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!
Kenneth Branaugh on October 21, 2021, with his Lifetime Achievement Award fro the Chicago International Film Festival.
If you were mourning the loss of the Nashville Film Festival, which ended yesterday, stay tuned for the beginning of the 58th Chicago International Film Festival, beginning next week. Technically, it will kick off Oct. 12 and run through the 2rd.
Then it will be the Austin Film Festival, Oct. 27-Nov. 3, which may (or may not) be followed by the Denver Film Festival (streaming).
So, keep checking for upcoming reviews of the very newest of features, documentaries and shorts.
It’s hard to grab an audience’s attention in 15 minutes. The attention span of the average audience member is about that of a gnat, especially these days, with so many things competing for our attention.
That being said, if I had been in Writer/Director/Producer Jaran Huggins’ shoes while writing directing his short “Sheet Music,” I would have started the 15-minute short with the song that concludes “Sheet Music.”
“The Song We Sing,” is the song, performed by Chloe Kibble, a Nashville girl whose father was one of the members of the group “Take6.” She is truly wonderful delivering the closing original song; her gold dress is the perfect wardrobe choice.
Kudos to the writer of the song, Bryard Huggins, who wrote the lyrics. He is an accomplished performer who tours with Gladys Knight as her featured guest artist. Bryard has released 6 albums and 7 singles. Bryard Huggins is the brother of “Sheet Music” Writer/Director/Producer Jaran Huggins, a recent graduate of Temple University (BFA in Film and Media Arts.)
“Sheet Music”—the 15-minute short that Jaran created, which screened at the 53rd Nashville Film Festival— has some things going for it, but most of what makes it truly riveting happens in the final frames, when Chloe Kibble lets loose with “The Song We Sing.” Yowza! That girl can sing! I wanted to hear more of Chloe and to hear her sing much earlier in the short.
The plot, according to the press notes, “Tells the story of two Black performers who are able to find their liberation in the roots of oppression.” There really is not much evidence of “oppression” onscreen, other than the white usher failing to bring the about-to-perform female singer a glass of water.
For the first approximately 13 minutes, nothing happens.
Two Black performers wait backstage to perform in a white establishment in a Black neighborhood. The two are Adryan Coogan Jr. (played by Ty Norwood Jr.) and Leilani Drakeford (played by J.C. Willis). Leilani did a credible job with a not-very-riveting script. Her inability to get the white usher to bring her a drink of water is our clue that she and her accompanist are victims of oppression, along with a less-than-welcoming white doorman who opens the club door for the duo.
The production designer (Kimberly Redman) has done a fantastic job of reproducing a slightly down-at-the-heels small dressing room of the era. There are appropriate posters and, as J.C says, the dressing room is a small closet that might have belonged to the janitor. Then again, are dressing rooms in small, seedy establishments glitzy, as a general rule?
The conflict that Jaran shows us comes from Adryan forgetting the duo’s sheet music. The lead singer (J.C. Willis)—one half of the team billed outside as “Adryan Coogan Jr. and J.C. Willis” of “The All American Ragtime Blues” duo—doesn’t seem that concerned about the missing sheet music. However, the pair is waiting for their call to go onstage, which is imminent. Because of the MIA sheet music, the pair ultimately walks out, hand-in-hand down the alley.
This struck me as a poor way to launch a singing career (or any career). I was not overwhelmed at the logic of the two getting a shot at performing in front of an audience (that will be mostly white) and simply walking out, leaving the club owner to deal with the fall-out.
So, to sum up: 1) Slow opening
2) Not very interesting dialogue; the first 13 minutes dragged.
3) Adequate articulation of the dialogue (better from Leilani Drakeford than from Ty Norwood, Jr.). For me, the couple’s decision to stiff the owner of the night club and run off was a very bad idea for a duo trying to jump start their performing career.
4) Great sets and costumes. (Kudos, Kimberly Redman).
5) Great performance of the song “The Song We Sing.”
I’m not sure whether this short was originally created for a thesis at Temple or if it is merely a way for Jaran to launch a film career, but, if he is as talented as his brother Bryard, his anticipated move to Los Angeles may prove fruitful. There wasn’t enough of the music, but the one song was thoroughly enjoyable. After 13 minutes of waiting for it, it was like a cool drink after a long hot walk up a steep hill.
This Harriet Tubman quote from the press notes is prominent: “Every dream begins with a dreamer who dares to dream.” I don’t want to get into a debate with Harriet Tubman, but the quote made me think of that other oft-used quote (author unknown): “Every journey of 1,000 miles begins with one small step.”
Both are true, but it would be a good idea to have talent, drive, stick-to-it-iveness, and maybe some influence with somebody at the top who can help you as you dream your dream or struggle towards your goal(s).
I wish Jaran Huggins the very best as he sets about making his dreams come true.
As for me, I would have started with the show-stopping song and lost most of the dialogue that preceded it. The conflict was not that evident in the dressing room scenes that lead up to the song.
Sitting through the pointless dialogue at the outset was still worth it, to hear Chloe Kibble, who was glorious. I wish she had had more to do (and sing) in the film.
“Alta Valley” screens at 53rd Nashville Film Festival.
“Alta Valley” screened on October 1st at the 53rd Annual Nashville Film Festival. The synopsis for the film says, “To save her dying mother, Lupe, a Mexican Navajo mechanic, bands together with an outlaw cowgirl. She is bound to Maddy Monroe by accidentally helping her rob a pawn shop. Lupe and Maddy must outrun the men from the pawn shop, travel to Alta Valley, and confront Lupe’s father Carl for the first time. Upon their arrival Carl’s many injustices are revealed, including his mistreatment of Lupe’s Navajo family, forcing Lupe to stand up to the corruption.”
The plot seemed primarily a vehicle to show off the blonde cowgirl, Maddy (who is unfortunately giventhe surname Monroe). At the outset, Maddy-with-the-long-blonde-hair extensions is in trouble with the man connected to the pawn shop and his sons. We never really find out exactly what was the nature of Maddy’s beef with the pawn shop person, but her purse from a rodeo bucking bronco appearance is totally devoted to paying him back.
That $10,000 is deemed inadequate. Maddy needs even more money to satisfy the violent boss, so she throws in with the young Navajo-Mexican girl (Lupe, played by Briza Covarrubias), who is in the pawn shop to pawn valuable Indian jewelry needed to get her ailing mother treatment for a brain tumor. Maddy is on her way to seek a handout from Carl (the man she has recently discovered was her biological father). She thinks Carl owns Alta Vista. The request? $50,000 for medical treatment for her mother’s brain tumor. If Maddy travels with Lupe, maybe there might be money in it for her, too.
[*An aside: two famous people who died in the not-that-distant past of a malignant brain tumor were Ted Kennedy and John McCain. No amount of money can successfully treat a malignant glioblastoma, a very aggressive brain tumor with an average life expectancy of 14 months. Also, the mother seems to fall into and out of a coma in a willy-nilly fashion. But nevermind about that…back to the lightweight plot.]
The beautiful blonde with the long blonde hair extensions, (who, by film’s end, rides a black horse in to save the day,) is played by Allee Sutton Hethcoat. She reminded me of the blonde co-star of “Big Sky,” Katheryn Winnick, who played Jenny Hoyt for 37 episodes on that TV series.
I was puzzled by how eager everyone was to shoot guns at each other in this one, although it is a western. These people spend inordinate amounts of time shooting at each other as they crouch behind cars. (Doesn’t say much for their marksmanship.)
The mountain vistas were gorgeous. It reminded me very much of what you see when traveling cross country on Route 66 from Chicago to Santa Monica (which I once did, collecting ghost stories). Kudos to the cinematographer, Jesse Edwards, (who also wrote and directed).
Early In the movie, Lupe’s mother, Adamina (Paula Miranda) tells her, “One day, you, too, must do the unthinkable and leave what you know to protect the greater good.” She explained to her young daughter how she fled from Cedar City to Alta Valley years earlier. (What she didn’t tell her young daughter was that Lupe’s father was an unscrupulous liar, whom she was fleeing.)
As it turns out Carl (Micah Fitzgerald) was a married man with a wife and 2 children. Mom chose to keep the specifics of Lupe’s parentage from her, but Lupe and Maddy will discover it together. After the “meet cute in the pawn shop” unlikely alliance of Lupe and Maddy, we are also going to be treated to an equally unlikely scene where the two females on the lam must join a group of Hispanic dancers onstage to avoid the men pursuing them. Of course, the two men pursuing them sit in the crowd and watch the dancing, apparently oblivious that the two girls they have been chasing for miles are onstage (even though Maddy is not “in costume” but still wearing the obligatory black jacket, black hat, and holstered pistols, as well as the long blonde hair extensions).
The plot did not seem too well thought out; Carl (Micah Fitzgerald) is either overplayed or overwritten. He is both unattractive and mean, with no redeeming social characteristics, but his demise still seems abrupt and unmourned. (However, it made as much sense, plotwise, as the flamenco dancing scene, so— whatever.)
Mostly, I found the film forgettable. I saw it immediately after watching “Jacir,” which had a lot to say and said it well. “Alta Valley” doesn’t have much of a message. It is not a film I will think about again or one that conveys many universal truths.
Perhaps the one universal truth that we can point to that is articulated in “Alta Valley” is, “There ain’t nothin’ more important than family,” a plot point that has resonated since at least “The Godfather.”
If that is the main “message” of the film, the finale directly contradicts the film’s one universal truth.
I wondered “Why this film at this festival?” Writer/director/cinematographer Jesse Edwards—who has won 3 National Emmy awards and been nominated for 30 more—is the co-founder of the Nashville based Evolve Studio.
“Jacir” screened on Friday, September 30th, at the 53rd Annual Nashville Film Festival. It is the story of a refugee, Jacir, as he flees Aleppo (Syria) and tries to assimilate into the ghetto (Memphis, Tennessee). Written and directed by Waheed AlQawasmi, the 1 hour and 44 minute film is filled with great performances, good rap music, and a variety of profound insights into what life as an immigrant in the United States is like.”
Synopsis: “JACIR follows the life of a young Syrian refugee (Malek Rahbani) on the streets of Memphis, Tennessee, as he faces the stark reality of chasing the American dream. He finds himself alone, living in poverty, without knowledge of the culture, and struggling with his poor English… very far from the ideal new life he imagined.” (”Land of the free. Bullshit!”)
Jacir is a Good Samaritan who tries to help others. This propensity for being there for others gets him into trouble with the immigration authorities and his sponsor, Adam (Tony Mehanna). The authorities, represented by Agent Simmons (Mark Jeffrey Miller), just want refugees to become ghosts. Don’t make waves is the operating mantra.
Jacir, however, is the kind of person who tries to help others out of empathy and instinct. He saves his neighbor’s life on one occasion and intervenes when she is being robbed by burglars. This causes his name to appear on police reports, which brings ICE authorities down on him, causing increased scrutiny of his paperwork and an actual chase through the streets of Memphis. He faces deportation until a climactic moment when others reach out to help him.
A strange new environment is the least of Jacir’s problems. He befriends a cat, Morty, who belongs to his next-door neighbor, Meryl Jackson (Lorraine Bracco) “Good old Meryl” is a conservative Caucasian lady who is an opioid-addicted shut-in and former blues singer. Her character represents a large swath of America who reflexively reject people from another country as interlopers, reacting with suspicion and hostility, no matter how friendly the stranger appears. Unwelcoming is an understatement.
Tremendous Thespian Trio
“Jacir” at the 53rd Nashville Film Festival.
The three leads portraying Meryl, Jacir and Jerome are terrific. They are ably supported by the actors playing the restaurant boss, Adam, and his daughter, Nadia.
Lorraine Bracco, who plays Jacir’s next-door neighbor, is an Oscar, Emmy, and Golden Globe nominee known for her turns in Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas and David Chase’s The Sopranos, among many other films and TV projects. Bracco gets the line, “I’m not good at a lot of things, but I am good at listening.” I’m certain I’m not the only “Sopranos” fan in the audience who immediately thought of Bracco’s stint on that show as Tony Soprano’s psycho-therapist, Dr. Jennifer Melfi, a role she played from 1999 to 2007. That whiskey quality in her voice made her character’s back story as a blues singer very believable and gave her singing of the song “Night by Night” authenticity. Meryl, as a widowed woman estranged from her only son, finally “does the right thing” and accepts Jacir’s overtures of friendship and good will, instead of continuing her initial racist diatribes. Her performance is in line with her outstanding role in “Goodfellas” in 1990 for which she received an Oscar nomination as Best Supporting Actress at the 1991 Academy Awards.
Malek Rahbani is the grandson of Mansour Rahbani, the Lebanese composer, musician, producer, and one-half of the Rahbani brothers. Malek grew up surrounded by artists, music, and poetry. His TV career includes playing Tiger on Chawareh Al-Zill and co-writing and acting in the Jungle Law series, which he worked on with his brothers, Mansour and Tarek. He is one of a formidable trio of lead actors in this thoughtful film, gradually growing close to “good old Meryl” and experiencing rejection from his employer and sponsor, Adam, who tells him, “I curse the day I sponsored you.”
The third member of the Terrific Trio of actors in this exploration of the refugee experience in the United States is Black comedian and actor Darius “Tutweezy” Tutwiler, a comedian and social influencer with over 700,000 followers on Instagram. Jerome, a co-worker of Jacir’s at the Arabic restaurant shares the realization that they are both outcasts in this country, shunned and discriminated against. At one point, Jerome tells Jacir that he is “one step closer to being a Memphis n—-.” Jacir’s showing up in a Trump/Pence shirt that says, “Making America Great Again” is a nice sarcastic touch (Jerome makes Jacir change).
Justin Toland composed the music; Al Kapone executive produced the rap song. The music is an integral part of the film. Like America itself, reactions to Jacir are a polyglot mélange of racist views that one might hear from the MAGA crowd (especially prominent in a restaurant scene). Against that fabric we see the hopeful attempts to fit in and be useful from the good-hearted Jacir, the general indifference of white residents like Meryl and the immigration officials, and the brave souls who recognize that Jacir is deserving of their compassion and empathy.
The script is insightful and thought-provoking. The character of Jerome makes it very clear that being Black in America is not much better than being an immigrant refugee; the destruction of the restaurant where Jerome and Jacir work, with graffiti saying “Sand N——” underscores the truth of what Jerome says. (“We go through the same shit, fool!”) Cinematography by Ryan Earl Parker depicts Memphis’ Beale Street almost as though it were a fever dream reflection of the nightmares that afflict Jacir routinely as he remembers the war-torn Syria from which he fled.
I nodded my head in agreement when the screenplay articulated the thought, “It’s just so much easier to tear things down than to build them up.” These are concepts that people like Steve Bannon should take to heart. Convicted con-man Bannon promotes “the second turning” of complete destruction of all established norms and authorities in interviews. (See “American Dharma”).
As the script points out, it seems as though “Everyone (in America) is just out for themselves.” But Jacir is living up to his mother’s words that he should stay strong and composed no matter what happens. He is one of the “good guys” whose assimilation can make our country stronger and cancel out the evil deeds of immigrants like those who perpetrated the Boston Marathon Bombing. It is easier to understand why a foreigner might strike out against his adopted country when we experience life seen through Jacir’s eyes. And, on the eve of Hurricane Ian, we must remember that good does still exist in this country, with strangers reaching out to help their fellow man, side-by-side with those who would collaborate to use pandemic funds set aside for hungry school children in Minnesota to buy personal luxuries. Even World Famous quarterbacks are implicated in immensely selfish behavior, but good people still exist, just as welcoming citizens balance out the racist isolationists.
At one point, Jacir cries out in agony, asking where he is supposed to be at home, since he has been driven from his own homeland and is now being rejected by his adopted country. However, as Jacir says, “When you have a couple of bullets fly past your head—at that point neither religion, money or citizenship will help you out.”
This is a great film with a Terrific Trio of three lead actors who make it work. The love interest is Leila Almas Rose as the feisty Nadia and the critical look at the U.S. and how we treat immigrants is both scathing and long-overdue. Both newcomers, “Tutweezy” and Malek Rahbani, do themselves and the film proud on what I hope will be the beginning of many future film appearances for each of them.