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“American: An Odyssey to 1947” Profiles Orson Welles at Austin Film Festival

Director Danny Wu

“Director Danny Wu takes us back to the 1940s with a collection of stories leading to the year 1947. Most notably exploring the life and politics of Orson Welles from his days at the Todd School for Boys in Woodstock, Illinois, to his shocking decision to leave for Europe in the prime of his career.” So says the IMDB synopsis, but there is a story about Civil Rights pioneer Isaac Woodard and Japanese interment in WWII also shoe-horned into this interesting documentary.

Chinese director Danny Wu can (and has) done it all. He is listed as a producer, director, cinematographer, editor on this 102 minute documentary and apparently did everything except the music, which is credited to Sean William. The Canadian picture was akin to watching one of the documentaries that Ken Burns releases, which inform us and educate us while entertaining us. The documentary was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at the Austin Film Festival; it was released October 20th in the U.S.

There is so much information crammed into this film that explains some of the enduring cache of “Citizen Kane,” long regarded as one of the best (if not THE best) films of all time. I came away feeling that it wasn’t just the quality of “Citizen Kane,” —-although, for a director releasing his first picture, the excellence was astounding—but the crucifixion of Orson Welles at the hands of William Randolph Hearst and J. Edgar Hoover, finally leading to his exile from his native land for the last 20 years of his life, that may account for some of the enduring popularity of “Citizen Kane.”

For me, the realization of how politics shaped the world’s reception to “Citizen Kane” was akin to the realization that Elizabeth Taylor deserved to win an Oscar, but probably not for “Butterfield 8.” Why then, did Taylor win in 1960, when she didn’t win in 1957, 1958, or 1959 (“Raintree County,” “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” “Suddenly, Last Summer.”) Explanation: she nearly died just prior to her win in 1960 and suffered a tracheotomy. Was her role as Oscar-worthy in “Butterfield 8” as it was in “Raintree County,“Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” or “Suddenly, Last Summer?” No. Politics entered the decision.

In Orson Welles’ case, born in 1915 in Kenosha, Wisconsin, he was exceptional early on. His mother’s death when he was 9 and his alcoholic father’s death at 15 left him in the care of the Todd School at a time when its new director, Roger Hall, had taken the boys’ school in a very progressive direction. The school had a very good drama department and young Orson excelled at acting and directing and became the drama department head’s right hand man while very young.

Following his schooling, the young Orson went to Ireland and was hired to be the villain (Jew Suess) in a production at the well-regarded Gate drama school. While the job did not last, later, at a cocktail party hosted by the University of Chicago, he met Thornton Wilder and, when telling Wilder about himself, learned that the playwright had seen the performance and been quite impressed by it. Wilder put him in touch with drama mavens Katharine Cornell and Alexander Woolcott and his performance in a Shakespeare play was seen by John Houseman, who believed in him deeply. Orson Welles’ early luck was quite fortuitous.

However, Orson Welles’ early good luck would turn to bad luck when media baron William Randolph Hearst took offense at “Citizen Kane,” feeling it was modeled on his own life. With the assistance of J. Edgar Hoover,  Hearst began a campaign to attack Welles’ reputation. The fact that the attack was largely political is supported by the fact that an FBI file on Welles was not opened after the world famous Mercury Theater “War of the Worlds” broadcast, which made Welles an international celebrity. The file did not start after that October 30th, 1938 broadcast, but, instead, in 1941, when Hearst had become more and more disenchanted with FDR, especially FDR’s plans for a graduated income tax, which Hearst vehemently opposed.

Welles was a big supporter of FDR and, in fact, once stood in for him in a debate with opponent Thomas Dewey. It was Orson Welles who gave an eloquent eulogy at FDR’s funeral. FDR’s WPA project, which gave the arts in the United States $6 million 700 thousand dollars to put unemployed Depression-era citizens back to work, was a great impetus to painters and actors and artists of all kinds in the U.S. During the WPA’s hey day, Welles was put in charge of the Negro Theater at the age of 19 and produced a historic version of Macbeth with a huge cast.

Unfortunately, one of the victims of Hearst’s wrath, was the WPA funding, which fell victim to Hearst’s conservative beliefs. Hearst had originally supported FDR for the presidency, but he had fallen out of love with FDR; the axing of the money for the arts was offered up to placate Hearst. Hearst also blocked “Citizen Kane” from appearing in any of the theaters he owned, and that ultimately led to the film incurring a loss of $150,000 as a result of being  available in so few theaters of the day.

Nelson Rockefeller approached Welles, soon after he had filmed (but not edited) his second movie, “The Magnificent Ambersons,” to travel to Brazil and do a somewhat light-hearted look at Brazil at Carnival time in Rio. This was part of FDR’s concerns about Latin America possibly selecting the wrong side to support in WWII.

Welles thought he would be able to edit his second film while in Brazil, but things were taking a turn for the worse and he was not only evicted from his Mercury Theater but the studio—which was supposed to have given him Final Cut on all his film projects—took over his second film and ruined it. There had also been a change of ownership at the top of RKO and the previous head of the studio, who had stood behind Welles’ auteur-ship, was replaced by a hostile force.

All of Welles’ previous good luck seems to have turned to bad luck after “Citizen Kane” and, with the formation of the House Unamerican Activities Committee, with 4 screenwriters actually sent to jail and many others hounded about Communist ties, Welles saw the writing on the wall. Famous names like Ring Lardner, Jr., and Dalton Trumbo had their lives ruined. Orson decamped for Italy for an acting role and remained there for the rest of his life.

At this point, two other documentary topics enter the Orson Welles story. One of them is fairly well-connected, because the abuse of Isaac Woodard, a decorated soldier in the Pacific theater in World War II, was a cause that Welles took up at the request of the NAACP.

Woodard was in uniform and riding a bus in the South, when he asked to use the rest room on the bus. The driver objected, based on the “whites only” Jim Crow laws of the time. Welles was opposed to all such racial inequality and began broadcasting the story of Isaac Woodard on his radio show, reading Woodard’s affidavit to the police on July 18, 1946, aloud and continuing to inform the U.S. public about Woodard’s ordeal (until Welles lost his radio show and was removed from the air in October of 1946, a continuation of Hearst’s persecution.).

Woodard continued on the bus to the next stop (after his bathroom request) where police confronted him and asked him if he was still in the Army. Unfortunately, he admitted that he had just been mustered out; the police who confronted him beat him and gouged out his eyes, blinding him. Welles campaigned to find out the name of the assailant (Lynwood Shull), but the kangaroo Southern court took only 20 minutes to acquit the assailant, falsely claiming that Woodard had been “drunk and disorderly.”

Welles was also instrumental in the benefit concert for Woodard, at which performers like Nat King Cole, Billie Holliday and Joe Louis sold 36,000 tickets, turning away another 10,000 would-be attendees. The money raised helped Isaac Woodard to start a foundation to fight for racial equality. Julian Bond—a hero of the Civil Rights movement of the Sixties—said that Isaac Woodard was a true originator of the Civil Rights movement that consumed the 60s.

This nominee for the Grand Jury Award at the Austin Film Festival does lose its way a bit when, into the mix of Orson Welles’ career and his assistance to black Civil Rights pioneer Isaac Woodard  an entire segment about the atomic bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima and the interment of Japanese American citizens during World War II is inserted.

The information was riveting and interesting, involving, as it did, the eye witness testimony of a Japanese American survivor of the Hiroshima blast who was at the very epicenter, yet survived with his brother and his grandparents.  It detracts from the focus of the film. The film is supposed to be primarily about the career and times of Orson Welles. The Japanese interment during WWII deserves a documentary of its own. Its inclusion and the testimony of the Hiroshima eye witness, one of the few survivors at the epicenter of the blast, seems to lack focus.

Peter Bogdanovich

Having said that, the documentary is a terrific achievement to have gathered all this archival footage and all the testimony of the best scholars and authors who have written about Welles. I couldn’t help but think of the appearance of Peter Bogdanovich at the Chicago International Film Festival in 2018. He was there with Orson Welles‘ long-delayed film The Other Side of the Wind, which was filmed in the 1970s and featured a prominent supporting role by Boganovich. Bogdanovich had long hoped to complete it, was released by Netflix to critical acclaim and shown at that year’s Chicago International Film Festival. Bogdanovich, who began life as a film historian, would have been a great interview subject for Director Wu, but, unfortunately died in January of 2022 from Parkinson’s Disease at the age of 82.
“American: An Odyssey to 1947,” through rare archival footage and 3D modeling, immerses the audience in the era. We do discover much about one of cinema’s most iconic directors, and how he shaped the culture of Hollywood. The information about his enlightened views on race relations were welcome, but the Japanese segment needs (and deserves) its very own documentary, my only criticism of an excellent and absorbing documentary.

“Sam & Kate” Makes World Premiere at Austin Film Festival with Star-Studded Cast

“Sam & Kate” cast onscreen at the Austin Film Festival on October 28th.

October 28th was the World Premiere of the film “Sam & Kate” at the Paramount Theater in Austin, Texas, during the Austin Film Festival.

“A life affirming family dramedy that takes place in a small town in the heart of the country. Dustin Hoffman plays BILL, a larger-than-life Father to Sam (Jake Hoffman) who has returned home to take care of Bill and his ailing health. While at home, Sam falls for a local woman, Kate (Schuyler Fisk). At the same time, Bill starts to fall for her mom, Tina (Sissy Spacek).”  That is the synopsis provided by IMDB, but the movie is far more intricate than that.

Darren Le Gallo, husband of Amy Adams and a first-time director, was present at the World Premiere of “Sam & Kate,” which featured veteran Oscar-winner Dustin Hoffman and Sissy Spacek appearing as the parents of their real-life offspring.  Hoffman plays Bill, the father of Jake, and a crusty old guy in the tradition of Clint Eastwood’s character Walt Kowalski in “Gran Torino.”

Writer/Director Darren LeGallo.

Sissy Spacek, mother of co-star Schuyler Fisk, gives an outstanding performance as someone afflicted by a hoarding disorder. Her bathroom scene is one of the best examples of Oscar-caliber acting from a female put onscreen this year.

There is also a back-story for her daughter, Kate, too, which makes Kate, a bookstore owner, unwilling to become romantically involved with the persistent Jake of the title, well-played by Jake Hoffman.

The stars of the film took the stage at the Paramount for a Q&A after the film screened, and both agreed that they’d been looking for something to do together when this script came their way. “It was just serendipitous,” said Spacek.

Dustin Hoffman in Austin, Texas, on October 28th.

Hoffman the elder commented that, “People get set in their ways if they’re single for too long” as explanation for why the younger couple are  older than those still single in society. Jake Hoffman’s character of Sam remarks that he can’t believe that Kate is still single, since she is obviously a beautiful and eminently eligible woman.The younger couple shared a funny story from the stage. There is a post-coital scene when Sam and Kate finally do spend a night in bed. During the set-up for filming the scene, the younger Hoffman said, to Schuyler Fisk, “I want you to come to my (real-life) wedding.” Jake also told the audience how his father told him about the script in the first place, asking him if Jake wanted to play the part of his son. When Jake heard the title of the film (“Sam & Kate”) Dustin Hoffman said, “Yeah, you prick.  You’re the lead.”

Sissy Spacek remarked on the “wonderful layered relationship” of the characters and said that doing the film “Was a no-brainer.” She described working with her daughter as “thrilling” and “exciting.”

Hoffman ended his remarks from the stage by commenting on the different ways of working that a director may select. “Some directors,” he said, “have a vision in their heads as the filming begins and they want you to duplicate what they see in their heads.  By allowing you the liberty—and, amazingly, it’s his first time out—Director LeGallo let us take the film outward and into ourselves.” He also remarked on the audience that sat patiently waiting for the Q&A with very few audience members leaving, saying, “You’re a very special audience. You were gold.” (This remark also would extend to the Opening Night audience for “The Whale” on Oct. 27th.)

 

The film was a sad, but ultimately uplifting tribute to love and kindness. Jake (as Sam) tells Kate (Schuyler Fisk) after his crusty father’s death, “It got me thinking about what I would regret, and that’s you, Kate. I can’t imagine dying without telling you what you mean to me.”

 

Elizabeth Faith Ludlow (Mary) and Elizabeth Becka (Beth) in Austin at the World Premiere of “Sam & Kate.”

Also quite good in the film was the music by Roger O’Donnell and the appearance by Henry Thomas (of “E.T” fame) as Ron, complete with singing and guitar-playing. The supporting roles of Mary (Elizabeth Faith Ludlow) and Beth (Elizabeth Becka) were also completely on target as supporting players. The duo sat together in the audience and enjoyed the film’s World Premiere.

 

“Sam & Kate” is a small indie film that Vertical films allowed the festival to screen for this Writers’ Festival, where it was definitely appreciated and enjoyed.

 

 

 

“Empire of Light” (Sam Mendes) at the 58th Chicago International Film Festival

Micheal Ward and Olivia Colman in the film EMPIRE OF LIGHT. Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. © 2022 20th Century Studios

 

Sam Mendes, director of such wonderful films as “American Beauty,” “1917,” “Road to Perdition,” “Skyfall,” and “Revolutionary Road,” wrote and directed thr 2-hour love letter to the movies, “Empire of Light.” It is Mendes’ first attempt at scripting the films he directs. It shows.

 

Olivia Colman—the Oscar-winning actress of 2018’s “The Favourite”—plays Hilary Small, a theater manager of the Empire Movie Theatre complex, which her boss (Colin Firth), Donald Ellis, describes as “the South coast’s finest film emporium.” Filming was actually done in Margate, at Dreamland, and down the coast of Kent. (I was once an exchange student in Chislehurst in Kent.)

 

Micheal Ward as Steven, a 25-year-old Black man, comes to the Empire Movie Theatre to work. Steven and Hilary (Olivia Colman) begin a romance. Olivia is nearly twice Steven’s age, but they bond over saving a wounded pigeon. Perhaps it is Mendes’ intention to show how at certain times in one’s life, another caring concerned human being can serve as a life-line to help an individual through a tough time. In the case of these two individuals, each needs someone to lean on; Steven cares about Hilary, while Hilary cares about Steven.

 

Times are tough for Micheal because he is waiting to try to get into architecture school. He is living in a very prejudiced time associated with Margaret Thatcher and Skinheads and racist acts against minorities.

 

Times are tough for Hilary (Olivia Colman) because she recently had a nervous breakdown and was committed to St. June’s Mental Health Hospital. Historically, she had a  bad relationship with her father and feels she is being taken advantage of by men, including  her boss at the theater, Colin Firth, who views her as “a nutter” and “unemployable.” Donald Ellis (Colin Firth) had agreed to take her on as an employee at the theater, because he would “keep an eye on her.” He took advantage of her frail mental state to demand sexual servicing,  and Hilary rails against all men, saying “All these men will have their comeuppance.”

 

Cheating on his wife is but one of the boss’s failings. Donald will be spectacularly  and publicly called out by Hilary for his two-timing of his wife during the premiere for “Chariots of Fire.”

 

The film seems to have at least three themes that it tries to weave into a coherent screenplay. One theme is simply the love letter to movies which Mendes rightfully calls an escape. The second theme, (which doesn’t blend well with the movie theme), is a denunciation of racism. Steven  (Micheal Ward) and Hilary bond over helping heal the broken wing of a pigeon and begin an unlikely affair. The Black/white divide comes to the fore as a theme when a group of miscreants breaks into the theater and beats Steven to a pulp. He ends up in the hospital, with Hilary paying him visits. There, Hilary meets Steven’s Mom, who recognizes that they have a genuine affection for each other that has sustained them during  rough times.

 

The last theme in the film is that having mental issues is not the individual’s fault. As Steven (Micheal Ward) says to Hilary upon learning of her diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia, “It’s not your fault. It’s a medical condition.”

 

The acting by everyone is top notch. Olivia Colman and Micheal Ward are ably supported by Toby Jones as Norman, the theater projectionist, Colin Firth as Donald Ellis, and Tom Brooke as Neil. The music from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross is perfect, slow piano chords that fit the themes perfectly. The cinematography is wonderful, especially the shots of New Year’s Eve fireworks with Steven in the foreground. The theater is also a marvel and the set and art decorating are wonderful.

 

So, what’s wrong with the movie? It follows the theme that Mendes says unites all his movies: “All my films are linked by similar concerns, if you look below the surface. They’re all about one or more people who are lost and trying to find a way through.”

 

One critic went way out on a limb and said it was the best thing Sam Mendes had ever done. I  disagree.

 

Not only did Mendes win an Oscar (for “American Beauty”)—his very first directorial job— he has done so many great films that this one, by comparison, while a nice character study urging understanding for sufferers of mental issues and acceptance of all races without prejudice against the backdrop of the love of the theater—-just doesn’t work. The disparate themes, as scripted, did not gel.

 

The idea that each individual is going to go on with his or her own life by film’s end was logical.  But the screenplay had a hard time fitting such disparate elements into one homogeneous script. Since this was Mendes’ first solo screenwriting outing, could that be the problem?

 

The movie premieres  December 9,  2022.

Meanwhile, the Austin Film Festival kicks off tomorrow, and I’ll be reviewing from there.

Rian Johnson’s “Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery” at the 58th Chicago International Film Festival

 

Kathryn Hahn accepts a Career Achievement Award from Festival Artistic Director Mimi Plauche on Octobrr 18th at the Music Box Theater.

The October 18th, 139-minute Centerpiece of the 58th Chicago International Film Festival was a showing of “Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery,” preceded by a Career Achievement Award to Kathryn Hahn, who appears in the film.

Benoit Blanc returns to peel back the layers in a new Rian Johnson whodunit, a sequel to “Knives Out.” This fresh adventure finds the intrepid detective (Daniel Craig) at a lavish private estate on a Greek island, but how and why he comes to be there is only the first of many puzzles.

Blanc soon meets a disparate group of friends gathering at the invitation of billionaire Miles Bron for their yearly reunion. Among those on the guest list are Miles’ former business partner Andi Brand, current Connecticut governor Claire Debella, cutting-edge scientist Lionel Toussaint, fashion designer and former model Birdie Jay and her conscientious assistant Peg, and influencer Duke Cody and his sidekick girlfriend Whiskey. As in all the best murder mysteries, each character harbors their own secrets, lies and motivations. When someone turns up dead, everyone is a suspect.

The cast of this one is just as star-studded as the cast of the first “Knives Out” movie. The central figure is a rich industrialist (think Zuckerberg) who may have stolen the idea for his success from his former girlfriend, Cassandra Brand, played by Janelle Monae. Miles Bron is played by Edward Norton.

Others in the group of dissidents include Dave Bautista as Duke Cody, Whiskey (Madelyn Cline) Birdie Jay (Kate Hudson), her assistant Peg (Jessia Henwick) Lionel Toussaint (Leslie Odem, Jr.) and the brief random appearance by Ethan Hawke. Even more noteworthy: the film is the last appearance by Angela Lansbury, who died recently, and of Stephen Sondheim, who died in November of 2021.  Daniel Craig reprises the role of Detective Benoit Blanc, complete with the Kentucky accent.

Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery (L-R) Edward Norton, Madelyn Cline, Kathryn Hahn, Dave Bautista, Leslie Odom Jr., Jessica Henwick, Kate Hudson, Janelle Monae, and Daniel Craig. Cr. [John Wilson/Netflix © 2022.]

The set design and costume design people deserve special kudos. For me someone who was not ga ga over the first one, will find that this one was bigger, louder and less appealing. The “mystery” part was too easy to figure out from the outset. While it is a harmless frolic, it doesn’t really have any Big Truths to impart, even though Rian Johnson (who wrote and directed both the first and second “Knives Out” film) says it is a commentary on the unequal division of wealth.

The film is going to play in 3 different theater chains for a limited period in November (23-29) hitting over 600 theaters at once, and then will stream on Netflix beginning December 23rd.

“Call Jane” with Elizabeth Banks at the 58th Chicago International Film Festival

Call Jane, with Elizabeth Banks.

“Call Jane” revisits the bad old days of the sixties and early seventies when it was illegal to get a therapeutic abortion in the United States. Elizabeth Banks plays Joy Farrell, the wife of an attorney (Will, played by Chris Messina) and the mother of a teenaged daughter, Charlotte (Grace Edwards).

Elizabeth finds herself pregnant. In the first three months, she develops a cardiac condition, cardiomyopathy, which could well prove fatal if she continues the pregnancy through to the end. She and her husband petition the hospital board to allow Joy to have a therapeutic abortion. In turning her down, the all male board announces that they had only given one such dispensation in 10 years.

I am probably one of the few reviewers who lived through this era. In fact, I had a friend, a fellow classmate on campus at the University of Iowa, who died because she attempted to self-induce an abortion. It was the odor of her body decomposing that alerted the authorities in her apartment building near campus that something was amiss. For me, movies like this are not ancient history. They are what I lived through.

The entire concept of “Call Jane” feels real, to me in 2022, with the attack on women’s rights by the GOP. The old French saying, “La plus ca change, la plus ca meme,” (The more things change, the more they stay the same) seems relevant.

What didn’t feel real to me was a twist the plot takes late in the game when “Dean” (played by Cory Michael Smith), the lead OB/GYN doctor, is let go and a person with no qualifications to perform an  abortion takes over. That, to me, seemed to sum up the desperation of the times, but I question whether the individual really went that far out on that limb of illegality.

Although Elizabeth Banks’ participation in the film is noised about, little is said about Sigourney Weaver’s turn as the original “Jane,” Helen, who spearheads the effort to provide services to desperate women, or about Kate Mara, who plays a neighbor. (Mara’s role could have easily been dispensed with entirely).

Chris Messina (“Damages,””Argo,” “The Newsroom”) plays Joy’s husband, with a bad haircut from the era. All of the male haircuts looked strange. However, the flip that Elizabeth Banks sports throughout the film looked quite timely. I smiled at the line in the script when a character is asked, “Do you smoke?” and the response was, “Everybody smokes.” (Very true).

This thought, articulated by writers Hayley Schore and Roshan Sethi, also rang true: “You think you’re in control of your life, and, just like that, you realize you’re not.” Another good line, given to Banks’ daughter, who does not want to know about unpleasant things, was, “I don’t wanna know about babies dying, or people getting shot, or periods, or Vietnam.” Director Phyllis Nagy does well with a good cast, and the cinematography from Greta Zozula is equally good.

With the current Supreme Court outlawing Roe v. Wade and throwing the country into chaos over the right to an abortion that women had enjoyed for the previous 50 years, the theme was certainly very topical. Earlier iterations of the film had Elizabeth Moss and/or Susan Sarandon attached.

The 2 hour and 1 minute film premieres on October 28th, just 5 days after the 58th Chicago International Film Festival ends.

 

“Pray for Our Sinners” at the 58th Chicago International Film Festival Has United States Premiere

Pray for Our Sinners (2022)

“Pray for Our Sinners,” a documentary written and directed by Sinead O’Shea with music by George Brennan had its United States Premiere at the 58th Chicago International Film Festival. The 1 hour and 21 minute film documents the abuse of women and children in Ireland in decades past, perpetrated with the approval of the Catholic church.

The abuse took place in Ireland for literally decades until at least the 1980s.

Sinead O’Shea focused on her own home town of Navan in central Ireland and interviewed women who, as young teenagers, were sent away to mother and baby homes and forced to give up their babies. She interviewed female victims who had suffered this fate when just teenagers, and also spoke with now adult victims of brutality in the schools, suffered as children. Much of her conversation was with Dr. Mary Randle, who, along with her doctor husband, fought against the injustices. One of the topics was the local parish priest of those years, Father Andy Farrell. (It seems that Father Farrell discovered malfeasance in church finances and was spirited out of his post when he reported it.)

In 1921 Ireland earned its independence from England, but by 1937 the Catholic Church had managed to incorporate its beliefs into Irish law. In a country where 91% were church-goers, 6% said they attended occasionally, and only 3% said they never attended church, Ireland had more people institutionalized than any other civilized country. A citizen could be sent to an institution for all manner of misbehavior, as viewed by the church. For instance, if you talked about your feelings you could be declared “hysterical” and put away.

God was everywhere. That was the point. Few women worked. There was a law forbidding women from working after marriage. Women were to be submissive and produce children. However, unwed mothers were shamed into submission and forced to go to mother and baby homes, where the nuns who ran them made it their mission to “punish” the pregnant girls. There were at least 21,000 illegal adoptions from these homes during the era. According to a 2021 study, 9,000 babies and their mothers died in the homes.

Pregnant girls were treated like criminals. Even during delivery, they would be chastised for their bad behavior in becoming pregnant in the first place. Contraception was not available if the doctor did not want the woman to have access; divorce was forbidden. As one former resident of one of the homes said, “Your mail would be read. You were made to wash floors, even when 9 months pregnant. There was no breastfeeding. They wanted to do something to hurt you.”

Writer/Director Sinead O’Shea.

If women were mistreated, children were also targeted. The Catholic church ran the schools. Corporal punishment was the norm in towns across Ireland. Into this sea of misery a husband and wife doctor team in Navan, Mary and Patrick (“Paddy”) Randle, chose to speak out when others were too cowed to do so.

A 10-year-old boy. Norman, was beaten with a leather hose with metal inserts because he was left-handed. When Paddy Randle found out, he spoke up and demanded that such abuse cease. Twenty children who were brave enough to speak out were gathered. Since the local paper would not tell their story, the “News of the World” in London interviewed the children and ran a story on Sunday, May 4, 1969, under the title “Children Under the Lash.”

When the local priests in Navon learned that the paper was going to run the story, the newspaper was seized as it was entering the city. Norman was kicked out of school by the church authorities at the age of 9 and, even today, he has no papers to document his life in Ireland. He is like a ghost without a country in “Europe’s last theocracy.”

As Dr. Mary Randle described her efforts and those of her now-deceased husband to help the struggling women and children of their small Irish town. She said, “It was like a whole empire designated to punish girls and children.It’s just, yet again, a diminishment of women, how they were treated.”

I am Irish Catholic. My home county in Iowa, the Dubuque diocese, was very Catholic. Back in the sixties, drugstores in Dubuque, Iowa, would not sell the birth control pill to unwed girls. When I was in the hospital, having just given birth in 1968—a married woman, age 23—one of my doctors (who was a devout Catholic) refused my request for a prescription for the pill. He would pass such requests along to his Protestant partner, who had no such reservations.

There are political forces abroad in our land right now who would like nothing better than to deny United State females the right to purchase the birth control pill, because the ability to choose when (or if) to have a child empowers a woman. The immediate battleground is the issue of abortion, but the signs are there that that is just the first stop on the path of the current Conservative Supreme Court.

As for corporal punishment, when I was introduced to my very first classroom in the fall of 1969, a fellow teacher handed me a paddle and instructed me on the “proper” way to use it to paddle misbehaving students. I was appalled. I threw it away immediately. This disciplinary method had been ongoing in the district. If you think nothing like these Irish stories could ever go on in the United States, guess again. You just have to be old enough to have lived it, as I have.

I remember all the pregnant girls in my high school who were “drummed out of the Corps.” Once it was determined that a girl was pregnant out of wedlock, she was banished from attending class. (The boyfriend who had impregnated her suffered no such punishment.) The expectant mother would disappear to a mother and baby home run by the Catholic church. The home would house her until she delivered her child.

As one of the women in the film testifies, “There’s no point in talking about today and then, because it was so different.” Yes, it was. I remember it well. I am saddened to see the same power play(s) being perpetrated upon this generation of women in the United States via the currently red hot abortion issue. It’s done in the interests of refusing to empower women.

The most important decision a woman will make in her lifetime is whether or not to give birth. It will affect every facet of her life from that time forward. It should be her decision, in consultation with her doctors and her family. It should not be legislated or decided by a group of men in Washington, D.C.

Director/Writer Sinead O’Shea does a nice job of painting a picture of yesterday that I lived through and remember only too well. By quoting Dr. Mary Randle (“There is always a way to resist”) and painting a picture of the abuses of the Catholic Church against the weakest among their charges, O’Shea has vividly illustrated how irreparable harm can be done in the name of religion.

The law banning corporal punishment in the schools of Ireland passed in that country in 1984. Divorce is now legal and laws banning women from working are a thing of the past. The attempts to roll back Roe v. Wade in the United States under the cover of religion are ongoing and on the ballot in November.

Another documentary by Sinead O’Shea is 2017’s “A Mother Brings Her Son to Be Shot.”

“Raymond and Ray” (Ewan McGregor & Ethan Hawke) at the 58th Chicago International Film Festival.

“Raymond and Ray” premieres on Apple TV+ on October 21st.  Ethan Hawke (Ray) and Ewan McGregor (Raymond) play half-brothers in the film, offspring of a feckless father who traveled the world apparently impregnating a variety of women. Check it out and see if you agree with one of its stars (Ethan Hawke), who once said, “It’s fun to see a movie that’s made for someone over the age of 15.” This is such a film.

These two sons by different mothers whom Dad (Benjamin Reed Harris III, portrayed only after death by Tom Bowers) gave the same name, grew up together. One guesses that the duo probably survived their father because they had each other. A line from the script is “We come from chaos.”

 

“Raymond and Ray,” Ewan McGregor and Ethan Hawke, at the 58th Chicago International Film Festival.

Raymond—the more conventional of the two and an employee of the Cincinnati Water & Power Department—convinces Ray (Ethan Hawke) to accompany him to their mutual father’s funeral over Ray’s initial objections. The pair have very bad memories of dear old Dad. Raymond (Ewan McGregor) warns his half-brother regarding their father’s passing, “It’s gonna’ take a whole lot more than a hole in the ground to get him out of your head.”

Ewan McGregor and Ethan Hawke can spin gold out of dross; their excellence in these roles was expected. Ethan Hawke, in particular, plays a character who has been a jazz musician for his entire life and is a reformed drug addict. Hawke delivers some scene-stealing moments playing the trumpet, both at the funeral and in a jazz club after the service is over, accompanied by co-star Sophie Okenodo as Keira. Hawke portrayed 50’s jazz trumpeter Chet Stevens in the 2015 film “Born to be Blue” and  spent about 8 months learning to play the trumpet prior to that outing. It shows—although Hawke claims no expertise as a trumpeter.

Ray’s (Ethan Hawke) reputation in life has been that he attracts women “like shit attracts flies,” so Sophie Okenodo is written well in an interesting departure from expectations. Kudos to the writer/director Rodrigo Garcia. I loved lines like this one when the sons hear what a charming fellow their dead father was to others. Says Ray (Ethan Hawke): “Does whipping our asses with a belt count? ‘Cause, if it does he was a hoot.”

Rodrigo Garcia previously wrote 5 episodes of one of my All Time Favorite television series, “Six Feet Under” between 2001 and 2005. Only two other writers ( the show’s creator, Alan Ball, and one other writer wrote more ). “Six Feet Under” was a great training ground for this film, as it examined the family that ran a funeral parlor, and there are many scenes shot in a funeral parlor in this movie. The quirky funeral director is well-played  by Todd Louiso and Vondie Curtis Hall plays the Reverend West.

Others have criticized the writing: too middle-of-the-road, too predictable, not far enough into either comedy or drama. I disagree. As someone who has been reviewing film for 52 uninterrupted years, “Raymond and Ray” showed the audience insights that few other films have even attempted, and did so with humor.

I agree that the many “reveals” became a bit much by film’s end, but the script delivers on some nuggets that have not often been examined at all. One Eternal Truth that Rodrigo Garcia illuminated for the audience is that we all belong to something greater than ourselves.

But the one that resonated, with me, came at film’s end, when the two brothers have lived up to their father’s odd wish that they actually physically dig his grave.Raymond (Ewan McGregor) says to Ray (Ethan Hawke), “We never really knew him, did we?” This truth is driven home again and again as the duo converse with others in their father’s life, including some of the women he loved and left.

I learned this lesson IRL, as someone who has buried both parents. I was constantly being brought up short by remarks made to me about what a lovely, sweet woman my schoolteacher mother was. It’s not that I didn’t love my mother or that I didn’t agree that she was “lovely,” It’s that the self a parent reveals to his or her offspring is often a completely different human being than the one the son or daughter experiences. It is jarring to hear from others about what a great conversationalist one’s parent has been—with and to others. That was the Eternal Truth that this screenplay illustrated so beautifully.

Spanish actress Maribel Verdu, as Lucia, enlivens the entire film. A veteran of “Y tu Mama Tambien” and “Pan’s Labyrinth,” the Spanish actress was a stand-out.

Certain aspects of the film deserve special praise. The music (Jeff Beal) is great and the cinematography by Igor Jadu-Lillo is, as well. Alfonso Cuaron (“Gravity,” “Roma,” “Children of Men”) is one of the executive producers.

“Raymond and Ray,” Running time: 106 MIN.
• Production: An Apple TV+ presentation of an Esperanto Filmoj Limited, Mockingbird Pictures production. Producers: Alfonso Cuarón, Bonnie Curtis, Julie Lynn. Executive producers: Shea Kammer, Gabriela Rodriguez.
• Crew: Director, screenplay: Rodrigo García. Camera: Igor Jadue-Lillo. Editor: Michael Ruscio. Music: Jeff Beal.
• With: Ethan Hawke, Ewan McGregor, Maribel Verdú, Tom Bower, Vondie Curtis Hall, Sophie Okonedo.

58th Chicago International Film Festival (Oct. 12-23) & Austin Film Festival (Oct. 27-Nov. 3) Next

Kenneth Branaugh on October 21, 2021, with his Lifetime Achievement Award fro the Chicago International Film Festival.

If you were mourning the loss of the Nashville Film Festival, which ended yesterday, stay tuned for the beginning of the 58th Chicago International Film Festival, beginning next week. Technically, it will kick off Oct. 12 and run through the 2rd.

 

Then it will be the Austin Film Festival, Oct. 27-Nov. 3, which may (or may not) be followed by the Denver Film Festival (streaming).

So, keep checking for upcoming reviews of the very newest of features, documentaries and shorts.

“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 (BFA 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 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 Temple 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”

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).

 

“Black Dragon”

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”).

 

“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.

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