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 43

“Citizen Ashe” Is Well-Done Sam Pollard Documentary at Chicago International Film Festival

Arthur Ashe, from the documentary “Citizen Ashe” at the 57th Chicago International Film Festival.

Sam Pollard, who directed “MLK/FBI” and “Sammy Davis, Jr.: I’ve Gotta’ Be Me,” has teamed with Rex Miller— listed as both the Director and Cinematographer—to produce an informative 96-minute documentary entitled “Citizen Ashe.”

The film traces Arthur Ashe’s career as the first and best Black male tennis player. Ashe was the first Black man to win the U.S. Open, the Australian Open, and Wimbledon. Along the way, talking heads including John McEnroe, Billie Jean King, Ashe’s younger brother Johnny, and various luminaries of the sports world talk about this amazing athlete who was born In 1943 and died of AIDS-related pneumonia at the age of 49 in 1993. Ashe’s widow, Jeannie Moutoussamy-Ashe was Executive Producer for the film. The entertaining, thoughtful documentary testifies to Ashe’s spoken goal: “I want to be the Jackie Robinson of tennis.”

Born in Richmond, Virginia to a mother (Mattie) who died at age 27 from heart-related disorders  when Arthur was only 6, it is worth noting that Ashe was the documented descendant of a West African woman brought to America in 1735 aboard the slave ship Daddington and subsequently owned by North Carolina Governor Samuel Ashe.

Growing up in the segregated South, Ashe was fortunate that his father was in charge of a Richmond, Virginia sports complex, Brookfield Park. The park included basketball courts, a pool, 3 baseball diamonds and 4 tennis courts. Ashe started playing tennis on the courts there at the age of 7 and was ultimately noticed and given instruction by a local physician, Dr. Johnson, a tennis enthusiast who had built a tennis court in his own back yard and had coached Althea Gibson.

Still, Black players were denied participation in many tournaments and could not use the indoor courts in Richmond, so Ashe relocated to St. Louis’ Sumner High School at the invitation of 62-year-old teacher Richard Hudlin to complete his high school education. While there, with Ashe on the team, Sumner High won the United States Interscholastic Tennis Tournament.

Ashe was offered a scholarship to the University of California in Los Angeles in 1963 and headed off to Los Angeles, while also involved with ROTC that would lead to 2 years in the Army to help him with college expenses (he was assigned to West Point and put in charge of their tennis program).

In 1963 Ashe was named the #1 player in the world and was #3 in 1965. His entire life changed with the much more accepting nature of racial interaction in California. Other athletes were beginning to speak out against racism, with moments like the raised fists of John Carlos and Tommy Smith at the 1968 Summer Olympics.

Ashe found himself torn between his own impulses, learned at his father’s knee, [“Don’t do anything that will hurt yourself later.”] and his sympathy for the Black athletes who were demonstrating and standing up for their rights. As Ashe said, “If you were a moderate, it was the same thing as being an Uncle Tom.”   In an interview, Ashe acknowledges that, “Being the only one, I’m a drawing card, whether I like it or not.”

As a “drawing card,” other Black athletes were pressuring the tennis star to join them in protests against unequal treatment. He responded to calls to boycott the Olympics by saying, “That’s not my way.” But he allowed that hanging back from joining the movement caused him to feel that “I didn’t like myself very much.”

As the documentary puts it, “There was a new breed of Black athlete.”  Arthur, as a child, had been taught to return every ball within two inches of the line and never argue with an umpire’s decision, so protest of a strident sort was not his upbringing.

In these years, the country seemed to be coming apart with the assassination of JFK, RFK, and MLK. Fifty thousand National Guard troops were quelling riots in the streets of U.S. cities. Robert F. Kennedy’s assassination hit Arthur particularly hard, as he had been with RFK on the campaign trail in June of 1968, just the day before he was assassinated at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles.

South Africa’s policy of apartheid also became a cause that Ashe invested in, with a sincere admiration and a growing friendship with Nelson Mandela arising from Mandela’s 27-year imprisonment for the cause of equal rights.

Just as President Barack Obama modeled on Mandela, so, too, did Arthur Ashe. It was, he said, a great honor and privilege to get to meet Mandela and to become a personal friend.

Ashe is quoted as saying that he wanted to rebut the commonly held misconception that athletes were “all brawn, no brains.” He did that with his masterfully planned victory over Jimmy Connors in the 1975 Wimbledon Finals. Ashe countered Connors’ technique of serving the ball by hitting it on the rise by taking the pace off the ball. He gave Connors only soft junk shots (dinks, drop shots and lobs) to deal with.  Ashe won the match and the title at the age of 32.

He would retire four years later with 818 wins, 260 losses, 51 titles and $1,584,909 in tournament winnings, plus wins for the U.S. Davis Cup team three years running, in 1968, 1969 and 1970. Ashe coached the Davis Cup team from 1981 to 1985. He had to contend with  obnoxious personalities who were the polar opposite of his own, like John McEnroe.

We see McEnroe acting like a jerk in old footage and commenting on Ashe’s supervision of him on the Rider Cup teams. (McEnroe consistently played on Rider Cup teams for 12 years, while Jimmy Connors refused to do so and even lodged a lawsuit against Ashe at one point over their differing opinions on what the Davis Cup play meant to the nation).

Arthur Ashe’s widow, Jeanne, ends the film sharing Arthur’s words: “We both want to distress the comfortable and comfort the distressed.” Commenting on how losing a kind soul like Arthur Ashe illustrates what a treasure he was during life, Jeanne talked about their adopted daughter Camera, who lost her dad at the age of 7, just as Arthur, himself, had lost his own mother to heart disease when he was only 6.

Arthur Ashe’s funeral attracted 6,000 mourners. Then- Governor Douglas Wilder allowed his body to lay in state at the Governor’s Mansion in Richmond, where an additional 5,000 mourners paid their respects. Andrew Young, who had married Ashe in 1977, buried him after a service held at the Arthur Ashe Athletic Center on February 10, 1993. Ashe was buried next to his mother, Mattie.

The action shots of Ashe and tennis contemporaries in action were well-chosen. His demeanor in all recorded interviews or appearances illustrate how a champion should behave A clip is included in the documentary that shows Obama saying that the two athletes that he most emulated and admired were Muhammad Ali and Arthur Ashe. It’s a great way to learn about this fabled athlete.

 

 

“Babi Yar” Is Riveting Documentary at 57th Chicago International Film Festival

“Babi Yar. Context” (Wikimedia)

Director Sergei Loznitsa (“State Funeral,” “Donbass,” “Maidan”) has compiled a staggering amount of vintage 80-year-old footage of World War II action in Kiev and Lemberg (Lvov)in this documentary. It is 1941; the opening scene is of black smoke billowing over the countryside while firing on a bridge continues. War planes soar overhead.

The 1941 film is black-and-white, although there are a few color pieces of vintage film. Throughout, one is struck by the devastation being wrought.  There are tanks on the roads. Broadcasts from Moscow. Multiple explosions rock Kiev.

Said Director Sergei Loznitsa, “Some of the footage I work with has been buried in the archives for decades – nobody has ever seen it, not even historians specializing in the Holocaust in the USSR.  One such episode is the explosions of Kreschatik in September, 1941.  Kiev’s central street was mined with remote-controlled explosives by the NKVD (Soviet Secret Service) before the Red army had retreated from Kiev.  The detonations of the explosives were carried out a few days after the Germans took the city. There were civilian casualties and thousands were left homeless.”

Ominously, there is footage of a large group of men, seated peacefully on the ground. Explosions planted by the Soviet secret police, the NKVD, occur everywhere in Kiev. The Nazis decide to eliminate the city’s Jews, driven by the Judeo-Bolshevik conspiracy falsehood at the heart of Nazi ideology. It is the first attempt to wipe out the entire Jewish population of a large city: extermination by bullet.

The men seated peacefully on the ground are being counted off and loaded into a truck. At one point, one of the Nazi soldiers doing the counting says to another, “What are we going to do with them?”

What they did do with them was cold-blooded execution, killing 33,771 (although estimates up to 100,000 are mentioned by those interviewed). The Germans rounded up the Jews via official posted announcements  (they were told to bring their valuables and food and warm clothing)  and gather on the edges of a ravine in Northwest Kiev  known as Babi Yar (“Grandmother’s ravine”) and then the Germans and some Ukrainian soldiers who had gone over to the Nazi side systematically executed men, women and children.

If you were a curious resident of the town who wandered out to see what was going on, that might be your death sentence, as the public notices to show up were made in such a way that none imagined the barbarity of the actions to take place. “Man’s inhumanity to man” is the phrase that reoccurs, again and again.  Flash forward to the horrible photos of genocide against the people of Syria on “Sixty Minutes” not long ago.

But the Director has a much grimmer take on what happened at Babi Yar. From Director Sergei Loznitsa:   “I study dehumanization, the loss of humanity by a human being…There was a regime change and, prior to that, a short period of chaos, of lawlessness. It is during this moment when the true nature of a human is revealed.  Without control and pressure from the authorities, in an atmosphere of chaos, it seems that anything is allowed, any action can go unpunished.

I have every reason to believe that back in September 1941, many residents of Kiev had suspected that Jews were going to be killed and not “relocated to the South.” But no one protested.  I study dehumanization, the loss of humanity by a human being. This is why it is necessary to reflect upon this whole situation. It is necessary to think about it.

No doubt there were the righteous among them—those who hid the Jews in their houses, who helped them survive.  But they were few and far between. This is what scares me. Certain individuals committed heroic acts and risked their lives by helping the Jews, while thousands of others remained indifferent to their fate, preoccupied with their own ‘housing issues’ and dividing the remaining Jewish property.

Neighbors reported on neighbors, concierges acted as informants. They used the same lists of residents that they had previously supplied the NKVD with, to report the Jews to the Germans.  After the massacre, a few remaining invalids and elderly Jews in the Podol district of Kiev, who were too frail to walk to Babi Yar, were hunted by the local residents, dragged out of their apartments and stoned to death.  The locals did it, not the Germans.  I saw the archive documents describing these atrocities with my own eyes.”

The film has shots of corpses, many bodies obviously exposed to the elements for a long period of time. There are also shots of men carrying dead, bloody bodies out of a prison where the people had been interrogated (and then shot). There are scenes of thousands of men and women digging along the river as though happy to help. These people did not know what awaited them. They were told to bring food and warm clothes and any valuables, to prevent them from suspecting mass extermination. Some did fear the worst and over 100,000 fled the city.

There is documentation of Nazi troops setting fire to homes, watching the thatched roofs burn.  We see both the occupation of Lemberg (Lvov) on June 21, 1941, and, near film’s end, on November 6, 1943, the Soviets taking back Kiev.

Babi Yar” Stalin image being removed upon Nazi occupation of Kiev.

“Hitler, the Liberator” banners are torn down when the town is re-taken. Early in the film, Stalin’s larger-than-life banner is removed to be replaced with one that says, “Long live the leader of the German people, Adolf Hitler.” One mass murderer gives way to another. And so it seems to go, worldwide, from time immemorial.

This compilation of film is truly remarkable. Finding the historical film must have been a colossal task. Jonas Zagorskas and Likas Zapearakas worked on film restoration. The quality of this 80-year-old film, some of it shot by Nazi soldiers with their own personal cameras, is amazing. The Germans were always given high marks for keeping extensive records of the atrocities they committed (which made it easier for judgment at Nuremberg.)

At the end of this series of  historic film clips, there are trials and testimony. Hans Isenmann, an SS soldier, describes how the Germans methodically divided the killing squads into 6 men to guard and 6 men to shoot, and then armed them with a machine gun, 2 submachine guns and rifles and had them shoot people for 3 days in Babi Yar. Isenmann was a shooter and personally killed 120 people while positioned 70 to 90 meters from the edge of the pit.

Historian Stephanie Trouillard found this testimony about the procedures the victims faced: “People were asked to take their most treasured possessions with them, then at a particular spot they had to give away their proof of identity, then at another point they had to give away the possessions they brought, and finally there was a place at which they had to undress.”

The most riveting trial testimony comes from two women.  One woman, with her son, made the mistake of going out to the ravine just to see what was going on. The woman and her son were told to line up and she was a witness as they shot her son. Then, she fainted. When she came to, she “played dead” from 9 o’clock until 5 p.m. Then, she got up and went home.

Dina Pronicheva, another witness, tells an even more harrowing story of witnessing the murder of naked victims, who were lined up single file. She jumped into the pit and hid amongst the dead, whom she describes as making hiccupping and moaning sounds in their death throes.

Two Nazi soldiers, noticing that she didn’t seem to have any visible blood (she was not shot) stand on her arms with their nailed boots, yet she didn’t cry out. Then, they began to bury her alive.

That is when she decided it would be better to be shot than to be buried alive. As the soil began to suffocate her, she moved her arm and dug herself out.  She could see flashlights (“torches” in her testimony) from above.

Dina crawled up the wall of the ravine, which was very difficult, and heard the voice of a boy of 14 behind her—a young boy who, like herself, fell into the pit uninjured when his grandfather was shot.  They crawled across a large meadow and hid, as the sun was rising, and now she testifies to these atrocities.

It is film like this that must be preserved against the Alex Jones’ of “false news” who sometimes say the Holocaust never happened. Historian Boris Czerny, a specialist in Jewish history in Eastern Europe tells us: “Nearly 1.5 million Ukrainian Jews were murdered between 1941 and 1944. Almost 80 percent of them were shot dead. Executions continued at Babi Yar long after September 1941. The Nazis killed nearly 100,000 people there until Soviet forces liberated Kyiv in November 1943 – not only Jews but also Ukrainian opponents of the occupation, Poles, Roma people, the mentally ill and prisoners of war.”

The synopsis accurately described “Babi Yar. Context” as a masterfully crafted study of a human catastrophe that stands out in WWII history for its barbarism. The documentary is immersive, captivating and deeply distressing.

Bearing witness to past tragedies is the first step if we’re ever going to avoid them. The knowledge of history is the best defense if we’re ever to see the world today in a true light.

The film is intended for the long-overdue Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial Center. When complete, it will speak against such atrocities forever.

“Babi Yar. Context” won the Silver Hugo at the 57th Chicago International Film Festival in the International Documentary category announced Friday, October 22, 2021. It is 2 fascinating hours long.

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

“Storm Lake” & “Writing With Fire:” Journalism Under Fire (Documentaries)

Two new documentaries detail the gradual death of journalism in this country and the rise of digital journalism in India. Both agree that newspapers—whether print or digital—can make a difference and that, without them democracy is at risk.

Rintu Thomas ad Sushmit Ghosh shepherded “Writing with Fire” through to completion and this story of women in India who started a newspaper in 2002 and risked their lives to make it successful won the Audience and the Grand Jury prize at Sundance.

The newspaper, Khabar Lahariya (which translates to “Waves of News”) is the only all-female newspaper in India and its chief reporter, Meera, put it this way: “I believe journalism is the essence of democracy…This is how one fights for justice in a democracy. “ She adds, “Journalists must use this power responsibly. Otherwise, the media will become like any other business.”

Watching the India documentary at the same time as the PBS documentary set in Storm Lake, Iowa and entitled “Storm Lake” provided an interesting contrast.

Art Cullen, the Editor-in-Chief of the “Storm Lake Times” for 40 years would agree with Meera, but the problems of Storm Lake, Iowa—the town where my Aunt and Uncle lived out their lives—seem infinitely less dire than those in Meera’s northern Indian Utar Pradesh area. The saying in India about the area where Meera and her team are writing and working is “as Utar Pradesh goes, so goes the country.”

SUBTLE RACISM

For Art Cullen’s newspaper, which won the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Journalism, “The newspaper weaves the fabric of the community in ways large and small.” When Art’s paper won the Pulitzer, it made it harder—not easier—for Whitney Robinson, Sales and Circulation Manager,to sell advertising, because one of the crowning achievements of the “Storm Lake Times” was to trace the life path of a young man who was deported from Storm Lake after a raid at the large Tyson Meat Packing Plant, which was an IBP plant, at that time (Iowa Beef Products).

Julio Barroso was a smiling, happy second-grader, age 8, and then he was gone. Art and his team investigated to find out where Art ended up and discovered him living in Guadalajara, Mexico, twenty-two years later, married, with three children.

Art’s writing about how Julio’s life trajectory was changed by the raid for illegal immigrants and his subsequent deportation may have earned kudos from the awards-panel, but the residents of Storm Lake in northwest Iowa don’t hold with Art’s Democratic-leaning views.

Storm Lake is Trump country. The immigrants who flock to work in meat processing plants in places like Storm Lake and Columbus Junction (the poorest town in the state) have a strong streak of anti-immigrant prejudice. There are 2200 packing plant workers. In the local elementary school 50% speak Spanish and 10% speak “other” languages besides English. (The documentary was filmed in 2019).

It is easy to imagine the residents griping about their formerly lily-white town gradually being infiltrated by Mexican (and other) immigrants. I grew up in such a town—although one without a meat-packing plant—and many of the residents of northwest Iowa were Dutch immigrants or from other largely white European countries. With good-paying jobs being out-sourced to other countries, the locals tend to get  restless about losing out to immigrants from anywhere, (even though the locals aren’t generally likely to take on the back-breaking work in the meat packing plants, which offer no medical insurance).

During the pandemic, Iowa’s Republican Governor, Kim Reynolds, forced workers back into unsafe working conditions at meat-packing plants. The meat-packing company let it be known that workers who did not show up for work, perhaps because they were sick, would not get paid. I remember when the medical students at the University of Iowa were volunteering to staff a van to drive to Columbus Junction (IA) to offer workers in that town health screenings for pap smears and the like, because the meat-packing companies offer no health insurance.

There is a discussion of how Big Agra has bought up small family farms and, whereas, a decade ago in the 90s, a farmer could survive on 350 to 400 acres, now he would have to own 1,000 acres.  The big companies now control both the raising of the hogs or cattle and the processing of them. I remember when Rath Packing Plant in Waterloo, Iowa, had unions, but the big companies have all but stomped out concerns that tried to look out for the workers and their welfare.

The other continuing theme in “Storm Lake” dealt with candidate visits from the likes of Elizabeth Warren and Pete Buttigieg in the lead-up to the 2020 presidential election. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Andrew Yang. Dr. Jill Biden. They all make appearances at places like the Better Day Café and we are shown caucus night, 2020, in Storm Lake, Iowa.

Art Cullen—who has a dimpled grin like Billy Bob Thornton, but a shock of white hair like Mark Twain—says, “The main anxiety in Iowa was, ‘We’re gonna’ screw this up. And we did.” The father-son team agrees, onscreen, that Iowa will probably lose its “first-in-the-nation” status in presidential elections as a result of the colossal screw-up caused by trying to integrate new technology into the voting process without a series of dry runs, first. You might liken it to the roll-out of Obamacare, which was not without hiccups.

We hear a lot about the 300 “news deserts” that are springing up in the Hawkeye State as one in four local newspapers fold. Two-thirds of Iowa counties are declining in population and, as people move to the cities, small local papers fold. Mom and Pop stores are gone because of the corporate take-over of corporate agriculture and so are Mom and Pop newspapers. Still, those who majored in Journalism, as I did, write because it is what we do. (*Admission: I am a card-carrying member of the National Women’s Press Association, Illinois chapter, and was the official photographer at the 2019 Baton Rouge convention.) So, Art and his team attempt to cut wherever they can, thereby preserving their small hometown newspaper. They were always a “break even” newspaper and, once the pandemic hit ( advertising revenue plunges 50% in March), the question is whether they can keep the lights on. They do, but at what price glory?

INDIA’S “Khabar Lahariya” NEWSPAPER

On the other side of the world in India, the  women who started this journalistic enterprise are of the Dalit, or “Untouchable,” caste. India has four main castes:  priests, warriors, traders, and labourers. Woe unto you if you are born into the Dalit caste.

The opening interview is with a married woman of that caste who is being repeatedly raped by the men of her village. Although she has reported this to the local police, they refuse to do anything. Her husband even initiated a hunger strike to get sympathy for their plight. As the victim, Rampal Yadov, says, “These men can do anything. They can even kill both of us.”

Meena, who was married at 14, has a Master’s degree in Political Science and Teaching. She says, “Working was important for me, and I did not want to waste my education. And we needed the money.” She adds, “Power is very important.  Being a journalist gives me the power to fight for justice.” Her husband (representative of the males of India, it seems) is quoted this way:  “I never expected them to achieve anything. They’ll have to shut down soon.”

Meena’s husband is wrong. She leads the group into digital posts on YouTube and the hits on their stories rise from one million to 150 million over time. Meera Devi leads a staff of 24 who seem to be having great difficulty trying to use cell phones to write, illustrate, and post their stories. The stories deal with rape, murder, illegal Mafia mining operations, and, ultimately, the election being held that puts a Trump-like figure named Yogi Aditajanath of the BJP Party into power. The parallels are unmistakable.

Yogi stirs up chaos by making much of the election be about protecting sacred cows, rather than the real issues of the area. Here is one of Yogi’s pronouncements:  “When the law of the land becomes ineffective, then society must take matters into its own hands, and I believe the time has come now.”

One of the reporters dares to ask him what he would do about Hindus who misbehave and he answers, “Hindus can never be terrorists” with a straight face. Meena says, “Freedom of women will be snatced.  A climate of fear is being created.  Everything is about religion and discord.”This seemed very much like the United States of America at this point in history.

Meena insightfully points out that “The symbolism of the cow is a distraction for this government’s corrupt policies.” She is more interested in the average Indian household being able to have “a toilet in every house.” (Reminded me of “a chicken in every pot” from the Hoover years.)

Reporter Shiyankali does a story on the police failure to investigate rape accusations and, one week after her story, a suspect is arrested on a rape charge.

The brave women of “Khabar Lahariya” face real risk. A female journalist in Bangalore who had been critical of the Hindu national party was murdered. Meera, herself, says, “Neither are we a democracy nor are the women free. Hail Mother India.”

However, by film’s end, she says with justifiable pride:  “We made our journalism the voice of democracy.  We didn’t let the Fourth Pillar fall, and we continue to hold a mirror to society.”

“Writing with Fire” won both the Audience and the Jury Prize at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. ‘Storm Lake” is going to be screened (and available virtually) at the upcoming Denver Film Festival.

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

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

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

ACTING

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

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

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

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

WRITING

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

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

“I’ll bet there is.” (Daniel Craig)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Todd Haynes “Velvet Underground” Documentary Hits Festival Circuit

 

Velvet Underground

Todd Haynes, USA, 110 min.

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

“The Night House:” Great Psychological Thriller from Director David Bruckner

“The Night House,” a 2020 break-out success at Sundance that Searchlight Pictures bought for $12 million, is playing now at 2,150 theaters for a 45-day run, which is almost over. So far, it has garnered about $8 million worldwide. The studio showed its faith in the film by not releasing it to streaming first and Director David Bruckner admitted in an interview that it could have been a studio film but wasn’t. He’s glad it wasn’t overly supervised by a studio, but became the independent movie success it is. “The Night House” has given me a new name to add to my list of “favorite directors.”

David Bruckner, the 44-year-old director of “The Ritual” and the accident sequence of the “Southbound” film anthology, filmed this completely frightening psychological horror thriller in 24 days in Utica, New York. I realized that I had seen “The Ritual” when I went back to try to find any previous films by Bruckner.

The film starts with a shot of a small rowboat bobbing dockside outside a modernistic lake house. The woman going up the steps of the house-under-construction has obviously just lost a family member, as her female companion is telling her to call her any time in Detroit, if she feels the need. Rebecca Hall (who also executive produced) as Beth Parchin is a no-nonsense teacher. After her friend leaves, she immediately dumps the hot dish (lasagna?) that her well-meaning friend has given her and breaks out the booze.

The film then picks up the story of life after loss, because Beth’s husband, Owen, got in the rowboat, rowed out into the lake outside the modernistic house he is building, and shot himself in the head. It is ironic that it was always Beth, the wife, who was the depressive one with dark dreams, not Owen, because Owen is the one who has succumbed. Why?

We see Beth trying to cope at work during a meeting with a parent who seems to want to complain about her son’s grade. In an interview, Rebecca Hall says it was this scene that sold her on the script, as Beth shows all the earmarks of a woman who is struggling to hold it all together while under terrific stress. All of the acting Ms. Hall does is convincing, but the directorial decisions that Director David Bruckner has made in order to scare us all are brilliant.

In an interview of his own, Bruckner described how the script for “The Night House” had been “laying around for a couple of years” when he was contacted and, he said, “Here’s this crazy movie that nobody will make. Rebecca Hall read it and understood it and we were off.” Noting that he is the kind of director who works fast and decides in a split second (“I’m definitely a filmmaker who likes to lean into a space.”), Bruckner says, “You really have to go with your gut.”

Lead Rebecca Hall, who is onscreen in nearly every scene and has some difficult situations she creates that involve working opposite a mysterious spirit that isn’t really there, said, of Bruckner, “I loved working with David and think he’s brilliant and well on his way to owning the genre.” The “genre” is horror, and Bruckner has been tapped to re-create “Hellraiser.” He said, to “Shockya” magazine that “It’s a dream come true to a horror person like myself.”

The script for “The Night House” was written by Ben Collins and Luke Piotrowski.  The psychology of the script intrigued both Bruckner and Hall. It asks a question about whether we can ever really “know” the people closest to us. We spend a large part of the film feeling sorry for the recently widowed Beth and thinking that her husband, Owen (Evan Jonigkeit) is a good guy. Or was he? He may have been a good guy in the same way that Ted Bundy seemed like a good guy to his live-in girlfriend at the time .

Bruckner called the film “a complex drama” and a character piece. Mirror logic is a recurring motif in the film. The expert use of sound to create terror is handled beautifully. The film was one of the most original approaches to a horror film in some time.

I asked my husband what part or parts scared him the most in the movie. He singled out the spot when a stereo goes off in the dead of night, seemingly for no reason, at maximum volume. For me, it was the sight of several young girls running to a cliff and jumping off. One of the ghost-like figures seems to walk almost through Hall’s character. It happens so quickly that I physically recoiled. But it’s not a gory slasher film, which was welcome, to me.

When Beth’s husband commits suicide, he leaves behind a note that reads: “You were right. There is nothing. Nothing’s after you. You’re safe now.” I immediately wondered if the term “nothing” could be capitalized and represent an evil entity, Nothing. This was long before the film got into the idea of CAERDROIA, which are Welsh turf mazes, or the Louvre doll, which appears to be a metal doll that has had a number of metal rods driven through it in a voodoo “curse” motif. (The original doll is in the Louvre, hence its name).

The premise: if you do things backwards, it will throw off evil spirits. When Beth discovers that her husband was building an exact replica of their new house on the other side of the lake, things take a nasty turn. We suspect that Vondie Curtiss Hall as Mel is somehow involved. Or is he?

SPOILER ALERT

Don’t read further if you don’t want to know some important plot points.

After I realized that the various pictures of women who resembled Beth were simply “stand-ins” for Beth, blameless victims whom Owen dispatched in an attempt to lure the evil spirit away from her by using doppelgangers, I wondered why Beth never mentions so much as one word of bodies buried in the basement of the new “backwards” lake house. There are several scenes after her discovery where Beth could have told someone about her grim discovery, but she says nothing, and we are not given a reason for her silence. Is she trying to protect everyone’s image of Owen as “a good guy?” There is no way of telling. I found this to be one of the biggest flaws in the admittedly out-there script. Why? Why wouldn’t a responsible person like Beth, a teacher, not inform the authorities of such a horrible discovery?

Rebecca Hall admitted that she felt that some of her later scenes in a bathroom (mirrors, again) battling the spirit that is trying to lure her back to the underworld may have been a bit wonky. She was right, but I give her high marks for giving it her all.

The quick cuts where we realize, after the fact, that what we have just seen may have all been a dream were expertly handled. Kudos to the director and the music person (Ben Lovett), the cinematographer (Elisa Christain), and the film editor (David Marks). The production design and set and art directors also did a great job in making the night house feel as though Beth is probably never really quite comfortable in it, as it had a decidedly masculine feel. [I kept recommending grabbing her keys and splitting for any other port in a storm, once the weird sounds began, but it would have been a much shorter film if Beth had never stood her ground and battled her demons.]

As we learn during the set up for the plot, Beth already survived a horrible car crash in her youth and was clinically dead for four minutes. That is the set-up for much of what happens and also serves as a bit of a motive for all that is visited upon her.

It’s not as ambitious as “Us” was with its complex backstory, but there are so many things that go bump in the night in this one to truly frighten that it is a movie I’d recommend to anyone who likes psychological thrillers with original themes and lots of horror that isn’t “Saw”-like in emphasizing violence or gore.

 

“Reminiscence:” Hugh Jackman Visits the Past

 

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

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

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

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

THE GOOD:  CINEMATOGRAPHY

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THE BAD

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

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

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

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

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

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

THE SCREENPLAY

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

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

But what about the actual words the characters speak?

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

“The past can haunt a man.”

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

“It’s us who haunt the past.”

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

“Time is no longer a one-way stream.”

“Nostalgia has become a way of life.”

“The past is addictive.”

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

“We’re all haunted by something.”

“The city simmers with unrest.”

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

“People don’t just vanish.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Nothing’s an accident with Mae.”

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

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

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

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

“Love is the thing we cling to.”

“Missing people is a part of the world.”

VERDICT:

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

 

 

 

 

“Annette” with Adam Driver & Marion Cotillard Sings Its Way Into Cannes’ Awards

Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard portray a celebrity couple in “Annette.” She’s a world-famous opera singer and he is a comedian billed as “The Ape of God.” Driver is also an executive producer of the film helmed by Leos Carax, who is known as an avant garde French filmmaker. Carax  previously directed the Cannes favorite “Holy Motors,” a big Cannes favorite, which I found almost unwatchable.

“Annette” follows along in this tradition of  very weird films from Leos Carax. It is based on the dialogue and music of the group known as Spark, brothers Ron and Russell Mael. Much of the dialogue is sung, which has been done before both on television in a police sit-com directed by Steven Bochco (“Cop Rock”) where all of the dialogue was sung, and in a film featuring Anna Kendrick directed by Richard Lagravenese, “The Last Five Years.” And let’s not forget about operas like Bizet’s “Carmen.”

The singing is not particularly good, but Adam Driver likes to sing, as proven by the completely unnecessary singing he did in “Marriage Story.” The plot has Marion Cotillard’s character of Ann Defrasnoux cast as a world famous opera singer whose career is going great guns. Plus, she and Henry (Driver) are crazy about each other, although she was dating her accompanist (Simon Helberg) before she met Henry.

Henry McHenry (Adam Driver) is a misogynistic comic who goes onstage clad only in black BVDs and a green bathrobe and rants, usually in a darkly humorous vein. At first, like Kanye, Henry McHenry’s schtick in his act (known as “The Ape of God”) is considered cool and chill by his audiences. His brand of toxic masculinity, blending intimate, often obnoxious confessions with a crude onstage persona (a la Andrew “Dice” Clay or Donald J. Trump), has the audience cheering. But things change.

Henry’s audience turns on him and his fortunes as a comedian suffer. The fall from favor that Henry experiences made me think of a stand-up routine I once suffered through with a late-in-the-game ailing George Carlin, where he went on a supposedly comic rant in a routine about suicide. Patrons were streaming for the exits. So, that is, roughly, what happens to Henry, who finally wears out his welcome like many insult comics.

“Annette” turns into the plot of “A Star Is Born” when Ann’s opera career continues to thrive while Henry’s fans reject his “Ape of God” appearances. This sets up problems in a marriage and the early crooning of their song (“We Love Each Other So Much”) now gives way to a fall from grace, with Henry drinking too much and a melodramatically staged storm leading to tragedy.

But Annette, the daughter that Ann gives birth to, is still there for Henry to care for. Henry begins to shirk that responsibility more and more, leaving paternal duties to Ann’s accompanist-turned-orchestra director, well played by Simon Helberg (“The Big Bang Theory”).

Somewhere in the second half of this 2 hour and 21 minute film Henry—who has discovered that Baby Annette has inherited her mother’s fantastic vocal instrument—decides to exploit his young daughter’s talent by having her tour non-stop singing for stadium-sized audiences. The part of Annette from birth until age five is played by an obvious wooden dummy throughout the first three-fourths of the film. That is very odd, but so is the film. Only in the final prison scenes of the movie do we get a real live girl, Devyn McDowell, who sings her part opposite Adam Driver as he languishes in jail.

The look-alike redhead is only five years old and she is terrific! I would have liked the film to be set up in such a way that we could have had more of Devyn. She is one of the best things in it. The five-year-old traveled to Belgium and Germany for filming and “Annette” not only won the Best Soundtrack and Best Director awards at Cannes, it was the opening night film. At 6 years old, Devyn also worked with the talented, award winning cast of Jessica Chastain and Eddie Redmayne in the anticipated thriller, “The Good Nurse”, directed by Tobias Lindholm

Ultimately, we learn that the most important thing in life is to have someone to love (and vice versa). The singing in the prison sequence between Baby Annette and her father isn’t as distracting as elsewhere in the film. Devyn actually is very, very good for a five-year-old and the message of the film is pretty impressive. As the New York Times critic said, “The final reckoning is as devastating as anything I’ve seen in a recent film,” calling the movie depiction of megalomania “feverishly imaginative.” It earned the film a 5-minute standing ovation at Cannes.

I was burned by “Holy Motors,”one of Leos Carax’s early films (2012). This one is just as odd, but has a better message and better acting.

This film is overlong, has average singers singing the dialogue, and uses a theme we’ve seen done many times previously, but it was far more entertaining than I anticipated it would be.

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