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: Reviews Page 1 of 38

“Weekly Wilson” Podcast of Feb. 18th: Ryan Bliss, Writer/Director of “Alice Fades Away”

Some of you may have noticed the movement from politics to film on the blog, of late.

It has always been my goal to go among three topics: books, film and politics.

In addition, I sometimes convey information about my travels, whether that means Texas or Mexico or Alaska.

While it is tempting to bring up for discussion the feud that is currently playing out between Mitch McConnell and Donald J. Trump, I shall bypass this low-hanging political fruit, for the moment. Or the death today of Rush Limbaugh might send me off on another political thread, but I’m sticking to movies for the rest of February, and then I’ll be taking a break from the Weekly Wilson podcast.

If you are curious about which of the 45 or so podcasts I’ve done are interesting, I’ll be happy to list them for you, but I’m not sure if they remain “up” after my show goes into a hiatus, which may be permanent.

While I’m proud of the shows I’ve managed to put “in the can,” I’m also more than ready to return to writing—possibly a fourth book in The Color of Evil series.

But, this week, I’ll be interviewing the first-time director of “Alice Fades Away,” a film I reviewed here previously, and the week of February 25th I will speak with the Chicago director of “100 Days to Live,” Ravin Gandhi.

So, remember to tune in to listen to the conversation with Ryan Bliss, director of “Alice Fades Away,” on Thursday, February 18th.

“100 Days to Live” Is Chicago-Based Thriller, Now Streaming

 

“One Hundred Days to Live” is a first feature from Writer/Director Ravin Gandhi of Chicago, who is the founder and CEO of GMM Nonstick Coating in Chicago. Ravin holds a B.S. in Accounting and Finance from the University of Illinois and an MBA in Entrepreneurial Studies from Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University. His bucket list had always included making a movie, and, for the past 2 years, Ravin undertook to do exactly that, helming “100 Days to Live” and winning Best World Premiere and Best First-Time Director Honors at the San Diego Film Festival.

PLOT

The log line for the film: “When a serial killer abducts a young woman’s fiancé, she must race against the clock to discover the identity of the killer, and more importantly—his motive.” The film is quite an accomplishment for a mid-budget indie with a rookie director who did not major in filmmaking. While it boasts no big A- or B-list names, it more than makes up for it with solid actors, who would not typically be cast as leads in higher-profile films. Good performances with  a lot of emotion and complexity given to the characters of Rebecca, Gabriel, and the killer, Victor.  Rebecca, is fantastic as she carries most of the film. (*Listen to my interview with Heidi Johanningmeier on episode 42 posted on my blog, WeeklyWilson.com on February 4th).

The biggest plot hole answers that nagging question, “Why would anyone want to make a serial killer film that revolves around the sensitive subject of suicide?” Some critics have criticized the script for failing to go deep into suicide and to treat it as the sensitive subject it is. This film is not for families of suicide victims or those who think all references to this family tragedy should play out like a documentary.

This is a thriller and, while we can debate the sensitivity of the killer called The Savior, who leaves behind scrapbooks labeled “Sarah (etc.) Was Saved”  that’s a debate for another day. The Writer/Director is trying for a psychological thriller and  this isn’t a documentary or a PSA on Suicide Prevention. It’s a thriller—and a fairly innovative one, with a couple of innovative dream sequences, great cinematography and beautiful shots of the city (plus interiors of Ravin Gandhi’s condominium within the iconic Hancock Building), good music, and that twist ending we all crave.

ACTING

The lead role of a young suicide center counselor is played by Chicago actress Heidi Johanningmeier as Dr. Rebecca Church. Heidi shared that they shot the film in 29 days. She does a great job. (It’s really hard to believe that the lovely Heidi, from Mt. Ayr, Iowa, has 2 young sons and an artist husband. She lives in the Chicago suburbs, working full-time in the Windy City.)

At the end of the film, Writer/Director/Producer Gandhi appended a note thanking his family for vacating the family digs so that he could shoot there. Heidi acknowledged during our interview of February 4th that Mrs. Gandhi was a great sport about being asked to vacate her home for the duration.

The views from the Hancock Building are spectacular ;the exterior shots in Chicago (Pelago Ristorante, Millennium Park, lakefront cityscapes) are equally impressive. Even the costuming is top-notch, which Heidi and I discussed at length on February 4th in my interview.

Colin Egglesfield plays Gabriel Weeks, Rebecca’s boyfriend, who disappears—one of several victims. Police determine that the dead all shared a history of previous suicide attempts. Even the counselor reveals, in the course of the film, that she had a failed suicide attempt. When she was 18 she had suicidal impulses; she took 40 Seconal pills as a student in graduate school, roughly 2 years prior.

Gideon Embry plays the villain, Victor Quinn.  Heidi explained in a podcast conversation of 2/4 (up now at WeeklyWilson.com) that the make-up people worked on villain Victor’s tattoos longer than they worked on her make-up.  Victor has every victiim’s name tattooed on his torso. Victor says, “I won’t waste my time on non-believers.” Heidi shared that Gideon, in real life, was the opposite of the murderous Victor. “I live,” says Victor in the script, “so people like you can die.  I’m your salvation.”

CINEMATOGRAPHY & MUSIC

Nicholas M. Puetz is responsible for the cinematography. He captures some spectacular Chicago skylines, as well as handling two ambitious dream sequences, one involving Rebecca’s being sucked down the drain in her luxurious bathtub and a second set in a bedroom of the Hancock Building condominium. There are shots reflected off the light and music by Mima Fakhrara and Navid Hejazi.  The music contributed to evoking the appropriate mood at the right moments in the film.

The film makes you think about the precept in the film: What are you grateful for today?

It also makes you wonder what each of us would do if we knew, for sure, we only had 100 days left to live.

VERDICT

I freely acknowledge that the underlying plot premise may seem a bit implausible. For those who want a serious discussion of suicide, this film isn’t it. But don’t dismiss the entire project out-of-hand. If you accept the Writer/Director’s basic plot premise and go with it, the film is a psychological thriller with  a lot to recommend it.

 

“Alice Fades Away” Is A Cinematic Vision

Writer/Director Ryan Bliss launches his first full-length feature film “Alice Fades Away” on February 16th, available on iTunes, Apple TV, Amazon, Google Play, Microsoft, Vuda, Fandago NOW and other On Demand  DVD platforms.  The trailer is truly creepy and that feeling of dread, complete with appropriate images, lighting and music, comes through in the film, set in 1953. The action takes place in one week, from Sunday to Sunday; the body count is high. (When we hit 6 deaths, I wondered if we would run out of characters before we ran out of plot.)

According to Writer/Director Ryan Bliss, the film is “about patriarchy, legacy and death, but more importantly, it’s about perseverance and strength in the face of fear and power by someone who’s not allowed to have her own identity.” Aside from the reference to death, that theme made me think of Meryl Streep’s character in “Kramer vs. Kramer,” a woman who has never had the opportunity to become her own person, having gone directly from her childhood home to school to marriage. As Alice—who shared some of Streep’s character’s angst, articulated in that film says in “Alice Fades Away”—“I never had the opportunity to choose.”

Alice’s father-in-law, James Sullivan (William Sadler), sends his son Holden (Timothy Sekk) after Alice  (Ashley Shelton)  to bring his grandson Logan (Paxton Singleton) back to him. As explained by the commanding patriarch, “She  took my grandson and  ran off like a coward.”  Sullivan is a powerful man who is used to having things his own way. He and his late wife Margaret disapproved of their son’s choice of a wife. (“What did he see in her? I never figured that out for the life of me.”)

When Carroll (Tommy Beardmore), Alice’s husband, dies violently, Alice flees and the old man unleashes Alice’s brother-in-law, Holden—[a psychopathic ex-prisoner of war, still suffering from PTSD]—to fetch his young grandson back to him because, he says, his grandson Logan is all he has left.  (This seemed inaccurate, since he was speaking to a surviving son.)

CINEMATOGRAPHY

The lighting and images shot by cinematographer David Bouley are truly beautiful. Whether the scene is simply Alice and her young son lying in a field or—-as in Bliss’ previous shorts, “Rot” and “Clover”— framed scenes of a tree in the snow, the images are gorgeous. The most ordinary scenes are beautifully lit and shot with a painter’s eye. The cinematography and the Bliss Farms sets with period radios, guns, cars, and clothing, are really wonderful for a first full-length film effort. The plot shows care and thought have gone into the themes to be explored (although perhaps a few too many major themes are included for a film running just an hour and 16 minutes).

ACTING

The lead character of Alice Sullivan is played by Ashley Shelton. Her father-in-law has described her as having “empty eyes, like she is missing a soul.” When Alice runs away to her Uncle Bishop’s farm (Jay Potter), Alice says, describing herself, “I’m not certain if I’m sane any more. I don’t know how anyone can know that.”

She has taken shelter at Uncle Bishop’s remote rural farmhouse, along with four other fellow sufferers. One is a young boy. The explanation is that he was just left there by his parents, who disappeared. This struck me as odd and unlikely.

Uncle Bishop reminds Alice of a time as a young girl when she callously watched another youngster nearly drown, but seemed to display no emotion (Alice claims not to remember this). After sharing that anecdote, Uncle Bishop demands that the others in the farmhouse—all of whom have endured tragedy of one sort or another– vote on whether to grant Alice asylum at the farmhouse. Ultimately, all but Bishop vote yes. One of the other women in the house, Roxie, is played by Blanche Baker, who is the daughter of Carroll Baker (“Baby Doll”).

When Alice describes the fear that she is being hunted, Roxie (Blanche Baker) says, “We’re not safe, are we?”

Alice admits to the others that they may not be safe.  Uncle Bishop’s prophecy that “Something’s comin’” turns out to be too tragically true.

VERDICT

I loved the cinematography in this first feature film. The sets are also great, with a wonderful ruin on the grounds that has a stairway to nowhere and lovely fields meant to portray New England. The trailer gives you a good feeling for the creepy mood that Writer/Director Ryan Bliss, (with able assistance from cinematographer David Bouley and music from Christopher French), has managed to achieve. The lighting in several scenes, in the old period farmhouse, gives the film a patina that shows skill behind the camera (Bliss also helped edit, in addition to writing and directing).

As with many films, the audience has to fill in a lot of missing parts of the plot. Sometimes, the director gave the audience too much credit for being able figure out plot points out on its own. I would have liked slightly more information about Logan’s and Everett’s (Benjamin Russell’s) ultimate fate. Even Holden’s demise is left hanging and what about Uncle Bishop?  But the mood and pace and general use of wonderful images to tell this story more than made up for a few continuity lapses and some story threads dropped without much closure.

We quit counting fatalities at 6. For a film with only a few main characters, it’s not one where nothing at all happens, which, to me, was admirable.

 

“Judas and the Black Messiah” is Hit at Sundance Film Festival

“Judas and the Black Messiah,” the bio-pic about Fred Hampton, head of the Black Panthers in Illinois in the sixties, comes to us from a dynamic team. Director Shaka King (“Newlyweeds”) had met Ryan Coogler (“Black Panther”) in 2013 at Sundance.  Coogler (“Black Panther”) approached Warner Brothers with 50% of the film’s financing in hand to back the picture, directed by Shaka King (“Newlyweeds”) from a story by the Lucas Brothers. They already had the cast in mind and Shaka King had connected with screenwriter Will Berson, who had been researching Hampton for some time. After some major difficulty getting to Jesse Plemons (whose agent did not return calls)—the package came together. Judas and the Black Messiah premiered at Sundance on Monday, February 1st. It will stream on HBO Max beginning February 12th.

OVERVIEW

The film is bound to earn its two leads Oscar nominations; the film itself will be a strong contender in these Black Lives Matter-influenced times for a Best Picture nomination. As the log-line for the film says, “The story of Fred Hampton, Chairman of the Illinois Black Panther Party, and his fateful betrayal by FBI informant William O’Neal.”

Daniel Kaluuya (“Get Out”) plays Fred Hampton, (the Black Messiah of the title), and Lakeith Stanfield (“Selma,” “Straight Outta’ Compton”) is William O’Neal, the Judas figure who infiltrated the Chicago Black Panthers at the request of FBI agent Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons).

We follow the action through William O’Neal’s eyes, a small-time petty criminal caught impersonating an FBI officer in order to steal a car. William O’Neal was 17 when he stole the car and drove it across state lines into Michigan. Since car theft carries an 18 month sentence and impersonating a federal officer would earn him a 5 year sentence, the Judas figure in the film’s title is offered the opportunity to infiltrate the Black Panthers rather than go to jail. O’Neal doesn’t forsee that he will be asked to drug Fred Hampton (secobarbital) so that state-sponsored murder can take place in a hit executed by 14 Chicago police at 2337 West Monroe Street at 4:45 a.m. on December 4, 1969.

Martin Sheen plays an almost unrecognizable J. Edgar Hoover.  A secret group within the FBI called Cointelpro is responsible for the hit on Fred Hampton’s residence that is authorized by Hoover. Hampton, his 9-months pregnant girlfriend (well played by Dominque Fishback) and several other Black Panthers were there, sleeping overnight. Two were killed in cold blood: Mark Kelly, who was the security guard for the night, and Hampton, who survived the initial assault only to be executed with 2 shots to the head. The Panthers fired only one shot, into the ceiling, when Mark Kelly’s shotgun discharged as he was shot through the door. The police shot 99 times.

A lawsuit lodged in 1970 dragged on for 18 months, but finally delivered a judgment of $1.85 million in 1982. When the foursome behind the film (the Lucas brothers, Ryan Coogler and Shaka King) pitched the film, they compared it to “The Departed” within Cointel.

ACTING

Daniel Kaluuya, Ashton Sanders, Algee Smith, Dominique Thorne 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.

The acting by both leads should earn Kahluua and Stanfield Oscar nods. If you watch this at home, you might want to turn on captioning, in order to know what, exactly, Daniel Kahluua is saying. YouTube videos support Hampton’s cadence, rough articulation and fast pace as authentic to the man, himself, but it’s still hard to understand. Stanfield’s William O’Neal is better able to be understood. Both actors are somewhat older than the ages they are asked to portray, with Kahluua, at 31, playing the 21-year-old Hampton. (Stanfield is 29).

Accolades are deserved for both of the film’s leads. For me, the William O’Neal character is the more interesting, portrayed by Lakeith Stanfield as a bundle of contradictions. He seems conflicted about his role from the very beginning. As the plot thickens and he is asked to do even more for the FBI, he seems to have been drawn into a no-win situation that tortured him to the point that, after his one and only television interview about the events of that night, on January 15, 1990, he committed suicide. O’Neal’s words from the “Eyes on the Prize 2” documentary footage were, “I was part of the struggle. At least I had a point of view.  I’ll let history speak for me.”

The film portrays O’Neal’s descent into even greater betrayal(s) extremely well, even through the costuming. When O’Neal meets Jesse Plemons for dinner at a fancy steakhouse late in the film (away from the Black Panthers) he is attired in a very fly white suit. Agent Mitchell shoves an envelope with cash in it towards O’Neal, possibly the $300 in extra pay that O’Neal received for special service to the FBI. But when O’Neal depicts a Black Panther early in the film, with leather jacket and beret, he really seems to empathize with the Black struggle, despite Mitchell’s attempts to convince him that the KKK and the Black Panthers are flip sides of the same coin.

 It is a tribute to Stanfield’s acting chops and the wise decision to let the most conflicted character carry the weight of the film that elevates the movie.  After the deaths of the Black Panthers in the dawn raid, O’Neal was relocated to California under the Federal Witness Protection Program and used the name William Hart until returning to Chicago in 1984. His involvement in the death of Fred Hampton, including drugging Hampton before the planned raid, was not revealed until 1973.

Daniel Kahluua emerged as a star after his role in “Get Out.” He is now 31 and a much more substantial figure than when he played the boyfriend in that earlier film. Fred Hampton was 21 when he was assassinated. Hampton’s background prior to his death was that of a community organizer of exceptional skill, who saw the benefits in uniting all the disparate ethnic peoples of Chicago, the nation and the world. He formed the Rainbow Coalition and brokered deals where his fiery oratory moved the crowds that assembled and alarmed the FBI. The no-knock raid at Hampton’s house in the middle of the night reminds of Breanna Taylor’s recent death. The recent Black Lives Matter protests also serve as a timely backdrop for this socially conscious film.

Deborah Johnson (now known as Akua Njeri) is portrayed by actress Dominique Fishback. The fiancé of Fred Hampton, she gave birth 25 days after Fred Hampton’s death. (Fred Hampton, Jr. is now 52 years old.) Dominique has appeared in “The Deuce” and “The Hate U Give.” Dominique gives a nuanced performance as the poet who applies to the Black Panther headquarters in Chicago to help Hampton improve his speeches. Their low-key courtship adds a behind-the-scenes look at the man whom we see orating like MLK in other scenes. (One question: how would the very white Jesse Plemons character— even while wearing a stocking cap— not stick out like a sore thumb inside the meeting place when Hampton is speaking with ringing phrases like, “You can murder a revolutionary, but you can’t murder a revolution,” or “I’m gonna’ die for the people because I live for the people?”)

CINEMATOGRAPHY

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.

Cinematographer Sean Bobbitt (from San Antonio), who worked on “Twelve Years A Slave” and “Hunger,” does a great job of turning late 60s Chicago into a sepia-toned retro landscape. The bar used in the initial scenes and later in the film, Leon’s Bar, reeks of that era. The scenes that involve gun battles (3) are dark and the shooting of a cop near a factory has very interesting angles framing the action.

MUSIC

Mark Isham and Craig Harris handled the music; they do a fine job setting the sixties tone.

BACKGROUND

The principals behind the film shared in an interview that they worked very hard to make sure the film was accurate. This meant contacting the families of those who were involved the night of the climactic shooting. In particular, Fred Stanfield, Jr., who is now 52 and works on prisoner’s rights, was consulted.  The team said, “It changed all of our lives and we’ll be far better off because of it.”

QUOTES

“A badge is scarier than a gun.”

“Political power flows from the barrel of a gun. You need tools, brother.”

“Words are beautiful, but actions are supreme.”

“Every ghetto across the nation should be considered occupied territory.”

“The most dangerous weapon is the people.”

“Our job, as the Black Panther Party, is to heighten our traditions so the people can decide if they want to overthrow the government. Or not.”

“We want land, bread, housing, education, democracy and peace.”

“You can’t shoot your way to equality.”

PRODUCTION TEAM’s THOUGHTS

The team responsible for the movie, including Ryan Coogler and Director Shaka King shared their experiences making the film in a Warner Brothers interview. Coogler said, “There would be nights when I couldn’t sleep.”

On the general public’s lack of knowledge about Fred Hampton until now, King said, “There could be 100 movies on this subject and it still wouldn’t be enough.”

The director and Coogler mused about how, so often bio-pics reach the screen, and the families then protest that the film is totally inaccurate, saying the movie did not reflect the truth about their loved ones. The makers of Judas and the Black Messiah did not want that to happen with their film, so they actually traveled to Chicago and sat at the very table where, 52 years ago, Fred Hampton worked.

Said one of the producing partners: “Coming out of this, I don’t think I’ll ever look at (bio-pic) movies the same way again.”

“Land” Is Robin Wright’s Feature Film Directorial Debut at Sundance

 

One of the more eagerly anticipated feature length films at “Sundance” was Robin Wright’s directorial debut, “Land.”

Not only did she direct the piece, but she starred in it. Her co-star was Academy Award nominee Demian Bechir, nominated as Best Actor in 2011’s “A Better Life.”

That sounded promising, as did the involvement of Liz Hannah, who wrote the screenplay for “Long Shot” and “The Post.” Maybe Liz Hannah was part of the original plan, but the credited writers for the film are Erin Dignam and Jesse Chatham and there is no sign of Ms. Hannah on the finished product. This is unfortunate, since the plot has almost nothing happening, is disjointed, and really drags.

CINEMATOGRAPHY

Cinematography was by veteran lensman Bobby Bukowski, who helmed both “Arlington Road” in 1999 and “The Messenger” in 2009. He does good work with the wilderness and explained how he worked in a previous interview:

“As soon as a director asks me to be with them, I’m really happy to engage them, no matter if I’m working or not because, when a director is making a movie, it’s the most important thing they they’re doing in their lives, and I like to show the spirit that I’m committed and involved as much as they are.

What attracts me to do a movie is the story, along with my curiosity for how human beings operate – human behavior. So I sit down with a director, and before we talk anything about visuals, I really want to understand, ‘Okay, what are you trying to say? What is the purpose of telling this story?’ And then we can start breaking things down, what is the integral component of the scene this narrative accomplishes. ‘Oh, to show the alienation of this character? Great.’ So now we start talking about alienation, and how we can fit it visually, compositionally, lighting-wise.supporting that narrative element.” (IMDB.com)

This was a beautifully filmed movie, capturing Alberta, Canada—a stand-in for Wyoming— in all its glory. Bukowski has done his job well. “Land” is a gorgeous advertisement for visiting this primitive wilderness area.

But the story that the movie attempts to tell is dull and illogical.

PLOT

At the beginning of the movie a very stressed-out Robin Wright, as Edee Mathis, is being urged not to harm herself by her sister. We don’t know why she would want to harm herself and it isn’t for quite some time that we learn the true nature of her loss.

Edee lost her husband and her small son in a senseless shooting. We learn quite late in the film that Edee was a lawyer, although there was little in the early parts of the film that would reveal this. I did recognize Chicago as the city Edee wants to flee. Very late in what passes for a plot we learn that Edee’s husband and child were shot at a concert. It receives almost no screen time, by way of explanation.  She’s not dealing with it well. Understandable.

While we all have the urge to flee in troubled times, who goes to the remote wilderness and doesn’t even have a car to bring in much-needed supplies? Or a decent bathroom? Or a real bed? The cabin that Edee selects in the wilderness is so remote and so primitive that it would kill most of us; it nearly kills her. But for the intervention of Demian Bechir, Edee would have died in the primitive cabin she has selected for her “escape.”

I understand that Robin Wright’s goal was to make a film about someone trying to find a way to learn to live again while facing tragedy. It took 2 and ½ years of her time and the deadline was pushed back a year by the advent of the pandemic. A movie about resilience in the face of adversity certainly is timely. The protagonist’s reasons for leaving the big city (“It’s really difficult to be around people because they just want me to be better.”) is all well and good, but, despite her direction of several episodes of “House of Cards,” this film is slow-moving and never goes anywhere.

It’s a beautifully photographed tribute to the great outdoors, complete with an encounter with a large brown bear that would have driven most of us back to the city in record time.  “Land” was shot in 29 days at 8,000 feet across four seasons with the occasional sporadic blizzard interrupting filming and some lessons learned about chopping wood by the stars.

It’s a very pretty movie, but it has three main flaws:

1) It’s boring

(2) It’s totally illogical that this young professional woman would select this rustic retreat and nearly die there because of her inability to cope with her personal tragedy

(3) There are myriad plot details that are either concealed until very late in what passes for the plot, or are never cleared up at all.

Cast: Robin Wright, Demian Bichir, Kim Dickens, Warren Christie

Director:  Robin Wright

Writers:  Erin Dignam, Jesse Chatham

Cinematography:  Bobby Bukowski

Rating:  3 out of 10 (primarily for the landscape, the acting, and the bear)

“Playing with Sharks” Features Fantastic Underwater Photography at Sundance

Filmmaker Sally Aitken took the glorious 16 millimeter film of Valerie May Taylor and her husband, Ron, and has made it into a 95-minute exploration of the fearless team, who braved the oceans of the world to study and photograph the alien world beneath the water, especially focusing on sharks.

It was not their original intention to become conservationists for the dwindling species of sharks, but that is what happened after the two first made their mark at spearfishing. Ron was four-time Australian champion and world champion in the sport and the beautiful blonde Valerie was a Pamela Anderson of the underwater oceans, inhabiting a male culture of the fifties and killing one Great White shark before she realized that the animals were beautiful in their own killing machine way and should be preserved.

In fact, Peter Benchley’s (“Jaws” author) widow Wendy offers up the sobering news that there are only 10% of the world’s sharks still swimming, since 100 million a year have been being harvested for the past 20 years.

Valerie, now in her eighties, tells us that “It’s not that I didn’t want children.  I wanted to do other things.  I waned to have my own special life.”

That she survived and much more. A polio survivor, she and Ron traveled the world, trying to make a living at what they loved doing most: diving. In 1974 Peter Benchley, who knew about the pair’s exploits, wrote a book about a shark (which his wife did not think would “work”). It became “Jaws” with 29-year-old Steven Spielberg directing in only his second major film.

Spielberg wanted the shark to be 25 feet long, although Valerie and Ron told him that Great Whites were normally only about 13 feet long. “That’s okay,” said Spielberg, “we’ll just make the diving cage half-sized.” This they did, hiring a half-sized actor to play the diver in the steel cage. Unfortunately, the very small man was not a diver and not a shark enthusiast. When he saw a real White Shark, he said, “I should have asked for more money!”

Valerie Taylor

Give-it-a-go Valerie, as she was sometimes called because of her fearlessness, is shown hand-feeding a Great White Shark off the back of a boat and her changed attitude towards preserving sharks is credited with the fact that 80 to 100 bull sharks are now back at the reef off the island of Fiji.

Now widowed after Ron’s death from acute myeloid leukemia, Valerie shares the thought that she will never give up diving and that she will “probably be diving from my wheelchair.”

The film has astounding underwater footage, remastered from the original film shot by Ron Taylor, interspersed with television appearances the duo made on talk shows around the globe. The scenes of a Great White shark getting hung up in the boat apparatus during the filming of “Jaws” is riveting (we learn that it was not in the script, but they used the footage) and the entire project reveals a world beneath the waves of which Valerie May Taylor, herself, said, “It was a different, alien world. I was just a visitor.”

“Misha and the Wolves” Is A Cautionary Tale at Sundance on January 31st

Sam Hobkinson, the London-born writer/director of “Misha and the Wolves,” spoke to us prior to the World Premiere showing of “Misha and the Wolves” today at Sundance (1/31) and said, “This was a story I needed to film.” He went on to add, “This was a story about memory and imagination…about themes of storytelling. It is a Holocaust film. It is a moral maize.  It is hard to define: a psychological thriller with shifting truth in story. Ultimately, it is a story abut truth, a story about stories.”

That it is, and so much more in today’s world.

Misha Defonseca began telling her neighbors in Millis, Massachusetts, the story of her nightmarish youth at the local Temple Beth Torah. As friend and neighbor Karen Schulman related, “Everybody there was completely entranced.”

Misha told the story of a 7-year-old girl in Belgium during the  Nazi Occupation whose father does not show up to pick her up after school. Another family takes her in, changing her name to Monique DeWael and telling the authorities that she is Catholic.  But little Misha cannot fathom the sudden disappearance of her mother and father.

Having been told that they have been taken to Germany—she decides that she will walk to Germany, which she has seen on maps. Little Misha does not realize the distance she will have to travel on foot, but sets off, anyway, equipped with food, water, a knife and a compass. (When the interviewers asked her about what she decided to take, I thought it “odd” that a 7-year-old would know what items she might need, but Misha showed absolute certainty when asked.)

Misha told an incredible story of avoiding humans, but being surrounded by wolves, who allowed her to feed from the remnants of their kills and became her nourishers and protectors. A local photo shoot at an Ipswich, Massachusetts farm called Wolf Hollow is dramatic when Misha does seem to have a special rapport with the wolves, one of whom puts her entire head in his mouth, but all of whom respond to her wolf-like howl.

Misha’s story is told to one particular admiring neighbor and friend, Jane Daniel, a small publisher. Even though other larger publishers told Jane that they thought the story sounded “fishy,” Jane persevered in getting Misha to write her experiences down and—Eureka!—  secured an appearance for Misha on Oprah Winfrey’s show to plug the book.

It is at that point that Misha began balking and would not agree to appear on Oprah’s television show, although an appearance there would virtually guarantee millions of books sold. Disney was also interested in the story, but Misha began backing out of commitments and, ultimately, lodged a lawsuit against Jane Daniels in August of 2001 in Middlesex, Massachusetts.

Misha appeared on her own behalf during the 10-day trial and, as Jane says, “She was a very good witness.” A $22.5 million judgment was levied against Jane Daniel, who was devastated, saying that she was cast as the “cruel exploiter of an innocent Holocaust survivor.” Jane added, “I wanted my life back.”

Jane Daniel, aided by researcher Evelyne Haendel (geneaologist and Holocaust survivor) in Germany and Belgium, began to research Misha’s story more thoroughly, realizing that if it was not true, this might let her off the hook for the court’s judgment.

A still from Misha and the Wolves by Sam Hobkinson, an official selection of the World Cinema Documentary Competition at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. (Courtesy of Sundance Institute.)

A photo lady, Sharon Sergeant, carefully pored over the photographs that Misha had shown others of her supposed adoptive Catholic family. Many discrepancies began to emerge, including a key one: in the French version of the book  Misha gave her adoptive family surname as Valle, but in the English language versions, she gave her “new” name as Monique DeWael. This struck Ms. Sergeant as strange. Others were brought in to find out who, exactly, Misha’s parents really had been, as she originally claimed not to know the surnames of the missing pair.

After extensive and thorough research and investigation, it was discovered that Misha was not a young Jewish girl at all. She was a young Catholic Belgian girl, whose Aunt Emma declared was “always delusional” and whose father, Robert DeWael (her real surname) was a resistance fighter who became a collaborator with the Nazis.

Robert and his wife were arrested not long after the Nazis occupied Belgium on May 10, 1940, and he turned in others to be able to see his wife and daughter again. Ultimately, Robert and his wife and 41 other resistance fighters were shipped to Brauweiler Labour Camp near Cologne. Monica/Misha became known as “the traitor’s daughter.” She never saw her parents again.

Prior to the publisher’s exposing the lie, Misha was appearing all over Europe, making money from telling her story. The copyright had been returned to her after the court trial and she seemed to revel in the attention. The movie had come out in Europe and Misha was appearing in support of it when the facts and the proof were finally revealed to the world.

When it was finally clear that nothing that Misha had said was true, she explained her fabrications this way: “My reality, my way of surviving, my attempt to exorcise the sadness at being called ‘the traitor’s daughter’ was to get into a bubble world of my own.” Misha described the mythical wolves as defending her against humans.

She did, however, admit that she had fooled many with her stories. 

A still from Misha and the Wolves by Sam Hobkinson, an official selection of the World Cinema Documentary Competition at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. (Courtesy of Sundance Institute.)

The publisher who had warned Jane Daniels not to go ahead with publishing the book in the first place said, “I think it was greed that motivated Jane AND Misha.”

Others in the film—mainly neighbors or scholars who had initially accepted Misha’s version of events said—“Misha created a world for herself…a world of her own belief.  She sought refuge in mythomania. She slowly became a character in her own story.”

Today, it was announced that all five of Donald Trump’s defense lawyers in an impeachment trial that is supposed to begin February 8th have quit or been fired.  The sticking point in their continued employment was the defense strategy. Trump insisted that they must continue to argue that the election was stolen from him, while the defense specialists wanted to argue procedural issues about impeaching a president after he has already left office.

Of Misha and her improbable tale of living with helpful wolves, her neighbors said, “We would like to believe that we were not so gullible, not so naïve, but it was all a fabrication.” Added another, “Nobody wants to admit that they were duped.”

Misha, herself, however, did step forward and offered if not sorrow, at least a feeble excuse for her lies. Some felt pity. Some felt revulsion. They were repelled by the thought that one—or both—women might have been motivated to make money from stories of the Holocaust—opportunism gone too far.

In the United States Donald J. Trump continues to refuse to admit that he lost the 2020 election. The evangelical far right (according to the newest issue of “Rolling Stone,”) continues to deny the truth. “By Thanksgiving, the lie that the election had been stolen from Trump had become an article of faith,” says the newest “Rolling Stone” edition.

The message that I came away with from this film with was that it is helpful when the liar—even  belatedly—-owns up to his or her lying. Others may not like the idea that they were duped, but the truth will set us free.

That ultimately happened in “Misha and the Wolves.” Is it likely to happen in the United States?

 

“Coming Home in the Dark” at Sundance on HBO Max: Engrossing!

Daniel Gillies as Mandrake in “Coming Home After Dark.” (Courtesy of Sundance Institute.)

The New Zealand offering “Coming Home in the Dark,” from Director James Ashcroft unleashes a fast, high-energy road trip with a family that is set upon by two psychopaths with a grudge. The short story of the same name, written by Owen Marshall, was altered by Ashcroft and screenwriter Eli Kent, who had already adapted another of Marshall’s short stories prior to this feature film premiere outing.

The 93-minute film never loses its edge and, despite the warnings about graphic violence, it was far from “Saw”- like. But, yes, there is violence.

As the director explained in a brief message to the press at Sundance, the two screenwriters, working together, tried to incorporate historic New Zealand issues as background for the main character, the father of twin boys, who has been a teacher in a variety of schools. These were touches that the original short story character lacked. Alan/Hoaggie, is well-played by Erik Thomson, but Mandrake (Daniel Gillies) is evil incarnate.

The film opens with a beautiful sunset in the New Zealand countryside. It is worth mentioning that the feature film comes full circle at film’s end with that same beautiful panorama, only at sunrise. The circularity of structure is something I’ve enjoyed in films by Spike Lee and Brian DePalma over the years, and use in my own writing on occasion. There are many deft cinematic touches like this, including the failure of wife Jill to take her husband’s hand in the car, after she has just learned some disquieting information about his past. She remarks, “There is a difference between doing something and letting it happen, but they live on the same street.” The shots through grasses by cinematographer Matt Henley were outstanding.

PLOT

James Ashcroft, director of Coming Home in the Dark, an official selection of the Midnight section at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Stan Alley.

The family of four—Alan, Jill and their twin teenaged boys, Jordan and Maika—are off on holiday when they stop alongside a gorgeous but remote New Zealand hillside in the Greater Wellington Region for a hike and a picnic. Ominously, two drifters appear on a cliff overhead and wave at the family below. It is not long after that a confrontation occurs.

Alan—known as Hoaggie—the father, and Jill, the mother, reassure their twin teenaged sons that it will be all right if they just give the men what they want. They promptly do so, divesting of their cash and valuables and every phone but one that Jill took from Alan and put in the glove box of their car when he began playing an annoying game on it while she was driving. But will it? Will giving the tall Maori-tattooed silent man known as Tubs and the shorter thug, who calls himself Mandrake, what they want save all their lives? At one point, a panel truck drives into the area where the confrontation is happening, and Mandrake instructs the family to wave in a friendly fashion, which they do. The paneled truck departs, honking back, and Mandrake remarks, “Later, this may be the point where you’ll wish you’d done something different.”

The film quickly spirals into a road trip to hell.

CINEMATOGRAPHY

The shots through grasses by cinematographer Matt Henley were gorgeous, as were the sunrise/sunset scenes over a glorious New Zealand landscape. I’ve been to New Zealand, and, yes, it really looks that beautiful (Great Wellington Region).

ACTING

The acting by Erik Thomson, as the father, and Miriame McDowell as the grief-stricken mother is matched in acting chops by the intensity of evil radiating from the two criminals, Tubs and Mandrake (Matthias Luafut and Daniel Gillies.) Ashcroft uses the taller of the two assailants, played by Matthias Luafut, to good effect and Mandrake (Daniel Gillies) is the worst thing you can encounter at a picnic in the wild: a polite psychopath.

Ashcroft, from Aotearoa, New Zealand, was the artistic director of the indigenous Maori Theatre Taki Rua from 2007-2013 and his native name is Nga Puhi/Ngati Kahu.  This is his first feature film, but he has plans to move in the direction of Blumhouse horror films. This is a great start.

The film is slated to stream on HBO Max. Check it out. It was the best of 5 feature films I’ve seen at Sundance in the past 2 days.

“At the Ready” Premieres at Sundance on Saturday, January 30th

At the Ready” at Sundance. (Courtesy of Sundance Institute).

Director Maisie Crow of Austin, Texas, takes us inside Horizon High School, 10 mile from the border in El Paso, Texas, to explore the members of the Criminal Justice Club—students considering a career in law enforcement as members of the Border Patrol.

The director’s write-up put it this way:  “What is the price of pursuing dreams that have very real consequences?”

The price (i.e., pay) for a beginning border patrol agent is $52,583 and, within 5 years, the agents can be commanding salaries of $100,000 annually. The bi-cultural Spanish-speaking high school students in this border town near Juarez are potentially valuable recruits to the service, because they can communicate and know the culture.

We follow Cristine, Kassy/Mason, and Cesar, a recent graduate, as they take part in training as border patrol explorers and would-be agents.

Intruding on their career decisions are the personal lives of the students. It is the students’ personal lives that ultimately become more the focus of the film than the decision “to be or not to be” border patrol agents. That was a bit disappointing, as I thought we would learn more about the actual work that border patrol agents do and the conflicts an agent might face if asked to enforce a policy that, in their own judgment, was grossly unfair.

This subject does come up with the students when it becomes clear that there is a split of opinion about tearing immigrant families apart at the border. Cristine’s mother, in Spanish, says, “I mean, if you’re going to deport them, deport them, but why break up the family?  I read about one family where the mother was sent to New York and the children were in Washington.” Cristine’s mother doesn’t think much of the White House’s “no tolerance” policy, foisted on the administration by Steven Miller, and neither does Cristine herself, ultimately, as she does not continue with the Explorers program.

Another student involved is Kassy/Mason, who probably talks the most, saying “I found a support system so I could have a family and not feel alone, but it’s not a support system for who I am.”  Kassy—now known as Mason— is a Beto O’Rourke supporter, in favor of Black Lives Matter, and gay (trans by film’s end). Kassy/Mason’s parents are divorced and the house in the early morning hours is always deserted. During a Border Challenge Competition Kassy/Mason is removed from a team sent in to “sweep” a room. The older policeman who says  “stand down” had been a  hero to the teen. Perhaps this public demotion is one of the reasons the chattiest teen ultimately does not continue with the border patrol explorers group, as the older man gives as his reason that he  only wants 10 people strong, rather than 11. One wonders if this is the real reason.

For someone who spends a lot of the film telling us how difficult it is to “open up” about problems in the family, including divorce and homosexuality, Kassy—who becomes Mason by film’s end— does the majority of the talking about personal situations throughout the film. By the end of the film this young explorer has quit the program and is now openly trans and called Mason.

Last in the trio of students we follow is the recent Horizon High School graduate Cesar, whose father was caught trying to bring drugs across the border from Juarez and imprisoned in the local prison annex for a year. Cesar’s father, when released from jail, was told not to leave the area. So, of course, the first thing he did was to move permanently to Juarez, where Cesar now spends time visiting him and, at times, living with him.

Of the three students who were part of the Criminal Justice Club originally, Cesar and another student (Oscar) both seem as though they will make it into the field, while the others on whom this film concentrated the most probably will not.

The film ran one hour and 42 minutes, proving, once again, that “it’s tough to kill your babies,” whether that “baby” is a book or a film.

 

BYOB Means “Bring Your Own Brigade” in Sundance Documentary About Paradise (CA) Wildfire

A still from Bring Your Own Brigade by Lucy Walker, an official selection of the Premieres section at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute

Brad Weldon is the “hippie star” and narrator for a documentary about the California wildfires entitled “Bring Your Own Brigade” ( BYOB.) Brad fought the Camp Fire of November 8, 2018, for 7 or 8 hours to save his house, likening it to “fighting an elephant with a piece of spaghetti.”

In the course of this 127 minute documentary by London-born director Lucy Walker there is riveting personal testimony and eerily beautiful cinematography (kudos to cinematographers Fenwick, Delaney and Smith), of entire hillsides on fire or the sun sinking behind the mountains with a smokey wasteland conjuring up images of Dante’s “Inferno.” Walker is a 2-time Oscar nominee for her documentaries and a 7-time Emmy nominee (she won once). Educated at Oxford and New York University’s Film School, she is known for “The Crash Reel,” “Devil’s Playground,” and “Waste Land.”

Those who lived in the ironically-named Paradise, California, were sometimes told to evacuate, sometimes given misinformation on the phone, and sometimes trapped without hope. Brad Weldon talked about “angels” being responsible for his home’s survival.

After the fire, Brad threw open his doors to 20 of his homeless neighbors. His 90-year-old elderly mother, blind and unable to walk, is shown throughout the film, with Brad tending to her needs, including some cannabis cookies that ramp up the entire thought that a commune of sixties hippies inhabit the town of 26,000+ residents located 85 miles north of Sacramento.

On November 8, 2018, eighty-six of the town’s residents died in California’s deadliest wildfire, called the Camp Fire. Paradise residents either received inadequate warning to evacuate or chose to stay, but when they all attempted to leave at once on the narrow roads, the result was pandemonium and chaos. One resident, mentioning that Paradise was one of the few California towns with no sewer system, made the comment that the town “can’t even get its shit together.” In fact, the town did have an evacuation plan that they had actually practiced, but no one factored in that everyone would try to leave town simultaneously.

That verdict is borne out by the scenes of panicked people describing horrific scenes (“the side mirror on my car melted”) and the remarks of a local architect (whose house was NOT built of wood) who said, “You can tell something is going horribly wrong.” Only 5% of the local buildings escaped fire damage. The city council, during a meeting, pointed out that 55% of the homes built after 2008 survived, while only 9% of those built before 2008, citing more stringent fire safety rules and regulations, and calling for more such cautionary measures for the future in the face of local resistance. As the director said, “Self immolation under the mantra of personal freedom.” I couldn’t help but find the situation similar to today’s Congressional stand-off and the inability of the town’s residents to see that the 5-foot fire break requested by local fire officials would not really infringe on their personal freedom all that much, but could have helped save their homes.

The first one-third to one-half of the film is gorgeously filmed with truly breathtaking cinematic images. It is hard to look away from the “400 foot fire tornado” as it races towards the people and the roads. The scenes of burned land after the fire are like the apocalypse. The “extraction crew,” who had to remove dead bodies from the cars that could not all manage to get out of town at once, were shown at work and talking about their soul-crushing work.

The first 45 minutes of the film is phenomenal. The last 82 minutes, which talk about the fire’s origins, the post-fire town, and the future, drag. The documentary moves on to ponder several questions:  How did this happen? What were the causes? What can be done to stop something like this from happening in the future, if anything? Is there a widening gulf between the “haves”—[like Kim Kardashian, who shares that she and Kanye hired a private fire force]—and the have-nots, who waited for help and got none. It’s worth mentioning that Paradise, which was all but totally destroyed, had homes whose median value was $200,000; it suffered 28 times the casualties of Malibu (3 dead), where homes clock in at $3.5 million.

The entire scenario seemed part of Trump’s America with “YOYO” (you’re on your own) the philosophy of survivors. Amazingly, those onscreen who were asked about global warming and its contribution to the proliferation of fatal fires pronounced that global warming was “a hoax,” just as fervently as did those who declared Covid-19 to be a hoax, right up until their relatives or friends died from it. In this case, however, the residents who have just lost their homes to the fire still deny climate change. At least there were many alternative theories and facts presented to give them some ammunition in their denials. The forest fires have been happening in the 40s, 50s, 60s and 70s and none other than the long-dead Zsa Zsa Gabor is seen in a brief cameo discussing the first of many fires years ago. Twenty-two died in Santa Rosa in 2017; 22 died in the Thomas Fire.

At the very end, there is a hearkening back to the ancient wisdom of native peoples, such as the North Fork Mono Tribe or the Karuk people, whose ancient wisdom might well be tapped to prevent such future catastrophes. The PTSD of the firefighters is articulated by one of them named Phil who talked of the suicide and divorce and other symptoms of having tried their best and yet being blamed for their failure to control Mother Nature; Phil died 6 days after making the remarks.

It’s a very good look at the causes and the potential cures, with a great deal of history mixed into the final two-thirds of the film.

Gorgeous cinematography. Riveting real-life drama. Food for thought. What’s not to like?

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