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 38

“Sabaya” Has World Premiere at Sundance Film Festival on January 30, 2021

A still from Sabaya by Hogir Hirori, an official selection of the World Cinema Documentary Competition at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Lolav Media/Ginestra Film.

The term “sabaya” refers to girls sold into sexual slavery in war-torn Middle Eastern countries. A Sabaya is a sex slave. This engrossing film from Hogir Hirori, his third film, captures and records the atrocities still ongoing in Sinjara province in northeast Syria. The Al-Hol camp there has 73,000 Daesh supporters, guarded by Kurdish forces. Two men repeatedly enter the camp to rescue young female victims.

Daesh is Isil, referencing the group by its Arabic acronym. The Isis/Isil/Daesh fighters kidnapped over 2,000 young girls and women in 2014. One Sabaya in the film tells of witnessing her father and brother being murdered in front of her. Some of the females taken by Daesh that we see on the film were taken when only a year old and do not remember their Kurdish language. They only speak Arabic and have been forced into marriages with Daesh warriors and often repeatedly sold, again and again.

A still from Sabaya by Hogir Hirori, an official selection of the World Cinema Documentary Competition at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Lolav Media/Ginestra Film.

One passenger in a car attempting to rescue the girls from the Al-Hol Camp (known as the most dangerous refugee camp in the Middle East) tells the camera that she was bought and sold 15 times, first to a Swedish man, then a Syrian, then one from Tunisia, and so on.

The protagonists of the multiple brave attempts to return the Yazidi Kurd Sabayas to their original families are Mahmud and Ziyad, who plan and execute the raids from the nearby Yazidi Home Center.

The men are relentless in going back to the camp again and again in attempts to recapture kidnapped Yazidi female Sabayas. The girls have been forced into what Daesh calls “marriage” many times, but, as one says, “They call it marriage but it’s pure rape.”

From these unholy unions, children are born, and we see one child being taken from its Kurdish mother because his father is a Daesh man. The mother sobs helplessly. There have been 206 Sinjara Kurdish Sabaya women saved by the brave efforts of Mahmud and Ziyad, but 2,000 are still missing and there are 52 children born of these forced marriages.

One rescued victim says, “As a young girl, I was completely broken inside. My family was gone. How can God let this happen? They come from all over the world.”

A still from Sabaya by Hogir Hirori, an official selection of the World Cinema Documentary Competition at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Lolav Media/Ginestra Film.

The Swedish Film Institute helped finance this expose of the atrocities still being committed in Syria and elsewhere. It is a powerful, dark, frightening look at continuing violence and terror. At one point Daesh sets fire to the tent city near the Yazidi Home Center and there is talk that the one fire truck has broken down on its way to fight the fire(s).

Man’s inhumanity to man is on full display throughout the film, with many close calls for the rescuers. Yet the bravery of the Kurds (whom ex-President Trump sold out) and the need for rescuing these Sinjara women and children and all like them, worldwide, comes through loud and clear. This film helps the world to focus on the continuing dangers of Islamic terrorism throughout the world and to remember the continuing fight to stem the tide of violence unleashed worldwide by Islamic terrorists in cities in many other countries.

“Rita Moreno: Just A Girl Who Decided to Go For It” Premieres at Sundance on January 29, 2021

This 90 minute documentary, directed by Mariem Perez Riera traces the life of Latino icon Rita Moreno, from her birth in Humacao, Puerto Rico in 1936, to her upcoming role reprising “West Side Story” with Steven Spielberg. (Film is slated for a December release).

Along the way, such luminaries as Gloria Estefan, Morgan Freeman, Whoopi Goldberg, and Eva Longorio, among others, give testimony to the achievements of the 87-year-old singer/dancer/actress.

A still from Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go For It by Mariem Pérez Riera, an official selection of the U.S. Documentary Competition at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo: West Side Story copyright 1961 MetroGoldwynmayer Studios Inc. All rights reserved. Courtesy of MGM Media Licensing.

I’m of the generation that thrilled to “West Side Story” with Rita Moreno in the pivotal role of Anita when it premiered in 1961 as a film, based on the 1957 stage version. Watching Anita dance in the clips from “West Side Story” of the sixties is watching pure talent on the hoof.

Just to show that she is not a one-trick pony, the woman is one of only a very few to have won the EGOT: Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony, and the first Latino to do so. She won her Oscar for “West Side Story,” her Grammy for the Electric Company album, her Tony for playing Googie Gomez in “The Ritz” and not one, but two Emmys, for the Muppet Show, which she starred on from 1971 to 1977.

When Gloria’s mother divorced her father and moved, with Gloria to New York City, she shares that they sailed on a ship, the S.S. Carabobo, whose name, in English, literally means Stupidface. Upon seeing the Statue of Liberty as a small child, she thought the green lady was the president and that she was holding an ice cream cone in her right hand.

Norman Lear and Linn Manuel Miranda teamed up to share with the world the story of a chameleon-like talent who “made herself into someone she wasn’t to please other people.” This was true, initially, of Rita’s career, which seemed mired in stereotypical roles as an accented beauty, whether the role was Latino or some other ethnicity. Rita also had to cope with sexual discrimination from the likes of Harry Cohn and, at one point,  attempted suicide after a failed romance with Marlon Brando that led to an unwanted pregnancy, a botched abortion, and an overdose of pills.

When she talks about Brando today, she says, “I think about it now and say, ‘What was there to love?’” But, at the time, Brando was the biggest star of the 50s and the two were together for nearly eight years. It was Brando who recommended that Moreno try therapy, of which she said, “Examining and finding value in yourself is the only way. And I chose therapy.”

Rita Moreno,1954. (Courtesy of Sundance Institute).

Married for 45 years to cardiologist (and, ultimately, her manager), Leonard Gordon, the pair remained married from 1965 until Lenny’s death in 2010. Their daughter, Fernanda Gordon Fisher, is the mother of Rita’s two grandsons and, as she admits, she is okay with living alone. In some ways, she says, felt liberated after the death of her husband, who was a bit of a control freak. She admits that there were times she thought of exiting the marriage, but stayed in the relationship for the sake of their family.

Now 87, Rita who began performing at age 6, has a role as Valentina in the re-boot of “West Side Story” planned for a December release. The cast will feature primarily Latino actors and actresses, although Ansel Elgort (“The Fault In Our Stars”) is of Norwegian, Russian, German and English ancestry. Another key fact of Elgort’s casting as Tony may well be the 5 years (ages 9 to 14) that he spent at the American School of Ballet, plus Elgort’s keen interest in music (he DJ’s as Ansolo). Elgort was named one of the Best Actors under 20 in 2014 and has been impressive in his film outings.

I

Rita Moreno. (Courtesy of Sundance Institute).

t will be interesting to see Rita Moreno’s career come full circle with her appearance in the same film, 60 years after she burst to stardom in it. The original budget for “West Side Story” was only $6 million; it went on to make $44,062,203 worldwide. The 2021 Spielberg effort has a $100 million budget with 144 cast members and is in post production.

Moreno is shown speaking and says “It’s interesting how we keep dragging our past into the present.  Damn the shadows and here’s to the light.” Morgan Freeman sums up this great talent’s career by saying, “Life is what it is—but it is what you make it.”

 

Director:  Mariem Perez Riera

Cast:  Rita Moreno, Gloria Estefan, Morgan Freeman, Whoopi Goldberg, Eva Longorio, Justine Machado, Karen Olivo.

Cinematographer:  Pedro Juan Lopez

Composer and Music Supervisor:  Kathryn Bostic and Maureen Crowe

 

 

 

“Stormchaser” Is Well-done Short Film by Gretl Claggett

Stormchaser”

Filmmaker Gretl Claggett both wrote and directed a short film/narrative pilot called “Stormchaser.”

I’m not sure which Midwestern state is portrayed in this 27 minute film, but the license plate said Missouri, so I’ll take a wild guess that it was, indeed, Missouri.

Gretl’s indie film, which might morph into a pilot if all goes well, won the AMC Networks’ Best Female Creator Award at the Stareable Fest 2020 and is traveling throughout the festival circuit now. She will be my guest on my podcast Weekly Wilson on November 19th at 7 p.m. (CDT) talking about this film and her burgeoning career. The film will be screening at Film Girl Film Festival in Milwaukee November 13th through November 20th.

So, what is the plot of “Stormchaser”?

I expected it to be up-close-and-personal information on tornadoes and their devastating effects on those trapped in them.

Not the case.

“Stormchaser” is about Bonnie Blue (Mary Birdsong of “The Descendants”), who grew up chasing tornadoes with her dad and now is making a statement for female empowerment. She’s trapped in a  demeaning job as a sales person for Flip Smith’s shingles and siding business, where “Flip the Switch” is the go-to phrase for the sales people.  (Nice acting on the part of Stephen Plunkett, who has been recognized at several film festivals.)

The film begins with a young Bonnie sliding into the cab of the truck next to her father as they seek to chase a tornado, described as “a gift from the infinite universe.” They encounter “a great river of air” and are off to the races.  Later, a radio preacher is heard burbling about “a visual manifestation of turmoil just beneath the surface.” By that point, the turmoil has pretty much broken through to the outside world.

Oddly enough, I wrote this review in my basement (hoping I would not lose power and the internet while working) during a tornado warning for the Chicago area and  Illinois on 11/10/2020, which lasted until 3 p.m. It is a classic gesture of serendipity that I was actually hunkered down in my basement avoiding the possible consequences of a tornado while watching “Stormchaser.”

The film becomes a story about a woman of a certain age—only female in a male-dominated workplace—standing up for her rights. She’s disconnected, up against a recession, and facing down a boss (Stephen Plunkett of “The Mend”) who deserves everything that comes to him in the course of the film.

Mary Birdsong (“The Descendants”) portrays Bonnie Blue and does a fine job. Plunkett won Best Actor awards for his role as Flip Smith at the Grove Film Festival (New Jersey) and the cast won Best Ensemble Cast at the Richmond International Film Festival. Plunkett also was nominated as Best Actor at the Idyllwild Film Festival.

Filmmaker Gretl Claggett said, “I created ‘Stormchaser’ as a darkly funny allegory, in which the main characters represent different facets of our sociopolitical system, from the Old America and culture of entitlement to the changing face and values of a New America struggling to find its way.”

Tune in on November 19th at 7 p.m. (CDT) when Gretl and I talk about “Stormchaser” and her past and future film projects. 

 

“76 Days:” Engrossing Doc About the Outbreak of Covid-19 in Wuhan (Free Online)

“76 Days” is a 93-minute documentary about the outbreak of Covid-19 in Wuhan, China, a film directed and written by Hao Wu, Weixi Chen (the cinematographer) and an individual who chose to remain anonymous. One wonders how the team managed to record this battle within a Chinese hospital and whether the anonymity is because the Chinese government might disapprove of the telling of this story.

The film is shot within the Wuhan Red Cross Hospital, beginning on January 23, 2020, in that city of eleven million people. The 76 days will end on April 8th and air raid sirens will mourn the dead in the city on April 4th.

The documentary opens with a dramatic scene of sick people trying to crowd into the hospital from the cold, despite the institution’s 45 stated maximum occupancy for patients.  This siege will not end until April 8th, the lockdown that the city endured.

The patients seem to be primarily elderly, although one young girl, a hospital employee, is seen wailing throughout the opening scenes. She keeps saying “I want to say good-bye. I’ll never see my papa again.” We track the mourning family member outside, where she once again pleads for one last glimpse of her deceased loved one, who is being taken away in a hearse.

We see Dr. Wang exhorting his colleagues to “unite as a collective whole and win the battle to protect Wuhan.” One volunteer explains that he had “a hero’s dream to go support Wuhan.”

Trang Dingyuan came from Shanghai to help. The first supporters (volunteers) arrived from Sichuan, but others drove all the way from Shanghai to help staff the hospital in Wuhan. It is an 8 hour and 47 minute drive from Shanghai to Wuhan. The universality of what New York later experienced is experienced, but with more PPE amongst the employees.

Mostly, the film is a testimony to the chaos that the epidemic has caused, with no hospital beds and resuscitation failing on several patients as the cameras record the desperate struggle.

Some humorous relief is provided by an elderly man, referred to as “Grandpa.” Grandpa, who has dementia, will not stay in his room and continues to wander the hospital corridors, usually while muttering things like “I’m already one foot in the grave.” He cannot read and there is a heated phone discussion with his son about how long he has been an upstanding member of the Communist party. [His son seems to think he should set a better example as a proud Communist, but, instead, Grandpa is mostly crying in his room—when he’s not out wandering around and causing problems.] Even when the hospital is trying to release him back into the world, Grandpa starts wandering in the wrong direction, back into the hospital. The staff applauds when Grandpa is finally released upon the world.

In the midst of all this death, a young woman in childbirth (whose water broke 2 days earlier) must be delivered by Caesarean section. She had Covid-19, which she has passed on to her newborn daughter. We follow that drama through to the end as the child—a chubby female with a full head of hair whom the staff nicknames “the hungry penguin”— is whisked away to another area of the hospital and an incubator.

A box of cell phones collected from the dead and dying is introduced early in the documentary. It is at the end of the documentary that Yang Li, head ICU nurse, draws the unenviable duty of sorting through the abandoned phones and calling the next of kin to tell them to come pick up their dead relatives’ belongings. Usually,Yang Li seeks to return a phone to the relatives. One deceased woman’s bracelet is retrieved for her daughter, despite the fact that it is against regulations and the deceased, Grandma Luo Jinsong, had swollen arms at the time of her death, causing difficulty in retrieving the jewelry.

When she completes the task of returning the bracelet and the phone to a young girl who is sobbing, Yang Li expresses her condolences. She turns from the camera and appears broken, numb. It reminds of the line from earlier in the film, “How could it have come to this?”

The beleaguered hospital employees work tirelessly to try to save their patients and to preserve order within the hospital. I was surprised to hear patients being asked if they had “vomiting or diarrhea,” since neither of these symptoms received much air play on American television. I was also surprised to learn that ICU is emblazoned above the doors to the Chinese facility, much like Intensive Care Unit appears above these areas in American hospitals.  I assumed that all signs would be in the language of the country. There was also a much better degree of PPE in this Chinese hospital than during the early days of the pandemic in the U.S. and most of the doctors and nurses appear as masked and fully covered workers.

Writer/Director Hao Wu helmed “All in My Family” in 2019 and “People’s Republic of Desire” in 2018. His documentary about underground Chinese churches (2006) earned him a detention from the Chinese government. “76 Days” has had 3 wins on the film festival circuit: Best Documentary at AFI Fest, Grand Prize and Social Impact Award for Heartland International Film Festival, and 3 additional nominations, including at the 43rd Denver Film Festival. After premiering at Toronto, it will release on December 4th.

“Drowning” (2020): Mom Obsesses Over Son’s Service

“Drowning” is a Melora Walters film, produced by Sergio Rizzuto’s Potato Eater Productions, in conjunction with Room in the Sky Films, Eight Trick Pony and Hero LA . Walters wrote, directed, and stars in the film. She has 110 credits as an actress, including “Boogie Nights,” and “Dead Poets’ Society.” She has 3 credits as a writer and 4 as a director.

This film premiered in North America in Austin, Texas, at the Austin Film Festival on October 29, 2019 after its World Premiere in Rome. The log-line is “A mother deals with the grief associated with her son going off to war.” It is based on Walters’ own life. Sometimes, when we are very close to the story, we need someone who isn’t integrally involved to step up and give us honest feedback. Stay tuned.

The cast in this one is quite experienced. They all do a fine job.  Since Melora Walters is Mira Sorvino’s best friend, we even have a few minutes onscreen of the 1995 Best Supporting Actress Oscar winner (“Mighty Aphrodite”). Others include Gil Bellows as her boyfriend Frank (produced “Temple Grandin,” acted in “Ally McBeal,” “Shawshank Redemption”), Jay Mohr as Henry (“Suicide Squad,” “Last Comic Standing”) and Joanna Goings as Catherine (“Search for Tomorrow,” “Another World”). Goings plays Ms. Walters’ therapist; interesting side-note, both women were once married to Dylan Walsh (“Nip Tuck”). Also, Sergio Rizzuto as Charlie, the son, and Jim O’Heir in a brief part shown on a television screen.

Here’s the problem with the film (and some suggested fixes):

After we establish that Rose (Melora Walters) is concerned to the point of obsession about her adult son’s going off to war (Iraq and Syria), her concern becomes quite tiresome very quickly. Here’s one line from the script, “It just feels like I can’t breathe until he comes home.” I have a friend who once said, as her son was getting married, “I don’t know what I’ll do if I can’t see him every day.”

Advice: Get over it! He’s getting married. He’s an adult now. (Yes, I have 2 adult children).

Another scripted line, “We have no control. We cannot even protect ourselves We want to say it will be all right, but we can’t.” A well-meaning casual acquaintance tries to counsel Rose, telling her, “Everything about you says you’re sad.  I’m talking about the will to live.”

Rose’s boyfriend, played by Gil Bellows, wants her to move to New York with him, but she repeatedly turns down his invitation to the point that her nervous worrying about her adult son in the Army (“You sound like a parrot over and over and over.”) causes Frank (Gil Bellows) to finally say, “You just need to calm the fuck down, Rose.”

Unfortunately, that never really happens and there really isn’t any more to the story.

That much is for sure. Rose tries therapy, but the photography and swimming lessons with Jay Mohr don’t seem to be helping much.

I have these suggestions for ways in which the script could have been transformed from one long whine fest to something more dramatic. We might have had 82 well-acted minutes that actually go somewhere:

  • During the swimming lessons, Rose seems to have a suicidal moment, and there is a similar moment (pills?) when in her apartment. Why not let one of these attempts come close and put Rose in the hospital, where she has a Eureka Moment and realizes that—among other unresolved plot lines—she supposedly has a daughter in college studying chemistry that she should continue trying to stay alive to mother (in addition to her adult son)? Maybe it will sink in, as scripted, that the young soldier had drug abuse issues before he enlisted, so his enlistment was all for the best (Rose’s boyfriend, Frank, tells her this.) The Eureka moment could involve (a) Rose’s boyfriend, Frank (b) Rose’s hitherto not-heard-from college-age daughter and/or (c) the mysterious guy with the hat who stops by in a restaurant and calls her a “beautiful, sad woman” while quoting Schopenhauer. (“The only salvation is to live life.”)
  • Why not have son Charlie (Sergio Rizzuto) actually get injured while in Iraq? There any number of dramatic opportunities that could occur if Charlie had some sort of injury. (Not saying that Charlie should die, since Rose would probably not survive that. Just a scare, perhaps, that makes both of them aware that life is a gift and we should all make the most of it.)
  • Why not have Rose accept Frank’s offer to re-locate to New York City? It could be presented as a break-through moment. The Schopenhauer quote could be worked in somehow. One way to show that Rose is turning the corner on her fixation over her son’s service obligation would be to have her quit being so obsessed with answering her phone. Watching someone answer a phone is almost as exciting as watching someone driving. Both of these pursuits dominate a lot of screen time.

These plot suggestions are just the most obvious ones. It could be something totally off-the-wall like an unexpected romance with one of the much younger men who enter the bookstore where Rose works. Example: Rose is working and Peter (who is actually Mira Sorvino’s husband, Christopher Backus) comes in and flirts with her and, even though he is 17 years younger than Rose, they become a couple.

Again, the carpe diem refrain is no matter what the age difference, as Woody Allen once famously said, “The heart wants what it wants” and at least Rose would be advancing towards something other than lying on her fabulous green velvet couch eating potato chips. Maybe she could start up with the pool guy (Jay Mohr).

Whatever is decided upon from the options above, I’m available, if they want to work on getting an ending for this character study shot in and around Los Angeles. [And, yes, I’ve written 3 award-winning screenplays that will probably never see the light of day.] This one can be seen on YouTube.com.

 

 

 

“One of These Days:” A Snapshot of Small-town Texas Life at Hands On Contest

 Bastion Gauthier (Writer/Director) takes the topic of an annual endurance contest (Hands On) in Texas to win a pickup truck and turns it into a small-town tragedy. The contest promises thrilling entertainment to spectators and the chance of a lifetime for the participants, but it ends in real tragedy.

The contest organizer, Joan Dempsey, well-played by Carrie Preston, will be remembered by fans of television’s “The Good Wife” for playing Elsabeth Tascioni, a slightly off-beat but brilliant attorney. Carrie played the part in 14 episodes from 2010 to 2016 and won a Primetime Emmy Award for Outtanding Guest Actress in a Drama Series in 2013. She was nominated again in 2016. Joan is organizing the competition for Boudreaux’s Auto and Truck Dealership and she is very believable as a small-town employee of that car dealership.

The central contestant role is played by Joe Cole as Kyle Parson. Kyle and his wife and infant child are struggling, financially, and, as the script says, “He really needed a win.”

The rest of the cast of competitors who show up to try to win the truck by outlasting the others is a motley crew, with 20 people who seem to fit the bill often described as “poor white trash,” one of whom declares that what they are doing “isn’t rocket surgery.”

THE GOOD

In addition to Carrie Preston, who is always good in her roles, the “bad guy,” Kevin, played by Jesse C. Boyd, becomes a central figure. There are a variety of types that we can recognize from small-town life, whether it is the completely self-absorbed ear-bud wearing guy beating rhythms to the song that only he can hear on the truck’s chassis or the Bible-quoting Fundamentalist who occasionally requests that they all number off. We get a pretty good idea of the twenty competitors still standing, during the 119 minute movie, and there are those we root for and those we’d like to see quit or be disqualified—perhaps just on the basis of general nastiness.

The film won a special mention at the Zurich Film Festival and was a nominee for awards in Nashville.

THE BAD

Three things really detracted from the film:

#1) Cinematographer Michael Kotschi felt it would be a good idea to have the camera action be jerky at times, shooting forward down streets without any real attempt to focus. We can’t really call it “cinema verité (“Z”). It’s Cinema “F” as in “Failed.” The effect did nothing to enhance the film, but it did a lot to detract from it. I gave my GoPro camera to two eleven-year-olds to film a wedding over Labor Day; they did a better job of filming. The only good thing is that Kotschi did this hand-held herky-jerky treatment primarily on shots of streets, not when we were focused on the inter-action of the contestants in the parking lot of the Hands On contest. My advice to Michael Kotschi: STOP THAT!

#2)  For reasons I do not understand Writer/Director Bastion Gauthier ended the film and then added 20 to 30 minutes of additional background on our male lead, Kyle Parson. The information conveyed to us at the END of the film, (when Kyle is no longer a factor in the competition to win the truck), helps us to understand the plot’s events.. Adding the information at the end of the film was an odd and not very logical placement. It definitely belonged in the film, but chronological order would have been a better choice than tacking it on at the end.

#3) We never learn who won the truck.

I found the film to be interesting, aside from the three complaints mentioned above, but it had the potential to be more.

“On Fellini’s Footsteps” Retraces Fellini’s Career

Frederico Fellini

Meandering through Rome and Cinecittà, Gerald Morin, who worked with Fellini for over a decade, creates a touching portrait of the man, enriched by anecdotes from Fellini’s most important collaborators. The write-up on IMDB says it  “throws us back to an era that is engraved in our collective memory.”

I’ve been reviewing film non-stop for 50 years, so, yes, I have the era “engraved in my collective memory.” I still remember the Anita Ekberg scene in the Trevi fountain in Fellini’s “La Dolce Vita”, and I recall that Fellini’s films were dream/nightmare fantasy experiences.

Fellini was a visionary who “saw” exactly what he wanted to put on film, but he often didn’t “see” it util he arrived on set,  in a free form sort of creative inspirational style, of which one cameraman said, “We don’t know, the day before, how we will shoot. His mind is like a camera.”

Sometimes, Fellini would change the actors’ lines while they were filming. It was all in the service of inspiration and, as Fellini himself told a “New Yorker” interviewer (Lillian Ross):  “I am trying to free my work from certain constrictions—a story with a beginning, a development and an ending. It should be more like a poem with meter and rhythm.” It was Fellini’s devotion to being “in the moment” that often saw him go to bed with one idea and wake up with another.

Still, “8 and ½” (so named because that was how many films Fellini had made to that point) was named one of the 10 Best Films Ever Made and he was awarded a Lifetime Achievement Award by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences in April of 1993, his 5th Oscar.

A talented artist, Fellini was constantly making sketches of both his sets and the costumes he wanted the actors to wear. Said Norma Giacchero, his script supervisor, “His sketches were very helpful.” His set designer said, “Fellini’s world was his own. The real world didn’t interest him.” Cameramen who worked with Fellini talked about his use of the zoom, which he employed while the camera was moving. He did this to change the focal distance and width of the shot. He worked by sequence and used the zoom in unusual ways, going from 50 mm. to 250 mm. long range.

Among the adjectives that his co-workers used to describe him were charming, obsessed, never satisfied, impatient, prompt and demanding. Still, many of his long-time collaborators mention his sense of humor and his “desire to dominate matter.”

“8 and ½” began shooting May 9 of 1962 and completed shooting October 14, 1963. Stumped by the plot he wanted to film, Fellini finally decided it should be about a director who no longer knows what film he wants to make. He described it as having past, present and conditional (fantasy) elements and it was soundly condemned by many, who considered it immoral. Still, it was nominated for the Palme d’Or and received 12 Oscar nominations, 4 of which it won, including Best Foreign Language Film and Best Costume Design in Black and White.

During this documentary, which was shot in 2013, a glimpse is shown of an ecclesiastical fashion show (red-robed Cardinals) where nuns and priests roller skate past shipwrecks of cobwebbed skeletons, scenes from 1971’s “Roma.” As a former colleague put it, “Nobody touches Fellini for bringing dreams to life.”

Although the film does not allude to Fellini’s fascination with and dabbling in LSD and Carl Jung-ian psychiatry after he fell into a depressive period, the films after 1963 often reflected those interests.

Fellini tried working with Hollywood stars (Broderick Crawford, a stand-in for the ailing Humphrey Bogart in the unsuccessful 1955 film “Il Bidone” and Donald Sutherland as Casanova in that film.) His collaborations with Marcello Mastroianni are best remembered. Antonio Bardini, his barber, said, “Marcello wanted to be Fellini and Fellini wanted to be Mastroianni.”

Fellini died at 73 of a heart attack one day after celebrating his 50th wedding anniversary to  wife Gulietta Messina in 1993.

“The Comeback Trail” Will Leave You Laughing—and That’s Just What We Need!

George Gallo and Josh Posner took an old idea (based on a 1982 film of the same name  by Harry Hurwitz) and tweaked the basic idea of “The Producers” to give us the comedy “The Comeback Trail.” The movie stars Robert DeNiro, Tommy Lee Jones, Zach Braff, Morgan Freeman, Emile Hirsch and there is an uncredited cameo from Jason Bateman.

Gallo was the creative force behind “Wise Guys,” “Midnight Run,” and “Bad Boys,” among other amusing films. This is a World Class Cast and the music by Aldo Schllaku and cinematography by Lukasz Bielan are top-notch. Budget was estimated to be $25 million.

Here’s the plot in a nutshell (as revealed in numerous trailers): Max Barber (DeNiro) and his nephew Walter Creason (Zach Braff) have just released “Killer Nuns” (“They’re nuns with a bad habit.”). It’s another bomb from Miracle Pictures. [In fact, the Miracle Pictures slogan is, “If it’s good, it’s a miracle.”]

Walter borrowed $350,000 from Reggie Fontaine (Morgan Freeman) to make the picture, and Reggie wants his money back. Since Reggie isn’t kidding about wanting repayment, Max goes to James Moore (Emile Hirsch), a wealthy investor, and James (call him Jamie) demands that the great script for a film called “Paradise” be signed over to Jamie, in exchange for helping bail Max out.

It is while at Jamie’s mansion, where filming is taking place on yet another picture, that Zach Braff, seeking an autograph, inadvertently causes Frank Pierce, the star of the picture (uncredited cameo by Jason Bateman) to fall off a building.  (I wondered if Frank Pierce was modeled on Tom Cruise?) Pierce is killed,— but he was insured for $5 million.

That is the germ of the idea for Max: Hire an over-the-hill movie star of yesteryear, insure him heavily, and kill him off while making a picture. Then, collect the insurance. This isn’t too far off the idea behind “The Producers” when another Max planned to make a terrible Broadway bomb and collect for its failure. That original film with Dick Shawn (“Springtime for Hitler,” anyone?) unfortunately goes on to be a roaring success, which ruins Zero Mostel’s (Max Bialystock’s) plans.

Tommy Lee Jones is the over-the-hill Western star, Duke Montana, who is reduced to doing commercials for Big Earl’s Used Cars, while living in a retired actors’ home, where he is suicidal over his long-lost love, Bess.

THE GOOD

The dialogue frequently references famous movies of yesteryear. At one point, for instance, Morgan Freeman tells Max’s character that, if he is not promptly paid within 72 hours, “I’ll hunt you down like Redford and Newman in ‘Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.’” There is an amusing exchange when Morgan Freeman—a frequent investor in numerous film projects—-marvels to his sidekick, Devin, that they are on the movie set where “Gunga Din” was filmed.

“This is where they shot Gunga Din!” says Morgan’s character.

Devin responds, “Who is Gunga Din and why did they shoot him?”

It’s throw-away lines like this, plus the stunt horse Buttermilk (an homage to Dale Evans) that will tickle the fancy of true movie buffs.

The horse (Buttermilk) has various tricks that he’ll perform upon the uttering of a code word. Say “rocket” and he’s off running like one. Say “mattress” and he’ll lie down. Say “Rhubarb” and watch out! There is also a bull whose intentions towards the cast are deadly and a hanging footbridge over a canyon that makes Duke ‘fess up that he is afraid of heights.

THE BAD

I’ve never thought that Robert DeNiro played comedy as well as drama. He always seems to be over-the-top hammy in fare like “Meet the Fockers,” but the movies were still funny. His mugging for the camera (again) doesn’t keep the lines and situations from being laugh-out-loud humor at a time when we desperately need more laughter in our lives.

The movie was filmed in and around Albuquerque, New Mexico, and will be streaming by December 18th. Be sure to stay after the credits to see the hilarious phoney ads for “Killer Nuns” and films like “Cows from Beyond” by the mythical Miracle Films.

 

“A Good Man” Is French LGBQT Film from Denver Film Festival and Cannes

“A Good Man” is a LGBTQ French film directed by Marie-Castille Mention-Schaar. It is a Cannes Official Film Selection and the film had subtitles, but the trailer does not. (Dust off your French from high school or college.) Noemie Merlant, who was so powerful in last year’s “Portrait of a Lady on Fire,” plays the lead of a trans-man. There is some controversy over the fact that the part of a trans man is not being played by a real trans man.

I thought a better title for the film might have been crafted based on the scene where a nurse, leaving the hospital room of the new mother after her shift, bids the patient good night with the farewell phrase, “Good night, Sir/Ma’am.”

Noemie Merlant

The farewell causes the new mother/father to smile, as he/she has just given birth to a baby boy, a sacrifice that Ben/Sarah made so that he/she could achieve his/her goal. That goal is stated in the film as, “I want to be me and have a normal life.”  Ben tells his older brother, Antoine, “I want the same as you. No more. No less.” The script also contains the advice, “The management of truth is the key to a rescue.”

THE GOOD

I’m all for people of any sex and/or ethnicity seeking “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Freddy McConnell, a trans man, gave birth to his own son, Jack, and the “Guardian” journalist made a film with Director Jeanie Finlay about it called “Seahorse,” so the topic of a trans man giving birth to his own child IRL has been done before. The performances of the two leads (Noemie Merlant and Soko) are excellent.

The opening ocean panorama of the main character looking out at the sea from the Cote d’Azur is gorgeous. There are many other beautiful cinematic shots within the film, including some spectacular sunsets. But most of us want a story, as well, and there is definitely a story here.

Ben, the central character, was born Sarah Adler on April 28, 1990. The conflict comes when Ben’s love, Aude (Soko, who played Samantha in “Little Fish”) —after his decision to bear their child because they cannot adopt and Aude is infertile— tells Ben, “Right now, I don’t exist.  You play every part.  You play them all. I need to find mine.”

And….Poof!….Aude’s gone.

Another conflict is between Sarah/Ben’s mother, who mourns the loss of daughter Sarah and has difficulty accepting that Sarah has become Ben. There is also conflict between Ben and his male friends, whom he has kept in the dark. Some of Ben’s friends are more accepting than others.

THE BAD

Director Marie-Castille Mention-Schaar

It’s really difficult to follow who is whom and whether the apparently female girl at the bar (Sarah) does, in fact, turn out to become “Ben” later in the film. There is frequent jumping back and forth in time, between the present and the past. While audiences are savvy and will do their best to keep up, it can become difficult to figure out exactly who is whom, then and now.

The departure of Aude, Ben’s love, while understandable, seems very selfish. It reminded me of someone I know who—while his wife was delivering twins—-began an affair with a co-worker and left his wife, who had to go through childbirth alone. There is something about bringing new life into the world that mitigates for a united front to support that new life.

Poor Ben is forced to go through most of the pain, suffering, and confinement of delivery on his own, endure being viewed as a freak by some and suffering the loss of the support of the person closest to him, for whom he has sacrificed a great deal. The departure of Aude does set off a nicely done rapprochement with his estranged mother, however. Mom, watching the new-born baby attempting to suckle, says, “You think it’s a matter of instinct, but it’s not at all.”

The end of the film is slow, although cinematically beautiful. It reminded me of the famous painting “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte” by Georges Seurat. We also get a quick glimpse of the reunited couple strolling through that scene with their baby.

I felt very sorry for Ben/Sarah, who had to give up the new life he had carved out for himself, reveal his previous identity to the world, and go through childbirth without the woman of his dreams by his side. While I understood Aude’s feelings of being “left out,”  Ben might wish to  re-consider their relationship in light of the loyalty he has shown, versus that demonstrated by Aude.

“Once Upon A Time in Venezuela:” Examines the Fate of the Village of Congo Mirador

This documentary that showed at the 43rd Denver Film Festival was helmed by Annabel Rodriguez Rios and Sepp R. Bruderon (editor/writer) who visited the remote village of Congo Mirador many times over the course of years, watching it shrink from a village with population of 700 to 30 families and, ultimately, to an abandoned village.

Chief among the inhabitants of the village is Tamara Vilsamil, who is a rabid Chavez supporter and seems to be doing quite a bit better, financially, than the rest of the village. She brags, at one point, that she owns 50 hectares of land and that it is “as good as money in the bank,” saying that she can always sell a cow if she needs money.

Several old-time residents of the city on stilts talk about “the fatal night,” which, they say, has come. Throughout the time that the documentary is filming sedimentation continues to plague the village with remarks like “sedimentation is killing us all.”

The backdrop of the documentary is an upcoming election and, at one point, ring-leader Tamara says, “I’m going to get our comrades and kick their asses.” There is a lot of talk about North American government planning to take over the town and the nation and a lot of jingoistic talk about “the Fatherland.”

Near the end of the film Vilsamil and another representative from the watery town journey to Maracaibo. She says, “Going to Maracaibo is as important as Obama going to Cuba.” We see the duo being served breakfast in what appears to be the palace in Caracas and Vilsamil says, “Confo is running out of time. The town is already lost.  It’s just mud and snakes left.”

The final scenes of the film show a deserted, watery, abandoned wreck of a town

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