “Candle in the Wind” tour (or whatever he called it when he played in Moline six years ago). YouTube has restricted all postings in recent years. Postings of various Rolling Stones concerts and others are still up and were not attacked as postings today have been. The threat: my account would be terminated if I were to sin again.

Frankly, I always thought that groups that were touring would welcome free publicity, if positive, but the group, itself, told YouTube to remove the short snippet, which notified me and put a big “Restricted” banner on my account that remained for the past 6 years. I had to go to “copyright” school and—mind you—this was for a mere 30-second spot from their concert. Understandable that a group would not want audience members to give away the store, but the particular song I wanted to use was posted from a previous concert in Miami by another YouTuber, which I then used, instead.   I am still wondering about the harsh nature of YouTube today and working to make sure that there will be no blow-back if I post some truly great video footage of Adam Weiner scaling his piano for the crowd’s enjoyment (while playing).

If it were possible for Adam Weiner to turn himself inside out to please the crowd, I think he would do that for his audience. I was front and right, front row. Weiner reached out and shook my hand. A bobblehead at 10 o’clock kept trying for physical contact, but Adam was too quick for him, most of the time. (*A Bobblehead is someone who goes absolutely batshit crazy at a concert, flailing around, throwing their fist in the air and, in this case, constantly reaching out and trying to touch the lead singer. Did I mention singing along so that the rest of us can’t hear the artist? That, too.)

Supporters include Elton John, Barack Obama, Howard Stern, Bruce Springsteen and  all of the respected music review magazines, such as “Rolling Stone.” Low Cut Connie performed as part of the festivities for the inauguration of President Joe Biden, appearing at a show called a Love Letter to Pennsylvania. In May of 2015, Low Cut Connie met President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama at the White House in a special meeting arranged by White House photographer Pete Souza and former President Obama listed them on his summer listening list of artists.

The COVID-19 crisis and the resulting shut-down of the live music industry forced Low Cut Connie off the road in early 2020. With music venues shuttered and his touring band in quarantine, Weiner performed a livestream concert for a virtual audience out of his South Philadelphia home beginning on March 19, 2020.   The show was dubbed Tough Cookies as a tribute to the band’s  devoted fan base.  Tough Cookies  received critical praise for its intimacy (Weiner sometimes performed in his bathrobe) and for Weiner’s high energy performance style. On December 21, 2020, The New Yorker published a full-length feature on the Tough Cookies variety show, naming Weiner “Pandemic Person of the Year” for his ongoing efforts to raise spirits during the  pandemic. We watched it quite regularly during the shutdown that began around March 13, 2021 (about the time I began my podcast).

We saw the band perform at Lucy’s Chicken in Austin, Texas “live” just prior to the pandemic shut-down, during the time that SXSW was in full swing. The performance on Wednesday night in Davenport, Iowa, was absolutely high-octane and superior to the Austin gig. Also, this time, the band performed the same song they performed on Seth Meyers’ late night show (“All These Kids Are Way Too High”), which they did not perform in Austin (despite repeated requests). Just when you think that the band can’t give the performance any more energy, they take it up a notch. At this show, even guitarist Will Donnelly climbed atop the piano briefly. My only criticism would be the “horn echo” effect in one song, which was very flat. (Lose the cornet echo).

The tickets to this remarkable night were only $20. The band’s tee shirts were also priced at that level and CDs on sale at the merchandise table were available for $5. It was a great night; the crowd went away very satisfied. The band was heading ultimately to the Minneapolis State Fair, where they would, no doubt, wow that crowd, too.

I’ve seen a lot of bands “live,” including the Beatles (San Francisco Cow Palace, 1965) and every Rolling Stones tour since 1982, but Low Cut Connie and Bruno Mars are the only bands working today with the fire and finesse of The Greats. If the media hadn’t already dubbed James Brown “the hardest-working man in show biz,” I’d nominate Adam Weiner (which, since James Brown has been dead for years, I’ll do right now.)

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