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!

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“Being the Ricardos” on Amazon Explores Lucille Ball’s Storied Career

“Being the Ricardos” was scripted and directed by wunderkind Aaron Sorkin. It won screenplay awards and acting kudos from SAG for its leads: Nicole Kidman as Lucille Ball and Javier Bardem as Desi Arnaz. Beyond those top-notch talents, you have J.K. Simmons as William Frawley, Tony Hale as Jess Oppenheimer, and Nina Arianda as Vivian Vance. The Screen Actor Guild awards are considered a good indicator of Oscar nominations and have achieved even more prominence since the demise of the Golden Globes.

Lucie Arnaz and Desi Arnaz, Jr., are listed as Executive Producers and Lucie Arnaz’s reaction to the film was as follows:

Lucie Arnaz released a video on her YouTube Channel on 17 October 2021, in which she called the movie “freaking amazing.” She complimented Aaron Sorkin for making a great movie that really captured the time period and had wonderful casting. She also said that Nicole Kidman “became my mother’s soul.” Little Lucie said that Javier Bardem didn’t look like her dad but, “he has everything that dad had. He has Dad’s wit, his charm, his dimples, his musicality.”

Besides A Few Good Men (1992), Sorkin wrote The American President (1995) and Malice (1993), as well as cooperating on Enemy of the State (1998), The Rock (1996) and Excess Baggage (1997). He was invited by Steven Spielberg to “polish” the script of Schindler’s List (1993). Sorkin’s TV credits include the Golden Globe-nominated The West Wing (1999) and Sports Night (1998).As of 2021, has written three films that were nominated for the Best Picture Oscar: A Few Good Men (1992), The Social Network (2010), Moneyball (2011), and The Trial of the Chicago 7 (2020). His screenplays are often noted for the long speeches the actors must master, and he has done uncredited rewrites on some other major Hollywood pictures.

Despite his list of acclaimed scripts, Sorkin has only directed three films: 2017’s “Molly’s Game;” 2020’s “The Trial of the Chicago Seven;” and 2021’s “Being the Ricardos.” It looks like he is finally coming into his own with this behind-the-scenes look at the tumultuous marriage/love story/career of Lucille Ball. I had read much of the source material, which explored her desire for a home and family, which was in conflict with the womanizing reputation of Desi Arnaz, whom she met when he was only 22. A Cuban singer and bandleader, the chemistry between them was undeniable but Desi’s free-spirited high-rolling life proved to be too much for the woman who was the first actress to portray a pregnant woman on television, as she gave birth to Desi while also filming the popular television series “I Love Lucy,” watched by as many as 60 million viewers weekly.

It is while they are dating that Desi—whose father was once Mayor of Cuba’s second-largest city—tells her that she “has a way with kinetic comedy,” meaning that Lucy—like Chevy Chase later on “Saturday Night Live”—had a genius for pratfalls and physical comedy. The script explores Lucille Ball’s journey through the studio system, ultimately being cut  by studios even though she had just had a successful appearance opposite Henry Fonda in 1942’s “The Big Street.” Lucy’s path through radio (“My Favorite Husband” radio show in 1948), which was ultimately turned into the TV show “I Love Lucy” in 1953, showcases the redhead (who was not a redhead for her entire career) as a smart, savvy woman who understood physical comedy and went to the wall to insist that her on-air television husband would be played by her real-life husband, Desi Arnaz.

Desi, at the time, was leading a band that played at Ciro’s night club and singing such songs as “Babaloo” and  “Cuban Pete.” His free-wheeling lifestyle was out-of-synch with what Lucy wanted for her children. At the end of her life, Lucille Ball was married to Gary Morton. Her tumultuous marriage to Desi lasted for 20 years (with a nearly-filed divorce affidavit only 2 years in), while her marriage to Morton lasted for 28 years, until her death in 1989 at the age of 77 from a ruptured aneurysm.  On March 3, 1960, a day after Desi’s 43rd birthday (and one day after the filming the final episode of The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour), Ball filed papers in Santa Monica Superior Court, claiming married life with Desi was “a nightmare” and nothing at all as it appeared on I Love Lucy. On May 4, 1960, the couple divorced; however, until his death in 1986, Arnaz and Ball remained friends and often spoke very fondly of each other.

Much of the drama of this version of Lucille Ball’s life hinges on how Arnaz skillfully defused accusations against Ball that she was a Communist. One interesting bit of trivia: Ball was being considered for the lead female role as the mother in “The Manchurian Candidate,” but director John Frankenheimer insisted on Angela Lansbury for the pivotal role of Laurence Harvey’s scheming power-mad mother.

The film treatment by Sorkin, with music by Daniel Pemberton and music supervisor Mary Ramos features Javier Bardem doing his own singing and conga drum playing as Arnaz. The film is playing on Amazon Prime.

 

Four New Films: “Licorice Pizza,” “West Side Story,” “Nightmare Alley,” “Spencer”

Last movie I saw was “Licorice Pizza.” I enjoyed it immensely, primarily for the portrayal of Jon Peters by Bradley Cooper, who is having a banner year in starring roles, most notably as the lead as well in “Nightmare Alley,” which is also playing at theaters.

I was also there when the remake of “West Side Story” hit screens—four of us, making 8 in the theater, total. I thoroughly enjoyed WSS. Ansel Elgort can really sing! He was far better than the original lead, who was from Avoca, Iowa, and even said himself that he didn’t know enough about New York City to be an effective lead. The lead actress, who followed Natalie Wood’s dubbed version, was outstanding and should be nominated for Best Actress.

As for the leader of the Jets, I preferred George Chakiris in the 1961 version, but the dancing and the singing in the new film is superior and the two leads were great. We came home and watched the original, just to remind ourselves how it differed.

Primarily, Tony was not so blatantly described as an ex-convict in the original film, Rita Moreno has a new role as the widow of the candy store owner; the new Anita was far thicker through the waist than the young Rita Moreno, but she could really dance.

Still, the film was great, especially on the IMAX screen.

We enjoyed “Nightmare Alley,” Guillermo del Toro’s new offering, and Bradley Cooper should be nominated for Best Actor. The cast is outstanding: Cate Blanchett, Toni Collette, Willem Dafoe, Rooney Mara, Clifton Collins, Jr., Tim Blake Nelson, Richard Jenkins, David Straithairn, Mary Steenburgen, Ron Perlman and others. This film is not as impressive as “The Shape of Water” but it definitely is one of the best films of the year.

I met Guillermo (del Toro), with Ron Perlman in tow, in Chicago the year of “The Shape of Water” and, somehow, ended up at an after-party with the two of them. On the Red Carpet I had gifted Guillermo with a copy of my book “It Came from the 70s: From The Godfather to Apocalypse Now.” He immediately stopped and began reading it. Handlers had to come and convince him to move down the row of interviewers. Just as the handler moved in on Guillermo, he happened to glance down at his feet and said, “Oh, no. Fat man with shoe untied. This is very bad.”

I was surprised to see Sally Hawkins, the star of “The Shape of Water,” portraying Kristin Stewart’s handmaid in “Spencer.” The only film I’ve mentioned (above) that I did not enjoy of the four new ones mentioned was “Spencer.” While Kristin looked good in the many outfits, nothing really happens in the film and I found it incredibly boring.

All the others were very enjoyable, although some of you won’t like “Licorice Pizza.” Watch it if for no other reason than to see Philip Seymour Hoffman’s son, Cooper, portray the male lead. And, of course, the craziness of Jon Peters, which you can read about for yourself. (And, yes, Jon Peters is still alive!)

 

“Merry Christmas! You Have Cancer!”

Craig, Stacey, Connie,
Wrigley the dog, Elise and Ava

My apologies to those of you who have checked my blog routinely and have found nothing new.

I learned I have cancer (via biopsy) on December 10th. Quite frankly, it has thrown me for a loop. I was advised to cancel my hostessing of close to 20 people at my house, but I went ahead, anyway, and surgery is imminent.

My sister-in-law thanked my husband for his efforts in hosting the Dec. 24th and Dec. 25th event, which went on until 3 a.m. one night and 2 a.m. the other.

News flash: I did all the planning, purchasing, and cooking. The health risks, for me, were considerable because of Covid. My surgeon suggested that I not do it. [Next time, maybe mention me, as well?]

I have seen quite a few of the movies out now and will return tomorrow with comments about: “West Side Story;” “Licorice Pizza;” “C’mon, C’mon;” and others.

Again, my apologies to faithful readers. Oh! And good wishes in the health category are always appreciated. Those were also in short supply.

Kenneth Branaugh and “Belfast” in Chicago for the 57th Chicago Interational Film Festival

Sir Kenneth Branagh came to Chicago for the Chicago International Film Festival and screened his semi-autobiographical film, “Belfast,” at the 92-year-old Music Box Theater on Thursday, October 21, 2021. He received a Lifetime Achievemet Award. The screening was preceded by the organist serenading the assembled audience with oldies like “You Ought to Be in Pictures” and “What Is This Thing Called Love?” The film to follow would be  touched by a similar sheen of sentimentality and shots of the fictional Branagh family at the movies felt quite sympatico with this opening. This one is going to be a big one at Oscar-time.

Following the showing of the film, Branagh thanked the organist for such a grand introduction. He praised Chicago for its “creativity, vitality and generosity,” and also thanked the audience, which had just viewed a highlights reel of Branagh’s many other films, movies which have yielded 5 Oscar nominations in a variety of categories. Said Branagh, “Thank you for watching that reel entitled ‘the history of my waistband.’”

Kenneth Branagh on October 21, 2021, with his Lifetime Achievement Award fro the Chicago International Film Festival.

Branagh shared that he had been thinking about making this particular film for half a century.  “It’s about something which happened to me when I was 9 years old.” Branagh revisited “the Troubles,” when Protestants and Catholics blew each other up over Catholic Ireland’s desire to leave the United Kingdom.

After a wide-screen aerial view of Belfast, shot by long-time cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos (“Thor”) in living color, the film reverts to black-and-white and the specific starting date flashes on the screen: August 15, 1969. Men had walked on the moon on July 20, 1969, roughly a month earlier.

Change and uncertainty were in the air and, for Branagh’s family, they would soon make the difficult decision to leave their family and friends behind and move to England. (One wag remarked that it was this move to England that allowed Branagh to lose the thick Northern Ireland accent. which American audiences will have trouble understanding. Some have said the film needs sub-titles, much to the amusement of the Irish.)

This was the day that violence came to Branagh’s Belfast neighborhood in Tiger’s Bay, County Antrim, Northern Ireland. It changed  the trajectory of young Kenneth/Buddy’s life forever.  Since it is Branagh’s own childhood memories we are seeing, it is appropriate that the film is shot from the point-of-view of young Buddy (the stand-in for Branagh), well-played by new-comer Jude Hill.

Branagh recalled, onstage, during the Q&A, how the onset of the pandemic, which also brought fear, chaos and uncertainty, seemed some sort of signal that it was time to make this film. Because the pandemic was raging worldwide, extensive time, effort and money was devoted to keeping the crew safe from the dreaded disease. The cast operated more-or-less in a bubble, by staying in the same hotel, which led to comraderie. He commented, also, on the building of sets based on Branagh’s remembrances of his childhood home, complete with barging into similar homes whose owners had volunteered to let the production crew measure each room so that it could be reproduced. (Branagh’s childhood street of row homes is gone.) As he said on Thursday, October 21st, at the 57th Chicago International Film Festival showing, “It was going to be too problematic in the time of Covid to shoot in the real world.”

The director also shared, “I could never have made this while my folks were alive.” He showed it first to his brother and sister (in real life, Branagh is one of three children), who approved. Memories of having to sign in and out of their row home in Tiger’s Bay and the way the street’s cobblestones had been ripped up to make into a barricade while he was having tea, leaving only sand in the previously paved street, added to the audience’s knowledge. (“I went in for tea, and when I came out, the street was just sand.”)

Some have complained that the couple portraying Branagh’s parents, Jamie Dornan (“Fifty Shades of Grey”) and Caitriona Balfe (“Outlander”), were too good-looking to be “real” parents, but, again, Branagh shared that, in the eyes of a nine-year-old boy, his parents were almost godlike figures. (The Denver International Film Festival is hosting star Jamie Dornan.)

Certainly the two stars have great onscreen chemistry and are extremely easy on the eyes. In one scene, Jamie Dornan sings—again. He’s been singing—and singing well—in other films of late, and, as he sings “Open Up Your Eyes” with flair, enjoy it.

The costume/make-up people, while working with the handsome actor and the beautiful leading lady, took them aside and showed them still shots of 60s “the look” envisioned for the duo.  There were many shots of a tousled-looking Brigitte Bardot and a young Marlon Brando. Again, the explanation from the director is that, in a child’s eyes, loving parents are quite handsome and larger-than-life.

ACTING:

(L to R) Caitriona Balfe as “Ma”, Jamie Dornan as “Pa”, Judi Dench as “Granny”, Jude Hill as “Buddy”, and Lewis McAskie as “Will” in director Kenneth Branagh’s BELFAST, a Focus Features release. Credit : Rob Youngson / Focus Features

The acting awards for this one will be rolling in for Dame Judi Dench, who has collaborated with Branagh over six times. She plays young Kenneth/Buddy’s Granny and her husband of half a century is portrayed by Cilian Hinds, who is equally good. The pair are definitely in line for nominations, and newcomer Jude Hill as the nine-year-old protagonist, carries the film on his slim shoulders quite effectively. He’s off to a great start.

There’s really not a false player in the entire cast. The charming blonde girl, Catherine, whom Buddy has a crush on is played well by Olive Tennant in a small part.

WRITING:

Branagh both wrote and directed this semi-autobiographical tale. If you can decipher the thick Irish accents, the screenplay contains both pathos and humor. The film won the Audience Award at the Toronto International Film Festival and the trailer highlights the young boy’s fear that, if he is forced to relocate, nobody will be able to understand him. As one line has it, “The Irish were born for leaving. Otherwise, the rest of the world would have no cops.” Among things mentioned specifically that an Irishman needs to be happy: “Guinness and sheet music for ‘Oh, Danny Boy.’”

There’s even a joke worked into the script (although a really old one), and the gentle back-and-forth ribbing of Cilian Hinds and Judi Dench is both touching and funny, portraying the elderly grandparents.

MUSIC:

(L to R) Mimi Plauche, Sir Kenneth Branaugh and Vivian Teng outside the Music Box Theater in Chicago at the 57th Chicago International Film Festival.

Van Morrison did the music: 8 old songs and 1 new one. Morrison grew up in Belfast. The 76-year-old musician is known for blending all styles of music. Among his compositions are the song “Gloria” (written when still a member of the group “Them”) and “Brown-Eyed Girl.” Some of the songs that Morrison selected for the film worked in the spot where they were inserted. Some did not. “My momma told me there’d be days like this,” coming on the heels of a tense discussion between the parents about whether or not to move away from Belfast seemed incongruous. Likewise, when his father is leaving on a bus (to go back to England for work), a jazzy tune plays. There is a frisking in the street and an up-beat song is playing in the background. One critic complained about the use of Dimitri Tiomkins’ theme from “High Noon” as shown on the television set, calling it “incessant.” On the other hand, using “Do Not Forsake Me, Oh My Darling” made a certain amount of sense in the context of the film’s friction between the parents over whether or not to move away from Belfast.

The use of western influences was mentioned by Branagh as both an homage to the cinema and as providing a moral framework for the young boy. As he explained, “Cinema was a place of escape for me. It was a ritualistic experience.” Branagh  mentioned other specific films he had thought of having the family attend together, beyond the actual use of “One Million B.C.” with Raquel Welch and “Chitty, Chitty, Bang Bang” (which causes Dame Judith to mutter upon hearing the name, ‘Oh, God! Now I’ve heard it all.’).

He said that “The Sound of Music,” “The Great Escape,” and “Yellow Submarine” were all in the running at one point, explaining that he wanted one of the sixties movies that had a big-screen Cinemascope feel. The family viewing the Dick Van Dyke classic about the flying car together and then leaning in as though they were really in a flying car was a bit hokey, but appealing in a saccharine fashion and a salute to late sixties state-of-the-art cinematic special effects. (Since Branagh had previously mentioned that each primary actor had contributed at least one extemporaneous line, I wondered if Dame Judith’s remark about “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” was her contribution.)

CINEMATOGRAPHY:

Kenneth Branaugh on the Red Carpet at the Music Box Theater on Thursday, October 21, 2021, at the 57th Chicago International Film Festival.

The film uses bursts of color interspersed  within the largely black-and-white film. The opening aerial shots are gorgeous and the color is meant to shock. As Branagh explained it, the color is evocative of creativity.

He said, “It represents the energy to dream. If you could dream, maybe you could dream yourself out of this nightmare.”

The film opens in theaters on November 12, 2021, and is bound to appear on many “Best of the Year” awards lists. Initially, it can only be seen in theaters.

Looking For Christmas Gifts? Give These Books A Try

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The Christmas Cats In Silly Hats Cover

The illustrated cat book “The Christmas Cats in Silly Hats.”

I have a series called “The Christmas Cats in Silly Hats” (www.TheXmasCats.com), ;which I began writing for my granddaughters when they were three years old. The books are “throw-back” books to what I learned in elementary schools of the fifties when early readers featured Dick and Jane and the policeman on the beat was always your friend. The books resemble Dr. Seuss books in that they rhyme and the cats of the title are a troupe of hardy do-gooders who go about helping other animals in distress.

The Christmas Cats Chase Christmas Rats

Click the cover to buy from Amazon.

The first book ‘s illustrations were drawn by Andy Weinert of East Moline (IL), a friend of my daughter’s, when I had two cats that were constantly fighting. I learned that Andy’s mother was Rita Mankowski, one of the smartest 7th graders I ever had in nearly 20 years of teaching 7th and 8th grade Language Arts at Silvis Junior High, and that sealed the deal. Andy was then a high school student who showed much artistic promise. (He has gone on to earn a Master’s in graphic design). When I asked him to draw a series of cats wearing “silly hats” he did a wonderful Grandma Moses-style treatment and the rhyming text shows the cats learning to get along with others, rather than constantly fighting with them (Lesson #1). However, AuthorHouse lost one-half of Andy’s original drawings (a bad lesson learned about dealing with AuthorHouse) and, when it came time to try to make the book just from the scans in my computer, years had passed and I drafted the girls’ Venezuelan nanny, Emily Marquez Vlcek to help finish the message and do some additional drawings linking the story to the season.

The Christmas Cats Encounter Bats

Click the cover to buy from Amazon.

The second book, “The Christmas Cats Chase Christmas Rats”, featured the intrepid cats checking in on lab rats at Green Laboratories, to make sure they were being treated well. The message was “Do not judge others without knowing, or prejudice you will be showing” So, DON’T BE PREJUDICED. A good lesson for all time, but especially for these times.

Book #3, “The Christmas Cats Encounter Bats” featured bats wreaking havoc at South Park Mall (there is one in Moline, IL, as well as in the Dallas/Fort Worth area) and the cats teach the lesson that all life has value and every creature has a place in the Universe. Hallmark artist Gary McCluskey can also take credit for creating the first upside-down Christmas tree, far ahead of this year’s fad. (Bats hang their Christmas trees upside-down, you know.) Austin people, you’ll love this one!

The Christmas Cats Fear For The Deer

Click the cover to buy from Amazon.

Book #4, “The Christmas Cats Fear for the Deer, featured beautifully drawn deer in Scott County Park (Davenport, IA), who, although well within the city limits, were in danger from hunters allowed to “thin the herd.” The Cats came to the rescue, spiriting them from the park by means of the CatCopter and ferrying them to the North Pole, where they were fitted with prosthetic antlers and fly with Santa. This book exists in hard cover format as well (although only available by contacting me, only in limited quantities, and costing $25 plus $3 postage). The color copies were run by ColorWise Press of Indiana and are gorgeous. The back of the book contains interactive activities for children, including puzzles and coloring book pages and we encouraged children to send them to the series dedicated website, www.TheXmasCats.com. Because only limited copies were run, the books were among the most beautiful in terms of color and quality, but paying $19 a book (the publisher’s price) means that one of these books in hard cover, plus postage, is going to set readers back $28, so it remains something that is only able to be purchased by contacting me via ConnieCWilson.com or WeeklyWilson.com or on LinkedIn. It is available through Amazon in paperback and e-book.

The Christmas Cats Care For The Bear

Click to buy on Amazon.

The fifth book in the series is “The Christmas Cats Care for the Bear” and it has an anti-bullying message, as the cats spring into action to help a little bear who is being bullied by others because he is pudgy and has funny hair. It is a book made for today’s youth and the interactive pages at the back of the book were increased, while the cost of running the book dropped dramatically as we transferred the book’s publication to Ingram Spark. The hard cover book is in the $12.95 range, from Amazon, while, paperbacks and e-books are also available.

"The Christmas Cats Flee the Bee," sixth book in the Christmas Cats series (www.TheXmasCats.com).

Click to buy from Amazon

I always said I would write the books until the girls turned 10 which has passed so the sixth and FINAL book is “The Christmas Cats Flee from the Bee.” Gary McCluskey was still available to lend his fantastic illustrations to another story with a message. This story is about a golden-haired bee that hates the Queen Bee and does everything he can to destroy her, but soon faces his own come-uppance when the rest of the hive unites to drive him from their colony.

I hope you enjoy ALL of the existing books, which will be going on various discounts throughout the months of November and December. If you want to know WHEN those FREEBIES and DISCOUNT days are, then you should subscribe to my newsletter or you may miss out! HAPPY HOLIDAYS!

 

Hellfire & Damnation: The Perfect Halloween Collection

Click to buy the e-book at Amazon.

There are three books in the “Hellfire & Damnation” series, all short stories that illustrate the 9 Circle of Hell in Dante’s “Inferno” and give examples of each.

As New York Times best-selling author Jon Land said of the books: “Hellfire & Damnation‘ is a remarkable collection of somber, noirish, flat-out scary and altogether satisfying stories that seek to find hope in a dark world that defies it. Her subtle irony and penchant for finding terror in the least expected places will generate comparisons to Stephen King and Ray Bradbury, with just a hint of Philip K. Dick thrown in. But don’t be fooled: Wilson has a wondrous voice in her own right, and her tight, twisty tales establish her as a force to be reckoned with.”

Hellfire & Damnation 2 Cover

Click to buy the paperback and  e-book at Amazon.

Click on the link to purchase the 15 stories in “Hellfire & Damnation,” Volume I, or move on to the creepy blue cover of Volume II, with an additional eleven stories, a forward by Jason V Brock, and an informative “From the Author” appendix that tells about the inspiration for each story in that volume. Volume III will provide an additional 10 stories to bring you nearly forty stories that will haunt you right up until Halloween and beyond.

As two former Bram Stoker winners and icons in the genre said: “‘Hellfire & Damnation‘ is an impressive collection, a series of remarkable tales—some based on true stories—organized around a brilliant and unifying theme that echoes Dante’s Inferno. Wilson’s harrowing work will stay with you long after you finish the final page.”

Click to buy the paperback and e-book at Amazon.

And, as William F. Nolan, a Living Legend in Horror and author of “Logan’s Run” said: “Let me start right off by saying that Connie Wilson presents what I call ‘matter-of-fact’ horror…Frankly, and I consider myself well read in the shock genre, I have never encountered a style such as she displays here, in story after story. She writes solid declarative sentences rife with dark undertones…Connie Wilson’s dark talent is unique, and readers will stagger away from her icy tales stunned and groggy. I have a final word for it: WOW!

And, echoing the more famous writers (above), reviewer Adam Groves of www.Fright.com said, “In horror fiction, as in most any other sort, true originality is an increasingly rare commodity. But it does exist, as proven by ‘Hellfire & Damnation,’ an anthology that is genuinely, blazingly original.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Shrill” Leaves Air After 3 Seasons

I just watched the final season of “Shrill” on Hulu.

It took me back to March of 2019 when the series was launching and Executive Producer Elizabeth Banks and star Aidy Bryant came to SXSW with a panel that included the woman, Lindy West, who wrote the book on which the series was based. I sat right behind Ms. Banks during the introduction and then she moved to the stage following the showing of one episode for the Q&A.

Aidy Bryant of “SNL” played the lead role of Annie Easton, a writer for the fictional “Thorn” newspaper where she interacted with Boss Gabe Parrish (John Cameron Mitchell), and Ian Owens as Amadi. The 22 episodes that I’ve watched followed the plight of an overweight single woman in today’s dating scene. We didn’t get to see as much of Aidy on “SNL” because of her involvement in this show, but that will, hopefully, end with the series finale.

Annie (Aidy) lives with her college friend Fran (Lolly Adefope), who is a Black Nigerian lesbian who grew up in London, and, for most of the series she dates Ryan (Luka Jones) who was replaced in the show’s final episodes by a new more promising boyfriend named Will (Cameron Britton).

Elizabeth Banks (l) and Lindy West (R) onstage at SXSW in 2019, lauching “Shrill.”

Ryan made it through 16 episodes as the sadly tone-deaf boyfriend, while the Will character only made it through 4 episodes before he became hopelessly pissed off that Annie went to the coffee shop where Will’s ex-wife worked, just to see what her new boyfriend’s ex looked like. After all, Will and his ex-wife met at age 15 and she was the only girl he had ever been with, whereas Annie is seen jumping in and out of bed with a variety of swains, including a really depressing deflowering experience at an “Oklahoma” cast after-party, where the prop manager of the play offered to “do” Annie, since she was the only one in their circle who was a virgin.

Most of the show wants to be striking a blow against fat-shaming. There’s the episode where Annie’s doctor mentions that she could opt for stomach stapling and Annie reacts with a great deal of profanity and unpleasantness. There’s the episode that is a pool party with a bevy of Big Beauties who are lesbian.  The show also wants to come down firmly on the side of lesbian love and there is definitely a strong message for mothers of girls with a weight problem that harping on the problem and putting their daughter on diet after diet isn’t the right approach to urging an overweight child (especially a girl) to lose weight.

As a woman who was of “normal” weight for most of my life, but gained weight after having my 2 kids, I could relate to the mother, played by pro Julia Sweeney, who spends most of her time harassing her daughter about her weight. This approach doesn’t work and the grown-up Annie proves it.

There is also a fun plot about striking back at Internet trolls, with Beck Bennet guest starring as the troll who goes online to attack fat people, especially girls, even if they are complete strangers.

There was a lot of talk about sex or having sex and there was a quirky work group that rivaled “The Office.”

I enjoyed the series while it was on the air, although I thought the attempt to strike a blow for overweight women was probably doomed to failure from the get go.

SPOILER ALERT

Aidy Bryant (second from left) and Elizabeth Banks (second from far right) with the interviewer and other executive producer appearing onstage for a Q&A following the 2019 screening of an episode of “Shrill,” as it launched.

By the last episode, Fran (Annie’s roommate) has managed to deep-six her lesbian relationship and Annie is on the outs with Will because of the ill-advised trip to the coffee shop where Will’s ex worked. I realize that the creative minds behind this venture (Lindy West and Alexandra Rushfield for all of the episodes, with Elizabeth Banks involved for 16 of them) had to end this somehow, but it was definitely not an inspiring finale. Fran and Annie are sitting on a park bench with a bottle of what looks like champagne that they had saved for the day they would stop being roommates and they both confess that they have managed to completely screw up their most recent love relationships and the final word on that is, “I’ll fix it.”

That was not the “happy ending” most of us had hoped for.

The best that can be said about “happy endings” here is that we learn that Gabe has bought “The Thorn” and Annie and Office Manager Amadi have been promoted, so take your happiness where you can find it.

“No Sudden Move” Has Star-Studded Cast (Now Streaming)

Steven Soderbergh (“Sex, Lies and Videotape,” “Michael Clayton”) has a new movie streaming on HBO Max with a killer cast. The leads are Don Cheadle and Benicio Del Toro. The rest of the cast includes David Harbour (“Revolutionary Road,” “Stranger Things”); Brendan Frasier (“The Mummy”); Ray Liotta (“Goodfellas”); Kieran Culkin (“Succession,” “Igby Goes Down”); Noah Jupe (“Ford versus Ferrari,” “A Quiet Place”); Bill Duke (“Predator,” “American Gigolo”); Jon Hamm (“Mad Men”); and Matt Damon (“Good Will Hunting,” “The Talented Mr. Ripley”).

The odd thing about this impressive list of actors is that Matt Damon doesn’t  appear on the credits at any point. He appears in a somewhat pivotal role, but is not listed on IMDB, in the credits at the end, or in the P.R. for the movie.

The beginning of the film is very impressive; it sucks us in immediately. Some bad guys are hired to retrieve something from a safe. Every time an amount is mentioned for the task to be performed it changes. The audience is not clear in the beginning what is being retrieved. What’s in the safe? Is it diamonds? Is it a little black book that lists Mafia members? Is it pictures meant to blackmail some important person? The log-line online says: “A group of criminals are brought together under mysterious circumstances and have to work together to uncover what’s really going on when their simple job goes completely sideways”

A family is taken hostage and the father (David Harbour) is instructed to get the contents of the envelope in the safe at his office and bring them back to his home. If he doesn’t, his wife and son and daughter are in peril, being held hostage by Don Cheadle and Kieran Culkin who are masked in the world’s worst identity-concealing masks and are holding the family at gunpoint.

The son, Matthew Wertz, Jr.—Noah Jupe of “Ford vs Ferrari” and “A Quiet Place”—is 16 now, and it shows. He is no longer the small boy of those previous films. While the actress playing Noah’s Mom (Amy Seinmetz) as Mary Wertz is good, Julia Fox, who plays Benicio del Toro’s love interest is not very good. She has very few career credits; they only go back to 2018. “Uncut Gems,” in which she played a character also named Julia, was about the most impressive and memorable of those listed. She even appeared in an interview talking about her relative lack of experience when measured against the majority of the cast members. This was not promising, and her fears about her performance as Vanessa were fulfilled.

I paid close attention and even while paying careful attention to the plot, it was tough sledding. The characters throw around names when we haven’t really figured out who these people are yet. It wasn’t until a conversation that Don Cheadle makes from a phone booth (the film is set in 1954 Detroit) that I even developed a coherent theory about what the plot involved. (Note: in the final frames of the film, Soderbergh will synopsize the entire plot in a few brief paragraphs, so don’t worry about leaving the movie without knowing what it was all about.)

The film looked terrific and it was very complicated and, for the most part, well-written and well-acted. Not a “10” on a 10-point scale, but better than most of the original films that are currently streaming.

“Tom Petty: “Somewhere You Feel Free” Premieres at SXSW on March17, 2021

Tom Petty: Somewhere You Feel Free” documentary premieres at SXSW Online on March 17th. Photo of Petty and Producer Rick Rudin by Robert Sebree.

The Tom Petty documentary “Tom Petty:  Somewhere You Feel Free,” directed by Mary Wharton, depicts his career and his personality using film shot by Marlyn Atkins between 1993 and 1995, during the taping of the “Wildflower” album.

At that time, Tom would have been in his mid-forties and a long way away from his untimely death after just completing the Heartbreakers’ 40th Anniversary tour on October 2, 2017.

Tom’s daughter Aida is listed as an Executive Producer. There will not be undue focus on his death, as that sad event was 24 years in the future when the unused film was discovered and refurbished for use in this story of Tom Petty’s views on life and work.

One thing that comes through is that he was an easy-going guy with a good sense of humor. Aside from conflict with one long-time band member who left after many years (without saying good bye, according to Wikipedia.org), he got along well with his bandmates. There are concert shots and  songs performed in the recording studio that Petty had set up. Other scenes are in a room literally crammed with a variety of guitars.

Petty’s move away from record producer Jeff Lynne, who had produced most of the Heartbreakers albums, towards Rick Rubin is addressed.   Tom says, “You don’t want to stay in just one little circle all the time.” He had spent 20 years with the Heartbreakers with Lynne producing and, although Rubin had been told that his desire to work with Petty was not going to bear fruit, it did when Petty, himself, called Rubin up about collaborating.

At one point, a band member says, “How can there be this many good songs from one person?” Petty sold over 80 million records and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2002. He described (Wikipedia.org) his desire to become a singer/songwriter as stemming from meeting Elvis Presley when he was 10 years old and referred to the Rolling Stones as “my punk music.”

Never close to his somewhat abusive father, Tom dropped out of high school at seventeen to play bass guitar and dated his desire to have his own band from when he saw the Beatles appear on “Ed Sullivan.” Petty says he knew he could do that, and adds, “I didn’t have any choice. I just did it.  I feel very fortunate, because it all worked out.”

While he began in 1976, by 1979 he had a hit with “Don’t Do Me Like That.” Born on October 20, 1950, Tom was married for 22 years to Jane Renyo. Their daughter Adria relates how she knew her parents were splitting up when she heard the songs he was working on for “Wildflowers” in 1994. In fact, Tom and Jane split up in 1996. It would be five years before he would remarry Dana York in 2001.

One period that is glossed over in the documentary came after the recording sessions that provided the basis for the film. From 1996 to 1999 Tom Petty had addiction issues to heroin. He made a decision to break that cycle on his own and went into treatment.

Petty had just finished the Heartbreakers’ 40th Anniversary Tour when he died on October 2, 2017.  His wife said he was in a lot of pain from a hip that was fractured and needed surgery. Tom had put off the surgery until the end of the tour, since so many other musicians were counting on him.

The autopsy on Petty’s body showed he did have a fracture. It also showed these drugs in his system: fentanyl; oxycontin; acetylfentanyl; temazepam; alprazolam; and citalprum. He also suffered from emphysema. He smokes, non-stop, during the film, which makes that seem likely.

I saw Tom Petty “live” once, in a concert in Moline, Illinois at the Mark of the Quad Cities. He was in his prime. I was a fan, but not a fanatic.

One interesting later career tid-bit that came out of researching his career: 12.5% of the profits from Sam Smith’s album “Stay With Me” had to be paid to Petty for using much of “I Won’t Back Down” in Smith’s song. The statement from Petty was: “All my years of songwriting have shown me these things can happen. Most times you catch it before it gets out the studio door but in this case it got by. Sam’s people were very understanding of our predicament and we easily came to an agreement”.

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