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 2 of 41

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“We Are the Thousand” (SXSW Photo).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“We Are the Thousand” (SXSW Photo).

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The Return: Life After ISIS” Paints Grim Picture of ISIS Women in Refugee Camps (SXSW)

The Return: Life After Isis” at SXSW Online 2021.

This film from Alba Sotorra Clua goes inside the Syrian refugee camps where citizens from 56 different nations and their children are trapped in a hellish existence. After the West withdrew and left the Kurds on their own and thousands of ISIS families faced defeat in Syria, there were over 100,000 captives who ended up living in camps throughout Syria. This camp contains a group of 1500 women and children i tent cities in Qamsall and Beghouz in Northeast Syria.

The newspaper headlines from various countries tell their story: “No regrets. No remorse. No re-entry.” As the women tell their stories, some say they were naïve teenagers who fell victim to the lure of ISIS on propaganda videos they saw on Twitter. Regardless, the countries from which they came do not want them back. Their children might make be accepted, but not the adult parents.

Some women held in the tent city were already married to young men who went off to fight with ISIS. When that happened to Hafida Nawal of the Netherlands, she was six months pregnant. She followed her husband from Holland to the Middle East.  Her husband, too, became disillusioned by the entire experience and agreed that both of them would try to escape, just before he was killed in battle. He said to her, “At least now you have a chance because the women and the children can go, but they (ISIS) will never let the men go.” She describes horrible hunger and how her child was reduced to eating grass, but says she doesn’t know if the hunger or the bombing is the worst. “She now realizes, “Real freedom is what we have in Holland” and says that the realization “doesn’t stop me from regretting.” In June of 2020 the Dutch courts ruled against repatriation.

Hoda Muthana of the United States and Shamima Begun of the United Kingdom voice similar regrets. Shamima was only 19 when she left Britain to join ISIS saying, “I always wanted to be a part of something.  I wanted to feel useful. I feel really bad, as a Muslim, leaving them behind.” She described her upbringing in an Islamic household as one where she was not close to her strict parents, had no friends and turned to Twitter for friendship. She fell victim to the propaganda videos that promise “the path of glory” and “living the true glory” and “surrendering to jihad.’ Shamima, however, was one of the more active online spreading ISIS propaganda as @Ummjihad and says, “You don’t realize you are brainwashed until you snap out of it.” She gave birth in Syria; her son died. Her best friend was killed in a bombing raid. She says “This was just a cult that ruined many people’s lives.” Her citizenship, as well as that of Hoda’s, has been revoked.

The film traces the group for 2 years. It is 2 years of unrelenting horror, deprivation and loss. One woman who emerges as a heroine is Sevina Evdike, a Kurdish woman who continues to work with the women. She urges them to write to anyone who might be able to help them, but no positive word is heard.

The German woman onscreen shares that she felt discriminated against in Germany, but that it is much worse here in Syria.  Kimberly from Canada and the others look cold in their burkhas with strong winds and dust blowing throughout the ramshackle camp. They describe blood running through the makeshift hospital tent after attacks and women showing up who appear to have been beaten all over their bodies with a pipe, despite being pregnant at the time. The Canadian captive says that many do not survive such grievous wounds. They describe the sale of women in marketplaces and there is film footage of such a sale, (shot discreetly from a distance).

All express the same refrain, “I really regret for the rest of my life. I wish I could just erase it.” After Shamima’s son dies, she says, “He was my last hope, the only thing keeping me alive.”

No water, no food, women sold into slavery or used as human shields. It’s a grim companion piece to the similar film “Sabaya” by Hogir Horiri, recently shown at Sundance. (A “sabaya” is a female sex slave.)

All have condemned themselves to a life of unremitting pain and suffering, but, when asked what they have learned from the experience, two positive statements emerge: (1) How strong women can be, and, (2) The value of a human life.

 

“The United States Versus Reality Winner” Screens at SXSW 2021

 

Reality Winner, accused NSA whistleblower (Wikipedia).

This expose of the persecution of Reality Winner (yes, that is really her name) was made possible  because of a Freedom of Information Act that finally  resulted in the release of the audio of Reality’s interrogation by eleven FBI agents.

The director of this based-on-fact film is Sonia Kennebeck. A famous name, Wim Wenders, the 75-year-old thrice-Oscar-nominated German director, served as executive producer.

Another famous face and voice is that of international whistleblower Edward Snowden, interviewed onscreen,  who released NSA classified documents to the Washington Post and The Guardian in June of 2013 and has been in exile ever since. Snowden makes the point that the only thing the authorities want to hear from you in such a case is a “yes” or a “no” to the question of whether or not an NSA employee with a Top Secret Security Clearance voluntarily released information.

Reality Winner—so named by her deceased father, because his wife picked the name of their firstborn, so he was allowed to select the second child’s name—was a supporter of Bernie Sanders. In the course of her work in Augusta, Georgia, she came into possession of the documents that proved that Russia was trying to meddle in the presidential race of 2016 at a time when this fact was being disputed by the Republican party.

Reality was held over a year in jail without bond and charged with the crime in violation of 18 USC/793, the Espionage and Censorship Act, written in 1917 for World War I. The law makes it a crime to provide national defense information to a foreign government, even though the document did not endanger national security.

Despite the fact that Reality Winner had a spotless background and had, in fact, served 6 years in the Air Force, her decision to make public the document that proved Russian meddling has cost her everything—her freedom, her job, her life. She not only was held one full year without being granted bond, she is one of only 8 people ever to be sentenced under the act. She received the toughest sentence of any of them: 63 months in prison, plus 3 months of supervised release.

At first, Reality denied sending the document to “The Intercept.” She said she remembered she had folded the document and put it in the burn bag. After being held in jail without bond and without trial for a year, she admitted that she folded the piece of paper and smuggled it out in her pantyhose. She sent it (with a Georgia postmark) to The Intercept for publication. Matthew Cole and Richard Esposito, two reporters for “The Intercept” contacted the FBI. Another such individual (who spent 2 years in prison for a similar crime), said, “They single-handedly got her arrested.”

When the eleven agents swooped down on Reality’s home, they were aware that she had written online, “The most dangerous thereat is the orange threat we let into the White House.” They knew of her support for Bernie Sanders. They did not, however, ever bother to read her her Miranda rights and did their best to get her to confess guilt in a casual fashion.

Then, the government sat on the documents for over 2 years. The document that proved Russia’s involvement in meddling in our presidential election is now public. It never imperiled our national security. It is fairly obvious that Reality Winner was going to be made into an example to dissuade “leakers” within the Trump Administration. She was recently denied a pardon on compassionate grounds.

The feeling you come away with after the film is that Reality Winner was trying to live up to a patriotic ideal that her father and mother had imbued in her since birth. She held out for a very long time before admitting to the mailing of the document. Conviction was a foregone conclusion, as the paperwork bore a certain “code” that would prove it had been her duty to handle it (she usually handled questions about Iranian air space and spoke Farsi, Darsh and Pashto). The details about the folded paper, plus the postmark, marked this native of Kingsville, Texas for a tough road ahead. As Reality said to her sister, “That’s my whole life. That’s all I had.”

She did put up a good fight, writing, from jail, “This is the worst summer camp ever.  There aren’t even any bears.”

Reality was 25 when indicted and her actions at no time put United States security into jeopardy, but her actions did clear up the unanswered question about whether or not the Russians were actively working to subvert our free and fair elections. The revelation put us in a much better position to safeguard our 2020 election from any foreign interference.

It’s a cautionary tale for our time. It’s certainly not the last or only unfair thing we are learning about Donald J. Trump’s time in office.

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The Lost Sons” Is An Intriguing Tale at SXSW 2021

In 1960s Chicago, a baby is kidnapped from a hospital. Fifteen months later, a toddler is abandoned. Could he be the same baby? In a tale of breathtaking twists and turns, two mysteries begin to unravel and dark family secrets are revealed.

The incredibly twisted tale of a new-born baby snatched from Michael Reese Hospital in Chicago in broad daylight in April of 1964 is brought to the screen with authentic film footage of the day, excellent music, and interviews with the principals.

Dora and Chester Franczak of Chicago, were crushed when their newborn son, Paul Joseph Fronczak, was kidnapped from the hospital by a woman in a white nurse’s uniform. It was a brazen day-light theft and it went unsolved for 15 months. Or was it solved at all?

The couple had already lost a child previously, so this second loss was devastating. “Why has God done this to me again?” cried the new mother.

A young student nurse in the hospital room with Dora when the interloper carried off her baby (saying that the doctor wanted to examine him), Mary Trenchard Petrie, described her duties, which were to stay by the new mother’s side all day. (Dora had not yet been told of the disappearance of her son.) Both women contribute their remembrances of the woman who had carried off Dora’s baby.  Mary shared how devastating the news was, when, at day’s end, the truth was finally revealed to the young couple.

 In the summer of 1966, a young boy is abandoned in Newark, New Jersey. He was left in a nice pram, but was sporting a black eye. The FBI brought the young boy back to Illinois to be reunited with the Oak Lawn couple. They asked  Dora and Chester if  this was, indeed, their kidnapped son.

What would the couple say? Without any hesitation the couple claimed the young boy as their long-missing son and the family became a family of four by November, as Dora was pregnant with another son. As Paul’s mother says, of the now 57-year-old Paul in the documentary, “You were such a beautiful boy…If I said no (to accepting him as their missing child), I would live with that all of my life. Regardless, we felt like we did the right thing.”

It wasn’t until young Paul was in elementary school (and searching for hidden Christmas presents) that he found, hidden in a crawlspace in a trunk, newspaper clippings that detailed his kidnapping and the search for a missing child. He asked his mother whether these clippings were about him. She  angrily told him they would never speak of it again.

But they did speak of it again, because Paul, after he was grown and had left home, began to wonder about himself. His story is not that different from that of any adopted child who grows up in a good and loving home. Do I need to find my biological parents?

In Paul’s case, was he an “adopted” child, or was he really and truly the biological offspring of Dora and Chester? About the time his own wife gave birth to his daughter, Ellen, he wanted to know.

Thus began a long and twisted story of volunteers who became known as The Search Ants and numerous searches for identity and reality, which lead in many interesting and unexpected directions.

First, was the foundling abandoned in New Jersey really the child kidnapped in Chicago?

Second: if Paul is NOT the biological son of Dora and Chester, who is he, really? What, then, is his real birthday? And is the “real” Paul Franczak still alive and well?

To say that there are numerous twists and turns in this fascinating story is to put it mildly. Director Ursula Macfarlane keeps the interest high and the cinematography, with shots of a number of cities (Chicago, Las Vegas, Atlantic City, etc.) is gorgeous.

The story and the CNN documentary are fascinating and, as Barbara Walters proved in a 2020 interview, “Everybody wanted in on this story.”

It’s a great conversation-provoker for anyone who wonders if they would want to know their biological background, if they were an adopted child—or not. Is it necessary to seek for these answers, or should one simply leave well enough alone?

Check this one out if you have asked yourselves these questions in your life. And find out what DNA tracing, today, can do to pin down your origin(s).

 

 

“The Oxy Kingpins” Screens at SXSW 2021 and Describes the Origins of the Opioid Epidemic

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

This documentary, directed by Brendan Fitzgerald, is a look at the opioid epidemic in America and how Big Pharma was complicit in causing the deaths of over half a million Americans. Former drug dealer Alex tells us as the film opens that oxycontin is really just heroin. Given the over-prescribing by the medical establishment, within a 2-week time the patient could become addicted and have a $200 to $300 a day habit.

The film tells the story of how big pharmaceutical companies raked in the profits without a thought to the harm the drug was causing.  Telling the story is  Pensacola attorney Mike Papantonio, whose fifteen-attorney firm (Levin and Papantonio) is hard at work prosecuting the drug companies for greedily promoting their product, even though it was obvious it was addicting an entire generation. As the film says, “At the end of the day, they were just getting rich.”

The Purdue Pharma Sackler family saga is referenced as a RICO investigation, (which means it was Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization.) Meanwhile, other big pharmaceutical companies were distributing the pills to small towns, sending 12 million pills to a town of 5,000 people without any attempt to stop the resulting addiction. In fact, at one point, an e-mail from the top  clearly warns pharmaceutical company employees NOT to use the word “suspicious” because to do so would mean that an investigation might occur. Instead, McKesson Corporation (MCK), the Number One deliverer of all drugs in the United States, made $194 billion in one year and its CEO, John Hammergen, was paid a yearly salary of $700 million.

Mike Papantonio and his investigators pin their hopes on the state of Nevada, which has a policy of unsealing all court documents. In the past, court cases against pharmaceutical concerns like McKesson or the #2 and #3 distributors in the U.S., Cardinal and Amerisource, were sealed. The company would pay a fine of $10 or $15 million,  but insist that the incriminating documents be sealed. As Papantonio said, “We have a drug that is killing people and it’s kept from the public.”

Driving home the point that drug manufacturers and distributers were only too willing to look the other way in order to make profits, Papantonio referred to these actions by men like CEO of Cardinal Health George Barrett as “white collar corporate crime.” Men like Alex, the drug dealer now gone straight, spent 8 years in prison for distributing drugs like Oxycontin, but the Big Pharma profiteers walked away with millions.

Papantonio chose Nevada to use for a prosecution which  dragged on for 3 and ½ years, because of Nevada’s policy of unsealing court records. Judge Elizabeth Gonzalez also turned down the defense’s request for one (of many) delays.

“The distributors chose rural areas that were areas of despair” and customers like Anna, shown onscreen, bought as much as they wanted from their local Safeway Pharmacy. She was born in Hawthorne, Nevada, population 4,772 in Mineral County, a part of Nevada with the second-largest consumption of Oxycontin in the state and the fourth highest death rate where 3,100,100 doses were distributed with barely an eyebrow raised.

It’s a good documentary, although more real-life stories like Anna’s rather than concentrating quite so much on the attorneys would have driven the case home even more intensely . I was immediately reminded of the indie film “Shooting Heroin,” about the opioid problem in Pennsylvania. It’s a situation that was drawing attention, including Senate hearings in May of 2018, but the pandemic  pushed the opioid deaths from the news.

Fictional films that have dealt with the same crisis in the last few years, which would make good companion films for this factual treatment, would include “Ben Is Back” (Julia Roberts and Lucas Hedges) and “Beautiful Boy” (Timothy Chalamet and Steve Carrell).

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