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 55

Ridley Scott’s “Napoleon:” Go for the Battle Scenes; Skip the Scripted Humor

Ridley Scott’s 238 minute opus, “Napoleon,” is  a crash course in French history. But how accurate is it?

I always appreciate directors who try to “get it right.” I kept wondering, throughout the lengthy film, whether this or that really happened. Let me be clear right now that I have investigated  with the goal of finding out whether the film is substantially true or false. Read no further if you are saving the viewing of the film to learn the specifics of the plot.


The costumes are wonderful—even the tri-cornered hat that Napoleon wears. By the way, the actual height of Napoleon was  five feet seven inches, which was not that short for the time.

The staging of the battles is amazing. There are many battles and they are all extremely well-done and riveting.

Most of the acting is fine, although the dialogue is often jejeune (to steal a French phrase, which seems appropriate).


The things I know to be false:

  • Napoleon was not present in the crowd that witnessed the beheading of Marie Antoinette.
  • Napoleon never met with the Duke of Wellington on a boat (the Bellerephon)
  • The time-line for Napoleon’s marriage to Josephine is not exactly right
  • Napoleon may well have been completely besotted with Josephine, but each of them had other affairs and Napoleon had several illegitimate children. Did newspaper headlines of the day say things like, “Napoleon’s Bony Old Bird Caught Out of the Nest Again”? Don’t know; can’t tell you.
  • One child that the movie dwells on is the heir apparent that Napoleon divorces Josephine to have with his wife, Mary Louise, the Arch Duchess of Austria, and great-niece of Marie Antoinette. We never see the child after Napoleon shows the newborn to Josephine in one scene, but the answer to “Whatever happened to Napoleon’s son?” Wikipedia tells us this:

“Napoleon and Marie Louise remained married until his death, though she did not join him in exile on Elba and thereafter never saw her husband again. The couple had one child, Napoleon Francis Joseph Charles (1811–1832), known from birth as the King of Rome. He became Napoleon II in 1814 and reigned for only a fortnight. He was awarded the title the Duke of Reichstadt in 1818. He died of tuberculosis at the age of 21, with no heirs.”

You might wonder, as I did, whether the highly cinematic battle of Austerlitz (Aug. 2, 1805) involving cannons breaking the ice on which the advancing army is approaching, killing them in  vivid visual style, really happened that way. The answer is yes, there was a battle where the approaching army approached on ice; however,  the ice was evident to both sides. When an investigation of the body of water took place years later, there were only roughly 12 bodies buried beneath the surface.

Napoleon did not fire a cannon into a pyramid while in Egypt.


To me, the worst thing about the film was the script, written by David Scarpa. The laughter of the audience, hearing some of the pot-boiler lines in this film, may be intentional. I found it jarring in the context of this epic.

Here are a few of those lines:

Napoleon:  (about the British, spoken very petulantly):  “You think you’re so great because you have boats!”

This was shouted with a childish tone, indicating that Napoleon was very annoyed by the British Navy. It may not be totally fair to blame the screenwriter, as one of the reasons it came off as humorous was the manner in which it was delivered. For that matter, the scene where Napoleon is shown stomping his foot like a horse in anticipation of sex with Josephine (who is reluctant because she has just had her hair done).  I’m being generous in calling it mediocre; it’s pretty bad.

Another such line, spoken by Rupert Everett as the Duke of Wellington, before he rides off to battle in the rain:  “I never get wet if I can help it.”  O……K…..

Just prior to uttering that line, we see Napoleon getting ready to lead his troops into battle. When he is asked, “What shall I tell the men? He responds, “Tell them to make the rain stop.”

During one state dinner, Napoleon shouts, “Destiny has brought me this lambchop.”


Again, the delivery of these bon mots is also part of the problem. While there were some lines that sounded as though they might have been spoken by Napoleon or taken from his letters and writing), there were way too many that were laughably bad.

The acting by Joaquin Phoenix and Vanessa Kirby was adequate, but they were given lines like the above examples. I don’t see any acting nominations coming out of this one, but she (Vanessa Kirby) was better than he was.

The music also  good at times and mediocre at times. When Napoleon mounts up and rides forth as the Prussians have arrived, the music was weird. It was inconsistent throughout, just as Joaquin’s acting is only as good as the lines he is given to say.

Here’s a line that does try to give us insight into the character of the one-time Emperor of France: ”The most difficult thing in life is accepting the failures of others.”


I enjoyed the film from 85-year-old Ridley Scott and was amazed at his staging of the battles. What an accomplishment! May he stage many more!

[I also noticed that the Stunt Department Coordinator was Natalie Wood. No. Not THAT Natalie Wood, but if only she were still alive and still with us.]






Thoughts On “Killers of the Flower Moon,” Martin Scorsese’s Newest Epic

Martin Scorsese is the winner of multiple awards over the course of his prolific career. With nine nominations for the Academy Award for Best Director, he is tied with Steven Spielberg as the most-nominated living director of all time, second only to William Wyler‘s 12 nominations overall.

Scorsese has won only once, in 2007, for “The Departed.” Spielberg, by contrast, won for “Schindler’s List” (1993) and “Saving Private Ryan” (1998).

Scorsese won the Best Directing Oscar award for his film The Departed in 2007.  That doesn’t seem like enough, when you consider that Scorsese directed nine films that went on to be nominated for the Academy Award for Best PictureTaxi Driver (1976), Raging Bull (1980), Goodfellas (1990), Gangs of New York (2002), The Aviator (2004), The Departed (2006), Hugo (2011), The Wolf of Wall Street (2013), and The Irishman (2019). Of the directors still working, even Spielberg tips his hat to Scorsese. (Scorsese actually taught directors Spike Lee and Oliver Stone in film school in New York City.)


Lily Gladstone & Leonardo DiCaprio

“Killers of the Flower Moon:” Lily Gladstone and Leonardo DiCaprio.

Given the fact that, despite 9 nominations, Martin Scorsese has only won once, we can assume that “Killers of the Flower Moon” will be Scorsese’s tenth nomination. Given his prominence and how often he has been an “also ran” in the Best Director category, this could well be Lucky Number Ten for Best Director.

The many times that Scorsese was nominated but did not win should weigh heavily when the Academy gets ready to vote this year. Scorsese, born in 1942, is now 81 years old . He is acknowledged as one of the seminal figures in American cinema. Some (most notably the “Wall Street Journal,” which savaged “Killers of the Flower Moon”) may not be as inclined to give the man his due, but I think the picture has a good shot at Best Actress, Best Actor, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, Costuming, Music and possibly Best Supporting Actor. If it snags all of those (and it could lose some acting awards to other contenders like “Oppenheimer”), can Best Picture be far behind ?

Will the Academy reward the legendary Scorsese for his directing of the sprawling tale “Killers of the Flower Moon?” I suspect they will, although there are nay-sayers who have dissed the Master and suggested he is out of touch. (This doesn’t surprise me, given what happened to me this year, my 20th year reviewing at CIFF, but that’s a story for another day.)


Robert DeNiro and Jesse Plemons in “Killers of the Flower Moon.”

“Killers of the Flower Moon” is  a $200,000,000 undertaking that showcases Robert DeNiro, Leonardo DiCaprio and Lily Gladstone. There are many other notable cast members, including John Lithgow, Brendan Fraser and Jesse Plemmons, plus quite a few names in music, who have small roles. Fraser does a not-that-great job, shouting his dialogue unnecessarily, and Lithgow’s part is very small, but the contributions of the actresses who portray Mollie’s sisters and mother more than make up for the underwhelming nature of the Fraser/Lithgow turns. Cara Jade Myers, who plays Mollie’s wild sister Anna Kyle Brown is particularly good (Best Supporting Actress?) and the actress playing Mollie’s mother Lizzie Q (Tantoo Cardinal) and JaNae Collins, who played Rita, are uniformly excellent.

Among the musicians in the film were Pete Yorn, who plays Acie Kirby, the munitions expert. Yorn wrote the score for the 2000 film “Me, Myself & Irene” but had never acted previously. Country singer Sturgill Simpson makes an appearance as Henry Grammer. Jason Isbell, four-time Grammy award winner and former member of the Drive-by Truckers and the 400 Unit plays Bill Smith, the snake-like husband of two of the murdered Osage women. Jack White, winner of 12 Grammies, has appeared in several other films. Charlie Musselwhite portrays Alvin Reynolds, one of the key informants who spills the beans on the conspiracy that DeNiro’s character William King Hale has set in motion.

Critics have lauded Lily Gladstone, but Robert DeNiro is great as the uber-snake William King Hale. I admired DeNiro’s performance more than that of DiCaprio, but it was great fun seeing these two onscreen in a father/son fashion, which hadn’t occurred since 1993’s “This Boy’s Life,” when DiCaprio was only 18 years old. (Released when DiCaprio was 19.)


Killers of the Flower Moon

Lily Gladstone and her sisters in “Killers of the Flower Moon.”

“Killers of the Flower Moon” is based on the book of the same name by David Grann.  An impressive amount of research has gone into this labor of love. You can’t help but feel that, like Marlon Brando before him, this is Scorsese’s personal protest against the historic mistreatment of Native Americans. One character with a substantial speaking part, Paul Red Eagle, is played by the current Osage National Minerals Council Chairman, Everett Waller.

Set in 1920s Oklahoma, “Killers of the Flower Moon” focuses on a series of murders of Osage members and relations in the Osage Nation after oil was found on tribal land. Tribal members had retained mineral rights on their reservation. Whites sought to steal the Osage wealth by systematically murdering them.

In “Killers of the Flower Moon,” writer and journalist David Grann offered an intimately detailed account of a little-known but devastating chapter in American history: the Osage Reign of Terror. This period lasted five years from 1921 to 1926 during which upwards of twenty Osage Indians were murdered in cold blood for access to their valuable shares of oil money. There are also references to the Tulsa, Oklahoma murders on Black Wall Street (Juneteenth) and the KKK is depicted onscreen in  fleeting parade scenes.  Principal photography  took place in Osage and Washington counties, Oklahoma, between April and October 2021. Pawhuska, Oklahoma, stood in for  Fairfax in the film.

Leonardo DiCaprio & Lily Gladstone

Leonardo DiCaprio and Lily Gladstone in “Killers of the Flower Moon.”

The scope of “Killers of the Flower Moon” is epic. It covers a lot of history and does so with admirable pacing despite the film’s length. Although it is 206 minutes long, eclipsing even “Oppenheimer,” it did not drag (which “Oppenheimer” sometimes did). The entire project began in 2016, so it was 7 years in the making.

The acting by the three leads (DeNiro, DiCaprio and Lily Gladstone) is outstanding, although there were times when looking at the expression that DiCaprio sports throughout the film reminds the onlooker of looking at a pug bulldog. It’s not a good look. It is meant to show Ernest Burkhart’s venality, weakness and stupidity. Mission accomplished, but leading man reputation as good-looking for Leonardo destroyed. One wonders why Mollie would find him attractive.

It is casting against type for Leonardo DiCaprio, who has usually been quick-witted and attractive in his leading man roles. In this one he is spineless, thick, obsessed with gaining wealth without hard work, and conflicted by his genuine affection for his Osage bride. His wife-to-be refers to him as a coyote. But the very real fact that—doing his evil Uncle’s bidding—he is going to be responsible for the of murder most of Mollie’s family members and even bring Lily, herself, to the brink of death is certainly a good reason to be conflicted. There is ample evidence that Ernest will go whatever way the power wants, including his on-again/off-again decision about whether or not to testify against his powerful uncle.


In addition to the scenes of tribal rituals, whether weddings or pow wows, I was struck by Rodrigo Prieto’s visual imagery in depicting the figures burning down a neighboring farm as almost Dante-esque. They are shown in the distance, fanning the flames of the farm that Bill Hill  had engineered a $30,000 fire insurance policy on just a month prior. The shot looks like figures dancing in Hell. Since Mollie (Lily Gladstone) is confined to her bed by that point in the film, seriously ill from her husband’s poisoning her insulin shots, we see the pulled window shades glowing red inside from the fire outside.  There are many such impressive visual images. The Osage braves frolicking in the crude oil gushing forth, geyser-like, from the earth. The field of flowers. An explosion is also impressively rendered.

The costuming is also noteworthy and authentic.


Robbie Robertson did eleven films with Scorsese. He was also a close personal friend of the director. Robertson died of prostate cancer at age 80 on August 9, 2023. He married his second wife,  Top Chef Canada judge Janet Zuccarini five months before his death. Robertson’s scores for Scorsese films include “Raging Bull” (1980), “The King of Comedy” (1982), “The Color of Money” (1986), “Casino” (1985), “Gangs of New York” (2002), “Shutter Island” (2010), “The Wolf of Wall Street” (2013), “Silence” (2016), “The Irishman” (2019) and “Killers of the Flower Moon” (2023), as well as being a performer and producer on 1978’s “Last Waltz,” the documentary about The Band.

The movie is dedicated to Robertson, who died just months before its release.


Robert DeNiro and Leonardo DiCaprio in “Killers of the Flower Moon.”


In researching the genesis of the movie, I found it interesting that, originally, Leonardo DiCaprio was supposed to play the role of FBI agent Tom White that Jesse Plemmons portrayed. Scorsese and co-writer Eric Roth reworked the story because of the interesting conflict that emerged when Leonardo’s character, who loves his wife, is still complicit in murdering almost all of her family and nearly killing her, something she didn’t truly accept until the scene near the end, when she directly asks him what he put in her insulin and he does not answer truthfully (despite just having said that he has confessed all and that it has been a weight off his shoulders). Lily goes forward, then, and, in fact, marries another, dying at age 50, but she is done with Ernest, who is pardoned late in life. Ernest and Byron (his brother, who was complicit in the murder of his wife, Mollie’s sister Anna) lived together in a trailer park at the ends of their lives. Byron was never convicted of anything, which seems unlikely and unfair.

Mollie divorced Ernest after she realized (or finally accepted) the depth of his betrayals. She did not seem to have done so early in his trial, but in the climactic scene between Ernest and Mollie, we see that she is now ready to accept the horrible truth.

At the unusual creative end, when Scorsese uses the old-style radio show based on the FBI to give us the information on what has happened to the principal characters, Scorsese himself reads us Mollie’s obituary, which another writer described as having really impacted Scorsese in a major way. He couldn’t believe that, after everything Mollie had suffered,  her obituary from June 16, 1937, at the age of 50, mentioned nothing of these tumultuous life events.

Killers of the Flower Moon (2023)

Rated R for violence, some grisly images, and language.

206 minutes


Leonardo DiCaprio as Ernest Burkhart

Robert De Niro as William King Hale

Lily Gladstone as Mollie Burkhart

Jesse Plemons as Tom White

Tantoo Cardinal as Lizzie Q

Cara Jade Myers as Anna Kyle Brown

JaNae Collins as Rita

Jillian Dion as Minnie

William Belleau as Henry Roan

Louis Cancelmi as Kelsie Morrison

Tatanka Means as John Wren

Michael Abbott Jr. as Agent Frank Smith

Pat Healy as Agent John Burger

Scott Shepherd as Bryan Burkhart

Jason Isbell as Bill Smith

Sturgill Simpson as Henry Grammer

John Lithgow as Prosecutor Peter Leaward

Brendan Fraser as W.S. Hamilton


Writer (book)






“The After” Is Netflix 18-Minute Short Featuring David Oyelowo

David Oyelowo is best-known for his role as Dr. Martin Luther King in the 2014 film “Selma.” A multiple Golden Globe, BAFTA, and Emmy-nominated actor and producer, Oyelowo has also directed his own film (“The Water Man”). He stars in the 18-minute short “The After,” directed by  photographer, social activist and cultural commentator Misan Harriman. It is Harriman’s short film directorial debut and premiered globally October 25, 2023, on Netflix after first showing at the Holly Shorts Film Festival, where it won Best Live Action Short.

The snynopsis for the film says a grieving rideshare driver picks up a passenger who helps him confront the past.” It is intentionally enigmatic. If you’re interested in seeing a world class actor make a short film “work, “devote 18 minutes to this one.


Oyelowo carries the 18-minute short film with impressive elan, especially the latter part of the short, scenes empathizing with a child who is a passenger in his cab. When Oyelowo is overcome with grief and writhing on a sidewalk in emotional pain, anyone with feelings will be able to relate. It is a top-notch performance.

The few co-stars in the short piece also fulfill their roles well, but their roles are extremely short. In the case of the character Amanda (Jessica Plummer), viewers may find themselves questioning her response to a violent encounter early on. This encounter is the cornerstone of the film and the impetus for everything that comes after.


“The After”  is based on a story by Harriman, with a screenplay by new writer John Julius Schwabach. The cinematography is by Si Bell BSC (“A Very British Scandal,” “Peaky Blinders”).


I’ve been a fan of shorts ever since seeing Clare Cooney’s “The Runner’ in 2018 at the Windy City Film Festival. A short is a wonderful opportunity for aspiring filmmakers to learn the directing ropes. The expense is much less and a short is a great way to move into lengthier films as a director.

Indeed. Writer/Director Cooney, (who recently released her own first full-length film “Departing Seniors” at CIFF), described moving up to directing  a full length feature film  as being “like shooting 5 shorts back-to-back.”

So, the problem with a short is that—yes, it’s short. A good one leaves you wanting more, and this is a good one.The strength of a short is that it is a condensed and intense mini-film. If it is written, photographed and acted well, as this one is, it can be very powerful. “The After” is worth the 18-minute commitment. It examines grief , potential suicide, and the after-effects of violence.


Jeff Nichols Receives Artistic Achievement Award at Closing Night of CIFF in Chicago

“The Bikeriders” screened as the closing film of the 59th Chicago International Film Festival on October 22 at the Music Box Theater with a presentation of the Artistic Career Achievement Award to Writer/Director Jeff Nichols. The film was inspired by the 1967 iconic photographs and tape recordings of photographer Danny Lyon. Writer/Director Nichols gave great praise and credit to Lyon, saying, “He really was supportive, but without being prescriptive.”

“The Bikeriders” recounts the evolution of a Midwestern motorcycle club, called the Vandals in the film. (The Outlaws, originally). The photos drove the film. The interior of one bar was actually reconstructed from Danny Lyon’s photo.

The cast is top-notch, featuring Austin Butler, Oscar-nominated for “Elvis” as Benny and Jodie Comer (“Killing Eve,” “The Last Duel”) as Kathy. Tom Hardy (“Mad Max: Fury Road,” “The Revenant”) is Johnny, the leader of the motorcycle club, which originally existed for the members to race their choppers.

Jeff Nichols

Jeff Nichols at the screening of “The Bikeriders” on October 22, 2023 in Chicago. (Photo by Connie Wilson).

As Nichols (“Take Shelter,” 2011; “Mud,” 2012; “Loving,” 2016) told Jack Giroux 5 years ago, “And what I’m talking about making a movie about is its transition from this golden age of where it was less criminal and it was more just a place for outsiders to gather, but then how that kind of morphed and turned into somewhat more of a criminal organization.” He described the film as “A complete portrait of a subculture; maybe none of these guys needed to feel like outsiders, but they did.”

The cast is stellar, also featuring Michael Shannon—a close friend of Director Nichols who has made five films  with him—as Zipco. The breakout star of the “West Side Story” remake Mike Faist appeared as the photographer Danny Lyon.  Of Faist, Nichols said, “We were lucky to have him. I think he’s gonna’ have a great career.” Norman Reedus, from “The Walking Dead,” portrays Funny Sonny, and Boyd Holbrook (“Logan”) is Cal.

Nichols shared that the projectionist at the Music Box Theater in Chicago where the film screened was Danny Lyon’s daughter Rebecca. He also told the audience that he had only  learned last week that the characters Benny and Kathy, in real life, had a son who was present for this screening.

Jodie Comer’s character of Kathy is the central character telling the story of the rise and fall of the motorcycle group from 1965 to 1973. Saying “I used to be respectable” she details how the club went from a place where motorcycle enthusiasts could get together and talk about their choppers to something more sinister.

Comer has been mentioned for a potential Oscar nod; the struggle between Kathy and Johnny for Benny’s allegiance is a central conflict in the film. Describing some of the crazy things that Austin Butler’s character of Benny does, she says, “It can’t be love. It must just be stupidity.” Describing her time riding with Benny, she says of the Vandals, “The whole point of these guys is they can’t follow the rules, but as soon as they formed, they started making up rules.”

Jeff Nichols

Jeff Nichols in Chicago at the closing night of the 59th Chicago International Film Festival on October 22, 2023. (Photo by Connie Wilson).

Jeff Nichols has a way of exploring the inner rage of a character, as with Michael Shannon’s star turn in “Take Shelter.”  (Shannon told me in 2017, when I asked him on the Red Carpet for “The Shape of Water,” that “Take Shelter” was his favorite role.) In the case of Austin Butler’s character, Benny, we are told “That kid’s f**ing crazy.”

He is also extremely handsome (Nichols says even more so, in person) and comes across as iconic in the book. Nichols said, “I didn’t know Austin Butler even existed when I wrote this. ‘Elvis’ hadn’t come out yet. There is calculus beyond me just thinking he’s pretty.” (laughter from the crowd). Nichols secured Norman Reedus (“The Walking Dead”) after meeting him while serving on a jury at Cannes and is friends with Tom Hardy’s manager, Jack Whigham, who is the younger brother of actor Shea Whigham (“Take Shelter,” “Waco,” “Boardwalk Empire”).

At the beginning of the evening, commenting on his nervousness, he remarked, “I know this is Mike’s town,” referencing his close friendship with Chicago native Michael Shannon (to audience approval.)

Michael Shannon

Michael Shannon on October 13, 2023 at the 59th Chicago International Film Festival.


Shannon, who heard Nichols talk about making a movie from “The Bikeriders” for years, once said, “You’ve been talking about that damn idea for so long. You’re never gonna make that s***.”

Nichols acknowledged that he had, indeed, been trying to make this film for a long time and described it as his “most ambitious” project. Five years ago he told interviewer Jack Giroux (Oct. 19, 2018), “There are just a lot of things that intimidate me about it, but I truly hope one day I’ll get my s*** together and do it.”

Well, he has, and “The Bikeriders” is very good. References to 1953’s Marlon Brando picture “The Wild One” to 1969’s “Easy Rider” to television’s “Sons of Anarchy” aside, this is an-depth look at the characters in a Midwestern motorcycle club. It is a 116-minute study of the outsiders who started the club.

Although Chicago is prominently featured, the actual shoot took place in Cincinnati, Ohio, in October of 2022, completing filming in December of 2022. It premiered at the 50th Telluride Film Festival on August 23rd.

It’s a totally compelling character study from Jeff Nichols, who has given us such great films as “Take Shelter,” “Mud,” “Loving,” and “Midnight Special.” A great addition to the motorcycle films that have gone before,  fictionalized somewhat, but founded on real-life research, which makes it even more relevant and enjoyable.

“Saltburn” Cements Emerald Fennell’s Reputation As A Visionary Filmmaker


“Saltburn” is Emerald Fennell’s follow-up to 2020’s “Promising Young Woman,” a film that garnered five Oscar nominations and won her the Best Original Screenplay Oscar in 2021. The movie is most like 1999’s “The Talented Mr. Ripley.” It is a baroque, dark, stylish sexy R-rated Gothic study which Fennell, present in person to receive the Visionary Award at the 59th Chicago International Film Festival on October 19, 2023, said was best summed up tonally by the word “vampire.” Writer/Director Fennell recommended that the film’s heartthrob Felix (Jacob Elordi) read “Brideshead Revisited” before filming began on July 16, 2022 to get an idea of the film’s tone, although “Saltburn” is set in 2006. Filming ended on September 16, 2022.

“Saltburn” is the family estate of Sir James Catton (Richard E. Grant, “Gosford Park”). The palatial estate was represented by Drayton House, Northamptonshire, which had never been used as a film site previously. (It may never be used again, because part of the contract with the filmmakers was that the exact location and real owners were not to be revealed.) The estate, itself, is central to the film’s success, outshining television’s Downton Abbey sets.

The 127 minute film premiered at Telluride on August 23 and opened the 67th London Film Festival on October 4th. Its positive critical reception caused the release date to be moved up in the United States to November 17th. The somewhat cryptic synopsis for the film says: “A student at Oxford University finds himself drawn into the world of a charming and aristocratic classmate, who invites him to his eccentric family’s sprawling estate for a summer never to be forgotten.”

The plot takes us inside the world of wealth and privilege that Felix and his cousin, Farleigh Start (Archie Madekwa, “Midsommar”) occupy. Oliver can only marvel at the luxury of Saltburn, as he meets Felix’s mother Elspeth (Rosalind Pike, “Gone Girl”), Felix’s father (Richard E. Grant, “Gosford Park”) and Felix’s sister Venetia (Alison Oliver, “Conversations with Friends”).


Emerald Fennell

Emerald Fennell at the Music Box Theater in Chicago at the 59th Chicago International Film Festival on october 20, 2023. (Photo by Connie Wilson).

Fennell said, “I want to talk about our relationships to the things we want, and what we’ll do to get  them.”  She pointed out that Oliver wants to be exceptional and is particularly good at figuring out what others want and helping provide it.

This is also, prominently, the story of the haves and the have-nots. In “Promising Young Woman” Carrie Mulligan took on the good old boys’ network and the patriarchy that caused her best friend’s suicide; Carrie’s character in that film sought revenge. Here, the target is the British aristocracy and the class system in the U.K.

Oliver Quick is a loner, but he instantly keys in on the Golden Boy of Oxford, Felix Catton , a child of wealth and privilege. Not only is Felix a Catton, the wealthy family that owns Saltburn, he is 6’ 5” and gorgeous. Both girls and boys lust after Felix (Jacob Elordi, “Euphoria”). Director Fennell explained, “This film is all about detail. There are intimate close-ups. I wanted to be able to see stubble, rash, all of it.”  Oliver tells us immediately that he was not in love with Felix, although he does seem obsessed with him; Oliver will do anything to become Felix’s friend.

Is Oliver’s obsession with Felix rooted in emotion or something else?   


Four of the cast members have been Oscar-nominated (Grant, Keoghan, Mulligan, and Pike)

Carey Mulligan

Carey Mulligan.

Barry Keoghan, who had his breakthrough role as Dominic Kearney in “The Banshees of Inisherin,” plays Oliver Quick, one of the have-nots. Oliver is first seen as a scholarship student at Oxford who is being befriended by the class weirdo, Michael Gavey (Ewan Mitchell, “High Life.”)

All of the cast are excellent, including Alison Oliver in her film debut as Felix’s beautiful but disturbed sister Venetia. Rosamind Pike, Barry Keoghan, Jacob Elordi, Richard E. Grant, Archie Malekwe, Paul Rhys (as Duncan, the butler)—everyone is spot on. One part, however, seemed to have been crafted primarily as a favor to a friend. Carrie Mulligan’s role as Poor Dear Pamela, wearing a red wig and heavy make-up, renders her almost unrecognizable. Her character could easily have been omitted.

“Saltburn” is a story about deception and self-deception. It has a slow reveal that picks up speed during and after the road trip that Felix plans as a surprise for Oliver’s birthday. This is the true turning point of the plot. Fennell noted that it spoke to “how willing we are to be deceived.”

This salacious, darkly witty follow-up to “Promising Young Woman” demonstrates that Emerald Fennell is a talent with more than one tale to tell. Her second film is provocative and sure to set off discussions. Some might protest the uber- R-rated nature of a few controversial scenes. There is a fair amount of nudity, which Director Fennell told the Q&A audience was “about grief.” She also shared that she and Barry were completely in agreement on decisions in some of the more controversial scenes, saying, “He and I are completely together. If it feels right and true, Barry is in.”

There was a reference to Heathcliff’s grief at Cathy’s death in “Wuthering Heights” to offer a defense of one scene. Emily Bronte’s “Wuthering Heights” also contained an overall tone of darkness, foreboding and fatalism. It highlighted the intense emotions and passions that drive the characters in the story and was considered controversial when published in 1847. “Wuthering Heights” challenged Victorian morality of the day and the class system. It suggested that everyone has a bad side. Both Emerald Fennell and Rosamund Pike majored in English Literature at Oxford.


The castle sets are magnificent. The party that the Cattons throw for Oliver’s birthday makes the similar celebration in  2013’s  “The Great Gatsby” look like a backyard barbecue. Not only are the grounds of the castle gorgeous, all of the attendees are in costume. The costume designer was Sophie Canale (“Kingsman, Secret Service”). This aspect of the film was outstanding, as was the cinematography by Linus Sandgren (“La La Land,” “American Hustle,” “Joy”) and the choice of music (Anthony Willis). Sandgren worked on “Babylon” (another great party scene film) and Margot Robbie’s production company LuckyChap, which also promoted “Promising Young Woman,” backed this movie.


Emerald Fennell

Emerald Fennell accepting her Visionary Filmmaker award in Chicago. (Photo by Connie Wilson).

After the film’s screening at the Music Box Theater in Chicago, Emerald Fenner shared some insights into the making of “Saltburn,” including this: “If you’re making something so exotic, it is really about detail. It’s a billion-dollar house, but inside they’re watching ‘Superbad.’ Felix has the tattoo Carpe Diem. The room is lit by a karaoke machine.” When characters are shown reading a book, the book is “Harry Potter.” The references to Richard III, Henry VII and Henry VIII, as well as Oliver’s correction of the accurate author of a quotation, late in the movie, are far from incidental. The choice of the name Saltburn, itself, for the estate, can provoke more debate. It’s that kind of layered script with scrupulous attention to detail. Hence Ms. Fennell’s winning the Visionary Award from Chicago and also recently being named Filmmaker of the Year at the Mill Valley Film Festival.

When asked about three shocking scenes in the film (which may offend some) the writer/director said, “It was suggested that I cut away, but I wouldn’t and I won’t. It’s a funny, terrible scene. I won’t pull away.” While making this defiant statement, Fennell wore a red-and-white tee shirt from Giordino’s pizza, which proclaimed “I Got Stuffed in Chicago.” (Perfect!)

Look for this one to rack up nominations come Oscar season and to provoke discussions among movie audiences.  For me, it was a terrific follow-up to “Promising Young Woman.”

“May December” Screens at CIFF on October 18, 2023

May/December is a riff on the infamous Mary Kay Letourneau scandal of 1997, but that is where the similarities end. None of the information contained within this film can be taken as “true” in regards to the real couple who inspired the film. Todd Haynes directed and Natalie Portman and Julianne Moore star.

“May December”  is a weird film. The tone is serio-comic, with vacillation between the two. “I’m Not There”—Haynes’ 2007 film with different actors playing Bob Dylan—was also weird. Last year, he made “The Velvet Underground,” a good straight-forward documentary. May/December is not a straight-forward anything and most definitely not a documentary.

One of the producers on this film was Will Ferrell. What does that tell you? The tone at times reminded me of Ferrell’s ice-skating movie “Blades of Glory,” except that “Blades of Glory” was actually amusing. This one, for me, was just campy, schmaltzy, and cringe-worthy.

The opening barbecue scene, where Gracie remarks “we’re going to need more hot dogs” comes off as  funny only in a semi-sick way. The accompanying melodramatic music was part of the ill-advised plan to play half of this movie for laughs and half of it as serious.  I hoped the film might provide insights into why something like this true life 1997 Mary Kay Letourneau incident might have occurred.  The “framing device” for the film is that Natalie Portman as the character Elizabeth Berry has agreed to play Gracie (Julianne Moore) in a bio-pic; she is trying to “get inside” Gracie’s head and figure out what makes her tick.


The film is not a straightforward recitation (even with names changed to protect the guilty) of the infamous Mary Kay Letourneau case, involving a 34-year-old teacher who began a sexual affair with her middle school student. In real life, Mary Kay’s sixth grade student was just shy of thirteen when the two began having sex.

The story collaborators apparently thought this real-life soap opera drama would be “funny.” It didn’t seem “funny” at the time to the public. It certainly didn’t seem humorous to the families affected by that May/December coupling. It doesn’t seem funny when Gracie was Joe’s teacher. We exist in a time that has seen an increase in child pedophilia. Maybe it’s the fact that I come from a long line of teachers, but I did not find the underlying premise of the movie to be a fountain of comic moments.

Of course, the real-life couple staunchly maintained that they were merely star-crossed lovers for 20 years. It is only late in the plot that Joe begins to articulate some doubts about whether the couple love each other as much as they have claimed through those years. In one scene, Joe (Charles Melton) actually says, “I didn’t know what a big deal it was—having kids.” A strange statement from a young man whom Julianne Moore’s Gracie describes as having been “an old soul” long before she decided to hire him as her assistant at a pet shop and have her way with him in the storage room. (Not, by the way, based on the Letourneau reality.)


For those who don’t remember the Mary Kay Letourneau case, Mary Kay spent 1998 to 2004 in prison as a result of being convicted of felony second degree rape of a child. She was forever listed as a sex offender.  The pair did not obey the judge’s order to have no further contact, conceived two children, and married in 2005, soon after Mary Kay was released from prison. (In real life, Mary Kay Letourneau had six children, four from her first marriage to Steve Letourneau and two with Vili Fualaau.) She and Vili remained married for 14 years, separating just one year before Mary Kay’s death at age 58 of stage four colon cancer on July 6, 2020.

Not surprisingly, Steve Letourneau, her first husband, moved to Alaska, remarried (and had more children) and refuses to even comment on Mary Kay. In this film, Steve Letourneau/Tom Atherton is well played by D.W. Moffett. The depiction of him is not favorable.

The letter that is read in the film by Natalie Portman (from Gracie to Joe) indicates that Gracie’s sex life in marriage number one left a lot to be desired. Once she tasted the forbidden fruit that Joe represented, she was loathe to go back to reality—or so the letter, read onscreen by Portman in a scene that made me cringe for her—seems to say.

The fact that the principals in this Romeo and Juliet doomed lovers set-up had a 22-year gap in age is  not the reason for censure. There are marriages that feature couples with a large difference in age. Two very senior citizens on the Hollywood scene, major movie stars, have very recently had offspring with their much-younger paramours. Twenty-two years difference in age doesn’t even seem that large when measured against such realities.

 So, the difference in age isn’t the issue. The issue is whether a minor (12 or 13) is really capable of making an informed decision when an authority figure in his or her life is suggesting a sexual relationship. Gracie/Mary Kay was put in a position of authority with her young charge and crossed the line, sexually. 

Joe is constantly depicted as trying to please, placate, or serve Gracie. She is still in control.  One line about Gracie, from a neighbor, is, “She always knows what she wants.” Gracie, as portrayed by Julianne Moore, has logical explanations for actions with her children, but those actions often seem very passive/aggressive. She seems very controlled and in command in the dinner parties and interactions depicted. But let some neighbors cancel their bakery order and Gracie descends into near-breakdown hysteria.

The real Mary Kay Letourneau was diagnosed with bipolar disease. She was told to take her medication and not see her young lover again. She obeyed neither of those orders from a judge, which is why she spent so long in prison. (She was sent back for disobeying the judge’s orders. Donald Trump: take note.”)

In this fictionalized case, the student is in 7th grade (not 6th) and is Korean, not Hawaiian. The pair does have children, who are about to graduate and go off to college. In real life, Mary Kay Letourneau and Vili Fualaau were married for 14 years, until they separated in 2019.  They had only two children. In this film there are twins, a girl away at college, Mary at home, and what seems to be a large number of children, when her former offspring are factored in.


This film stars Julianne Moore, who won an Oscar in 2014 for playing a woman afflicted with Alzheimer’s disease, “Still Alice..” She has appeared in 107 films. She has made many, many wonderful films; the subject matter of many is often racy (“Boogie Nights” comes to mind.)  I felt sorry that she had to appear in this one, which, for me, fell flat.

Similarly, Oscar-winner (“The Black Swan”) Natalie Portman appears as an actress named Elizabeth Berry, a celebrity with a TV show about animals called “Nora’s Ark”, who has been hired to portray Julianne’s character of Gracie in the upcoming bio-pic. She wants to get close to the real Gracie. Gracie and Joe  allow her to come to their home. (And what a home it is, for a couple with a wife who only bakes for others and a husband who appears to perhaps be an X-ray technician. How do they afford this elegant home in Savannah, Georgia? How are they going to pay for at least four kids in college simultaneously?)

The young man who portrays Julianne’s young husband (22 years younger in the real Letourneau case) is Charles Melton as Joe Yoo. He does what he can with this part, as do the two experienced actresses.  Charles Melton is one of the few bright spots in the film, but he still provokes gales of laughter because the scripted things he is given to say are that bad.


From the moment we see a butterfly chrysalis onscreen (Joe is interested in helping re-populate the Monarch population) and the ponderous, schmaltzy music begins playing, you think, “What the f___?” Marcelo Zarvos wrote original music and adapted Michel LeGrand’s melodies from “The Go-Between.” The music is heavy-handed and melodramatic.

Later, in a café scene, we see one of Gracie’s children from her first marriage, Georgie (memorably played by Cory Michael Smith), singing. The lyrics “Oh, Baby, I love your ways” float over to us, before Georgie delivers the cringe-worthy line, “I’m a Phoenix rising from the ashes.” (Yikes! Who talks like that in real life?)


There are so many awkward, uncomfortable scenes that I hate to single out the back room of a pet shop, where the duo was supposedly caught in flagrante delecto, or the other questionable scenes, meant to be comic. Natalie Portman seemed to get more of the truly execrable scenes than Julianne, including one where she relives the storage room romance of the pet shop all by herself, writhing and moaning with wild bird noises in the background. And there’s the one where she faces the camera and has to deliver a bad monologue that was a letter Gracie wrote to Joe. There is also her inappropriate description of playing sex scenes, delivered to a high school class where Mary Atherton, Gracie’s daughter, is in the audience.

Nothing about the situation seemed “funny,” to me, especially since so many lives, including those of six children, were negatively impacted. There are actually two bad pet shop scenes, one involving a snake. Which is worse? You decide if you watch this on Netflix when it begins streaming on December 1st, or in a theater beginning November 17th.


One shot showed Joe looking through a wire fence at his graduating children. That one, with its symbolism, was interesting. But on the very day her children are graduating, we see Julianne Moore as Gracie, accompanied by two Russian wolfhounds, stalking the land while holding a rifle. (A WTF moment.) A fox is on one side of the field. Julianne and the fox exchange glances. Oh. My. God. (Just shoot me now, Julianne).

When Charles Melton asks his oldest son, Charlie Atherton-Yoo (Gabriel Chung), if he is sad that Charlie is soon going to be leaving for college, the young man says he is very happy to be leaving. [Can’t blame him there.]

The cinematography by Christopher Blauvelt (“Emma,” “Zodiac”) was good and the Savannah, Georgia area photographs beautifully. It is shot on 16-millimeter film.  Haynes’ usual cinematographer is Ed Lachmann (“Far From Heaven,” 2002; “Carol,” 2015).


The opening scenes of the film seem to promote a picture of Gracie as loving and committed to her marriage to the much younger Joe. However, her abandoned son, Georgie (from her first marriage) tells Natalie Portman, “Lady, she’s messed up in the head.” He relates  tales of early incest abuse by his mother’s older brothers, but we never know whether that is true or false.

Indeed, there is evidence that supports Gracie and Joe as loving parents, but the real Mary Kay Letourneau was diagnosed as bi-polar and essentially abandoned her husband four kids for a twelve-year-old. Not exactly comic fodder; who thought this would make for a good movie that is half comic and half serious?


Mary Kay gifts her daughter who is going off to college with a scale. She implies to a younger sister Mary (Elizabeth Yu) that her arms are fat, as the daughter tries on dresses for graduation. Gracie also loses it over a canceled baking goods order. It seems that baking is what Gracie does well; Friends in the area order things from her out of good will. The comic/not that funny line  is, “How many pineapple upside-down cakes can a family eat?”

It also brings up the valid question, “So, is the community generally supportive of Joe and Gracie, as with the ordering of baked goods, or does she receive more packages of canine feces than orders for baked goods?” It’s also valid to ask, “How do they afford this big house with the small pool and the ocean view and also sending multiple children off to college at the same time? Where is the money coming from?”

Early on, a neighbor tells Natalie Portman as Elizabeth to “be kind” in her portrayal of Gracie. The film doesn’t seem to have made up its mind about whether or not the mis-matched couple has really been accepted, since Elizabeth, upon arrival, brings a package she found outside the house containing dog feces, only to learn that it is a routine occurrence for such packages to be left there.

This didn’t seem all that humorous, or all that accepting or forgiving on the part of the community.


I felt embarrassed for two such fine actresses to be appearing in this movie. It has nothing to do with disapproval of the theme. One of Julianne Moore’s All Time Best roles was in “Boogie Nights,” a classic about the pornographic film industry.This film is not a classic and whoever had the idea to make it half-funny/half-serious should rethink that decision. The tone is all over the place. The only people who seemed to be enjoying it were mocking the many cringe-worthy scenes or statements.

The only way to think you haven’t wasted your time sitting through this is if you mock it. I didn’t want to mock it. I respect the actresses in the lead roles too much. I just wish they had had a better script or at least one that picked a consistent tone that came through clearly. Samy Burch and Alex Mechanik wrote the story and Samy Burch scripted. Shame on them

I was very disappointed by this movie. However, this line from the film applies, “Keep your expectations low and you’ll never be disappointed.”

Unfortunately for me, I had higher expectations for something that might give us a bit of an idea what the real life of Mary Kay Letourneau might have been like after crossing society’s boundaries in 1997. I just felt sorry that these two talented performers somehow ended up in this, after all their good work throughout the years. The film screened at the 59th Chicago International Film Festival on October 18, 2023.

The “best” part of the movie is the trailer. After that, it’s either laugh or cry.

“The Killer” Is Riveting Entertainment from David Fincher with Michael Fassbender

David Fincher’s thriller “The Killer,” starring Michael Fassbender, opens in theaters on October 27 and streams on Netflix starting November 10th. It is a return to form for David Fincher, who has had this adaptation of Alexis Nolent’s graphic novel as a passion project for 20 years. “The Killer” is a no-holds-barred look at an assassin without scruples who is constantly focusing on the task at hand with dog-eat-dog, kill-or-be-killed determination. He avoids empathy, saying “Empathy is weakness.”

The Plot

Michael Fassbender in The Killer (2023)

Michael Fassbender as “The Killer.”

Michael Fassbender stars in David Fincher’s “The Killer,” which screened at the 59th Chicago International Film Festival on October 17, 2023.

The film begins in Paris, where Fassbender’s character has set up shop in a WeWorks empty office space and is waiting for his target to appear in the windows of Le Petite Raphael, a tony hotel directly across the street at 3 Rue du Grav. The killer complains about the boredom of his work (“It’s amazing how physically exhausting it can be to do nothing.”)

The killer doesn’t want to know why he is eliminating his victims. He just wants to be successful. “Fight only the battle you are paid to fight. What’s in it for me?” These are axioms that guide him, as are “Trust no one” and “Anticipate, don’t improvise.”  (“I am what I am. Consider yourself lucky if our paths never cross.”)

Fassbender has been quite successful since being recruited by Hodges, a Black attorney in New Orleans (Charles Parnell of “Grand Theft Auto”). He jettisoned a law career for a life of crime. Now he has a palatial hide-away hidden somewhere in the Dominican Republic, shared with a beautiful woman who loves him. When visiting New Orleans, the omnipresent voice-over tells us that New Orleans is a city with many good restaurants, but only one menu. Humorous asides like that make the voice-over amusing. So do the many aliases that the killer adopts including Felix Unger, Oscar Madison, Howard Cunningham, Archibald Bunker, and Sam Malone.

The problems begin when the killer’s planned hit in Paris goes awry. The dominatrix moves into the shot at the moment of truth and the real target (Endre Hules, “Apollo 13”) escapes. A secondary team is sent to the Dominican Republican to prevent any “blowback”  by eliminating the killer. When the assassin  (Fassbender) is not there, they rough up his lady love. Now the killer is going to make sure that, as he promises her brother Marcus (Emiliano Pernia), “Nothing like this will ever be allowed to happen again.”


The film has “chapters” in Paris, New Orleans, Florida, New York and Chicago. The last three locations are the homes of the hit-man and hit-woman (Tilda Swinton) and the client behind the initial Paris hit.  There is also an Epilogue. The shots of exteriors in those locations gave the film the look (and sound) of real life. There are also great close-up shots of Fassbender’s eyes as he is concentrating for a kill shot. Cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt provides a riveting, thoroughly engrossing visual feast.

The sound effects and music (Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross) add immeasurably to the thoroughly professional look, sound and feel of this David Fincher (“Seven,” “FightClub”, “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”) film.


The film is 80% voice-over, with Fassbender’s voice conveying observations not only on how best to be successful as an assassin, but remarks about his take on humanity, the music of the Smiths, and the relative intelligence of Claybourne, the Chicago mark, who hired Fassbender  through intermediaries. As Claybourne tries to excuse himself from any culpability, he tells the killer the hit  wasn’t personal. “They told me it was insurance to prevent any blowback. Clean-up on Aisle 3;” this cost Claybourne (Arliss Howard, “Moneyball,””Mank”) an additional $150,000.

The use of voice-over has often been criticized and really fell out of favor. But films such as “Goodfellas,” Casino,” “The Wolf of Wall Street,” “Taxi Driver,” and “Raising Arizona” have used voice over to good effect. It has been a long time since I’ve seen a film so thoroughly given over to the use of voice-over. The asides and remarks were amusing enough that it did not come off as weak. [I particularly enjoyed Fassbender’s remark that Claybourne did not appear to be a member of MENSA, but there were many clever remarks.]

Fight Scene

There is a terrific fight scene when the killer reaches Florida. (Voice-over aside:  “Florida: the Sunshine State. Where else can you find so many like-minded individuals outside a penitentiary?”) Fassbender has to drug two pit bulls that roam the yard of the hired hit-man before he can enter his house. The hit-man does not take kindly to the intrusion and a knock-down, drag-out fight to the death ensues. At the end, the killer is racing for the exit with the two now-conscious dogs chasing him. The scene took me back to 2017’s “Bullet Head,” where dangerous dogs terrorize three men in a warehouse.

Tilda Swinton

Tilda Swinton in The Killer (2023)

Tilda Swinton portrays the female assassin in “The Killer,” whom Michael Fassbender hunts down.

The always awesome Tilda Swinton has a scene with Fassbender that opens up some plot thoughts.  It’s not as good as her climactic scene with George Clooney in “Michael Clayton,” but it’s an excellent scene. The two are in a restaurant called “The Waterfront.” The killer has joined her at her table, uninvited. Tilda is a regular and well-known to the staff. (She also knows their names). Fassbender has tracked her down for revenge, since she was the female assassin who “looked like a Q-tip.”

The logical thing for Ms. Swinton to have done would have been to cause a scene inside the restaurant— if she wants to live, that is. True, she might not succeed and others might become collateral damage, but the killer has told us early on that 75% of all murderers are caught, ultimately, because of eye witnesses. Even if she were to be executed on the spot, she would, in a sense, be potentially taking the killer down with her.

There is a cinematic reason for Swinton to have meekly followed Fassbender outside, which I will not reveal here, but people who are facing death will go to great lengths to save their own skins. To me, Tilda’s decision to obey Fassbender’s instructions regarding leaving together represented the Kiss of Death and was somewhat illogical.


The killer has stashed away over 8 and ½ million dollars. He hopes to kick back and enjoy his ill-gotten gains with his pretty companion on a beach somewhere (much like in “The Shawshank Redemption” or 1993’s “True Romance.”) You’ll have to check it out at the theater (beginning October 27) or streaming on Netflix  November 10th to see if the killer achieves his goal.

“The Killer” is a thoroughly enjoyable 118 minutes of engrossing filmmaking.

“Limbo” and “Christmess:” Two Australian Films Promoting Family Togetherness

In the past 24 hours, I’ve seen two Australian films, one via screener and one at the 59th Chicago International Film Festival. I love Australian films. I really looked forward to seeing each. The first was “Limbo,” directed and written by Ivan Sen. “A white detective investigates the twenty-year-old cold case of a murdered indigenous girl in this outback-set noir.” The second was “Christmess,” the fourth film from Aussie director Heath Davis, and a continuation of his partnership on film with the star, Steve LeMarquand.


I was really looking forward to “Limbo.” Here are the good things about “Limbo:” the settings in the Australian Outback are about as foreign as anything on Earth. It looked like it was shot on another planet. There are a variety of rock formations that I’ve never seen anywhere before and the area seemed to be filled with abandoned mines, mine shafts, and/or caves. Unfortunately, the film was shot in black-and-white, so the settings (often seen from an interesting aerial point-of-view) came off as dull and monochromatic. This opal-mining area of Australia was fascinating. Even the Limbo Motel where the lead character stays is dug from inside a cave or rock formation. [There are 27 still shots of the interesting terrain on IMBD.com which you should really check out.]

Simon Baker looked like a cross between a more athletic Walter White (“Breaking Bad) and a more scruffed-up Ray Donovan, with tattoos, a beard, and, as we learn in the opening scenes, a heroin habit. He’s a jaded cop. Baker’s performance is spot-on. However, the writer really needed to give him a phrase other than “Fair enough” to continue to mutter. He said it at least four times; it got annoying.


In the first of these two Australian films, “Limbo,” the reunion of a young boy, Zach, with his father is ultimately what emerges as the final theme. The attempt to look into this cold case of Charlotte’s disappearance by hard-boiled detective Trevor Hurley (Simon Baker) goes nowhere fast. Everybody that ever knew anything about Charlotte’s disappearance is either dead, dying or refuses to speak to Trevor.  Charlie (an excellent Rob Collins), her brother, is too screwed up to be of much help in possibly solving Charlotte’s long-ago disappearance.

We finally are pretty much left to believe that Joseph and Leon, two old-timers, definitely had something to do with Charlotte’s disappearance, but Leon is already dead and Joseph will be soon. Joseph almost gets his come-uppance in a strange scene near the end involving Trevor, Joseph and a gun, but ultimately Trevor  rides off into the sunset.

The intrepid detective is called back to the office and we all forget about poor Charlotte. We are left only with the return of Zach to  neglectful father Charlie’s arms. (Charlie says, early on, “I was out of the picture fairly quickly. And I guess that was just the easiest for everyone.”)  In one last gasp of the slow-moving plot, Trevor drives teenaged son Zach out to Charlie’s remote trailer so the two can have a very low-key reunion.

It’s the best you’re going to get for closure on this one.


Steve LeMarquand

Steve LeMarquand as Chris; LeMarquand has appeared in 3 of Director Heath Davis’ four films.

The second film, “Christmess” deals with a once good actor who has become drug and alcohol-addicted and is reduced to serving as a store Santa in a mall. He accidentally encounters his long-lost daughter, Nicole (Nicole Pastor), while performing his duties, and attempts to re-connect with her. Most of the rest of the film is about keeping Steve off drugs and alcohol (AA meetings, conversations with his sponsor Nick) and maybe reuniting him with his daughter for a Christmas day dinner.


Hannah Joy

Hannah Joy of “Middle Kids” rock band, playing Joy in “Christmess” in her film debut.

Aspiring singer of the alternative indie band Middle Kids makes her film debut and contributes a lot of songs. One lyric that comes through is “Life is a mess, but despite it all, Love takes a hand and leads you on.” Matt Sladen also composed some of the original music.

The lead, once again, is Steve LeMarquand, who has appeared in three of Writer/Director Heath Davis’ other films. He is known for “Last Train to Freo” and portrayed Chris Flint in this film.

Darren Gilshenan and Steve LeMarquand

Chris (Steve LeMarquand), right, and his sponsor Nick (Darren Gilshenan) in “Christmess.”

His sponsor in the film is played by Aaron Glenane (“Snowpiercer”). Nicole Pastor plays Steve’s long-lost daughter (who seems to want to stay lost) and Hannah Joy played Joy.

In a “Variety” interview, Writer/Director Davis said, “At its heart, Christmess is a celebration of the human spirit, the kindness of strangers, and the healing power of forgiveness.”

Okay. Two Australian films with good leads (Steve LeMarquand and Simon Baker) where we almost feel that we should all join hands and sing “Kumbayah” as part of the plot’s attempt to bring love to Christmas. Or else, let Hannah Joy do another song (she sang several).

The film shot for three weeks in Campbelltown, New South Wales. LeMarquand has been in three of Davis’ other films: “Book Week,” “Broke,” and “Locusts.”

I still like Australian films very much, but I cannot say that I was overwhelmed by these two. I honestly found myself yawning in one (I won’t say which one). [I seldom, if ever, fall asleep in the movies.] So, good location(s), good acting. Plot, screenplay, and pacing need some work.

My suggestion would be to take these two very interesting leads (Steve LeMarquand and Simon Baker) and find a project for them to do together that is more representative of the kick-ass Australian films I have learned to love over the years.

The Music Box Theater.

“Dream Scenario:” Hilarious and Nicolas Cage Is Brilliant In It


Hapless family man Paul Matthews (Nicolas Cage) finds his life turned upside down when millions of strangers suddenly start seeing him in their dreams in this blackly comic film from Norwegian director Kristoffer Borgli. Making his English-language debut, Oslo-born writer-director Kristoffer Borgli (Sick of Myself) follows the rise and fall of one man’s fifteen minutes of fame, a mordantly funny and playfully twisted take on the collective consciousness of modern life, where just about anyone can suddenly become a strange kind of celebrity, and fall back into obscurity or infamy just as quickly. It was Borgli’s film “Drib” that screened at SXSW in 2017 where I saw it as Press that alerted the L.A. executives that this young man had a very unusual point-of-view and the skills to translate his vision(s) to the screen.

The 38-year-old appeared with his film at the Music Box Theater on Saturday, October 15, 2023, as part of the 59th Chicago International Film Festival.  Of this amazingly hilarious and original film and his burgeoning career, Kristoffer said, “They picked me up from the streets. I was like a nobody.”

That might be exaggerating a bit, as Kristoffer moved from working in a video store, to trying to write screenplays, to the visual side by producing skateboard videos, music videos and, later, commercials. What makes this film so good, however, is his very unique view of life and a satirical sense of style that has been cultivated by viewing things like Larry David’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” as well as by his life experiences.

“It was one of the best scripts I’ve read, quite frankly, and I think it’s my best performance and probably the best movie I’ve ever made,” says Cage, who has appeared in more than 100 films. Cage actually called up A24 executives to convince them he was the right person to play this character.


Kristoffer Borgli

Kristoffer Borgli, Director of “Dream Scenario” on October 14 at the Music Box Theater in Chicago.

Paul Matthews is completely unmemorable. In fact, Nicolas Cage, bearded and with a bald pate, looks more like F. Murray Abraham than Nicolas Cage. Cage has been doing some interesting films lately and having a career resurgence of sorts, with a much-praised performance in “Pig” as well as “The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent,” and “Renfield.” This film will add to Cage’s upward trajectory, as it is enjoyable, hilarious, unique, and blackly comic, all while examining the entire idea of cancel culture and identity politics.

Borgli, when asked about the sudden fame that is thrust upon his main character and his own thoughts on fame, said, “You’re not allowed to be famous in Norway.  Nobody acts like they’re better than anyone else.” [My Norwegian Grandfather Ole Monson would agree with that.]

Paul Matthews is initially quite happy to be temporarily famous. Everyone is seeing this nebbishy professor in their dreams, where he is generally doing nothing. In fact, his doing nothing is a point of discussion. The film opens with a sequence where Paul’s daughter Sophie (Lily Bird) is imperiled while sitting poolside. Paul does nothing, but continues raking leaves by their pool. (“You don’t do anything. You’re just there.”) After a particularly frightening incident where an intruder threatens Paul and Janet with a knife, the authorities comment, “It seems like you were pretty helpless in this situation.”

When his students start asking him “How does it feel to go viral?” Paul responds, “I actually enjoy my anonymity.”


Paul’s wife, Janet, played by Julianne Nicholson (“Mare of Easttown,” “Boardwalk Empire”) is concerned that Paul’s new-found fame might cause difficulty from the very beginning, but Paul—who has always talked about publishing in his field, but hasn’t written that book yet—thinks that perhaps his 15 minutes of fame will open doors for him with a publisher. At this point, the dreams that Paul has appeared in have been completely boring and un-memorable. He seems to be an inadequate loser, merely walking through the lives of the dreamers.

Unfortunately, the dreams go South Big-time. Some of the dreams become actual nightmares, with Paul murdering students and others. Some of the dreams become sexual. One of the most hilarious scenes occurs when Molly (Dylan Gelula of “Hacks,” “Shameless,” “Casual”) tries to get Paul to re-enact the dream sequence she had, which was sexual. She makes Paul stand in the corner and tells him, “Please don’t speak. Just do the dream.” The sex is awkward, weird and hilarious—(just like real sex). The director singled this out as one of his favorite scenes, but also mourned the loss of a scene set in Paris where a woman is affixed to a wall, surrounded by baguettes and being tortured. Said Borgli, “How do you tape her to the wall? We had to cut the scene for a variety of reasons.”

At some point, Paul is dubbed “Paultergeist” and a texted message says, “I kinda’ don’t like going to bed now.” It’s a big change for Paul’s weird ability to enter the subconscious of dreaming subjects; it will lead nowhere good.


Kristoffer Borgli

Director Kristoffer Borgli of “Dream Scenario” at the 59th Chicago International Film Festival.

Enter Mary (Kate Berlant) and Trent (Michael Cena of “Barbie,” “Superbad” and “Life & Beth”). They have a company that holistically pairs brands with unconventional celebrities. Calling Paul “The most interesting person in the world” the duo tell him they can get him a 6-figure deal to sell the rights to his life. The interested corporation would like him to do “Sprite” ads.

Paul, who went to the interview with “Thoughts” thinking that his book might become a reality finally, says, “I don’t want my Wikipedia page to  be about that.” He explains that he is an evolutionary biologist with a PhD. We have also heard his lecture about zebras and their stripes and how the purpose of the stripes is not to stand out, but to help each individual zebra stay hidden in the herd, so that predators do not attack the individual.

When Paul’s “fame” becomes negative fame, Thought attempts to pivot the deal they had been planning (Sprite or a tie-in with Obama) to less wholesome buyers, like “Rue Morgue Magazine.” It’s all about the Benjamins. “Thoughts” wants to cash in on Paul’s fame. Therefore, Paul’s book becomes very short. It is now named “Je Suis Un Cauchemar” (I Am A Nightmare).


A company called Norio, whose CEO is Cousin Greg from “Succession” (Nicholas Braun), sees the potential in marketing a bracelet that will let companies intrude on people’s dreams to “pitch” various products. (Imagine the  pharmaceutical companies that would leap at that opportunity!) They guarantee “no nightmares” and an entire industry springs up because of the phenomenon of Paul’s Andy Warhol 15 minutes of fame as a mass dream subject.

The implications are mind-boggling. The entire subject of someone who has done nothing being drummed from the corps is interesting to ponder. Cancel culture, as it is known, has come down recently on Russell Brand and, previously, on Kevin Spacey. True, those individuals may have stepped outside society’s boundaries. Perhaps they deserved the Amish shunning they received.

But there are innocent people who suffer such a fate, when they were NOT guilty of anything. I thought of the Atlanta bombing incident at the 1996 Olympics, which was the subject of the movie “Richard Jewell.”  Richard Jewell became suspected of being the bomber after an FBI leak, when Jewell actually had helped avert the tragedy. I can think of three incidents in my own life, where I was “exiled-when-innnocent.” They still trouble me. No, there was never any retribution or any apologies for the injustice(s). I think many of you will be able to relate to the hapless Paul, who even goes on television to say, “I’m the biggest victim in the whole phenomenon.” He apologizes to the world for the brutal nightmares dreamers are unwittingly experiencing.

Wife Janet, hearing Paul on TV is not amused. She tells him it is “embarrassing to be married to you right now.” Having just seen another Norwegian film about being embarrassed by one’s significant other (“The Hypnotism,” also a comedy) I wondered, “What makes Norwegians so prone to dark thoughts and black comedy?” Maybe it’s the weather? Too late to ask my Norwegian grandfather or my Dutch grandmother.


Kristoffer Borgli

Q&A after the screening of Borgli’s film “Dream Scenario” at the 59th Chicago International Film Festival.

Asked about happy endings during the Q&A, Writer/Director Borgli said, “In a way, I think happy endings make you less resilient to life’s ups and downs. We need to be more truthful. For me, comedy is the way to counteract life’s difficulties.”

He went on, “A version of you lives inside people’s heads, and they build a vision of you, based on that.” In interviews, Borgli has said, “I’m drawn to stubborn characters, who live and die by their own unattainable principles.” This is certainly true of Paul who says of his class (they all claim to have been traumatized and there is a hilarious scene where they are being treated for their trauma as a class): “Trauma is a joke. They need to grow up.” Paul also refuses to leave a restaurant when asked to do so and suffers a beating. He shows up at his daughter’s recital, which causes even more grief.


A special nod should go to casting director Ellen Lewis, a Chicago native, who worked for 34 years with Martin Scorsese and has done a great job of putting the right actor in each part. Dylan Baker (“Happiness,” “Revolutionary Road,” “The Good Wife”) plays the host of the dinner party from hell. Tim Meadows, who spent 10 seasons on “Saturday Night Live” and has appeared on “Poker Face” has a small part that he makes the most of, especially when he lets Paul sleep in his basement, but the overhead light buzzes and cannot be shut off.*

Costumer Natalie Bronfman (“The Handmaid’s Tale”) who supervised the clothing and shoes that Paul wears also did a superb job. The David Byrne suit from “Stop Making Sense” was a huge hit with the audience!


This film premiered in Toronto. Make sure you mark it down when it streams or plays theaters. It is a comic jewel, but also has some great observations. To quote Paul Matthews, “I don’t want to be some culture war person.” The “Thoughts” people, still trying to make a buck from Paul’s bad luck, tell him they think they can get him on Tucker Carlson and that they love him in France.

Did you smile? You’ll laugh outright at this movie, and Nicolas Cage is great in it!


(*Totally unrelated aside: At a memorable Book Expo America conference in New York City that I attended, we stayed at the Hyatt hotel that is connected to Grand Central Station. It was a Trump hotel, originally, which seems about right. The light switches in the rooms were very weird. They were not normal light switches, but modernistic, and they did not work well. In fact, nothing in that room worked well. The exact thing depicted in the film happened to me at the Trump Commodore-cum- Hyatt (or whatever its name was.) I could not shut the lights off and had to sleep with a pillow over my head. Also, the water in the bathtub barely came out and never got hot. Later that night, I got a finger stuck in the pop machine, which was very painful. Maybe there is something special about Norwegians that sets us up for this stuff to seem funny later, because I did and do see the humor in that horrible hotel—although I never went back to another conference if it was being held in that location.)

“Eric LaRue” Screens on Friday the 13th (2023) with Director Michael Shannon

Judy Greer as Janice LaRue in the Michael Shannon-directed movie “Eric LaRue.”

Michael Shannon steps behind the camera to direct the film version of a play written by good friend and award-winning writer Brett Neveu. The 2002 play, “Eric LaRue,” deals with the aftermath of a school shooting. It does not focus on the crime itself, but on the effect the murders have on the shooter’s parents and on the community, at large. The film premiered at Tribeca and played the 59th Chicago International Film Festival on Friday, the 13th of October, 2023.

Four films come to mind that “Eric LaRue” resembles:  “We Need to Talk About Kevin” (2011); “Mass” (2021)  “Vox Lux” (2018); and 2010’s “Beautiful Boy.”  In each case, the school shooting plunges the families of those involved into chaos. In this film, the entire community is upset. Janice works at Dellride’s Rightsmart and the floor manager, Jack (Lawrence Grimm), while vaping outside the store, tells Janice that her return to work has upset everyone and she should take another 2 to 4 months off. When Janice asks what she should do during that time, he says, “Meditate. Read a book.” Nobody wants to be around Janice. However,  often working is what helps keep a traumatized person sane.

Shannon, in the Q&A following the film’s screening at the 59th Chicago International Film Festival, said, “This movie really seemed to be about this country. Only one word sums it up: confusion. The country doesn’t make any f***** sense, so I wanted to make a movie about that, and I did.” Indeed, at one point, in a climactic scene opposite his mother Janice (Judy Greer) the title character, now in prison, says, “At the time, I thought I had no choice. Now it makes no sense.” Nation Sage Henrikson plays the teen-aged Eric in the film’s climactic scene. He adds, “Things got out of control in my mind and I screwed up.” The surprising thing is that Eric expresses and feels real remorse, while his mother seems bent on defending the indefensible. That made no sense. Referencing Director Shannon’s remarks at the beginning of this paragraph, that seems true of the nation and the world right now. (GOP, Israel, Ukraine, weather—no need to go on.)

Director Michael Shannon

Michael Shannon on October 13, 2023 at the 59th Chicago International Film Festival.


The acting from this cast of luminaries is as good as it gets. For a small film, it has a stellar ensemble.  Judy Greer (“The Village,” “Adaptation”) plays Janice, the mother of a school shooter, and Alexander Skarsgard (“Big Little Lies,” “Succession”) plays her husband, Ron LaRue. Tracy Letts—who has been in 5 pictures that were Best Picture nominated—plays Pastor Billy Verne at Redeemer Church. (Letts is better known for his play “August: Osage County” or “Killer Joe.” He appeared in “The Big Short” (2015); “The Post” (2017); “Lady Bird” (2017); “Ford vs. Ferrari” (2019) and “Little Women” (2019).)

Judy Greer carries this film on her slim shoulders.  Her performance is Oscar caliber. Janice is doing her best to cope with the horror of her son’s actions. While Ron, her husband, turns to religion in a big way, Janice LaRue actively rejects giving her troubles to Jesus. She is trying to cope, but she has to do it her way, not her husband’s dictatorial way. Quoting 1st Timothy about a husband’s right to rule his household and apologizing to one of the mothers who lost a son in a teary breakdown is not cutting it for Janice, who tells Ron so. (Ron to Janice: “I don’t think you know what you think.”) For Janice, the “His blood will heal you” talk is not cutting it.

Plus, it appears that Ron’s attendance  at Bible readings with Allison Pill may be thinly-concealed unconsummated lust. She is his manager at work and seems to be quite fond of hugging Ron at every opportunity in an overly flirtatious manner, whether appropriate or not. (“I’m the H.R. manager, so I make the rules.”) Ms. Pill does a great job with the part.


The discordant sounds of hymns that are off-key and Jonathan Madro’s original music add a lot to the mood, which is, as you would expect, grim and depressing.


Andrew Wheeler was the cinematographer and the Wilmington, North Carolina area is the film’s setting. The cast took up residence at the Residence Inn. They socialized nightly. Kate Arrington (who plays the mother of one of the murdered boys) is Michael Shannon’s wife and the mother of his two daughters. (Kate plays the mother  who is working on forgiveness.)


Eric LaRue

(L to R), Mimi Plauche, artistic director of Cinema Chicago, Screenwriter Brett Neveu, and Director Michael Shannon onstage at the Music Box Theater on October 13, 2023.

There were a number of interesting shots  in the film.

One was the close-up of a stained glass window that seems to show a Biblical figure about to cut his wrists with a wicked-looking dagger. Another was the truly inspired shot of the Bible-thumping Ron in a booth opposite a crowned-with-thorns Jesus, who is sipping a soft drink through a straw (while bleeding from his wounds). [Genius!] And, of course, there is the final scene, which was beautifully composed,with Janice walking away down a long gravel road and shedding her jacket as she goes. Does this symbolize Janet “walking away from” the entire situation? Or was it simply failure of the gymnast to stick the ending? Out of appreciation for the talents involved, I’ll stick with the former for what seemed like an anti-climactic ending.


There is A LOT of religious fervor shown onscreen and A LOT of quoting of religious phrases. A good editor could cut out about 20 to 30 minutes of this, as the film runs just one minute shy of 2 hours. There is also a great deal of plot devoted to which pastor (!st Presbyterian or Redeemer) will do the honors on assembling the mothers of the 3 slain boys in a meeting with Janice LaRue, the mother of the murderer. The entire middle of the film hinges on which pastor (Tracy Letts or Paul Sparks) will win out. Do we care? Some of us think it’s a lousy idea, since it could lead to more bloodshed. Stephanie Grazer (Annie Parisse) is embittered and blames Janice and her entire family. That seemed normal and logical. She asks the browbeaten Janice, “When you go home at night with your son in prison and your neck massage husband, are you happy?” (A: “No.”) That is right before Stephanie tells Janice to “Go to hell.” Stephanie also alludes to the family being outcasts long before Eric went postal, while Eric’s Mom retells stories of school bullying of her son.

When you have a character like Minister Steve Calhan moderating a potentially explosive meeting of three women (one woman, Laura, has gotten religion Big Time and does not attend the meeting at 1st Presbyterian, but is shown talking in tongues and having a fit at Redeemer Church with Janice’s husband Ron), you are asking for trouble.  Example of Pastor Steve’s words of wisdom:  “We all understand your involvement—that you weren’t involved.” (Eye roll).  Steve Calhan seems out of his depth.


Eric LaRue

Michael Shannon at the Music Box Theater during the Q&A following the screening of “Eric LaRue” on October 13, 2023.

The logical end of the film might have been the prison meeting between Janice and Eric. The only way I “get” the walk-down-the-road ending is if Janice is walking away from it all (which she probably should have done much earlier in this film.)

I enjoyed Michael Shannon’s remarks about Janice being like a film director. Said Shannon, “People give you notes, and you either say (a) I’m not doing that (b) Why did they suggest that? Or (c) What’s a better thing I could do? I think Janice is like a film director in responding to her situation the same way.”

Shannon did not sound as though he was inspired to direct more movies. Said Shannon, “I can’t afford to make more movies. I can make more money kicking an ATM. It is impossible to get one made, impossible to fund them, and impossible to sell them.” He said, “We’re going to take something that is pretty much impossible and make it completely impossible.”

But, as Writer Brett Neveu said, “We were all working together to find the truth.”

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