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!
“The Oxy Kingpins” (SXSW Online Film Festival 2021).
This documentary, directed by Brendan Fitzgerald, is a look at the opioid epidemic in America and how Big Pharma was complicit in causing the deaths of over half a million Americans. Former drug dealer Alex tells us as the film opens that oxycontin is really just heroin. Given the over-prescribing by the medical establishment, within a 2-week time the patient could become addicted and have a $200 to $300 a day habit.
The film tells the story of how big pharmaceutical companies raked in the profits without a thought to the harm the drug was causing. Telling the story is Pensacola attorney Mike Papantonio, whose fifteen-attorney firm (Levin and Papantonio) is hard at work prosecuting the drug companies for greedily promoting their product, even though it was obvious it was addicting an entire generation. As the film says, “At the end of the day, they were just getting rich.”
The Purdue Pharma Sackler family saga is referenced as a RICO investigation, (which means it was Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization.) Meanwhile, other big pharmaceutical companies were distributing the pills to small towns, sending 12 million pills to a town of 5,000 people without any attempt to stop the resulting addiction. In fact, at one point, an e-mail from the top clearly warns pharmaceutical company employees NOT to use the word “suspicious” because to do so would mean that an investigation might occur. Instead, McKesson Corporation (MCK), the Number One deliverer of all drugs in the United States, made $194 billion in one year and its CEO, John Hammergen, was paid a yearly salary of $700 million.
Mike Papantonio and his investigators pin their hopes on the state of Nevada, which has a policy of unsealing all court documents. In the past, court cases against pharmaceutical concerns like McKesson or the #2 and #3 distributors in the U.S., Cardinal and Amerisource, were sealed. The company would pay a fine of $10 or $15 million, but insist that the incriminating documents be sealed. As Papantonio said, “We have a drug that is killing people and it’s kept from the public.”
Driving home the point that drug manufacturers and distributers were only too willing to look the other way in order to make profits, Papantonio referred to these actions by men like CEO of Cardinal Health George Barrett as “white collar corporate crime.” Men like Alex, the drug dealer now gone straight, spent 8 years in prison for distributing drugs like Oxycontin, but the Big Pharma profiteers walked away with millions.
Papantonio chose Nevada to use for a prosecution which dragged on for 3 and ½ years, because of Nevada’s policy of unsealing court records. Judge Elizabeth Gonzalez also turned down the defense’s request for one (of many) delays.
“The distributors chose rural areas that were areas of despair” and customers like Anna, shown onscreen, bought as much as they wanted from their local Safeway Pharmacy. She was born in Hawthorne, Nevada, population 4,772 in Mineral County, a part of Nevada with the second-largest consumption of Oxycontin in the state and the fourth highest death rate where 3,100,100 doses were distributed with barely an eyebrow raised.
It’s a good documentary, although more real-life stories like Anna’s rather than concentrating quite so much on the attorneys would have driven the case home even more intensely . I was immediately reminded of the indie film “Shooting Heroin,” about the opioid problem in Pennsylvania. It’s a situation that was drawing attention, including Senate hearings in May of 2018, but the pandemic pushed the opioid deaths from the news.
Fictional films that have dealt with the same crisis in the last few years, which would make good companion films for this factual treatment, would include “Ben Is Back” (Julia Roberts and Lucas Hedges) and “Beautiful Boy” (Timothy Chalamet and Steve Carrell).
My favorite film of the first day of SXSW Online Film Festival was “Lily Topples the World.” It is the story of Lily Hevesh, who posts her domino art under the name Hevesh5 on YouTube. At one point Lily shares that 100 dominos cost $10 and I wondered how much money she has tied up in the tools of her trade.
As the film opens Lily is entering Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute as a student—a somewhat famous one as the professors know who she is. (She later shares that she is probably going to drop out to pursue a career doing what she loves: domino art).
Her domino art—a pursuit since her days in elementary school—has attracted over 101 million views and her fans include actors Hugh Jackman, Will Smith and Jimmy Fallon. Will Smith used one of Lily’s creations in a film and Lily was hired to create one for Jimmy Fallon’s Tonight Show and, also, for Katie Perry.
Adopted in 1999 from China by a loving family in New Hampshire, Lily was an abandoned child, the result of China’s “one child” policy that saw parents sometimes, abandon female infants. There was no identifying information left with little Lily. The only thing that her loving parents noticed about the young girl was that she seemed to have a continuing fear of abandonment. Lily’s dad, Mark, co-produced the documentary and he and Lily are shown shopping for a toy company to help develop a Lily Hevesh brand of dominos for stores that Lily would promote to her many followers.
Lily herself says, “Dominos have helped me to become a better person. I’ve found myself because of dominoes.” Indeed, a small tribe of fellow domino geeks appear onscreen both setting up the art and chatting with Lily.
She has, indeed, found herself and—in the process of delighting in her childhood hobby has become the acknowledged master of domino art. Lily was hired to produce a large installation for the Jimmy Fallon Tonight Show and another promoting the lottery in Washington state.
The music used to accompany the triggering of Lily’s many projects is particularly appropriate. It is original music composed by Carly Comando of Deep Elm Records.
As the documentary ends, Lily has cut a deal with a toy-maker and her dominos are appearing on store shelves. It is a happy ending to a happy story.
The first offering of the day, for me, on the first day of SXSW Virtual Film Festival, was a documentary directed by Andrea Nevins entitled “Hysterical.” The documentary did a good job of giving kudos to nearly every famous (or less well-known) female comic in the business, but I wanted to hear more of their routines, which didn’t happen.
“The Oxy Kingpins” (SXSW Online Film Festival 2021).
The second film up was “The Oxy Kingpins,” which covered the reasons behind the opioid epidemic in America, explained through the eyes of Pensacola attorney Mike Papantonio, whose 15-member firm has been prosecuting the big pharmaceutical companies that facilitated the addiction of thousands of Americans. Chief among the pharmaceutical companies examined is the McKeeson Corporation headed by CEO John Hammergen, who makes $700 million annually in salary.
The entire strategy of the 3 largest pharmaceutical distribution companies—McKeeson, Cardinal and Amerisource—was to distribute drugs like oxycontin in rural areas that were areas of despair, like Mineral County with a population of 4,772 people, which was given 3,100,100 doses of oxycontin.
The film shows efforts to prosecute the drug companies in Nevada, which has a policy of unsealing documents that show guilt, as the e-mail correspondence within the McKeeson Corporation between Tracey Jonas and employees clearly did. The employees were told not use the word “suspicious” about large orders going to small towns. The film had real potential,but spent a bit too much time focusing on Papantonio, while not letting us hear from as many of the victims as would have been good.
“Demi Lovato: Dance with the Devil” (Credit: OBB Media @ the SXSW Online Film Festival 2021.)
The Aretha Franklin Genius documentary came next, but, when it turned out to be talking heads trying to promote the soon-to-be released documentary starring Cynthia Erivo as the Queen of Soul I chose to take in “Introducing, Selma Blair” instead.
Blair was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis in August of 2018 and this film takes us through her stem cell transplant at Northwestern in Chicago. It’s pretty bleak, but not nearly as bad as the evening’s opening documentary, “Demi Lovato: Dancing with the Devil.”
As most will remember, Demi Lovato over-dosed on July 24, 2018, while smoking heroin laced with fentanyl. She suffered a heart attack, 3 strokes, brain damage (she cannot drive because she has visual blind spots), pneumonia and multiple organ failure. She also claims, in this documentary, that her drug dealer took advantage of her when she was under the influence of the near-fatal overdose.
“Lily Topples the World” was the most upbeat of all of the things I saw today, with the story of domino artist Lily Hevesh, who has been posting YouTube videos of elaborate domino installations since she was a small child and has now made it into an occupation. In fact, in one of the few bright spots of today’s viewing, by documentary’s end Lily has cut a deal with a toy company to endorse a “new improved” brand of domino that would sell in stores. If you want to see some of Lily’s elaborate designs, check Hevesh5 on YouTube.
Last film of the day was an eleven-minute short entitled “The Thing That Ate the Birds.” It was one of the best of the day, but this Irish investigation of possible alien life ended much too quickly for my tastes. I would have loved to have this short eleven-minute story spin out to become a feature length film, but, alas, it was not to be.
“Lily Topples the World,” SXSW Online Film Festival, 2021.
Today is March 13th, Saturday, and it sticks in my brain pan as the day that my husband and I went out to see “The Way Back” at a local cinema. The place was deserted and, when I asked about upcoming films, the news was not good.
By that weekend, we were “sheltering in place” and we were going to be sheltering in place for one full year. My hair appointments became non-existent, My nails grew out and became a problem. I was giving hair cuts to my husband. I would not enter a movie theater for 7 months to see “Tenet” at the Regal Cinema (now closed) in Moline, Illinois.
During that long Covid-19 year my husband and I would contract the virus and be sick for two weeks (in October). We would venture out perhaps twice (once to a drive-in) to see movies, but the flow of new films would cease, so the sacrifice that no movies means, to me, as a bona fide movie buff, was slightly mollified by the realization that there were very few new good films coming out. All of us were glued to our respective television sets, and that is where I would cover the Chicago International Film Festival, the Denver Film Festival, Sundance, and, this coming week, SXSW, virtually, online.
I am Press at SXSW, again, and the films I will be seeing from March 16-20 will include the following, (with reviews here and on The Movie Blog.com and perhaps a few on QuadCity.com):
Tuesday- March 16th
“Demi Lovato: Dance with the Devil” (Credit: OBB Media @ the SXSW Online Film Festival 2021.)
“Hysterical – top female comics perform in a special.
“The Oxy Kingpins” – a documentary.
“Aretha” – a documentary about Aretha Franklin
“Lily Topples the World” – young girl sets up blocks to “fall.”
“Demi Lovato: Dancing with the Devil” – the story of Demi Lovato’s close call with death from a drug overdose.
“The Thing That Ate the Birds” – horror
Wednesday, March 17
“The Return: Life After Isis”
“Tom Petty: Somewhere You Feel Free” (documentary)
Waze & Odyssey” with appearances by George Michael et, al.
Not Going Quietly – feature film
United States vs. Reality Winner – a documentary about White House leaks
Thursday- March 18
“Swan Song” (Credit Chris Stephens, SXSW Online Film Festival 2021).
“Swan Song” – I actually have already seen this one, about a hairdresser called out of retirement in the nursing home to do a dead friend’s hair. The dead friend is Linda Evans (“Dynasty”). The hairdresser is German actor Udo Kier. The co-star is Stiffler’s Mom, from “American Pie,” Jennifer Coolidge. Todd Phillips directs.
“The Lost Sons” – fascinating documentary about a boy kidnapped at birth from Michael Reese Hospital in Chicago only to be returned to his parents 2 years later. Or is the boy found in New Jersey really their son? A fascinating documentary with many twists and a Chicago setting.
“The Drover’s Wife: The Legend of Mary Johnson – one of the few feature length films
“Violet” – a Justine Bateman project
“Alone Together” – a documentary about Charlie XCS
“Sound of Violence”
“The Spine of Night” – animated, with voices by Patton Oswalt and others. The last 2 are “midnight fare,” meaning scary films.
Friday, March 19th
“Late Night Girls Club” – Samantha Bee and Amber Ruffin
“Cruel Summer” Q&A”
The festival does not end until Saturday, but my husband and I are scheduled to get our second Pfizer shots on Saturday and Sunday, which is his birthday. We are making a true celebration out of it, staying at the VanZandt hotel downtown in a pricey room and dining out with the son and daughter-in-law, so no closing night film for me. Check back at WeeklyWilson.com for reviews of the above.
Some of you may have noticed the movement from politics to film on the blog, of late.
It has always been my goal to go among three topics: books, film and politics.
In addition, I sometimes convey information about my travels, whether that means Texas or Mexico or Alaska.
While it is tempting to bring up for discussion the feud that is currently playing out between Mitch McConnell and Donald J. Trump, I shall bypass this low-hanging political fruit, for the moment. Or the death today of Rush Limbaugh might send me off on another political thread, but I’m sticking to movies for the rest of February, and then I’ll be taking a break from the Weekly Wilson podcast.
If you are curious about which of the 45 or so podcasts I’ve done are interesting, I’ll be happy to list them for you, but I’m not sure if they remain “up” after my show goes into a hiatus, which may be permanent.
While I’m proud of the shows I’ve managed to put “in the can,” I’m also more than ready to return to writing—possibly a fourth book in The Color of Evil series.
But, this week, I’ll be interviewing the first-time director of “Alice Fades Away,” a film I reviewed here previously, and the week of February 25th I will speak with the Chicago director of “100 Days to Live,” Ravin Gandhi.
So, remember to tune in to listen to the conversation with Ryan Bliss, director of “Alice Fades Away,” on Thursday, February 18th.
“One Hundred Days to Live” is a first feature from Writer/Director Ravin Gandhi of Chicago, who is the founder and CEO of GMM Nonstick Coating in Chicago. Ravin holds a B.S. in Accounting and Finance from the University of Illinois and an MBA in Entrepreneurial Studies from Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University. His bucket list had always included making a movie, and, for the past 2 years, Ravin undertook to do exactly that, helming “100 Days to Live” and winning Best World Premiere and Best First-Time Director Honors at the San Diego Film Festival.
The log line for the film: “When a serial killer abducts a young woman’s fiancé, she must race against the clock to discover the identity of the killer, and more importantly—his motive.” The film is quite an accomplishment for a mid-budget indie with a rookie director who did not major in filmmaking. While it boasts no big A- or B-list names, it more than makes up for it with solid actors, who would not typically be cast as leads in higher-profile films. Good performances with a lot of emotion and complexity given to the characters of Rebecca, Gabriel, and the killer, Victor. Rebecca, is fantastic as she carries most of the film. (*Listen to my interview with Heidi Johanningmeier on episode 42 posted on my blog, WeeklyWilson.com on February 4th).
The biggest plot hole answers that nagging question, “Why would anyone want to make a serial killer film that revolves around the sensitive subject of suicide?” Some critics have criticized the script for failing to go deep into suicide and to treat it as the sensitive subject it is. This film is not for families of suicide victims or those who think all references to this family tragedy should play out like a documentary.
This is a thriller and, while we can debate the sensitivity of the killer called The Savior, who leaves behind scrapbooks labeled “Sarah (etc.) Was Saved” that’s a debate for another day. The Writer/Director is trying for a psychological thriller and this isn’t a documentary or a PSA on Suicide Prevention. It’s a thriller—and a fairly innovative one, with a couple of innovative dream sequences, great cinematography and beautiful shots of the city (plus interiors of Ravin Gandhi’s condominium within the iconicHancock Building), good music, and that twist ending we all crave.
The lead role of a young suicide center counselor is played by Chicago actress Heidi Johanningmeier as Dr. Rebecca Church. Heidi shared that they shot the film in 29 days. She does a great job. (It’s really hard to believe that the lovely Heidi, from Mt. Ayr, Iowa, has 2 young sons and an artist husband. She lives in the Chicago suburbs, working full-time in the Windy City.)
At the end of the film, Writer/Director/Producer Gandhi appended a note thanking his family for vacating the family digs so that he could shoot there. Heidi acknowledged during our interview of February 4th that Mrs. Gandhi was a great sport about being asked to vacate her home for the duration.
The views from the Hancock Building are spectacular ;the exterior shots in Chicago (Pelago Ristorante, Millennium Park, lakefront cityscapes) are equally impressive. Even the costuming is top-notch, which Heidi and I discussed at length on February 4th in my interview.
Colin Egglesfield plays Gabriel Weeks, Rebecca’s boyfriend, who disappears—one of several victims. Police determine that the dead all shared a history of previous suicide attempts. Even the counselor reveals, in the course of the film, that she had a failed suicide attempt. When she was 18 she had suicidal impulses; she took 40 Seconal pills as a student in graduate school, roughly 2 years prior.
Gideon Embry plays the villain, Victor Quinn. Heidi explained in a podcast conversation of 2/4 (up nowat WeeklyWilson.com) that the make-up people worked on villain Victor’s tattoos longer than they worked on her make-up. Victor has every victiim’s name tattooed on his torso. Victor says, “I won’t waste my time on non-believers.” Heidi shared that Gideon, in real life, was the opposite of the murderous Victor. “I live,” says Victor in the script, “so people like you can die. I’m your salvation.”
CINEMATOGRAPHY & MUSIC
Nicholas M. Puetz is responsible for the cinematography. He captures some spectacular Chicago skylines, as well as handling two ambitious dream sequences, one involving Rebecca’s being sucked down the drain in her luxurious bathtub and a second set in a bedroom of the Hancock Building condominium. There are shots reflected off the light and music by Mima Fakhrara and Navid Hejazi. The music contributed to evoking the appropriate mood at the right moments in the film.
The film makes you think about the precept in the film: What are you grateful for today?
It also makes you wonder what each of us would do if we knew, for sure, we only had 100 days left to live.
I freely acknowledge that the underlying plot premise may seem a bit implausible. For those who want a serious discussion of suicide, this film isn’t it. But don’t dismiss the entire project out-of-hand. If you accept the Writer/Director’s basic plot premise and go with it, the film is a psychological thriller with a lot to recommend it.
Writer/Director Ryan Bliss launches his first full-length feature film “Alice Fades Away” on February 16th, available on iTunes, Apple TV, Amazon, Google Play, Microsoft, Vuda, Fandago NOW and other On Demand DVD platforms. The trailer is truly creepy and that feeling of dread, complete with appropriate images, lighting and music, comes through in the film, set in 1953. The action takes place in one week, from Sunday to Sunday; the body count is high. (When we hit 6 deaths, I wondered if we would run out of characters before we ran out of plot.)
According to Writer/Director Ryan Bliss, the film is “about patriarchy, legacy and death, but more importantly, it’s about perseverance and strength in the face of fear and power by someone who’s not allowed to have her own identity.” Aside from the reference to death, that theme made me think of Meryl Streep’s character in “Kramer vs. Kramer,” a woman who has never had the opportunity to become her own person, having gone directly from her childhood home to school to marriage. As Alice—who shared some of Streep’s character’s angst, articulated in that film says in “Alice Fades Away”—“I never had the opportunity to choose.”
Alice’s father-in-law, James Sullivan (William Sadler), sends his son Holden (Timothy Sekk) after Alice (Ashley Shelton) to bring his grandson Logan (Paxton Singleton) back to him. As explained by the commanding patriarch, “She took my grandson and ran off like a coward.” Sullivan is a powerful man who is used to having things his own way. He and his late wife Margaret disapproved of their son’s choice of a wife. (“What did he see in her? I never figured that out for the life of me.”)
When Carroll (Tommy Beardmore), Alice’s husband, dies violently, Alice flees and the old man unleashes Alice’s brother-in-law, Holden—[a psychopathic ex-prisoner of war, still suffering from PTSD]—to fetch his young grandson back to him because, he says, his grandson Logan is all he has left. (This seemed inaccurate, since he was speaking to a surviving son.)
The lighting and images shot by cinematographer David Bouley are truly beautiful. Whether the scene is simply Alice and her young son lying in a field or—-as in Bliss’ previous shorts, “Rot” and “Clover”— framed scenes of a tree in the snow, the images are gorgeous. The most ordinary scenes are beautifully lit and shot with a painter’s eye. The cinematography and the Bliss Farms sets with period radios, guns, cars, and clothing, are really wonderful for a first full-length film effort. The plot shows care and thought have gone into the themes to be explored (although perhaps a few too many major themes are included for a film running just an hour and 16 minutes).
The lead character of Alice Sullivan is played by Ashley Shelton. Her father-in-law has described her as having “empty eyes, like she is missing a soul.” When Alice runs away to her Uncle Bishop’s farm (Jay Potter), Alice says, describing herself, “I’m not certain if I’m sane any more. I don’t know how anyone can know that.”
She has taken shelter at Uncle Bishop’s remote rural farmhouse, along with four other fellow sufferers. One is a young boy. The explanation is that he was just left there by his parents, who disappeared. This struck me as odd and unlikely.
Uncle Bishop reminds Alice of a time as a young girl when she callously watched another youngster nearly drown, but seemed to display no emotion (Alice claims not to remember this). After sharing that anecdote, Uncle Bishop demands that the others in the farmhouse—all of whom have endured tragedy of one sort or another– vote on whether to grant Alice asylum at the farmhouse. Ultimately, all but Bishop vote yes. One of the other women in the house, Roxie, is played by Blanche Baker, who is the daughter of Carroll Baker (“Baby Doll”).
When Alice describes the fear that she is being hunted, Roxie (Blanche Baker) says, “We’re not safe, are we?”
Alice admits to the others that they may not be safe. Uncle Bishop’s prophecy that “Something’s comin’” turns out to be too tragically true.
I loved the cinematography in this first feature film. The sets are also great, with a wonderful ruin on the grounds that has a stairway to nowhere and lovely fields meant to portray New England. The trailer gives you a good feeling for the creepy mood that Writer/Director Ryan Bliss, (with able assistance from cinematographer David Bouley and music from Christopher French), has managed to achieve. The lighting in several scenes, in the old period farmhouse, gives the film a patina that shows skill behind the camera (Bliss also helped edit, in addition to writing and directing).
As with many films, the audience has to fill in a lot of missing parts of the plot. Sometimes, the director gave the audience too much credit for being able figure out plot points out on its own. I would have liked slightly more information about Logan’s and Everett’s (Benjamin Russell’s) ultimate fate. Even Holden’s demise is left hanging and what about Uncle Bishop? But the mood and pace and general use of wonderful images to tell this story more than made up for a few continuity lapses and some story threads dropped without much closure.
We quit counting fatalities at 6. For a film with only a few main characters, it’s not one where nothing at all happens, which, to me, was admirable.
“Judas and the Black Messiah,” the bio-pic about Fred Hampton, head of the Black Panthers in Illinois in the sixties, comes to us from a dynamic team. Director Shaka King (“Newlyweeds”) had met Ryan Coogler (“Black Panther”) in 2013 at Sundance. Coogler (“Black Panther”) approached Warner Brothers with 50% of the film’s financing in hand to back the picture, directed by Shaka King (“Newlyweeds”) from a story by the Lucas Brothers. They already had the cast in mind and Shaka King had connected with screenwriter Will Berson, who had been researching Hampton for some time. After some major difficulty getting to Jesse Plemons (whose agent did not return calls)—the package came together. Judas and the Black Messiah premiered at Sundance on Monday, February 1st. It will stream on HBO Max beginning February 12th.
The film is bound to earn its two leads Oscar nominations; the film itself will be a strong contender in these Black Lives Matter-influenced times for a Best Picture nomination. As the log-line for the film says, “The story of Fred Hampton, Chairman of the Illinois Black Panther Party, and his fateful betrayal by FBI informant William O’Neal.”
Daniel Kaluuya (“Get Out”) plays Fred Hampton, (the Black Messiah of thetitle), and Lakeith Stanfield (“Selma,” “Straight Outta’ Compton”) is William O’Neal, the Judas figure who infiltrated the Chicago Black Panthers at the request of FBI agent Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons).
We follow the action through William O’Neal’s eyes, a small-time petty criminal caught impersonating an FBI officer in order to steal a car. William O’Neal was 17 when he stole the car and drove it across state lines into Michigan. Since car theft carries an 18 month sentence and impersonating a federal officer would earn him a 5 year sentence, the Judas figure in the film’s title is offered the opportunity to infiltrate the Black Panthers rather than go to jail. O’Neal doesn’t forsee that he will be asked to drug Fred Hampton (secobarbital) so that state-sponsored murder can take place in a hit executed by 14 Chicago police at 2337 West Monroe Street at 4:45 a.m. on December 4, 1969.
Martin Sheen plays an almost unrecognizable J. Edgar Hoover. A secret group within the FBI called Cointelpro is responsible for the hit on Fred Hampton’s residence that is authorized by Hoover. Hampton, his 9-months pregnant girlfriend (well played by Dominque Fishback) and several other Black Panthers were there, sleeping overnight. Two were killed in cold blood: Mark Kelly, who was the security guard for the night, and Hampton, who survived the initial assault only to be executed with 2 shots to the head. The Panthers fired only one shot, into the ceiling, when Mark Kelly’s shotgun discharged as he was shot through the door. The police shot 99 times.
A lawsuit lodged in 1970 dragged on for 18 months, but finally delivered a judgment of $1.85 million in 1982. When the foursome behind the film (the Lucas brothers, Ryan Coogler and Shaka King) pitched the film, they compared it to “The Departed” within Cointel.
Daniel Kaluuya, Ashton Sanders, Algee Smith, Dominique Thorne and Lakeith Stanfield appear in Judas and the Black Messiah by Shaka King, an official selection of the Premieres section at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Glen Wilson.
The acting by both leads should earn Kahluua and Stanfield Oscar nods. If you watch this at home, you might want to turn on captioning, in order to know what, exactly, Daniel Kahluua is saying. YouTube videos support Hampton’s cadence, rough articulation and fast pace as authentic to the man, himself, but it’s still hard to understand. Stanfield’s William O’Neal is better able to be understood. Both actors are somewhat older than the ages they are asked to portray, with Kahluua, at 31, playing the 21-year-old Hampton. (Stanfield is 29).
Accolades are deserved for both of the film’s leads. For me, the William O’Neal character is the more interesting, portrayed by Lakeith Stanfield as a bundle of contradictions. He seems conflicted about his role from the very beginning. As the plot thickens and he is asked to do even more for the FBI, he seems to have been drawn into a no-win situation that tortured him to the point that, after his one and only television interview about the events of that night, on January 15, 1990, he committed suicide. O’Neal’s words from the “Eyes on the Prize 2” documentary footage were, “I was part of the struggle. At least I had a point of view. I’ll let history speak for me.”
The film portrays O’Neal’s descent into even greater betrayal(s) extremely well, even through the costuming. When O’Neal meets Jesse Plemons for dinner at a fancy steakhouse late in the film (away from the Black Panthers) he is attired in a very fly white suit. Agent Mitchell shoves an envelope with cash in it towards O’Neal, possibly the $300 in extra pay that O’Neal received for special service to the FBI. But when O’Neal depicts a Black Panther early in the film, with leather jacket and beret, he really seems to empathize with the Black struggle, despite Mitchell’s attempts to convince him that the KKK and the Black Panthers are flip sides of the same coin.
It is a tribute to Stanfield’s acting chops and the wise decision to let the most conflicted character carry the weight of the film that elevates the movie. After the deaths of the Black Panthers in the dawn raid, O’Neal was relocated to California under the Federal Witness Protection Program and used the name William Hart until returning to Chicago in 1984. His involvement in the death of Fred Hampton, including drugging Hampton before the planned raid, was not revealed until 1973.
Daniel Kahluua emerged as a star after his role in “Get Out.” He is now 31 and a much more substantial figure than when he played the boyfriend in that earlier film. Fred Hampton was 21 when he was assassinated. Hampton’s background prior to his death was that of a community organizer of exceptional skill, who saw the benefits in uniting all the disparate ethnic peoples of Chicago, the nation and the world. He formed the Rainbow Coalition and brokered deals where his fiery oratory moved the crowds that assembled and alarmed the FBI. The no-knock raid at Hampton’s house in the middle of the night reminds of Breanna Taylor’s recent death. The recent Black Lives Matter protests also serve as a timely backdrop for this socially conscious film.
Deborah Johnson (now known as Akua Njeri) is portrayed by actress Dominique Fishback. The fiancé of Fred Hampton, she gave birth 25 days after Fred Hampton’s death. (Fred Hampton, Jr. is now 52 years old.) Dominique has appeared in “The Deuce” and “The Hate U Give.” Dominique gives a nuanced performance as the poet who applies to the Black Panther headquarters in Chicago to help Hampton improve his speeches. Their low-key courtship adds a behind-the-scenes look at the man whom we see orating like MLK in other scenes. (One question: how would the very white Jesse Plemons character— even while wearing a stocking cap— not stick out like a sore thumb inside the meeting place when Hampton is speaking with ringing phrases like, “You can murder a revolutionary, but you can’t murder a revolution,” or “I’m gonna’ die for the people because I live for the people?”)
Darrel Britt-Gibson, Daniel Kaluuya and Lakeith Stanfield appear in Judas and the Black Messiah by Shaka King, an official selection of the Premieres section at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Glen Wilson.
Cinematographer Sean Bobbitt (from San Antonio), who worked on “Twelve Years A Slave” and “Hunger,” does a great job of turning late 60s Chicago into a sepia-toned retro landscape. The bar used in the initial scenes and later in the film, Leon’s Bar, reeks of that era. The scenes that involve gun battles (3) are dark and the shooting of a cop near a factory has very interesting angles framing the action.
Mark Isham and Craig Harris handled the music; they do a fine job setting the sixties tone.
The principals behind the film shared in an interview that they worked very hard to make sure the film was accurate. This meant contacting the families of those who were involved the night of the climactic shooting. In particular, Fred Stanfield, Jr., who is now 52 and works on prisoner’s rights, was consulted. The team said, “It changed all of our lives and we’ll be far better off because of it.”
“A badge is scarier than a gun.”
“Political power flows from the barrel of a gun. You need tools, brother.”
“Words are beautiful, but actions are supreme.”
“Every ghetto across the nation should be considered occupied territory.”
“The most dangerous weapon is the people.”
“Our job, as the Black Panther Party, is to heighten our traditions so the people can decide if they want to overthrow the government. Or not.”
“We want land, bread, housing, education, democracy and peace.”
“You can’t shoot your way to equality.”
PRODUCTION TEAM’s THOUGHTS
The team responsible for the movie, including Ryan Coogler and Director Shaka King shared their experiences making the film in a Warner Brothers interview. Coogler said, “There would be nights when I couldn’t sleep.”
On the general public’s lack of knowledge about Fred Hampton until now, King said, “There could be 100 movies on this subject and it still wouldn’t be enough.”
The director and Coogler mused about how, so often bio-pics reach the screen, and the families then protest that the film is totally inaccurate, saying the movie did not reflect the truth about their loved ones. The makers of Judas and the Black Messiah did not want that to happen with their film, so they actually traveled to Chicago and sat at the very table where, 52 years ago, Fred Hampton worked.
Said one of the producing partners: “Coming out of this, I don’t think I’ll ever look at (bio-pic) movies the same way again.”
One of the more eagerly anticipated feature length films at “Sundance” was Robin Wright’s directorial debut, “Land.”
Not only did she direct the piece, but she starred in it. Her co-star was Academy Award nominee Demian Bechir, nominated as Best Actor in 2011’s “A Better Life.”
That sounded promising, as did the involvement of Liz Hannah, who wrote the screenplay for “Long Shot” and “The Post.” Maybe Liz Hannah was part of the original plan, but the credited writers for the film are Erin Dignam and Jesse Chatham and there is no sign of Ms. Hannah on the finished product. This is unfortunate, since the plot has almost nothing happening, is disjointed, and really drags.
Cinematography was by veteran lensman Bobby Bukowski, who helmed both “Arlington Road” in 1999 and “The Messenger” in 2009. He does good work with the wilderness and explained how he worked in a previous interview:
“As soon as a director asks me to be with them, I’m really happy to engage them, no matter if I’m working or not because, when a director is making a movie, it’s the most important thing they they’re doing in their lives, and I like to show the spirit that I’m committed and involved as much as they are.
What attracts me to do a movie is the story, along with my curiosity for how human beings operate – human behavior. So I sit down with a director, and before we talk anything about visuals, I really want to understand, ‘Okay, what are you trying to say? What is the purpose of telling this story?’ And then we can start breaking things down, what is the integral component of the scene this narrative accomplishes. ‘Oh, to show the alienation of this character? Great.’ So now we start talking about alienation, and how we can fit it visually, compositionally, lighting-wise.supporting that narrative element.” (IMDB.com)
This was a beautifully filmed movie, capturing Alberta, Canada—a stand-in for Wyoming— in all its glory. Bukowski has done his job well. “Land” is a gorgeous advertisement for visiting this primitive wilderness area.
But the story that the movie attempts to tell is dull and illogical.
At the beginning of the movie a very stressed-out Robin Wright, as Edee Mathis, is being urged not to harm herself by her sister. We don’t know why she would want to harm herself and it isn’t for quite some time that we learn the true nature of her loss.
Edee lost her husband and her small son in a senseless shooting. We learn quite late in the film that Edee was a lawyer, although there was little in the early parts of the film that would reveal this. I did recognize Chicago as the city Edee wants to flee. Very late in what passes for a plot we learn that Edee’s husband and child were shot at a concert. It receives almost no screen time, by way of explanation. She’s not dealing with it well. Understandable.
While we all have the urge to flee in troubled times, who goes to the remote wilderness and doesn’t even have a car to bring in much-needed supplies? Or a decent bathroom? Or a real bed? The cabin that Edee selects in the wilderness is so remote and so primitive that it would kill most of us; it nearly kills her. But for the intervention of Demian Bechir, Edee would have died in the primitive cabin she has selected for her “escape.”
I understand that Robin Wright’s goal was to make a film about someone trying to find a way to learn to live again while facing tragedy. It took 2 and ½ years of her time and the deadline was pushed back a year by the advent of the pandemic. A movie about resilience in the face of adversity certainly is timely. The protagonist’s reasons for leaving the big city (“It’s really difficult to be around people because they just want me to be better.”) is all well and good, but, despite her direction of several episodes of “House of Cards,” this film is slow-moving and never goes anywhere.
It’s a beautifully photographed tribute to the great outdoors, complete with an encounter with a large brown bear that would have driven most of us back to the city in record time. “Land” was shot in 29 days at 8,000 feet across four seasons with the occasional sporadic blizzard interrupting filming and some lessons learned about chopping wood by the stars.
It’s a very pretty movie, but it has three main flaws:
1) It’s boring
(2) It’s totally illogical that this young professional woman would select this rustic retreat and nearly die there because of her inability to cope with her personal tragedy
(3) There are myriad plot details that are either concealed until very late in what passes for the plot, or are never cleared up at all.
Cast: Robin Wright, Demian Bichir, Kim Dickens, Warren Christie
Director: Robin Wright
Writers: Erin Dignam, Jesse Chatham
Cinematography: Bobby Bukowski
Rating: 3 out of 10 (primarily for the landscape, the acting, and the bear)
Filmmaker Sally Aitken took the glorious 16 millimeter film of Valerie May Taylor and her husband, Ron, and has made it into a 95-minute exploration of the fearless team, who braved the oceans of the world to study and photograph the alien world beneath the water, especially focusing on sharks.
It was not their original intention to become conservationists for the dwindling species of sharks, but that is what happened after the two first made their mark at spearfishing. Ron was four-time Australian champion and world champion in the sport and the beautiful blonde Valerie was a Pamela Anderson of the underwater oceans, inhabiting a male culture of the fifties and killing one Great White shark before she realized that the animals were beautiful in their own killing machine way and should be preserved.
In fact, Peter Benchley’s (“Jaws” author) widow Wendy offers up the sobering news that there are only 10% of the world’s sharks still swimming, since 100 million a year have been being harvested for the past 20 years.
Valerie, now in her eighties, tells us that “It’s not that I didn’t want children. I wanted to do other things. I waned to have my own special life.”
That she survived and much more. A polio survivor, she and Ron traveled the world, trying to make a living at what they loved doing most: diving. In 1974 Peter Benchley, who knew about the pair’s exploits, wrote a book about a shark (which his wife did not think would “work”). It became “Jaws” with 29-year-old Steven Spielberg directing in only his second major film.
Spielberg wanted the shark to be 25 feet long, although Valerie and Ron told him that Great Whites were normally only about 13 feet long. “That’s okay,” said Spielberg, “we’ll just make the diving cage half-sized.” This they did, hiring a half-sized actor to play the diver in the steel cage. Unfortunately, the very small man was not a diver and not a shark enthusiast. When he saw a real White Shark, he said, “I should have asked for more money!”
Give-it-a-go Valerie, as she was sometimes called because of her fearlessness, is shown hand-feeding a Great White Shark off the back of a boat and her changed attitude towards preserving sharks is credited with the fact that 80 to 100 bull sharks are now back at the reef off the island of Fiji.
Now widowed after Ron’s death from acute myeloid leukemia, Valerie shares the thought that she will never give up diving and that she will “probably be diving from my wheelchair.”
The film has astounding underwater footage, remastered from the original film shot by Ron Taylor, interspersed with television appearances the duo made on talk shows around the globe. The scenes of a Great White shark getting hung up in the boat apparatus during the filming of “Jaws” is riveting (we learn that it was not in the script, but they used the footage) and the entire project reveals a world beneath the waves of which Valerie May Taylor, herself, said, “It was a different, alien world. I was just a visitor.”