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 2 of 46

“Split At the Root” Is Documentary About the Southern Border Crisis & the Zero Tolerance Policy of DJT

Linda Goldstein Knowlton, Director of “Split at the Root” at SXSW.

In looking over the documentaries that were part of SXSW 2022 I was looking forward to “Split at the Root,” directed by Linda Goldstein Knowlton, the story of the separation of mothers from their children as a result of the 2018 Trump Administration’s Zero Tolerance policy at our southern border. It turned out to be extremely long (100 minutes) and mainly a talking head approach featuring the women held hostage in the detention cells at the border. Yeni Rodriguez speaks Spanish and there are English subtitles, but, honestly, the documentary seemed as though it were 3 hours long. Judicious editing could have made this a much better work. I’d recommend watching Dan Parkland’s “Unhinged” as a good example of how to edit a documentary.

Yeni Gonzalez is a good spokesperson for the cause. She memorized all the names, phone numbers and addresses of other female detainees  at the Eloy, Arizona, La Palma Correctional Center so that the U.S. group could contact them to try to help them. Another female detainee is Rosayra Pablo Cruz who sold her house in Guatemala in order to get the money to try to bring herself and two of her four children to the United States.  They began the arduous journey by truck from Guatemala to the Mexican border and were nearly kidnapped while en route. Also, according to the documentary, three years had passed and she had not seen her daughters, left home in Guatemala, in that time.

On 6/14/2018 six hundred children were removed from their parents’ custody and put into “the ice box,” as the detainees called the wire detention cages, because of the Zero Tolerance Policy. Rosayra said, “I wanted to come to the U.S. to have a better life, not to be separated from my children.” After days, a $12,000 bond was required to release Rosayra, (who, of course, did not have $12,000). It was three months before Rosayra saw her two sons again and it has been three years since she has seen her daughters. In her deepest despair a Biblical verse came to her (Matthew 6/4/30):  “If your Father provides for the birds, how much more will He provide for you?”

“Split at the Root” chronicles the tragedy of families separated at the border during the Trump administration.

A group of women who thought the Zero Tolerance Policy was unconscionable began organizing informally to try to help the women incarcerated in the cages at the border. They called themselves Immigrant Families Together and began gathering money online through GoFundMe campaigns to bond out the women. For Yeni Gonzalez’s $7,500 bond, the money was gathered within 12 hours, but the question was how to get her from Arizona to New York City. It ended up being necessary to do so via caravan, with the American women calling the Zero Tolerance Policy “an unspeakable shame.” The word from Rosayra and Yeni, “Fight, because with the help of these women you will succeed.”

By July 4th three women at a time were being bonded out. By the end of July, 2019, a federal judge ordered the border officials to stop separating families.  Mass releases led to chaotic scenes. Thirty-seven children were left stranded in vans for 11 to 39 hours because of the poor administration of the government’s policies.  A child with a broken femur was put into the cage and given only an aspirin for pain. One detainee, Irmi, Yeni’s roommate while in detention,  was diagnosed with 4th stage cancer of the esophagus. She also had tumors In her stomach, but she was unable to get any medical treatment while in custody and, consequently, died soon after being released. A mother who had a C-section was placed back into the caged area, sleeping on hard concrete with her newborn baby, for 3 days.

Of 2,551 children separated from their parents, as of July, 2018, 517 remain separated from their parents, despite the July, 2018, ruling to stop separating families. Asylum hearings need to be scheduled to remain in the U.S. The asylum acceptance rate is normally between 40% to 97%. In 2020 the number of children listed as being separated from their parents was listed as 4,368.

The end statistic listed in the documentary is that 2,127 kids still have not been reunited with their parents. One hundred and twenty-four bonds have been paid by the organization, which is a non-profit, staffed by volunteer women.

Despite the failure to make this documentary into the good documentary it could have been, the information contained in it is important to share with the American public.  I, like most American mothers, am appalled at the Zero Tolerance Policy of the Trump Administration and how it affected these immigrant women. The Trump Administration’s incompetence in not even keeping records of the families they separated, in some cases forever, is unconscionable. (Even the Nazis kept good records, at least).

The Trump Administration’s misdeeds of this sort are akin to the early days of our nation when the U.S. government sold the Indians down the stream. The misdeeds of the Trump Administration will forever be a black mark in American history, and we haven’t even revealed all of his crimes against humanity yet.

“The Last Movie Stars,” Directed by Ethan Hawke, @ SXSW 2022

Ethan Hawke helms “The Last Great Movie Stars” at SXSW.

The documentary “The Last Movie Stars” at SXSW from CNN Films and HBO Max is helmed by Ethan Hawke. He was approached to take an  in-depth look at the life and careers of Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward. Joe Rudge gets credit for the music. The filmed interviews with various luminaries are explained by Director Ethan Hawke as having been done when Newman was still alive. For reasons that are not explained, the tapes were destroyed,  but someone with a great deal of foresight had commissioned a transcript of the remarks of those who were close to Paul and Joanne.

So, we have interviews that were actually done with people like Gore Vidal—an important individual in their lives— and some remarks from Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, themselves. Ethan Hawke approached an All-Star cast and asked them to read the parts of these famous interview subjects as though portraying the famous voices of yesteryear .

Therefore, we hear George Clooney’s voice giving us Paul Newman’s remarks, etc. Other All-Star cast members in the project included Mark Ruffalo, Karen Allen, Steve Zahn, Maya Hawke,  Billy Crudup, Alessandro Nivola, Sam Rockwell, Zoe Krazitz, Oscar Isaac, Ewan McGregor, Bobby Canavale, Josh Hamilton, Laura Linney, Vincent D’Onofrio, Brooks Ashmanskas (as Gore Vidal) and others. Mario Andretti co-produced and Martin Scorsese executive produced.

Sanford Meisner, Joanne’s New York City acting teacher, said of Joanne Woodward (now 92 years old and suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease) that the reason she went into acting  was “it was the only thing she knew how to do.” Joanne’s mother was an avid movie buff and one funny story has a 9-year-old Joanne jumping into Laurence Olivier’s lap inside his limo as he arrived for the premiere of “Gone With the Wind” accompanying his then wife Vivian Leigh, (as Joanne’s mother had bought the pair tickets to the World Premiere.)

Joanne and Paul made 16 films together, and Paul directed Joanne in her Oscar nominated role in 1968’s “Rachel, Rachel.” Although Paul had directed the film, he was snubbed in the category of Best Director of 1969, which, Joanne admitted, bothered her.

The remark is made that “They presided over the end of the theater and the advent of television” during their lengthy careers. They did 100 TV shows in 2 years.

Newman is the only American actor to have been nominated for Best Actor over a 5-decade period. The couple’s last film together, 50 years after their first, was “Mr. and Mrs. Bridge.”

“The Last Movie Stars” at SXSW, 2022.

They met when both were understudies for “Picnic” on Broadway  in 1953, although there might have been an earlier meeting at their mutual agent’s office that did not go particularly well.  “Picnic” won the Pulitzer Prize for William Inge’s first play. Paul said, of meeting Joanne, “We recognized in each other a couple of orphans and orphans have a healthy appetite for everything.” Years later, he would say, of their enduring marriage, “I think the glue that held me and Joanne together was the thought that anything was possible. The promise of everything was there from the very beginning.”

It is only fair and accurate to mention that Paul was already  married to his first wife and had three children with her when he and Joanne met in 1953. He wanted to marry Woodward, but his first wife would not give him a divorce, so the affair went on for five years before the first Mrs. Paul Newman relented. Paul and Joanne subsequently had three daughters of their own. Once, when questioned about Paul Newman’s appeal as a sex symbol on a talk show appearance, Joanne said, “I don’t get it. He’s over 40, has six kids and snores.” She also said, in 1987, of acting, in general: “Acting is like sex. You should do it, not talk about it.”

One interesting fact was the close friendship with novelist and well-known radical/homosexual Gore Vidal, to whom Joanne was once engaged. Even after she broke it off with Vidal to marry Paul, the Newmans briefly lived at Vidal’s  home.

Paul’s desire to be taken seriously as an actor was mentioned. He admired Brando’s appearance in “On the Waterfront,” which, he said, was the first film that made an impression on him. He wanted acceptance from such luminaries as Ben Gazzara, Elia Kazan, Tennessee Williams, Eli Wallach and James Dean. In fact, both Paul and Joanne auditioned for parts in “East of Eden.”

When James Dean died in a car crash (September 30, 1955, at the age of 24), Paul Newman’s star rose. Newman always said, of his early outsider status, “I’m not a true eccentric. I’ve got both feet firmly planted in Shaker Heights, Ohio. There are people that didn’t consider me an actor.”

Paul’s film debut was in 1954’s “The Silver Chalice.” He considered it embarrassingly bad, although it had a star-studded cast. The 1954 film had Oscar winner Jack Palance and the female lead was Virginia Mayo. Others in the cast included a very young Natalie Wood (age 16; Newman was 30 and it was their only film together), Lorne Greene as the narrator in his debut screen role, E.G. Marshall and Pier Angeli. Newman had auditioned for James Dean’s role in “East of Eden” (1955) and so, when the two were working on neighboring lots, Dean went over to visit Newman on the set of “The Silver Chalice” and met Pier Angeli, where he met the love of his short life.

When “The Silver Chalice” ran on television in 1966, Paul Newman took out ads in the Hollywood trade papers, calling it “the worst motion picture produced during the 1950s,” apologizing for his performance, and asking people not to watch the film. His action had the opposite effect.

That had the opposite effect. Many people tuned in to watch it on television. Newman once screened the movie for friends at his house, giving them whistles, pots, and wooden spoons, and encouraging them to make noisy critiques of the film.

My list of the Top 20 Paul Newman Films:

1)     “Butch Cassidy and the Sun Dance Kid”  (1969) – Is there anyone who was alive and going to the movies in the year 1969 when George Roy Hill directed Newman and Robert Redford in the William Goldman written script that doesn’t think of Newman as “Butch?” Think of the scene where Newman is urging Redford to jump from a high cliff, to avoid those pursuing them so relentlessly that they end up in Bolivia. Redford admits, reluctantly, that he can’t swim. Newman laughs and says, “The fall alone’ll kill ya’!” And they jump.

2)     “Cool Hand Luke” – (1967) – “What we have here is a failure to communicate.” Fifty hard-boiled eggs. Strother Martin’s green teeth. Luke as a symbol of man’s indomitable spirit. A classic. Newman was nominated for the  Oscar, but did not win.

3)    “The Hustler” – (1961) As “Fast Eddie” Felsen, he took on Minnesota Fats (Jackie Gleason) in the pool game of the century. Newman was nominated for the 1962 Oscar, but did not win.

4)    “The Color of Money” – (1986) – Reteamed as “Fast Eddie” with Tom Cruise, Newman took home the Oscar for his role in this film. It might not have been as good as some others on this list, but this one won him the gold statuette. He is the only American actor to be nominated for Oscars over 5 decades.

5)   “Hud” – (1963) – The scene with Patricia Neal in the kitchen oozes sexuality. Another movie for which he was Oscar-nominated in 1964, but did not win.

6)    “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” – 1958 – As Brick Pollitt opposite Elizabeth Taylor’s Maggie the Cat, the pair personified hot, steamy sex. He even looked good on crutches.

7)     “Sweet Bird of Youth” – (1962)  Chance Wayne (Newman’s character) was as hot as Brick. Geraldine Page was the beneficiary in this Tennessee Williams play made into a movie.

8)   “The Long, Hot Summer” – (1958) – As Ben Quick, Newman provided the steam in this movie based on a William Faulkner novel “The Hamlet.” The cast he worked with included Joanne Woodward, Anthony Franciosa, Orson Welles, Lee Remick and Angela Lansbury.

9) “The Verdict” – (1982) . As Frank Galvin, an attorney with a drinking problem, Newman gave an Oscar-worthy performance and was, in fact, nominated for a 1983 Oscaar, another one he didn’t win. The movie received 5 nominations. Lindsay Crouse as Nurse Kaitlin Costello was great.

10) “Road to Perdition” (2002) – Newman came storming back in the role of John Rooney, co-starring with Tom Hanks in the film based on the Max Allan Collins graphic novel, which was based on an actual gangster named John Looney who terrorized the streets of Rock Island. The gangster’s name was changed  from Looney to Rooney and Jude Law was added as a villainous photographer. Daniel Craig has a role. This Sam Mendes-directed film was to be Newman’s last “great” role, and also the last time that legendary cinematographer Conrad L Hall would do the lighting, which is superb. [Hall was reputed to be the best in the business and the last man working who could call for the right camera lighting without a light meter.]

The second ten are included to show the breadth of this fine actor’s career, but the “Must See(s)” are above.

11) “Absence of Malice” (1981) – Playing Michael Colin Gallagher with Sidney Pollack directing, the film garnered 3 Oscar nominations and co-starred Sally Field, Bob Balaban and Melinda Dillon.

12) “The Sting” – 1973 – Reteaming Newman (as Harry Gondorff) and Robert Redford as con men. Arguably, belongs in the Top Ten. A great Scott Joplin song or two didn’t hurt.

13) “The Drowning Pool” – (1975) – Lew Harper (from 1966) comes back to the scene as a gumshoe detective. Co-starring Joanne Woodward and Anthony Franciosa. The film gave ingénue Melanie Griffith, daughter of Tippi Hedren, her first big part.

14) “Harper” – (1966)- Lew Harper’s first appearance on the scene as detective extraordinaire.

15) “Somebody Up There Likes Me” – (1956) – The life story of Rocky Graziano, Newman rebounded from “The Silver Chalice,” which he considered so bad that he bought up all the prints and publicly apologized.

16) “Slap Shot” – (1977) – Reggie “Reg” Dunlop – Hockey. George Roy Hill directed. Some familiar co-stars resurface, including Strother Martin (from “Cool Hand Luke”), Lindsay Crouse (from “The Verdict”) and Michael Ontkean.

17) “Sometimes A Great Notion” – (1971) – Logging story. Nominated for 2 Oscars. Based on the Ken Kesey novel. Co-starred Henry Fonda, Lee Remick and Richard Jaeckel, whose scene when he is trapped under a log and will soon drown if the log cannot be removed is worth the rental.

18) “Exodus” – (1960) – Ari Ben Canaan. A movie about the formation of Israel based on the Leon Uris best-selling novel.

19) “From the Terrace” – (1960). Newman played David Alfred Eaton. “An ambitious young lawyer chooses a loveless marriage and an unfulfilling life, in exchange for a successful Wall Street career,” says the International Movie Data Base.

20)  “Towering Inferno” – (1974) –   Newman played Doug Roberts and there was talk of strife between Newman and Steve McQueen, who played the fire chief assigned to rescue the hapless individuals trapped in a high-rise building. It had a great cast: Newman, McQueen, William Holden, Faye Dunaway, Fred Astaire, Jennifer Jones, Robert Vaughn, Robert Wagner and…..wait for it….O.J. Simpson. (Yes, that O.J. Simpson.)

I was teaching junior high school students at the time, and we took busloads of students, who had been participating in some after-school “craft activity” classes, to see a double bill of “Towering Inferno” and “Earthquake.” Wags dubbed it “the Shake-and-Bake special.” My friend, Nelson Peterson, the history teacher, put  a sign on MY bus that said, “HOOKERS: this bus” because the students in my group  had been taking part in an after-school class on rug-hooking. I’m still smiling.

I truly enjoyed “The Last Great Movie Stars” at SXSW 2022 and, if I slighted Joanne Woodward’s career, let’s not forget that Paul is gone (at age 83, from cancer, in 2008), while Joanne is still with us. For those of you who only know Paul Newman from his spaghetti sauce and salad dressings, try to see all of the above films. We’ll work on Joanne’s “Best” list if and when she rejoins the love of her life, Paul Newman. In the meantime, if you see this film screening on television, you can recapture bits of their career through film and interviews.

(*NOTE:  This is the first chapter of a 6-chapter documentary series.)



“Watcher” Screens at SXSW, 2022

Maika Monroe, the blonde star of “It Follows” (2014), has 33 credits, to date. I first became aware of her work in “Hot Summer Nights” at SXSW in 2017. Since then, I have made a point of trying to catch others among her 33 screen credits.

This is a good one to start watching this actress, if you are unaware of her work. She carries this entire film on her slim shoulders and does a great job.

Maika plays lead character Julia, who is married to Francis (Karl Glusman). The couple has recently relocated to Bucharest, Romania for Karl’s job, which makes his fluent command of the native tongue very useful in his marketing position. Julia is studying the language, but is just a beginner.

“Watcher” writer/director Chloe Okuno.

The first scene shows Maika riding in a cab to their apartment and, as the opening proceeds, Writer/Director Chloe Okuno, in collaboration with Cinematographer Benjamin Kirk Nielsen pulls the camera back to show the young couple on the couch of their living room, panning out to the street to watch the couple through the window as they get cozy on the couch.

This entire film is about watching, but the watching is by a creepy-looking guy who lives across the street from the young couple.—or is it? In the early building sections of the film, as tension is built nicely through appropriately tense pounding music (Nathan Halpern). The city, itself, often rainy and dark, is a character. When you are a non-native speaker who does not speak nor understand the language that surrounds you, you feel  isolated and alone. Add to that Francis’ (Karl Glusman’s) heavy work schedule and Julia is left to her own devices for long stretches of time, including late into the night.

Coincidentally, there is a serial killer known as “the Spider” who is on the loose at the time the young couple has relocated to this forbidding old city. “The Spider” has murdered at least four women. He has decapitated at least two of them.

The part of “the watcher” from across the street, reminiscent of “Rear Window’s” plot, is well-played by actor Burn Gorman. For  most of the film we are left to decide for ourselves if Julia is panicking unnecessarily or if she has a legitimate concern when she thinks “the Watcher” is following her in a supermarket or when she encounters him, perhaps by accident, on the subway. After all, he lives in the neighborhood; does that make him a bad guy or a misunderstood social isolate who lives with his elderly father?

Maika Monroe in “Watcher” at SXSW.

Another character in the film is Madalina Anea as Irina, the next-door neighbor. Irina is a pole dancer in the area, which makes you wonder about the wisdom of selecting this particular part of the city as your new neighborhood. I could relate to the “watching” out the window at all hours. When on a trip to Europe with a girlfriend, we unwisely spent one night near the train station in Frankfurt, which, as it turned out, was the Red Light district. We watched “the girls” going off to work beginning at 4 p.m. and coming back in the wee hours of the morning. We were too afraid to leave our seedy hotel to even venture out for food. When we tried to take a picture of one of the working girls on the street, she was definitely unhappy with us and gave us short shrift in guttural German. Not a good idea to be a woman, alone, in that part of the city. Julia’s entire neighborhood seems unsafe and the gloomy, rainy weather that often sets in simply adds to the vibe.

Julia’s mate, Francis, (in addition to having a name that hasn’t been popular in the U.S. for men since about 1902), can be an insensitive clod at times. He makes a tasteless joke about “the Spider” keeping his terror-struck wife company because his own work schedule is so crowded and keeping him so busy at a social gathering with his boss and their wives. Julia has learned just enough Romanian by now to understand the joke, and she is not amused.  Francis tells his frightened wife, at one point, “So I should just jump to the craziest conclusion, like you?” She is not amused by his growing indifference and lack of belief in her accounts of their neighbor’s voyeuristic stalking.

Imagine if the boy who cried wolf in that well-known story was then attacked by wolves. What would happen? Would he survive? Would he simply be ignored regarding the wolves until wolves appeared and it was too late to help him?

This film from an Abu Dhabi backer, Image films, answers that question in this indie film written by director Chloe Okuno in collaboration with Zack Ford and directed by Okuno. The movie premieres in theaters on June 3, 2022. This is one film at SXSW that did not also stream. It was a good entry  in the horror/thriller genre.


“The Big Conn” Premieres at SXSW; Streams on Apple TV May 6th

The log line for the Apple TV documentary “The Big Conn” is as follows: “Eric C. Conn was a lawyer living a little too large in eastern Kentucky…until two whistleblowers realized he was at the center of government fraud worth over half a billion dollars, one of the largest in U.S. history. And that was just the beginning.” The investigative documentary series is helmed by James Lee Hernandez and Brian Lazarte.

The four-part investigative series had its World Premiere at SXSW and it will launch, globally, on May 6th. It is a fascinating look at a man who is described as “an evil Robin Hood” for securing Social Security Disability payments for his Kentucky and West Virginia clients in 30 days, at a time when the Social Security Administration was backlogged for 18 months. In the process, Eric Christopher Conn made big bucks and spent the money just as fast as he got it. His office employees document a globe-trotting habit of traveling for one week of every month to exotic ports of call such as Thailand, Ecuador, Nicaragua and Las Vegas. In many instances (16, at least) Eric would return to Pikesville, Kentucky with a brand-new bride.

The mind boggles merely at the concept of someone loony enough to marry 16 times. He can’t even keep his wives’ nationalities straight, but managed to list 5 United States citizens, 5 from Columbia, 1 from Vietnam, 1 from the Philippines, 1 from Ecuador and 1 from the Dominican Republic. (Later, he admitted that he might have forgotten one or two of his wives from foreign countries). The first thought that pops into your head is, “Who does that?”

The answer to that rhetorical question is given by one attorney involved in the case, who says: “You’re dealing with a guy who doesn’t have a moral compass. You can’t get mad at a snake for being a snake.” Trey Alford, an Assistant District Attorney who ultimately refused to give up on the case, described it as “the ultimate trifecta: bad lawyers, bad judges and bad doctors.”

Despite the heroic and persistent efforts of two honest Master Docket Clerks to blow the whistle on Eric’s high, wide and handsome shenanigans, it took over 6 years for anything to be done. Conn had made himself a Big Name in Appalachia, better-known than Ali or Elvis, with extensive use of billboards, television and other forms of advertising, and, even after he was accused of graft and corruption, clients flocked to his offices for his services because he guaranteed he’d get them a check within 30 days, and he usually did.

Con handled 1800 cases between 2006 and 2010 and the amount of fraud for the government that they would need to recover to break even was estimated at $2.62 billion, when you factor in the payments to applicants who were unqualified to receive them, over years of their dependence on the $900 a month to (in one case) $2,000 a month disability payments. The problem after the fall of Conn is that there were 1500 applicants, some of whom were genuinely deserving, but the Social Security Administration now had to solve the mess they had created for themselves by being completely indifferent to the reports that the whistle blowers, Sarah Carver and Jennifer Griffith, had been making for years.

The lid was blown off the corrupt scheme when a “Wall Street Journal” reporter named Damian Paletta, who is now the economics reporter for the “Wall Street Journal” (and the author of a book about Donald Trump’s time in office entitled “Nightmare Scenario: Inside the Trump Administration’s Response to the Pandemic That Changed History”) journeyed to Appalachia and did a story on the situation. Paletta is not unsympathetic to the legitimate disabled and was, himself, disabled as a youngster.

The message that comes through, loud and clear, is that the Social Security Administration did an extremely poor job of policing its own. Shame on them!

Secondly, the true heroes and heroines of the story are not recognized at all. They include whistle-blowers Sarah Carver and Jennifer Griffith, various attorneys, including Ned Pillersdorf, Trey Aldorf, and  “Wall Street Journal” journalist Damian Paletta.

Meanwhile, we can all ask whether the corrupt Judge Daugherty, whose alcoholism and arrest of his daughter set off the scheme in the first place was properly punished, when he ended up serving only a few months of a short (4 year) sentence.

The only one of the three (Dr. Atkins), characterized as a “whore doctor” during Congressional testimony, who refused to take a deal and went for a jury trial did worse than those who copped a plea. But did any of the three principals receive adequate punishment for such large-scale fraud?

To find out how they ended up, watch the four-part series premiering globally on May 6th with  sections entitled: “Mr. Social Security” (#1); “United We Stand; Divided We Fall” (#2); “Here Today, Gone Tomorrow” (#3) and the finale, which will spell out the sad end of this story of greed, corruption, incompetence and stasis.

“DMZ” (HBO Max), the 4-Part Series, Critiqued @ SXSW 2022

Benjamin Bratt and Rosario Dawson on March 13 at SXSW.

Just finished watching all four episodes of “DMZ” with Rosario Dawson and Benjamin Bratt available on HBO Max.

The first episode, which I saw at the World Premiere on Sunday, March 13th,  in Austin at SXSW, was dynamite.  The other three episodes continue the chaos and action-packed drama of a United States that has experienced a Civil War, with Manhattan a microcosm of the tragedy of war as 300,000 residents are trapped within a demilitarized zone.

The set-up of the comic-book generated plot is that Alma must journey back from the relative safety of the U.S. outside of Manhattan and re-enter the DMZ to try to find the child she became separated from when evacuating 8 years prior.

I will try not to give away too many plot points, but I do want to make some observations about the entire season, not just the first episode. Ava Duvernay directed one episode, but Ernest Dickerson directed the rest of the series. It is all done well, with special mention of the acting, special effects, script and the title sequence.

Here are some “Pro” and “Con” observations for the entire series, complete with the pictures taken on top of the Riley Building in downtown Austin on Sunday, March 13th, which Warner Media took over for a press event at noon, just prior to the film’s 4:15 p.m.


Cast of “DMZ” at SXSW (l to r): Freddy Miyares, Bnjamin Bratt, Rosario Dawson, Hoon Lee and Writer/Producer Roberto Patino.

  • The acting is top-notch. Rosario has some gut-wrenching scenes and she gives it her all. She also has to be a kick-ass heroine, fighting, running, etc. Great work. The Writer/Producer Petino praised Dawson’s work from the stage of the Paramount. Watching Benjamin Bratt at work as the charismatic gang leader is equally riveting.
  • I have always thought that Benjamin Bratt was an under-utilized leading man and the parts I’ve seen him in did not make the most of his charismatic presence. Here he is magnetic as the would-be leader of the DMZ, a man who fought in Afghanistan and should know that those who fight and die in the trenches are used and abused by their superiors. Parco Delgado, Bratt’s character, is willing to do whatever it takes to keep and hold power and we see that in episode 1 and all others.
  • The writer/director who plucked Rosario’s character from the comic book and amplified it is going for a “good versus evil” vibe that puts Alma’s character as the White Knight and leaves us wondering how she will cope with the brutality of a Parco Delgado. The way that Parco is dispatched was fitting.
  • This is a star-making turn for young actor Freddie Miyares, who plays the adult version of Rosario’s son, Christian. Miyares first came to the public’s attention playing one of the Central Park Five in “When They See Us” and he also appeared in “The L Word.” He has worked with Ava Duvernay previously.
  • The young actors In the cast—-Madison Johnson, Venus Ariel, Jordan Preston Carter—are all good and natural actors.
  • The explosions and helicopters and ruins of the war-torn DMZ are beautifully rendered.
  • The opening credits are very good.
  • Hoon Lee as Wilson was good, as was Reynaldo Gallegos as Cesar.
  • The screenplay written by Roberto Patino has some great lines that relate to ALL wars and ALL war zones and victims, so it is particularly timely against the backdrop of the Ukraine/Russia ongoing assault.
  • There is the possibility of continuing this series past the four episodes in the can.



Cast of “DMZ” present in Austin, Texas, for press event on Sunday, March 13, 2022 at SXSW.

  • For my tastes, the constant man-on-man beat-downs could have been reduced to, at most, two. As it is, there are several. I am not a fan, although others will be. I will say that the fight between the fit 48-year-old Benjamin Bratt and the much-younger Freddy Miyares was epic, as was the fight scene between the characters of Parco Delgado and Wilson.
  • There were a lot of “war scenes,” which makes sense in that this is a war zone, but who is fighting whom and why is not made perfectly clear, other than the infighting amongst the various New York City sections of Manhattan.
  • I also watched a few episodes of the new “Halo” series and “DMZ” is infinitely superior. “Halo” involved killing people that we haven’t even met, let alone learned to care whether they live or die, whereas, in this four-part series, we get to know the characters first.
  • One power broker has (supposedly) gained control of water. How? We are told very few of the mechanics of power in this DMZ. Did she take over a dam or what?
  • The function or purpose of the United States Army is not made totally clear. Are they trying to take over Manhattan from the locals because the locals are defending their city to the death, as is happening in Ukraine now? Naaaah. The New Yorkers I personally know (and I know a few) would not be fighting to the death against the U.S.’s superior fire power. (They might want better garbage pick-up, however.)
  • Other than Rosario’s star turn as the Big Kahuna, the other women get short shrift. The kids actually get more screen time and more lines than the other females, including the girlfriends of characters Skel and Parco.
  • Did Coca Cola underwrite a big part of this film’s costs? I ask because of one specific scene. I was reminded of the Coca Cola scene in “Dr. Strangelove,” for some reason, but, today, the specific mention of a product in such glowing terms is usually a product tie-in. I thought the idea that the machine would have ANY Coke cans left in it, or that they wouldn’t be flat, was preposterous. Many of my soft drinks are flat the instant I bring them home from the grocery store, so I found the delicious-ness of Coca Cola to be highly suspect in one scene in the plot.
  • The individual(s) manning the radio broadcast(s) are somewhat unclear. Who was it? Who is it going to be?
  • Lots of character names are dropped and, eventually, we find out who some of them are, but simply mentioning “Susie” (et. al.) didn’t cut if for me. But, then, I was not a reader of the comic books during their hey-day.

I enjoyed all the lines that underscored the futility of violence as a solution to world problems, and, while I praised them in my original review and even repeated some of those lines, verbatim, with the current world situation, the more the better, so I’m both praising writer/producer Roberto Patino for his excellent work in that regard and saying, “More, please

“Bad Axe” Documentary from David Siev Wins SXSW Special Jury Award

Bad Axe” (Michigan), documentary by David Siev.

The documentary by David Siev entitled “Bad Axe,” which focuses on the Siev family of Bad Axe, Michigan, is a chronicle of the pandemic and its effects on this small Michigan town. The film was awarded Special Jury Recognition for Exceptional Intimacy in Storytelling at SXSW, where it was among the feature documentaries in competition.

David Siev, the filmmaker, is one of three children of a Cambodian immigrant father, Chun Siev, and a Mexican mother, Rachel Siev. The family members, in addition to Chun, Rachel and David are Jaclyn and Michelle and their significant others, Michael Meinhold (Jaclyn’s husband) and Michelle’s fiancée, one of the few Black residents of the small town, an adopted child of white parents. David’s girlfriend, Kat Vasquez, is also peripherally involved. The impetus for filming his family’s struggle to keep the family business afloat during the pandemic, a restaurant known as Rachel’s Food & Spirits, is this: “It’s an important time in history right now. I just want to document it”

I could really relate to this impulse, as I had the same motive when I began following the presidential candidates across Iowa (and, ultimately, across the U.S.), during the historic Obama/McCain presidential election of 2008. My journey led to two books, while David’s yielded this award-winning documentary.

The backstory of Chun Siev’s escape from Cambodia during the Killing Fields genocide of Pol Pot contributes to the drama, as Chun lived through that tumultuous period between the ages of 15 to 18 and then, with his mother and his 5 siblings, escaped to the U.S. In Michigan the grateful new American began building the American dream, first establishing a donut shop that eventually became Rachel’s Food & Spirits restaurant, named after his Mexican-American wife.

David Siev, director of “Bad Axe” at SXSW, 2022.

Outspoken sister Jaclyn is too feisty to remain silent during the Black Lives Matter protests that followed on the heels of George Floyd’s murder in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Jaclyn graduated from college in Michigan and got a corporate job in Ann Arbor, but she has come home to help her family during this crisis and has bailed them out financially during these lean times. As the family members say, “Everything we are afraid of is happening.” At the time of the filming Michigan was 5th in the nation in terms of diagnosed Covid cases and 7th in terms of deaths from Covid-19. As Rachel says, “Who would’ve ever thought that a virus could put this whole world into a halt.”

Now, the restaurant, by state law, cannot open and the family is trying desperately to pivot to carry-out while having its worst day in 5 years. “Our whole lives just changed,” says Jaclyn. However, the family once had 7 people in a house with 1 bathroom so they are not strangers to adversity. As the family patriarch says, “When you grow up knowing what it’s like to have nothing, you’re always afraid of going back.”

Chun reminisces about his Cambodian family’s flight from his home country, which began on April 17, 1975. Yet Chun—who witnessed cold-blooded murders in the streets as the locals were told to leave the cities of Cambodia—says that he is more afraid of the pandemic, as he is afraid of losing one of his family members. There is a tense confrontation with some anti-mask locals and the police have to be summoned when the anti-mask diners refuse to wear the masks that the establishment requires.

There is another tense interaction when Jaclyn stands up to members of a neo-Nazi militia group that come to the Black Lives Matter demonstration and, later, begin following her as she leaves work after locking up the restaurant. The police are called on that occasion, also, and it leads to the discovery of a far-right militia training area nearby and arrests.

Jaclyn astutely points out that the community has the attitude, “We’ll support you if you stay quiet and act the way we want you to act.” She receives a letter from a local detailing how the letter-writer will not be returning to their family restaurant, primarily because Jaclyn has spoken up at the BLM demonstration.

Still, the family says, “It was never an option to give up” and urgesothers to “appreciate the little things in life.” Although at times we fear for the safety of young Jaclyn, Chun knows his way around guns and taught Tai Kwan Do for 37 years.

By film’s end, David’s attempt to capture time in a bottle has dealt with the pandemic, racism, genocide and PTSD. Jaclyn and her husband have announced that she will be having the family’s first grandchild and the couple is moving back to Bad Axe to help  run the family restaurant.

Much like “Facing Nolan,” the ultimate message of the film is the importance of family. The documentary will help memorialize what we all went through between March of 2020 and the present.

“Facing Nolan” at SXSW Is A Must-See for Baseball Fans

“Facing Nolan” (Ryan) at SXSW, 2022.

Pitcher Nolan Ryan is now 74 years old. His family members, especially sons Reese and Reid, collaborated on this documentary at SXSW directed by Bradley Jackson that showcases the achievements of the pitcher of whom Rod Carew said, “There will never be another like Nolan Ryan.” Pete Rose added, “Nolan was a lion.”

Drafted at age 18 right out of high school, the pitcher with the 100 mph-plus pitch is lauded as “the most dominating pitcher that the game has ever seen.” As Cal Ripken, Jr., said, “There will never be anything like him.”

The man who pitched for 27 years, notching 320 victories, 5,714 strikeouts and 7 no-hitters was also a devoted family man. He married his high school sweetheart, and the pair had three children, two boys and a girl. The former President of the United States, George W. Bush, is interviewed about Nolan and said, “What really matters in the long run is a good set of values.”

During his induction into the baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown in 1999, Nolan acknowledged wife Ruth’s contribution to his amazing success and the grandchildren attest that Ruth, who was also a high school athlete in Alvin, Texas, was the 1965 state doubles tennis champion and is credited for keeping Nolan pitching at a time when he was waivering in his resolve to continue. When son Reid was hit by a car in Villa Park California and lost one kidney and his spleen, it was Ruth who kept the family going and focused on their sick son while Nolan focused on his amazing career.

Bradley Jackson, the director of “Facing Nolan” at SXSW.

Sandy Koufax was one of Nolan’s early idols, but Nolan was able to break all of Koufax’s pitching records within 10 years. The youngest of six children of Depression era parents, Nolan stood 6’ 1” and weighed 142 pounds, but he could throw a baseball over 100 miles an hour and, as he said, “I guess I was born to be a pitcher.” At his induction into baseball’s Hall of Fame, Ryan said, “I took a lot of pride that I was still able to compete at that level at that age” His 27-year record-breaking career included play in four decades.

Ryan pitched for the New York MetsCalifornia AngelsHouston Astros, and Texas Rangers. After his retirement in 1993, Ryan served as chief executive officer (CEO) of the Texas Rangers and an executive advisor to the Houston Astros.

When he left California to play ball in Texas, only 35 miles from his hometown of Alva, after disputes with owner John McMullin in 1988, fans were incensed. As it tells us in the documentary, “In Houston they still cuss him out.” However the manager of the Texas team he joined, said, “It was like Elvis had come aboard.”

Nolan Ryan was born in 1947. He was shown signing baseballs at a Round Rock event. Considerably heavier than in his playing days, he is surrounded by a loving family who are obviously very proud of their famous father. The documentary is a baseball lover’s Must See. It is well done by Director Bradley Jackson with the cooperation of family members as producers; Jackson has assembled a Who’s Who of Nolan Ryan’s friends and competitors to comment on his truly extraordinary life and career.

Actor Owen Teague Appears in “The Cow” & “To Leslie” at SXSW 2022

I’m (still) here at SXSW in Austin, Texas, covering feature films, television episodics and documentaries, with a few shorts thrown in.

See the source image

Owen Teague

The common denominator linking “To Leslie” with “The Cow” is the presence of Owen Teague in the role of “young son.” (above) Teague is far from the best-known name in the one hour and 59 minute film “To Leslie.” Michael Morris directed. It’s worth mentioning that Morris was the executive producer of the 2016 series “Bloodlines,” in which Owen Teague appeared as Young Danny.

The film is based on the real-life story of a West Texas single mom who won the lottery and lost it all to her addiction to alcohol. Oscar winner Allison Janney (“I, Tonya!”), Stephen Root (the stapler guy in “Office Space”), and Marc Maron (“G.L.O.W.”), who also executive produced, have  leads. Royal is portrayed by Andre Royo (“The Wire”), also a fine character actor on stage and screen and  a writer.

The film stars Andrea Riseborough, a British actress who has been hailed by the Sunday “Times” as one of Britain’s rising young stars, along with such other luminaries as Hugh Dancy and Eddie Redmayne. She graduated from the London Academy of Royal Arts (RADA) in 2005, but her West Texas accent is completely convincing. The script is courtesy of screenwriter Ryan Binaco; the Cinematographer is Larkin Seiple.

Andrea Riseborough in “To Leslie” at SXSW.

The opening scenes of “To Leslie” show a jubilant young mother celebrating winning $190,000 in the lottery and declaring that drinks are on her. Six years later, she’s broke and the drinks have definitely been plentiful during those years (and mostly in her).

We learn that the young mother of the opening scene abandoned her son (Owen Teague as James) and his step-mother (Allison Janney) was forced, along with Dutch (Stephen Root) to raise him, by default. To say that Allison Janney’s character is angry and resentful is probably an understatement. Andrea’s portrayal of a woman who has gotten by on looks and charm but is now past those halcyon days of her youth is intense and convincing. I was reminded of Blanche in “A Streetcar Named Desire” who opines, “I have always depended on the kindness of others” as Leslie’s femme fatale vibe begins to wither on her  increasingly mature vine.

The film depicts Leslie hitting rock bottom and trying to claw her way back to at least the middle. She is extended a life-line on that bootstrap journey by Marc Maron’s character of Sweeney, the manager of a seedy motel on the edge of town. Sweeney is running it for Andre Royo’s character of Royal. Royal was left the motel by his family but, because he took too much acid in his younger days, it has left him with mental impairments that make Marc Maron’s participation in running the place essential.

As Leslie gradually swears off booze and gets sober, she and Marc Maron’s character and Royal assist her in renovating an ice cream parlor on the edge of town. The happy ending involves, once again, son James (Owen Teague), to whom Leslie turns when things are at their bleakest. James turns up at the end for a happy ending. All’s well that ends well with this female film equivalent of “Leaving Las Vegas.”

The acting was very good, but the true story has been told many times previously. (Even “A Star Is Born” touches on the old familiar story of alcoholism.)

I did enjoy watching Andre Royo strip nearly naked and race around amongst the cactus and sand of a west Texas prairie, as we are told in the script he is prone to do. Marc Maron’s offer of a job cleaning motel rooms and washing the laundry makes you wonder if he has romantic designs on Leslie and, yes, that seems to be the case as the film winds down.


“The Cow”

Owen Teague Heads to SXSW With a Quiet Drama and Twisty Horror

Owen Teague attended the World Premiere of “The Cow” at SXSW.

The second film where Owen Teague has a major recurring role is “The Cow,” directed by Eli Horowitz. This is Eli Horowitz’s first feature film directing job, although he is the co-creator of “Homecoming,” (both the podcast and the television series.)   (I couldn’t help but wonder if Eli is related to its star, Winona Ryder, since Winona’s real last name is Horowitz). Co-writer for the screenplay is Matthew Derby.

Eli Horowitz, writer/director of “The Cow” at SXSW, 2022.

Whether related or not, Winona Ryder is the star of this horror/sci-fi/thriller and Ryder is great in her part.  Dermot Mulroney (“My Best Friend’s Wedding”), whom I met in Chicago when he appeared as Steve Huberbrecht in “August, Osage County” (2013), is the male lead. John Gallagher, Jr, who plays Kath’s (Winona Ryder’s) former student is recognizable to audiences from his role as Jim Harper in “The News Room” (2012-2014) and his role in “10 Cloverfield Lane” as Emmett (2016).

The tag line for the plot reads: “Upon arriving at a remote cabin in the redwoods, Kath (Winona Ryder) and her younger boyfriend (John Gallagher, Jr.) find a mysterious younger couple already there (Owen Teague and Briane Tju) — the rental has apparently been double-booked. With nowhere else to go, they decide to share the cabin with these strangers until the next morning. When her boyfriend disappears with the young woman overnight, Kath becomes obsessed with finding an explanation for their sudden breakup— but the truth is far stranger than she could have imagined.”

Aging and the inevitability of all of us deteriorating and falling apart seems to be a big theme of this interesting and intriguing film. We all want to avoid falling into ill health or, for that matter, getting old at all.  Dermot Mulroney’s character of Nicholas Levi Barlow, who is the renter of the cabin in the woods, has just witnessed his father fall ill and die from a rare degenerative inherited blood disease.

Winona Ryder in “The Cow” at SXSW, 2022.

As someone who sat through “Cow” at the Chicago International Film Festival let me just clear up any confusion that this film named “The Cow” has anything at all to do with cows. It does not. While we followed the plight of a cow, from birth to death, in the film “Cow”, with no dialogue, here we have plenty of surprises and turns and unexpected plot twists that may not be too scientifically viable, but what-the-hell: it’s just a movie.

The best I can offer by way of explaining the title is a line from Greta (Briane Tju’s character), a reference to “Maxie, the blood cow.” If you have a burning desire to determine how that title fits the plot, just as we pondered “The Power of the Dog” as a fitting title, then you’ll simply have to see the film, which, if you’re a sci-fi or horror buff, will be a better investment of your time then watching yet another derivative rehash. (I missed the World Premiere of “The Man Who Fell to Earth” here, which looked very promising, but I was reviewing when David Bowie so brilliantly filled the bill for that part back in 1976.)

The cinematography is by David Bolen and the music is from David Baldwin.

I liked this film and am only sorry that I missed the Red Carpet to get pictures of young Owen and co-star Briane Tju; Getty images wanted $499 to use one that was taken at the World Premiere (identical to the many I’ve shot over the years.)

Two Shorts @ SXSW: “Everything Will Be All Right” & “Belle River”

Director Farhad Pakdel and star of “Everything Will Be All Right” Nahema Ricci behind the scenes in Montreal. (Photo credit Manon Assens).

Farhad Pakdel, the writer/director/producer of the short “Everything Will Be All Right” helms this 16 minute short tale of a young pregnant teacher, Leila, trying to reach home in Iran before her father dies of Covid. Pakdel underscores Leila’s situation with the underpinning of the story of Orpheus and Eurydice. It is playing at SXSW 2022, and I hope we see Pakdel’s first feature-length film here in the future.

Orpheus, you will recall, went to the Underworld to retrieve the love of his life, Eurydice, but he was told he could not look back while leading her from Hades. When he did look back, she was sentenced to live in Hades forever and he was killed. The students in Leila’s class (Leila is beautifully played by Nahema Ricci of “Antigone”) point out the unfairness of the fact that Eurydice did nothing to bring her fate down upon her; she was thrust into Hades forever by circumstances beyond her control,  the actions of Orpheus in disobeying his instructions. So, too, is Leila being buffeted by the vagaries of fate.

Pakdel is commencing work on his first feature film (after 9 shorts) and has a Master’s in Cinema from the University of Tehran and  a Master’s in film from the University of Montreal. He shows depth and competence that bodes well for future work.

The film is shot in Montreal during the height of the pre-vaccine Covid outbreak (March of 2020).  Leila, shown in her classroom discussing the story of Orpheus and Eurydice with her students, has just received word that her father back home in Iran is seriously ill and hospitalized.

Nahema Ricci in “Everything Will Be All Right” from Writer/Director Farhad Pakdel.

As the short moves us forward, detailing Leila’s efforts to leave work and secure passage home, the prime minister of Montreal, Francois Legault, has just announced that all schools will be closing for two weeks due to the pandemic. However, there are complications well beyond simply securing air fare during a time of international chaos surrounding air travel. There is the doctor appointment that Leila must re-arrange, but how?

The backdrop to the story of Leila’s desperate attempts to get home in time to say good-bye to her terminally ill father is that she is pregnant and scheduled for an abortion, which will be complicated by the necessary quarantine restrictions should she leave the country, as she will move from 10 to 14 weeks pregnant. The romance—[if it was a romance and not assault]—with the baby’s father is long over; he has now become a stalker.

Leila had made up her mind to terminate the pregnancy, but the various time constraints associated with flying overseas during a pandemic cause all sorts of problems with that plan. At one point in the cab on her way to the airport,  Leila has to step out of the cab. to say good bye to her father by phone via FaceTime as he lies mortally ill in an intensive care unit in a hospital thousands of miles away.

This scenario of having to say good bye to family members via Face time is gut-wrenching; I think of it every day. It played out in my own family with the loss of my 62-year-old sister-in-law to Covid on April 18, 2020. FaceTime is how she  had to say good-bye to her husband and three adult children.

Nahema Ricci in “Everything Will Be All Right” at SXSW, 2022.

Facing a few health situations of my own currently, I am well aware of the conflicting emotions that must be sweeping over the pregnant young woman, buffeted by the vagaries of fate. She steps outside the cab at one point—no doubt to say good-bye forever to her beloved father— and, when she re-enters the vehicle, the cab driver says, “Spring is unpredictable. Everything will be all right.”

Will it? What will happen to Leila from this point forward? Does she continue driving towards the airport for a departure to her homeland anyway? I wanted to know more about Leila, and, while I understood the title and its mythical import (it helped that I taught a unit on Myths and Legends for 20 years to junior high school students), I still wanted to know if everything WAS going to be “all right” for Leila, so well played by Ms. Ricci.

This short is both poignant, timely and resonates with the world today. It was well constructed to drive tension, has excellent camera work from Alexandre Bussiere, is well-acted, and makes me want to see more from this talented filmmaker (and to learn more about the fictional Leila, caught in a trap not of her own making.) Bravo!


“Belle River,” a short at SXSW 2022:

“Belle River” was a journey to Pierre Part, Louisiana.  The area is flooded and the Morgana Spillway is opened to protect Baton Rouge and Louisiana, just the third time that has occurred in over a century. It is unclear what effect, exactly, this has had on Pierre Part in terms of “before” and “after” the opening of the spillway.

“Belle River,” a short about Pierre Part, Louisiana at SXSW, 2022.

The entire 16 minute short from Guillaume Towner, Samuel Matteau, and Yannick Nolin simply shows us flooded homes and stores. There are unidentified residents (speaking in Cajun French with English subtitles) saying, “If we get a hurricane, that’ll really mess us up.” However, along with pointing out the obvious (flooded streets, homes and businesses), lines like “We’re ready. We’re prepared for this,” seem like whistling in the dark.

There was no real documentation of how far underwater the town has become due to the opening of the spillway or just the effects of nature and no “main character” or main characters for us to relate to, as were highlighted in 2019’s “Lowland Kids.”

In “Lowland Kids”, also shown at SXSW (3/12/2019) we learned that the area of Isle de Jean Charles, Louisiana was losing one football field-sized piece of land to the water every hour on the hour. There were 180 to 200 families in Isle de Jean Charles who were about to become the first casualties of global warming and flooding in Louisiana. We also got to hear from Juliette and Howard Brundt, a brother and sister living with their handicapped Uncle and  about to be displaced from the only home they have ever known.

I was disappointed that “Belle River” had so little concrete information on Pierre Part’s situation and would recommend the slightly older (2019) short “Lowland Kids,” reviewed on this blog at that time. “Belle River” needed more information from the filmmakers, because it simply plays like an insert on the evening news in its current format.

Check out “Lowland Kids,” reviewed on this blog, for another short film that makes a great companion piece to “Belle River.” 


“Spin Me Round” at SXSW 2022 Falls Flat

Spin Me Round” at SXSW, 2022 on March 12/13, with Allison Brie and Aubrey Plaza.

Mark and Jay Duplass executive produced a film at SXSW that seems to be a comedy that might have been a romance, that considers becoming a thriller (briefly) and also works in a plug for female empowerment. It Is pretty meandering and difficult to categorize. The script (Allison Brie and Director Jeff Baena) needed work and focus.

I met the Duplass Brothers at the Chicago International Film Festival many years ago (2011), when “Jeff, Who Lives At Home” was hitting the festival circuit, and, since then, have enjoyed their individual appearances in “The Morning Show” as Jennifer Aniston’s director Chip Black (Mark) or in “Tully” and Jay’s breakout role as Bill Dobson in “The Chair,” the loopy widowed professor. I also enjoyed “Jeff, Who Lives At Home.” but other Duplass outings seemed low-budget (“Creep”) and poorly crafted. But this one had some truly funny people in it, so I gambled and lost.

This effort seems not to know what it is going for. The cast tells us that it is going to be a comedy. Why do I say that? We have, as its lead, Allison Brie (of “G.L.O.W.”), Fred Armisen (“Portlandia”) and Molly Shannon, “SNL” alums; Zach Woods (“Veep”) as Dana and Aubrey Plaza (“Parks & Rec”) as Kat. All-in-all, it’s a cast that should scream comedy, but the difficult-to-determine-what-it-is screenplay, co-written by Allison Brie (who also produced) and Jeff Baena, the writer/director,  doesn’t seem to make up its mind what it’s going for, even by film’s end. It was a film that started out being about Italian pasta. I honestly felt as though those in charge just threw everything against the wall and hoped something would stick.

The tag line for the film is: “A woman wins an all-expenses trip to a company’s gorgeous “institute” outside of Florence and also the chance to meet the restaurant chain’s wealthy and charismatic owner. She finds a different adventure than the one she imagined.”

Shooting began in Italy in June of 2021; the Italian countryside is beautiful.

Her co-star in what seems to be trying to become a romance instead of a comedy is Alessandro Nivola, who we saw in “The Many Saints of Newark,” the “Sopranos” prequel.

As mentioned in the tag line, a young girl (Allison Brie), who works in an Italian chain restaurant, the Tuscan Grove in Bakersfield, California, fashioned on The Olive Garden or Biaggi’s, is sent off to Tuscany in what is touted as the Tuscan Grove Exemplary Managers’ Institute. There, she joins a group of other such selected employees from around the United States, some of them wacky (Molly Shannon as Deb) and some of them other pretty young girls or random weird males. The founder of the chain, a handsome wealthy fellow (Alessandro Nivola) stops by and the plot takes off, more-or-less (mostly less).

From the outset, we get the impression that Aubrey Plaza as Kat is mainly employed by the chain’s founder (Alessandro Nivola as Nick) to pimp for him, separating the more desirable female attendees from the group and herding them out to Nick’s yacht, where he comes on strong as a romantic suitor. The character of Kat also allows the film to include today’s obligatory lesbian vibe, despite the fact that it seems totally unsuitable to moving  this plot forward (which seems to be a heterosexual romance, at that point).

Alessandro Nivola looked too old for Allison Brie’s character, (and somewhat out-of-shape), but rich men always get a pass, so that I could deal with. (He is 10 years older than Ms. Brie, in real life.) Things seem to be heading in the direction of a romantic comedy (some of the other attendees, like Molly Shannon, are wacky, and her outfits are over-the-top) but then the plot take a darker turn, as visions of Epstein’s island activities crowd our consciousness and a murder is even suggested.

Fred Armison, portraying a wealthy artist with a villa who hosts  large orgies where wild boars (there is an actual boar handler listed in the credits) ramble through is not “funny,”  and the entire enterprise teetered on the brink of “Who killed Dana?” for a moment until—wonder of wonders—-Dana (Zach Woods of “Veep”) isn’t really dead after all.

In short, the script is a mess and the message of the script seems lost in the many mis-steps of tone.

At the very end of this Cinema-by-committee offering, the wealthy suitor (Alessandro Navolo, who has completely embarrassed himself with a crying scene that is more comic than dramatic, but never convincing) shows up in person to pitch Allison Brie’s character back in Bakersfield, California, at her franchise outlet,  bringing with him a baby turtle ( turtle wrangler on set). She tells Nick to get lost, which, given the events that have occurred prior to his Grand Finale appearance, seems like too little,  too late. So there’s our “Be gone, toxic masculinity!” moment.

I’ve been burned by some Duplass Brothers low-budget horror flicks before, but this potential comedy had people in it who can be genuinely funny.  I was suckered in by that, alone.

Don’t bother.

You won’t make much sense out of the film, either, but I’m sure that Alessandro and Allison will have better roles in better films in the future.

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