Weekly Wilson - Blog of Author Connie C. Wilson

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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Bill Duke: An Autobiography Worth Reading

Bill Duke: My 40 Year Career On Screen and Behind the Camera

Bill Duke: My 40-year Career On Screen and Behind the Camera

Publisher: Rowman & Littlefield, 193 pages, plus index and photographs (15 pages)

Amazon: Print – $16.47. E-book: $13.99.

 

Bill Duke, with his 62 directorial credits, 17 as a producer, and 4 as a writer, is a face on the screen that movie-goers have recognized since the seventies. It was 1976, in fact, when his breakthrough role as Duane/Abdullah in “Car Wash,” paired with such luminaries as Richard Pryor, George Carlin, Otis Day, Antonio Fargas and the Pointer Sisters gave him his first big break in the 40-year career he writes about in “Bill Duke: My 40-year Career Onscreen and Behind the Camera.”

For me, one of his most memorable roles was as Leon, the gay pimp in “American Gigolo.” His movements were sinuous and catlike; he was an unforgettable character in this story of lust and greed, which focused on Gere and his romance of Lauren Hutton as a neglected politician’s wife and a murder suspect.  Paul Schrader (Oscar-nominated this past year for his script for “First Reformed,” which Schrader directed) was the director. The music by Giorgio Moroder imprints the film on my mind.

Duke admits, “I found it to be one of the high points of my acting career with one of the leading roles of the film. It was outside of my comfort zone, but it was a growing experience. I loved the character I played, and I loved working with Richard Gere.”

Duke goes on to say that “Richard Gere was meticulous with every movement of his character, like the movement of his eyes, the face, the lips, the hands, and the legs.” I would add that this attention to detail and movement goes double for Bill Duke in his roles. Leon was, indeed, a high point of Bill Duke’s acting career, and one I remember well.

I would also say that Duke’s praise of his fellow actors and directors and co-stars is universal throughout the book. “Never is heard a discouraging word.” If you are looking for a “tell-all” book from a Hollywood insider that will open the floodgates on unsavory doings, this isn’t it. Bill does allude to a low period in his own life when he gave in to the temptation of drugs, but the story of the seamier side of life in Hollywood is not this book’s mission.

BACKGROUND

When I was teaching junior high school students in a small town in Illinois, I was happy to find that the local library had a series of 16 millimeter After School Specials.  I could rent these and show them to my students. I selected those where Bill Duke and Kevin Hooks were involved because they would be quality productions with good messages and the length was perfect to show to a class on a Friday afternoon late in the year. I was then (and am now) a film critic. I pay attention to who is in a film, and also to who is directing, writing and producing a film.

Duke has appeared in too many television series to list them all, including stints on those After School Specials as well as on “Cold Case” (2008), “Lost” (2006), “Battlestar Galactica” (2006), “Starsky & Hutch” (1978), “Kojack” (1976), “Falcon Crest, “Fame,” “Hill Street Blues,” “Knott’s Landing,” “Dallas,” and “New York Undercover.” He is still active on “Black Lightning.”

Bill Duke’s feature credits include the two films mentioned (“Car Wash,” “American Gigolo”), which really launched him, as well as “Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit,” “Get Rich or Die Trying,” “Deep Cover,” “Hoodlum,” “Predator,” “Menace II Society” and “Not Easily Broken,” to name just a few. He has won NAACP Image Awards and been a nominee for a 1991 Cannes Film Festival Palme d’Or with “A Rage in Harlem.” Sundance Film Festival awarded “The Killing Floor” (1984) a Special Jury Prize and a Grand Jury Prize.  More recently, the Northeast Film Festival recognized “American Satan” with a Best Ensemble Prize and, in 2018-2019, Bill Duke can be seen as Agent Percy Odell in the television series “Black Lightning.”

Reading about how this 77-year-old African American actor/director/producer/writer rose from humble origins in Poughkeepsie, New York and how he continues to open the door for so many other talented black entertainers was interesting, educational and amusing. He seems to write from the heart with sincerity, although there are a few areas that he treats “once over lightly,” including his own bouts with drug addiction and his personal life.

When Duke talks about Leon, his desire to excel shines through. “Playing that role gave me an opportunity to show other sides of my acting ability.  I was seen by many casting directors as the big, tall, angry black man.  I wanted to show that I could be more than that.  The character of Leon was a soft-spoken brilliant sociopathic businessman, and I wanted the opportunity to let casting directors know that I had more range.”

Duke shares the trials and tribulations of being a television series regular. (“A television series is the hardest work for an actor on the face of this Earth.”) He thanks all those who have helped him along the way and does not speak ill of anyone, but does tell readers that, after appearing on a television series called “Palmerstown,” he could not find work as an actor for 2 years.

He explains, “In those days, they had something called a TV Q score, which was a way to measure how familiar audiences were with an actor, TV show, and so forth.  If you were on a television show that garnered a lot of publicity, you could be considered ‘overexposed,’ which could make it difficult to get hired for another television show or feature because your Q score went down.” He adds that the experience made him depressed and angry and convinced him that he had “better learn how to do more than just act.”

Thus began a career move towards producing, writing and directing and this quote:  “Once I figured Hollywood might typecast me as the police officer, I turned to directing.  That way, I could wait until an interesting project came along.” Duke has also moved into the job of Chairperson of the Department of Radio, Television and Film at Howard University, as of 2000.

[*As an aside, I once interviewed the man responsible for the Q Score system. He had headquarters at that time in Marion, Iowa. At that point in time, he was tasked with making a television star spokesperson out of top model Cheryl Tiegs, something that never really worked. The man had worked for Gallup and took his knowledge of polling into the world of television and movies with the much-vaunted “Q Score” that Bill Duke mentions as having given him two years of idleness, sadness and depression. The Q Score Big Boss didn’t like what I had to say about the Q Score, so the article never ran.  I was paid a “kill fee” after I interviewed him in his Marion, Iowa, offices.]

Duke scored a collaborative job with Joel Silver on “Commando,” which introduced him to Arnold Schwarzenegger and Mark Lester (the director) and led, later, to his role as Mac in 1987’s “Predator.”’

PREDATOR STORY

One of the best stories in the book involves “Predator” and the unknown and inexperienced stuntman/actor hired to play the title creature. The actor was dressed in heavy black felt for the filming in the jungles near Puerto Vallarta. The heat and humidity were intolerable, causing the stuntman to pass out at least two times early on.

The director strode over and said, “If you pass out again, I’m going to have to fire you.” The original Predator creature (which did not appear in the film), was a smaller, more nimble creature that flew through jungle trees with speed and flexibility and fully packed laser guns. That Predator was also invisible and could strike his prey at any time. The bodysuit, including placement over the head and face, was originally used to insert computer-generated special effects over the actor’s body in post production. Unfortunately for the actor within the suit, he did pass out again.

At that moment, Joel Silver marched over to him and, as the actor awoke, suffering from exhaustion and dehydration, Silver said, “You’re fired.” The acrobatic, multitalented martial artist flying through the trees in a felt suit in one of his first jobs in America was Jean-Claude Van Damme.

ENCOURAGEMENT

One of the best things about the book is its “never say die” encouragement of young actors, in general, and African American actors in particular. While giving props to all of the heavyweights who have gone before (Sidney Poitier, Spike Lee, etc.), Bill Duke, himself, has proven to be a shining example of an actor who has paved the way for others. His work in Hollywood earned him an appointment to the Board of the California State Film Commission, as well as an appointment to the National Endowment of Humanities under President Bill Clinton. The Directors’ Guild of America honored him with a Lifetime Achievement Tribute. The reader may get the feeling that the author sometimes feels he has not received his fair share of recognition, and his Bill Duke Media corporation may be an attempt to rectify that by producing a great deal more quality film output.

As an unconventional actor—-not known for good looks, but renowned for good performances—Duke has had a career that has had many highs and lows. He shares that, “It’s all about relationships in the industry.” That remark could probably be expanded to any line of work. It may be intensified in Hollywood, but it seems true of many corporations, businesses and industries.

Quote: “Nobody else in this world is like you.  There may be similarities, but nobody is just like you.  You have value, and if nobody has validated that for you, it is time for you to validate yourself.  Let your soul and your spirit out in your writing.  Tell the truth of your experience in life through your writing.  Writing forces you to love yourself and let out your truth.  It takes courage, but the payoff is something that you cannot spend.” (p. 190)

“I wish I could say that writing this book was inspired by me and my courage, but the truth is that it was not.  For many years, people told me that I should tell my story because of all that I had gone through in Hollywood, but I never believed that I had anything important to say.  I thought a lot of people had gone through what I had gone through.  I didn’t think there was anything special about bill Duke in Hollywood. However, when I reached my seventies, I wanted to leave something for those who come after me to benefit from.” (p. 190)

POETRY

Duke shares his poetry with us throughout the book. After reading of his humble origins in Poughkeepsie, New York, and the events that shaped him over the years, including a history of family violence, his poetry reveals a deep, sensitive soul, who arranges the poems on the page in vertical fashion. Lines like: “Nobody really cares. Nobody seems to really care about the other’s pain. For we must laugh and dance and sing and not remind us of anything that resembles fears that we’ve secretly tried to cover by pretending to be devoted lovers of everything except ourselves. “

What came through, for me, was that Bill Duke, at least early on, suffered from self-loathing. Was it his appearance? Was it because of remarks made to him when he was young? Was it because of his father and mother’s sometimes violent marriage? The source is difficult to pin down, as it often is in life.

WOMEN

Related image

Bill Duke during 1987’s “Predator” filming

It sounds as though Bill Duke doesn’t trust women. The reason for this is hinted at: a girl he had a crush on in college led him to believe that she’d spend time with him if he traveled to her school. He did (travel to her school). She didn’t (spend time with him). That seems to be one of the reasons why he stopped trusting ALL women. He had some sexual mistreatment by an early babysitter that also may have affected his views.

He frankly admits (p. 27): “I thought of sex as a game of pleasure from that day on, and maybe the reason I’ve hurt so many women in my life was because I always focused on the act, not the person.  I liked having sex with different women, but I never went beyond that and made emotional connections.  I simply enjoyed the physical act.  Maybe it’s because of the way I learned about sex; I’m not sure.”

On page 171, Duke adds, “One of the many reasons I never got married was that I always thought I was ugly, and I didn’t want to have children that looked like me.” He goes on to say, “After my first love betrayed me, I used that as an excuse to become a scoundrel when it came to women.”

At least this sensitive, introspective man realizes it is an excuse and admits he has, at times, been a “scoundrel” when it comes to women.

TRUST

While Bill Duke trusts himself (“Trusting what is inside you is key”, p. 189) he doesn’t seem to trust many other people. He talks of loneliness this way (p. 178): “You have a couple of friends who are with you throughout your life.  Some stay and some go, but when you’re not successful, not making money, and your career is not going well in our industry, there aren’t many people who flock to you.  That shouldn’t be a shock, because they are hustling and trying to do what they have to do.  If you can’t do anything for them, you are of no use to them.”

The book is good. The stories and experiences are fascinating and interesting. I always liked any film Bill Duke was associated with and that has proven to be prescient. If you’re interested in the film industry in any capacity as a career, this is a good read.

(Connie Corcoran Wilson, www.TheMovieBlog.com, www.ConnieCWilson.com)

Bits & Pieces of Random News for April 3, 2019

Some random thoughts of the day:

  1. One of the Decorah eaglets has died. Poor little thing had a name/number, like DN10, but he (or she) was one of 2 born in the Raptor Research nest and it appears—judging from the way Mr. North pushed the little bird body off to the side of the nest—

    The Day Shall Come at SXSW. (SXSW Press Photo)

    the chick died only a day or two after being born.

  2. The mysterious polio-like illness that doctors are calling AFM (acute flaccid myelitis) has struck at least 228 known victims in the U.S. in 2018. In an every-other-year cycle, has afflicted more than 550 Americans, including a 32-year-old. More than 90% are children around 4, 5, or 6 years old who come down with a cold that paralyzes them. Those of us who lived through polio epidemics are praying for another Dr. Jonas Salk.
  3. Biden on the caucus campaign trail in Iowa prior to the 2008 presidential race. Don’t worry: I’ll be back to politics by the end of the week.

    Conflicting reports on whether the GOP is going to address health care before or after the 2020 election. DJT has been quoted as saying they should come out with a plan before the election, but having a plan has not been the GOP’s strong suit under this president, no matter what the issue. There seems to be no desire to “fix” the things that would be fixable under Obama-care, because the current occupant of the White House is too obsessed with denouncing, denigrating and destroying the record of his predecessor to really do much beyond “framing” issues and using media to “pose” as having plans on issues, when it seems that little is being done.

  4. Read a horrifying in-depth article (“New York Times”) about Michigan’s schools, which have largely been turned over to a topsy-turvy crazy quilt of Charter schools, which are not doing any better a job with the students than the public schools they replaced. Truly sounds like a nightmare scenario, but this is the scenario that Betsy DeVos, Secretary of Education, has always tried to foster. She is a native of Michigan and a huge proponent of charter schools, despite her own home state’s dismal record. She also has absolutely not one credential for occupying the position of Secretary of Education.
  5. With Vice President Joseph Biden (then Senator Biden) at the Jefferson Jackson dinner in Davenport, Iowa, caucus season, 2008.

    The Democrats continue to attack one another. I would say “eat their young,” but Joe Biden is not young. The latest attacks on the former Vice President come from a woman actively supporting Bernie Saunders and are largely undercut by photos of her with her hands on his shoulders at the same event that she claims so traumatized her. It is sad that campaigning in the year 2020 has come to this.

  6. The weather remains pleasant here in the Austin area, but it sounds like the Midwest is pretty well flooded. With Trump’s typical lack of concern for those in dire straits, whether Puerto Ricans on that hurricane-ravaged island or Midwestern farmers who seem to have pretty well taken it in the shorts with the Chinese tariffs and flooding, it is going to be no fun at all trying to navigate the construction zone for the proposed new I-74 bridge over the Mississippi River, joining Iowa with Illinois. (Construction was delayed by the brutal winter). Not looking forward to dealing with it.
  7. Image from Suzanne Weinert’s “A Good Son.” (SXSW Press)

    The Lagoon in Cancun, Mexico, at sunset.

    Posting a picture of one film I had to leave early in order to make it to “Shrill” and perhaps a photo from “A Good Son” (see interview with Director Suzanne Weinert, above). “The Day Shall Come” had not, to that point, “gelled.” It did have Anna Kendrick and I had an interesting encounter with Ms. Kendrick when I attempted to stop in the women’s rest room at the Paramount Theater on my way to the opening of “Shrill” right next door. A policeman told me I couldn’t enter the rest room. Cop: “I have someone in there.” Me: “A prisoner?” Cop: (Smiling) “No.” Me: “A female someone or a male someone.” Cop: “Female.” At that point, another woman, holding a Big Gulp cup and having just entered the theater from a side alley entrance tried to cut around the two of us out in the hall to gain access to the rest room. She was quickly dispossessed of the notion that either of us could enter. We continued standing awkwardly in the hall, while I tried guessing who or what was going on. Just then, the film’s star, Anna Kendrick, emerged, having been primping in the bathroom for at least 20 minutes.

  8. The Royal Islander, penthouse view (9th floor).

    I’ll be in Cancun in 3 days. I’ll try to post some photos.

Suzanne Weinert of Flatiron Pictures Is Writer/Producer/Director On the Rise

Filmmaker Suzanne Weinert, in Austin, Texas. (Picture by Connie Wilson).

Suzanne Weinert is the president of Flatiron Pictures, located in Austin (TX),which specializes in producing independent feature films throughout the Southwest. Her short “A Good Son,” which she directed, just had its World Premiere at SXSW. Thematically, it bears some resemblance to a Burt Reynolds film, “The End.” (1978) The short is playing at the Boston Film Festival April 11-16. Hopefully,  the feature of “A Good Son” (which exists) might attract the interest of Boston-based filmmakers and, ideally, a star like Alan Arkin.

Suzanne has been producing, writing and, now, directing films since she answered an ad for an intern while a student at Columbia University and ended up assisting Director Ron Howard as he helmed “The Paper” (released in 2004). After that start, while still working on her MFA in Filmmaking, Suzanne began working for Julia Roberts’ Production Company, Shoelace Productions, and rose to become Vice President of that organization.

Suzanne has worked on such films as “Conspiracy theory” (1997), “Notting Hill” (1999), “Runaway Bride” (1999) and “The Paper” (1994) and also on “Hellion” (2014) and as the writer of the 2009 film “The ExTerminators” (Heather Graham, Jennifer Coolidge and Amber Heard) which, after it ran at SXSW that year, she says, “changed my life.”

The write-up in this year’s SXSW program for her short “A Good Son” is this: “When Tommy, 75, asks his son Mike to put a Hefty bag over his head and suffocate him to death, neither believes the other will really go through with it. Until Mike’s son, Chris, 17, devises a plan that will satisfy both his father and grandfather.”

Writer/Director Suzanne Weinert of Flatiron Pictures in Austin, Texas. (Photo by Connie Wilson).

When we spoke about making movies and the theme of this particular effort, Suzanne shared these insights: “I’ve had a lot of people say to me, since they saw the short, ‘This is a conversation that’s actually going on in my house.’” She mentioned the “sandwich generation” (as the group of young people caught between caring for their own families and caring for their elderly parents is sometimes called) and asked me if I’d seen the appearance of Bea Smith’s husband on “The View.”

Bea Smith was a famous restauranteer. Several years ago Bea and her spouse sat down and talked about what to do in the event that either of them got Alzheimer’s or dementia or some other debilitating illness that would require extensive assistance. They spelled out everything each would want. Bea’s husband has done everything she asked, but when he brought another woman to their house— someone he met after Bea’s condition worsened— who has helped him  care for his ailing wife, that was controversial to many, if not to the couple themselves.

A recent news article about comedian Tim Conway, 86, shared that Conway’s wife of many years and his adult daughter were in court arguing about care for the former member of Carol Burnett’s comedy troupe, who has severe dementia and is now largely unresponsive.  Stan Lee’s death was similarly controversial and in the press a few months ago.

As Suzanne said, “They (Bea Smith & her husband) had this conversation. In America, we seem to have decided that dying is optional, so no one wants to talk about it. But the truth is, it’s going to happen to everyone and we all need to be talking about it.”

Q:  I asked Suzanne, “What is your background?”

A:   “I went to Columbia undergrad. I got a B.A. from Barnard College and then I got a Master’s degree. I started the Master’s program in Dramatic Writing and quickly realized that was not what I wanted to do, so I transferred and ended up getting an MFA in Screenwriting and Filmmaking.

While I was there, Ron Howard was looking for an intern. It was on the internship bulletin board. It said, ‘Director is seeking intern for feature film.’ I ripped off the thing and I called the number. It was Ron Howard. He was looking for an intern to work with him. So, I went down and had the interview. Kathryn Bigelow was my idol, and I remember having this conversation with Ron about Kathryn and how she’s my idol. When I was done and walked out, I thought, ‘I can’t even believe I said all these things to him.’ But he called me the next day and said, ‘I think this would be a good job for you.’ So, I was literally his intern. The Paper was a big movie. It had Michael Keaton, who had just done 2 Batmans, Glenn Close and Marisa Tomei, who had just won the Oscar for My Cousin Vinny, Randy Quaid, Robert DuVall, Jason Robards, Jason Alexander, Catherine O’Hara, Spalding Grey. The film was ‘The Paper.” (released in 2004) I was still in film school. I was in my second year. I said, ‘Oh, my gosh. I got this thing.’ It paid no money.”

Q:  What was it like working for Ron Howard?

A:  “I was so lucky to work with someone at that stage in my career who was so wonderful, so kind,  so personally generous. Ron Howard set the bar on how you should behave. I remember after just a few weeks—a teamster was coming to pick him up every morning from New Jersey. He had to come down the west side, anyway. Instead of leaving me to take public transportation at 5 o’clock in the morning, Ron would have his teamster come and pick me up first. So, I would get 15 minutes alone in the car every morning with Ron Howard.

After a while, he said to me, ‘We should pay you something.’ So, any little job along the way he would throw my way. I got to be in a scene one day, and I got paid for that. Another time I got to work with the second unit for a day as a P.A. (production assistant). Everyone took care of me. The Teamsters took care of me. I remember the last day of shooting I gave my teamster driver a pie. I’m not a cook, but I baked him a pie. For my first time on a film set, it was so magical.

Writer/Director Suzanne Weinert of Flatiron Pictures. (Photo by Connie Wilson).

But, the beauty of it was that, if Ron was there, I got to be there, which is not always the case for interns. The one thing I remember is that being a director means being able to handle 1,000 questions at one time. It was amazing. The script was written by David Koepp and Stephen Koepp who went on to become some of the biggest screenwriters of all, at the time, but this was one of their earlier works.  It was 1992. This was one of their first ones before they started doing, like Jurassic Park, Stir of Echoes and Spiderman (2002).”

After the Ron thing was done—he was going on to prep “Apollo 11”—  the chairwoman of the department knew that someone was starting a production company in New York and she thought of me. I went to the interview and I got that job.  It was Julia Roberts.

They wanted someone to read scripts and to work hard. I was really lucky. They made it really easy for me to have responsibility. And, I got to stay in New York. I was living on 16th Street. After a few months we moved the office to 19th Street. Her president of production was a guy who was so kind, so gracious. She had a process of taking a script from there to the screen. They were super welcoming—not at all the stories you hear about Hollywood. I thought, ‘I’ll stay for 2 years. I’ll get some experience, and then I’ll just go somewhere and start to write screenplays for money.’ But I was having such a good time I stayed 7 and ½ years. I stayed 4 times longer than I thought I would be there.

Q:  Other Julia Roberts stories, beyond working on “Runaway Bride,” “Conspiracy Theory” and “Notting Hill?”

A:  I love to travel. I’m a big traveler. I’ve always volunteered for Habitat for Humanity. At one point there came a time where Julia had an opportunity to go to Borneo for a while and do a thing about orangutangs. Lewis Leaky had 3 graduate students he sent to Africa. Diane Fosse and Jane Goodall and Dr.  Birute Mary Galdikas. Jane has remained this beautiful woman. Diane was unfortunately killed. The third woman is still in Borneo and runs an orangutang rescue and that’s who we stayed with.”

My habitat work, I’ve slept on church pews for a month in Alaska. I’m used to roughing it, so when Julia said, ‘Come on…do you want to go to the Borneo jungle?’ I said, ‘Sure!’ So we did that one and a few years later we did one in Mongolia. We went to Mongolia and out to the Gobi Desert for several weeks. So, the job changed, too. We just kept doing things that were personally fulfilling. To me, to go to these exotic places with these wonderful crews from Britain and elsewhere…it was so fantastic!”

Q:  After the orangutang experience, what was next?

A:  We did orangutangs in ’97 and then we came back and did a bunch more movies, and then we went to Mongolia. At that point I had been writing scripts, and I just really wanted to jumpstart my writing career. I had just sort of gotten sidetracked for 7 years having a great time. I think I was like 34, maybe. It just seemed like a good time.

I really had always had this vision that I would just sit, with a view, and write. I think it was kind of like a ‘now or never’ thing. So I left. Something happens around 33, 34, I think. You start thinking: all right. So, then I spent a whole bunch of time writing and living in New York. I wrote ExTerminators (Heather Graham, Jennifer Coolidge, Amber Heard, directed by John Inwood). It showed at SXSW, and it changed my life. I’ve filmed 12 movies in Texas recently.”

Q:  Was there ever a moment when you had to make a decision on whether to stay or whether to leave the position as Vice President of Julia Roberts’ Shoelace Productions?

A:  I just knew. Someone did a paper on a theory that every 7 years you change. You are different. You are physically different. I think that was part of it.

My short this year (“A Good Son”) screened on the first Friday, which was great for me, but a lot of my friends couldn’t see it.”) ‘A Good Son’ really is based on a true story. Tommy Ryan really is a very virile 75-year-old man. I wanted to be honest that this is a man who has lived, by his own admission, a full life. He feels satisfied. Married to the same woman for 40 years. Raised a couple of decent kids. He doesn’t want to become feeble and have the last few years of his life be a drag. I really wanted it to say, ‘Sometimes, you’re just done.

Image from Suzanne Weinert’s “A Good Son.” (SXSW Press)

I wrote the short because I wanted to have something to show to others. So, the next step, after the short makes the festival circuit (it plays in Boston April 11-16), is going to be taking the feature out. I would like to see the film made at the feature level, but no one is going to give me $30 million dollars easily. Alan Arkin would be my dream casting. Or Robert Duvall. A friend of mine directed “Get Low” and Bill Murray played in it. (Duvall was in “The Paper’”) Alan Arkin still seems very strong and virile and alive, to me. The Boston teams—the Bruins, etc.— are a big part of the short. There are all these Boston actors and Boston directors. Jon Hamm. Mark and Donny Wahlberg. Matt Damon. Ben Affleck.

Then you start to think about what Boston-based or Boston-bred actors and directors might actually want to direct a movie about a bunch of guys from Boston. That’s kind of the direction I’m taking. There’s already a network. There’s no women in it; I don’t know exactly how to get them in there, but I want the short to do well and then ask the Boston-based directors, ‘Here’s a film about your town.’” How do I reach out to the Boston directors/actors?

Q:  Which is the better route: a college film making program or starting to direct on your own when young?

A:  Columbia’s under grad at the time did not offer a film program. U.T. has a good program where you actually get to make a short. My undergrad degree is in dramatic writing—plays and things like that. I actually had to go back to film school to study that; it was a different era.

I would say now that if you got out of school and all you had was a Bachelor’s in English, you might be at a disadvantage. I learned how to work every single piece of equipment on the set and I still have a circle of closest friends who are people I trust when it comes to work, so it gave me a great start.

It helps to be in a place where film is considered a possibility. I enjoyed having that background. It gave me a great team of people who are still in play.  You need to live in a place where film is considered an option. Austin is a great town. (Suzanne winters here; spends the hot summers in Auckland, New Zealand).

The people who are still here (the industry has shrunk considerably) are willing to help the people who are just starting out. We have a film society here that is willing to help people out. Austin is a great town for this. Dallas, Houston, Atlanta—they all have a film society organized. I don’t know any other way, so, for me, graduate school was the only possible way to go. My friends kind of went a different way.

They got into advertising. They never crossed over. Once you get into advertising you stay in advertising because the money is so good and so consistent. I’ve never had to live in L.A. I can be anywhere to write. I grew up an only child in New York, but after 2009 I moved to Austin. I joined the board of the Austin Film Society in 2012, became vice president in 2014 and then President in 2016.  It’s a purely voluntary position. Everyone on the board donates their time.  I just really wanted to give back to the community while writing and producing movies through Flatiron. Every movie that I made we shot somewhere in Texas. I shot 12 movies here in Texas and I go to L.A. a couple days each month, because my manager is there and my legal team is there and a lot of the directors I work with are there. You have to go there, but you don’t have to live there.”

Q: Isn’t part of the job of a producer raising money?

A:   Yes.

Q:  How does one do that?

A:   It’s really hard and it’s gotten harder.  Extra funds seem to have dried up now. Oil is not as high, per barrel, as it used to be. People are not as willing to take a risk.

Q:  What are the best states that offer perks to aspiring filmmakers?

A:  Atlanta is pretty consistent. To the best of my knowledge, that’s in perpetuity. They’re just going to keep doing it for a long time. Louisiana. New Mexico. Oklahoma has a very good program, but it has a cap on it. Michigan tried it for a while. Indiana. Massachusetts. New York. States like Georgia have found it to be successful. New York is clued into the fact that it is really successful.

Q:  You’d like to see top notch talent attach itself to the idea of the short?

A:  Yes. Then, my production company owns the rights to about 10 different projects. My immediate goal is to get the feature of “The Good Son” done.

Q:  What’s next for Suzanne:

A:  My short is actually based on a feature script I wrote a few years ago. As I said, I’m hoping to shop that around once the short finishes its festival run. Scriptwise, a horror movie I wrote called “Ghost Passenger” is set to start pre-production this summer. And I recently set up a rom-com called “Previously Engaged” at Intrepid Pictures.  Directing wise, I’m going to shoot a pilot for an Austin-based TV series I created this fall. So 2019 is turning out to be a pretty busy year.”

“Us” Film Rakes in $70.3 Million in Ticket Sales

Jordan Peele’s film “Us,” his follow-up to the popular “Get Out,” which premiered at SXSW on March 8th, has opened well above forecasts, raking in a 94% “fresh” on Rotten Tomatoes and marking it as the largest debut for an original horror movie and one of the highest openings for a live-action original film since “Avatar 10 years ago.

The only original horror films that challenged the debut were the “It” remake and last year’s “Halloween.” “A Quiet Place” did unexpectedly well, but didn’t have the “name” recognition that Director Jordan Peele is now commanding to boost its opening.

The distribution chief for Universal Pictures put out this statement:  “Peele has really crafted an extraordinary story that I think once again is going to capture the cultural zeitgeist. He is recognized as just an amazing talent.  He crafts films that make you think, that are extraordinarily well-acted, well-written and are amazingly entertaining.”

More good news: “Us” took over the top spot at the box office from “Captain Marvel.” In today’s franchise-driven spandex movie world, it is encouraging to realize that a thoughtful, original movie can still compete and dethrone those from the comic books wearing the costumes.

Following the top two films were “Wonder Park” and “Five Feet Apart,” which each made about $9 million in their second week of release. “Us,” by ontrast, doubled (and then some) the 2017 Oscar-winning “Get Out” debut, which grossed $235.4 million on a budget of $4.5 million. Since “Us” cost only $20 million to make, it’s already a huge hit for Universal Pictures.

Audiences other than the Rotten Tomatoes raters have given it a relatively low “B” CinemaScore. There are various explanations for this. One is that, as Paul Dergarabedian said, film goers are shell-shocked when they emerge from the film. Others would say that the improbable plot explanations have both confused and dampened the enthusiasm of some movie-goers. Those that enjoy thinking and talking about the meaning of a film will enjoy it; those that want it spelled out for them will not.

One thing that will emerge from this in all probability is that the 40-year-old director has now vaulted himself to the ranks of such filmmakers as Clint Eastwood, Martin Scorsese, Brian DePalma, M. Night Shymalan, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, making his name as the director as important as who is appearing in the film.

Camp Sandy Shenanigans & Other Promotional Things at SXSW

I thought readers might enjoy seeing some photos from one of the promotional things that went on during SXSW in Austin, Texas.

This particular promotion was sent to me as Press and involved the sponsors (a local whiskey and Turtle Wax) being willing to send an Uber to pick me up in Austin and ferry me out to Camp Sandy, which, I can personally attest, is way-the-hell-and-gone out in the middle of Hill Country, but has a spectacular view.

Downtown Austin  (TX) mural.

A couple of the other shots were simply things that caught my eye as I was walking (for miles) around downtown Austin (it is, by actual mileage count, nearly 2 miles from the Conference Center to the Paramount theater).

But back to Camp Sandy. I RSVP-ed that I would come to hear “the band in the van.” The concept here is that the band is INSIDE a van and the listeners watch the band on screens mounted on the outside of the van. (Weird). Low Cut Connie was supposed to play, complete with a piano (“the first time a full-sized piano has been inside the van!” said the e-mail).

Note the small tan Prius on the right of this picture (mine) at Camp Sandy.

If you had a car, they would Turtle Wax your car for free, although this turned out to be incorrect.

I RSVP-ed and asked for specific parking and navigational directions and got nothing, but I had the address, so I set off in my trusty Prius (one of 5 in the family since 2002) and found this out-of-the-way place, high up in hill country with a spectacular view. I parked alongside the driveway in, which turned out to not be that smart a move, as someone driving a humongous tank-like vehicle pulled in and left their vehicle smack dab in the middle of the ONLY way in or out. (It took about 15 minutes to find out who had left the painted van blocking the only exit or entrance.) I only had one hour before I had to be standing on a Red Carpet somewhere, but Camp Sandy sounded interesting, if weird. And, of course, there was the matter of that promised free Turtle Wax.

Except that, when I showed up, it sounded like several cars were ahead of me in a “scheduled” fashion and, therefore, there would be no Turtle Wax for the Silver Fish (as I call my Texas Prius). That was okay, but when I learned that Low Cut Connie had also bailed, I did a quick tour of the premises and left.  That turned out to be quite difficult with the blocking van and, after the van moved, I could get no signal on my GPS and would have been totally lost. The organizer who greeted me said, “If you drive to the top of the hill, you’ll probably be able to get a signal.” (Yikes! Let’s hope so!)

Still, here are some “local color” shots of the venue and of downtown Austin, Texas, during SXSW.

Camp Sandy.

Interior, Camp Sandy.

View from Camp Sandy.

Sponsor of Camp Sandy.

Patrons viewing “the van” at Camp Sandy.

Typical crowd around the block waiting for admission.

The van at Camp Sandy.

View from Camp Sandy, Austin, TX, SXSW.

The Meaning of “Us,” Jordan Peele’s New Film

 

I saw “Us” here in Austin, where it premiered on March 8th. Don’t read any further if you don’t want to have plot details ruined (spoiler alert).

I’m still letting my thoughts on “Us” and its meaning percolate. Here are 10 possible explanations for plot points in “Us.”

  1. It has been pointed out by someone other than me that “Us” is, basically, “U.S.”, i.e. United States.
  2. There seems to be a rather large not-very-veiled message about racism in America. This isn’t surprising, since the main cast is African American. I’ve read that Jordan Peele admires Spike Lee, who is outspoken in his films and in his life, and speaks and writes bluntly about the black experience in America. It’s clear that Spike feels that the black race has been put down and short-changed; I’m not arguing with him. (I actually heard him speak “live” once at Augustana College and just a quick look at his films will support me here. Personal observation: I think it’s one of the reasons Spike Lee didn’t even get an Oscar nomination until this year and didn’t win for Best Picture (although the script did snag an Oscar). Spike’s been making movies—-some of them terrific—-for 30 years or so, but has never been recognized until this year, and he is a somewhat prickly character known for a few famous feuds. He was even prickly during his speaking engagement and “does not suffer fools gladly.” In fact, I remember reading that Spike Lee got the assignment to do “BlackKKlansman” because it was first offered to Jordan Peele, hot off of “Get Out,” who suggested it would make a great Spike Lee joint film. A line from late in the film (when what passes for an “explanation” of the doppelgangers is being given): “Your people took it for granted. We’re human, too, you know.” Given the United States’ history with slavery, the concept of a “race” of people relegated to living in subterranean squalor while those above ground live the good life seems to fit, historically. Here’s a line that Lupita Nyongo’s character speaks: “The tethered saw that I would deliver them from their misery.” And the Lupita Nyong’o double says, to the girl who encountered her in the fun house all those years ago: “You could have taken me with you.” Here’s another line regarding the red-robed figures who seem to have risen up in some sort of terrorist overthrow of the city of Santa Cruz (and beyond, judging from the uninterrupted line of them, holding hands, that we see stretching into the distance of the mountains with helicopters hovering overhead): “I didn’t need to just tell you but to make a statement that the world would see. It’s our time up there.”
  3. There is much made of a Bible verse in the film: Jeremiah 11:11 (King James Version) “Therefore thus saith the Lord, Behold, I will bring evil upon them, which they shall not be able to escape; and though they cry unto me, I will not hearken unto them.”Not only is the verse held up by a random man on a placard at the beginning AND the end of the film, at one point Lupita’s son points to the clock in his room, which is on 11:11 at that time. Fits in with Point #2, as to how African Americans, who were brought over on slave ships and forced to work in the cotton fields of the South and treated inhumanely, feel it is “their” time. It also has a nice duality.
  4. What about the rabbits? [We have to assume that they aren’t just left-over props from “The Favorite.”] They’re white. One of the doppelgangers cuts the head off a small white rabbit doll. Draw your own conclusions. Here in Austin, on the Red Carpet, Jordan Peele claimed that he finds rabbits very creepy, with eyes like a psychopath.
  5. As has been said, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”
  6. What about the “hands across America” 6.5 million strong of May 25,1986? It was largely a symbolic gesture, since it raised $84 million, but, after expenses, only $15 million was actually donated. In this way, it falls in line with a lot of other “symbolic” but largely ineffectual gestures that we, as Americans, participate in, like the record “We Are the World.” (Remember, at one point, Lupita’s red-robed character says, “We are Americans.”)
  7. There is also the matter of the house of mirrors changing, by film’s end, from having an American Indian atop it with the words “Shaman’s Vision Quest:  Find Yourself” to a Wizard figure with a different name. Treatment of American Indians goes into the “shameful” category, along with slavery and Japanese interment in WWII. In this way, the use of the Indian imagery but the change later seems to “gloss over” America’s crimes of conscience in the same way that hyped “feel good” events like “We Are the World” or “Hands Across America” were ineffectual gestures that did little to solve real problems or stop real abuses, but were offered up by the PTB (usually, white men) as stop-gap feel-good largely symbolic and self-congratulatory gestures.
  8. The red-robed killers remind of nothing so much as “The Handmaid’s Tale” on Hulu, outfits which signal repression and injustice; both sexes wear these red outfits. Supposedly, like the pods in “The Invasion of the Body Snatchers” movies, there is one red-robed thing for every inhabitant of the U.S. [This seems extreme and unlikely. What does a doppelganger do all day underground? How does a doppelganger secure sustenance beyond raw rabbit meat? Unlikely that this movement of this magnitude could be kept secret and one of the weaker plot points,—-if that is, in fact, a plot point.] The speculation centers on the U.S. government having had some sort of “pilot” experimental program to duplicate every citizen, which was scrapped when it was discovered that the person’s “soul” could not be cloned.
  9. The doppelgangers who have been “kept down” have lost their voices entirely or are barely able to speak in a whisper. They aren’t heard. They aren’t listened to; they are essentially inarticulate. There is speculation that the reason Lupita’s character does all the for the group of four in a hoarse croak is that she “remembers” how to speak from before. (If you don’t know what I mean about “from before” think of the twist ending of the film.)
  10. Now, how does the “surprise” ending of the film fit with Point #2, above? As I was walking to my car, a young man was talking and said, “How does all of this fit, now that we know that the bad one is the good one and vice versa?” How, indeed. (Don’t say I didn’t warn you about “spoilers.”)
  11. It has also been pointed out that the main message of the film doesn’t have to be racial, but can also be simply “haves” vs. “have nots.” Very true.

So, see it and figure out what YOU think it all means and let me know.

“The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley” on HBO Reveals $9 Billion-Dollar Start-Up That Didn’t

Image result for Images for Elizabeth Holmes Elizabeth Holmes

(youtube.com)

The documentary about Theranos, directed by Alex Gidney, showed March 8th, 10th and 13th at SXSW and is now streaming on HBO. It focuses on a $9 billion-dollar start-up in Silicon Valley headed by a 19-year-old Stanford drop-out, Elizabeth Holmes. Oscar-winning director Alex Gibney was responsible for “Taxi to the Dark Side” and “Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Beliefs.”

“Fortune” magazine did a June, 2014, cover story on Holmes and Theranos.  Much of the talking about Holmes onscreen is done by Roger Parloff, who wrote the “Fortune” piece. The  lying by Theranos officials  led to 9 charges of wire fraud and 2 counts of conspiracy to commit wire fraud against Holmes and her Chief Operating Officer (and former lover) Sonny Balwani. (Holmes had fired Balwani by that point.)

As you listen to the list of heavy hitter investors who were so impressed by a 19-year-old college drop-out that they committed millions to her idea for Theranos, you have to shake your head. The list reads like Who’s Who. Some of them even speak on camera, like Tim Draper, who appears wearing a purple tie adorned with Bit Coin symbols and says he knew Elizabeth from childhood on and was a first investor in Hotmail, Skype and Tesla. General James Mattis bought into the idea. Henry Kissinger was favorably impressed. Warren Buffett was said to have invested $100 million. Famous faces like Maria Shriver, Katie Couric, the Obamas, Serena Williams, George P. Schultz and a host of others are shown with the Golden Girl.

As one Professor at Stanford says (a female), “She aligned herself with certain powerful older men who seemed to succumb to a certain charm.” (Meow). The statement is true, however. Attired in black at all times (black turtleneck, jacket and pants) with long blonde hair and an unnerving stare (she rarely blinks) from preternaturally large blue eyes, she was referred to by her partner, Sonny,” as “the most important inventor of our time” in a reverential, deferential tone.

The concept was that the needle-phobic Elizabeth was going to make it possible for a single finger prick—like that a diabetic would use to test their blood—to take the place of drawing large vials of blood in a lab. The small drop of blood would go into a mini-vial that would, in turn, go into a machine dubbed Edison, appromixately the size of a computer modem.

Inside Edison the blood would be tested, could detect infection and dispense antibiotics. Holmes seems to have envisioned herself to be the Apple of medicine and vowed to have the access to such Edison labs within 5 miles of each person’s home in America, which was going to happen through a partnership with Walgreen’s.

Holmes also alluded to her “invention” in what Parloff referred to as “comically vague” ways, saying, “What, exactly, happens in the box is treated as a state secret.” She also said that she wanted to remain a private company (initially, the company had 700 employees in a modern building with a secret third-floor lab, where, alas, the blood testing was actually being done using more standard methods by hand.

This was because Edison didn’t really work as advertised. When asked about taking the company public, Holmes said she preferred to remain private because, “It’s allowed us to not have to talk about what we’re doing, until it’s done.”

When the testing began to be done at Walgreen’s stores, the Edison was still non-functional, so routine blood draws were done by Walgreen personnel who had to be trained by phlebotomist Serena Stewart to do those traditional blood draws, despite the Big Come-On of a relatively small drop of blood being able to work in an Edison mini-lab. Holmes successfully lobbied the state of Arizona to allow patients to order their own lab tests in HB2645 and also managed to get FDA approval for Edison to do one small test for the herpes virus, but the 200 tests advertised never really got off the ground.

And, what is more disturbing, patients who had chronic conditions and showed up for routine bloodwork at a Walgreen’s store experienced incorrect results, which then had to be double-checked using routine labs and routine lab practices. There were also challenges to the patents.

Dr. Ian Gibbon, a Cambridge PhD with “a wealth of knowledge” whose name appeared on the patents (below Elizabeth Holmes’ name) was going to have to testify in the patent case. He was so distraught that he committed suicide. His wife, Rochelle, said “He was so distraught over the patent misappropriation case that he killed himself.” Mrs. Gibbon never heard anything from Holmes or Theranos after her husband’s death, other than a request  to drop the papers involving his work off at the front desk.

As the lab equipment malfunctioned and those in the tile world of the lab watched the start-up sliding towards failure, some of them became extremely disillusioned with the paranoia and secrecy. The workers were fudging results and re-running data until they got the results they wanted. Also, the tests for such diseases as hepatitis, prostate cancer and syphilis that were not being accurately diagnosed, put those patients at risk The results were not matching up with the results of other more traditional laboratories.

Finally, lab associate Erika Cheung decided, “Enough is enough” and went in to talk to COO Sonny Balwani. She was basically told “Just sit down and do your job.” She quit, got another job, moved and was very distressed when she was served papers that threatened her if she spoke about her time at Theranos. Since she had little money, her only recourse, ultimately, was to write a letter to the supervisory group that had control over the Theranos labs. That group was CMS. CMS then did a surprise inspection and withdrew the Theranos lab’s permit to do tests.

Another disillusioned former employee was George P. Shultz’s grandson, who had joined Holmes and was working in the laboratory. He quit and began talking to a “Wall Street Journal” reporter, John Carreyrou, who had received a tip that the Theranos Edison project was faltering.

The 94-year-old George Schultz, who served 3 presidents in 4 Cabinet posts, including Secretary of State, was a fervent admirer of Holmes and, initially, when his grandson expressed skepticism, had said, “They can’t tell me you’re stupid, but I think you’re wrong.”

By the end of the younger Schultz’s time, George Schultz commends his grandson for his attempt at transparency and relates an almost comic scene when a hard-nosed lawyer (once in charge of hushing up Harvey Weinstein’s women) tried so hard to lean on his grandson that Schultz separated the attorney from his grandson, sending them to different rooms in his house and acting as intermediary. George P. Schultz said he was afraid that his wife would hit the attorney with the fireplace poker, as he was acting “like an animal” towards their grandson.

The younger Schultz said he had incurred $300,000 to $400,000 in lawyer fees. The mounting bills had his parents thinking about selling their house to pay it. But, as Theranos secrets and lies unraveled further and the truth was revealed, the pressure on young Schultz waned as the house of Theranos cards came tumbling down.

I wondered, “What has happened to Elizabeth Holmes since this documentary was made?”

The Internet says she settled with the SEC, was handed a $500,000 fine, and there is a condition that she cannot be the officer of a public company for 10 years. Now living in the San Francisco Bay area in a luxury apartment, she is engaged to her 8-years-younger fiancé, Billy Evan (heir to a hotel fortune), according to “Vanity Fair,” and may be shopping for more investor cash. She and Sonny face some additional court appearance, supposedly in April.

 

One quote that particularly struck me, because it could have been spoken by any number of convincing liars was this one from Roger Parloff, who watched with amazement as Elizabeth Holmes, rather than going on the defensive against the expose article that the “Wall Street Journal” ran detailing how the scam worked, went off to a Board of Fellows Honorary Ceremony with the Harvard Medical School. Said Parloff, “This was real lunacy.  What was coming out of her mouth (on television) was not adding up to reality as you and I know it…She was a zealot, blind to the reality of what was happening.”

The question at documentary’s end remains this: Did Elizabeth Holmes lie intentionally, with cold, calculating intent, or was she just trying to ‘fake it till she made it?’”

Image result for Images for Elizabeth Holmes

Trump Twitter Museum Is Launched at SXSW

As President Donald J. Trump continues to castigate a fallen war hero 7 months after his death, it seemed particularly timely to post the photos of the Presidential Twitter Library that Trevor Noah’s “The Daily Show” people put up at SXSW on the mezzanine of the Driskill Hotel in downtown Austin.

There are counts of how many times DJT mentions President Obama; how many times he mentions various Fox News People (Greta Van Susteren won that one); how many times he mentions each of his children. (Tiffany snagged only 5 mentions, total).

There is the gold-plated toilet room—where you could have had your picture taken on the gold-plated throne.

And there were tweets—lots and lots of tweets.

Government by tweet. Insult by tweet. Etc., etc., etc.

 

 

 

 

Trevor Noah introducing visitors to the Trump Twitter Library on the mezzanine level of the Driskill Hotel during SXSW. (Photo by Connie Wilson).

“Pet Sematary” Re-Imagined at SXSW Premiere 30 Years After Its 1989 Predecessor

Jason Clarke and Jete Laurence, who plays his daughter Ellie Creed in “Pet Sematary” are interviewed on the Red Carpet for “Pet Sematary” at SXSW. (Photo by Connie Wilson).

In the 1989 original  film“Pet Sematary” pets buried in a spooky backwoods cemetery come back to life. When a tragedy befalls a child of Louis and Rachel Creed (Jason Clarke and Amy Seimetz), the lure of having their dead child returned to them by reburying the body in the Pet Sematary is too great to resist. [*Don’t watch the trailer if you don’t want to know one of the movie’s major plot twists in advance; it’s a “spoiler” moment].

As the plot for the Stephen King 1983 novel and the original film, (released almost exactly 30 years earlier to the day) put it: “With dreams of a better life, a young doctor, Louis Creed, and his family—wife Rachel, their 9-year-old daughter Ellie, and their 3-year-old toddler, Gage—move to their new home in the small rural town of Ludlow, Maine, alarmingly close to a busy highway.  However, when Rachel’s cherished tomcat, Church, is inadvertently killed in an awful accident, a desperate Louis will reluctantly take his friendly neighbor’s advice to bury it in an ancient Micmac graveyard—a mystical burial ground imbued with re-animating powers.  Despite the terrible results and insistent warnings, a tragedy-stricken Louis in the wake of the death of his child, goes back to the Indian cemetery, hoping that, this time, things will be different. But can the dead return from the grave?”

Despite the lure of having a loved one come back from the dead, the tag line for this movie is, “Sometimes, dead is better.”

Directors Kevin Kolsch and Dennis Widmyer with John Lithgow, shooting “Pet Sematary.” (SXSW Photo).

There are changes in Matt Greenberg’s treatment of Stephen King’s original concept. As the directors told the audience, onstage, following the World Premiere as the closing film of SXSW, “I was a big fan of the original. You know it exists. It was an influence on us.  There were homages, but there comes a time when you have to start making your own film out of it.”

Jason Clarke had not seen the finished product until this night. He described himself as “very proud and very freaked out” and said, “I enjoyed the experience” commenting on the thrill of seeing a film at the theater in a large group. When Jete Laurence, who plays Ellie in the film, was asked if she found playing her part frightening, she answered, “It was really cool.  I wasn’t that scared because I was one of the scary ones.”

One audience questioner wanted to know why there wasn’t more gore shown in the child’s death scene. Answered the directors:  “You gotta’ be really specific about how you show blood.  With the child’s death, the horror is reflected in the looks on Jason’s and Amy’s faces.”

(L to R) Hugo and Lucas LaVoie, who play Gage Creed in “Pet Sematary.” (Photo by Connie Wilson).

Q:  How did the 3-year-old twins who played Gage (Hugo and Lucas Levoie) deal with the scary stuff?

A:  With them, it was all just playing—like it’s a game. They thought it was a game and had a great time.

Amy Seimetz remarked, “I think what’s interesting about this is that it’s a meditation on the source material.  We’re all gonna’ die, so we can all meditate on that.” She added, “Having been in a lot of genre films, it is everything I want in a genre film.”

The film respects the essence of the 1983 novel, but refreshes it for a new generation. As one of the directors said, “Let’s get under the skin of what’s happening with death.” The directors said they have heard that Stephen King appreciates it when other artists bring their own artistic visions into play and added, “It was validating to hear that he was a fan of the film.”

Jete Laurence (Ellie Creed), “Pet Sematary”, on Red Carpet in Austin. (Photo by Connie Wilson).

Jete when asked if she had seen the original 1989 film version of “Pet Sematary,” said, “I think if I saw the original, I might not have as many creative ideas.”

THE GOOD

The mood of the piece is appropriately creepy. Music by Christopher Young is relied on heavily and it delivers.Directors Kevin Kolsch and Dennis Widmyer seemed to know what they wanted to achieve; their previous film “Starry Eyes” (2014) was a bit of a Faustian rip-off, so refashioning an older tale is not new to them.

With actors as good as John Lithgow and Jason Clarke, you know that they will do a good job. The children are also up to the task.

One producer was asked about his fears when doing the remake, “Well, you know what they say about filming with children and animals. (laughter) Also, dogs train well. Cats—not so much. But we had such great child actors.”

That last statement was definitely true. Young Jete and the twins who played Gage did a great job, alongside three seasoned veterans (Clarke, Lithgow and Seinmetz). The cat from hell was appropriately diabolical, as well.

Directors Kevin Kolsch and Dennis Widmyer at SXSW. (Photo by Connie Wilson).

The set that represented the pet cemetery was well done, although you really had to wonder how the actors could climb the wall of sticks and brambles that were supposed to keep the bad vibes in or out without injury.

The end of the piece will leave you pondering. There are film endings that provoke thought; this is one of them. What will become of this family? What will Louis Creed’s co-workers reaction be when he shows up for work at the clinic ? Or Ellie Creed’s fellow students at her elementary school? (Another film, perhaps? Maybe even a dark comedy?)

THE BAD

Amy Seimetz (Rachel Creed) and Jason Clarke (Louis Creed) at SXSW for “Pet Sematary.” (Photo by Connie Wilson).

While the music was good, it might have been relied on  too heavily at times, to produce “jump” scares. You know the kind: the teenager is going to the basement or the attic. The adult is approaching a large wardrobe or closet or door and we are all waiting to find out what is behind the door.

The heavy fog was so thick that it made me think of the 1971 Academy Awards  when the theme from “Shaft” was played onstage as a nominated song and the performer singing it (Isaac Hayes) completely disappeared. There’s fog in low swampy places and then there’s Major League Fog, all the time, everywhere, as in this Pet Sematary. (*Odd thing I noticed in the film: when Louis Creed (Jason Clarke) types in Pet Cemetery to his computer, he misspells it–again— as Pet Cemetary. It’s all e’s all the time.)

Jason Clarke (Photo by Connie Wilson).

There was  a lot of graphic violence during the last one-half hour, as opposed to a relatively bloodless first two-thirds of the film. Audiences today may demand such graphic gore; I always admired the Hitchcock touch. Hitchcock gave the impression of a knife being used to dispatch Janet Leigh in “Psycho’s ” shower scene but, through clever cutting of the film, the knife never is really shown being plunged into the victim. A little less plunging and twisting is  fine by me.

I didn’t feel that there was anything excitingly original or new being shown us in this film, but the end result was a perfectly acceptable genre film, buoyed by the good performances of the cast.  Producer Lorenzo di Bonaventura, from the stage, sarcastically called the movie,  “The feel good movie of 2019.”

If this film were a baseball game, nobody would be saying it was “a home run.” But the movie was a good solid hit—at least a double—maybe even a triple. For me, the all-around superlative performances of every actor involved– child or adult—carried the film through familiar territory that we all have covered before, since the original film thirty years ago and the novel 36

Jason Clarke (Louis Creed), on the Red Carpet for “Pet Sematary” at SXSW. (Photo by Connie Wilson).

years ago. The attempt(s) to secure a new “twist” or ending were successful, (although I kept wondering what Dr. Creed reporting for work the next day at the clinic would be like. Or Ellie Creed’s return to school. Maybe another movie?)

VERDICT

As genre horror movies go, this one is superior to most. It’s no “A Quiet Place,” but it’s good. It opens wide on April 5th.

 

 

 

 

 

“Raise Hell: The Life and Times of Molly Ivins:” Documentary on the Journalist at SXSW

(*Named an Audience Favorite Documentary at SXSW)

Documentary “Raise Hell: The Life and Times of Molly Ivins” at SXSW. (SXSW Press Photo).

“Raise Hell: The Life & Times of Molly Ivins” showed at the Paramount Theater in Austin as part of SXSW. It premiered at Sundance Film Festival in January. Director Janice Engel has culled footage of the legendary Texas wit and journalist to entertain and inform us of her skill as a humorous columnist, a talent which was often compared to that of Mark Twain.

Ivins’ column was carried by 400 newspapers through syndication at the time of her death from cancer in 2007. Ivins, the former co-editor of the Texas Observer, who also put in time at the esteemed New York Times, was known for calling George W. Bush “Shrub” and telling her public that Dan Quayle was so stupid that if his brain were transplanted into a bumblebee, the bee would probably fly backward.

She wrote about Texas politics and Texas politicians and was a close friend of famous Texas Governor Ann Richards. Ivins once described a particular politician as having an I.Q. so low, “if it gets any lower we’ll have to water him twice a day.”

Ivins grew up in River Oaks, went to St. John’s and was a child of Texas oil and gas privilege. Much of her character was formed in conflicts with her strait-laced Republican father, who was known as General Jim or Admiral Jim because of his stern authoritarianism.

Ivins enrolled in Scripps College in 1962 but was not happy there, and transferred to Smith College in 1963. She became romantically involved with Henry “Hank” Holland, Jr., a family friend and student at Yale whom she later referred to as “the love of my life”. After he was killed in a motorcycle accident in 1964, her friends said that she never seemed to find anyone else who could replace him. They suggested it was why she never married. She spent her junior year at the Institute of Political Science in Paris and received her B.A. in history in 1966, earning a master’s degree from Columbia University‘s School of Journalism in 1967.

Her first job after college was with the Minneapolis Tribune.  Molly Ivins became the first female police reporter at the paper. Ivins joined the Texas Observer in the early 1970s and later moved to The New York Times. The New York Times was not a good fit and Ivins moved back to Texas, becoming a columnist for the Dallas Times Herald in the eighties and then the Fort Worth Star-Telegram when the Times Herald was sold and shuttered. The column was subsequently syndicated by Creators Syndicate and carried by hundreds of newspapers nationwide.

The new documentary contains footage from Ivins’ numerous appearances on television, but also interviews with many of her longtime friends and acquaintances. Her witticisms are front-and-center, as when she said, “I’m not anti-gun; I’m pro-knife” or “You got to have fun while you’re fighting for freedom, ‘cause you don’t always win.”

Janice Engel, Director of “Raise Hell: The Life and Times of Molly Ivins” at SXSW. (SXSW Press Photo).

Director Engel told interviewer Charles Ealy in an Austin American Statesman piece: “She’s not only a prophet; she’s the voice of now. She is more relevant today than she probably was when she was alive.”

The struggles of Ivins to go it alone in what was then substantially a man’s world and to overcome alcoholism and cancer are part of this engrossing documentary. As Ivins herself said of her fierce battle against cancer: “Having breast cancer is massive amounts of no fun. First they mutilate you; then they poison you; then they burn you. I have been on blind dates better than that.”

This one is both poignant and hilarious at the same time, and well worth a watch.

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