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: Pop Culture Page 2 of 54

Any trends or popular fads may be described, whether it would be something like the hula hoop or the pet rock or simply new slang.

“The Beta Test” Amuses at 57th Chicago International Film Festival

Writer/Director/Actor Jim Cummings in “The Beta Test” at the 57th Chicago International Film Festival.

“The Beta Test” is both a slick satire and a confusing and muddled thriller. Writer/director/actor Jim Cummings  (“Thunder Road,” “The Wolf of Snow Hollow”) plays the lead, Jordan, and he makes Christian Bale’s slick Patrick Bateman of “American Psycho” seem chill. In a film that has great snarky dialogue, this line describing Jordan Hines stood out: “I’m someone who just cannot give a shit.”

Jordan and best buddy P.J. (co-star and co-director P.J. McCabe) portray Hollywood agents, and that says it all. Insincere. Phoney. Self-serving. Dishonest. All apply. The two do a great job laying out their concerns about a time in Hollywood when agents may be a dying breed and the career template is shifting under their feet like the San Andreas Fault. (“You are a dying social network, and everyone can’t wait for it to fall apart.”)

Lots of references to the WGA (Writers Guild Association), which has been locked in a contentious series of negotiations and lawsuits regarding how agents give writers the short end of the stick, so to speak, when representing conflicting parties for studio “packages.” The recent strike that was averted may be a win for Hollywood writers. It is worth noting that 7,000w WGA members fired their agents in a show of support for their legal side’s negotiating efforts. This is obviously something that Jim Cummings and P.J. McCabe know well, and I looked forward to what was to have been the in-person appearance of J.P. at the Chicago International Film Festival, but we got a piece of film and an apology for his absence, so no questions about that plot thread. Will the average movie fan know or care about “packaging” and the WGA?

The opening scene of a gratuitously violent murder gets our attention, but is only tangentially related to the rest of the plot.

Jordan Hine (Jim Cummings) is about to be married to Caroline (Virginia Newcomb), whose only task in life seems to be to plan her upcoming wedding. The fact that the two real-life buddies (P.J. McCabe and Jim Cummings), dreamed up this slick confection without much concern for getting a more realistic woman’s point-of-view is illustrated by Caroline’s part. (Made me glad that Daniel Craig insisted they bring Phoebe Waller-Bridge in to help write “No Time to Die.”)

Jordan receives a mysterious purple envelope with an invitation to a no-strings-attached last sexual fling in a fancy downtown hotel. Given his moral failings, he gives in to temptation.

Later, there will be hell to pay for this act of infidelity. And it seems that he’s not the only one.

The plot begins to become unwieldy and to unravel, as sex, blackmail, algorithms, and the Internet become increasingly involved.

Is all this clear? No? You can watch it for yourself soon to enjoy the witty banter at the outset and the clever performance of Jim Cummings as the protagonist.

“The Beta Test” opens November 5th.

World Premiere of “Punch 9 for Harold Washington” at CIFF

Mayor Harold Washington in PUNCH 9 FOR HAROLD WASHINGTON, photo credit Marc PoKempner. (Chicago International Film Festival).

The Chicago International Film Festival is concluding tomorrow night, Sunday, October 24th, with a screening of Will Smith’s new film “King Richard” at the Music Box Theater.

There are plenty of Chicago references in  documentaries screening at the festival, one of which, “Punch 9 for Harold Washington” had its World Premiere during the festival.

Joe Winston directed and produced the documentary “Push 9 for Harold Washington,” which took viewers on a stroll down Memory Lane, with an in-depth look at the first African American Mayor of Chicago, Harold Washington, describing how he prevailed in replacing Jane Byrne in that seat.

For me, seeing a very young Barack Obama in the background of one shot, watching Washington intently, spoke volumes about the impact this man and this election had on the trajectory of national politics. There is also a quick clip of Obama giving credit where credit is due, to Harold Washington, the eloquent candidate who stood up and said, “We’re not anti-anything. It’s our turn.” At another point, Washington says, “We are right. We are ready.”

Mayor Richard Daley, “the Boss,” reigned from 1955 to 1975. There is not a person who follows politics that doesn’t know about the Democratic National Convention fiasco in Chicago in 1968. Local cinematographer Haskell Wexler even made “Medium Cool” in the streets of our rioting city.

Things weren’t a whole lot quieter after Mayor Daley died on 12/20/1976. Jane Byrne would rise to power, and, in a city where 87% of the housing occupants are Black, she would appoint three white people to the housing board. Mayor Byrne moved into Cabrini Green housing projects in a ploy to woo back the defecting Black voters who helped install her in office and now felt she had not kept her promises, but that was a stunt that didn’t work.

On November 10, 1982, after much wheedling and convincing from the community, Harold Washington announced that he was running for Mayor. Before he made the announcement, he laid down conditions for his run, which included the Black community’s need to register 50,000 new voters and to build up a $100,000 war chest. As he said during a speech: “We have 670,000 Black registered voters. We need 450,000 to elect.”

Everyone seemed to climb on the Harold Washington bandwagon. He was inclusive in inviting Hispanic voters to join him in his fight. Everyone from Coretta Scott King to Rosa Parks and every celebrity in-between turned out to support Washington. Even the Michigan Boulevard Women’s Association (i.e., the prostitutes who worked Michigan Avenue) contributed.

During the campaign, blatant racism emerged. The candidate the Republicans selected was Bernard Epton and the race got dirty fast. As Washington, himself, said, “It’s tough being a black man in the land of the free and the home of the brave.” Even Vice-President Walter Mondale, who came to town to attend church alongside Washington, was stoned by an angry mob as the duo approached the doors. The Republican candidate’s son, Jeff Epton, tearfully asks of the camera, “What have you done, Dad?, bemoaning the racial epithets and outright hostility that Harold Washington’s candidacy evoked. Valerie Jarrett, former Obama aide,  points out that this undercurrent of racial animosity still exists and emerged on the national scene pre and post-Obama’s terms. This film, in the light of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement, is very timely and very prescient.

Things didn’t get any better when Washington attempted to rule over the City Council, leading to what were dubbed “the Council Wars.” Chicago was dubbed Beirut on the Lake. Challenged by the son of Richard Daley and former Mayor Jane Byrne, Washington would win the Democratic primary by 80,000 votes, racking up 36.7% of the vote to Byrne’s 33% and leaving the later Mayor Daley (Jr.) in third place.

It’s a well-done, exciting, upbeat documentary, with commentary from David Axelrod, Rahm Emmanuel, Jesse Jackson and brief appearances by many national and international figures, all of whom were watching what unfolded in the Windy City.

The death of Harold Washington November 25, 1987, from a massive coronary was a very sad day for the participants interviewed for this documentary. The musical selections near the end, “Been holdin’ on too long to let go” and “Some things take a lifetime” underscore the poignancy of this look at Chicago politics of the past, and of the future, as Mayor Lori Lightfoot speaks on April 2, 2019, as the first Black female mayor of Chicago. She encourages all of the city’s youth to set their sights high, because they, too, could grow up to be Mayor of Chicago.

 

Salaries for James Bond Films Through the Years

The pay has gone significantly up after each Bond movie.

Sean Connery
Dr. No : $17,000
From Russia With Love : $250,000
Goldfinger : $500,000
Thunderball : $750,000
You Only Live Twice : $750,000 + 25% of net marchandise profits = $1,000,000
Diamonds Are Forever : $1,200,000 + 12.5% of net US profits = $6,700,000

George Lazenby
On Her Majesty’s Secret Service : $80,500

Roger Moore
Live and Let Die : $1,000,000
The Man with the Golden Gun : $1,000,000
The Spy Who Loved Me : $1,000,000
Moonraker : $4,000,000
For Your Eyes Only : $3,000,000 + 5% of net US profits = $4,607,500
Octopussy : $4,000,000 + 5% of net US profits = $5,265,800
A View to a Kill : $5,000,000 + 5% of US gross = $7,515,000

Timothy Dalton
The Living Daylights : $3,000,000
Licence to Kill : $5,000,000

Pierce Brosnan
Golden Eye : $1,200,000
Tomorrow Never Dies : $8,200,000
The World Is Not Enough : $12,400,000
Die Another Day : $16,500,000
(Wanted salary for Bond 21 : $20,000,000)

Daniel Craig
Casino Royale : $3,220,000
Quantum of Solace : $7,245,000
Skyfall: $17,000,000 plus bonuses for certain box-office milestones
Spectre: $24,000,000 + endorsements

No Time to Die – $25,000,000

Interesting how low George Lazenby’s salary was for “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service:” Less than 10% of what Connery got for Diamonds Are Forever, even before Connery multiplied it over 5 times with his share of the U.S profits.

 Roger Moore was on 1 million for each of the first three movies and then his pay was multiplied 4 times for Moonraker. I’m guessing he was on a 3 movie deal and by the time they negotiated for his fourth film his popularity in the role was massive so he could command this. He commanded a share of the profits for each of his last three movies following “Moonraker.” Neither Dalton or Brosnan seemed to have an agent who could get that for them.

There are 3 films that are not part of the James Bond official canon, including the film that Connery agreed to do at age 53, “Never Say Never Again,” “Casino Royale” in 1967 and “Casino Royale” in 1954.

“No Time to Die” Is Worth the 18-Month Wait

Daniel Craig makes his final outing as Bond memorable. The log-line says: “James Bond has left active service.  His peace is short-lived when Felix Leiter (Jeffrey Wright), an old friend from the CIA, turns up asking for help, leading Bond onto the trail of a mysterious villain armed with dangerous new technology.” During a pandemic, a weapon that is a microscopic bio-rocket that can enter your bloodstream via the slightest contact with your skin is certainly timely. No wonder the studio pulled the $250 million-dollar film for 18 months. The ploy seems to have worked, as it grossed $56 million in 4,407 North American theaters this past weekend and was the fourth-best opening in the 25-film series history.

I’m not a particularly avid Bond fan—(although I am the target demographic, as the audience is primarily older)—but I really liked almost everything about this Bond epic. The cinematography and score (Hans Zimmer), including a Billie Eilish song that opens the film, are Top-Notch.

ACTING

Daniel Craig is great as Bond. He really seems to be doing all the fighting in the many fight sequences. The stunts are spectacular and, again, special mention should be made of the contribution to the mood and tone from Hans Zimmer’s score. Of course, there is also the Billie Eilish song at the beginning of the film, which will, no doubt, be remembered come Oscar-time.

The female lead, Lea Seydoux, while not as glamorous in appearance as previous “Bond girls,” was a good actress.

Lashana Lynch as a Black female 007 could have been omitted to shorten the film, and Ana De Armas’ appearance seemed sort of gratuitous, to me. If you added up the screentime of these two and remove them from the 2 hour and 43 minute run-time, the film would come down closer to what it should have been. This is a movie that should be seen on a big screen, as the cinematography in Norway and England and Jamaica and elsewhere is breathtaking, but the long run-time and other factors may well cause otherwise dedicated theater-goers to stream it at home when it is available. More’s the pity.

Rami Malek is weak as the villain and Christoph Waltz’s Hannibal-Lecter-like appearance was simply weird, but the main love story between Bond and the Bond girl makes up for a lot.

WRITING

Writers never get the credit they deserve. This film’s script is credited to Neil Purvis, Robert Wade, Director Cary  Joji Fukunaga and Phoebe Waller-Bridge (“Fleabag”). Here are some memorable lines:

(1) “There’s something I need to tell you.” (Lea Seydoux)

“I’ll bet there is.” (Daniel Craig)

(2)  “We all have our secrets. We just didn’t get to yours yet.” (Daniel Craig)

(3)  “Seems intelligence isn’t central any more” (re the blonde aide, Ashe, of Felix Leighter’s)

(4)  “I gave up trusting pretty faces a long time ago.” (Daniel Craig)

(5)  “You seem like a man who only has time to kill—nothing to live for.” (of Bond)

(6)  (Felix Leighter after being shot by Ashe)  “I don’t know about you, but I’ve got a feeling in my gut that Ashe may not be on our side.”

(7)  (Bond to “M”)  “Either the desk is getting bigger or you’re getting smaller.” (Followed by “Definitely not the desk.”)

(8)  “I wanted to give you an empty world like the one you gave me.” (Rami Malek to Daniel Craig)

(9)  “I wanted everything with you.  I have loved you, and I will love you, and I do not regret a single moment of my life except putting you on that train.” (Bond to Madeleine).

(10)  “Life is all about leaving something behind.  We want to be told how to live and then die when we are not looking.  We are built for oblivion.” (Bond)

(11)  “We both eradicate people to make the world a better place.” (Rami Malek to Daniel Craig as Bond.)

(12)  “I just showed someone your watch.  It really blew their mind.” (Bond about the Cyclops device)

(13)  “We are two heroes in a tragedy of our own making.” (Bond to Madeleine)

(14)  “You made me do this.  This was your choice.” (Rami Malek to Bond)

(15)  “Our function is to live, not to exist.  I shall not waste my days trying to prolong them. I shall use my time.” (Bond)

 

As of Sunday, global grosses for “No Time to Die” were estimated to be over $313.3 million. The film cost $250 million to make and another $100 milliion to advertise, but it is on target. Said Head of Distribution for United Artists Releasing Erik Lomis, “It’s right where we thought it would be and right where tracking predicted it would be.”

One factor in the improvement at the box office is that 25% of movie-goers returned to theaters for the first time in 18 months this past weekend. Many audiences erupted in spontaneous applause at the end of the film; it’s definitely a crowd-pleaser.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“The Many Saints of Newark” Strolls Down “Sopranos” Memory Lane

“The Many Saints of Newark” is a prequel to the well-loved television series “The Sopranos.” We could justifiably expect to learn all about the early years that shaped young Anthony Soprano, played in his youth by Michael Gandolfini, the son of James Gandolfini. The elementary-school-aged Tony is played by William Ludwig, who is also good in the role.

The Big Come-on in this David Chase-directed drama is that the biological son of James Gandolfini—Michael Gandolfini—-a young actor with 10 professional credits who played Joey Dwyer on “The Deuce” in 2017—is going to provide the Gandolfini vibe, in the same way that Liza Minelli’s channeled her mother, Judy Garland.

There is a resemblance in Gandolfini’s eyes, although they are far from “dead ringers” for each other, as Cindy Crawford’s daughter Kaia Gerber is for her famous model Mom in the new “American Horror Story” series.

Writer/Director David Chase has commented on the Gandolfini eyes:  [on James Gandolfini as Tony Soprano] “His (Gandolfini’s) eyes are very expressive. There’s something about him that’s very caring, which you see in him no matter what he’s doing. There’s a sadness there. As cynical, bullying, vulgar and overbearing as he could be, there’s still a little boy in there. He did a lot of mean things, and he enjoyed vengeance, but he didn’t seem mean. Somewhere he believed that people are good. There were some roads he was not going to go down, because there was no coming back.”

So we were all drawn to this prequel to “The Sopranos” to see if the Gandolfini “eyes” have it. They do, but we don’t get to see as much of young Tony Soprano’s eyes as we do of the other stock characters that we remember from the television series. And some of them—since Silvio and Big Pussy and the boys are played by other actors here—are not that recognizable. Nancy Marchand, who played Livia Soprano, has now shuffled off to that theater in the sky and has been replaced here by Vera Farmiga, who does a great job as the reincarnation of David Chase’s real mother, Norma, whom he described as “abusive.”

Chase has been mining his family pain for years (he is now 76) and is described as so depressed when in college that he had panic attacks and slept 18 hours a day. I remember him onstage in Chicago shilling for the only film he has directed in the past decade since “The Sopranos,” “Not Fade Away” (which did fade away). He would have been voted the person you would least like to be trapped in an elevator with. He was withdrawn, taciturn and spoke very little. His nickname is  Cylinder Machine.

In 2012, David Chase (real surname DeCesare) directed a movie, “Not Fade Away,” set in the sixties about a young boy who wants to be in a successful rock band. This, too, is autobiographical from Chase’s youth in the sixties, when he really did want to play drums and bass in a rock band. His parents were not supportive of that career choice, nor of his desire to make movies.  His success came about writing for television for “The Rockford Files” in the early seventies. It was his real-life therapy that he wove into Tony Soprano’s story on “The Sopranos.” The huge success of the series surprised many people, including Chase.

Chase has a fairly low opinion of television and Hollywood, historically, seems to have had a fairly low opinion of him. As he has said, “I wrote many, many, many a script and they never got made. I could not get arrested, as they say. Nothing started to click movie-wise for me. All the scripts were either too dark or too this or that. Their appetite for me didn’t get whetted until The Sopranos (1999), and once they see you are someone who can make a billion dollars, they let you do anything. That’s all it comes down to.”

Since “The Sopranos” went off the air, Chase has made just one feature film (“Not Fade Away,” 2012) and created one additional television series (“Altindagli,”2013). Now he has returned to television with this star-studded vehicle, with voice-over by Michael Imperioli, who portrayed Christopher Moltisanti on “The Sopranos” series. (“Moltisanti” translates to “many saints” and explains the title of the film.)

This time out, Chase is the producer. The writer is Lawrence Konner, based on Chase’s “Sopranos” characters. The directing is by “Game of Thrones” alumnus Alan Taylor. I enjoyed the stroll down memory lane, although the disjointed plot with emphasis on everyone except Tony drove many of my friends into critical carping territory. It was a fairly entertaining, if non-linear, look into the past.

 

 

Todd Haynes “Velvet Underground” Documentary Hits Festival Circuit

 

Velvet Underground

Todd Haynes, USA, 110 min.

Thursday, October 14, 7PM Premiere (AFS). Streaming on Apple+ on October 15th. (Also showing at Chicago International Film Festival).

 

“Austin Film Society will present a Doc Days Opening Night presentation of Todd Haynes’ The Velvet Underground: a look at the cultural, social, musical, artistic and cinematic forces that created one of the world’s most enduring bands. Far from your typical rock documentary, Haynes goes deep into the source inspiration of the sounds The Velvets would be known for, while tracking and connecting the band’s rise with and through New York’s independent and experimental film scene.

Haynes weaves a cinematic portrait of a band that was essentially birthed and defined through cinematic ideas and images, using footage from the films of Andy Warhol, Jonas Mekas, Maya Deren, Kenneth Anger, and Shirley Clarke, among others; and interviews past and present with those who experienced the brief reign of The Velvet Underground.”

According to Wikipedia, “Rolling Stones” named the “most influential bands of the Sixties” and the bands ranked first, second and third were the Beatles, James Brown and the Famous Flames, and the Velvet Underground.

As a sixties music afficionado, I was “in” to music, especially music from my own sixties generation. I subscribe to “Rolling Stone” and brought back a British record release of “Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” in 1967, carried home from my time as an exchange student abroad. (The record was slightly different from the U.S. release.)

In England and Europe I took in James Brown and the Famous Flames in Paris and bought the U.K. version of the Beatles seminal “Sergeant Pepper” record breakthrough. When in England I attended a concert at the Savoy Hotel, a posh hotel in Birmingham, with a light show, at which an unknown band that had no record contract (yet) appeared. That band was Pink Floyd.

 

So, how did I miss out on being a fan of the Velvet Underground in their hey-day?

 

Now that I’ve seen Todd Haynes compilation of old photos and interviews with original members of the group and heard some of the songs, I think I know why I didn’t jump on the Velvet Underground bandwagon at the time. They were hugely experimental and are credited with giving birth to the punk movement and the New Wave movement many years later. With Welsh band member John Cale (who is interviewed prominently in the documentary) playing the viola and supposedly obsessed with sounds that are droning noises (like a refrigerator humming), that doesn’t sound much like the Beatles or James Brown, does it? It didn’t, to me. Then or now. To show how film was supposed to have merged with music (years before it did), some YouTube links like Nico’s singing with Warhol’s art in the background, should perhaps be included in this documentary. I’ve given you a couple video links.

 

I did not become very aware of the Velvet Underground until David Letterman featured Lou Reed on his Late Night talk show many years later. Since Lou Reed has been dead since 2013, these appearances must have happened 9 or 10 years ago, but I remember that Reed was always held forth by Letterman as the King of Cool, sitting in with Paul Schaffer and the Late Night Orchestra.Lou Reed was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame not once, but two times, once as a member of the Velvet Underground and once for his own music, which continued for many years after the break-up of the group. His big hit was “Walk on the Wild Side.”

 

In fact, as one learns from reading up on the Velvet Underground (but not really from this documentary), the parting of the ways for this band came about when Reed felt that Cale had to go. And the primary reason Lou Reed felt that John Cale needed to go in one direction while Lou Reed went in another was that Cale, an odd bird from the first (a weirdly-coiffed intellectual Welsh guy who played the viola), was taking their music in a fairly eccentric and probably unmarketable experimental direction. Lou Reed had already had a job turning out 99 cent songs for Pickwick Records and he knew how to craft a tune that didn’t sound like the drone of a refrigerator. He also wanted to become a well-known star; he needed to do that on his own.

 

“Walk on the Wild Side” was written by Reed for use in the film version of Nelson Algren’s book of the same name. That book and that movie have a special place in my heart, because I sat across from Nelson Algren at the Englert Theater in Iowa City (Iowa) watching Nelson Algren watch the Jane Fonda/Laurence Harvey movie version of his work. I was glued to watching the author watch his book be interpreted onscreen by Hollywood. The song played over the film credits, if I remember correctly, and it had a haunting, beatnik vibe, as, indeed, Lou Reed represented throughout his life and work.

 

The other tune of Reed’s that broke through my consciousness was the song chosen for the movie “Juno” called Sticking with You,” which I remember thinking was a good choice for the theme of the unwed pregnant teenager who decides to stick with the young man (Michael Cera) who impregnated her, who was her best friend, if not technically her “boyfriend.” In keeping with the entire tone of the Velvet Underground and its pushing of boundaries, it seems somehow fitting that the female lead of “Juno,” Ellen Page is now Elliot Page. Here is a version of the song from that movie, sung by the Moldy Peaches:

 

 I had to read up on Lou Reed to be able to interpret and fully understand this Velvet Underground film tribute.

 

I learned that Reed took listeners of his songs on unsettling journeys that detailed his drug use or the electro-shock therapy that his parents put him through. Reed always said he thought his parents made him undergo the shocking (no pun intended) therapy to “cure” him of what might have been his homosexuality. One source says he lived with a trans-sexual individual for three years, but he was also married three times, so I’m not sure if the homosexuality was a correct diagnosis—maybe pan-sexual?— but he was definitely a drug addict and an alcoholic for much of his life and wrote about it in songs like “Heroin.”

 

There was a story told of a falling out between Reed and one of his biggest supporters, David Bowie, who told Reed he was going to have to straighten himself out. Lou had gone on a tour of England and was so strung out that he never took the stage, causing the promoters to hire Ike & Tina Turner to fill his spot. There was talk of Reed, himself, finally deciding to quit using drugs in about 1979. He had contracted hepatitis early in the years of his intravenous drug use and he died shortly after a liver transplant in 2013, living less than 6 months after that treatment.

 

But if Lou Reed—the band’s lead vocalist and its most successful member—is gone, we have John Cale telling us of the years when Andy Warhol was the band’s manager (1966) and pictures from Andy’s work would be projected onto the stage behind the band. Warhol had decided the Velvet Underground would be the Factory’s “house band.” The band toured wearing dark sunglasses because there were so many things happening onstage at times, including impromptu composing of songs  in a sort of improvisational music fashion, and so much happening with lights, etc.. that the sunglasses were to help the band.

 

The female drummer of the Velvet Underground, Maureen “Mo” Tucker, didn’t like cymbals and stood up to play drums in a sort of tom-tom fashion. She is also featured on the documentary talking about her time with the band. Angus MacLise was the drummer and then Moe Tucker in 1965. The band reunited in 1993 and for their 1996 induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, but were primarily done as an entity by 1970.

 

Various voices tell us that they had to change their name a lot “because we were bad” and that “With Lou we were going to blaze a trail, which we eventually did.” One woman even gives an impromptu dance of “The Ostrich,” which Reed wrote as a satire on the ridiculous dance tunes of the day, like the Monkey.

 

Reed, himself, was described as insecure and angry. Shelley Corwin said he was “angry at people for rejecting him,” which seemed odd, since he was always seen as Mr. Cool and managed to keep a career going even after associates like Tony Conrad tell us, in the documentary, “Lou was always falling down, was sick, and had to be raced to the hospital numerous times.”

 

A large part of the documentary shows how Andy Warhol’s P.R. “juice” would have helped them to succeed, and Andy decided that Nico—a gorgeous blonde—would sing. She couldn’t really sing all that well, so it was short-lived, but she was certainly very pretty and would draw a crowd. (She had a bit part in “La Dolce Vita” as one of the girls behind Anita Eckberg in that Italian film.)

 

Talking heads like Jackson Browne and John Waters pass judgment on the Velvet Underground and Lou is quoted as saying, of Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl,” “That’s what I wanted to do, except with a drum and a guitar.”

 

I was at a poetry reading at Berkeley once where Allen Ginsberg came out, sat on the floor with finger cymbals, and mumbled incoherently. He was so stoned that they finally had to go get the janitor to physically carry him off-stage. And th-th-th-that’s entertainment, Folks! Reminds me of the slogan, “A mind is a terrible thing to waste.” Ginsberg’s was being wasted that night in the summer of 1965, and Lou Reed’s talent was wasted for many years until he decided to depart from the Velvet Underground and clean up his personal act.  They never “shocked the gayness out of him,” but whatever measure of gayness he possessed seems to have been mixed with a fair amount of heterosexuality, as well. [Remember: in those days, you could get 20 years in prison for being gay. It was not embraced by society.]

 

I enjoyed the old clips of Bo Diddly and Mick Jagger, the pictures or film of Andy Warhol and his coterie of avant garde followers.

 

I was less impressed by drummer Maureen Tucker or the viola-playing John Cale, original members of the band.

 

I enjoyed reading the story of a band member (Angus MacLise?) who never showed up on time for practices and/or appearances. Once, he showed up half an hour late for a performance, so, after everyone else had quit playing, he stayed onstage and played solo for half an hour to make up for his lateness.

 

Obviously, these disparate personalities—Reed’s included—were quirky and different and, yes, creative.  All contributed to the assessment that the Velvet Underground, as Todd Haynes’ documentary testifies, was “One of the most influential bands in rock, underground, experimental and alternative music.”

 

I was hopelessly square (apparently) and from Iowa and preferred the Beatles (seen “live” at the San Francisco Cow Palace in 1965) and James Brown and the Famous Flames (seen “live” in Paris in 1967) and seem to have learned what little I knew about Lou Reed and friends from David Letterman and from research done for this documentary.

 

If you’re a big Velvet Underground fan you’re going to probably be older than I am old, which, since I’ve been reviewing non-stop since 1970, means you are not “young.” To follow John Cale’s “Velvet Underground” you had to like often discordant sounds presented as “music,” but, hey! To each his (or her) own. You’ll love this slice of sixties Americana if you were “in” to the Velvet Underground’s music way back when. It’s easy to see the genesis of Bob Dylan, MTV, music videos and so many other staples of today’s music scene.

 How many Velvet Underground fans remain in 2021? Judging from the rave reviews at Cannes (and elsewhere), more than you’d think.

“Reminiscence:” Hugh Jackman Visits the Past

 

The budget for Hugh Jackman’s new film “Reminiscence” was $68 million. For this, you get a peek at Miami “after the flood” caused by global warming. This is a futuristic world in which a machine designed, originally, to interrogate prisoners via their dreams, is now used in the post-war society as a way to take a stroll down memory lane.

A private investigator of the mind (Hugh Jackman as Nick Bannister), assisted by his former partner in the military (Thandiwe Newton as Emily “Watts” Sanders), helps clients take a stroll back through time in a world where “nostalgia never goes out of style” and “the past is addictive.” One wonders how Nick Bannister (Jackman) cannot see that his kick-ass female partner would/should/could have been his perfect romantic partner, but nevermind about that potential plot point.

Various customers come and go in the converted bank building that Nick and Emily use as their dream-trip headquarters. Each individual that  gets in the tank, has electrodes attached to his/her head, and receives a shot in the neck, helping him or her to revisit the past. Each time traveler becomes a part of the plot puzzle, a plot that is tremendously complicated and is, perhaps, weakened by so many threads that must come together to form the complete story.

The set for sunken Miami was built in New Orleans in an abandoned theme park. It is impressive. Director Lisa Joy said that walking on the set for the first time was one of her biggest thrills. The sets were fantastic; it is not surprising to learn that Lisa Joy (the director in this, her film dbut) worked on “West World.”

THE GOOD:  CINEMATOGRAPHY

The holographic images used for the dream sequences were fantastic, created by Cinematographer Paul Cameron who said, “It needed a certain holographic reality, so the challenge, for me, was to create this illusion for the memories live on set.” Cameron, who had worked with Director Lisa Joy on “West World,” used halo gauze material, a projection system, and a curved screen. The thin mesh was stretched in the shape of a half cylinder and three 20K projectors mapped on the circular screen, including a Sony Venice 4K camera using TODD AO 2X anamorphic lenses for soft vintage-looking rear projection.

The cinematographer can take a huge bow. As he explained, “You’re laser projecting onto this fabric that has been stretched into this curved shape that’s a little out of focus.” Said Cameron, “It’s a layer within a layer and so that becomes the syntax of the film. It gets very tricky with Jackman and Ferguson, popping in and out of memory, especially when he even steps into hers for the most surreal moment.”

Let’s talk for a moment about that “most surreal moment.” Even made-up worlds usually have rules about how that world works. I commented to my companion that it didn’t seem “right” that Jackman’s character could simply step into a dream sequence that is being replayed, when it  was originally a scene between Rebecca Ferguson’s lead female character Mae and the crooked cop Cyrus Boothe (Cliff Curtis). Some of the “rules” of this future world are spelled out for us. For instance, we know that when a subject is in the tank, if they are asked to summon a memory that they don’t have, they have a fit, like a small child watching a video game who might fall to the floor and have a seizure. I wanted to know the “rules” for one character stepping into the memories of another on replay of the other character’s dream.  I still enjoyed the “step into my dream” sequence, but I wondered if it was really “allowed” in Lisa Joy’s Future World.

Besides the Cinematographer’s revolutionary achievements, the sunken world created by the special effects and set people were truly outstanding. Some have mentioned “Inception” as a similar film, and that is not surprising, considering that Jonathan Nolan (a producer on this film and husband of the director) is Christopher Nolan’s brother.

Other films mentioned that have the same futuristic look are “Blade Runner,” “Inception,” “Minority Report,” “Strange Days,” “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” “Vanilla Sky,” “Total Recall,” “Déjà Vu” and, of course, television’s “West World,” the previous work experience of the director) The noir attitude, lighting and theme are comparable to “Chinatown” and “L.A. Confidential.” Visually, this film is their equal. In terms of the smooth intersection of the many plot strands, the acting, and the overall impression, it is not up to the standards of most of those I have listed, but it is enjoyable and certainly very ambitious in scope.

There were some totally original scenes, such as Jackman’s rescue from a tank full of electric eels and the near death-by-piano of the corrupt cop Cyrus Boothe, played by Cliff Curtis.

I found Hugh Jackman’s acting, as a man obsessed with finding Mae, the object of his affections, believable and on target. He’s definitely got the hypnotic vocal quality to lead passengers through time down the rabbit hole. I did wonder why, in every scene, whether or not Hugh Jackman had just taken part in a fight scene, he was slightly limping (his right leg seemed injured.)

THE BAD

I wasn’t as solidly onboard with the casting of Rebecca Ferguson, the Swedish and British actress who starred opposite Tom Cruise in “Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation” (and is set to star in the next “Mission Impossible” film) opposite Hugh Jackman.  Even though Ferguson previously appeared in “The Greatest Showman” with Jackman, portraying Jenny Lind, as a romantic duo they don’t have “heat.”

It’s hard to define this onscreen quality, but when the pairing onscreen has it and it works, you know it. When it doesn’t, you may find yourself saying, “What does he see in her?” or “What does she see in him?” Taylor and Burton onscreen (and off) had “heat.” Sigourney Weaver and Mel Gibson had it Big Time in “The Year of Living Dangerously” (1982) and so did Richard Gere and Kim Basinger in 1986’s “No Mercy.” If you want a more recent example, the recently canceled television series “Bad Girls” with Christina Hendricks as Beth and Manny Manolo as Rio provided sexual frisson whenever the two were onscreen together, although it is rumored that they didn’t really like each other in real life.

Prior to her lead in “Mission Impossible,” the 39-year-old Ferguson had smaller parts in “Florence Foster Jenkins” (2016) and “The Girl on the Train” (2016), but, for me, she was curiously unconvincing here as a femme fatale who instantly mesmerizes at least four of the male characters while singing in seedy nightclubs. The song “Where or When” is integral to the plot. We hear Ferguson singing it. Her singing is so-so, which I’ve also said about the singing in another recent offering, “Annette,” but not about the singing of Jennifer Hudson in “Respect.” Ferguson is distant, not involved emotionally, and could have been replaced by any attractive female leading lady. (SPOILER) When she ingested some mysterious drug and jumped off a building, I didn’t mourn her passing even for a moment.

 It was hard for me to understand how Ferguson could so reliably captivate so many men so quickly. I remember a display at the Field Museum concerning the real Cleopatra and how captivating she was to so many of her powerful male contemporaries, although her death mask showed her to be just average in appearance.

Rebecca Ferguson, for me, was part of the reason the film as a whole did not “work.” She is an oddly inert presence throughout.  She doesn’t engage us. She is remote. Detached.  Is it because Ferguson’s character (Mae) in the script is ambivalent, presented as both bad and good? For much of the film we are convinced she is a scheming manipulator. However, from Jackman’s POV, she is his angelic dream girl. It takes the entire film to sort truth from fiction.

Because both depictions of Mae are out there until the very end of the film, it is hard to root for her or against her. I noticed that she wore extremely high fashion dresses in most of her scenes. The high fashion gowns had midriff cut-outs and were used in blue, red, gold and every other color. Yet her apartment has no electricity when she first takes Jackman there after her duties as a chanteuse. [This caused me to jot down “Quite the wardrobe for someone with no money for electricity!”]

THE SCREENPLAY

Many have expressed their unhappiness with the script. It was on the Black List, as it is called, for some time, which is a list of the best scripts out there that have not yet been made into films. Personally, I liked the script, but I agree that it isn’t how “real” people talk.

I also found the water scenes (Jackman almost being drowned in an aquarium tan full of electric eels; Cliff Curtis’ character almost experiencing “death by piano” underwater) to be original, inventive, creative and well-executed.

But what about the actual words the characters speak?

Here are some lines from the script. Decide for yourself if these are good or bad:

“The past can haunt a man.”

“Just a series of moments, each one perfect. A bead on the necklace of time.”

“It’s us who haunt the past.”

“Late is a construct of linear time.  We don’t deal in that.”

“Time is no longer a one-way stream.”

“Nostalgia has become a way of life.”

“The past is addictive.”

“You can’t remember something that never made an impression.”

“We’re all haunted by something.”

“The city simmers with unrest.”

“Memories are like perfume: better in small doses.”

“People don’t just vanish.”

“There is no such thing as a happy ending.”

“To find where she’d gone, I had to know where she’d been.”

“You’ve been had and you don’t even know why.”

“Stay here in this life. Stay here with me.”

“The barons stay alive by drowning everyone else.  Only the rich mold the world to their delusions.”

“When you’re young, you think the future will play out like dominoes.  You have no idea the things that are lined up.”

“Nothing’s an accident with Mae.”

“When the waves came they washed away our lives.”

“You’re an empty man looking for a woman to blame.”

“The truth is not gonna’ set you free.  It’s gonna’ damn you.”

“I was so stupid to think that falling in love could save me.”

“Love is the thing we cling to.”

“Missing people is a part of the world.”

VERDICT:

Look back at the films listed that this one emulates. If you liked those, you’ll probably like this one—perhaps not as much as those, but it’s definitely cut from the same bolt of cloth.

 

 

 

 

Van Gogh Immersive in Chicago Is Mesmerizing

Van Gogh.

The Van Gogh Immersive Exhibit in Chicago is now touring various cities in the U.S.

I tried to get tickets for the showing in Chicago for my July 23rd birthday, but the soonest I could get us in was August 17th. The price for 2 tickets with a “flex” schedule option was about $131.00.

This allowed us to show up at 3 p.m. or slightly before or after and stay pretty much as long as we wished, although the actual program itself seemed to run about 35 to 45 minutes.

First, be advised that there are a lot of steps to gain entrance to the building. This would not be a good exhibit (in Chicago, anyway) if you have difficulty climbing stairs.

They route you through the gift shop and there were many very nice things in the gift shop. They were priced as high as you would expect. A reproduction of a Van Gogh painting on a silk scarf ended up costing $83.

You are handed a cushion and the seating is primarily benches scattered throughout the building. It is much like drifting through a regular museum with the occasional seating in front of a painting. There were also some folding chairs with backs that one could retrieve from along the walls, which turned out to be a nice relief after being seated for quite a while with no back on the benches.

Van Gogh on floors and walls in Chicago.

We entered when the program, which is paired with music, was about 20 minutes from being over. We stayed through a brief intermission and then watched the entire program from the beginning. I would say that we were there roughly an hour, from start to finish.

Van Gogh Immersive Exhibit

Van Gogh Immersive Exhibit

Van Gogh.

Jennifer Hudson as Aretha Franklin in “RESPECT”

The first cut of “Respect,” Jennifer Hudson’s starring role as Aretha Franklin, ran 5 and ½ hours. The final cut runs 2 hours and 25 minutes. Both of those times for this movie are too long.

It was nice that a female director and screenwriter were involved in the project, but Director Liesl Tommy is only known for “Jessica Jones” (2015) and “The Walking Dead” (2010). At the risk of being  snarky, this film has about as much energy as “The Walking Dead.” It drags to the point that even Jennifer Hudson’s undeniable vocal talent cannot sustain interest in this overlong bio-pic.

Broadway theater director Liesl Tommy is working from a script by screenwriter Tracey Scott Wilson (Producer of “The Americans” in 2013). Forest Whitaker plays Aretha’s domineering father.Mary Jane Blige has a role playing Dinah Washington and Marc Maron (“G.L.O.W.”) plays Jerry Wexler. Skye Dakota Turner plays Aretha as a child and is very good. These competent actors do as well as they can with a script and a film that is simply a showcase for Hudson singing Franklin’s hits, one by one. For that, you can simply play her records/CDs. This is a bio-pic that is supposed to be telling us about Aretha Franklin’s life, but  one which glosses over many essential threads of the Queen of Soul.

There is an allusion to a childhood marked by sexual abuse, with Aretha giving birth to the first of four children at age 12 in 1955 and a second child at age 14 in 1957. Who was the father of child #1 and child #2? Franklin did not like to talk about her children during interviews and various answers as to who sired child #1 exist (one possible father was named in a handwritten will found after Aretha’ death and was the man who became her first husband, but other potential fathers were mentioned.)

Since the first two children were essentially products of rape, statutory or outright, Aretha’s reluctance to talk about those offspring is understandable. Marlon Wayans gets the role of the man who enters Aretha’s childhood bedroom when she is very young and molests her. Later, in the film’s version, Edward Jordan (Marlon’s character) and Aretha marry and he becomes the father of her second child, born when Aretha is 14.

But the children are barely seen. “Who is raising these four children?” Yes, we can look this up elsewhere, but even there the answers make it sound like a floating support network of random friends and family raised Aretha Franklin’s four sons.

Likewise, in looking up information about her mother, who divorced Clarence Franklin because of his numerous infidelities, we learn that she died of a heart attack before Aretha’s 10th birthday. Yet, in the film, Aretha is shown as a young woman of at least twenty preparing a meal for friends and bragging about how good her cooking is when the phone rings and word comes of the death of her mom. The movie doesn’t even have the news being given directly to Aretha, but to whomever answered the phone. There is no clear cause of death passed on to Aretha by the answerer, nor to us, the audience. We can find out (by looking it up) that she died of a heart attack, but shouldn’t a bio-pic mention what killed the subject’s mom? And shouldn’t it have been more accurate concerning how old or young Aretha was when her mom died?

Aretha was born in Memphis, Tennessee.  Here is the house that is said to be her birthplace.

Aretha Franklin’s birth place in Memphis.

In watching the film and watching the celebrities who are said to have dropped by Aretha’s childhood home (and are pictured there during a Saturday night party), the home certainly must have been one that followed the Franklins’ move to New York (and, later, Encino, California and Bloomington Hills outside Detroit.) Aretha’s father, Clarence, did do well as a fellow preacher and contemporary of Martin Luther King. He was known as “the man with the Million Dollar Voice.” But the Memphis house pictured is a far cry from the comfortable old house depicted in the movie.

In an interview in the Chicago “Tribune” Hudson said, of her female director, “I love that Liesl was brave enough to allow things to breathe.” She remarked on how the actors chosen to play their roles were also musicians.

I don’t know what Hudson meant by “allowed it to breathe” but the inaccuracies (like when Aretha’s mother died) and the failure to address such things as “Who’s minding Aretha’s kids?” or “Who shot Clarence, Sr.., and why?” are not small lapses of judgment or tiny inconsequential matters in Aretha Franklin’s life.

Losing your mother at age ten is traumatic. We could make a guess that Aretha’s becoming a mother, herself, just two years later could be a consequence of such early loss. Her father—-“the man with the million-dollar voice”—-died of his wounds (shot during a break-in at the house) in 1984, when Aretha was 42. The phone call that came to Aretha to tell her about her mother’s death, looks almost like the director got confused about which parent died when. (The woman setting the table when that unsettling news reaches her looked closer to 42 than 10.)

There are allusions in the film to Aretha and her preacher father traveling together, with him preaching and her singing, but we never see any of that early beginning outside of his church. The entire flow of the screenplay, based on a Callie Khouri story, lurches along like that.

Aretha wanted Jennifer Hudson to play her in a bio-pic;  they began meeting right after “Dreamgirls,” so it has been 15 years of waiting for Jennifer, a Chicago girl, to get to play the Queen of Soul.

We waited so long for so little.

“For MadMen Only:” Crash Course in Comedy Legend Del Close

 

Patton Oswalt in “For Madmen Only”

The name Del Close is not one most of us associate with the pre-eminent comedians of the past twenty-five years, but we should.

In the documentary “For Madmen Only” from Heather Ross, narrated by Michaela Watkins we learn about this guru of comedy who helped discover and ultimately shape such talents as Bill Murray and Chris Farley.

The number of talking heads who pay homage to Del Close as their teacher is lengthy. Here is a quick look at who you will find in this documentary talking about Del Close: Robin Williams, Bill Murray, Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Patton Oswalt,  Mike Myers, Will Farrell, Chris Farley, Steven Colbert, Jon Favreau, George Wendt, director Adam McKay, Ike Barinholtz, John Belushi, Harold Ramis, Dave Thomas, John Candy, Rick Moranis, Catharine O’Hara, Jason Sudeikis, Rachel Dratch, Howard Hesseman, Tim Meadows, Mike Nichols, Elaine May and “Better Call Saul’s” Bob Odenkirk.

The early performances onstage by famous comics is legendary.

Who was Del Close? And what, exactly, did he do to help that impressive list of comics get their start?

Amy Pohler in “For Madmen Only.”

John Belushi in “For Madmen Only.”

In 1960 Close moved to Chicago, his home base for much of the rest of his life, to perform and direct at Second City, but was fired due to substance abuse. He spent the latter half of the 1960s in San Francisco where he was the house director of improv ensemble The Committee. He toured with the Merry Pranksters, and created light shows for Grateful Dead shows. In 1972 he returned to Chicago and to Second City. He also directed and performed for Second City’s troupe in Toronto, in 1977. Prior to those Chicago years with Second City, Close had, at age 23, become a member of the Compass Players in St. Louis.

When most of the cast—including Mike Nichols and Elaine May—moved to New York City, Close followed. He developed a stand-up comedy act, appeared in the Broadway musical revue The Nervous Set, and performed briefly with an improv company in Greenwich Village.

Del Close, subject of “For Madmen Only.”

Del Close was certifiable. He ran away from home at the age of 17 and joined the circus, working as a fire-eater and being shot from a cannon. He spent time in mental hospitals and was checked out to do his show in Chicago and then checked back in to the Cook County Hospital Psych Ward. He had had a complete breakdown while supervising the Great White North in Toronto in 1976, a Second City outpost.

From a troubled childhood that saw Del’s alcoholic neglectful father commit suicide came a highly intelligent and highly creative comic genius who was devoted to promoting improvisation as an entirely separate art form, which he called “Harold.” He also supervised a magazine for D.C. Comics called “The Wasteland,” although he admits, “Most of our readership didn’t quite get it.”

This documentary written by Alan Samuel Golman and Heather Ross describes Close as “a living legend in comedy.” Bill Murray organized a deathbed party for the inveterate smoker, who refused to quit even when emphysema was killing him.

Jason Sudeikis of “Ted Lasso” on “For Madmen Only.”

The Del stories involving pot, alcohol and psychedelics never quit, starting with groups like the Merry Pranksters and continuing on until his death. Close died on March 4, 1999, at the Illinois Masonic Hospital (now the Advocate Illinois Masonic Medical Center) in Chicago, five days before his 65th birthday. An early birthday party was held for him by Bill Murray, who summoned many of Del’s former students to his bedside, a party which is on film in the documentary.

Close bequeathed his skull to Chicago’s Goodman Theatre to be used in its productions of Hamlet, and specified that he be duly credited in the program as portraying Yorick. Charna Halpern, Close’s long-time professional partner and the executor of his will, donated a skull—purportedly Close’s—to the Goodman in a high-profile televised ceremony on July 1, 1999.

A front-page article in the Chicago Tribune in July 2006 questioned the authenticity of the skull, citing the presence of teeth (Close had no teeth at the time of his death) and autopsy marks (Close was not autopsied), among other problems.

Halpern stood by her story at the time, but admitted in a The New Yorker interview three months later that she had purchased the skull from a local medical supply company. Halpern is shown onscreen bemoaning the fact that the public learned that this was not, in truth, Del Close’s real skull.

This film is a tribute to the creative comic who lived and taught this credo:  “You have a light within you. Burn it out.”

“For Madmen Only” premiered on July 27th and is available on Apple TV and Altovid

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