Weekly Wilson - Blog of Author Connie C. Wilson

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

Category: Reviews (Page 1 of 27)

New Amazon Review of THE COLOR OF EVIL Series (Boxed Set)

Reading Time: 2 minutes
on November 15, 2017
Do I like scary clowns? No! Did the cover of the new box set “The Color of Evil,” by Connie Corcoran Wilson, scare me? Yes! Did I want to read this book anyway? Of course I did! And boy am I glad I did. From the fantastically creepy cover, on the box set as well as each individual book contained within, this is one shivery read. At first, I felt that the action was a bit slow to get started; however, I’m glad I stuck with it, because for a book that is supposed to be geared towards a younger audience, this definitely had some scary and troubling moments.

There are three books in this set and each one delivers the same amount of thrills and chills, however, each are also distinctly different in various ways, even though a common theme and storyline run throughout. The main idea, that Tad McGreevy can see colors around people, auras if you will, that allow him to determine what type of person they are, I found to be very unique. I was almost just as horrified as he was each time he saw someone with the dreaded gray-green color surrounding them.

Yes, there are unexpected twists and turns you won’t see coming. And yes, I definitely recommend this set to anyone who enjoys good, old-fashioned horror. And by that I mean, back in the golden age of horror, when Dean Koontz was writing as Leigh Nichols, and Stephen King was just getting started, along with the likes of Ramsey Campbell, Doug Clegg and Clive Barker. If you are nostalgic for some no-holds-barred, white-knuckle ride, keep-the-lights-on horror novels, then rejoice with this set, because you have three that you’ll want to read one right after the other. And keep an eye on this author, because I can tell she’ll have many more thrills to bring us in the future.

Guillermo del Toro’s “The Shape of Water” Closes Out the 53rd Chicago International Film Festival with a Tribute to Michael Shannon

Reading Time: 15 minutes

The closing film for the 53rd Chicago International Film Festival was Guillermo del Toro’s “The Shape of Water,” which seems destined for many Academy Award nominations this season. It also served as an opportunity to pay tribute to Michael Shannon, one of the actors in the film, who was present to accept the award and answer audience questions, along with co-star Michael Stuhlbarg, who plays a Russian scientist spy (Dr. Robert Hoffstetler, aka Dimitri) in the film.

The idea for the story of a romance between a creature like the Creature from the Black Lagoon film of 1954, [directed by Jack Arnold and starring Ben Chapman (on land) and Ricou Browning (underwater)] was part of the film’s appeal for del Toro, a well-known fan of horror movies, whose television series “The Strain” is now entering its fourth and final season. It was “Pan’s Labyrinth” in 2006 that vaulted the Mexican director to the ranks of top talents, however, as the film went on to be nominated as one of the Best Pictures of the Year and to win 3 Oscars for Cinematography, Art Direction and Make-Up. “The Shape of Water” has the potential to take home the golden trophy for all of those categories, plus snag acting nominations for cast members.

ACTING:

Sally Hawkins as mute cleaning woman Elisa Esposito in “The Shape of Water.”

It is difficult to select just one actor who would deserve an Oscar nomination, but it seems a foregone conclusion that the female lead, Sally Hawkins, will be up, as she has to play her entire role without words. (She is mute—but not deaf— in the film). Jane Wyman (first wife of Ronald Reagan) won the Oscar as Best Actress in 1948 for playing a deaf mute in “Johnny Belinda;”  Oscar loves lead characters with disabilities (think “My Left Foot” for a more recent example.)

Sally Hawkins was Oscar nominated for playing the ordinary sister of Cate Blanchett in Woody Allen’s “Blue Jasmine,” and this part was written especially for her by Guillermo del Toro. It’s going to be hard to argue that she doesn’t deserve to win when she had to play the entire role without speaking.

Then there is the wonderful Richard Jenkins, so good in everything he appears in. He played Nathaniel, the dead patriarch, on “Six Feet Under” but has been working steadily since 1974 (80 films to the much younger Shannon’s 40) and is always believable and good. In this film he play Giles, a gay man who is ostracized in the Cold War era because of his sexual preferences and also because his craft of painting commercial panels is being supplanted by photography. (*Small sidelight: Jenkins is from DeKalb, Illinois and has been married to his wife since 1969).

All the characters are fighting “aloneness.” Giles (Richard Jenkins) is one of them.

I have always loved Richard Jenkins in Ben Stiller’s comedy, “Flirting with Disaster,” one of the best comedies ever made. But we can’t forget his work in the television series “Olive Kitteridge,” for which he won an Emmy as lead actor, nor his film roles in “Killing Them Softly,””Norman,” “Burn After Reading,”  “Fun with Dick & Jane,” “Me, Myself and Irene,” “Step Brothers” or “LBJ,” to name just a few.

Closing night Tribute to Michael Shannon, along with showing of Guillermo del Toro’s “The Shape of Water.” (Photo by Connie Wilson)

Michael Shannon, whom Warner Herzog has called “arguably the best actor of his generation” (Shannon has worked with Herzog three times) is terrific, as always, as Richard Strickland.  When Shannon is onscreen, he commands your attention and you can only really concentrate on him.

I had the opportunity to speak with Michael Shannon on the Red Carpet and asked him these 2 questions: Citing such films as “Revolutionary Road,” for which he was Oscar-nominated in 2008, as well as “Bug” in 2006, “Take Shelter” in 2011, “The Iceman” in 2012, and “Nocturnal Animals,” [for which he once again earned an Oscar nomination in 2016], how does he bring himself down to a more normal performance as an ordinary guy, as in the film “Mud”, which was also directed by Jeff Nichols, (with whom he has worked 5 times?)

Shannon’s answer was this: “It’s a job. I’m an actor.  I just show up and do it.” He would repeat that answer from the stage during the Q&A.

Tribute to Michael Shannon at the Chicago Film Festival. (Photo by Connie Wilson)

When asked what his favorite film was, he said “Take Shelter.” I was surprised to get an answer from him, as often that is a question that actors don’t like to tackle, considering it a bit like naming their favorite child. However, it was clear from his joking-around demeanor that Shannon doesn’t necessarily behave exactly like other actors on the Red Carpet or elsewhere. (He even said as much from the stage later, commenting, “I wasn’t a normal person before I got there, and I wasn’t after I arrived.”)  [The character actor who comes closest to Shannon in tone or style, for me, is probably Bruce Dern in his prime, in films like “Black Sunday” and “Coming Home.”]

Onstage at the AMC Theater in Chicago accepting his Tribute award and thanking benefactors on closing night of the 53rd Chicago International Film Festival on Thursday October 26, 2017. (Photo by Connie Wilson)

Shannon was very humble in thanking both his agent, who had flown in from Los Angeles, and his best friend from the age of 14 on, as well as his stepmother and shared how proud his father would have been (Dad taught at DePaul in Chicago, and although Shannon got his start here, he now lives in New York City).

Cast member Octavia Spencer, an Oscar winner for “The Help,” is also an actress who is always good, just as she was in “Hidden Figures” and “Small Town Crimes” recently. She said, in Toronto, that when she heard that Guillermo del Toro had written a role just for her in this film, she said, “Oh, Lord! I’ll play anything he wants. I’ll be a tree if he wants me to be!”

There are no bad performances in this film, so take your pick of who you think will wind up with Oscar nods. Certainly Sally Hawkins and possibly both Shannon and co-star Michael Stuhlbarg, the most decent man in the film, (even if he is a Russian spy.)

The script, written by del Toro with the assistance of Vanessa Taylor (who has worked on “Game of Thrones” and also scripted the “Allegiant” installment of “The Divergent” series) was written with each specific actor in mind all of whom joined the cast. Shannon joked, from the stage, that it was “A little like being indoctrinated into a cult” and said that the experience was “epic and overwhelming and very moving at times.” He added, “Guillermo has such a big heart and it was never more on view than in this film.”

Said del Toro of the project, “I wanted to create a beautiful, elegant story about hope and redemption as an antidote to the cynicism of our times.  I wanted this story to take the form of a fairy tale in that you have a humble human being who stumbles into something grander and more transcendental than anything else in her life.  And then I thought it would be a great idea to juxtapose that love against something as banal and evil as the hatred between nations, which is the Cold War, and the hatred between people due to race, color, ability and gender.” He added, “I like to make movies that are liberating, that say it’s okay to be whoever you are, and it seems that at this time, this is very pertinent.”

Kraus, a Chicago native who collaborated with del Toro on his children’s series “Trollhunters”, suggested the idea that forms the basis of the story to Guillermo over breakfast. (Photo by Connie Wilson)

The basic story was suggested to del Toro over breakfast in 2011 by another of his collaborators, Chicago native and author Daniel Kraus, who has collaborated with del Toro on the children’s series “Trollhunters.” It was a concept that Kraus had been mulling for some time. When he shared his story with del Toro, the director decided that would be his next film. The script was then crafted with certain actors in mind.

Sally Hawkins plays a mute cleaning woman (along with best friend on the cleaning staff Octavia Spencer) in a government lab who falls in love with a sea creature that has been captured somewhere in South America and brought to the lab for study. When it appears that the evil government scientists are going to kill the creature, cleaning woman Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins), aided by her good friend Giles (Richard Jenkins), cleaning woman Zelda Fuller (Octavia Spencer) and Michael Stuhlbarg’s scientist conceive a plan to smuggle the creature from the laboratory and, eventually, release him back into the ocean. The fact that an inter-species love affair begins to emerge between Elisa and the creature is an original idea that I’ve not seen portrayed  before. (The only previous similar story I’d ever seen involved the real-life prosecution of a human male who kept sneaking into the dolphins’ pool to have sex with the female dolphins—not quite the same vibe as depicted here.) Del Toro had said he wanted the monster to “get the girl” this time, after seeing so many films (“King Kong,” “Frankenstein”, etc.) where that doesn’t ever happen.

The Sea Creature becomes a huge part of the plot, of course, and it was important to del Toro that a real actor play the creature in the suit. Doug Jones, who has worked with del Toro for 20 years (and played a key role of The Ancient from 2014-2016 on television’s “The Strain”) was tapped to wear the suit—which meant that he faced grueling hours in the make-up chair each morning and each night. Even getting the suit on was quite the chore. Jones was the first on set in the morning and the last to leave at night, with at least 4 hours of make-up each day. Del Toro said of Jones:  “We’ve been working together for 20 years and he’s done some of the most crucial roles in my movies.  He is one of the few guys who does creatures who is also a full-fledged dramatic actor.  Often those are two separate gifts, but Doug has them both.  He’s a fantastic actor, with or without makeup.”

THE CREATURE

The theme of being alone comes in with the creature, because he is the last of his species. “He’s also never been outside his river, so he doesn’t understand where he is or why. He’s being tested and biopsied all because the government thinks, ‘We’re going to use this thing to our advantage, somehow.’”  And the Russians want him, too, if only so that their arch-enemies (the U.S.) don’t have him. The Creature was revered as a god in his original homeland and has some superhuman qualities, such as the power to reflect people’s desires back at them and the power to heal wounds more quickly.  “He comes into people’s lives and he seems to expose and amplify whatever is going on inside a human being,” said Jones. Physically, del Toro told Jones that the creature should have the bearing of a sexy, dangerous toreador, but with the fluidity of the Silver Surfer. To make sure he was attractive enough for a human female to fall in love with him, del Toro said, “Every night, I took it to my home and got the female vote: enough ass or not enough ass? Enough abs or more abs? Shoulders bigger or slimmer? It just had to be a creature you could fall in love with.”

Guillermo had encountered Mike Hill at a horror film convention and del Toro set him on a mission (at his own expense ahead of filming) to create a model of the sea creature this way: “He said he wanted me to give the creature a soul.  He wanted it to be something a woman could fall head over heels for in every way.  So I started sketching a handsome looking version of a fish man, giving him kissable lips, a square jaw and doe eyes and I went from there.”  Real-life fish like the tropical lionfish were used as a model for how the creature might eat and for its translucent bioluminescence.  Work began on the creature’s facial elements, especially its eyes.  “One of the early conversations with Guillermo was that he wanted the eyes to be changeable on set in order to change the mood or look of the creature. Since you can’t take Doug’s makeup off to change them, we ended up coming up with a magnetic system to interlock the eyes.  It was the only solution.  Once we were shooting, we would change the eyes 4 or 5 times a night.” A working set of gills was especially challenging because “we were dealing with a lot of water in some scenes. The gills give the creature an additional way of reacting without words, and we could use Doug’s breathing to enhance emotions like excitement, anger or affection.”

Finally, four spectacularly intricate suits, each capable of becoming waterlogged, were made for the production by the team at Legacy in Canada. Said Jones, “The suit is super tight and inside it there are actual corsets to make it even tighter.  But we segmented the abdominal plates so that they do give and move a little bit. It’s not solid, so it can create the graceful motions the story demands of Doug.”

It took 4 people to hoist Jones into the suit and in some scenes Jones was entirely blinded by his prosthetic eyes. The film’s visual effects supervisor, regular del Toro collaborator Dennis Berardi, began by creating an exacting digital double of Doug Jones in the prosthetic suit.  “We got to the point where we could do a digital version of the creature that could match up with Doug’s beautiful performance,” he says, adding, “Our hope is that the audience can’t distinguish at all between the digital version of the creature or the Doug Jones version.” (I’d say they completely succeeded.)

CINEMATOGRAPHY

Dr. Robert Hoffstetler (aka, Dmitri) in “The Shape of Water,” as played by Michael Stuhlbarg (Photo by Connie Wilson).

“The Shape of Water’s” shadowy atmosphere drops the audience into the depths of the story and Dan Laustsen’s creative cinematography was essential to achieving del Toro’s vision. During the Q&A following the film, Michael Shannon commented that, “The cinematography is off the charts.” He said that, in his 40 films, he had previously been a Deakins fan, but that the work of Laustsen, a product of Denmark, was essential to the film’s look.  Working with monochromatic tones of color, they meticulously shifted light and texture to craft a more modern, yet desaturated look, full of deep-sea tones.  Del Toro explained, “I knew I wanted the film to be monochromatic, so most of the palette is blues and greens with amber as a counter-balance.  Red only comes in as the color of blood and love.”

Del Toro said, “Dan is a genius with light.  He was able to light the film as if it was 1950’s black and white, even though we used color.  The light is very expressionistic and full of shadows and I think feels very classic.  For some of the underwater sequences, Laustsen harked back to the technique of shooting “dry for wet”, creating the illusion of water.  This involved using heavy smoke, wind machines and projection to create a dripping, pulsating atmosphere akin to water, while allowing the actors to work with their eyes open, vital to their expressions.” Said del Toro, “We did a lot of research on how to do dry for wet well, from how many frames per second to use to how you can create floating particles.  We knew the key was to create a video projection of caustic light on the characters that is very operatic.” Laustsen put the much-loved Arri Alexa digital camera to work and used Arri/Zeiss Master Prime lenses, which allowed for maximum precision. “Guillermo wanted lots of camera movement, and he likes very precise movement, so we worked with all kinds of cranes, dollies and Steadicams. It was very exciting.”

Dan Laustsen has shot more than 40 feature films, television movies and documentaries, both in his native Denmark and internationally. He has won (the Robert Award (Denmark’s version of the Academy Awards) for Best Cinematography 3 times and was nominated for the Swedish Academy Award (Guldbagge) for Best Cinematography. He shot “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen” and “John Wick: Chapter 2.” This was Luastsen’s third collaboration with del Toro, following “Mimic” and “Crimson Peak.” It seems inevitable that this film will and should be nominated in the Cinematography category at Oscar-time.

(*Note: The scene I snapped above with “the 3 Michaels” onstage together came about when Michael Kutza (far right), Cinema Chicago founder asked about each star’s next project and learned that Michael Stuhlbarg is going to play opposite Kevin Spacey in a bio-pic about Gore Vidal. Stuhlbarg said he would be playing Vidal’s gay lover of 52 year.  Kutza remarked, “Why doesn’t Spacey just come out and admit that he’s gay?” The 2 actors cracked up. A few days later, amidst some rather unsettling sexual harassment charges from years ago involving a 14-year-old male co-star of Kevin Spacey’s, he did, indeed, admit that he is currently living as a gay man, but said he  has, at times, been bi-sexual.)

EDITING:

Sidney Wolinsky, ACE (Film Editor), a graduate of Brandeis University and San Francisco State University, has been an editor on “The Sopranos,” “Rome,” “Ray Donovan,” “House of Cards,”  and David Chase’s film “Not Fade Away.” He also edited the pilot episodes for “Sons of Anarchy,” “Blue Bloods,” “Boardwalk Empire,” “Ray Donovan,” “The Strain” and “Extant.” He received 2 Eddies for his work on “The Sopranos” and an Emmy for the “Boardwalk Empire” pilot.

PRODUCTION DESIGN

Paul Denham Austerberry, with credits on such films as “The Three Musketeers” and “Amelia”, as well as “Assault on Precinct 13” and “Resident Evil: Apocalypse” was brought in to design the sets, including the period apartments of characters Giles (Robert Jenkins) and  Elisa (Sally Hawkins). Del Toro said, “I fell in love with the fact that Paul has a very strong opinion of design, meaning he could counter anything I talked about with new ideas.  But even though Paul has great ideas, he’s also very practical, and that was important because this film had such a big scope, with complex sets and underwater shooting. He had to be able to orchestrate and manage all that.”  Sally Hawkins said, “The sets were like stepping into a painting. That’s what it felt like, to me.” In both cinematography and sets, I was reminded of Martin Scorsese’s “Hugo.”

Another important area for production design was the laboratory where the creature is housed.  “We didn’t want a lab that would come off as too sterile and bright. We want you to feel lots of unsettling things have gone on in there and it has some dark history.” The creature’s room is a maze of pipework, ducting and cylindrical chambers. “For the creature’s compound,” said del Toro, “I wanted it to feel almost more medieval than modern, to add to the fairy tale feeling.”

Interestingly, the pipes that you see that look like heavy cast iron pipes are really all done out of Styrofoam.  Said Austerberry, “That set was such a complicated jigsaw puzzle.  We were working on it right down to the wire.  On top of everything else, we had to design everything to endure lots of water and steam and for a huge lighting job as well.” He had in mind Brutalist architecture, the concrete-heavy, function-based style that flourished from the fifties to the seventies.

Then there was the capsule, which was described as an iron lung in the script. “I pulled lots of historical references to iron lungs. There was one in particular that Guillermo loved.  He loved the color, the shape and the language of the materials.  It was one of the first things we designed actually, because it took over 8 weeks to make.  The idea is that the chamber is on wheels so it can then be attached to the larger pressurized cylinder in the laboratory to transfer the creature.”

The ”command center” where Michael Shannon’s evil boss Strickland looks down from above was researched from fifties wall murals.  His office floats above the command center, overlooking the minions who work for him through the glass via an early closed-circuit camera system that was based on 1960’s TV studio set-ups.  “When you see Strickland behind this wall of images, it really speaks to how he sees himself as above everyone and privy to all information he can take,” Austerberry reflects.

Several scenes take place in the laboratory’s bathroom and locker room. These were shot in Toronto’s massive Hearn Generating Station, an old power station that has become an icon of a bygone industrial age.  “We looked at Hearn because it has tiled rooms. Unfortunately, the tiles in Hearn are cream and Guillermo was like, ‘We can’t have that color in this movie,’ so we ended up still using the location but hand-painting every tile to be in our color palette,” Austerberry relates.

The apartments that Austerberry designed for Elisa and Giles sit atop a classic bijou-style movie theatre.  To forge the exterior, he used Toronto’s Massey Hall, a designated National Historic Site of Canada, which was designed in neoclassical tradition by architect Sidney Badgley in 1894.

Austerberry said, of the apartments of Giles and Elise: “Their apartments are like two hemispheres of the same globe, but we lit each half differently.  With Giles, even if the scene was at night, we lit it like sunset in very warm tones.  The color coding of Elisa’s apartment is aquatic, with cool lighting and lots of cyan.  Hers is corroded by water, while his is not corroded at all. His is full of wood and golden  light, very grounded colors because he is the grounding for Elisa, whereas Elisa’s apartment has the magical light of the cinema below it.”

Austerberry shares:  “Guillermo brought us an image he had from a photograph competition in India with an old lady in a darkened room with a really aged textured and a cyan blue wall in the background and that became a big inspiration. We talked a lot about the idea that once this was a grand room but, at some point there was a fire and it never got repaired, so it looks very aged with that patina that Guillermo loves.”

The walls were a major focus, and an exhaustive quest led Austerberry to a vintage Anglo-Japanese wallpaper pattern featuring little curves that subtly resemble fish scales, similar to an ancient Japanese engraving.  He then merged that pattern over a faded cresting wave reminiscent of 19th Century Japanese artist Hokusai’s iconic woodblock print, ‘the Great Wave off Kanagawa.’

“We had a scenic artist paint a beautiful version of the Great Wave in textured plaster and then we just layered and layered and layered over it until it’s basically gone, but you still sense there’s this shape of water on this wall. Guillermo wanted the wall to be stark and subtle, but to tell a little story, if you knew what you were looking for.  So, that’s how it became so finely detailed.” All of the walls in the apartment were created as “wild walls,” meaning that they were all on quick releases so that they could be moved at a moment’s notice to accommodate a roving camera.  In addition, the windows each had to be plumbed for the deluge of rain that leads up to the film’s climactic moments.

The most challenging set of all was the modest retro bathroom, which is Elisa’s oasis from the world and becomes the creature’s refuge and the site of their deepening romance. “Our sets are generally made out of wood, Styrofoam and plaster.  But for this one we had to make everything out of aluminum and Bondo, instead of plaster, because it all would ultimately be submerged in a tank.  At one point we actually lowered the sets slowly into the tank so that you can see the water rise.  It was all very, very tricky to pull off, Austerberry describes.

With this kind of attention to detail, does anyone doubt that an Oscar nomination will follow?

THE MUSIC

Oscar-winning composer Alexandre Desplat is noted for his collaborations with some of the world’s best filmmakers, including Wes Anderson, George Clooney (currently on display with his score for “Suburbican”), Stephen Daldry, David Fincher, Stephen Frears, Tom Hooper, Ang Lee, Terrence Malick, Roman Polanski, and Angelina Jolie. He has garnered 8 Academy Award nominations.

Among his film scores are “The Girl with the Pearl Earrings,” “The Queen,” “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” “The King’s Speech,” “Argo,” “Philomena,” “The Imitation Game”  and “The Grand Budapest Hotel” which won the 2015 Oscar for Best Score.

His more recent work includes Angelina Jolie’s “Unbroken” and “Florence Foster Jenkins”, as well as “The Light Between Oceans and “Suburbican,” out now.

COSTUME DESIGN

Luis Sequiera has worked with Guillermo on 3 successful seasons of “The Strain” on television. His feature film work includes “Charlie Bartlett” starring Robert Downey, Jr. and Hope Davis, “Mama,” produced by Guillermo del Toro with Jessica Chastain, “The Thing,” “Breach” with Chris Cooper and Ryan Phillippe, “Carrie” with Julianne Moore and Chloe Grace Moretz and “Thomas & the Magic Railroad.”

With this amount of background on the technical difficulties the cast and crew faced in making “The Shape of Water,” I’ll formulate something resembling more of a review next, but it should be clear that it’s going to be a very positive one for this film that easily could win it all in March.

Closing night of the Chicago Film Festival…26 days of non-stop movie watching, viewing over 40 films and still behind on the reviewing, so stop by as I keep on keeping on. And don’t forget that THE COLOR OF EVIL boxed set series is currently (through November) on sale for half-price as part of the boxed set virtual tour in E-book! Thanks for stopping by; please leave a message about anything you’ve read.

 

 

“Lady Bird” Is The Name That Saiorse Ronan Gives Herself

Reading Time: 4 minutes

“Lady Bird” is the name that Saiorse Ronan gives herself (in the film of the same name), rather than her given name of Christine. The Greta Gerwig-helmed indie film was smartly written and gives Gerwig an impressive directorial debut with an equally impressive cast, including Laurie Metcalf as LadyBird’s mother, Tracy Letts as Lucas Hedges, Beanie Feldstein as Julie, Lady Bird’s best friend, Lois Smith as a nun with a sense of humor,  Lucas Hedges as Christine’s first boyfriend (who turns out to be gay) and Timothy Chalemet as Kyle, the boyfriend who deflowers Lady Bird in what she hoped would be a special experience for both of them.

I first became aware of Greta Gerwig in the Rebecca Miller-directed “Maggie’s Plan,” where she co-starred with Ethan Hawke and Julianne Moore (2015). However, her first “big, breakthrough” role was in “Frances Ha” in 2012, which she co-wrote with Noah Baumbach, with whom she has had a personal relationship since 2011. She showed up again as Abigail “Abbie” Porter in 2016’s “Twentieth Century Women” with Annette Bening. Now she is both acting, directing and writing. She has said, Creating projects is really what’s happening these days. The chance to participate in your own career is a lot more exciting than just hoping that it all works out.”

THE GOOD

Judging from “Lady Bird,” Gerwig has a great sense of humor and a lot of natural wit. The “Lady Bird” script showed that. Set in 2002 Sacramento there are autobiographical touches from Gerwig’s own growing up in Sacramento that ring true.

For example, when Christine (aka, Lady Bird) mentions that Alanis Morrissette wrote the song “One Hand In My Pocket” in 10 minutes, her sarcastic mother (Laurie Metcalf,  RoseAnne’s sister on that TV sit-com) says,  wryly, “I believe it.” There is Lady Bird’s first boyfriend Danny (played by Lucas Hedges, who also turns up playing Frances McDormand’s son in “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”), who is from such a large Irish Catholic family that he says, “It’s hard to find a girl to date who’s not my cousin.”

Sacramento—where Gerwig really grew up—is knocked as “the Midwest of California” but, later in the film, we get the impression that she really enjoyed growing up there.

One scene involving an anti-abortion speech by a well-meaning volunteer has the opinionated Lady Bird unimpressed by the woman’s earnest speech explaining how she was a child whose mother nearly aborted her, but did not. Lady Bird says, “If your mother had had the abortion, we wouldn’t have to sit through this effing assembly.” Of sex, in general, (after her first sexual experience), Christine says, “I found when it happened that I really like dry humping more.” She is also crushed to learn that her partner, with whom she thought she had a “special” relationship, has been with six other girls. He nonchalantly reassures her, “You’re gonna’ have so much unspecial sex in your life.”

Laurie Metcalf and her husband, played by playwright (“August: Osage County”) and Chicago actor Tracy Letts, are always struggling financially, so Lady Bird’s hopes of going to an East coast school are not supported by Mom. However, Dad helps his daughter secretly fill out applications for a variety of schools on the East coast and Christine does, indeed, gain entrance to one.

Laurie Metcalf’s Mrs. Hedges has been so hard on her daughter—and they are both such strong personalities—that Mom cannot even bring herself to walk her daughter to the gate to fly East to college. But Lady Bird/Christine recognizes that her mother does truly love her and, in a touching scene near the end of the film, calls home to tell her mother that she loves her.

THE BAD

There are no IMDB fact sheets or trailers for this film yet. Suffice it to say that all the actors mentioned above do a great job and the script is top notch. It will move on to the Austin Film Festival next, which runs from October 27-November 3rd.

Playwrght/actor (“August: Osage County”) Tracy Letts, at the showing of “Lady Bird” in Chicago.

Tracy Letts, who plays Christine’s father in the film, joined us for a Q&A at the end of the movie and shared that the crew shot “mostly in L.A.” He said, “Sacramento means nothing to me. It had zero meaning for me.” As the rock of the family, Lucas Hedges, Letts said that the cast didn’t meet each other until the film premiered at Sun Dance.  He added, “This is the movie I thought we were making when we read the script and that is not always the case.”

Letts had high praise for Gerwig’s work as writer/director, saying, “She was so sure-handed. She knew exactly what she wanted.” He went on to say that he had known Laurie Metcalf, who plays his wife, for 30years, from the Steppenwolf Theater, but they had never worked together. He said, “Her script was fantastic.”

When asked about rehearsal time, he said, “When making a movie at this budget level, there’s no rehearsal.  You make yourself available to the chemistry,” and, he noted, despite not being a father himself, “We just clicked from day one,” meaning Saiorse Ronan of “The Lovely Bones” and Letts as her father. He repeated, “If there’s a better algorithm than the script, I don’t know it. It was all on the page. The script was great.”

Letts had a bit of criticism for Lucas Hedges (his character), saying, “I didn’t identify with that abdication of the father.  When the trouble starts, he steps out of the room.  The idea that he suffers from depression? Depressed? Who isn’t?” While Letts didn’t identify with the opinionated controlling mother and the father who likes to play the softie and do very little disciplining, I could relate to it on a personal level and I know many other folks who have lived that scenario in their own lives, too. The good news is that the daughter realized her mother’s genuine caring and concern for her welfare and it did not lead to permanent alienation.

VERDICT:

As Letts says, “She’s (Greta Gerwig) really a very attractive person because she’s so smart and magnetic.  She’s gonna’ make many other good films.” I agree and enjoyed this first one.

 

Genre:  comic drama

Cast:  Saiorse Ronan, Laurie Metcalf, Tracy Letts, Beanie Feldstein, Lucas Hedges, Timothy Chalemet

Length:  93 minutes

Writer/Director:  Greta Gerwig

Cinematographer:  Sam Levy

Music:  Jon Brown

 

 

Vanessa Redgrave’s Directorial Debut, “Sea Sorrow,” Documents the Refugee Crisis in Europe

Reading Time: 5 minutes

In her directorial debut after a lengthy career as a much-lauded actress, Academy Award winner Vanessa Redgrave takes on a cause near and dear to her heart in “Sea Sorrow.” That cause is trying to alleviate the refugee crisis affecting Europe right now, with displaced persons—many of them unaccompanied children—streaming in, 70 new people a day at a camp called Jungle Camp in Calais.

Of those numbers, 800 are children with 387 of them eligible to join relatives in the country to which they fled, but bureaucratic indifference or actual opposition dooming progress.
Only Greece seems to be trying to set an example for the rest of the world, although Germany’s Angela Merkle also has done much to help and Canada’s Justin Trudeau was also singled out for praise. Donald J. Trump, of course, has proposed numerous travel bans and seems to have no core moral philosophy guiding his “executive decrees,” [other than to build a wall against Mexico and ban travelers from other lands.] Trump was not mentioned by name in the documentary, which, instead, interviewed the refugees, themselves, and those working hard against overwhelming odds to try to help them. The entire message of the 74-minute documentary could be summed up this way, “There, but for the grace of God, go I.”

Early estimates of the numbers of unaccompanied children entering the country in countries like Greece, Italy, Calais (France), and Dunkirk were 26,000, but more accurate surveying revealed that the number was really closer to 95,000.
Redgrave urges, “Bring back the idea that we’re all humanity.” Jemma Redgrave (actress) is shown saying, “I find it unbearable that there are children living in camps who are denied any assistance. We have to stand up as parents and human beings and not accept the appalling status quo.”

Redgrave hopes the film will educate a generation and a half to the existing mandates, written and adopted after World War II, to stand up for human rights.
There is a film clip of Eleanor Roosevelt addressing the United Nations during the 1945 Declaration of Human Rights, issued after the defeat of Fascism. The film comments on the European Convention on Human Rights (UNHCR, 1951) and the 1989 Rights of the Child legislation, all of which, she said, are being ignored.

It is Redgrave’s feeling that the battle must be won through the courts, using these existing pieces of legislation to force nations that have become insular and unwilling to accept these displaced populations, to do the right thing and help unaccompanied orphans and children streaming into Europe, as well as the entire families who are fleeing for their lives. Precautions against the entry of terrorists are, of course, implicit and already in place in most countries, but the lives of innocent men, women and children are also on the line.

Not only Redgrave, but House of Lords member Lord Dubs, whose own history goes back to World War II when his parents escaped the Nazis, gave the shocked audience actual data on the crisis. It was originally thought there were 26,000 unaccompanied minor children, but the real number turned out to be closer to 96,000 and 10,000 of these poor souls have completely disappeared.

When you hear stories like that of 22-year-old Hamidi, who fled Afghanistan after witnessing the murder of both his mother and his father right in front of him (he was also shot as he fled), who walked 3 months on foot with $8,000 Euros gathered from friends and relatives to finance the trip and then was loaded onto a boat meant for 40 with 80 souls (Twelve fell overboard or died on the boat).

Another young boy spent 11 hours on a boat to Bari; it took him 2 months to flee from Tripoli. These people are desperate and are treated very poorly and inaccurately by mainstream media, according to Carlo Nero. Of the 86% of refugees who entered the UK, the United Kingdom provides support for less than 1%. The words on the base of the Statue of Liberty (“Give me your tired, your poor, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. I lift my lamp beside the Golden Door.”) have gone out the window in the U.S., along with common human decency to our own citizens in many places under the Trump administration. Be careful in screening immigrants, yes, but push for the equality and dignity of defenseless refugees fleeing death and destruction in their native lands.

The opportunities for human trafficking and other such misdeeds at camp’s like Calais, France’s The Jungle are high
. “Bring back the idea that we’re all humanity,” pleads Redgrave, and one short clip gives a little bit of her own childhood remembrance of the burning of the Coventry Cathedral during the blitz. (November 14, 1940, when she was just 3). She still has nightmares about approaching fire.

The biggest injustice, it seemed, was that, of the 378 children in the Calais camp known as “The Jungle” (which was torn down in October of this year), 178 had relatives who would have taken them in, under the terms of the Dublin Treaty. Said Redgrave, “It is simply a matter of political will.”

Rallies were shown with touching scenes of young refugees thanking their rescuers while wearing shirts with the message “Choose Love.” Seventy new people a day join their ranks. Said Redgrave, “They are brave young people with real courage.” No one denies the need for security precautions, but common human decency is also necessary.

We learn some of the history of why Redgrave feels so passionately about this cause and why Lord Dubs has thrown in his efforts to assist her. An old copy of the newspaper the Manchester Guardian dated 1938 is read by film star Emma Thompson, in which average citizens write in saying they are ready, willing and able to help. Why won’t our government let us help? (Most notably E. Sylvia Pankhurst of Essex wrote, who willingly would have taken some of the refugees that were spirited out of Germany during the Holocaust in an operation known as Kindertransport.) Redgrave mused on “The Diary of Anne Frank.” The young Jewish teenaged girl who lived in hiding from the Nazis for two years in Amsterdam, wrote, “In spite of everything, I still believe people are basically good.”

Redgrave’s feeling: “You’ve got to litigate. The courts are ruling every single time that the government is wrong, but the government appeals. And that’s where we are…We people can change things, but we’ve got some very hard work to do. None of us should feel hopeless. You have to get groups of them and say, ‘This is wrong and we’re going to do everything we can to change it.’”
No stranger to controversy following her Oscar acceptance speech in 1978, her attempt(s) to do good here will, no doubt, incite further controversy, but her message, with 10 people dying a day, was, “The Greek people are showing the world how to help fellow human beings. Now, we have to tell our governments they have to step in.” She urged a common European policy be adopted.

There are some sad stories with happy endings, like that of 14-year-old David from Eritrea, whose parents both drowned on their way to Italy. He spent 9 months in Rome until the group Safe Passage found his Aunt in England and he was allowed to go live with her. “These are inspirational people and a lot of them are young people,” said Redgrave, of the volunteers. She, at 80, said she is willing to go with the film to colleges and elsewhere to help spread the word about the refugee crisis and to let a whole generation know about human rights law that is currently being ignored and violated.

The film’s title comes not only from the harrowing scenes of boatloads of refugees (and even the famous photo of a young two-year-old boy, drowned, dead on the beach in Greece that stunned the world) arriving and being helped ashore by the Greek officials, but from Shakespeare’s play “The Tempest.”

At the end of the film, Ralph Fiennes reads the scene from Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” where Prospero is speaking to Miranda about how they were “Hurried them upon a boat—a rotten carcass of a boat.”

“How came we ashore?” asks Miranda.

“By Providence Divine. Sit still and hear the rest of our sea sorrow.”

Vanessa Redgrave Receives Visionary Award at the 53rd Annual Chicago International Film Festival on October 16, 2017

Reading Time: 3 minutes

Vanessa Redgrave and Producer son Carlo Nero arrive for her acceptance of the Visionary Award at the 53rd Annual Chicago International Film Festival.

Vanessa Redgrave is one of the most honored actresses of her generation. Now 80, she has been Oscar-nominated six times (winning for Best Supporting Actress in “Julia” in 1977) and may be the only British actress to have won an Oscar, an Emmy, a Tony, a BAFTA, an Olivier, a Cannes award, a Golden Globe award and an award from the Screen Actors Guild (SAG).

Redgrave and her 48-year-old son, Carlo Nero, who also functioned as producer on “Sea Sorrow,” Redgrave’s first directorial effort, were present in Chicago at the 53rd Annual International Film Festival both to show the audience their heartbreaking film about the refugee crisis in Europe and to receive a special Visionary Award.

Those who have followed Redgrave’s storied career will know that she has always been a passionate and outspoken proponent for many causes (she is currently a UN Goodwill Ambassador). In 1978 there was a lot of controversy after her Oscar acceptance speech, amidst criticism of her involvement in the Arab cause after her work on “The Palestinian.” Wikipedia notes that, “The scandal of her awards speech (at the Oscars) and the negative press it occasioned had a destructive effect on her acting opportunities that would last for years to come.”

Now, Ms. Redgrave, with the help of other right-minded folk, has made a documentary about the plight of those fleeing Syria, Afghanistan and other countries and arriving in Europe. Appearing in the film in addition to the testimony of actual refugees are fellow actors Emma Thompson and Ralph Fiennes.

On the Red Carpet on Monday, October 16th, before her film was shown, I was able to speak with Redgrave about her early career and the topic of the current refugee crisis. The Festival has been showing the 1966 film “Blow-Up,” directed by Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni and starring Redgrave and David Hemmings. The film was an international sensation more than 50 years ago, as it chronicled the story of a high-fashion photographer in sixties Swinging London whose camera might have captured a murder during a photo shoot in a park with an enigmatic beauty (Redgrave).

The film remains an art cinema landmark and a time capsule of the counter-cultural moment. When asked whether she remembered the sensation it created in 1966, she answered, at first, “Not really, no.”
She went on to say this about that classic film in response to questions:

Q1: “Blow-Up” was such a breakthrough in visual filmmaking. (It was said, at the time, that Michelangelo Antonioni, the Italian director, even dyed the grass for the park shoot greener than it would normally have been.) Do you remember the reaction to the film?

A1: I don’t remember. It was a huge excitement as an actress to work for Michelangelo Antonioni, to act for him and to learn what he was seeing. His approach was completely unlike the Anglo-American approach. And he was also very reassuring. He was sitting offscreen during the camerawork. At one point, the cameraman asked something about a scene and Michelangelo. said: “Don’t worry. She’ll either be able to do it or she can’t.” He didn’t know I could speak Italian, so I understood, and I thought, “Well, that’s reassuring.” I relaxed immediately and thought, ‘Well, at least he isn’t going to be mad.’”

Q2: What do you think causes the roots of fear about immigrants amongst other nations?

http://www,youtube.com/watch?v=U-WRhouNVmYA2: “A lot of has to do with media propaganda. Remember the media is owned by certain individuals.” Son Carlo interjected, “A lot of the public has been poisoned by media articles, effectively making refugees out to be rats and it’s a disgrace that this can happen in the 21st century. And this is mainstream, mainstream media.”

Q3: There was a quote in the Palme D’Or winning film “The Square” that said, “How much inhumanity must we experience before we exercise our humanity?” Perhaps you saw it at Cannes. Comments?

A3: We must challenge our governments to act. Right now, these children are here and all alone. I don’t understand how governments can fail to act. Redgrave’s film “Sea Sorrow”, which I will comment on separately, gives the legal grounding for protecting refugees, in general, and refugee children, in particular.)

Q4: So, having been in the film industry for over 50 years, what did you learn about yourself directing this film?

A4: I learned that there was still so much I still had to try and learn. We had to work against the clock. We had to get it ready as soon as we could. It was the kindness of technicians who helped us that allowed that to happen. We had a lot of support making the film. We didn’t have a lot of money and we couldn’t have done it without a lot of generous assistance from others in the film industry who helped us (mentions Ralph Fiennes and Emma Thompson, both of whom appear.)

Both Vanessa (Redgrave) and her 48-year-old son Carlo Nero were gracious in answering questions fully At the end of our brief talk, before the movie began, she mentioned that they “might have an important meeting coming up in Rome soon,” without elaborating on that enigmatic statement.

Palme D’Or Winner “The Square” Lives Up to Its Hype as Funny, Timely Film

Reading Time: 4 minutes


“The Square” won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival this year. Last year, Swedish writer/director Ruben Ostlund’s previous film about an avalanche and family dynamics, “Force Majeure,” was one of the most interesting at the Chicago International Film Festival. Still, a Cannes darling is not always mine.

I am happy to report that “The Square” lived up to the hype and then some. Mind you: I am not always as positive about Cannes’ picks. “Holy Motors” a few years back was not a favorite, so what was “The Square” like?

In a few words, it was funny, thought-provoking, interesting, and timely. It also had the benefit of American actors familiar to U.S. audiences, utilizing Elisabeth Moss (“Mad Men,” Hulu’s “The Handmaiden’s Story”) and Dominic West (television’s “The Affair”).

The plot revolves around a museum director (Claes Bang, who resembles a younger Pierce Brosnan), Christian Juel Nielsen. He manages the X-Royal Museum in Sweden, and the sets and cinematography are superb. The Museum is mounting an exhibition called “The Square” which is supposed to emphasize mankind’s universal need to care for each other. (“How much inhumanity does it take before you exercise your humanity?”)

For example, at one entry point, museum patrons will either push a button that says “I mistrust people” and go left, or will push a button that says “I trust people” and go right for a different museum experience. (The count was 42 for trusting and 3 for not trusting on the screen when this was demonstrated).

The Museum’s mission statement for “The Square” says: “The Square (a 4 x 4 meter space, marked off) is a sanctuary of trust and belonging. Within its boundaries we all share equal rights and equal responsibilities.”

THE GOOD

Again, I found myself laughing out loud at the ridiculous situations that beset the handsome Christian. I did not expect a laugh-out-loud funny movie, but that’s what “The Square” offers viewers. Having said that, it is also extremely thought-provoking and makes wry statements about the pomposity of art in museums, about how we relate in a social context, and about being kind and caring to others. Qualities like trust, caring and moral courage are examined, but the clever way the issues are examined led to laughter, and there are throw-away lines that are hilarious, as well.

Example: a museum employee manning what looked like a street sweeper has accidentally vacuumed up a pile of dirt and rocks that was part of Big Shot Artist Dominic West’s display (roughly 30 piles of dirt and rocks in a room, all the same size/height). When an employee comes to tell Christian of this catastrophe, he immediately makes plans to keep this faux pas hush hush and try to repair the pile of dirt without mentioning it to anyone. The museum employee glances over at Elisabeth Moss, standing off to the side waiting for Christian and seems reluctant to reveal the full extent of the catastrophe with her character (Anne) listening. They’re talking in Swedish. Christian reassures her, “She doesn’t understand a thing. She’s American.” [That can be taken two ways.]

There is also a sub-plot involving Christian’s stolen cell phone, wallet and cuff links. And there is the fancy dinner at the Royal Palace, where an elderly couple is being honored for gifting the museum with 50 million Kroner. The “entertainment” is the entrance of an ape-man, Terry Notary as Oleg Rogojin. The patrons sitting in the fancy ballroom awaiting the entrance are told that some people try to “hide in the herd” and not make eye contact.

The ape man creates havoc, dragging a pretty woman by her hair across the floor, climbing on tables and driving the Alpha Male Dominic West from the room.
After the showing, Terry Notary (the ape man in the trailer), who was present in Chicago shared this with us: “We didn’t really know what we were going to do the day of shooting. We were waiting for an audience reaction. I was told, ‘You need to chase the alpha male out of the room.’ (Dominic West) I decided I was going to start screaming on the way in there. If it had been planned, it would not have felt real. I was told, ‘Go to the one who doesn’t want to be picked.’

Terry went on to say that he has done a lot of motion capture work.
“You go in and play and make all these mistakes and you find the character in the mistakes. It’s hard, because you want to know what you’re going to do, but it’s not about acting. It’s about life. Fear is your best friend or your worst enemy.”

THE BAD

The sub-plot involving Elisabeth Moss, as well as that involving a young boy who is stalking Christian and demanding an apology for having been accused of the theft of Christian’s wallet and phone (his cuff links turned up in Christian’s shirt, after all) seemed unfinished.
Elisabeth’s accusations that Christian used the prestige of his position to bed women, while perhaps true, didn’t seem that related to the main idea of “The Square.”

Not knowing what happened to the young boy who stalks Christian made the film feel unfinished, to me, and Elisabeth’s sexual encounter with Christian was strange, to say the least. (But funny)

I also would have liked a better explanation of the REAL ape that appears in a few short scenes in Elisabeth Moss’s house or hotel room.

VERDICT:

While I have seen Cannes’ favorites that I did not like at all (“Holy Rollers” comes to mind), this one I liked very much
. Lines like “Consider the social consequences of your actions” and “So, suddenly, it comes down to politics and the distribution of assets” were very timely in today’s world. The film is ambitious and brilliant, with beautiful sets, good acting, and a message delivered with wry humor in both Swedish and English.

I won’t reveal the Marketing Faux Pas that a young P.R. team unleashes upon the populace, for fear of ruining its effect on the film for you, but let’s just say that making a video that “goes viral” is not always a desirable thing, and it certainly isn’t in this case. But it’s pretty funny in a macabre way.

“Marshall” Opens the 53rd Annual Chicago International Film Festival on October 12th

Reading Time: 4 minutes


The opening film of the 53rd Chicago International Film Festival was “Marshall,” directed by Reginald Hutton. The film is a depiction of a case that NAACP lawyer and first black Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall took in Bridgeport, Connecticut. The 1941 case involved a charge of rape made by a prominent white socialite Eleanor Strubing (Kate Hudson). Mrs. Strubing accused a black chauffeur, Joseph Spell (Sterling K. Brown, “This Is Us”), of raping her and throwing her in a nearby river while she was bound and gagged.

THE GOOD

Learning more about the background of famed attorney Thurgood Marshall in a fictional format was informative and entertaining. For instance, the supremely confident Marshall, when he arrives in Connecticut, tells the local attorney with whom he will have to work (Josh Gad of “The Book of Mormon” as Jewish attorney Sam Friedman) that he wanted to attend law school at the University of Maryland, which was very close to his home, but he was forced, instead, to attend the predominantly black Howard University, which was not close by at all. Marshall adds that he learned law well enough to later sue the University of Maryland. We also learn that Marshall argued cases before the Supreme Court 32 times and only lost 3. He won the Brown versus the Board of Education bill that opened schools to all races in 1954 and became the first black Supreme Court Justice in 1967.

The cast includes Chadwick Boseman as Marshall, Sterling K. Brown as the accused chauffeur, Josh Gad as co-counsel, Kate Hudson as the rape victim, Dan Stevens of “Downton Abbey” as prosecuting attorney Loren Willis and Academy Award nominee James Cromwell (“Babe”) as Judge Foster. Keesha Sharp has a small role as Thurgood Marshall’s wife, Buster. Jussie Smollett of “Empire” is also cast in a small role as poet Langston Hughes, a classmate of Thurgood Marshall’s. His role seemed unnecessary and superfluous, to me, and made Marshall seem as though he were so single-mindedly fixed on civil rights that he makes a disparaging remark about Hughes not doing anything noteworthy with his life.

The cinematography by Newton Thomas Sigel was good, complete with vintage cars and clothing, and the music (Marcus Miller) added much to the production with a stirring song by Dianne Warren (“Up Where We Belong”) at the end, called “You Can’t Be Nothin’ if You Don’t Stand Up for Something.”

THE BAD

The script, written by Jacob and Michael Koskoff, had its moments, with lines like “Here in America our differences are not supposed to matter,” and (said to Marshall upon his arrival in Connecticut), “You have enough confidence for us all, misplaced as it may be.” Another good line was, “The only way to get through a bigot’s door is to break it down.” There is also the counseling of the accused by Marshall that Joseph Spell not take a plea deal, with the future Chief Justice of the Supreme Court saying, “We aren’t slaves, ‘cause we rose up and fought and fought and fought.”

The woman sitting next to me brought up an interesting point when she repeated a line from the film (one that breaks the case wide open): “Men are men and women are women.”

As we discussed the film that had just ended, she said, “Does that mean that Harvey Weinstein’s actions are okay, because he was just being a man?”

I responded, “Yes, and does the line about bigotry mean that someone should be breaking down the door of the Oval Office right about now?”

We both wondered how accurate the portrayal of this early case was, and, just as we were discussing that, a disclaimer came onscreen mentioning that certain characters were composites, etc., etc., etc.

The Judge, played by James Cromwell, seemed too evil and prejudiced to be true to life. He basically hamstrings the defense at every opportunity and is blatantly unfair. His role was over the top.

VERDICT

I’ve been a big fan of Chadwick Boseman ever since he appeared as James Brown in the 2014 bio-pic “Get On Up.” I thought he should have received an Academy Award nomination for his work in that movie, but the release date was too early in the year and hurt his chances. (“Marshall” opens on Friday, October 13th.)
The co-stars all do adequate jobs, although Kate Hudson was underwhelming in her role.

The entire film made me think of the Oprah Winfrey 2013 film “The Butler” (billed as “Lee Daniel’s The Butler”) that starred Forest Whitaker as the long-serving black butler at the White House. There was an outcry that year about the lack of African American nominees amongst the Oscar nominees. Some actors were even boycotting the event. Since then, changes have occurred to make the Academy Awards more diverse (and less old and white).

When the outcry over “The Butler” arose, while recognizing that Forest Whitaker always does a credible job, I was not among those who felt he had been sadly overlooked by not being recognized with a nomination.
In this film, aside from Chadwick Boseman’s role, I didn’t see any Academy Award-worthy work here, either. The film seemed very old-fashioned. I had the feeling I’d seen many just like it previously. It was not that fresh, original, or unique.

Marina plays Josh Gad’s wife, Stella Friedman.

Josh Gad is good as co-counsel and Boseman continues the excellent work he displayed in “Get On Up” but, for me, this was a slightly above-average film, with a lot of semi-boring courtroom scenes that almost took you back to the days of “Perry Mason” on television. (Extensive courtroom scenes tend to be difficult to bring to vivid life in today’s Cineplex, but this film certainly tries.)

Overall, my reaction to the entire film, while positive, was “been there/seen that.”

Still, the issues raised are timely, especially now, and for that reason “Marshall” is worth seeing.

True Tale of Saving the Elephant at the Belfast Zoo in WWII

Reading Time: 3 minutes

“Zoo,” written and directed by Colin McIvor, is the true story of how a lonely widow and three schoolchildren banded together to save an elephant in the Belfast, Northern Ireland zoo (the Bellevue Zoological Zoo) to prevent the pachyderm from being slaughtered during World War II.

Belfast had two major bombing raids on its populace during World War II, killing over 1,000 people. In light of the blitzkrieg by the Luftwaffe, in April of1941, orders went out to slaughter 33 of the animals in the zoo, to prevent them from running amok amongst the populace should the zoo be hit. Even Hugo, the giant rat, and Gilbert, the Barbary lion, were killed.

The zoo veterinarian’s son, Tom Hall (Art Parkinson)—an animal lover of the first magnitude (“I would never harm an animal”)—takes it upon himself to rescue an elephant named Buster. The name Buster seems to be an homage to comedic actor Buster Keaton.

Tom’s father, Dr. Hall, has gone off to war and Tom’s mother, Emily (Amy Huberman), is a nurse ministering to the sick and injured. Once the directive saying, “All potentially dangerous animals must be destroyed” goes out, it becomes Tom’s mission to organize 2 good friends and classmates, Jane Berry (Emily Flain, age 11) and Peter (Ian O’Reilly), to assist him in breaking the elephant out of the zoo and hiding it somewhere to keep it from being euthanized.

THE GOOD

A lonely widow (known later as “the elephant angel”), Mrs. Denise Austin, also enters the plot, agreeing to let the young people hide the beast in her brick-enclosed back yard. Her son was killed in Belgium in World War I and she is portrayed as friendless prior to throwing in with the youngsters to save the elephant. Denise Austin is played by Penelope Walton, known to viewers as Isobel Crowly on “Downton Abbey” from 2000-2015 and a much-decorated British actress. Mark Thomas’ music is well-suited to the material and the costuming by Claire Ramsey is very authentic to the period. Director of Photography on the film was Damien Elliott. He makes Northern Ireland (where it really was filmed) look gorgeous.

Art Parkinson, who plays Tom, plays Rickon Stark in “Game of Thrones” and also played Kubo in “Kubo and the Two Strings.” Ian McEhinney, who plays Mr. Shawcross here, is also a “Game of Thrones” regular as Barristan Selmy. The cast does a nice job with the material. One of the most amusing parts was watching the drills where students were put in a truck and gassed, to see if their gas masks were working properly. The character who plays Peter (Ian O’Reilly) says, “Surely this is not on the curriculum: gassing the pupils.”
THE BAD

The “name” actor that audiences may recognize is Toby Jones, who plays the Security Guard and ticket seller/ticket taker at the zoo. Toby plays Charlie and doesn’t even get a last name for his character. Toby Jones is most recognizable for once playing Truman Capote in a bio flick (“Infamous,” 2006) and for playing the mad scientist on the television series “Wayward Pines” (2015-2016). Jones will also be appearing in “The Snowman” later this year and appeared in “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows,” “Atomic Blonde,” “The Hunger Games” and “My Week with Marilyn.” Jones is widely regarded as one of Britain’s premier actors. It was a shame that he was given such a small part with so little to do.

The elephant portraying Buster was actually Nellie the elephant. This made me wonder about the elephant casting. Surely a male bull elephant looks different than a female? It is true that we mainly see the trio scrubbing Buster’s hairy back in lighthearted moments or leading the beast through the woods at night by means of a rope, but Nellie does not sound like it would be of the same gender as an elephant named Buster.

Colin McIvor’s feel-good true story of saving the elephant in the Belfast (Northern Ireland) zoo during WWII.


The film is premiering in Chicago on October 14th and will open in the United Kingdom in 2018.

“Ali’s Wedding” & “Maktub”: Comedies Screened Prior to the 53rd Chicago International Film Festival

Reading Time: 3 minutes

Two comedies have been screened for critics at the 53rd Annual Chicago International Film Festival during this lead-up week. ”Ali’s Wedding” from Australian director Jeffrey Walker, reminds most of the recent hit “The Big Sick.” “Maktub” (“Fate”) from Israel director Oded Raz featured Guy Hamir and Hanon Savyon, both Israeli television stars in such TV series as “Scarred,” “Asfur” and “Ma Bakarish.”

The Australian film “Ali’s Wedding” starred the real Ali (Ali Basahri) just as “The Big Sick” was written and performed by the real person who lived that story, Kumail Nanjiani. In this lighthearted film, Ali, the son of a popular Muslim cleric, is expected to do well on the examinations to become a physician.

When Ali does not score high enough for entrance to the University Medical School, he conceals that fact and lets the congregation think he has scored the second-highest score on the exams—in the 90s when he was only in the 60s. Ali even attends classes, although not technically admitted.
Ali also is hiding his love for Dianne Mosen, the daughter of the Lebanese fish and chips merchant, who has a very over-protective single father.

It is only a matter of time before the house of cards (lies) that Ali has begun to tell will collapse and trap him, causing anguish for him, his family, and his friends. There is even an “arranged” marriage with another girl that Ali somehow becomes entrapped in, when all he wants is to be with Dianne. Dianne did score high enough to enter the University of Melbourne, but her father has grave misgivings about a girl going off to the University of Melbourne to become a doctor.

Don McAlpine was the Director of Photography and the 3 brothers in Ali’s family represent modern-day influences on Muslim youth, while the old traditions attempt to be enforced by the Muslim elders.
In that respect, there was another similarity to “The Big Sick,” with its tale of the many eligible girls who would be suitable mates for Kumail in an arranged Indian marriage, as they are invited to “drop by” for dinner by his meddling parents.

The Sydney Symphony Orchestra provided the score and the film opens with Ali (Ali Basahri) driving an out-of-control tractor through an Australian field. The many situations that Ali gets himself into are both amusing and also telling of the ongoing cultural battle between the old and new order in a modern country like Australia.
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“Maktub”, by contrast, has two fast friends (Guy Amir and Hanan Savyon as Stephen and Chuma), who are mob enforcers for a small-time gangster named Kaslassy. The destiny of these two small-time enforcers for a Jerusalem mob protection racket irrevocably changes when they survive a suicide bombing in a restaurant. The $400,000 in a suitcase carried by another member of the gang remains intact, but the large criminal with the glass eye that the briefcase was attached to is toast. Recognizing their great good fortune in surviving, Steven and Chuma wind up fulfilling the wishes of those who leave notes at the Wailing Wall.
Some of the humor comes from the fact that women are only allowed to approach certain parts of the Wailing Wall and men go to a different area. Therefore, in order to access the women’s side, each man is seen in drag at various points and the assumption, for humorous purposes, is that one or both men have become “trannies”.
There is a backstory involving Steve’s small son by his ex-girlfriend Doniasha. The boy may or may not be Steve’s biological offspring. Steve is loathe to parent the winsome child. Since Steve was once told he was infertile by a fertility clinic, he refuses to believe that the cute little boy who only wants his father to attend his soccer game is really his son and does not do the right thing in parenting him. Chuma tries to cover up the fact that Steven does not believe the child is his and, while paying frequent visits to Doniasha, finds himself attracted to her.
Zaful, the large Telly Savalas look-alike who provides muscle for Boss Kaslassy, has a wife who longs to have a child, but is 40 and fears it will never happen. All these random components come together at the climax of the film, to prove that “Maktub” (“Fate”) really can step in and change one’s life. Apparently “mitzvahs” (good deeds) can (sometimes) change one’s life.

“Sicilian Ghost Story:” A True Story of Crime & Consequences

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Classmate Luna will not stop searching for her 13-year-old kidnapped classmate Guiseppi.

The Italian film “Sicilian Ghost Story,” directed by Fabio Grassadonia/Antonio Piazza is based on a real-life Mafia kidnapping of a 13-year-old son of a Mafia don who was kidnapped and held hostage to be used as leverage to make his criminal father stop cooperating with the police. The term, in Italian, seems to be “supergrass,” although, since I don’t speak Italian, I am merely relying on the subtitle term, [which was foreign to me in English.]

The young boy (Guiseppi) was held for 776 days in an attempt to get his father (whom we never see) to stop giving the police information.
The only person who still seems to be looking for the young victim is a teenaged girl Luna, his classmate. She will not give up in looking for the boy with whom she has become infatuated.

Just before Guiseppi disappeared, Luna wrote: “I lock myself in my room and dream. When I’m sad, I dream, and when I’m happy I dream. Only you can help me because it is of you I dream. If you say no, I’ll stop dreaming. If you say yes, I’ll stop dreaming, because it will be of us together.”

The forest and lake scenes are beautifully photographed, usually with the camera looking up at the trees. The underwater sequences are equally haunting.
One saying, repeated by Luna’s best friend is a bastardization of a Russian idiom that says every time there is a moment of silence in Russia, a cop is born. The friend notes that “Here, every time there is a moment of silence, a Mafiosa is born.”

Amidst the forest scenes and the gnarled roots of trees there is a drama playing out between Luna and her loving father and her cold Swiss stepmother and the authorities, who are less-than-intent on finding the young victim.

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