Category: Movies Page 1 of 22
Adam McKay’s new film “Vice” focuses on the Vice Presidency of Dick Cheney under George W. Bush. The director of “The Big Short” previously helmed “Anchorman” (2004), “Talladega Nights” and “The Other Guy.” McKay wrote and directed this film and is nominated as both Best Director and for Best Screenplay among the 6 nods from the Golden Globe awards.
The true wheat amongst the chaff here is Christian Bale’s amazing transformation from, well, Christian Bale, into the heavyset, overweight, middle-aged, follically challenged Cheney. Hats off to the make-up crew!
Amy Adams also received a Golden Globe nod for Best Supporting Actress and Sam Rockwell for Best Supporting Actor for playing a somewhat clueless George W. Bush.
Given the fact that McKay wrote for “Saturday Night Live” in 1975 and has a partnership with comic talent Will Ferrell (“Funny or Die” is their channel), this is more in the spirit of “The Big Short” than of his previously silly films, but is not nearly as story focused
Obviously, when this many nominations are given for acting, the acting is great. (Not to mention the make-up.)
As for the screenplay, it is crammed with so much that you will drown in numbers, figures, and much, much more. It was not the movie I thought I was going to see, as I thought that Hollywood directors had this “FOCUS! FOCUS!” part down, (whereas my screenplay efforts are always accused of containing too much and being all over the place, even when they win awards).
For the “good” list, let’s just mention some of the superlative performers (besides those already mentioned above) who put in an appearance:
Steve Carrell – his wife was an early improv partner of McKay’s. He plays Donald Rumsfeld.
Alison Pill – she had a fairly large role opposite Sarah Paulson on the clown episodes of “American Horror Story.” She plays Mary Cheney (the gay one).
Justin Kirk – You will recognize Justin Kirk, who plays Scooter Libby, from “Weeds.”
Jesse Plemons – Kurt – Jesse was in both “Fargo” and “Breaking Bad.” I did not like the way in which his character was integrated (or not integrated) into the plot, and I was always told that “voice over” was lazy writing. So much for that advice.
Tyler Perry – Yes, THE Tyler Perry, plays Colin Powell
So, the cast? Uniformly good. I watched a documentary (Errol Morris) on Donald Rumsfeld called “The Unknown Known” at the 2017 Chicago International Film Festival and Rummy comes off as just as big an SOB here as he did there.
The acting cannot overcome the incessant barrage of facts and data, some of which are incidental to the story. We all know that there is a drug epidemic going on, but why do we see close-ups of a victim being treated with NarCan, for example, or forest fires in California? For that matter, why did Gerry Fraser photograph it in such a herky-jerky fashion that it was like rewatching Costa Gravas’ “Z”, (which pioneered hand-held camera work) or “The Blair Witch Project.” The close-ups were not fun for the audience.
There’s just too broad a net thrown over this whale. It may be nominated for Best Picture, but it was a disappointment to me, as we drove around on Christmas Day for an hour and fifteen minutes trying to get in to a 3:10 or 3:55 showing, only to ultimately give up.
The political implications and message did not offend me, a journalist (Yahoo Content Producer of the Year 2008 for Politics) who did not much care for George W. Bush and thought him incompetent, but Republicans won’t like it. As for me, the film is too jam-packed with too much detail to carry the plot of how Cheney became our “acting President,” (whether he ever earned the honorary title or not).
Some thoughts of the day, on Monday, the day before the election.
I am asked if I think there will be a Blue Wave.
I respond that my biggest fear is that the Kavanaugh hearings will function like the Comey memo about Hillary’s e-mails. If the Kavanaugh hearings energize Trump’s base…..(finish that thought).
On another topic, I saw “Bohemian Rhapsody” AND “First Man” and I can highly recommend both.
Years ago, at the Chicago Film Festival, I saw a bio-pic on Freddie Mercury of clips of all his public appearances put together by the man responsible for curating same. It was terrific! One thing that was not covered as well as it could have been was Freddy’s collaboration with an opera singer of the day.
“First Man” was also wonderful and a tribute to Damien Chazelle’s directing as much as Ryan Gosling’s portrayal of Neil Armstrong.
Visited the Field Museum today and saw 2 films, one on ancient Egypt and one on Antarctica. Both were informative and educational.
The rest of the past few days were spent participating in a SLAM (Culture Club)
on Friday night and dining at Joe’s on Saturday night. I learned, the hard way, that I should always ask for the “market value” on crab values. (A: $70!) But it is a lovely place and the food was good.
Cast: Viggo Mortensen, Mahershala Ali, Linda Cardellini, Sebastian Maniscalco, Dimiter D. Marinov, P.J. Byrne.
Director: Peter Farrelly
Writers: Nick Vallelonga, Brian Currie, Peter Farrelly.
Length: 130 minutes
“The Green Book” was a book that actually existed in the sixties South, one which would tell black citizens where they could (and could not) stay while traveling. Its correct title was “The Negro Motorist Green Book,” written by Victor Hugo Green and published annually from 1936 to 1966 as a guide outlining where black travelers in the South could stay, eat, and receive services during the days of Jim Crow. Set in 1962, the racism that “The Green Book” explores was real. The characters who traveled the South together for two months on a concert tour were also real.
Viggo Mortensen, who stars opposite Mahershala Ali as Ali’s chauffeur on his piano tour of the South, pointed out on September 11th in Toronto that the message of tolerance and learning to exist side-by-side with those who may be different from us is still very relevant today. While the green book of the title may be gone, the racism in this country is not.
Real-life pianist Don Shirley, Jamaican-born, is applauded and congratulated for his virtuoso performances before all-white audiences, but the impeccably attired and well- mannered Shirley is forced to stay in forlorn motels and flophouses when offstage. His two sidemen, Russians who drive separately in their own car, inform Tony that Shirley could have remained in Manhattan and played any number of more enlightened venues, but he purposely chose to travel the South, serving as a sort of one-man sign of hope for the downtrodden African American residents of the South. Nowhere is that made more clear than in the scene when the two stop by a field where laborers gaze at this successful man as though he is from another planet. The fact that he is being driven by a white driver who opens his door for him and dances attendance on him is certainly something that they have not seen before.
In one short scene at a YMCA, Tony bribes two cops to let Shirley go after what looks to have been a gay hook-up. This theme is never fully explored. Earlier in the film, Shirley has mentioned a marriage that did not work out when combined with his career commitments. There is also an angst-ridden scene between Ali and Mortensen where the pianist asks, “If I’m not black enough, and I’m not white enough, tell me, Tony, what am I?” You sense that there is much about his privileged life that is not satisfactory nor ever likely to be in the United States of America. You wonder if the final heart-warming scene really played out quite the way it is presented, just as you wonder about whether Ali is really playing the piano.
The ironies and injustices mount with depressing regularity the longer the tour continues in the South. In one encounter with racist police in Mississippi, Shirley saves himself and Tony from a racist jail cell only by a phone appeal to none other than then-Attorney General Bobby Kennedy. There’s also a letting-off-steam interlude when the pair goes to a black honky-tonk and Shirley gets down musically for the first time. The piano interludes that appear to show Ali in action are extremely impressive, whether he is playing polite jazz at a Southern country club (that subsequently refuses to let him eat in the dining room) or surrounded by African American bar patrons in a smoky hole-in-the-wall.
In addition to the injustices and the flat-out harassment, we see scenes where Tony introduces Shirley to Kentucky Fried Chicken for the first time (in Kentucky, no less) and others where he makes the classically trained pianist aware of the great popular musicians of the day being played on the radio, like Aretha Franklin and Chubby Checker. Tony and Shirley are both stand-up guys, and that helps them to become true friends, once they get to know each other. The scenes where Ali helps Tony write romantic love letters home to his loving wife (well played by Linda Cardellini) and his two sons are both sweet and funny at the same time.
The dynamic of these objectively mismatched men is almost like that of The Odd Couple. The formal, uptight Don Shirley is gradually loosened up by the more uncouth, working-class stiff, Italian-American Tony “Lip” Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen) once they grow to know one another and understand each other. It gives the audience hope that, without the constant stirring of the pot by those who get off on divisiveness and discord, we all may come to live in harmony by opening our minds and hearts and freeing ourselves of rank prejudice.
The human interchange, enlivened as it is by two fine actors in top form, makes “The Green Book” go down easily. It was the audience favorite at the Toronto Film Festival and it was one of my two favorite amusing, uplifting films of the CIFF,( the other being Melissa McCarthy’s “Can You Ever Forgive Me?”) You can watch just so many films about drug-addicted teen-agers before you need to recharge your batteries. In these troubled times, this is the kind of film that will leave you feeling that there is hope for mankind, whether the future proves that hope true or not.
Lucas Hedges is having a banner year, with starring roles in two much-talked about films, “Ben Is Back” and “Boy Erased.” “Boy Erased” is the story of the son of a Baptist minister in Arkansas who is outed to his parents (Nicole Kidman and Russell Crowe) at age 19. As the voice-over tells us at the film’s outset: “I wish none of this had ever happened, but sometimes I thank God that it did.”
The film, written by Actor/Director Joel Edgerton (“Red Sparrow,” “Loving”) from a memoir of the same name written by Garrard Conley, deals with Jarred Eamons’ real-life experiences when he is forced to attend a gay conversion therapy program. There are 36 states where such gay conversion centers are legal and over 700,000 “patients” have been treated in them.
I was immediately reminded of Michelle Bachmann’s husband Marcus in Minnesota, who, although not a licensed therapist with the state of Minnesota, ran such a Christian conversion camp. Bachmann, who ran for President (briefly) in 2012 (she dropped out of the race in January of 2012 after placing 6th in the Iowa caucuses) once proposed an amendment to the Minneapolis Constitution that would ban gay marriage, was anti-abortion and declared global warming “all voodoo, nonsense, hoakum, a hoax.” Bachmann also helped found the House Tea Party movement while serving from Minnesota, whose actions and mind-set we see in evidence on the national scene every day.
The American Psychiatric Association has repudiated such “Christian counseling centers” and, just like Marcus Bachmann, the leader of the gay conversion center that Jared is forced to attend is not a licensed therapist. (In fact, we learn at film’s end that he is now married to a man and living elsewhere.)
This is an important step up for Lucas Hedges, although he has already appeared in several Oscar-nominated films —“Ladybird,” “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” “The Grand Budapest Hotel” and he was Oscar-nominated for his role in “Manchester by the Sea.” It is a foregone conclusion that this role, or his role as Ben in “Ben Is Back,” will garner him another nomination for Best Actor. The scene in his dormitory room where Jared is essentially the victim of rape is extremely good, but he is good in all of his scenes in both films. I’d pick this role, because the film, as a whole, hung together slightly better than “Ben Is Back” and, quite frankly, 3 drug addict movies in, the gay conversion theme was a change of pace. (Not to mention that Timothee Chalamet is out there this year in “Beautiful Boy,” nailing the drug addict portrayal nomination.)
Let’s not forget that 2 Oscar winners are portraying Jared’s parents. Nicole Kidman is wonderful as the courageous mother fighting for the son she loves and Russell Crowe is equally good in his scenes as the less accepting minister parent. Let’s also give a shout-out to Flea (of the Red Hot Chili Peppers), aka Michael Peter Balzary, a native of Melbourne, Australia, who does a good job playing creepy conversion camp character Brandon. In fact, with the exception of Lucas Hedges, Mr. and Mrs. Eamon, conversion therapist Victor Sykes (played by Joel Edgerton) and Flea’s character of Brandon are all Australian.
There were many “first time” directors appearing with their films in Chicago, but this outing by Edgerton, who both adapted the memoir for the screen, acted in the film, and directed the film, was far, far better than fellow actor Paul Dano’s maiden voyage in “Wildlife,” a very disappointing film. See it if you want to have seen at least one of the nominees for Best Actor on February 24th.
Opening Night of the 54th Chicago International Film Festival featured the Amazon film “Beautiful Boy,” directed by Belgian director Felix van Groeningen and starring Timothee Chalomet, Steve Carell, Maura Tierney, Amy Ryan and Andre Royo (“The Wire,” “Fringe,” “Empire”).
The film is based on two books written by David Sheff (“Beautiful Boy: A Father’s Journey Through His Son’s Addiction”) and Nic Sheff: “Tweak: Growing Up on Methamphetamines.” Both books were published in 2009. Their impact on director Felix van Groeningen in his first American film for Amazon, is what brought about the project.
Von Groeningen told me on Opening Night in Chicago, “It’s a real honor to be here. I’m very proud of the film and the fact that it is opening the Chicago International Film Festival.” When I asked him how excited he was, on a scale of 1 to 10, to have helmed this first American film, he replied, enthusiastically: “12!” Von Groeningen said, “I did another film (“The Broken Circle Breakdown,” 2012) that brought up a lot of controversial issues, and you just hope that this film will speak to people.”
Also present this night was Andre Royo, veteran character actor who plays Spencer, the sponsor of the drug-addicted Nic (Chalomet). The film recounts the heartbreaking and inspiring experience of survival, relapse and recovery in a family coping with addiction that stretches over many years. Dede Robinson, of Brad Pitt’s “Plan B” production company was scheduled to attend, but did not. She has won Oscars for producing “Twelve Years A Slave” and “Moonlight” and is the only female producer to have won 2 Academy Awards. (She has also been nominated pretty regularly each year since 2011).
The acting in this one is Top Notch, with Timothee Chalomet (“Call Me By Your Name”) in line for his second Oscar nomination as Best Actor in 2 years, and with the likelihood that co-star Steve Carell as his father will earn a Best Supporting Actor nod. Maura Tierney (“The Affair”) playing David Sheff’s second wife, Karen, is also strong, as is Amy Ryan as his divorced wife (and mother of Nic), Vicky. The acting in this one is superlative, and it is because of the actors’ commitment to finding the core conflict of their characters and conveying it realistically onscreen that the film has won such glowing praise, in Toronto and elsewhere.
There is no question that addressing the growing problem of drug addiction is an important and timely topic. A line onscreen at film’s end notes that drug overdoses are the leading cause of death among those under age 50. Chalomet, on Jimmy Fallon’s show on October 10th, said, “Addiction is not a recognizable face. That’s what this movie hopes to address. That’s how we get through it, by talking about it.”
Whenever you enter a film that features an addict shooting up, you think, “This will not end well.” That is true of this film. It does throw us a bit of a curve ball in that regard.
This is the director’s first English language film. I wondered if the individuals hired for areas like music were people he had worked with on previous films. I’m thinking particularly of the musical choices made by a four-person team, supervised by Gabe Helfer (Bob Bowen, executive in charge of music; Christoffer Franzen, composer; Henry van Roden). I found some of the musical choices odd, incongruous, too obvious or too cacophonous; I spoke with others who did, as well. Could it be cultural differences, or is there another valid explanation?
What do I mean? Perry Como singing “Sunrise, Sunset” from “Fiddler on the Roof,” paired with a Nirvana song, “Territorial Pissing?” “Heart of Gold” by Neil Young. Annoying loud jangly music at times that detracted from what was going on onscreen, rather than augmenting it or adding to it. Jazz for the snorting scene, for example. “Darling, I Need Your Love” as Nic walks into a diner (seemed too obvious). Why do I pay attention to this stuff? My daughter’s college major at Belmont was Music Business. She worked helping put music in films like “Up in the Air” in internships and, later, worked for Taylor Swift. She told me to pay better attention, so I do.
The Young Nics
There are entirely too many “young Nics” and some of them don’t look much like “teenaged Nic.” Their pictures are all over the walls. Why not use childhood pictures of the REAL Timothee Chalomet? Why use the one child (seen in the trailer) whose hair looks nothing like the wild curls of the teenaged actor? (His hair is straight, his face is the wrong shape, and I doubt if anybody is buying that this child grows up to be Timothy Chalomet.) One young actor who plays Nic as a 12-year-old is Jack Dylan Grazer, who plays Eddie Kaspbrak in “It” and co-stars in television’s “Me, Myself and I.”
A poem by Charlies Bukowski is featured. It is read in part by the lead during a rehab session and in its entirety at the end of the film. Once would have been enough. It seemed more like something that an Indie film director would do…an “auteur” move. We’d already gotten the general idea from the short portion that young Nic reads in group.
The two filmgoers next to me—middle-aged women—both said, “This needed to be about a half hour shorter.” The film runs 111 minutes, but she was right that relapse after relapse after relapse begins to wear on you. I would definitely go for the stellar performances, bound to be recognized on February 24 (Oscar time) and hope that the message about how awful Meth, in particular, is for the human brain gets out there.
William Friedkin, the Director of such 70s masterpieces as “The French Connection” (1971), “The Exorcist” (1973), “Boys in the Band” (1976), “Sorcerer” (1977) and “Cruising” (1980) was awarded a Career Achievement Award on Monday, October 15th, at the 54th Chicago International Film Festival.
Friedkin, who is now 83, was thought to be the youngest man to win the Oscar for Best Director when he won for “The French Connection” in 1971, at 36 years old. (This record is now held by Damien Chazelle, who won at 32 for “La La Land”). That proved wrong. However, William Friedkin is now the oldest surviving winner of the Best Director category for “The French Connection” in 1971.
I recently heard Friedkin speak before a showing of “The Exorcist” in Austin, Texas, and after a showing of his new, short documentary of an exorcism (“The Devil and Father Amorth”), which Friedkin filmed in Italy himself using only a GoPro camera.
This night, the audience was treated to the North American premiere of Francesco Zippel’s film “Friedkin Uncut,” where we heard from his actors and fellow directors, including Ellen Burstyn, Wes Anderson, Quentin Tarantino, Matthew McConaughey, Walter Hill, George Lucas, William Peterson, Philip Kaufmann, Gina Gershon, Willem Dafoe, Juno Temple, Francis Ford Coppola and many more. Dafoe and Peterson cited Friedkin’s “energy, passion, intelligence. One of the smartest people I’ll ever know, and he has balls that clank. “ Friedkin, himself, said that a filmmaker needs, “Ambition, luck and the grace of God. You have to go out and try to make your chances.” He cited Kathry Bigelow and Damien Chazelle as two of the best new filmmakers and said “The Babadook” was one of the scariest of the “new” horror releases.
Watching the uncut, uncensored William Friedkin (“Billy” to his close friends) talk about movies and movie-making onscreen was followed by the genuine article. And William Friedkin is a raconteur. He would have talked for another hour in Austin, had the showing of the 1973 film “The Exorcist” not been scheduled.
In addition to the stories of how he began in the mail room of WGN and grew up on the north side of Chicago, other directors paid tribute. George Lucas, alluding to Friedkin’s roots as a documentary filmmaker, marveled that Friedkin’s early documentary (1962) “The People vs. Paul Crump” caused the governor to commute Crump’s death sentence after seeing it. Coppola found this a powerful message and others, like Director Wes Anderson, shared that, “His films are built on something very solid.” Said one, “What ‘Star Wars’ was to science fiction, ‘The Exorcist’ was to horror.” (It was a bit of a blow to Friedkin that the phenomenal success of “Star Wars,” which was released very shortly before “The Sorcerer,” left his film in the red after the studio had spent $22 million making it.)
Friedkin came out and joined retiring founder and Director of the Chicago International Film Festival, Michael Kutza, at the podium. Kutza reminisced that they had begun together 55 years ago. Kutza then began reading from the award that Friedkin was to receive, but, somehow, the award had Carey Mulligan’s name on it (she was to receive her award the next night) and that was all it took for Friedkin to riff and joke and, ultimately, throw all of Kutza’s notes on the floor.(See photo)
Friedkin worked that way when directing, also, and Gina Gershon told a story of his treatment of her while they were on-set and Friedkin was trying to evoke a certain reaction from her. She thought he didn’t like her, she said. He was just trying to provoke a certain reaction.
Friedkin, himself, told an amusing story about casting Max Von Sydow as the priest who performs the exorcism in that 1971 film. Because Von Sydow was an atheist, he kept having trouble saying the line, “The power of Christ commands you!” Said Friedkin, to laughter, “On a list of 100 things that could go wrong, Max Von Sydow blocking on a line was #100!”
Friedkin’s films illustrate his documentary origins, with their gritty realism and the premier chase sequences of “The French Connection” and “To Live and Die in L.A.” The director also commented on the continual battle between good and evil (in life and on film), mentioning Hitler and Jesus. Said his colleagues, “He’s always looking for people to put themselves out there. He’s in it. He’s passionate and he expects people to give 200% because he’s giving 200%.”
Friedkin said, “Rehearsal is for sissies. Dummies. I’m a one-take guy. F***** bring it! I’m not looking for perfection; I’m looking for spontaneity.” He went on to say that 80 to 90% of a film’s success “is casting” and added, “My thing is to be real.”
I had gifted Friedkin with my book “It Came from the 70s: From The Godfather to Apocalypse Now” in Austin. I went down after the showing of his documentary of an exorcism and gave him the book. He signed it and handed it back.”
“No…this is for you. Three of your films are in it.”
He thanked me.
This night, I joined a crowd that was much bigger, clustering around the famous man. I tried to find his wife Sherry Lansing and his son Jack, who were in Chicago with him, but they had disappeared in the mob. Many of the people were asking Friedkin if he remembered this person or that person from his Chicago days. (Philip Kaufman, director of “The Invasion of the Body Snatchers” with Donald Southerland, was a classmate). I eventually had one second to ask him if he remembered receiving the book about seventies movies (“The New Hollywood”), which consisted of 50 representative films, 76 photos, and interactive trivia, and my reviews from the Quad City Times, painstakingly brought up to the pixel standards of today over a period of 8 years.
His response? “No. I don’t remember.”
Well, the man IS 83 years old, after all, but he seems as sharp as the proverbial tack. He also nearly died of a congenital heart defect way back in 1977. But he seems quite happy with his Auteur Emeritus status and shared that “acting and filmmaking are both jobs.”
Friedkin shared that his favorite films were “the great MGM musicals” and also said “They’re dead.” We learned that he has staged several operas, at the explicit urging of Zubin Mehta, and it was (now-retired) “Vanity Fair” editor Graydon Carter who urged him to film a real exorcism when he returned to Italy and to write about it for “Vanity Fair,” leading to his short documentary (which, quite frankly, is not riveting.)
Friedkin thanked his wife Sherry Lansing, head of Paramount Pictures for many years, whom he married 26 years ago. Prior to that, Friedkin had been married three times, but none of his first 3 marriages lasted over 3 years (Jeanne Moreau, ’77-79; Lesley-Anne Down, ’82-’85; Kelly Lange, ’87-90.)
Director of the documentary “Friedkin Uncut”, Francesco Zippel said, “This film has been very important to me. I had the chance to look back at all the films with him. I tried to give him the chance to talk about himself and his career in a way that was closer to him. I thank William Friedkin so much for allowing me to do this.”
Of Chicago, in particular, Friedkin said, “This is the most beautiful city in the world. Chicago is not a city that brags about itself. I got my sense of curiosity from Chicago. It is easily the best city in this country—but I do like Venice (Italy).”
The third day of the Austin Revolution Film Festival saw participants journeying to a high school to speak to one of the founder’s classes and then on to Austin’s Salt Lick for Barbecue. Since I’ve been to Salt Lick, I was not among the tourists, but I spent the past two evenings watching shorts and a few feature length offerings culled from among 10,000 entries, we were told.
My script (THE COLOR OF EVIL), based on the first book in a novel trilogy I wrote, which has won 36 competitions as a screenplay, was a Finalist until September 12, 10 days from the end of this festival, when I received a short “Dear Con” letter telling me it wasn’t in the running any more. I’d have been upset if I had paid $500 x 2 per airplane ticket (the one-way fare from Chicago), or, worse, from Australia (a 17-hour flight). Not to mention the cost of a hotel room. Why tell people they are losers 10 days before the end of the festival? (Weird. Not the way it’s done in Vancouver, Chicago or San Antonio, but nevermind about that.) There was a mixer on September 12th. I went. It was immediately after the mixer that I received my Kiss-of-Death e-mail, so I’m wondering, “Was it something I said?” (lol)
The first night (Tuesday, Sept. 18) began with thanks for the sponsors, including Uncle Billy’s Brewery and George Dog Music. The “prize” from this film festival is a gigantic belt buckle. (Does anyone actually wear it? No idea. Made me think of that ad that is currently running with the young cowboy who keeps showing up with a bigger and bigger belt buckle.)
This was the 7th annual Austin Revolution Film Festival, not to be confused with the “regular” Austin Film Festival, which runs from October 25-November 2, or SXSW, which takes place in March. Organizers of this film festival are James Christopher, who shared that it is 13th year of film-making and his 15th feature film (“A Chance of Snow”) would close out the evening, and Lisa Belcher of JumpRock Pictures IShort: “Guest of Honor”). Christopher shared that the event grew out of neighboring filmmakers in the area wanting to join in a chance to show the films they had made and described it as a chance to provide networking, to help other filmmakers to build teams and a support system. One young man I met (Henry Young) had journeyed all the way from Australia to show his short, “Animal.”
THE BLACK MARKET CLUB
First short: a van is shown crashing off a bridge. The van crashes over and over and over. The group in the van are apparently members of a rock band that has just played a gig. There was a guy with a weird mustache, shown in close-up and a song with the lyric “Falling like so many times before.” Interesting depiction of the van crashing although one member of the rock band who was about to die was incongruously seen smiling a bit.
- The next short focused on people who had suffered traumatic brain injuries and, therefore, were having trouble remembering things, much like Alzheimer’s sufferers. There is a support group for these troubled souls. A handsome young man meets a pretty young girl named Claire there and they both write things on their arms to try to help them remember things. The young man in this Avery Merrifeld-directed short didn’t have any trouble immediately asking the young girl to join him for coffee after the meetings, however, and those scenes, with a blonde waitress wearing a CoffeeShark shirt led to scenes at an ice skating rink (the girl’s passion). The skaters were quite good and the picture of me [and the woman who played the blonde waitress at the coffee shop, above, with me.] The problem with this piece, for me, is that I spent 20 years working with head injury patients. I know that the cast and crew did visit a head injury clinic, but my small Sylvan Learning Center (#3301) in Bettendorf, Iowa, became the “go to” facility for traumatic brain injury patients in the IA/IL Quad Cities and never did I see one write things on his or her arm. Our most extreme case was a young man who cardiac arrested in the parking lot of St. Ambrose University when he was entering to take classes to become an engineer. The cerebral anoxyia (lack of oxygen to the brain) he suffered wiped out his ability to read, write and/or do numbers. We worked with him for years and were able to restore the number knowledge faster than the reading, which never progressed beyond the 7th grade level. All higher level thinking skills were wiped out and his dream of becoming an engineer along with it. When he woke up in the hospital (after some Good Samaritan passersby performed CPR in the parking lot and saved his life) he did not remember his fiance (that engagement soon faltered), but he did remember things from when he was a child. He eventually was moved to a treatment facility in St. Louis, but, as they say, “a little knowledge is a dangerous thing” and A LOT of knowledge is a much more dangerous thing.
This one was one of the more ridiculous premises, with a man who has the misfortune to have a bird leave its droppings in his eye causing him to turn into a tree (think Groot). Patrick Griney wrote and directed. The kudos really belong to the make-up people who had to make a tree take root in the lead’s ear realistically and, ultimately, take over a human male’s body. The audience seemed to like it.
This was one of my favorite shorts, dealing, as it did, with an old man’s encroaching dementia. Andy Kasteler wrote and directed and the actor did a good job of railing against his boss’s directives. The boss turns out to be his son, and the old man is white-washing trees. But, in reality, at one point he has painted a telephone pole (dementia evidence). I am not knowledgeable enough about why he was whitewashing trees to tell you what that had to do with anything [and I’m from farm country]. (Apparently it is something that is done to a grove to prepare the trees for winter?) All I know is that the main actor, who had a last name of Fyre, did a great job, and I wondered if the line “Everything about him was old except his eyes. They were the same color as the sea” was from “The Old Man and the Sea.” An anguished examination of the horror(s) of growing old, seen from the vantage point of both the elderly man and his young son.
DEATH (*& DISCO FRIES)
Dennis Cahlo of New York City wrote, directed and stars in this humorous examination of one man’s regrets as he learns he has only a short time to live. It’s played for laughs, as he answers the phone and is told by his old gym teacher that he is dead. Dennis is asked by old coach O’Halloran if he has any regrets and Dennis admits he’d like to eat disco fries, despite the fact that he has been a vegan all his life. The problem with disco fries? Nobody I talked to knew what they were. I’m from the Midwest, so maybe it’s an Eastern thing, but I literally asked people from all areas of the country if they’d ever heard the term “disco fries.” Nobody had. What are they? Apparently it’s a truly disgusting looking french fry dish where some sort of gravy is poured over the fries. (Ugh) It would have been more universal if Dennis had gone with a hot fudge sundae or even a steak, as disco fries were less-than-universal, (in my own admittedly limited experience). They looked absolutely horrible. That didn’t change the sweet message about asking Veronica (Kate Vincent) to dance with him at the Prom. I liked it very much, but I hated the font used for this short and for the feature film that followed. It was a Gothic font that made it very difficult to even read the title of “A Chance of Snow” when (also) used there. Dennis also has a podcast and we may chat about movies on it.
Clementine appears and tells us how happy she is with her life and especially with her wonderful husband Jerry. (“My life is a dream”). With music by Matt Kidd and direction by Ross Wooten, Allen G. Hale gets the opportunity to play four different roles, a tour de force (think Peter Sellers in “Dr. Strangelove” or “How I Learned to Stop Worrying And Love the Bomb”…what? You haven’t seen it? Check it out!) Hale is Jerry, her wonderful, if boring, husband. He is Francine, Clementine’s best girlfriend (and a terrible girl he makes with the blonde wig!) He is Lonnie the mailman. He is Alfonse the yoga instructor. He is Aunt Pearl. By the end of the piece, we learn that Clementine is crazy (“Her brain is disappearing”) and Jerry feels it necessary to provide her with a host of friends and acquaintances as she becomes loopier and loopier. A weird concept, but Alan had fun with it and so did we.
There was a picture of a hand putting a needle on a record and Santa entered a living room where two children were present. [Not sure this was really a complete short in and of itself, as it was immediately followed by the feature film.]
A CHANCE OF SNOW
This feature film was put together by one of the festival organizers, James Christopher. The plot featured a blonde young man (Tyler) who has a new girlfriend now that he has left home for college. The new blonde girlfriend’s name is Holly. (She is gorgeous, but she was also in Arizona when the film screened.) Supposedly, Tyler’s family is really BIG on Christmas, and he went with a different girl named Noelle all of high school, but they broke up when he left for college and she failed to follow him there. There was a sister named Faith, with a boyfriend in “a third world country” that is never named (Iraq? Afghanistan?). It takes about 2 minutes to realize that the boy should have stayed with his original girl friend and/or will somehow end up with her when all is said and done. Some of the dialogue was…odd. [“That really ain’t no fun for no one.” “At least you didn’t lift your leg.” “I don’t know what Yankees like to do.”] The best part of the film was Alejandro Patino’s (also a Producer) depiction of Noelle’s Hispanic father. He doesn’t really like Tyler and speaks Spanish to his daughter telling her so, but Tyler (and Holly), who are present, don’t speak Spanish, so the father has a chance to insult the boyfriend pretty thoroughly while Tyler remains clueless. One wonders why either girl would fall for him. His special Santa suit, worn at the end of the film, is the pits and I asked several people about the tag on is left sleeve that says OPPO (Nobody had any answer for me; maybe the rental place?). Andy Bertelson’s very country song by the Texas Renegade worked in the idea “All I need is a chance of snow and a chance you will love me.” Setting was Winter’s Hope, Texas. The black delivery guy has about 2 minutes of screen time; his delivery (pun intended) was priceless. Moral of the story: “You don’t know what you’re missing till it’s gone.”
On the second night, (September 19, Wednesday) the slate of shorts led off with Lisa Belcher’s short film:
GUEST OF HONOR
Lisa Belcher, who is one of the guiding lights of the Austin Revolution Film Festival also co-wrote, acted and directed this short, which was quite good. Her co-star, Lukas Hassel, also earned a writer credit. Lisa appears, looking very sad, and we know something has happened to her son because she is boxing up his school trophies and mementos. (Lisa’s real-life son, who is taller than his mom, is used in the photos.) As the plot thickens, Belcher conveys the preoccupied sadness of a grieving mother quite well, and we learn that there is some sort of a celebration planned, with caterers coming. (The sets were lavish and appropriate). At first, I thought the caterers might have been summoned for a post-funeral dinner, but it turns out that the couple is going to have a 21st wedding anniversary celebration, because their son, who recently was killed by a drunk driver, wanted so much to throw a big party for the couple’s twentieth anniversary (the year prior), before his tragic death. The father is shown at one point conferring with a slim young black girl in the street, who ultimately gets in his car with him, and I’m sure I wasn’t the first to think he was soliciting a hooker. But, no. The young girl has received the heart of the heroine’s dead son, and shows up at the party. This one seemed very professionally done and the sound, in fact, was done in Los Angeles, if I remember the credits correctly. Lisa Belcher and her producing partner Christian Olteanu are an Austin force to be reckoned with.
LEARNING THE ROPES
Eric Goodman and America’s Academy of Pro Wrestling. Two words: “The Wrestler,” Mickey Rourke (should have won the Oscar, but Sean Penn beat him with “Milk”), directed by Darren Aronofsky, 2008). Why are all the people in this world so screwed up? Beats me, but it was a great film in 2008 and this short re-visited that real world with “Meatball,” an overweight wrestler who loves the sport, et. al.
This one opens with a young girl climbing a mountain and collapsing after mumbling something about “angels come to me when I close my eyes.” As the plot thickens, her sister sells her baby to a con man from the Guiding Light Evangelical Mission, one of the sisters manages to get shot, and there is talk of the father being an alien. Real Rain Productions took off on this, with Bears Fone writing and directing. Ambiguous ending. Part of the time we’re wrapping our minds around an alien pregnancy (remember Hallie Berry’s short-lived series?) and part of the time we’re dealing with GNL Pharmaceutical Company which may profit from an alien baby, and the rest of the time we’re wondering if the sister who gets shot is going to live and, all-in-all, lots to deal with here for a short.
Not sure if the name of this was “leechers” but “leechers” are people who touch someone as they are dying and absorb their entire lives. One word: “Fallen,” 1998, Elias Koteas as Edgar Reese, a convicted killer who touches Denzel at the moment of death and passes bad stuff on. [Not a totally new idea, in other words, but are there any new ones left?] In this particular treatment, we have a sister who wants to stop her brother from going on as a bad guy serial killer. [Do sisters usually shoot their brothers to save total strangers? Wrong question, probably.] He says he’s NOT a serial killer because “they were all still alive in my head.” Rushton Williams, Kelsey Pribelai, Timothy McKinny, J.T. Campos, “Cold Summer” productions, Linus Lau music and Kory Hill sound mixing. The young boy who started out as the younger brother was quite good, but did not look like he’d grow up to look like the adult star of the piece. However, stranger things have happened…right?
This short was the perfect example of what, in psychology, is known as “a double approach avoidance” response. The textbook example of that was marriage and a wedding. As the wedding grows closer, the bride (and groom) become both more apprehensive and more excited. In this case, the bride has some pretty severe doubts about her intended. At one point she is holed up in the bathroom having an anxiety attack and her mother-in-law, Linda, is trying to lure her out. The best line in the short, with great delivery, is: “GET THE FUCK AWAY FROM THE DOOR, LINDA!” as the mother of the groom is pestering the bride-to-be to come out and rejoin the guests at her bridal shower. Unfortunately, her intended shows up and insists on singing the song he wrote for her (“I hate that effing song!”) Best line that was written, rather than spoken: “No goldfish were harmed in the making of this film.” Nice surprise ending that probably wasn’t that big a surprise once you thought about the characters of Jesse and Ashley. Cassidy Freeman, Brady Johnson, Caitlin Norton. (Great hair throughout!)
ONE ACT PLAY
This 73-minute gem from Landry Gideon and company of Triadatx Media proves that even a topic that sounds like it might be boring can surprise you. In this case, Landry and his crew tracked the progress of various thespians (actors) in drama classes throughout Texas as they move through the various competitions to be named the Number One troupe in the state, based on the one act play they present.
The schools were Salada High School, Rogers High School, Hempstead High School, Randall High School, Barbers Hill High School and their various drama teachers and students. It’s a bit like “Glee” on television, where the tension rises as the competition nears and the stakes get higher and the students proceed from Zone to Area to Regionals to winnowing down to eight and making it to State. Andrew Miller, Director of Photography, shot literally loads of film, as he told me; the editing was great, as was the sound. Will Patterson was brought in to provide the heart-pounding music that propelled the tension, and the choice of Rogers High School to present “Kholstomer: The Story of a Horse” (a German play, translated) means that a field trip to a horse farm is included and the students have to pretend to be horses onstage. (Always interesting). Solado High School chose a war story (“Boys of Winter”), and the director commented that she likes war stories because the students’ grandfathers had often been in VietNam, (which means my generation.) “Black Angel” segments looked very interesting (Hampstead High School) and only “MidSummer Night’s Dream” seemed as though it was a weak choice (Remember on “American Idol” when the judges would talk about how important the right song would be? Well, it applies here.)
The expressions used by the directors reminded me of the University of Iowa’s head coach for many years, Texas native Hayden Fry, who used the term “high porch picnic” (no idea what that means; I’m from Iowa, but I think I was told it had to do with snakes and flooding the last time I asked) and, in this case, one of the coaches says, “I want to beat you up and then beat your sister.” (Surely a Texas idiom?)
I was active in drama in high school in the state of Iowa, and, in fact, one of the founders of my high school’s Thespians troupe, and I can tell you that it is nothing like this. As one individual says, “If it wasn’t for the one-act play, there are thousands of kids in Texas who would not be exposed to theater.”
As for me, I was amazed that that many able-bodied macho boys took part. (It is not that way in all high schools, for sure.) Another great line: “There’s douchebags sitting in the front row.” And “Judges are weird.”
The young girl who declares this to be “the largest interscholastic competition in the world” (and then wonders whether it is just in Texas or the U.S.) was precious. This one should apply for the Chicago International Film Festival, where it would stand a very good chance of admission. A great flick!
Spike Lee’s new film “BlacKkKlansman,” winner of the Cannes Grand Prix award in May, is based on the early 1970s true story of Ron Stallworth, who was the first African-American hired by the Colorado Springs Police Force. Ron is played by Denzel Washington’s son, John David Washington, a new face to contend with for future roles, but previously better known as the subject of father Denzel’s television comments on his son’s football playing prowess. (John David—his full name, as he has no middle name—was drafted by the St. Louis Rams after graduating from Morehouse College in 2006 and played for the Hamburg Sea Devils as a running back in ’06 and ’07.)
Lee said of John David’s casting (“Time” August 20th cover story by Rembert Browne), “I told him, ‘I knew you before you were born.’ I didn’t have him audition or read. Even before I sent him the script, I knew brother man could do it.” And so, a star is born. IMDB even awarded John David Washington the STARmeter award in Cannes on May 9th, 2018. Expect to see a lot more of him in the future, (even if we’ve seen almost nothing of him in the past).
The improbable story that Spike Lee’s terrific cast brings to life is the story of black police officer Ron Stallworth’s infiltration of the Ku Klux Klan. It is based on Stallworth’s book “Black Klansman: Race, Hate, and the Undercover Investigation of a Lifetime,” which shows up now on Amazon with the movie’s poster as a cover, but was out as a hard cover book in June with the close-up of a single eye, peeking out through a KKK hood eye hole.
This film is a direct commentary on the subject of bigotry and racial prejudice in America, and Lee doesn’t mess around. He never has in dealing with racism, violence and inequality in America. Real news clips are used depicting Donald J. Trump speaking, as well as footage of the Charlottesville murder one year ago of 32-year-old white protester Heather Heyer, run down by a car driven by a racist demonstrater. Real film of the event ends Lee’s film, used with permission of Heyer’s mother, Susan Bro. Lee told (“Time”) “I consider her a martyr.”
That event in Charlottesville one year ago also prompted Spike Lee to say, “That is nothing more than home-grown, apple pie, red-white-and-blue terrorism,” in a telephone interview with the New York Times.
The film is certain to make the list of Best Films of the Year and deservedly so. It is Spike Lee’s best non-documentary film in years, and perhaps the strongest commentary on this incendiary topic since “Do the Right Thing” won him an Oscar nomination for Best Screenplay in 1989. Spike Lee has been telling America to “wake up” for 30 years and this latest film underscores the need with current film inserts and newsreel and other footage.
The film opens with the famous scene from “Gone With the Wind” depicting Scarlett O’Hara is wandering amidst the dead, dying and wounded lying on the ground in Atlanta. It uses footage of 1915’s “Birth of A Nation” to show Klansmen celebrating the abhorrent behavior laid out for us in grim detail by none other than Harry Belafonte in a cross-cut scene with the Klan shouting “White Power!” while the African American group meeting across town shouts “Black Power!” The 70s were, indeed, a time when unrest, bred in the sixties, made it appear that race warfare was going to be our next Civil War. If it wasn’t Stokely Carmichael (using the name Kwame Ture in a speech that he gives onscreen) it was SNCC (Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee) or the SLA (Symbionese Liberation Army) that worried white Americans.
As Alec Baldwin’s character of Dr. Kennebrew Beauregard says in the first few moments of the film, playing a White Supremacist narrator of a propaganda film, “We had a great way of life, until Martin Luther King.” He goes on to refer to the “monkeys, rapists, murderous super-predators and blood-sucking Jews” who have, in his opinion, ruined the country, calling it an international Jewish conspiracy. The “N” word is thrown around quite liberally in the film, as well as many other demeaning names for African American citizens. It is not till film’s end that Ron Stallworth’s character (John David Washington) has the chance to respond in kind to the Grand Wizard of the KKK, David Duke (Topher Grace) during a phone conversation. One small criticism I might make is that the scenes showing the great amusement of Stallworth’s fellow officers during these conversations are over-done at times.
It is a telephone conversation that sets the entire investigation in motion, as Ron Stallworth notices ads in the newspaper for Klansmen and responds by phone, posing as a loyal White Supremacist. Ultimately, he becomes a card-carrying member of the KKK—a completely unlikely scenario—but the investigation could not have gone forward without the in-person substitution of fellow officer Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver of “Star Wars”) for Stallworth’s phone persona.
The cast was terrific throughout. The casting by Kim Coleman was right on the money, with many recognizable faces in the crowd. If John David Washington was an unknown before this film, it is a certainty that he will not be after this film. If you listen closely, you can hear some of Denzel’s cadence in his vocal delivery of lines, but he is clearly a talent in his own right, hitting the right notes throughout.
Contributing to the excellent ensemble, besides Washington and Driver, are Robert John Burke as Chief Bridges. I recognized him immediately from “Rescue Me” where he was Dennis Leary’s “sponsor” at AA meetings. (Bridges was also in “RoboCop”). Laura Harrier, who plays the love interest Patrice, is a more recent arrival, from “Spiderman: HomecEggoloming” in 2017. Ryan Eggold as Walter Breachway, is a face you’ll know from “The Black List,” where he was the evil husband of the female lead. (Eggold has a new medical drama starting on TV this fall and had a short-lived show that focused on his character from “The Black List.”) Eggold is the Klansman who eagerly accepts Driver as the real deal and wants to make him head of the group! Michael Joseph Buscemi plays Jimmy Creek, one of the police investigators, and, while he is not Steve Buscemi’s son, he is related (nephew?). Brian Tarantino plays Officer Clay Mulaney and Nicholas Turturro, not much in evidence since 1993’s “NYPD Blue,” is a familiar face. The dim-witted Ivanhoe is Paul Walter Hauser, most recently playing a thug in “I, Tonya” (2017). Two faces I did not recognize were Jasper Paskkonen as Felix Kendrickson, the craziest of the Klansmen, and his wife, Connie (Ashlie Atkinson), who worked with Lee in 2006’s “Inside Man.” Arthur J. Nascarella as Officer Wheaton is from “The Sopranos.” All were excellent.
Lee has worked with the same music person many times and Terence Blanchard put together a terrific score, complete with seventies hits like “It’s Too Late to Turn Back Now” and “Oh Happy Day.” The soundtrack will be terrific. We are also treated to some dancing scenes to lighten the mood, which has comic moments amongst this dead serious topic.
Chayse Irvin is responsible for many of the trademark Spike Lee camera shots, most notably the double dolly shot, where the actors seem to be floating towards the camera (both actors and cameras are placed on dollies on tracks). The grainy high contrast footage, saturated colors, evocative end credits and the “wake up” call to his audience are also typical Spike Lee touches. In this film, the close-up shots of faces in the crowd at Stokely Carmichael’s (Corey Hawkins of “Straight Outta’ Compton) speech are an added plus. In order to be able to both shoot the crowd scene (which Officer Stallworth is monitoring from inside) and to focus on the faces of individuals in the crowd (Washington and Patrice, for example), a separate camera had to be set up in a side room and the actors had to be pulled aside to shoot them in close-up to integrate the close-ups into the crowd scene.
THE POLITICS OF Blackkklansman
In a line from the film, heard during Stokely Carmichael’s speech, he tells the black crowd: “We must unite and organize to fight our oppressor. We are being shot down in the streets by white racist cops.” He goes on to add, “If I am not for myself, who will be? If not now, when? and if not you, who?” Powerful stuff on the heels of so many recent shootings. As a student at Berkeley who remembers the protests of the Vietnam War led by Mario Savio (they were locking him up then; now there’s a statue of him on campus!) and lived through the violence of the sixties, the parallels are much more than theoretical. “Wake up!” is, indeed, a call to all right-thinking U.S. citizens when the KKK is quoted as feeling that, “We’re cleaning this country of a backwards race of chimpanzees. First the N—– and then the K—- (Jews).” Is Spike Lee going too far, when, just today, Omarosa’s book is touting the racist epithet’s popularity as used by the man who once was the star of “The Apprentice” and is now President of the United States?
Another telling line that clearly shows the parallels between these two diametrically opposed groups and times is: “We’re a family and, right or wrong, we stick together.” While that line is spoken by a police officer, the comment immediately follows, “That reminds me of another group.”
I went to hear Spike Lee speak years ago in person in Rock Island, Illinois. The author of the “Time” cover story acknowledged that Lee has a reputation for being controversial, “brash, contrarian and intellectually intimidating,”— a guy who is prickly and wonders “when black people, liberals and Americans in general will stop falling for ‘the okey-doke.'” Some have characterized Lee as “indignant.” He was all of those things that night, causing me to ditch my carefully thought-out-in advance question and remain silent. He is said not to suffer fools gladly and to be impatient. He reminds us all of things we would rather forget, like how Muhammad Ali’s status changed from the sixties, when he was characterized as a draft-dodger and thrown in jail, to Ali’s final years, when he was hailed as an American and global icon.
By “the okey-doke” Lee means the skullduggery, shenanigans, the subterfuge and bamboozling that white America uses to stay in control. It is what one of the O.J. documentaries portrayed as being how O.J. became more involved with the white community than with the black community, after he achieved football and movie stardom. As writer Rembert Browne put it in the “Time” cover story: “Lee makes movies to reopen wounds that white America would like to pretend have healed. He’s a provocateur who clearly knows what his role is: to say difficult things about both the history and the present state of race in America.”
Spike Lee inherited this project after “Get Out” director Jordan Peele (who remains as a Producer) found himself too busy to follow up on making it. Lee was exactly the right person for the film. Jason Blum of Blumhouse Pictures (who I recently spoke with at the conclusion of a panel on horror movies at SXSW entitled “The Bleeding Edge”) is also one of the producers.
OSCAR TIME FOR LEE?
Spike Lee has made 35 films since 1983 and is 61 years old. He has also taught film in New York (Tisch Center) and been its artistic director for 16 years. He has had celebrated feuds with others, including one with Clint Eastwood when he criticized Eastwood’s two war films (“Letter from Iwo Jima” and “Flags of Our Fathers.”) Eastwood said that Spike should “shut his face.”
While that feud has been resolved, Spike Lee is still stereotyped as “an angry black man.” Given the fact that the grim story Harry Belafonte relates in the film is true and the lynching of Chicagoan Emmett Till in 1955 for supposedly whistling at a white woman happened 63 years ago (and the men who committed the act were acquitted), can we really blame Director Spike Lee for speaking out at this time in history. Or should we all just wake up
Don’t miss this movie. It’s bound to garner awards at award season…maybe even the biggest of them all.