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!
The first film of the trilogy, The Evil Dead, as well as its 2013 remake, were so horrifically gory that they were actually banned in various countries including Finland, Ukraine, and Singapore. That should have been my first clue that I would hate this movie.
Eight months, one Covid lockdown, and 6,500 litres of fake blood went into making the latest in the Sam Raimi “Evil Dead” series, this one entitled “Evil Dead Rise” and shot in New Zealand. Its Irish director, Lee Cronin, earned a Saturn award nomination for Breakthrough Director at Sundance. I had high hopes upon entry to the World Premiere on Wednesday, March 15th, at SXSW’s Paramount Theater.
I was game to sit through “Evil Dead Rise.” As a former active voting member of HWA (Horror Writers’ Association) and the author of three novels some might call “horror,” this would be right up my alley for “The Color of Evil” trilogy author.
If 80% of a film’s success is casting, this one started out wobbly with a freakishly tall and extensively tattooed leading lady, Alyssa Sutherland. The tattoos may not have been real and the Australian actress/model’s height is listed as five feet eleven inches, so take those comments with a grain of salt. I didn’t buy any of the actors’ performances.
The synopsis read: “A twisted tale of two estranged sisters whose reunion is cut short by the rise of flesh-possessing demons, thrusting them int a primal battle for survival as they face the most nightmarish version of family imaginable.”
I reviewed film through the eighties, when slasher films were all the rage. After about twenty in a row, I swore off the entire series of films that attempt to entertain you by thrusting a knife into someone’s throat (Kevin Bacon in one memorable eighties cabin scene) or gross you out by having excessive projectile vomiting.
This film has taken the worst of those gross-out concepts and amplified them. If that’s your thing, as it seemed to be for the man next to me who was laughing hilariously and thoroughly enjoying this movie, then go for it. If this audience member hadn’t been very large (and blocking the aisle to exit) I might have left before the end, but, thanks to Mr. Laugh-A-Lot, I couldn’t escape. I saw the entire film (as did the heckler.)
Watching an eyeball fly across the room from a severed head and someone else inadvertently swallow it: gross. Buckets of blood in an elevator that bursts forth? Derivative of “The Shining” but with much less plot justification.
During the Q&A for the film, Bruce Campbell was brought onstage, the original Ash of the first 4 films, who raised the $350,000 for the very first film that Stephen King championed and ended up playing a lead in subsequent films (but not this one.) This new version moved from the woods to the city
As Campbell (“Ash”) was speaking, an apparently inebriated male theater-goer in the audience shouted out, loudly, “This movie effing sucks” (profanity euphemism substituted). Campbell demanded that the man—already on his way out— be removed from the Paramount Theater. (It made all the papers.)
Donald Glover (“Atlanta”) and Janine Nabers, are the creative forces behind a new Amazon Prime series called “Swarm.” The series is set in Houston, until it takes our heroine on the road to a variety of cities, seemingly summoning memories of real-life fan-obsessed happenings in those cities. (The episodes are represented by a date and a label.)
It is a super violent series starring Dominique Fishback (“Judas and the Black Messiah”) as an obsessed fan of a Black singer obviously modeled on Beyonce. The series contains the message upfront, “This is not a work of fiction. Any similarity to people living and dead is intentional.”
The Black songstress, Ni’Jah Hutton (Nirine S. Brown) is about to embark on the Evolution Tour. Dre (Dominique Fishback) is so obsessed with Ni’Jah that any criticism or failure to appreciate the singer’s work as spectacular personally offends Dre, to the point of no return for the critical fan.
The first episode, which screened at SXSW on March 10th, built the relationship between Dre, her longtime best friend and roommate Marissa (Chloe Bailey) and Marissa’s boyfriend Khalid (Damson Idris). Marissa has achieved success as a make-up artist and Khalid—although he does not live with the girls—is always around. Dre’s reaction to a sex scene she unintentionally witnesses between Marissa and Khalid gives us a hint about Dre’s disdain for such emotional entanglements.
“Swarm” on Amazon Prime video.
The cast, especially Dominique Fishback (“Judas and the Black Messiah”), is good. Dre (Dominique Fishback) has some serious mental issues, not the least of which is the ability to kill very energetically without much provocation. Watching someone bludgeoning another human being to death, especially those who have done nothing to deserve it, is not my idea of “entertainment.” [If it were, we would all be enjoying the mass shootings that seem to have reached epidemic proportions in the United States]. Yes, the victim failed to properly appreciate Dre’s singer of choice, but that hardly seems to merit death—except in “Swarm.” Social commentary, yes, and a good thing for this generation of social media-obsessed youth to ponder.
Call me old-fashioned. Or ask if you, too, want a modicum of violence, but not in such huge gratuitous doses with the violence being the entire plot focus. When I’m watching a character serially murder others with very little emotion (“Henry, Portrait of a Serial Killer”), I want to feel that the victim has done something to deserve it (even though that is not usually the case). Yes, I know that the Jeffrey Dahmer/Ted Bundy stories have been ratings winners. I’m just not a huge fan of mindless gore or violence for the sake of gratuitous gore or violence (which is why I disliked “Evil Dead Rise,” another SXSW film.). I’m a former active voting member of Horror Writers’ Association, so it’s not that I can’t handle blood and gore in moderation. (My novel series: “The Color of Evil.”) But I also swore off 80s slasher films after a while. There is a lot of mindless violence in this series. Later in the series, I have read, we are going to learn more about the motivation for Dre’s devotion to mayhem, but all we saw on March 10th was a proclamation that Dre has eschewed sex and its ability to control as counter-productive, probably because of the influence of her roommate Marissa.
The theme of unbridled fan enthusiasm is a good new one to explore. The Taylor Swift ticket fiasco even provoked Congressional hearings, and my daughter used to work for Ms. Swift. I’m all for unbridled fan enthusiasm, Beehive or Swifty, and the music is great from the outset, as are the costumes. The camerawork on film by Drew Daniels is excellent as is the direction by Donald Glover, Adamma Ebo (“Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul”), Ibra Ake, and Stephen Glover. In the series’ sometimes intentionally campy fashion, it will play buzzing sounds when Dre is ramping up for the next violent act. The score by Michael Uzowuru is great.
While the acting is fine, there is a lot of what I will call “stunt casting.” Paris Jackson (daughter of Michael Jackson) has a substantial role in the first episode. Billie Eilish is in one episode as Eva and shows real promise. Rory Culkin, brother of Macauley, shows up (sans clothing) as a one-night stand of Dre’s. Stephen Glover, who also appeared in “Atlanta,” is a presence and wrote two episodes.
And while we’re mentioning the writing, Malia Obama worked with Nabers to pen the episode “Girl, Bye.” She is credited as a staff writer.
I am not the target audience for this series. I found myself wondering about such practicalities as the disposal of bodies. That is probably from writing novels, where you realize that a keen reader will be calling you out on “plot holes.” We’re all aware of the clean-up of mayhem that we’ve seen Liev Schreiber and Harvey Keitel handle as “fixers” (“Ray Donovan,” “Pulp Fiction”). Even in “The Sopranos” murders would lead to giving Tony Soprano a call to help with clean-up.
In the episodes of “Swarm” that I saw there was little forethought or planning prior to the murders; therefore, there were many plot holes that pointed to potential problems for the perpetrator. I can’t imagine that we are going to be following obsessed fan Dre into prison, but, judging from the lack of any meaningful plotting before she commits the murder, that would be a logical conclusion for the 7 episode series.
“Swarm” will air on Prime Video. The Amazon project premiered at SXSW on Friday, March 10was being released everywhere a week later.
Director Jon S. Baird at the SXSW premiere of “Tetris.”
“Tetris,” the film helmed by Scottish director Jon S. Baird and starring Australian actor Taron Egerton (“Kingsmen: The Secret Service”), screened on March 15th at SXSW, telling a complicated story of how the Russian game Tetris became a worldwide sensation.
Henk Rogers, the Dutch-born American who secured the rights to the game over a period of a year and a half, while dealing with cut-throat competitors and the corrupt Russian governmental system, was onstage after the film screened and said, “It captured a year and a half in my life in two hours.”
Screenwriter Noah Pink (“Tetris”) at SXSW.
The scriptwriter, Noah Pink, described a once-in-a-lifetime scenario where his script happened to be on the right desk at the right time and the rest is history. Brian Grazer and Ron Howard produced, and everyone wondered how this complicated story of international intrigue and double-dealing had remained hidden for so long.
The cast included Russian actor Nikita Efremov, who portrayed the original Russian creator of the game,
Alexey Pajitnov. At film’s end, the two men embraced onstage and described the film as, “Really, a story about the friendship of two guys.” Alexey is aided in fleeing Russia by his American partner.
The ins and outs of the plot are so complicated that even attempting a brief synopsis is a Herculean task. Suffice it to say that the synopsis on IMDB says: “The story of how one of the world’s most popular video games found its way to players around the globe. Businessman Henk Rogers and Tetris inventor Alexey Pajitnov join forces in the U.S.S.R., risking it all to bring Tetris to the masses.”
Following the screening, Director Jon S. Baird said, from the Paramount stage, “It’s been a quite overwhelming reaction from the audience,” which gave the film, at its conclusion, a standing ovation. Of the film’s success he said, “”For me, it’s all in the performances. We had amazing Russian actors. Steven Spielberg said 80% of a film’s success was casting your film properly. The cast was amazing.” He went on to praise the performance of Taron Egerton in the lead role of Henk Rogers.
On Egerton’s part, he felt that the theme was quite universal and was “Really a story abut the friendship of two guys.”
The film releases March 31st and will be showing here in Austin at Alamo Drafthouse Cinemas.
Entrepreneur Henk Rogers embraces Russian inventor of “Tetris” Alexey Pajitnov onstage at the premiere of “Tetris” at SXSW.
“You Can Call Me Bill,” written and directed by Alexandre O. Philippe, screened at the Paramount Theater in Austin on March 16 at SXSW.
The documentary was financed by Legion, which is fan-owned, and all the donors’ names appear in the credits at the end.
The documentary opens in a forest with the quotation, “The clearest way into the Universe is through a forest wilderness.” The director did a nice return to this forest image at the documentary’s end, but the middle contains Shatner pontificating on a variety of subjects and many clips from his work through the years. Ninety-one year old William Shatner, forever Captain Kirk of the Starship Enterprise, is the subject.
William Shatner, subject of the SXSW documentary “You Can Call Me Bill.”
The film had a structure that was projected onscreen:
Prologue: The Miracle
Chapter 1: Love, death and horses
Chapter 2: Masks
Chapter 3: Boldly Go
Chapter 4: Loneliness
Chapter 5: So fragile, so blue
Director Alexandre O. Philippe and William Shatner onstage at SXSW on March 16, 2023.
The director explained that in this structure each portion corresponded to one of Shatner’s original songs. The best song was the last one, “I Want To Be A Tree,” which was Shatner saying he wanted to be cremated after death. Then a Redwood will be planted in his ashes and grow into a mighty tree. At age ninety-one he admitted that he thinks about death all the time, but the director shared that he had visited four cities in four days and keeps a schedule that a much younger man would have difficulty keeping up with. Shatner also recently reconciled with his 64-year-old wife just three years after their divorce.
If the structure for the documentary seems a bit “loosey goosey,” it was. But, as Shatner says in the documentary, “Ooga booga should be part of our lives.” It must have been quite a task to figure out how to structure the ramblings of the star, interesting though they are, and to coordinate them with clips from Shatnr’s body of work and still share insightful stories from throughout the years.
Two stories that stood out for me were Shatner’s remarks about how the original pilot (which appeared to star Jeffrey Hunter in the Captain Kirk lead) was passed on by the network, which then took another run at casting, giving “Star Trek” a second shot, a highly irregular course of action.
The other story that Shatner told involved the moment in time, post “Star Trek,” in July of 1969 when he was flat broke and sleeping in a truck in a remote field, while witnessing men walking on the moon for the first time, a bit of his life that he referred to as “the irony of symmetry.” Better times were ahead.
The clip that I enjoyed the most featured Shatner doing a bit at the ceremony awarding George Lucas a Life Achievement Award. Bill takes the stage and begins to talk, but he pulls out a piece of paper from his pocket midway through that reveals he is there talking about ‘Star Trek” but the invitation was for “Star Wars.” We can see Steven Spielberg and Harrison Ford laughing heartily while seated beside Lucas and “Star Wars” storm troopers escort the confused Captain Kirk offstage.
Director of “You Can Call Me Bill” Alexandre O Philippe.
Shatner’s life advice: “Take care of the inner child. That curiosity is what keeps us alive. The search for love is what keeps us alive. Curiosity equals love.”
In regards to Chapter 1, Shatner said, “Nature or animals or people are what keep us connected.” He emphasized the connectedness of life on planet Earth throughout the one hour and thirty-six minute documentary, which released March 16th after its first showing at SXSW.
On Acting: Shatner says that, “Learning the words is the work of the actor. The rest is just kicks.” When asked if he was a method actor who took the part home after his work day, he responded, “The carpenter doesn’t come home and try to fix the dining room table.” So that would be a no.
Regarding those who have imitated Shatner through the years, the verdict was “Every word is its own sentence.” Various imitators were shown giving his delivery their best shot, in the same way that Christopher Walken is often mimicked.
Shatner’s life philosophy: “Everything is an adventure.” He added, “Do it fully, boldly, courageously. Limit your sense of regret.”
In his discussion of loneliness, Shatner noted that he had “been alone all my life,” ever since his birth in Canada in 1931. He said, “Loneliness is endemic” and noted that he was talking about existential loneliness. Almost three years after the 91-year-old ‘Star Trek’ actor and his 64-year-old spouse divorced, William and Elizabeth recently decided to give their relationship another go. Shatner said: “‘My wife… she is the zest of life.”
Shatner’s trip into space with BlueOrigin on July 20, 2021, has played heavily into his becoming a proponent of trying to save the Earth. He talked about how he cried upon coming back to Earth and says that he thinks now that he was grieving for the Earth. He commented on the “total denial on a global sale of global warming.” He has been promoting efforts to curb global warming and become an activist to save the planet. He said, “The planet is all we have.”
The director filmed half a day per chapter on a massive sound stage, using three cameras, building up to the “I Want To Be A Tree” song that ends the film. was, as noted, mostly Shatner pontificating, with some clips. The information about the actor’s early years was sparse and figuring out the sequence of his rise to fame was up to the audience member. For one thing, getting the opportunity to go on as the understudy for Christopher Plummer in Henry V was helpful to his career.
Shatner, himself, may have given the best review of this work saying, “I believe about 85% of what I say is good and the other 15% is bullshit. His meditations on life, love, grief and loneliness (among other topics) are worth hearing.
Zoe Lister-Jones, a frequent participant at SXSW, has written, directed and stars in a television series (Roku Originals) that takes our heroine and places her in several relationships—usually after a steamy sex scene—each one more puzzling to the central character.
As the series opens, Mae Cannon (Zoe Lister-Jones) is in a 13-year marriage to Elijah (Whitmer Thomas). The marriage has run out of passion and is like “being single together.”
While her girlfriend Gina (Tymika Tafari), with whom she works at a museum, says, “You found your person,” it’s clear that the pair is in a rut.
After a museum showing, husband Elijah bails on the after-party. That puts Mae in a bar alone, and she ends up going home with Eric (Amar Chadha-Patel), a successful composer with an international following. The sex scene is impressive and welcome for the neglected wife, but she wakes up and discovers that she has entered an alternate reality and is now married to the Eric she just slept with. (“You’re just sort of witnessing a version of your life.”)
Zoe Lister-Jones in “Slip,” a Roku original series.
If this sounds confusing to Mae, it is, but it is a tribute to the writer/director/star Ms. Lister-Jones that it is not that confusing to the audience. We soon learn that these multiple lives usually follow a sex scene and the second “alternate reality” finds our girl in a lesbian relationship with Sandy (Emily Hampshire) and the mother to a child having a birthday that day.
The writing is sharp. (“I wasn’t born to speak. I was always born to sit.”) The acting is good. The “Slip” concept is easy to follow and interesting.
Zoe Lister-Jones said she wrote all seven episodes while in quarantine. She gave thanks to Rue Donnelly and Dakota Johnson for “shepherding this from inception,” along with Boatrocker and
Roku. A Toronto composing team (one of the team is a band member of “Destroyer”) provides great musical accompaniment.
Lister-Jones acknowledged that she wanted to “use sex as the centerpiece of each episode, to feel like you are inside the sexuality.” Judging from the episodes we saw at this World Premiere, she succeeded. There is a strong emphasis on female empowerment and female pleasure and in pushing the boundaries.
The writer/director/star admitted to a bit of a fixation on Timothy Chalamet and Barbra Streisand. The latter receives a shout-out via a coffee cup that re-appears and orients us to the fact that Mae has drifted into another alternate reality. (The cup and the white shoes).
It was a refreshingly original work that was quite well done, and it will be fun to see where Zoe Lister-Jones takes the series.
Cast members: Whitmer Thomas, Tymika Tafari and Zoe Lister-Jones onstage on March 16th at SXSW for the Roku original series “Slip.”
Talk to Me Danny and Michael Philippou (“Rocka Rocka”) worked on 2014’s great Australian horror film “The Babadook.”
But this year they are directing a horror film, starring Sophie Wilde and Miranda Otto. It premiered at SXSW and is being distributed by A24, beginning July 28th.
The film opens with pounding intense music at a party. A young man wades through the crowd to a room in the back and pounds on the door, insisting that his brother open the door. When the brother does not open the door, he breaks it down. Mayhem involving a large butcher knife ensues. The Philippou brothers have our attention.
The plot involves a hand that supposedly belonged to a psychic who communicated with the dead. Teenagers come into possession of it, and all hell breaks loose.
You must grasp the hand (supposedly the mummified remains of the psychic who owned and used it previously. You must light a candle and snuff it out when done. You must say “Talk to me,” followed by “I let you in” and that’s when the fun and games begin. Did I mention that you, as the subject doing this for “fun” at a party are tied to the chair and that only 90 seconds must elapse before the candle is blown out, or else the spirit that inhabits you might not leave your body? If you go longer than 90 seconds and happen to die during the time the spirits from limbo are inhabiting your body, they will take your corporeal self over and you are theirs, apparently forever with a very long-term habit of terrorizing and torturing other normal idiots who take up the hand and use it as a party trick.
The Philippou brothers at a Buzz showing of “Talk To Me” at SXSW 2023.
If you’ve followed this, so far, be aware that some studios gave the directors notes on their script that said they must get the history of the hand and explore that more fully. One of the two directors, appearing after the screening, said, “When I read that, I said, WTF is this? I don’t want to do that. We’d get notes like ‘You’re fired if you can’t get these in,’ so we went the indie route.”The moderator noted, with only thinly veiled sarcasm, that U.S. studios have entire offices of people who give filmmakers horrible notes, which the successful directors learn to ignore.
The filmmakers, instead, chose to gather friends and people’s whose opinions on the horror genre they trust(ed); they used their feedback, instead. Asked if they would refuse to use any horror technique seen elsewhere, the answer was, “I found it fun to do a spin on certain tropes. We wanted to have the film be both horror and drama. Life isn’t all one emotion.” The director mentioned films he admires: the Russian film “The Return” or “Memories of Murder.”
The Philippous finally went indie because they had heard and read a lot about studios requiring directors to do things a certain way and the director not having final cut. As one said, “We wanted to make a horror story, not become one.”
Newcomer Sophie Wilde carries most of the movie on her slender shoulders, and she does a great job. The
Sophie Wilde, star of “Talk To Me.”
consensus was that we were in the presence of a movie star. When asked how she got into the frame of mind to do the most grueling scenes, she referenced music and said, “I’m a firm believer in music to get into that mood: techno and ambient to get to a dark place.”
This film is quite the dark place. The make-up people did not get the nod they deserve, as the apparitions that haunt those who use “the hand” were horrifyingly grotesque. Sophie, herself, noted that some of the scenes were shot in an extremely hot, small room and, “I thought I was possessed. I was so hot. I felt like I wasn’t a real human being.”
This is an auspicious beginning with A24 for the Philippous. It was much more creative than the bigger budget “Evil Dead Rise.”
Danny Philippou, Michael Philippou
Stephen Kelliher, Sophie Green, Phil Hunt, Compton Ross, Daniel Negret, Noah Dummett, John Dummett, Jeff Harrison, Ari Harrison, Miranda Otto, Dale Roberts, Danny Philippou, Michael Philippou
Samantha Jennings, Kristina Ceyton
Danny Philippou, Bill Hinzman
Aaron McLisky ACS
Sophie Wilde, Miranda Otto, Alexandra Jensen, Joe Bird, Otis Dhanji, Zoe Terakes, Chris Alosio
“Little Richard: I Am Everything,” a documentary from Lisa Cortes, premiered at SXSW on March 13th.
I’ve saved the best for last, because this was genuinely one of the best documentaries—if not THE best documentary—-that I saw this year (and I saw a lot of them).
There are extensive clips of Little Richard, the flamboyant showman from Macon, Georgia, one of twelve children of Leva Mae and Richard Penniman, a minister who ran bootleg on the side.
Richard was born somewhat crippled (one arm was longer than the other) and queer and his father kicked him out of the house because of his sexual orientation. He found a place to stay at Ann’s Tic Toc speakeasy, where he sang blues and gospel and listened to Sister Rosetta, the Mother of Black soul.
Director of “Little Richard: I Am Everything” Lisa Cortes.
We learn that Billy Wright helped Richard get a record deal and that Esquerita, a musician, taught him to play piano. The technique was boogie woogie on the left and Ike Turner with the right hand. However, the music that Richard was making was considered “race music” and was only allowed on Black stations. The documentary is right when it says, “It says something profound when Black music is the wellspring” for rock and roll. Of course, record producers tried to steal the sound and put white singers like Pat Boone on vinyl.
Little Richard was not much of a businessman and was paid only half a cent a record, which was a very low return. He played to segregated audiences, but he was so popular and so electric that white teenagers broke the color barrier to get into his shows in Black clubs. As Richard said, “My music broke down the walls of segregation.” He mentions Fats Domino and Blueberry Hill, as well as Bo Diddly and B.B. King and others who followed.
Little Richard used make-up and said “I don’t give a damn what they think.” But, ultimately, he lived in a constant state of contradiction because of his religious upbringing and would try to go ‘straight’ multiple times. These were the days of Emmet Till (Sept. 2, 1955) and Richard wanted “the capacity to own the right to be in the world.”
As Bo and Richard said, “We built a hell of a highway and people are still driving on it. And they ain’t paying for it!”
Various singers like Tom Jones, David Bowie, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards pay tribute to Little Richard, who also helped the Beatles out when they were just starting out.
Then, Richard withdrew from rock and roll and enrolled at Oakwood College, a Black conservatory. He thought his music was the devil’s music, and a comet or Sputnik going overhead made him think the world might be coming to an end. He even married Ernestine Harvin, a fellow student, in Los Angeles. She described him as “positive, loving and caring” as a husband.
Richard toured in 1962 on a bill in London with Jet Harris and Sam Cooke. It was in Liverpool that he would meet the Beatles and Billy Preston in Hamburg at the Star Club. English bands, at that time, were very static, but Mick and the boys learned from Little Richard.
In 1964 Little Richard was on “American Bandstand” and, in fact, Dick Clark would organize the only testimonial awards tribute to Little Richard very late in his career, after he returned to music from spreading the word of God. Richard was described as “generous” and “so real” and he spoke up and told the world, at the 1989 induction of Otis Reddng into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, “He’s the root of all this.” Richard would also say, “I feel so real. I feel so unnecessary.”
It can truthfully be said that Little Richard paved the way for everything that followed.
The documentary director previously worked on “All in the Fight for Democracy,” a documentary about Stacey Abrams. She said she wants to “Explore figures and people who move things forward and are a continuation of how change is possible.” She gave credit to Gus Wynner (“Rolling Stone”) for their partnership and said that the documentary took 18 months to make.
For instance, Ernestine Penniman, Richard’s one-time love, was said to be dead, but came forward when the film was in post production. The family, when they finally saw the finished product, said, “You did Richard right.”
She sure did. It’s a terrific documentary and one of the best things at SXSW this year.
Bob Odenkirk and Mirielle Enos onstage at the Stateside Theater in Austin, Texas, at SXSW, on March 11, 2023.
“Lucky Hank” is Bob Oderkirk, in his first television outing since leaving “Better Call Saul.” The premier episode of the AMC+ series premiered at SXSW on March 12th (Oscar day), showing once and once only at the Stateside Theater in Austin.
The series owes much to the Pulitzer Prize-winning book on which it is based, “Straight Man,” by Richard Russo.
The synopsis for the series reads: “An English department chairman at an underfunded college, Professr Hank Devereaux toes the line between midlife crisis and full-blown meltdown, navigating the offbeat chaos in his personal and professional life.” As IMDB further says, William Henry Devereaux, Jr., spiritually suited to playing left field but forced by a bad hamstring to try first base, is the unlikely chairman of the English department at Railton University. Over the course of a single convoluted week, he threatens to execute a duck, has his nose slashed by a feminist poet, discovers that his secretary writes better fiction than he does, suspects his wife of having an affair with his dean, and finally confronts his philandering elderly father, the one-time king of American Literary Theory, at an abandoned amusement park”
If this all sounds like a great vehicle for Bob Odenkirk, you’re right. The humor and sarcasm are on full display in this clip.
The cast, headed by Odenkirk, is stellar. Mirielle Enos (“World War Z,” “The Killing”) plays Hanks’ wife, Lily, and she is a revelation. In the Q&A following the screening, she admitted that she “wanted to play a less closeted woman.” Her serious role in “The Killing” made her a natural choice for screenwriters Paul Lieberstein and Aaron Zelman, who had worked with her on “The Killing.” Those representing the premiere in Austin referred to the cast as “spectacular.”
The writers are similarly spectacular. Although credit must also be given to the source material, as the writers admit that they constantly “went back to the book” while also adding depth to Hank’s character.
Bob Odenkirk, onstage after the screening, talked about how he ended up working this hard so soon after “Better Call Saul” ended. “I had said yes to the show. I really thought it would take forever. It didn’t.” Factor in a heart attack that Odenkirk described as, “what happens when you don’t take your heart medication” and here he is in an 8-episode series that he praised as “A place for everyone to do their best” and “A lot of variety on a journey that goes somewhere.” Odenkirk added that it was “Great use of modern TV. We had 4 different directors and travel alterations. The stories and characters progress and it is more like an 8-episode movie.”
Bob Odenkirk and cast members of “Lucky Hank”, streaming on AMC+ on March 19th.
He also praised the dream cast and said, of his character, “He’s so different from Saul, who was a loner. There are people in the right relationships. You love your wife and then, if you’re married long enough, you hate them.” (This brought laughter and an admonition from the writers, “Bob! Your wife is in the audience.”) Odenkirk continued, “If it’s a great relationship, you find your way back and you don’t even know how.” He felt that Saul and Kim in “Better Call Saul” were loners, but “I liked the way this guy relates to other people.” Pointing out the fundamental differences between his Saul character and Hank he said, “It’s fun to do wildly different things. It’s one of the reasons I went into this business.”
For me, the bad is that I currently don’t have AMC+. In order to watch this wildly entertaining series, I am going to have to subscribe, which means that my spouse (of 55 years) is going to be gifted with a subscription to the series (which premieres on March 19th). Since his birthday is March 21st, thank you, Hank, for figuring out what to give the man who has everything. This looks like a totally enjoyable, witty, well-written and well-acted 8-episode series that will entertain mightily.
I had not planned to write a review of “Raging Grace,” although I saw it. There is no need for a picky critic to deride the work of a new filmmaker which was 80% fine—until the end.
“RAGING GRACE” is, so far, one of the only feature films I have seen at SXSW, as I’ve devoted much more time to seeing one-time-only premieres of television series or specials. (“Love & Death,” “Lucky Hank,” etc.) I thought the film was overlong and that the ending fell apart. It was promising up to the final one-third, which would have been the last 33 minutes of the 99 minute film. The Filipino lead and her young daughter (the “Grace” of the title) were fine, and the sets were ornate and impressive.
There are only so many hours in a day. I have focused on television premieres that looked interesting and documentaries. For a variety of reasons (mostly time, but sometimes subject matter) I have not attended or reviewed animated films or shorts. I drive in from a suburb (Manchaca) each day, and it doesn’t make sense to spend half an hour driving in, pay $32.50 to park, and have a film that only lasts 10 minutes.
When I saw this film, the first Filipino feature to be included at SXSW, I was impressed by the acting and the lavish English manse that appeared prominently in the film. The first two-thirds of the film were excellent. For me, the ending fell apart. It seemed overlong; people were climbing under the railing in the theater to depart early. That was about the point where the film introduced 2 look-alike characters whose identities are not clearly explained and a chorus of Filipino singers were prominently featured. Other cultural touches (food, Tagalog sub-titles, etc.) were impressive.
There were many good plot twists in the film. But there was a lot, plotwise, that was left unclear.
There just weren’t as many “narrative features” this year at SXSW.
And then this happened.
Congratulations to Director/Screenwriter Paris Zarcilla.
May he continue to make feature films that are as promising as the first 2/3 of this film.
NARRATIVE FEATURE COMPETITION
Presented by Panavision Winner:Raging Grace Director/Screenwriter: Paris Zarcilla, Producer: Chi Thai
“Raging Grace’s heady blend of horror, history, and midnight humor announces the arrival of an exciting new filmmaking talent in writer-director Paris Zarcilla. The story of a Filipina house cleaner and her young daughter confronting Britain’s racial and class divides, Raging Grace is both frank and elusive, a film that subverts expectations on its way to a stirring conclusion. In cleverly employing genre tropes to explore vast socio political matters, Zarcilla has crafted a resonant, urgent work about labor, legacy, and diaspora.”
“Being Mary Tyler Moore” documentary screens at SXSW on March 13, 2023.
Director James Adolphus, who helmed the documentary “Being Mary Tyler Moore,” was asked about his exposure to Mary Tyler Moore before he undertook making this extraordinarily intimate two- hour film about her life.
He admitted that he had never watched any of her shows, that she was more a figure that his mother knew. (“I knew her from the lyric in the Weezer song.”) He then said, “It’s odd to make a film about someone you don’t know and to fall in love with someone after the fact. She felt like my cousin, my sister. She had to fight back against the patriarchy.”
The documentary is an attempt to reconcile the insecure woman who looked so proud and regal with the real woman inside who was not that way at all. It was an attempt to show the modest, humble person beneath the veneer. With the help of many clips from “The Dick Van Dyke Show” and “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” it more than succeeds.
One week after the 18-year-old MTM graduated from high school, she got a job portraying Happy Hotpoint in television ads. The problem was that the young Mary had married Richard Meeker in 1954, when she was eighteen. She soon turned up pregnant, giving birth to her only child, Richard, and losing herHotpoint job in the process.
Later in the film we learn that Moiore’s own mother would gve birth to a daughter, Elizabeth, only a few months after Richard’s birth, giving Mary a sister, as well as a brother, John, who was 7 years younger. There were references to Mary’s mother’s alcoholism, but Moore’s parents were married more than 50 years. Her mother eventually sobered up and even took on duties caring for the two youngsters, Elizabeth and Richard, who were so close in age.
Mary’s marriage to Meeker did not last. She would separate and then marry again almost immediately, in 1962, to Grant Tinker, to whom she would remain married for 18 years. Her career, in 1959, included a stint as Sexy Sam, the faceless voice on “Richard Diamond, Private Investigator.” When Mary asked for a raise from her $85 per episode salary, she was fired.
Director James Adolphus of “Being Mary Tyler Moore” on March 13, 2023 at SXSW. (Photo by Connie Wilson).
Enter Carl Reiner, a comic mentor who envisioned her as the character Laurie Petrie, the wife in a 1960 pilot dubbed “Head of the Family,” The show eventually morphed into “The Dick Van Dyke Show.” When David Susskind suggested, in a somewhat offensive interview, that women should not work, Mary said, “I could waste a lot more energy sitting around chatting with other gals all day.” She became exactly what the network was horrified by: a contemporary woman. She also insisted on wearing pants on television, which broke new ground. (As aformer junior high school teacher who insisted on wearing pants suits in 1969 at a time when they were banned by the school, I could relate.)
Throughout the documentary, we learn just how groundbreaking Mary Tyler Moore would become. This was just the beginning. In interviews, Mary referred to the period as “An unenlightened time. I believe in figuring out a way to contribute.”
At the end of the 5-year run of “The Dick Van Dyke Show” Mary was a hot property who charmed men without antagonizing their wives. She had a comic flair that no less an expert than Lucille Ball recognized and applauded. She was offered a picture deal with Universal and—unusual for the time—had the right to refuse to do pictures that she did not think would benefit her image.However, in order to be given permission to star in a musical version of “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” on Broadway, Mary would give up that right of refusal and, following the Broadway bomb the show became, would end up in films like “Change of Habit” (1969) opposite Elvis.
In 1968, when she was 32, a miscarriage led to her diagnosis as diabetic. With a blood sugar level of 700, she was fortunate to have been discovered to have the disease, which would end her life at the age of 80 in 2017. Friends credit her Dr. husband with extending her life at least ten years.
Broadway having bombed, CBS offered her her own show. Mary and Grant Tinker jumped at the chance. Tinker saw that forming their own company would be beneficial and Mary Tyler Moore Enterprises was born, with Tinker at the helm and Mary the major talent. At one point, the company had six shows on the air at once.
Meanwhile, Tinker hired Jim Brooks and Allan Burns to write the show, which would place Mary Tyler Moore in Minneapolis as a woman making it on her own at the age of thirty.I remember how groundbreaking it was for the goal to be not just to marry, but to be independent and live on one’s own. “That Girl” with Marlo Thomas had a similar single girl protagonist, but her main mission was to find a husband.
At this point, in real life Mary Tyler Moore had never been on her own, but had been married since she was 18 years old. The entire idea of society’s pushing young women into marriage was covered in 1979’s “Kramer versus Kramer,” where Meryl Streep articulated this “never been on my own” status all the way to 5 Oscars. As someone who lived it, I can vouch that the goal was to “have a ring on your finger” by the end of college, at the latest, a goal that did not appeal to my own working mother or to me. Like Mary Tyler Moore’s onscreen character Mary Richard, this was “ahead of the times.”
Mary Tyler Moore lived the fifties ideal of marriage after school and as soon as possible. She remained mired in marital bliss, marrying Tinker immediately after divorcing Meeker. She remained a married woman until she was 44 years old, when she and Tinker divorced (1980)and she moved to New York City. She remarried for a third time in 1982 to Dr. Robert Levine, 14 years her junior.
The show that Mary Tyler Moore launched, about an independent thirtyish woman making it on her own, was a risk. It was almost killed by a terrible time slot, until Fred Silverman took over CBS, axed a lot of comedies like “Green Acres’ and moved “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” into the best time slot on television. It was, as Rosie O’Donnell termed it, “Appointment TV.” Silverman placed her show on the same night as “All in the Family” and alongside Bob Newhart’s show on Saturday nights. The rest is history, as the talented cast garnered multiple awards and still has one of the best endings of any series sit-com on television, past or present.
Lena Waithe answers questions about “Being Mary Tyler Moore” onstage at the Zach Theater during SXSW 2023 on March 13, 2023.
Mary Tyler Moore won 7 Emmies, 3 Golden Globes, and earned an Oscar nomination (for “Ordinary People”). And, as the documentary terms it, “As Mary Tyle Moore goes, so goes the nation.” This meant welcoming the 1973 Supreme Court decision to allow women the right to decide whether or not to have an abortion.In 1980, immediately after her divorce from Tinker, Mary conquered Broadway with her performance replacing Tom Conti in the play “Whose Life Is It, Anyway?” Meanwhile, she described herself as “going through adolescence” in New York City, as she was said to be involved with Michael Lindsay-Hogg, the director of the play, and was socializing after years of marriage. However, she was drinking more than she should have been, and, as he noted, sometimes that could lead to belligerence. She would curb this possibly inherited tendency towards alcoholism by a stint at the Betty Ford Clinic.
In 1980, Mary Tyler Moore was nominated as Best Actress for her role as Beth in “Ordinary People” opposite Donald Sutherland and Timothy Hutton. Director Robert Redford said he had always been fascinated by the possibility of a dark side to MTM, who might have been brittle inside with a pensiveness, anger, hurt, and confusion over such issues as her inability to connect meaningfully with her son Richard.
Also in 1980, Mary’s son Richard, then aged 24, would die of a gun shot wound. The documentary says he had a gun collection, was inherently clumsy, and it was an accident. Three weeks after his death, MTM would be nominated for an Oscar as Best Actress for her role in “Ordinary People.” She would also lose her younger sister, Elizabeth, to a drug overdose at the age of 21. Her younger brother John would die of kidney cancer.
Mary met Dr. Robert Levine, her third husband, when he cared for her ailing mother in 1982. The line in the documentary is that “She fell in love for the first time in her life.” Yet Grant Tinker’s children, who became her step-children, testify to the good years with Mary Tyler Moore as their step-mom. The 14-years-younger Levine would remain her husband till the end, caring for her in their bucolic Connecticut home. The couple was devoted to one another and Levine set the plans in motion to produce this documentary, despite turning down many earlier overtures.
The now 73-year-old Levine reached out to Lena Waithe (“Ready Player One,” “Master of None”) after reading an interview in “Vanity Fair,” in which she expressed an interest in doing a documentary about Mary Tyler Moore’s life.When asked about his decision to share his private film of Mary with Producer/Director/Writer Waite, Dr.Levine, an executive producer, said, to laughter, “To have a Black queer girl from the South side of Chicago want to tell her story. Are you kidding me?”
Dr. Levine was asked what surprised him after seeing the film. He responded, “I had never seen the bridal shower footage with Betty White and others. It was simple and natural. She talked about me making her a tuna fish sandwich in the middle of the night. Things like that had the most impact for her. It is the simple kindnesses that really have the most impact.The journey of her life was the journey of women in this country. As a human being, she felt the need to keep going forward. She was ahead of the times. I didn’t want a derivative feeling. A new voice coming forward (Lena Waithe) was interesting to me.”
Waithe added, “I wanted to give a real sense of how she was as a person.” The decision to use voice-over(s) rather than the talking head documentary approach was Waithe’s.
The documentary is long, at 2 hours, but it is very good. While an interview with Rona Barrett is over-used and David Susskind comes off poorly as an ultra-conservative fossil of the times in his onscreen interview, I would highly recommend this HBO documentary, funded by Fifth Season, if you are or were a fan of Mary Tyler Moore’s work. She helped raise over $2 billion for Juvenile Diabetes and gave so many other working women a model that remains groundbreaking.
Venue: SXSW Film Festival (Documentary Spotlight) Distributor: HBO Production companies: HBO Documentary Films, Fifth Season, Hillman Grad, The Mission Entertainment, Good Trouble Studios Director: James Adolphus Producers: Ben Selkow, James Adolphus, Lena Waithe, Rishi Rajani, Debra Martin Chase, Andrew C. Coles, Laura Gardner Executive producers: S. Robert Levine, Michael Bernstein, Nancy Abraham, Lisa Heller Cinematography: James Adolphus Editor: Mariah Rehmet Archival Producer: Libby Kreutz Music: Theodosia Roussos 2 hour