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!

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

Pray for Our Sinners (2022)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Writer/Director Sinead O’Shea.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No Ordinary Campaign” World Premiere at Chicago International Film Festival Chronicles Efforts to Cure ALS

“No Ordinary Campaign” at Chicago International Film Festival Chronicles ALS Research

The documentary “No Ordinary Campaign,” directed by Michael Burke, focuses on the fight for more funding and help for patients suffering from ALS. The focal point of this fight for life is ALS sufferer Brian Wallach and his wife. Brian, a former Assistant District Attorney, met his wife. Sandra Abrevaya while working on Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign.

In this fight however, after his diagnosis at only 37, the stakes are literally life and death—for Brian and for all other sufferers of diseases like ALS. Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease. With their background in politics and their friends in high places (Obama speaks in the documentary and the Mark Zuckerberg/Priscilla Chan Initiative underwrote) the couple spearheads efforts to increase awareness and funding for ALS research.

The Wallachs lead the charge in personifying “courage in impossible situations.” They use their organizational skills to unite patients and their families, nationwide, and work to raise funds, testifying before Congress for increased funding to find a cure for these neurological diseases because “hope alone does not get you a cure.” Founding iamalsorg.com is a first step to unifying the many disparate voices crying for help.

One of the impediments to care turns out to be the FDA itself, which had a 6 month wait time to apply for social security disability benefits, when the life expectancy of many ALS patients is, basically, that short. It made no sense, nor did the clinical trial of a promising new drug (AMX0035) that let patients take it, but only for a short time. Patients who were experiencing progress were cut off after the clinical trial period, for no discernible good reason.

Brian and Sandra are shown making an emotional appeal to Congress in which they said, “Do not let another generation of patients die in pursuit of the perfect. Instead, let them be the first generation to live.”

The efforts of the consortium including legislative help from Senators Dick Durbin and Lisa Murkowski, leads to success in the Accelerated Access to ALS bill being signed by President Biden in June (2022) and approval for the use of AMX0035. The group also raised $80 million in funding in 2 years, much more than had ever previously been devoted to research for a cure.

With patients (1 in 300 will get ALS) pleading for help before the Congressional committee, Representative Rosa DeLaura of Rhode Island said, “I promise you we will fight for your survival. Godspeed.”

This was the World Premiere of the documentary from Redtail Media. Katie Couric was one of the executive producers.

“Decision to Leave:” South Korean Film Screens at the 58th Chicago International Film Festival

A detective investigating a man’s death in the mountains ends up meeting and developing feelings for the dead man’s mysterious wife in the course of his dogged sleuthing.

Release date: October 14, 2022 (USA)

Director: Park Chan-woo

Screenplay: Park Chan-wookJeong Seo-GyeongSeo-kyeong Jeong

Cinematography: Ji-yong Kim

Nominations: Cannes Best Director AwardPalme d’Or,

 

“Decision to Leave,” another South Korean nail-biter.

South Korea’s Park Chan-wook’s newest work has been selected as South Korea’s submission for the Best International Feature Film at the Academy Awards, and Park Chan-wook won the Best Director Award, the Palme d’Or, at Cannes.

 

The film stars Park Hae-il (“Memories of Murder”) as police detective Hae-jun. While investigating the death of her husband , Hae-jun, who either fell or was pushed from atop a mountain he has just climbed, the detective becomes obsessed with the widow, Seo-ra, played by Chinese actress Tang Wei. Seo-ra. The detective learns that the beautiful widow helped her sick mother commit suicide and, as the film proceeds, her innocence becomes more and more dubious.  As the screenplay puts it, “Killing is like smoking; only the first time is hard.” When her mother and her husbands begin dropping like flies, the detective and others are skeptical of Seo-ra’s innocence.

 

If I may stray from the plot for a moment, this film has more devotion to  smoking up a storm than the film noir Bogart years. It reminded me how times have changed. I remember when smoking was considered “cool” and everyone savvy and in-the-know smoked. Given the fact that now we know how many serious illnesses are caused or exacerbated by smoking, I’ve read that Hollywood studios are currently faced with air brushing out the cigarettes in the hands of lead actors in films of that era, leaving them holding their hands in weird positions when the cigarettes, themselves, disappear.

There is also an emphasis in this film on modern-day technology, especially on cell phones and smart watches. Add in that age-old malady, insomnia, from which the lead investigator suffers, and “Decision to Leave” harkens back to the heavy influence of Alfred Hitchcock’s films on the young filmmaker.

As Katie Walsh of the “Tribune News Service” said in her piece on Director Park Chan-wook, “In its themes and style, the film pays tribute to the work of Alfred Hitchcock, the master of suspense, whose “Vertigo” inspired Park Chan-wook, as a young film student and critic, to make his own films.”

 

The film runs 2 hours and 18 minutes and opened in theaters on October 14, 2022.

 

 

“The Lost King” Charms at the 58th Chicago International Film Festival

The Lost King, directed by Steven Frears.

I remember when the newspapers of September 12, 2012, carried the news of the discovery of the body of Richard III buried beneath a parking lot in the town of Leicester in the U.K. I doubt if anyone not a resident of that particular city knew the behind-the-scenes story of how, exactly, Richard III came to be found, through the efforts of an obsessed member of the online Richard III Society, who would not give up her quest.

“The Lost King” is the story of Philippa Langley and, as its synopsis says:  “In 2012, having been lost for over 500 years, the remains of King Richard III were discovered beneath a carpark in Leicester. The search had been orchestrated by an amateur historian, Philippa Langley, whose unrelenting research had been met with incomprehension by her friends and family and with skepticism by experts and academics. THE LOST KING is the life-affirming true story of a woman who refused to be ignored and who took on the country’s most eminent historians, forcing them to think again about one of the most controversial kings in England’s history”.

Ultimately, as scripted by co-star Steve Coogan in collaboration with Jeff Pope, it is a lovely tale with many messages for us in this age of disinformation. Coogan, it should be noted, also plays Philippa’s husband, John Langley, opposite the wonderful Sally Hawkins, the female lead from “The Shape of Water.”.

The film makes the point that “if you get in first with the first lie, and repeat it often enough,” the truth gets lost in the shuffle. And Philippa, for one, does not like it when people put people down. She is determined to gather the hard evidence to refute the bad things said throughout history about Richard III, especially in Shakespeare’s play of the same name. Philippa points out that “People find out one thing about you and that’s all that they can see.” She also informs us that it was Richard III over 500 years ago, who, during his brief reign (1483-1485) as the last Plantagenet king of England posited the principle of British law “suspects are innocent until proven guilty.”

Philippa’s family, consisting of John Langley (well played by Steve Coogan, who also co wrote the script with Jeff Pope) and her two sons, are at first bemused by Philippa’s obsession with her task. One of her sons says, “If I had 2 sons, I would first make sure they had something to eat before I went off searching for Richard III.”

The family comes around, however, even chipping in monetarily. Husband John reminds Philippa that he once sold his rare collection of Sex Pistols memorabilia to finance a new kitchen for her, so the affection the two share for each other and their children actually gets a needed renewal and  boost from Philippa’s new-found passion.

The entire idea that one’s reputation can be intentionally sullied because of the motives of others is examined within the framework of this film. Philippa feels that Richard III is not the monster Shakespeare made him out to be in his play, was not responsible for the murders of his nephews in the Tower of London, and that researchers should “take the evidence and study it to draw conclusions, not the other way around.”

Husband John agrees in principle, saying, “I’m sure Mother Teresa occasionally left the lid off the milk and Genghis Khan occasionally picked up bits of litter.” So much for the character assassination of anyone at any time in history, and a vote for doing one’s homework in getting to the truth.

Ultimately, Philippa’s consulting with the University of Leicester, (much as was limned in the film “Nine to Five,”) leads to men taking the credit for work done by a woman. In this case, the University of Leicester, which was initially dismissive, tries to take almost complete credit for the remarkable find.

When it becomes clear that the body found under the car park in the chapel area of what was formerly Greyfriars Church really is Richard III, Philippa suffers from not being recognized for her hard work, but she is awarded the MBE by Queen Elizabeth in 2015.

Not only the head wound he sustained in the Battle of Bosworth (the last King of England to be killed in battle), but also the DNA examination of Richard’s successors done by John Ashton Hill, (not to mention the evidence of scoliosis of the spine) would all prove conclusively that this was his skeleton, the body of a former King of England. It disproved the incorrect theory that Richard III’s ashes had been scattered in a nearby river. Philippa then fought for the royal coat of arms to be emblazoned on Richard III’s final resting place, over the objections of others.

Stephen Frears who is a twice Oscar-nominated director and holds the David Lean Chair of Fiction Direction at the National Film and Television School in Beaconsfield, is more than equal to the task of directing this thoroughly enjoyable film. I hope he scores a third Best Directing Oscar nomination for his efforts.

The 81-year-old Frears previously gave us “The Grifters” and “The Queen,” for which his directing was Oscar-nominated. He is also the visionary who directed “Dangerous Liaisons” (1988), “High Fidelity” (2000), and the Meryl Streep vehicle “Florence Foster Jenkins” (2016). The music (Alexandre Desplat and the London Symphony Orchestra) and cinematography (Zac Nicholson) all combine to create a seamless story with relevant messages for our time. It began a theatrical run on October 7th.

“The Natural History of Destruction” at the 58th Chicago International Film Festival

“Babi Yar. Context” (AP 1944 Photo)

 

Perhaps the most succinct thing that can be said about “The Natural History of Destruction,” a film that screened at Cannes by Ukrainian filmmaker Sergei Loznitsa, is that there is nothing “natural” in destroying what has taken civilization centuries to build. There is nothing “natural” about massive civilian loss of life. This screening was the North American Premiere of the film.

On October 22nd, the film was awarded the Silver Hugo at the Chicago International Film Festival, with the following comments:

Silver Hugo
THE NATURAL HISTORY OF DESTRUCTION (Germany, Lithuania, The Netherlands)
Dir. Sergei Loznitsa
Sergei Loznitsa has accomplished a pure cinematic experience which displaces our political positions, and compels us to empathize with the German citizens living through the war they instigated. By means of meticulous and slow editing, a complex array of scenes, rich with nuanced sonic detail, unfold in front us. The archival black and white images are breathless and relentless: they confront us without buffer with the horror of the war machine, to which there are no winners and everyone is a victim. The rare and strategic placement of speeches, as well as the occasional leak of color into the scenes, punctuate the otherwise non verbal stretches of accumulating horror: we witness war from all angles – from above and below, from close up and from afar, from within the machine performing the wreckage, from the factory assembling its parts, and from the bottom of the ruins it leaves behind.

This 1 hour and 52 minute film is based on the book by German writer  W.G. Sebald, “Air War and Literature.” It has no narration, as such, and consists solely of archival material of bombs being made. Bombs being loaded  onto war planes. Planes dropping bombs. Bombs exploding. Dead bodies on the ground. Civilians suffering the after-effects of the bombings.

There is, however a prelude of sorts where we see the happy civilian populace of a variety of cities—mostly in Germany, it appears, from the blimp flying overhead (OL-2129) with the German swastika on its tail. The people are enjoying life, unaware of the tragedy that is about to befall them.

Most of the footage is black-and-white, but it lapses into color periodically. What we see of the unnamed cities are bombed-out craters, buildings on fire, and complete rubble. In other words, it looks a lot like the Ukrainian cities that are being bombed by the Russians now, or like the remains of Naples, Florida after Hurricane Ian.

What little narration there is may be mumbled voices saying things like: “I’ve never seen anything like this.” “Neither have I.” “4,000 pounds just went up.” “Good show!”

The use of “Good show” pins down the bombers as being the RAF (British Royal Air Force), but the Luftwaffe is also involved in a variety of dogfights, and we hear other speakers (Churchill, Sir Arthur “Bomber” Harris, Field Marshal Mongtomery) talking about the entrance into the war of the United States: “Now we are no longer alone.  We have powerful allies.  Many tonnage of explosives can be carried into Germany.” Prime Minister Winston Churchill is shown being applauded by crowds in the streets and saying  the British shall “stride forward into the unknown.”

Churchill is also heard saying:  “We shall drive on to the end and do our duty, win or die. God helping us,  we can do no other.”  Churchill also urges German civilians to flee the cities where munitions are being made and watch their country burn from afar (or something else remarkably uncharitable).

A German voice, unidentified, decries the “shameful bloody campaign of today” and vows to fight on using counter-terrorism. You get the feeling that the director simply wants to make the point that killing innocent civilians of ANY country is unjustified, but the lack of identification of cities or speakers or air forces leaves one adrift. Are we looking at the ruins of Germany or of England? It probably doesn’t matter to the director, who simply wants to make the point that this sort of wanton destruction is wrong, no matter what.

British officer Sir Arthur “Bomber” Harris is heard saying, “There are a lot of people saying bombing can never win a war. So, then, I say, we shall see. Germany will make a most interesting initial experiment.”

I live near Arsenal Island in Rock Island County, Illinois. The island has been involved in making munitions for the U.S. Army for a very long time—at least back to the Civil War, when it also served as a POW camp for captured Confederate soldiers.  In the event of a nuclear Armageddon, which seems more and more likely with leaders like Vladimir Putin on the loose, we will have a big target on our backs as the enemy attempts to wipe out the capabilities of this large government installation.

I hope this Ukrainian filmmaker’s plea that people wake up and quit wreaking destruction on peaceful civilians in such horrible ways  finds an audience of sane leaders, but it seems less likely with every passing day. “The Natural History of Destruction” opens on October 17, 2022.

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

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

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

 

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

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

“Red River Road” Explores an Internet Virus Threatening the Schuyler Family

“Red River Road,” for the Schuyler family, is the answer to the question, “What did you do during the pandemic?”

The talented Schuyler family can honestly say, “We made a movie.” Considering the challenges of being both the stars of the film and the entire crew, it’s quite an impressive movie, at that. Paul wrote, directed, was the cameraman, and helped score (along with Cindy O’Connor) the music for the film.

The plot: “A family of four isolating against a pandemic virus that spreads through the Internet and robs you of your ability to perceive reality—often violently—begins to unravel when they suspect one or all of them might be infected.” One screenplay line: “That’s how it gets in here. It steals reality right out from under you.” Personally, as the parent of teenagers who were very creative at securing their phones after hours, I could relate to the two boys managing to get their phones back and access the Internet (when they were not supposed to do.)

 

Paul Schuyler (“Wasted,” 1996; “Runner”, 2017) organized his family of four into a cast to film this horror/thriller indie film. The acting is top notch. Wife Jade does a great job of portraying the worried Mom, Anna, of two teen-aged brothers, Quinn and Shaw. Paul is Stephen for the purposes of this fictional story. [His woodworking with a blade saw put me on edge.]

The flashbacks that occur intermittently in the plot are all formed from old home movies of the family, whether they are shots at the beach or the family climbing the Eiffel Tower. This was very effective.

Shot in 10 days on a budget of $225,000 in Harwich, Massachusetts, the trivia as to HOW one both films and acts simultaneously was interesting to me and worth sharing:  “Any shots that featured director Paul Schuyler and any other family members had to be blocked and framed prior to action being called. Whichever actor was closest to the camera would ‘roll camera’ then enter the scene to start ‘action’. Only after the scene was shot could they go back and look at the take to make sure everyone was properly in frame. Multiple takes were required to get a usable take, as there was no one there to operate the camera.”

There are multiple dolly shots that include the entire family. With no crew, the only way to achieve this was to connect the dolly to an array of ropes and pulleys that were manipulated by one of the actors in the scene. Usually using another actor to block any “giveaway” movements that would reveal what they were doing.

Brody, the dog, also performed admirably, creating tension at key moments in the generally well-paced one hour and 29 minute film.

The film won a Special Festival Award, the Spirit of Independent Filmmaking, at the Stony Brook Film Festival; it is easy to see why. “Red River Road” is able to be rented ($4.99 and up) on Amazon Prime.

Nice work, Schuyler family. Definitely answers the question “How I spent my pandemic quarantine enforced vacation.”

“Sheet Music” by Jaran Huggins Screens at Nashville Film Festival

It’s hard to grab an audience’s attention in 15 minutes. The attention span of the average audience member is about that of a gnat, especially these days, with so many things competing for our attention.

That being said, if I had been in Writer/Director/Producer Jaran Huggins’ shoes while writing directing his short “Sheet Music,” I would have started the 15-minute short with the song that concludes “Sheet Music.”

What song?

“The Song We Sing,” is the song,  performed by Chloe Kibble, a Nashville girl whose father was one of the members of the group “Take6.” She is truly wonderful delivering the closing original song; her gold dress is the perfect wardrobe choice.

Kudos to the writer of the song, Bryard Huggins, who wrote the lyrics. He is an accomplished performer who tours with Gladys Knight as her featured guest artist. Bryard has released 6 albums and 7 singles. Bryard Huggins is the brother of “Sheet Music” Writer/Director/Producer Jaran Huggins, a recent graduate of Temple University (BFA in Film and Media Arts.)

“Sheet Music”—the 15-minute short that Jaran created, which screened at the 53rd Nashville Film Festival— has some things going for it, but most of what makes it truly riveting happens in the final frames, when Chloe Kibble lets loose with “The Song We Sing.” Yowza! That girl can sing! I wanted to hear more of Chloe and to hear her sing much earlier in the short.

The plot, according to the press notes, “Tells the story of two Black performers who are able to find their liberation in the roots of oppression.” There really is not much evidence of “oppression” onscreen, other than the white usher failing to bring the about-to-perform female singer a glass of water.

For the first approximately 13 minutes, nothing happens.

Two Black performers wait backstage to perform in a white establishment in a Black neighborhood. The two are Adryan Coogan Jr. (played by Ty Norwood Jr.) and Leilani Drakeford (played by J.C. Willis). Leilani did a credible job with a not-very-riveting script. Her inability to get the white usher to bring her a drink of water is our clue that she and her accompanist are victims of oppression, along with a less-than-welcoming white doorman who opens the club door for the duo.

The production designer (Kimberly Redman) has done a fantastic job of reproducing a slightly down-at-the-heels small dressing room of the era. There are appropriate posters and, as J.C says, the dressing room is a small closet that might have belonged to the janitor. Then again, are dressing rooms in small, seedy establishments glitzy, as a general rule?

The conflict that Jaran shows us comes from Adryan forgetting the duo’s sheet music. The lead singer (J.C. Willis)—one half of the team billed outside as “Adryan Coogan Jr. and J.C. Willis” of “The All American Ragtime Blues” duo—doesn’t seem that concerned about the missing sheet music. However, the pair is waiting for their call to go onstage, which is imminent. Because of the MIA sheet music, the pair ultimately walks out, hand-in-hand down the alley.

This struck me as a poor way to launch a singing career (or any career). I was not overwhelmed at the logic of the two getting a shot at performing in front of an audience (that will be mostly white) and simply walking out, leaving the club owner to deal with the fall-out.

So, to sum up: 1) Slow opening

2) Not very interesting dialogue; the first 13 minutes dragged.

3)  Adequate articulation of the dialogue (better from Leilani Drakeford than from Ty Norwood, Jr.). For me, the couple’s decision to stiff the owner of the night club and run off was a very bad idea for a duo trying to jump start their performing career.

4) Great sets and costumes. (Kudos, Kimberly Redman).

5) Great performance of the song  “The Song We Sing.”

I’m not sure whether this short was originally created for a thesis at Temple or if it is merely a way for Jaran to launch a film career, but, if he is as talented as his brother Bryard, his anticipated move to Los Angeles may prove fruitful. There wasn’t enough of the music, but the one song was thoroughly enjoyable. After 13 minutes of waiting for it, it was like a cool drink after a long hot walk up a steep hill.

This Harriet Tubman quote from the press notes is prominent: “Every dream begins with a dreamer who dares to dream.” I don’t  want to get into a debate with Harriet Tubman, but the quote made me think of that other oft-used quote (author unknown): “Every journey of 1,000 miles begins with one small step.”

Both are true, but it would be a good idea to have talent, drive, stick-to-it-iveness, and maybe some influence with somebody at the top who can help you as you dream your dream or struggle towards your goal(s).

I wish Jaran Huggins the very best as he sets about making his dreams come true.

As for me, I would have started with the show-stopping song and lost most of the dialogue that preceded it. The conflict was not that evident in the dressing room scenes that lead up to the song.

Sitting through the pointless dialogue at the outset was still worth it, to hear Chloe Kibble, who was glorious. I wish she had had more to do (and sing) in the film.

 

“Program 1: Obsession, Compulsion and Disorder” at the 53rd Nashville Film Festival

Program 1: Obsession, Compulsion and Disorder.

I watched the films in the streamed package twice. There were 6. At the end, there was a discussion group with 9 films discussed. Not sure what happened to 3 of the films, but they didn’t reach me in Illinois.

Here are capsule summaries of the 6 I saw:

“Inevitable”

“The Inevitable”

Iranian Director Milad Faraholahi has created a very dark short that is synopsized this way:  “A disturbed girl has a horrible nightmare in which two muddy figures ask her to open a mysterious box.  To get rid of that, she decides to kill herself in her nightmare just to wake up.” I felt I needed to know more about what, exactly,  unhinged the lead. Suicide is a pretty dire solution to a problem. As far as the scary quality of the house in which the young girl finds herself, thanks to excellent sound effects and music from Milad Movahedi and cinematography from Hashem Moradi, all of the tried-and-true things that are guaranteed to scare us are used super effectively. Creepy sounds. Lights that turn on and off. Dripping water. Mysterious footprints. A door handle that turns menacingly. Knives in water. Blood on pages of a book.  I think some subtitles during the phone conversation would have helped, as my four years of French did not prepare me to know what was said. I could barely hear it; I did not understand it, as a result, although, at one point, my computer coughed up the directive “Une erreur imprevue d’est produite” so my complete comprehension of the plot was definitely compromised. Apologies. I did think the creepy sets and the unhinged performance of the lead served the piece well and that the director has  a real future in making more shorts or longer films. There are many talented Iranian filmmakers and one, in particular, who caught my eye at SXSW and directed “Everything Will Be All Right” came to mind immediately. I hope this young director (and his crew) pursue more creepy, scary films, because this one was one of the most frightening that I saw…and I mean that in a good way!

“Bowlhead”

Would someone’s skull really make a good bowling ball? (Food for thought; it’s hard to say.)

The Winnetka Bowl has a dedicated bowler in Joe Harsley as Henry. I was immediately reminded of the 1986 film “Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer” starring Michael Rooker. This Henry is just as diabolical as that Henry, and his ruse of attempting to return a wallet lost at the bowling alley to a hapless victim leads to a scene that shows Henry overpowering the female victim and then making his victims’ heads into bowling balls (hence the title). Henry definitely comes off as someone who is “not right” and the rest of the plot proves it. (*Note to self: do not go bowling in Winnetka.)

 

 

“A Home Invasion”

A Home Invasion”

Maddie Downes and Evan Marshall collaborated to make this serio-comic “AHome Invasion” short, which, they said, was inspired by the couple in Missouri who were seen brandishing firearms and threatening Black Lives Matter protesters in their front yard. The couple is seen fighting at the beginning of the piece, removing their wedding rings, and arguing about who will get custody of the dog, Cooper ( played by Scoober). Then, a friend (Nathan) finds the runaway dog outside the couple’s home and, while attempting to return the pooch, ends up uniting the bickering mates, who pull out guns and plan to face the assailant, (who is only trying to do them a favor.) Nathan is shot, for his troubles.  Travis Prow handles the cinematography (nice shot at the opening, coming into the house through the window from outside) and the music is courtesy of Joshua Rutkowski.  The cast of players, in addition to Evan Marshall (who was promoted to lead actor after an older actor dropped out) includes Jessica Bishop, Henry Koly and, of course, Scoober the dog (as Cooper). A sarcastic commentary on America’s fixation on guns (which seems to override all other preoccupations).

 

“Black Dragon”

Black Dragon”

“Black Dragon,” filmed on location in Alamanee County, North Carolina, is one of the most polished of the shorts. It was inspired by the 1968 My Lai Massacre during the Vietnam War, which wiped out a Vietnamese village but resulted in only a 3 and ½ year prison sentence for those involved in the Ukrainian style war crime of wiping out an entire village. Matthew Del Negro  from “City on a Hill” plays Colonel Palmer who has a small son (Eddy, played by Chris Day) about the age of the Vietnamese girl in the short, Chau, who is played by Celia Au. Chau has the power to bring the dead back to life. Eddy, the Colonel’s son, has suggested that his dad “has an angel watching over ” him. The angel is going to make some demands of the Colonel that will result in many deaths.  Alex Thompson directed and co wrote the piece with Nathaniel Hendricks and Harper Alexander handled the cinematography while Jeffery Alan Jones was in charge of sound design. It is a very professional and polished short piece. If you click on Matthew DelNegro (see link above) you’ll recognize him from “City on a Hill” and it was a nice touch that his surname (DelNegro) fit the title of this short (“Black Dragon”).

 

“Lemons”

Lemons

Parker Gayan wrote and directed this short film about what would happen if you cut into a lemon and found a USB drive. He has a conversation with a Black friend (Stephen Guma) about his discovery, and there is an appearance from The Lemon Man. I was particularly taken with the idea that Parker is wearing a neck brace throughout the piece. When asked if the neck brace had anything to do with the lemon theme, he said, “No. It was an unrelated accident.” Parker’s attempts to look up something_something.lemon, which results in nothing, was also amusing. I couldn’t help but think of the simpler days before computers, which someone like me remembers. Not only would we never have imagined cutting into a lemon to find a USB drive, we didn’t have USB drives back in the dim dark ages of my youth. It also reminded me of a skit one of my 7th grade English classes once put on for our Ad Campaigns in the Classroom unit, where the young boys who created a Mole-busters van also came into the classroom to the strains of the famous Ray Parker, Jr., “Ghostbusters” theme song (“Who you gonna’ call? Mole-busters!”)  I enjoyed this loopy short way too much considering its lack of gravity and  excess of levity. (The director, in an interview that followed the film, said you can get a really inexpensive Lemon Guy costume on Etsy, in case you were wondering.) I apologize for the random mention of the “Mole-buster” unrelated class unit, but it did win a Scholastic Books contest, at the time, naming me “one of the 10 Most Creative teachers in America” (it came with a cash prize). Somehow, this clip summoned such unrelated memories of random merriment, and random happy thoughts are always welcome.

Lemons” by Parker Gayans.

 

 

 

 

“The Unlocking”

This one and “Inevitable” were probably the 2 creepiest shorts, although “Black Dragon” is close. Certainly a giant lemon is not creepy and the bickering couple with the guns, while concerning from the standpoint of safety to the community at large, is not “scary” or “creepy.” Both “Inevitable” and “The Unlocking” were. This is a Thomas Brush film and he certainly demonstrates an over-active imagination, as the character even says, “Please fix my brain!” It was interesting to me that the house where this was filmed  was actually a childhood haunt, a home where a friend of the director’s lived . The director had always considered the house “creepy.” He got permission to use the house as the setting for the film  (cinematography by Joshua Murray).  This story of a completely bonkers guy in a tutu who will ultimately attack our hero and do substantial damage to him was frightening in the same way that a strange noise in your own kitchen late at night can be terrifying if you are home alone. First, we see the protagonist walking around in the house in the dark trying to investigate who might have come in when he left the door unlocked ( he was advised by others to leave the door unlocked; chaos ensues) but the OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder) from which the main character suffers is not misplaced over-anxious worrying, but honest-to-God real-life danger,realized at the film’s climax.

“The Unlocking,” by Thomas Brush.

The filmmakers spoke about their films afterwards, often giving contact information and extra details (such as that regarding the house that is the setting for “The Unlocking.”) There were 2 additional shorts discussed at length, but I was not sent either short.

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