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!

Category: Movies Page 2 of 26

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.

Olivia Colman in “Them That Follow” Is Snake-Handling Pentecostal in Appalachia

 

Alice Englert, 25-year-old lead of “Them That Follow.” (Photo by Connie Wilson).

 

“Them That Follow,” from Directors Britt Poulton and Dan Madison Savage, is described in the SXSW program this way:  “Set deep in the wilds of Appalachia, where believers handle death-dealing snakes to prove themselves before God, “Them That Follow” tells the story of a pastor’s daughter who holds a secret that threatens to tear her community apart.”

The film benefited mightily from superb casting, scoring Olivia Colman, fresh off her Oscar win for “The Favourite,” and the always charismatic Walton Goggins, previously known for playing Boyd Crowder in 74 episodes of “Justified” between 2010 and 2015. “Them That Follow” has just been selected by the Chicago Critics Film Festival as one of the first seven films to be shown at its film festival slated for May 17-23 at the historic Music Box Theater.

(L to R) Kaitlyn Dever, Thomas Mann and Alice Englert, who are Dilly, Augie and Mara in “Them That Follow” at SXSW. (Photo by Connie Wilson).

Walton Goggins’ preacher, Lemuel, is “in” to snake handling and his young daughter is an ardent follower of his church. However, she has fallen in love with Augie (Thomas Mann), son of Olivia Colman’s storekeeper and ardent church-going woman of the Pentecostal faith.

Olivia’s husband is played by Jim Gaffigan as Zeke. It is certainly true that  comedian Gaffigan must be one of the most ubiquitous actors working, as he also turned up in “The Day Shall Come” at this year’s festival and at “You Can’t Choose Your Family” at last year’s SXSW. I have to admit that I hadn’t really ever thought of Olivia Colman and Jim Gaffigan as man and wife, but they give it their all.

The fanatical preacher (Walton Goggins) has no pesky wife to interfere in his stewardship of his daughter Mara (Alice Englert), but Mara has a best friend, Dilly (Kaitlyn Dever), who brings new meaning to that old cliché, “With friends like these, who needs enemies?”

Thomas Mann (Augie) and Alice Englert (Mara) are the young lovers of “Them That Follow” at SXSW. (Photo by Connie Wilson).

Mara’s proposed marrying off to Garret (Lewis Pullman), despite her unprofessed love for the unbeliever Augie, is what sets the plot in motion. As you can imagine, there are many scenes of snake handling and tests of faith when Lemuel (Walton Goggins) learns that Mara is pregnant and, relying on the Bible (“Woman—Eve—is the first sinner and she must be cleansed!”) subjects Mara to a test of faith and a cleansing by way of the poisonous rattlesnakes the Congregation uses in its worship services.

Lead actress Alice Englert, the 25-year-old Australian-born Mara in the film, and  directors Britt Poulton and Dan Madison Savage provided much insight into the film and its origins in the Q&A that followed its showing.  Said Poulton, “I’ve had a lifelong fascination with Pentecostal evangelism and snake handling.  I felt an incredible sense of urgency.  This was an attempt to take audiences on a journey of empathy and understanding. I grew up in a religious family in The Church of Latter Day Saints. It wasn’t easy for me to discover me.  As you take steps towards your own identity, the pressure on you is intense.  How do you, in this world, reconcile faith and coming of age and coming into your own self?  I was fascinated by the YouTube videos of snake handling. I was bitten (laughter from the audience). It was electrifying to me.”

L to R) Dan Madison Savage (Director); Kaitlyn Deaver (Dilly); Thomas Mann (Augie); Alice Englert (Mara) and Britt Poulton (Director) of “Them That Follow.”

This was the duo’s first feature film and they were asked, “What was it like to have such a great cast?”

A:  “It’s a miracle. Such a gift.  We leaned on them so much.  We were so lucky to have this experience with them. The friendships forged in the woods were so incredible.  That is why I think the families feel so real.”

An audience member asked the directors this question. Q:  “It’s almost like a horror movie.  Did you want to take it to this extreme level?”

The answer from the directors was, “We wanted to show some of the consequences of this kind of extreme faith.  They’re really wrestling with the conflict between the faith and the extraordinary stakes of their lives. These are people making choices that put their lives on the line.”

A second audience question about music listened to by the actors as they prepared went nowhere, but the film’s Mara shared that she did a great deal of research, as she was from Australia and all of this was new to her. She read “Salvation on Sand Mountain” by Daniel Covington about a journalist who got deeply involved in the practice of snake-handling and, also, “Hillbilly Elegy.”

Said Alice, to audience laughter, “I’m from Australia. I had to do some homework.”

The cast did share that the rattlers are not REAL rattlesnakes (“Those snakes were friendly. Stumpy was a delight.”) but relatively harmless snakes who have, over the years, changed their appearance to mimic the dangerous rattlers for protective camouflage purposes.  The cast also worked with a dialect coach, Judy Dickinson.

See it. It’s good, and well worth the investment of time and money.

“Bluebird” Is SXSW Documentary about Nashville’s Bluebird Cafe Launching Pad to Songwriting Stardom

Director Brian Loschiavo of “Bluebird.” (Photo by Connie Wilson).

“Bluebird” premiered at SXSW on Thursday, March 14th, with Director Brian Loschiavo and many of the crew in attendance, including the now-retired owner of the 1,000 foot café in Nashville on 16th Avenue, Amy Kurland. Director Brian Loschiavo, a Philadelphia film school graduate, spent 10 years in Los Angeles as a freelance screenwriter and Senior Producer with Disney, ABC, and other TV networks, until signing up to be involved in the show “Nashville,” which made him into a believer. He moved to Nashville permanently and was soon tapped to film this documentary about the Bluebird Café.

The Bluebird is a small café in Music City that helps provide a place for songwriters to perform their songs and has launched the careers of megastars like Garth Brooks, Taylor Swift and Faith Hill. Other well-known names (Trisha Yearwood, Maren Morris, Vince Gill, Jason Isabell, Steve Earle, Connie Britton, Charles Esten) appear, but the magic of the place is that the unknowns behind famous songs—those who actually wrote the words and lyrics—have a place where they can perform and become known for their talent.

Amy Kurland, founder with daughter Barbara of the Bluebird Cafe in Nashville, at SXSW. (Photo by Connie Wilson).

As Thom Schayler called it, “The Bluebird is a place to come and be found.” Owner and founder Amy Kurland, with her daughter Barbara, did not originally intend for the Bluebird to be a music venue. It opened in 1982, not in mid-town, not in downtown, but in a strip mall next to a beauty shop and a dry cleaners, featuring all kinds of music.

Owner Amy described it, originally, as “A place for women to come to eat after they had their hair done. Minnie Pearl came to eat at the Bluebirt after she had her hair done.” She added, “When we first opened, it was all kinds of music,” and shared that they would sometimes put on the Talking Heads at max volume to drive out those lingering over a late lunch.

Said Amy, “The goal was to hear not a star, but a great songwriter.” Over time, the proscenium stage gave way to playing in the round in the center of the small room. Thom Schuyler described it as “The most fun I ever had with my clothes on.”

Brian Loschiavo of “Bluebird.” (Photo by Connie Wilson).

Snippets of the greatest Nashville songwriters of the day are heard, performed in some cases by the artists who made them famous, but more often by the songwriters who initially poured their heart and soul into the song to create the piece. Over the years, the Bluebird became known as a place to give aspiring songwriters a chance. Said one veteran: “They nurture the songwriter as an artist. I learned in that room that being a songwriter is a legitimate job.  Sometimes the performance by the writer of the song is more intimate than the famous version.”

With Open Mike on Monday nights, 60 singer/songwriters audition on Sunday night. Garth Brooks was one such aspiring singer/songwriter who had been turned down by every major label but was discovered by someone in the audience at the Bluebird. Taylor Swift was another who joined forces with her manager in that space, as he was just starting out with his own label and she was an 8th grade songwriter from Pennsylvania. (*Full disclosure: my daughter, a music business graduate of Belmont in Nashville, worked for Taylor Swift for 2 years.)

After the screening, talent producer Shawna Strasberg, who had to line up all the famous folk to appear, said that it “took six months to a year to figure out Taylor Swift’s schedule.” She added that most artists said yes “because it was the Bluebird.”

Props were also given to the elaborate set recreating the interior of the Bluebird, built for the TV show “Nashville,” which has popularized the place. The goal was to make you feel like you were in the room. Previously, as one cameraman said, “The opening scene was shot under a table, through someone’s legs with a handheld camera the whole time. It’s a challenge to shoot music.”

Founder and former owner Amy Kurland, who was present the night of the premiere, described herself as someone who grew up on Broadway musicals. She was so dedicated to having the Bluebird remain a place for up-and-coming songwriters to potentially get their shot that she signed over the café to the NSAI Nashville Music Association to make sure that it remains a launching pad for talent now that she has retired.

She looked back over her time since 1982 and said, “Those first few years I knew we were legitimate when Don Everley agreed to come play there.” Given a standing ovation by the appreciative crowd, Amy said, “I didn’t take a salary for a long time. If you’re in it to make a killing, I’d have been better off with a sports bar” to laughter.

It was the success of the TV show “Nashville” that took the struggling café from break-even to money-maker. Now, large crowds gather outside and, while approximately one-third of the café’s revenue comes from merchandise sold, there are routinely 200 to 300 people in the parking lot seeking entry to the small 90-seat venue. (A $25 cover charge is mentioned by the doorman at one point.)

“Bluebird” musicians close out the March 15th World Premiere showing at the Paramount Theater at SXSW. (Photo by Connie Wilson).

Director Brian Loschiavo acknowledged during the Q&A that “The hardest decision, hands down and a great challenge, was that we had to be stewards of the story.  A lot of cutting room stuff we had to lose.” With former owner Amy Kurland smiling and saying, “I really didn’t expect it to be so lively. I’m so grateful” a six-piece band onstage serenaded us as we departed.

Truly a heart-warming, entertaining, and informative film—especially if you dream of becoming a songwriter and wonder how to go about getting your big break in Music City (Nashville).

“Sunset Over Mulholland Drive” @ SXSW Proves You’re Never Too Old to Be Creative

“Sunset Over Mulholland Drive” is a behind-the-scenes look into the Motion Picture and Television Relief Fund’s Hollywood retirement home and grounds. The piece was a German entry into the documentary spotlight at SXSW, directed by Uli Gaulke with writing assistance from Marc Pitzke. It was produced by Helge Albers. When I failed to gain entrance to “Us” (Express passes at SXSW went in 9 seconds!) this 97-minute documentary having its North American Premiere here was Plan B.

A look at the retirement community that is home to many of Hollywood’s former leading men and women sounded like it would be right up my alley. Director Gaulke admitted, in the Q&A after the film, that he was thinking about himself when he decided to make the film after he read an article about the motion picture retirement community in California. And now the documentary has had its North American premiere at SXSW. He had hit a bad patch, endured a divorce, and he was hitting mid-life.

The odd thing about the entire project is that it was made by Germans. (What’s up with that?) Uli read the article, contacted the home and, roughly 4 years and 70 to 80 hours of material later, after shooting for a year with 6 people traveling between Berlin and Hollywood,  it premiered here at SXSW. The film inspired the director who said, “They were very open to telling me their stories.  Then I found Jerry (Selby Kaufman), my favorite…They were not only thinking of their own past, but the most important part was to follow them and to see that they can be creative when they are old.”

[Whew! THAT was a load off my mind!]

(L to R) Producer Helge Albers and Director Uli Gaulke of “Sunset Over Mulholland Drive” at the North American Premiere in Austin, Texas at SXSW. (Photo by Connie Wilson).

The Q&A after the film was delightful because, besides speaking excellent English, Uli would punctuate his remarks at key points with a “Ya?” that was reminiscent  of “Fargo.”

Uli said, “I always learn something. For me, personally, in my mid forties and fifties, I was glad to learn that life becomes a little more interesting, but that it is a continuation and that stamina is the key.” He added, “The challenge was getting them (the residents) to be working together and that was where the UCLA scriptwriting class helped.”

This reference was to a creative writing class that asked the residents to think of Ilsa and Rick from “Casablanca” and what they might be like if they met again twenty years in the future. This brought out a veritable plethora of ideas from the creative community. We also see the residents shooting a short film directed by Jerry (a former director) that is called “Santa for All Seasons,” where Santa’s close friends and wife and co-workers talk about him frankly.

One of my very favorite anecdotes in the film was provided by Joe Rosen, who became an apprentice film editor in 1957. He had a meeting with then-studio head Jack Warner and, during the course of their conversation, the subject turned to which actor should play a serious part then up for casting. Although Jason Robards was available, Jack Warner wanted to cast Troy Donahue, instead, causing Joe to say, “You have to be incompetent to make a statement like that!”

Joe Rosen was subsequently banned from the studio grounds.

(R) Director Uli Gaulke of Berlin, Germany, at the North American Premiere of “Sunset Over Mulholland Drive” at SXSW. (Photo by Connie Wilson).

We hear Wright King, now 94, telling us that he had wanted to be an actor since the age of 6 and that he once looked at Vivian Leigh onscreen in “Gone with the Wind” and said, “Some day I’m gonna’ kiss her onscreen.” And he did, in “On the Waterfront,” which we see in a brief film clip.

There is the charming older couple (married 62 years), Joel and Deborah Rogosin. Deborah is legally blind and Joel is obviously devoted to her, but he talks non-stop and she largely ignores him. One of the most touching moments in the film is when Joel sings “Always” to his bride: “Days may not be fair always. But I’ll be loving you always. Not for just an hour. Not for just a day. Not for just a year, but always.”

Joel finishes up that lovely serenade by saying, “I forget.  Did you use the word ‘obey’ in our marriage ceremony?”  Deborah responds that she most certainly did not, and Joel says, “Well, that accounts for it!” A gifted writer, Joel and Deborah have been working on a book together for most of their 62 years of marriage, entitled “How to Stay Married Without Killing Each Other.” They bicker over the title and the contents of each chapter. At one point, as they remember a long-ago romantic dance in the rain when they were young, Joel writes: “I wish that special glistening rain would fall and make us young and beautiful again.”

The entire documentary was delightful and charming. In retrospect, I’m glad I saw it instead of “Us,” (which opens wide soon.)

I highly recommend this stroll down memory lane in “Sunset Over Mulholland Drive.”

Celebrities Hit the Red Carpet for “The Beach Bum” at SXSW in Austin, TX

Isla Fisher at the premiere of “The Beach Bum” at SXSW. (Photo by Connie Wilson).

Jimmy Buffett at the premiere of “The Beach Bum” in Austin, Texas, at SXSW. (Photo by Connie Wilson).

Star of “The Beach Bum” Matthew McConaughey with wife Camille and his mother on the Red Carpet at SXSW. (Photo by Connie Wilson).

Jimmy Buffett and Martin Lawrence at the Red Carpet for “The Beach Bum” at SXSW. (Photo by Connie Wilson).

Harmony Korine, Director of “The Beach Bum” on the Red Carpet at SXSW. (Photo by Connie Wilson).

While the flow of movie stars to SXSW continues, the Red Carpet opportunities seem fewer than in previous years.

Nevertheless, there have been some names showing up and here are a few of the celebrities who walked the red carpet for “The Beach Bum.”

Much of the action this year seems to be in the Convention Center for panels involving politicians who all seem to have a goal of running for President in 2020.

Here’s a rogue’s gallery of a few famous faces that have appeared for films like “The Beach Bum” (Matthew McConaughey, Jimmy Buffett, Martin Lawrence).

And then there was Scott Rogowsky for H.Q. trivia “live,” for the first-time ever.  Camp Sandy in the Hill Country pitched us with a free Uber ride, a free Turtle Car Wax if you drove your own car, and Music in the Van. (I went out to Camp Sandy for Low Cut Connie and Wyclef Jean, but the other Connie had lost his voice singing outside in the rain. He performs again for free on Friday night outside in downtown  Austin.)

“Lowland Kids” Attests to the Effects of Global Warming: World’s First Climate Change Refugees

Director Sandra Winther. (SXSW Photo).

“Lowland Kids,” a documentary short showing at SXSW directed by Sandra Winther and beautifully shot by Director of Photography Todd Martin tells the story of America’s first climate change refugees.

Brother and sister Juliette and Howard Brunet are being raised by their Uncle Chris Brunet, who is handicapped and confined to a wheelchair. The parents of the teen-agers apparently died from drug addiction, although Howard, when asked, says, “I don’t want to talk about that.”

The two siblings and their Uncle Chris live on Isle de Jean Charles, Louisiana and, as Chris explains their predicament after 3 generations of living on the island, their island is losing one football field of earth every hour because of the oil and gas company building canals and due to natural disasters. The rising water is going to take over the island, the lowlands, and, as Uncle Chris says, “This is home. You really can’t get that again.”

The government has pledged to build houses to relocate the entire lowland island because, “The ground is sinking.  You’re looking at mass relocation.” When asked how they feel about moving in questions like, “What are you gonna’ miss about this place?” Chris answers “Everything, Man!” It is clear that the teen-agers feel the same way. Explains Chris, “That’s just it. It’s the simplicity.”

While the house they live in is not much, the scenery is gorgeous with beautiful sunsets and trips by boat to hunt alligators. The young people spend a lot of time driving all-terrain vehicles around the lush and isolated grounds and Howard says, “Moving off the island is gonna’ change a lot. Nobody really wants to lose their hometown.”

Howard shares that he is an aspiring football player and adds, “If you’re good at it, you shouldn’t just waste your time.” He hopes to get a college scholarship to help him go to a college or university in the future. He is shown watching a Saints/Vikings showdown on his cell phone and practicing his throwing.

Juliette shares that, “The person I respect the most is Uncle Chris…in a wheelchair and raising two teenagers.” She seems to have made her peace with the deaths of her parents, saying she doesn’t need a female role model because, “They died for a reason. To me, it’s cool.” The only hint that the loss of their biological parents really isn’t so “cool” for them comes from a family friend, Mike, who talks about her brother Howard being “in a bad way” at one point, but all of them rallying to care for the orphaned children.

The place and its loss is front and center, with gorgeous cinematography and comments like,”They say there’s not too much here. That’s the thing—it’s just implicit.”

There are so many unanswered questions in the short (approximately half an hour) documentary: What happened that confined Uncle Chris to a wheelchair? Is Uncle Chris their true, biological uncle, or is that an honorary title? What do Chris (and, for that matter, Mike) do to earn money to live?  How do the Brunets get around the lowland island and, for that matter, off the island, when the comment is made that floods frequently shut off the ability to get to the mainland? How much is the relocation of 180 to 200 families going to cost the government or the families affected? Are the oil and gas companies that Chris says are responsible in large part for this erosion going to pay for some or all of the moves that are supposed to take place by 2022?

See this one for the beautiful shots of the Watery Island lowland paradise of which Uncle Chris says, “I would like to find a place like this with good friends and family…Home, you really can’t get that again.”

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