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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The 2021 Academy Awards: Post Ceremony

Darrel Britt-Gibson, Daniel Kaluuya and Lakeith Stanfield appear in Judas and the Black Messiah by Shaka King, an official selection of the Premieres section at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Glen Wilson.

I’ve held off on commenting on the April 25th Oscars. I wanted to see what the reaction, nationwide and internationally, was to the Covid-era ceremony.

Every year, we try to celebrate with our good friends in Des Moines, Iowa. This year, that meant flying there, which was an adventure in and of itself. We had to fly from Austin to Dallas and then make it from the “A” concourse to the “E” concourse. Although we had 2 hours between flights, we almost missed the second one, and one of the reasons was that we had the Traveling Trophy (a small Oscar) in my husband’s carry-on. This showed up as a metal object on the screening at TSA and that was an interesting delay.

When we got to Austin we got onto the American flight and then sat on the runway for over an hour during a thunderstorm. But, finally, we made it to Des Moines and geared up for the Sunday night festivities.

I am always skittish about those who wish to record something important and watch it later on tape, rather than watching it “live.” I voiced those objections to our hostess, but my remarks fell on deaf ears.

Thus it was that, after watching all the way to the “And the winner for Best Picture is _______” the screen went black. That meant that we missed the 3 biggest awards: Best Picture, which was announced before Best Actor or Best Actress, so it was a clean sweep and I missed all three of the most important awards “live” for the first time since 1955. (Sigh)

We ended up having to watch the presentation of the three most important awards on YouTube.

There have been any who have decried the choice of Union Station for the presentation, but I thought it looked rather cool. Similarly, by virtue of great effort, participants were not all wearing masks and it was a step up from the Emmy-awards show where everything had to be done by zoom.

On the negative side, because of Covid-19, there was no opening monologue, no host, no orchestra, and therefore, no big production numbers, although the nominated songs were all presented by individuals. Did the women dress up? Yes, they did. Was it the traditional Red Carpet that we have seen in previous years? No, it was not.

Now as to the films this year and who won, let’s pull up the list of nominees, with an “X” after the winners:

Best Picture

The Father
Judas and the Black Messiah
Mank
Minari
Nomadland X
Promising Young Woman
Sound of Metal
The Trial of the Chicago 7

The winner, of course, was “Nomadland.” This did not come as a surprise since it had won all of the preliminary awards. I found “Nomadland” to be bleak, and would have preferred to see “Judas & the Black Messiah,” “Promising Young Woman” or “Minari” take home the trophy, but it is what it is.

Actor in a Leading Role

Riz Ahmed, Sound of Metal
Chadwick Boseman, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

Anthony Hopkins, The Father X
Gary Oldman, Mank
Steven Yeun, Minari

Everyone thought that Chadwick Boseman would win, and that, I am told, is why they re-arranged the order of announcing the Best Picture. The thought was that Chadwick’s win would end the evening and they probably had prepared some film tribute. Instead, 83-year-old Anthony Hopkins won and wasn’t even there. He was home in bed. So much for that plan.

 

Actress in a Leading Role

Viola Davis, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
Andra Day, The United States vs. Billie Holiday
Vanessa Kirby, Pieces of a Woman
Frances McDormand, Nomadland X
Carey Mulligan, Promising Young Woman

Frances McDormand won, as it was predicted that she would. This makes 4 Oscars for Frances, although only 3 of them were for Best Actress. She won the 4th one as one of the producers of “Nomadland.” She has won Best Actress Oscars for “Fargo,” “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” and “Nomadland.” She was nominated for Best Supporting Actress back in 1988 for “Mississippi Burning,” but lost to Geena Davis in “The Accidental Tourist.”

Actor in a Supporting Role

Sacha Baron Cohen, The Trial of the Chicago 7
Daniel Kaluuya, Judas and the Black Messiah X
Leslie Odom, Jr., One Night in Miami
Paul Raci, Sound of Metal
Lakeith Stanfield, Judas and the Black Messiah

This category pitted 2 actors from “Judas and the Black Messiah” against one another in the supporting category, which was odd, but came about because of Oscar rules. I thought Lakeith Stanfield’s portrayal was the central part, but the voters disagreed and Daniel Kaluuya won.

Actress in a Supporting Role

Maria Bakalova, Borat Subsequent Moviefilm
Glenn Close, Hillbilly Elegy
Olivia Colman, The Father
Amanda Seyfried, Mank
Yuh-Jung Youn, Minari X

 

We watched “Minari” in the afternoon on Saturday, and all of us liked this sweet story of Koreans relocating to Arkansas. The win of Yuh-Jung Youn was well-deserved and her acceptance speech was charming. She was as excited about meeting Brad Pitt as I would have been. I must admit that I had assumed that, after 8 nominations, the Academy would finally give Glenn Close the Oscar she deserves for her unattractive role as Granny in “Hillbilly Elegy.” Later, she was involved in a scripted bit of entertainment involving Oscar-nominated songs and actually got up and performed something called “Da Butt.” As another said, “That was the most embarrassing thing since she appeared in ‘Hillbilly Elegy.’”

Directing

Thomas Vinterberg, Another Round
David Fincher, Mank
Lee Isaac Chung, Minari
Chloé Zhao, Nomadland Chloe Zhao’sX
Emerald Fennell, Promising Young Woman

This one was announced quite early in the evening and Chloe Zhao’s win was not unexpected. It was only the second win for a woman and the first for an Asian.

Writing (Adapted Screenplay)

Borat Subsequent Moviefilm, Sacha Baron Cohen, Anthony Hines, Dan Swimer, Peter Baynham, Erica Rivinoja, Dan Mazer, Jena Friedman & Lee Kern
The Father, Christopher Hampton and Florian Zeller X
Nomadland, Chloé Zhao
One Night in Miami, Kemp Powers
The White Tiger, Ramin Bahrani

“The Father” won. Again, unexpected to a point, but the film did take home the Best Actor award for Hopkins.

Lakeith Stanfield and Daniel Kaluuya appear in Judas and the Black Messiah by Shaka King, an official selection of the Premieres section at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Glen Wilson.l

Best Original Screenplay

Judas and the Black Messiah, Will Berson & Shaka King

Minari, Lee Isaac Chung
Promising Young Woman, Emerald Fennell X

Sound of Metal, Darius Marder & Abraham Marder
The Trial of the Chicago 7, Aaron Sorkin

Emerald Fennell  won for scripting the Carey Mulligan vehicle “Promising Young Woman,” one of the more entertaining films of this year’s nominees. I had hopes that Aaron Sorkin might take home a trophy, as he is undoubtedly one of the best wordsmiths in Hollywood but it was not to be.

Animated Feature Film

Onward
Over the Moon
A Shawn the Sheep Movie: Farmageddon

 Soul X
Wolfwalkers

“Soul” won for music and as best animated feature film. I am anxious to see it, but have not (yet) had the opportunity, although I did see all the main nominated films.

Documentary (Feature)

Collective
Crip Camp
The Mole Agent
My Octopus Teacher X
Time

In this category, “Time” was considered a big favorite. “Collective” also had been written up positively, but I wanted us all to see “My Octopus Teacher” before the ceremony. Last year, we watched “Factory” the day before the ceremony, one of Barack Obama’s first projects after his presidency. We watched that one and it won that night (in 2019). This time, we watched “My Octopus Teacher” and, once again, it won. It’s a beautifully filmed tale of a man befriending an octopus in the underwater kelp forest off the coast of South Africa.

Documentary (Short Subject)

Colette X
A Concerto Is a Conversation
Do Not Split
Hunger Ward
A Love Song for Latasha

“Colette” won for Best Documentary Short Subject.

International Feature Film

Another Round (Denmark) X
Better Days (Hong Kong)
Collective (Romania)
The Man Who Sold His Skin (Tunisia)
Quo Vadis, Aida? (Bosnia and Herzegovina)

I had heard that either “Collective” or “Quo Vadis, Aida?” was going to win. I have seen none of these films. I thought the Danish gentleman who accepted the award was quite articulate.

Film Editing

The Father
Nomadland
Promising Young Woman
Sound of Metal X
The Trial of the Chicago 7

This was an upset category. “Sound of Metal” was a great film—until the end. Riz Ahmed was great and I anticipated that it would win for sound, but not for film editing.

Cinematography

Judas and the Black Messiah X
Mank
News of the World
Nomadland
The Trial of the Chicago 7

“Mank” won for cinematography. I had anticipated yet another “Nomadland” win here.

Sound

Greyhound
Mank
News of the World
Soul
Sound of Metal X

In telling the story of a rock drummer who loses his hearing, many interesting and innovative things were done with sound. This one I expected.

Music (Original Score)

Da 5 Bloods
Mank
Minari
News of the World
Soul X

“Soul” won for Best Original Score. Stephen Colbert’s musical director, Jon Baptiste, and Trent Reznor, of the “Nine Inch Nails” had a hand in this win.

Music (Original Song)

“Fight For You” from Judas and the Black Messiah X
“Hear My Voice” from The Trial of the Chicago 7
“Husavik” from Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga
“lo Sì (Seen)” from The Life Ahead
“Speak Now” from One Night in Miami

This one was a bit of an upset, I think. “Fight for You” from “Judas and the Black Messiah” took the award, when “Speak Now” from “One Night in Miami” seemed to be the front-runner.

Costume Design

Emma
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom X
Mank
Mulan
Pinocchio

“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” won, a victory for Viola Davis’ fat suit.

Makeup and Hairstyling

Emma
Hillbilly Elegy
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom X
Mank
Pinocchio

Once again, “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” triumphed.

Production Design

The Father
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
Mank X
News of the World
Tenet

“Mank” won.

Visual Effects

Love and Monsters
The Midnight Sky
Mulan
The One and Only Ivan
Tenet X

This most-expensive project of Christopher Nolan’s took home the visual effects Oscar.

Short Film (Animated)

Burrow
Genius Loci
If Anything Happens I Love You X
Opera
Yes-People

Short Film (Live Action)

Feeling Through
The Letter Room
The Present
Two Distant Strangers X
White Eye

Of the non-major awards (i.e., aside from Best Picture, Best Actor, Actress, Supporting Actor or Actress, and Director) I scored 11 of 16 right. Considering the fact that I’d seen precious few of them, scoring close to 70% there was my big brag of the evening.

 

“Beatles,” Live: And You Are There (And I Was)

“Roe v. Wade”— Film That Premiered at CPAC— Is Boring Biased Hit Job

“Roe v. Wade” follows Dr Bernard Nathanson (Nick Loeb), the narrator of the 1984 anti-abortion film The Silent Scream, from his first interaction with abortion in 1949 – when his girlfriend at the time terminated her pregnancy – to his change to a virulent anti-abortion stance in 1985.”By film’s end, Nathanson changes sides as dramatically as the real Jane Doe (Norma McCorvey) did. While on the subject, try to find the 2020 documentary “AKA Jane Doe,” helmed by Nick Sweeney, because it is one thousand times better than this release. That film involves a death-bed interview with the real woman at the center of “Roe v. Wade,” Norma McCorvey.“AKA Jane Doe,” the 2020 documentary, is more authentic and much more entertaining.

It’s hard to know where to start in critiquing this slow-moving, poorly paced polemic.

The 2020 “Roe v. Wade” is co-directed by Nick Loeb and Cathy Allyn and the writing credits go to those two and Ken Kushner. There are other films with an ultra-conservative point-of-view, like this one, that smeared Obama and slandered Hillary, written and directed by Dinesh D’Souza. Those films were equally biased, but at least they were well done.  Here, viewers are subjected to 112 minutes of poorly staged treacly, unconvincing monologues, delivered by a motley crew of actors.

Among the veteran actors who signed on for the paycheck are Robert Davi (“Die Hard”) as Justice Brennan, Jamie Kennedy (“Tremors: A Cold Day in Hell”) as Larry Lader, Joey Lawrence (“Blossom”) as Robert Byrn, Corbin Bernsen (“L.A. Law”) as Justice Blackmun, Steve Guttenberg (“Three Men and a Baby”) as Justice Powell, William Forsythe (“Cold Pursuit”) as Justice Stewart and Jon Voight (“Midnight Cowboy”) as Justice Warren Burger.  Former Fox news personality Stacey Dash (“Sharknado 4: The 4th Awakens”) appears as Dr. Mildred Jefferson.

Dr. Bernard Nathanson, the lead, is portrayed by Nick Loeb (Loeb is also the writer/director and producer). It seems to be Loeb’s vanity project for reasons both personal and philosophical. The press kit insists that this version of events is accurate because facts and figures were made up by Roe v. Wade supporters. (Of course, we are to accept that every point-of-view presented here is Gospel, including the general rock-throwing at Planned Parenthood.)

When the wives and daughters of various Supreme Court Justices weigh in at their family dinner tables onscreen as being in favor of abortion rights for women, the inference is that these women are to blame for the court’s ultimate decision. Actually, according to a new NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist Poll, 77% of Americans favor retaining Roe v. Wade as the law of the land, but most citizens want restrictions (most of which already exist).

Only 3% of Planned Parenthood’s services are abortions.  Planned Parenthood provides American women pap smears, pregnancy testing and services, diabetes screening, breast cancer screening, STD testing/treatment and prevention, male infertility screening/treatment and menopause treatment. But never mind those worthwhile services comprising 97% of what Planned Parenthood does for the community. Let’s paint 100% of their services as bad and move on.

The character of Larry Lader (Jamie Kennedy) is  interested in making money from the abortion trade. Lader convinces Dr. Nathanson, who is, at first, very enthusiastic about earning blood money by providing abortions on demand. To show this, the script unwisely has Nathanson (Loeb) and the others in the room sing a song about abortion as follows: “There’s a fortune/In abortion/You never bother/The real father.” Later, when he recants, Loeb has a scene that is far beyond his acting range, which we can call the Norma McCorvey Reversal scene.None of the people in the scene can sing. Not a lick. The scene is excruciatingly bad, but it’s not the worst in the film. There are plenty more to come. Buckle up.

Writer/Director/Producer/Lead Nick Loeb, of “Roe v. Wade.” (Courtesy of “Roe v. Wade”).

Playing the lead in this film would be a stretch in the hands of a good actor, since abortion is a sensitive, controversial, complex topic that deserves a sensitive, competent actor as the lead. Here, Loeb is out of his depth as a thespian. Loeb has said, in  interviews, that he decided to play the part because two of his former girlfriends had undergone the procedure and he now regrets their actions. (He has since become the father of a daughter).

The film does have seasoned, competent professionals who attempt to carry off this anti-abortion hit job, but the writer/director/producer and actor are all Loeb, along with fellow writers Cathy Allyn and Ken Kushner. Loeb’s tuneless off-key serenade was just a small taste of the bumpy road ahead.

There are several long, boring monologues that come off as preachy and embarrassingly bad. [It was really a chore to get through the scene with the actor reading as though he were an unborn fetus.] Robert Daniels (“The Guardian”) called these speeches “mawkish grandiose speeches that ring hollow.” Daniels was being kind. Daniels dubbed the film “An Anti-Abortion Film of Staggering Ineptitude.” He went on to single out Loeb as the worst of the cast, while calling the acting of the others “tacky.”“The Daily Beast” revealed that Loeb and Allyn were initially supposed to be simply producers of the film. They had to assume directing duties when the film’s director and first assistant director bailed.

There were more problems, as Daniels shared  (3/25/2021 review):  “In a 2018 Hollywood Reporter piece, Loeb explained that the crew’s electrician told him “F***  you,” threw her headset on the ground and quit the project. The costumer left, too.” Regarding filming at Louisiana State, “We were told we were rejected due to our content, even though it will be a PG-rated film.” From The Hollywood Reporter: “They refused to put it in writing, but they told us on the phone it was due to content.” Tulane—Loeb’s alma mater— refused to accommodate the crew, as did a New Orleans synagogue.

The script calls feminism “destructive” and invokes Mother Teresa and Susan B. Anthony as pro-life while tearing down Margaret Sanger, the founder of Planned Parenthood. Sanger drew a sharp distinction between birth control and abortion and was opposed to abortion throughout the bulk of her professional career, declining to participate in them as a nurse. Sanger, however, felt that in order for women to have a more equal footing in society they needed to be able to determine when to bear children.

Speaking of “determining when to bear children” and having a pro-choice right to determine what happens with your own body, if female, there has been speculation that Nick Loeb’s desire to make this film stemmed from his failed 4-year relationship with Sophia Vergara (“Modern Family”), which ended in 2014. (A year later, she would marry Joe Manganiello).

Vergara and Loeb, when a couple, froze her fertilized eggs, undergoing IVF together in 2013. In 2017 Vergara filed legal documents to block Loeb from being able to use the embryos without her written consent. Loeb fought for the right to bring the embryos to term via a surrogate. Recently, a California judge has permanently blocked Loeb from using the embryos without Vergara’s  permission. [ The entire dispute embodies, in a microcosm,  the film’s main theory about who should have total reproductive control.]

I lost a friend to a self-induced abortion gone wrong in 1963.  Despite my Catholic upbringing, I think women deserve a choice in what happens to their bodies (and their eggs). The ultimate decision should be between the woman and her physician, with strict guidelines (as has always been the case), not a decision by a group of old white men like those portrayed in this film, or by just one party in an IVF scenario. I wouldn’t be thrilled if my former fiancée decided to take my eggs and bring them into the world without my consent.

Millions have been spent on the “Roe v. Wade” film project (figures ranged from $6.5 to $8 million). The film seems to be a single-minded attempt to convince the world of the “rightness” of the POV of its writer/producer/director and star and the conservative community. If you have enough money and know how to manipulate the levers of power and use propaganda, you can weaponize that propaganda to seize and hold power. [We’ve seen that lesson as recently as January 6th.]

This is not a good screenplay. Many of the weak performances simply add insult to that injury. “Roe v. Wade” also offers inarticulate editing, patriotic tableaux, repetitive flat compositions (often involving static Supreme Court goings-on), ineffectual camera zooms, insufferably grandiose speeches, tuneless singing and a cast that reminded of “The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight.” In this case, the “shooting” is disseminating pro-life propaganda for a paycheck.

No doubt some of the principals are deeply committed to the premise that abortion is a scourge; nevertheless, the more well-known the actor, the more detrimental to his or her body of work this film will be. It’s really difficult to believe that “Roe v. Wade” won any awards, although Jon Voight is a well-known Oscar-winning actor (“Coming Home,” 1978). At almost eighty, Voight is playing Warren Burger, who was then 66.

It is surprising to me that any reputable actor or technician wanted to be involved, unless they were in Pro-Life Crusader mode. (As reported elsewhere, the gig was not universally embraced by cast or crew.) In a March 3rd article in The Hollywood Reporter (“Nick Loeb’s ‘Roe v Wade’ Actors Cry Foul Over No-Show Paychecks),  New Orleans SAG-AFTRA actress Susan LaBrecque complained that, after 2 years, she and as many as nine other actors have yet to be paid for the New Orleans shoot in 2018, despite the film’s premiere at CPAC last month. They’ve now gone to SAG-AFTRA for resolution. [Co-director Cathy Allyn responded to The Hollywood Reporter that the funds had been released to SAG as of Feb. 10. “They have the money and it’s up to SAG to release it.”]

Loeb hosted the world premiere of his film, Roe v. Wade, on Friday, February 26th at the CPAC (Conservative Political Action Committee) host hotel, the Hyatt Regency Orlando. The Conservative gathering featured Donald J. Trump as its keynote, Trump’s first post-presidential appearance.  Loeb arranged for the movie to premiere in order to sell tickets to funnel into marketing costs ahead of an April 2nd release on Amazon Prime, iTunes and PVOD.

In a “Hollywood Reporter” interview, Loeb said, “But it’s not a preachy, pro-life, religious movie.”

Yes, Nick, it is. And, unfortunately, not a very well-done one.

Dave Grohl & Foo Fighters Respond to “We Are the 1,000” Documentary with Concert in Cesena, Italy

The heartwarming story of a small Italian town (Cesena, Italy) and its wacky crusade to convince Dave Grohl and the Foo Fighters to come give a concert in that town is the central drama of “We Are the Thousand,” a film written and directed by Anita Rivaroli.

Even more inspiring in this story about Fabio Zaffagnini’s creative approach to the problem of getting one of the most popular bands on the planet to visit a town of roughly 100,000 residents is the joy that the participants created in organizing and launching their hare-brained project and, in the process, creating an enduring musical monster.

Make no mistake: this was a Herculean task that the team worked on for over a year.

“We Are the Thousand” (SXSW Photo).

The idea was to gather 1,000 musicians and have them all form one big band. The first (and only) song they were all going to try to learn to play together was Grohl’s “Learning to Fly.” The crew set to work crowdfunding and trying to raise the roughly 40,000 Euros that was the bare minimum needed for the project. Among the problems: not enough headsets for everyone and no money to buy them.

There also was the matter of the distance that sound travels and how the members of the group would manage to play in synch, when they were going to be filling the Parco Ippodrome, a large outdoor race track area near Cesena. That was when one of the organizers thought up the idea of a visual metronome, like a stoplight, which the drummers could see and, therefore, keep on the beat together.

Musicians from all over Italy and Europe, hearing about the project, sent in videos of themselves playing their instruments or singing. From those rough “auditions” the 1,000 were selected and—at their own expense—told to show up on July 26, 2015, to be part of the event.

The “Rockin’ 1000” were from all walks of life: truck drivers, doctors, perfume shop workers, you name it. One said, “We’re forced to live a normal life to support our dreams. So we keep our shitty jobs to keep our dreams alive.” Another shared, “It was about achieving something.” Termed “a sociological and musical experiment,” the band is shown taking a pledge not to showboat and/or show off during the practice sessions. Then they begin rehearsing.

The drummers, all drumming in unison, “felt like an earthquake” said one participant. Another said it was as though a shock wave had gone through the arena, as the musicians were “flooded by sound.” And the sound is pretty good!  As the organizers said, “An engine like this can take us a long way.” Another added, “It gave me goosebumps in every language in the world.”

With the guitars, singers and drummers playing their hearts out—(although cautioned, “Don’t hit the drums like a madman!”)— the one thousand became “the biggest rock band on Earth.” Said one, “What we did here is just a huge, huge miracle.”

After the video shoot of the gigantic rock band performing at Cesena’s racetrack, the plan was to post the video, asking Grohl and the Foo Fighters to come play a concert in the small Italian town. Once posted, on July 30th,—four days after the performance— the video began to climb in hits: 10 million hits—-15 million hits in 3 days—-26 million hits. It finally got Dave Grohl’s attention. He explains (in Italian), “Well, now we have to come. It’s f***ing amazing!”

“We Are the Thousand” (SXSW Photo).

There are then the scenes with the band members attending a Foo Fighters concert and, for some of them, playing alongside Dave Grohl. Fabio’s crowd-surfing to the stage was one of the highlights of the film. Actually getting to meet their idols is obviously life-changing for the band members. “It changed the spiritual current. It changed how people think,” said one.

Fabio from Fasignano does not disappoint, continuing his efforts to maintain “the biggest rock band on Earth” and entering the arena dressed in a robe that says, “The Italian Stallion” (a nod to the movie “Rocky”).

The extreme joy of producing music with others is not to be under-estimated. Renato—a participant from Perugio who had just received a bad health diagnosis—described the act of playing in the band as better than any therapy he might have asked for and, one year later, is still playing with “the Rockin’ 1000.”

Cinematographer Pasquale Remea has captured the elation of the crowd and the joy in human community that music can and does provide. It’s a feeling that those who have participated in a band or an orchestra or a chorus or a choir can relate to and even some of our most influential films have acknowledged that music is “the universal language,” as Spielberg’s “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” testified.

This documentary (in Italian, with English subtitles) is a feel-good film for our time. It goes on well past the triumphant Dave Grohl scenes to show that the sheer joy of producing harmony is as euphoric, in its own way, as making a dream come true through hard work, creative thinking, dedication, and an influential video that achieved its goal.

 

Demi Lovato: “Dancing with the Devil” Premieres at SXSW Film Festival 2021

“Demi Lovato: Dance with the Devil” (Credit: OBB Media @ the SXSW Online Film Festival 2021.)

The opening night film for this year’s SXSW Online Film Festival was the documentary “Demi Lovato: Dancing with the Devil.” It premiered on Tuesday night, March 16th and was directed by Michael D. Ratner.

Last year, on March 6th, SXSW in person was canceled. In 2019 the festival’s financial benefits to Austin were estimated to be $356 million, up 1.5% from 2018’s $351 million. A loss of that magnitude has been catastrophic for Austin’s live music venues, its hotels, and its restaurants. Some festival-goers are angry that they are being offered future admissions to the festival, rather than their cash back. Tickets for the online festival went for $1,600 the last year it was held in person (2019); a ticket this year for the all-online festival goes for $325.

The films this year are primarily documentaries, and “Demi Lovato: Dance with the Devil” is the opener, featuring an attitude of complete disclosure from Lovato and her staff.  One staffer on the hot seat says, “I can’t believe you all are doing this.  This is just lit, but okay.” She and the others—including fey best friend Matthew Scott Montgomery—proceed to describe the near-fatal overdose. There is also film from a 2018 documentary that was shot while Demi was on her “Tell Me That You Love Me” World Tour, but never released. There is footage of D.J. Khalid praising Demi’s 6 years of sobriety as she sits at the piano. Super-imposed is the information that one month later, she relapsed. Three months later she was fighting for her life in a hospital intensive care unit.

Demi’s overdose involved smoking heroin laced with fentanyl. She suffered a heart attack, three strokes, brain damage that has left her visually impaired, pneumonia and multiple organ failure. If her former assistant Jordan Jackson had not entered her bedroom when she did, Lovato would have died within five to ten minutes. The world quickly learned that Demi Lovato had overdosed, but most did not realize how serious her overdose was. As her assistant related, she looked completely blue when found and the doctors had to re-circulate her blood through a large machine in the intensive care unit to purify it before returning it to her body.

As the documentary continues and we learn of Demi’s heritage from her father, I feared for her continued health. Indeed, near the end of the piece, she claims that she is going to try the “moderation” route and former addict Elton John testifies that this approach just does not work.

Demi’s own father—who suffered from both bi-polar disorder and schizophrenia—was an alcoholic, a drug addict, and physically abused Demi’s mother, Dianna DeLaGarge (who was a former Dallas Cowboys cheerleader). Demi shares that he died alone of a drug overdose and his body was not found for days, if not weeks.

Demi says, “You really figure out who is there for you when your whole world falls away under your feet.” It appears that there are many faithful friends in Demi Lovato’s life. She was also fortunate to be able to afford expert help at the Cirque Lodge Rehabilitation facility.  Demi also shared information of two previous rapes, one by the very drug dealer who brought her the near-fatal overdose that night.

I fear for Demi Lovato’s continued good health and wish her and everyone else suffering from  addiction issues the very best. The incidence of fentanyl abuse has increased 540% over the past three years.

Justine Bateman Directs “Violet” at SXSW 2021 Online Film Festival

“Violet”, Olivia Munn in the SXSW Online Film Festival entry.

Justine Bateman—sister of Jason Bateman—who once played Mallory Keaton during a 7-year stint on “Family Ties,” ending in 1989— directed her first feature film at SXSW entitled “Violet.” It was supposed to premiere here in 2020, but we all know what happened there.

The film seems roughly biographical, with a voice constantly telling the lead character, Violet Calder, that she is inadequate. The “inner voice” voicing all of Violet’s insecurities is portrayed by Justin Theroux. Other veteran actors like Bonnie Bedelia (“Heart Like A Wheel,” “Die Hard”), Laura SanGiacomo (“Sex, Lies and Videotape”), and Jim O’Heir (Jerry Gergich on “Parks & Recreation”) are tapped for small parts in the film, but Olivia Munn (“Newsroom”) and Australian actor Luke Brace (“Little Fires Everywhere”) are the leads.

Justine Bateman wrote a book entitled “Fame: The Hijacking of Reality,” released in 2018. In it, she talked about how fame after playing Mallory Keaton on “Family Ties” led to post-fame -problems.  One revealing statement, both from the book and from an interview with “Vanity Fair” when it was released, said, “I think you have to have a really good sense of yourself to be able to talk about life post-fame.” She describes “the leper effect” of not being as famous as you once were and how debilitating fame can be. “Most of the time, you’re so overwhelmed with the fame that it’s hard to have your wits about you as it’s happening. And then it’s over quickly.”

Bateman related how, after fame seemed to have passed her by, she googled herself and found fans online saying she “looked old.” (She was only in her forties at the time, but is now 55). Her reaction? “I was just kicking myself to the curb and deciding they were right and I was wrong.  I then absorbed their view of me for a while, and it f***ed me right up. Took a while to get rid of that.”

This film seems to confirm that, despite a great number of accomplishments (she graduated from the University of California, Los Angeles, with a B.S. degree in computer science and digital media management and holds a pilot’s license) there may be a lot of Bateman’s own insecurities in this story about 31-year-old studio executive Violet who is trying to shepherd a pet film project through the studio despite a Neandrethal boss (Tom Gaines, as portrayed by Dennis Boutsikaras). Violet is quite insecure, but her story arc is going to have her overcome her crippling fear of doing things “wrong.”

The film has a jarring opening credit sequence, which I did not enjoy.  The use of Justin Theroux’s voice-over—the voice in her head—at all times and the cursive scrawl onscreen were experimental touches that worked, for me.  But this was about the third film in the SXSW day that revealed deep-seated issues with mother/daughter relationships or the expectations placed upon the lead characters by others.

In one memorable sequence, Violet is called and told that her mother has died unexpectedly of a heart attack. The writing onscreen (Violet’s interior dialogue) says, “I tried to make her love me. I tried so hard. So many times.” Violet makes a decision not to attend her mother’s funeral, but to stay and attend her boyfriend Red’s party, instead. While it may be okay to learn to say no, attending the funeral of a parent is probably not the place to start. There is an awkward conversation with Violet’s older brother after he protests about her no-showing, which ends with her saying “Never call me again.”

In a “Vanity Fair” interview, Justine Bateman shared this thought: “I think, generally, nowadays, people seek out fame and respect it, because they’re assuming a sort of state of being that will solve a lot of the things that they dislike in their lives.” I had just watched a horrifying documentary about women who left their countries to join ISIS and are now stuck in refugee camps in northern Syria. They were being used as human shields by ISIS, starving, living without water or enough food, and completely miserable.  Somehow the “inner voice” telling a privileged studio executive that she isn’t good enough doesn’t seem like such a Big Problem after that. I was reminded of Oprah’s advice to write messages of daily gratitude. Maybe a good place to start?

Olivia Munn (“The Newsroom,” “X-Men Apocalypse”) plays the lead role in “Violet.” She does a great job. It is easy to see her as a surrogate for Justine Bateman, post “Family Ties.” The male lead, Red, is played by Australian actor Luke Bracey (“Little Fires Everywhere”). Interesting to note that Bracey (born in 1989) is 9 years younger than Olivia Munn (1980). That was a pleasant reversal of the norm of male leads playing opposite much younger women.

Jerry O’Heir (Lenny in “Middle Man” and Jerry Gergich on “Parks & Recreation”) at the Chicago Film Festival.

I liked the film, but found the “woe-is-me” POV difficult to sympathize with when Violet is so much better off than 98% of the rest of the world. Perhaps it was slogging through the grueling story of women held captive in northeast Syria or the incredibly difficult health crises portrayed in another SXSW film that affected me in this way.  I was happy when Violet—after a sexist confrontation with her douchebag of a boss—tells him off and recognizes her own worth and immediately goes over to the much better job offered her by the head honcho at Phoenix Films (played by Chicago’s very own Jim O’Heir, who was Jerry on “Parks and Recreation” for many years).

So, in no particular order, I could relate to the theme of insecurity that we all sometimes fight within our heads. I enjoyed the performances and think that Justine Bateman showed a better “feeling” for what makes an interesting film than her counterpart Robin Wright (formerly Robin Wright Penn).

I thought the opening credit sequence was jarring,— and not in a good way.

I liked the music used (Vum). The cinematography by Mark Williams (“Lost in Translation,” “Any Given Sunday”) was good. Likewise, the editing by Jay Friedkin (“Ordinary People,” “Babe”) was fine, as was the acting by one and all.

This directorial debut by a female star was much more expert and enjoyable than Robin Wright’s “Land” earlier this festival season, which was a real snooze-fest.

In researching remarks by Justine Bateman from her book or a “Vanity Fair” interview, I found this one particularly timely:  “It isn’t enough to just work hard and be a good person or anything like that.  The American dream shifted over the years.  It’s now either to win the lottery, be famous, or make as much money as possible—and make sure everybody notices

“The Drover’s Wife: The Legend of Molly Johnson” at SXSW 2021 on Thursday, March 18th

 

This Australian project was written by Leah Purcell, based on her 2019 book and stage play. She portrays Australian drover’s wife Molly Johnson in the film, which was shot in New South Wales, Australia.

The film turns out to be a message movie campaigning for women in mid 19th century Australia (and the world) to be free of fear of abuse from their husbands. It is also a strong statement about racial acceptance, as we suffer through Molly’s marriage to a loutish brute of an unfaithful husband and her struggles to raise four children alone.

As the movie progresses, we learn that Molly, herself, might be the product of an inter-racial couple. Coming on the heels of the Oprah interview with Megan Markle, the discussion of mixed race children is timely, especially when there is a legal effort to take the children away from Molly, because they are “octaroons.” (Son Danny, age 12, overhearing the conversation, asks his mom what an “octaroon” is.

Molly is among the toughest women portrayed in any western— and this isn’t even a western, since it is Australian. She is a crack shot with a rifle and, in the course of the film, dispatches at least 5 people for various justifiable reasons. Will the law view it that way?

The vistas captured by cinematographer Mark Wareham are gorgeous, with shots of Molly riding across the landscape, rifle at her side, silhouetted against majestic snowy vistas. Months after the filming ceased in the Snowy-Monaro region, a brushfire raced through the Selwyn and Adaminaby areas in rural New South Wales destroying some of the buildings used as sets.

The acting throughout is good, although a less appealing heroine would be hard to find. Aside from her complete devotion to her four children, Molly is not a good-looking woman; it is hard to fathom her appeal to the Aborigine man whom she aids, as they rarely seem to have much interaction at all. It was hard to see why he would urge Molly to run away with him, given the  relatively sterile relationship portrayed see onscreen.

Molly’s early aid to the new lawman in town, Sergeant Klintoff (Sam Reid) and his London-born wife Louisa (Jessica De Gouw) early in the film inserts the theme of women’s rights to protest abusive treatment from spouses.  Louisa’s goal in life is to publish a newspaper for women. She says, “I was trying to give women a voice about an issue that’s been kept quiet for far too long.”

Despite Louisa’s articulation of the women’s rights theme, the end of the movie was a bit much. I won’t give away what Louisa and friends do to publicize this problem. Let’s just say that there’s a time and a place for everything; maybe their choice is neither the time nor the place.

Special acting kudos go to the young boy who plays 12-year-old Danny Johnson. He isn’t listed on IMDB.com, but the “Introducing Malachi Dover-Robbins” onscreen makes me think it is young Malachi who is tasked with reacting the many injustices piled upon Molly and, ultimately, is an essential player in saving the lives of all of Molly’s children. Malachi does a good job.  [I hope I’ve spelled his name correctly in trying to give credit where credit is due.]

I love Australian films. My daughter spent an entire year working and traveling in Australia—which means that I, too, ended up visiting Australia and New Zealand. Whenever I get the chance to take in an Australian film, I jump at the prospect. This one, while daunting in its bleakness, is a cinematic treat and a terrific achievement for its star/writer/director, Leah Purcell.

“Recovery,” the Comedy, Will Help You Recover Your Smile at SXSW Online

“Recovery,” a film written by Whitney Everton and Stephen Meek was my first film of Day #2 of SXSW Online Film Festival. Two sisters, Jamie (Whitney Call) and Blake (Mallory Everton) Jerikovic stage an across-the-country trip to rescue their Nanna from an old folks’ home during the pandemic.

It is one of the few—-perhaps only—films I’ve seen that completely embraces Covid-19 in its storyline. I don’t mean documentaries, of which I’ve seen several, but a feature film with Covid as a central storyline with the emphasis on the light side.

The traveling sisters (Whitney and Mallory) have actually been best friends since the age of nine in real life. The delightful home-made videos at the end confirms their easy familiarity. They are also sketch comedy veterans of “Comedy C” and do a wonderful job of embodying their characters and (for Mallory) in writing the screenplay.  Comedy is not easy to write. It needs to be as light and fluffy as a souffle. These two seem like the likely heirs apparent to Tina Fey and Amy Poehler.

When the film opens, Jamie (Whitney Call) is celebrating her 30th birthday. The coronavirus is not yet a thing. Jamie is a teacher of 4th graders. She is thinking about buying airline or hotel stock and investing in a pricey gym membership. Sister Blake (Mallory Everton) has just had a one-night stand with a cute guy named Scott; that is another topic of conversation. They are unaware that they are about to be frozen in time by the pandemic. In the background of the next few scenes we hear the disheartening news of 51,000 deaths on March 30 of 2020. (If nothing else, this film will be a great, but not depressing, time capsule.)

Upon learning of the ravages of coronavirus on  Nana’s nursing home, the pair, headquartered in New Mexico, at first are counting on their older married sister, Erin (Julia Jolley), who lives in Washington closer to Nanna, to ride to the rescue. Paulina Jerockova (Anna Swerd Hansen), their beloved Nana,  needs to be moved out of the nursing home as quickly as possible—a plot point that is  factual, as one-third of all deaths in the United States took place in the close quarters of nursing homes.

The husband of Whitney Call, Stephen Meek, helped write and direct this light-hearted film, and I recommend it for those who want to see the comedy stars of tomorrow.

Unfortunately, Erin (Julia Jolley) is off on a cruise with her husband. (“The tickets were so cheap,” to which the sisters in New Mexico respond, “Yes, because it’s a death trap!”)

There are so many funny things in this 80-minute film that I enjoyed, even if I did have to watch it at 10 a.m. after covering some late-night films.  I was relieved to discover that it wasn’t a grim documentary about surviving some horrible illness (since I had forgotten exactly what I signed up early for), but a light-hearted distraction that audiences perfect for our time.

First, there is a sub-plot about the fourth grade class pet mice. Before the duo rides off to rescue Nana, Jamie must make arrangements for the mice to be cared for by one of her students’ families. Student Jacob Harper promises to take care of the mice, Bert and Ernie. It turns out that Ernie should have been named Ernestine and gives birth to mice babies. This does not go over well with Mrs. (Ainsley) Harper, who threatens retaliation. This plays out as a cell phone conversation

There’s a funny bit about the girls really getting into their music while driving and pounding on their car horn as they tool down the Interstate. Next to them on the highway is an elderly man on a motorcycle. The girls roll their window down to explain their innocent exuberance. Thinking that they are honking AT him, the Hell’s Angel Senior spits through the open window of their car.  The panic over strange spit is merited and very funny.

There is the potential hottie “Scott,” of whom Blake says, “I seriously met him at the worst moment in history.” After sending Scott several funny (but meant to be endearing) memes, she gets a text from Scott’s roommate, saying Scott has died of Covid-19. Now THAT doesn’t sound “funny,” so….

Scott has simply panicked. He tried to think of a way out of responding appropriately to Blake’s memes. His idea of an “appropriate” response is, [after revealing that he is NOT dead], sending an inappropriate personal picture and then texting Blake to ask her for her Hulu password. (Someone calling himself “LibraryGuy” once sent me a totally unwelcome pic. Use your imagination on this one.)

The excuse for Scott’s inexplicable behavior? “He’s probably just stressed about Covid.” That, or he is incurably out-of-it, but the lengths to which Scott has gone do come off as funny in the expert comic hands of our two leads.

Then there’s Nana’s dog Bruce. The girls need to collect Bruce—who has been farmed out at at an acreage with a completely weird dog-sitter— along the way. Nanna has also been very fond of Fred, a fellow inmate in her nursing home. Fred has been making nightly visits to Nanna’s room. The girls are explicit about telling Nanna NOT to let Fred in, as he may have the coronavirus. The adventures retrieving Bruce and repelling Fred are enjoyable.

Blake and Jamie are trying desperately to be the first family members to reach Nanna’s nursing home before Erin,  the older sister from the cruise ship, arrives. That, too, presents some humor, which the girls explore to the fullest. [I could really relate to the cruise ship scenario, having just come back from a cruise to Alaska before all hell broke loose.]

There is  an interlude where Blake races off while divesting of the jumper shorts she is wearing. I don’t know what the accurate term for this fashion choice is, but, when pregnant, I called it my “Humpty suit.” It is largely shapeless, with straps, and very comfortable. Blake takes them off and throws them into a tree, declaring them to have been “too chafey.” You had to be there, but it just “works.”

I also really enjoyed the simple asides about how Nanna used to drive her car by using a mop handle on the accelerator. (I had a friend who used a brick, but nevermind. Really.) And then there’s the “go-to” strategy for distracting older sis Erin by asking her to share “the birth story.” [Every family has a similar story that will set one of its members off on a long stroll down memory lane.]

“Recovery” was genuinely funny and well done. I had forgotten exactly what this one was about. Stumbling out early in the day to view it after struggling through the drug overdose stories,  Isis captivity stories and  horrible illness films (most notably, multiple sclerosis), I was delighted to start my day with “Recovery.” Try it; you’ll like it.

“Recovery” will help us all to recover our good mood(s).

“Lily Topples the World:” Domino Art Reigns on Day One of SXSW Film Festival Online

My favorite film of the first day of SXSW Online Film Festival was “Lily Topples the World.” It is the story of Lily Hevesh, who posts her domino art under the name Hevesh5 on YouTube. At one point Lily shares that 100 dominos cost $10 and I wondered how much money she has tied up in the tools of her trade.

As the film opens Lily is entering Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute as a student—a somewhat famous one as the professors know who she is. (She later shares that she is probably going to drop out to pursue a career doing what she loves: domino art).

Her domino art—a pursuit since her days in elementary school—has attracted over 101 million views and her fans include actors Hugh Jackman, Will Smith and Jimmy Fallon. Will Smith used one of Lily’s creations in a film and Lily was hired to create one for Jimmy Fallon’s Tonight Show and, also, for Katie Perry.

Adopted in 1999 from China by a loving family in New Hampshire, Lily was an abandoned child, the result of China’s “one child” policy that saw parents sometimes, abandon female infants. There was no identifying information left with little Lily. The only thing that her loving parents noticed about the young girl was that she seemed to have a continuing fear of abandonment. Lily’s dad, Mark, co-produced the documentary and he and Lily are shown shopping for a toy company to help develop a Lily Hevesh brand of dominos for stores that Lily would promote to her many followers.

Lily herself says, “Dominos have helped me to become a better person. I’ve found myself because of dominoes.” Indeed, a small tribe of fellow domino geeks appear onscreen both setting up the art and chatting with Lily.

She has, indeed, found herself and—in the process of delighting in her childhood hobby has become the acknowledged master of domino art. Lily was hired to produce a large installation for the Jimmy Fallon Tonight Show and another promoting the lottery in Washington state.

The music used to accompany the triggering of Lily’s many projects is particularly appropriate. It is original music composed by Carly Comando of Deep Elm Records.

As the documentary ends, Lily has cut a deal with a toy-maker and her dominos are appearing on store shelves. It is a happy ending to a happy story.

SXSW (Online) Film Festival Kicks Off on March 16, 2021

The first offering of the day, for me, on the first day of SXSW Virtual Film Festival, was a documentary directed by Andrea Nevins entitled “Hysterical.” The documentary did a good job of giving kudos to nearly every famous (or less well-known) female comic in the business, but I wanted to hear more of their routines, which didn’t happen.

“The Oxy Kingpins” (SXSW Online Film Festival 2021).

The second film up was “The Oxy Kingpins,” which covered the reasons behind the opioid epidemic in America, explained through the eyes of Pensacola attorney Mike Papantonio, whose 15-member firm has been prosecuting the big pharmaceutical companies that facilitated the addiction of thousands of Americans. Chief among the pharmaceutical companies examined is the McKeeson Corporation headed by CEO John Hammergen, who makes $700 million annually in salary.

The entire strategy of the 3 largest pharmaceutical distribution companies—McKeeson, Cardinal and Amerisource—was to distribute drugs like oxycontin in rural areas that were areas of despair, like Mineral County with a population of 4,772 people, which was given 3,100,100 doses of oxycontin.

The film shows efforts to prosecute the drug companies in Nevada, which has a policy of unsealing documents that show guilt, as the e-mail correspondence within the McKeeson Corporation between Tracey Jonas and employees clearly did. The employees were told not use the word “suspicious” about large orders going to small towns. The film had real potential,but spent a bit too much time focusing on Papantonio, while not letting us hear from as many of the victims as would have been good.

“Demi Lovato: Dance with the Devil” (Credit: OBB Media @ the SXSW Online Film Festival 2021.)

The Aretha Franklin Genius documentary came next, but, when it turned out to be talking heads trying to promote the soon-to-be released documentary starring Cynthia Erivo as the Queen of Soul I chose to take in “Introducing, Selma Blair” instead.

Blair was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis in August of 2018 and this film takes us through her stem cell transplant at Northwestern in Chicago.  It’s pretty bleak, but not nearly as bad as the evening’s opening documentary, “Demi Lovato: Dancing with the Devil.”

As most will remember, Demi Lovato over-dosed on July 24, 2018, while smoking heroin laced with fentanyl. She suffered a heart attack, 3 strokes, brain damage (she cannot drive because she has visual blind spots), pneumonia and multiple organ failure. She also claims, in this documentary, that her drug dealer took advantage of her when she was under the influence of the near-fatal overdose.

“Lily Topples the World” was the most upbeat of all of the things I saw today, with the story of domino artist Lily Hevesh, who has been posting YouTube videos of elaborate domino installations since she was a small child and has now made it into an occupation. In fact, in one of the few bright spots of today’s viewing, by documentary’s end Lily has cut a deal with a toy company to endorse a “new improved” brand of domino that would sell in stores. If you want to see some of Lily’s elaborate designs, check Hevesh5 on YouTube.

Last film of the day was an eleven-minute short entitled “The Thing That Ate the Birds.” It was one of the best of the day, but this Irish investigation of possible alien life ended much too quickly for my tastes. I would have loved to have this short eleven-minute story spin out to become a feature length film, but, alas, it was not to be.

Lengthier reviews of individual films to follow.

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