Weekly Wilson - Blog of Author Connie C. Wilson

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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“El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie” Is Great for “Breaking Bad” Fans

Robert Forster, who passed away on Oct. 11, 2019. Photo taken on Oct. 15, 2018 at the Chicago International Film Festival by Connie Wilson at 9 p.m. at the showing of “What They Had.” (Who knew Robert had only 361 days left on the planet?)

We watched “El Camino: The Breaking Bad Movie” last night and liked it very much

.There are numerous flashbacks that provide some “Walt” for those who have to have Walt with their Jessie.

Since the original series had been off the air for 6 years, I confess to being hazy on some of the finer TV plot points. For example, I did remember that Jessie was kept in a cage and tortured and forced to make crystal meth, but the contraption used to give him mobility was totally forgotten by me, until it re-emerges in this film.

The “shoot-out at the O.K. Corral” part is quite good. (See it to find out what I mean).

Jessie’s desperate attempt to get money to finance his “disappearing” act was well done, with a run-in with “police” that is very creative. This part involves Robert Forster, who helped Walt hide out in the TV series.

Yesterday Robert Forster, 78, known as “the Disappearer” in the original TV series and the long-ago star of “Medium Cool” back in the sixties (one of the few—-perhaps only—-examples of cinema verite in the U.S.) unexpectedly died of brain cancer. I met Forster in October of 2018 as he made the film festival rounds on behalf of “What They Had,” a very good film with Michael Shannon, Vera Farmigia and Blythe Danner co-starring about an elderly couple coping with the wife’s encroaching Alzheimer’s disease.

Forster was perfect in the part of her devoted elderly husband, but when I saw him standing in the aisle as I walked to my seat (he was leaning against the wall at the time, in preparation for the post showing Q&A) I had to go over and introduce myself and tell him how much I admired his work in “Medium Cool” and many other projects. He was genuinely warm and friendly, and we chatted briefly for a few moments before I took my seat. Then, he talked about his career, both in an interview in the Chicago “Tribune” but also onstage, and, once again, cemented my admiration.

This is Forster’s final film role. I was struck, when he first came onscreen, by how much he had aged in just one year, as it was October of 2018 when I met him in person. It is one year later, I am about to leave for the October film festival again, but Robert looked like 5 years had passed. I assumed it was make-up. And then I heard that he had died, of brain cancer.

I found the arc that Jessie traverses in this film believable and well-acted and another reason it rang a particularly intense bell with me, besides the information in the paragraph above, is that we just returned from a tour of Alaska and Alaska has an important role in the plot.

I definitely recommend the film for fans of “Breaking Bad.”

“Joker” May Bring Joaquin an Oscar

JOKER

Joaquin Phoenix has turned in another riveting, intense performance in “Joker,” this time as Arthur Fleck, a mentally ill young man who lives with his invalid mother and works as a clown. In the opening scene, he is twirling a sign on the rat-infested, garbage-strewn streets of Gotham (1970s New York City) when 5 young men steal his “Everything must go!” sign and beat him up in an alley.

If you think this is grim, just wait.

Joaquin has pretty much made a career out of playing character parts that Bruce Dern of 30 years ago, Crispin Glover of 20 years ago, or Michael Shannon of today might play. He is intense and strange, excelling, as one critic put it, in films that depict “exquisite isolation.” In this film, for which he lost 15 pounds, he looks emaciated, like Christian Bale in “The Mechanic.” He claims it helped him with his weirdly artistic dance moves to be lighter on his feet. Arthur (Phoenix) laughs inappropriately and compulsively and may suffer from pseudobulbar affect disorder (or any of a series of ailments often related to traumatic brain injury and/or schizophrenia). It is off-putting and uncomfortable; he even carries a small card explaining his condition to strangers, much like the deaf have used.

The tour-de-force part of Arthur Fleck is eerily reminiscent of Travis Bickle in 1976’s “Taxi Driver.” This part also builds on Heath Ledger’s Oscar-winning turn as the Joker in “The Dark Knight Rises” and gives us a back story for Joker that is different from the ones in other “Batman” films. Oscar history could repeat itself with a gold statuette for Joaquin, but the film, itself, does not seem Oscar-worthy, to me.

Joaquin has been acting since the early eighties. Many of his best performances have utilized his personal projection of a sense of strange intensity. I remember seeing him on David Letterman’s show on February 11th, 2009, when he claimed he was giving up acting for good to become a rapper. He acted weird, strange and was monosyllabic. Letterman played off that, as he used to do when Crispin Glover came on the show and acted like a World Class Weirdo. (Remember the kicking sequence with Glover on the show?)

At the time, Joaquin was making the movie “I’m Still Here” with his then brother-in-law (Casey Affleck). As it turned out, they thought it would be a good promotional stunt to have Joaquin claim he was quitting acting to become a rapper. Later, on September 22, 2010, Joaquin returned to Letterman’s “Tonight” show to admit that he was actually not finished with acting. Each time, Phoenix came across as supremely weird, strange, and intense. He’s supposed to be engaged to frequent co-star Mara Rooney now, so perhaps both of those television appearances were just good examples of his acting ability.

Whatever. He fooled most of us, and, therefore, his persona with the public and the press has been close to that of Arthur Fleck. The part of “Joker” was perfect for him.  Director/Writer Todd Phillips (the “Hangover” movies) said that he never wanted to develop a Plan B for any other casting, because he always intended to cast Phoenix in the part.

When New York Times writer David Itzkoff pointed out while interviewing Phoenix that he seemed to be the “go to” character actor for such over-the-top intense performances  and that Phoenix could continue acting characters like this for a very long time, the actor responded, “Oh, really?” in a sarcastic voice as dry as sandpaper. “Well, good. Thank you so much. That’s great. I was worried.”

Then, said Itzkoff, “he grinned and let out a laugh to let me know he was kidding. (Or was he?”)

THE GOOD

The Acting

Joaquin Phoenix is a good bet for an Oscar nomination and, potentially, for a win, although it’s still early for making those predictions.

The film is powerful, but about as grim a film as you can find. Still, there were many great supporting turns from the rest of the cast including Frances Conroy (“Six Feet Under,” “American Horror Story”) as his mother, Robert DeNiro as  talk show host Murray Franklin and Zazee Beetz as his next-door neighbor Sophie Dumond. The use of DeNiro as the late night talk show host modeled on Johnny Carson elicited echoes of Jerry Lewis’ 1982 film “King of Comedy,” where DeNiro played Rupert Pupkin.

Cinematography & Editing:

Director/Writer Todd Phillips (who co-wrote the screenplay with Scott Silver) has used an interesting mix of “Is this really happening?” cinema, woven together to leave it up to the audience to determine whether what Arthur Fleck is experiencing is wishful thinking or really happening. Audiences today are fairly savvy. We are used to having to figure out some of the connecting tissue of a film on our own, and Phillips handles that beautifully, along with the assistance of cinematographer Lawrence Sher, who seems to love to dwell on Phoenix in close-up. Phillips does a good job of incorporating the seamy, rat-infested city of Gotham as almost a character in itself, and the many nods to Scorsese’s classic films show that, “Hangover” or no “Hangover,” Phillips recognizes a modern-day cinematic icon’s quality work when he sees it. All nice touches.

THE BAD:

Music:

I was not a fan of the cello-heavy score by the 31 people listed as being in charge of the music for the film. It was overpoweringly dark, screaming, “Feel sorry for Arthur” at every plot turn.

Plot:

That last remark brings me to the fact that we are primed to feel sorry for/excuse Arthur for his misdeeds. There isn’t a single murder that takes place (and there are plenty, most of them bloody) that some rationale or excuse as to why Arthur would have committed the bloodthirsty crime can’t be ginned up to defend or excuse this poor mentally-ill man (who seems completely amoral by film’s end, if not before).

When Arthur first turns homicidal on a subway train,  he has acted in self defense. The plot channels Bernard Goetz, who shot and wounded four African-American youths on a Manhattan subway train in 1984. Only this time “the enemy” is Wall Street and it is three young white Wall Street brokers, insensitive louts all, who abuse and mistreat poor Arthur before he snaps. That brings about the violence. The viewer does feel that the audience is supposed to sympathize with the poor beaten-down loser that Joaquin is portraying so well. We’re rooting for “the little guy” standing up for himself, even if you feel that a sane person would have taken his chances with the NYPD, since the subway shootings seem justified.

After that, while excuses/rationales/reasons are still given for every single murder, feeling sorry for poor Arthur goes downhill fast.

The entire idea of the poor versus the rich is elevated to new heights when portions of Arthur’s comedy act showing him laughing hysterically and uncontrollably are broadcast on Murray Franklin’s show. Arthur becomes a lightning rod for the general sense of malaise and unrest abroad in the land. “Is it just me, or is it getting crazier out there?” asks Arthur, at one point.

It’s not just you, Arthur. It IS getting crazier out there, and most of us know why.

It is interesting to have a homicidal, mentally-ill killer elevated, by film’s end, almost to the point of “leader of the pack,” but maybe not such a great idea. We can always bring back Steve Bannon, who wants to tear down everything in order to create “the Fourth Turning” (as he himself articulated in the Erroll Morris “American Dharma” documentary).

Permissive nods towards out-of-control violence of any kind should be quickly squelched, whenever and wherever they crop up. Arthur’s sad plight illustrates many of the issues this country is facing. Indeed, problems that the entire world is facing: the ‘haves vs have nots” battle, etc. But letting anarchy rule doesn’t seem like the best solution, regardless of our emotional empathy for Arthur Fleck and embattled little people the world over.

80 Iconic Dresses from Movies

80 Iconic Dresses from Movies

infographic of 80 iconic dresses from movies

80 Iconic Dresses from Movies – Lulus

Check It Out!

No photo description available.

Link to “LIve” Radio Interview of July 31, 2019

https://www.linkedin.com/feed/update/urn:li:activity:6563639164867276800/?commentUrn=urn%3Ali%3Acomment%3A(activity%3A6563639164867276800%2C6564148660295262210)

I hope that is the link to the “live” radio interview I did with CUTV on July 31st at 1 p.m. (CDT) 2 pm. EDT.

If so, have a listen.

If not, I will have to try to type the link for you, when you let me know it didn’t “work.”

Baton Rouge National Federation of Press Women on June 27th, Thursday

Inside the Museum.

Thursday, June 27th activities at the National Federation of Press Women began with a memorial service to former presidents of state organizations who had died in the past year. Candles were lit and and passed from member to member representing that state. We sang “Amazing Grace” (lyrics were passed out) and, since it was the day of friend Nelson Peterson’s funeral, which I was missing to be here, it was particularly poignant for me.

Leaving for the evening reception of June 27 at the Capitol Museum.

In the evening, we boarded a bus and were ferried over to the Museum associated with the Old Capitol. We were met by waiters with drinks—rose mixed with rum, pink with a raspberry in it. (“Packs quite a punch if you drink enough,” the wait staff told me, so I took it easy.) The wait staff was cordial and friendly and, in the background, a string quartet played popular music of a certain genre. (“Stairway to Heaven,” “All of Me”).

Waiters with drinks met us at the Museum.

The Lieutenant Governor of Louisiana, Billie Nungesser welcomed us to the state and the open bar and wonderful seafood buffet was sponsored by Visit Baton Rouge and Louisiana Seafood. The food, itself, was to die for, as they say. There was even a separate “oyster tent” where oysters had been cooked and were served on the half-shell in a delicious sauce. During the dining experience, you could opt to hold a baby alligator or shop with local artisans who made jewelry, paintings or woodworking.

After dining, we were free to browse the interior of the museum, which was a fascinating place. It was a little too dark to get good shots of the exhibits, but the information was interesting and well-presented. Plus, a scavenger hunt had been set up for party goers to find a specific display, take a selfie with it, and send it in for a $100 prize.

Artist.

Prize-winning woodworker.

A good time was had by all!

Prize-winning woodworker.

Capitol Museum veranda.

Plantation woodworking.

Illinois outgoing NFPW President Maranne Wolf-Astrauskas and socializers enjoy the veranda.

Local artisan display.

Inside the Museum.

Baby alligator.

Alligator fun!

Oyster tent.

“Wildlife:” Actor/Writer/Director Paul Dano’s First Directorial Effort

Genre: Drama

Director: Paul Dano

Writers: Paul Dano, Zoe Kazan, based on Richard Ford’s book

Cast: Carey Mulligan, Jake Gyllenhaal, Ed Oxenbould, Bill Camp

Length: 144 minutes

British actress Carey Mulligan (“An Education,” “Never Let Me Go,” “The Great Gatsby”) stars in Paul Dano’s directorial debut, “Wildlife,” opposite Jake Gyllenhaal. The “Hollywood Reporter” recently named her one of the 8 “Best Actresses Working Today” and she is very good in this film.

Gyllenhaal, too, is always a dependable leading man, to the point that audiences take him for granted. He was one of just 8 actors to win a Golden Globe, a SAG award, the BAFTA and a Critics’ Choice award and then not be nominated for an Academy Award for the part (“Nightcrawler” in 2014). Other notable Jake Gyllenhaal films: “Donnie Darko,” “Brokeback Mountain,” and “Southpaw.”

Carey Mulligan does a fantastic job of portraying a 1960 housewife and mother (son Joe in the film is 14), who is forced to figure out how to keep herself and her son afloat when the somewhat irresponsible father figure (Jake Gyllenhaal) suddenly decides to go off to fight fires   40 miles away from their home in Great Falls, Montana. The pay? $1 an hour. He had been working as a golf pro, but got fired for betting with the golfers. He is called and offered his job back, but doesn’t take it. The other opportunities in town are few and far-between.

THE GOOD:

ACTING

 The acting in this one is top-notch. It is shown through the eyes of the son (Joe, played by Ed Oxenbould of Australia) and he does a credible job of a son watching his parents marriage collapse (although he looks nothing like either parent). Jerry Brinson (Jake Gyllenhaal) is always good, and he’s good here, within the constraints of the script. Some critics feel it is Carey Mulligan’s best performance to date (although I’d vote forNever Let Me Go”). Bill Camp who plays Warren Miller, a wealthy car dealership owner (who comes on to Mulligan when Jerry leaves), is also good in his part.

ART DIRECTION & SET DIRECTION

Miles Michael and Melisa Jusufi did a great job of recreating 1960-era Great Falls, Montana. Kudos to them.

CINEMATOGRAPHY

Diego Garcia gets to photograph Montana, which director Dano described as “a divine, beautiful place.” He does a fine job.

THE BAD:

The film started at 6 p.m. At 7 p.m.. I wrote in my notes, “This is really boring so far.” It is true that there was a small amount of time at the outset of the film given over to presenting Carey Mulligan with a Career Achievement award, but, still, only 44 minutes remained for something interesting to happen.

THE SCRIPT

Paul Dano—who earned praise for his work in “Let There Be Blood” and “Little Miss Sunshine”—wrote the adaptation with his partner, Zoe Kravitz (they recently had a daughter). The couple met while working on “Ruby Sparks.” The script is based on a book written by Richard Ford that Dano read in 2011. It is Dano’s first foray into directing.

The script just did not make a lot of sense at pivotal points. I have to wonder if the book would have explained things in a more comprehensible, realistic, true-to-life way. As Johnny Oleksinski of the “New York Post” put it, “Too much of the screenplay doesn’t ring true.”

In another review, Brian Tallerico said, “He keeps the audience engaged purely through the believability of their characters.” That, for me, was the problem. The things that occur seem random and unlikely and are not believable IRL. Perhaps it’s the book, or perhaps it’s the screenwriters adaptation of the book, but none of the characters’ actions really came off as “believable.” This is not the fault of the acting leads, but of the script.

Starting out as a happy sixties family, the father figure (Jake Gyllenhaal) behaves in truly incomprehensible ways when he loses his job at the local golf course. Mostly, he sits in his car and sulks. I expected him to drink heavily (and he does a bit of that later), but, at first, he is sulking by himself and then—Eureka!—the golf club calls and offers him his old job back. So, naturally, in this small rural town with barely any jobs available at all for anyone, he turns the offer down, saying he “won’t work with people like that.” (WHA-A-A-T?)

It is shortly afterwards that, without any prior discussion with his wife or young son, he announces he is leaving for the fire front and will fight fires for a pittance ($1 an hour). This causes a scene, of course, (which Mulligan and Gyllenhaal do a great job playing), but it seems utterly unlikely to occur in real life. It also takes the very competent Gyllenhaal out of the film for a large portion in the middle of this movie about a disintegrating 60s family, and that is unfortunate.

Before he leaves, Gyllenhaal makes a comment about how the snow will put out the fires, eventually, and that turns out to be a big plot moment (i.e., the snow beginning to fall.). The depiction of the forest fire at the front is also very well done, but, overall, the actions of the father are so different from what a “real life” person would do that it is difficult to relate.

As Oleksinski said “(New York Post): “Dano’s movie is, in many ways, solid and admirable, but awash in ‘duh.’ Too much of the screenplay doesn’t ring true.” The ham-handed line, “It’s a wild life, isn’t it, Son?” was also not a favorite. One I did like was this one, spoken by Mulligan to her husband as he announces he is going to be gone for months fighting fires for $1 an hour: “I’m a grown woman, Jerry. Why don’t you act like a grown man?”

Why, indeed? Maybe because the book gave us more insight into Jerry’s motivations which leave his wife and son without income for an indefinite period of time. (We see Mulligan inquiring about a job as a teacher early on, and learn that there is nothing available in this remote town.)

While Gyllenhaal is away at the fire front, even more incomprehensible actions on Mom’s part occur, with son Joe along as a spectator. From upright young matron she is dining at the home of local businessman Warren Miller (Bill Camp) and flirting with the older man, her son along as an appalled witness.

When Dad comes home, HIS actions also enter the realm of the unbelievable. (*No spoiler here).

“Wildlife” was a good effort and Dano, himself, said, in an interview, that doing “a period piece” on a limited budget was quite the challenge. There is much to admire in his directorial effort, (if not in the screenplay itself.) He referenced asking Owen Moverman (“The Messenger“) for tips as he set out to direct for the first time. Maybe ask someone else to write a more coherent script next time? Because the shots of Montana are truly beautiful and the actors certainly do everything they can with such unrealistic story arcs.

“Friedkin Uncut” in Chicago with William Friedkin on October 15, 2018

Anthony Kaufman and Francesco Zippel onstage at the North American Premiere of “Friedkin Uncut!” in Chicago at the 54th Chicago International Film Festival. (Photo by Connie Wilson).

William Friedkin, the Director of such 70s masterpieces as “The French Connection” (1971), “The Exorcist” (1973), “Boys in the Band” (1976), “Sorcerer” (1977) and “Cruising” (1980) was awarded a Career Achievement Award on Monday, October 15th, at the 54th Chicago International Film Festival.

Friedkin, who is now 83, was thought to be the youngest man to win the Oscar for Best Director when he won for “The French Connection” in 1971, at 36 years old. (This record is now held by Damien Chazelle, who won at 32 for “La La Land”). That proved wrong. However, William Friedkin is now the oldest surviving winner of the Best Director category for “The French Connection” in 1971.

I recently heard Friedkin speak before a showing of “The Exorcist” in Austin, Texas, and after a showing of his new, short documentary of an exorcism (“The Devil and Father Amorth”), which Friedkin filmed in Italy himself using only a GoPro camera.

This night, the audience was treated to the North American premiere of Francesco Zippel’s film “Friedkin Uncut,” where we heard from his actors and fellow directors, including Ellen Burstyn, Wes Anderson, Quentin Tarantino, Matthew McConaughey, Walter Hill, George Lucas, William Peterson, Philip Kaufmann, Gina Gershon, Willem Dafoe, Juno Temple, Francis Ford Coppola and many more. Dafoe and Peterson cited Friedkin’s “energy, passion, intelligence. One of the smartest people I’ll ever know, and he has balls that clank. “ Friedkin, himself, said that a filmmaker needs, “Ambition, luck and the grace of God. You have to go out and try to make your chances.” He cited Kathry Bigelow and Damien Chazelle as two of the best new filmmakers and said “The Babadook” was one of the scariest of the “new” horror releases.

Watching the uncut, uncensored William Friedkin (“Billy” to his close friends) talk about movies and movie-making onscreen was followed by the genuine article. And William Friedkin is a raconteur. He would have talked for another hour in Austin, had the showing of the 1973 film “The Exorcist” not been scheduled.

In addition to the stories of how he began in the mail room of WGN and grew up on the north side of Chicago, other directors paid tribute. George Lucas, alluding to Friedkin’s roots as a documentary filmmaker, marveled that Friedkin’s early documentary (1962) “The People vs. Paul Crump” caused the governor to commute Crump’s death sentence after seeing it. Coppola found this a powerful message and others, like Director Wes Anderson, shared that, “His films are built on something very solid.” Said one, “What ‘Star Wars’ was to science fiction, ‘The Exorcist’ was to horror.” (It was a bit of a blow to Friedkin that the phenomenal success of “Star Wars,” which was released very shortly before “The Sorcerer,” left his film in the red after the studio had spent $22 million making it.)

William Friedkin disposing of Michael Kutza’s notes.

Friedkin came out and joined retiring founder and Director of the Chicago International Film Festival, Michael Kutza, at the podium. Kutza reminisced that they had begun together 55 years ago. Kutza then began reading from the award that Friedkin was to receive, but, somehow, the award had Carey Mulligan’s name on it (she was to receive her award the next night) and that was all it took for Friedkin to riff and joke and, ultimately, throw all of Kutza’s notes on the floor.(See photo)

Friedkin worked that way when directing, also, and Gina Gershon told a story of his treatment of her while they were on-set and Friedkin was trying to evoke a certain reaction from her. She thought he didn’t like her, she said. He was just trying to provoke a certain reaction.

Friedkin, himself, told an amusing story about casting Max Von Sydow as the priest who performs the exorcism in that 1971 film. Because Von Sydow was an atheist, he kept having trouble saying the line, “The power of Christ commands you!” Said Friedkin, to laughter, “On a list of 100 things that could go wrong, Max Von Sydow blocking on a line was #100!”

Director William Friedkin and Chicago International Film Founder Michael Kutza.

Friedkin’s films illustrate his documentary origins, with their gritty realism and the premier chase sequences of “The French Connection” and “To Live and Die in L.A.” The director also commented on the continual battle between good and evil (in life and on film), mentioning Hitler and Jesus. Said his colleagues, “He’s always looking for people to put themselves out there. He’s in it. He’s passionate and he expects people to give 200% because he’s giving 200%.”

Friedkin  said, “Rehearsal is for sissies. Dummies. I’m a one-take guy. F***** bring it! I’m not looking for perfection; I’m looking for spontaneity.” He went on to say that 80 to 90% of a film’s success “is casting” and added, “My thing is to be real.”

I had gifted Friedkin with my book “It Came from the 70s: From The Godfather to Apocalypse Now” in Austin. I went down after the showing of his documentary of an exorcism and gave him the book. He signed it and handed it back.”

“No…this is for you. Three of your films are in it.”

He thanked me.

This night, I joined a crowd that was much bigger, clustering around the famous man. I tried to find his wife Sherry Lansing and his son Jack, who were in Chicago with him, but they had disappeared in the mob. Many of the people were asking Friedkin if he remembered this person or that person from his Chicago days. (Philip Kaufman, director of “The Invasion of the Body Snatchers” with Donald Southerland, was a classmate). I eventually had one second to ask him if he remembered receiving the book about seventies movies (“The New Hollywood”), which consisted of 50 representative films, 76 photos, and interactive trivia, and my reviews from the Quad City Times, painstakingly brought up to the pixel standards of today over a period of 8 years.

His response? “No. I don’t remember.”

Well, the man IS 83 years old, after all, but he seems as sharp as the proverbial tack. He also nearly died of a congenital heart defect way back in 1977. But he seems quite happy with his Auteur Emeritus status and shared that “acting and filmmaking are both jobs.”

Friedkin shared that his favorite films were “the great MGM musicals” and also said “They’re dead.” We learned that he has staged several operas, at the explicit urging of Zubin Mehta, and it was (now-retired) “Vanity Fair” editor Graydon Carter who urged him to film a real exorcism when he returned to Italy and to write about it for “Vanity Fair,” leading to his short documentary (which, quite frankly, is not  riveting.)

Friedkin thanked his wife Sherry Lansing, head of Paramount Pictures for many years, whom he married 26 years ago. Prior to that, Friedkin had been married three times, but none of his first 3 marriages lasted over 3 years (Jeanne Moreau, ’77-79; Lesley-Anne Down, ’82-’85; Kelly Lange, ’87-90.)

Director of the documentary “Friedkin Uncut”, Francesco Zippel said, “This film has been very important to me.  I had the chance to look back at all the films with him.  I tried to give him the chance to talk about himself and his career in a way that was closer to him. I thank William Friedkin so much for allowing me to do this.”

Of Chicago, in particular, Friedkin said, “This is the most beautiful city in the world. Chicago is not a city that brags about itself.  I got my sense of curiosity from Chicago. It is easily the best city in this country—but I do like Venice (Italy).”

Chapter 6: “Mad Dog” Mattis, the Warrior Monk Secretary of Defense


One week after the election, Trump offered 4-star Army General Jack Keane the position of Secretary of Defense. Keane turned him down (sick wife) but recommended Jim Mattis, also known as “Mad Dog” and “Chaos” and “the warrior monk.

Trump was warned by Keane before offering the job to Mattis that “Mistakes on the domestic side have a correcting mechanism. You can have a do-over. There are no do-overs in national security. When we make mistakes it has huge consequences. By our actions or lack of actions we can actually destabilize parts of the world and cause enormous problems.” Keane felt Obama had been too timid in international  policy decisions with Leon Panetta as Secretary of Defense.

Keane spoke with Mattis to make sure he’d take the Secretary of Defense job, if it were offered, and the retired 4-star Marine general had another thing going for him. Obama had fired him in the Middle East in 2013 because Obama thought he was too hawkish and too eager to confront Iran militarily. Obviously, given Trump’s obsession with undoing everything and anything Obama had begun, Mattis would be a good choice to please Trump.

But on another level Mattis might not “fit” because although he was very experienced in the Middle East and an experienced combat veteran, according to Keane: “What’s not obvious is how thoughtful he is and how deliberate he is. He thinks things through. He spends time thinking through the problem.” Essentially, Mattis had devoted his life to the military and had a library of over 7,000 books. His reading habit had given him the nickname “The Warrior Monk.” (*Does this sound like a good fit for Trump?)

Mattis was 66, while Keane was 73. Mattis had written a huge paper on Iran and differed with the previous administration on how best to deal with Iran. He was fearful that Israel would attack Iran and we would be dragged into military conflict in support of Israel.

Mattis to Trump:  “We need to change what we are doing. It can’t be a war of attrition. It must be a war of annihilation.” Bannon began calling Mattis “the moral center of gravity of the administration,” although he thought he was too liberal on social policies and a globalist at heart. Bannon began setting up photo ops like those the British P.M. used, where it would show a dignitary coming in or out of #10 Downing Street. The visit of Mattis to the White House to discuss naming him Secretary of Defense would be a great way for Bannon, who came from the world of Breitbart, to manipulate publicity about the administration.

Mattis had taken the Marines into Afghanistan after 911. Mattis worried about the Obama administration’s failure to deter Iran and wrote a thick position paper on what should be done, but it was shredded when he was let go (retired early). Now, with Trump promoting him to Secretary of Defense, everyone wanted a copy of his old notes on dealing with Iran.

One reason Mattis was so hot to face off with Iran was the terrorist bombing of the Marine Barracks in Beirut in 1983 which killed 220 Marines. This was one of the largest single-day death tolls in the history of the Marine Corps. Another 21 died, making it the largest terrorist attack against the U.S. prior to 9/11.

The Donilon Memo was an answer to Mattis and directed that under no circumstances would Mattis take any action against Iran for mining international waters, unless the mine was effectively dropped in the path of a U.S. warship and presented an imminent danger to the ship. Mattis rescinded the Donilon memo the moment he became Secretary of Defense. He continued to talk about how the war plan for Iran was insufficient because it had no joint-force characteristics but depended almost solely on air power. He devised “Strike Option Five,” which was: 1) first against small Iranian boats (2) then against ballistic missiles (3) then against weapons systems and (4) an invasion. Strike Option Five was the plan for destroying the Iranian nuclear program. Mattis had also written a memo to the Chief of Naval Operations that said “the Navy is completely unprepared for conflict in the Persian Gulf.”

When Leon Panetta (Secretary of Defense under Obama) told Mattis that his plan put him at odds with the Obama administration, he said, “I get paid to give my best military advice. They make the policy decisions. I’m not going to change what I think to placate them. If I don’t have their confidence, then I go.”

And go he did, 5 months early, in March of 2013. His draft of strategies focused on confronting and not tolerating Iran’s destabilizing actions through Hezbollah, the Quds Force operations, and their actions in Iraq to undermine the U.S. Did Mattis’ appointment as Secretary of Defense in a hawkish Trump presidency mean a likely military conflict with Iran? (Pray the answer is no!)

Trump was impressed with Rex Tillerson and named him Secretary of State, considered another thumbing of his nose at the Washington political world.

Austin Revolution Film Festival, Sept. 17-22, Continues

The third day of the Austin Revolution Film Festival saw participants journeying to a high school to speak to one of the founder’s  classes and then on to Austin’s Salt Lick for Barbecue. Since I’ve been to Salt Lick, I was not among the tourists, but I spent the past two evenings watching shorts and a few feature length offerings culled from among 10,000 entries, we were told.

My script (THE COLOR OF EVIL), based on the first book in a novel trilogy I wrote, which has won 36 competitions as a screenplay, was a Finalist until September 12, 10 days from the end of this festival, when I received a short “Dear Con” letter telling me it wasn’t in the running any more. I’d have been upset if I had paid $500 x 2 per airplane ticket (the one-way fare from Chicago), or, worse, from Australia (a 17-hour flight). Not to mention the cost of a hotel room. Why tell people they are losers 10 days before the end of the festival? (Weird. Not the way it’s done in Vancouver, Chicago or San Antonio, but nevermind about that.) There was a mixer on September 12th. I went.  It was immediately after the mixer that I received my Kiss-of-Death e-mail, so I’m wondering, “Was it something I said?” (lol)

The Austin Revolution Film Festival

The first night (Tuesday, Sept. 18) began with thanks for the sponsors, including Uncle Billy’s Brewery and George Dog Music. The “prize” from this film festival is a gigantic belt buckle. (Does anyone actually wear it? No idea. Made me think of that ad that is currently running with the young    cowboy who keeps showing up with a bigger and bigger belt buckle.)

This was the 7th annual Austin Revolution Film Festival, not to be confused with the “regular” Austin Film Festival, which runs from October 25-November 2, or SXSW, which takes place in March. Organizers of this film festival are James Christopher, who shared that it is 13th year of film-making and his 15th feature film (“A Chance of Snow”) would close out the evening, and Lisa Belcher of JumpRock Pictures IShort: “Guest of Honor”). Christopher shared that the event grew out of neighboring filmmakers in the area wanting to join in a chance to show the films they had made and described it as a chance to provide networking, to help other filmmakers to build teams and a support system. One young man I met (Henry Young) had journeyed all the way from Australia to show his short, “Animal.”

THE BLACK MARKET CLUB

First short:  a van is shown crashing off a bridge. The van crashes over and over and over. The group in the van are apparently members of a rock band that has just played a gig. There was a guy with a weird mustache, shown in close-up and a song with the lyric “Falling like so many times before.” Interesting depiction of the van crashing although one member of the rock band who was about to die was incongruously seen smiling a bit.

REMEMBER ME

  • The next short focused on people who had suffered traumatic brain injuries and, therefore, were having trouble remembering things, much like Alzheimer’s sufferers. There is a support group for these troubled souls. A handsome young man meets a pretty young girl named Claire there and they both write things on their arms to try to help them remember things. The young man in this Avery Merrifeld-directed short didn’t have any trouble immediately asking the young girl to join him for coffee after the meetings, however, and those scenes, with a blonde waitress wearing a CoffeeShark shirt led to scenes at an ice skating rink (the girl’s passion). The skaters were quite good and the picture of me [and the woman who played the blonde waitress at the coffee shop, above, with me.] The problem with this piece, for me, is that I spent 20 years working with head injury patients. I know that the cast and crew did visit a head injury clinic, but my small Sylvan Learning Center (#3301) in Bettendorf, Iowa, became the “go to” facility for traumatic brain injury patients in the IA/IL Quad Cities and never did I see one write things on his or her arm. Our most extreme case was a young man who cardiac arrested in the parking lot of St. Ambrose University when he was entering to take classes to become an engineer. The cerebral anoxyia (lack of oxygen to the brain) he suffered wiped out his ability to read, write and/or do numbers. We worked with him for years and were able to restore the number knowledge faster than the reading, which never progressed beyond the 7th grade level. All higher level thinking skills were wiped out and his dream of becoming an engineer along with it. When he woke up in the hospital (after some Good Samaritan passersby performed CPR in the parking lot and saved his life) he did not remember his fiance (that engagement soon faltered), but he did remember things from when he was a child. He eventually was moved to a treatment facility in St. Louis, but, as they say, “a little knowledge is a dangerous thing” and A LOT of knowledge is a much more dangerous thing.

Networking.

APPLE SEED

This one was one of the more ridiculous premises, with a man who has the misfortune to have a bird leave its droppings in his eye causing him to turn into  a tree (think Groot).  Patrick Griney wrote and directed. The kudos really belong to the make-up people who had to make a tree take root in the lead’s ear realistically and, ultimately, take over  a human male’s body. The audience seemed to like it.

REX

This was one of my favorite shorts, dealing, as it did, with an old man’s encroaching dementia.  Andy Kasteler wrote and directed and  the actor did a good job of railing against his boss’s directives. The boss turns out to be his son, and the old man is white-washing trees. But, in reality, at one point he has painted a telephone pole (dementia evidence). I am not knowledgeable enough about why he was whitewashing trees to tell you what that had to do with anything [and I’m from farm country]. (Apparently it is something that is done to a grove to prepare the trees for winter?) All I know is that the main actor, who had a last name of Fyre, did a great job, and I wondered if the line “Everything about him was old except his eyes. They were the same color as the sea” was from “The Old Man and the Sea.” An anguished examination of the horror(s) of growing old, seen from the vantage point of both the elderly man and his young son.

DEATH (*& DISCO FRIES)

Denis Culo, New York City filmmaker and director/star of “Death” (& Disco Fries).

Dennis Cahlo of New York City wrote, directed and stars in this humorous examination of one man’s regrets as he learns he has only a short time to live. It’s played for laughs, as he answers the phone and is told by his old gym teacher that he is dead. Dennis is asked by old coach O’Halloran if he has any regrets and Dennis admits he’d like to eat disco fries, despite the fact that he has been a vegan all his life. The problem with disco fries? Nobody I talked to knew what they were. I’m from the Midwest, so maybe it’s an Eastern thing, but I literally asked people from all areas of the country if they’d ever heard the term “disco fries.” Nobody had. What are they? Apparently it’s a truly disgusting looking french fry dish where some sort of gravy is poured over the fries. (Ugh) It would have been more universal if Dennis had gone with a hot fudge sundae or even a steak, as disco fries were less-than-universal, (in my own admittedly limited experience).  They looked absolutely horrible. That didn’t change the sweet message about asking Veronica (Kate Vincent) to dance with him at the Prom. I liked it very much, but I hated the font used for this short and for the feature film that followed. It was a Gothic font that made it very difficult to even read the title of “A Chance of Snow” when  (also) used there. Dennis also has a podcast and we may chat about movies on it.

CLEMENTINE

Clementine appears and tells us how happy she is with her life and especially with her wonderful husband Jerry. (“My life is a dream”). With music by Matt Kidd and direction by Ross Wooten, Allen G. Hale gets the opportunity to play four different roles, a tour de force (think Peter Sellers in “Dr. Strangelove” or “How I Learned to Stop Worrying And Love the Bomb”…what? You haven’t seen it? Check it out!) Hale is Jerry, her wonderful, if boring, husband. He is Francine, Clementine’s best girlfriend (and a terrible girl he makes with the blonde wig!) He is Lonnie the mailman. He is Alfonse the yoga instructor.  He is Aunt Pearl. By the end of the piece, we learn that Clementine is crazy (“Her brain is disappearing”) and Jerry feels it necessary to provide her with a host of friends and acquaintances as she becomes loopier and loopier. A weird concept, but Alan had fun with it and so did we.

There was a picture of a hand putting a needle on a record and Santa entered a living room where two children were present. [Not sure this was really a complete short in and of itself, as it was immediately followed by the feature film.]

A CHANCE OF SNOW

Film goers taking their seats at the Alamo Drafthouse Mueller.

“A Chance of Snow” poster.

This feature film was put together by one of the festival organizers, James Christopher. The plot featured a blonde young man (Tyler) who has a new girlfriend now that he has left home for college. The new blonde girlfriend’s name is Holly. (She is gorgeous, but she was also in Arizona when the film screened.) Supposedly, Tyler’s family is really BIG on Christmas, and he went with a different girl named Noelle all of high school, but they broke up when he left for college and she failed to follow him there. There was a sister named Faith, with a boyfriend in “a third world country” that is never named (Iraq? Afghanistan?).  It takes about 2 minutes to realize that the boy should have stayed with his original girl friend and/or will somehow end up with her when all is said and done. Some of the dialogue was…odd. [“That really ain’t no fun for no one.” “At least you didn’t lift your leg.” “I don’t know what Yankees like to do.”] The best part of the film was Alejandro Patino’s (also a Producer) depiction of Noelle’s Hispanic father. He doesn’t really like Tyler and speaks Spanish to his daughter telling her so, but Tyler (and Holly), who are present, don’t speak Spanish, so the father has a chance to insult the boyfriend pretty thoroughly while Tyler remains clueless. One wonders why either girl would fall for him. His special Santa suit, worn at the end of the film, is the pits and I asked several people about the tag on is left sleeve that says OPPO (Nobody had any answer for me; maybe the rental place?).  Andy Bertelson’s  very country song by the Texas Renegade  worked in the idea  “All I need is a chance of snow and a chance you will love me.” Setting was Winter’s Hope, Texas. The black delivery guy has about 2 minutes of screen time; his delivery (pun intended) was priceless. Moral of the story: “You don’t know what you’re missing till it’s gone.”

On the second night, (September 19, Wednesday) the slate of shorts led off with Lisa Belcher’s short film:

GUEST OF HONOR

Lisa Belcher of JumpRock Films, one of the organizers of the Austin Revolution Film Festival.

The gallery filling up for the first night (4 hours) of films at the Alamo Drafthouse Mueller in Austin, TX.

Lisa Belcher, who is one of the guiding lights of the Austin Revolution Film Festival also co-wrote, acted and directed this short, which was quite good. Her co-star, Lukas Hassel, also earned a writer credit. Lisa appears, looking very sad, and we know something has happened to her son because she is boxing up his school trophies and mementos. (Lisa’s real-life son, who is taller than his mom, is used in the photos.) As the plot thickens, Belcher conveys the preoccupied sadness of a grieving mother quite well, and we learn that there is some sort of a celebration planned, with caterers coming. (The sets were lavish and  appropriate). At first, I thought the caterers might have been summoned for a post-funeral dinner, but it turns out that the couple is going to have a 21st wedding anniversary celebration, because their son, who recently was killed by a drunk driver, wanted so much to throw a big party for the couple’s twentieth anniversary (the year prior), before his tragic death. The father is shown at one point conferring with a slim young black girl in the street, who ultimately gets in his car with him, and I’m sure I wasn’t the first to think he was soliciting a hooker. But, no. The young girl has received the heart of the heroine’s dead son, and shows up at the party.  This one seemed very professionally done and the sound, in fact, was done in Los Angeles, if I remember the credits correctly. Lisa Belcher and her producing partner Christian Olteanu are an Austin force to be reckoned with.

LEARNING THE ROPES

Alyssia Rivera (“Noelle”) from “A Chance of Snow.”

Eric Goodman and America’s Academy of Pro Wrestling. Two words: “The Wrestler,” Mickey Rourke (should have won the Oscar, but Sean Penn beat him with “Milk”), directed by Darren Aronofsky, 2008). Why are all the people in this world so screwed up? Beats me, but it was a great film in 2008 and this short re-visited that real world with “Meatball,” an overweight wrestler who loves the sport, et. al.

PRENATAL

This one opens with a young girl climbing a mountain and collapsing after mumbling something about “angels come to me when I close my eyes.” As the plot thickens, her sister sells her baby to a con man from the Guiding Light Evangelical Mission, one of the sisters manages to get shot, and there is talk of the father being an alien. Real Rain Productions took off on this, with Bears Fone writing and directing. Ambiguous ending. Part of the time we’re wrapping our minds around an alien pregnancy (remember Hallie Berry’s short-lived series?) and part of the time we’re dealing with GNL Pharmaceutical Company which may profit from an alien baby, and the rest of the time we’re wondering if the sister who gets shot is going to live and, all-in-all,  lots to deal with here for a short.

LEECHERS

Not sure if the name of this was “leechers” but “leechers” are people who touch someone as they are dying and absorb their entire lives.  One word: “Fallen,” 1998, Elias Koteas as Edgar Reese, a convicted killer who touches Denzel at the moment of death and passes bad stuff on. [Not a totally new idea, in other words, but are there any new ones left?] In this particular treatment, we have a sister who wants to stop her brother from going on as a bad guy serial killer. [Do sisters usually shoot their brothers to save total strangers? Wrong question, probably.] He says he’s NOT a serial killer because “they were all still alive in my head.” Rushton Williams, Kelsey Pribelai, Timothy McKinny, J.T. Campos, “Cold Summer” productions, Linus Lau music and Kory Hill sound mixing. The young boy who started out as the younger brother was quite good, but did not look like he’d grow up to look like  the adult star of the piece. However, stranger things have happened…right?

JESSIE’S GIRL

Tracy Ely—who is about to be married—from “A Chance of Snow.”

This short was the perfect example of what, in psychology, is known as “a double approach avoidance” response. The textbook example of that was marriage and a wedding. As the wedding grows closer, the bride (and groom) become both more apprehensive and more excited. In this case, the bride has some pretty severe doubts about her intended. At one point she is holed up in the bathroom having an anxiety attack and her mother-in-law, Linda, is trying to lure her out.  The best line in the short, with great delivery, is: “GET THE FUCK AWAY FROM THE DOOR, LINDA!” as the mother of the groom is pestering the bride-to-be to come out and rejoin the guests at her bridal shower. Unfortunately, her intended shows up and insists on singing  the song he wrote for her (“I hate that effing song!”) Best line that was written, rather than spoken: “No goldfish were harmed in the making of this film.” Nice surprise ending that probably wasn’t that big a surprise once you thought about the characters of Jesse and Ashley. Cassidy Freeman, Brady Johnson, Caitlin Norton. (Great hair throughout!)

Tracey Ely of “A Chance of Snow” (Faith).

ONE ACT PLAY

This 73-minute gem from Landry Gideon and company of Triadatx Media  proves that even a topic that sounds like it might be boring can surprise you. In this case, Landry and his crew tracked the progress of various thespians (actors) in drama classes throughout Texas as they move through the various competitions to be named the Number One troupe in the state, based on the one act play they present.

Landry Gideon (best name ever) pictured with his D.P. , I hope, on the right. If that is his D.P. his name is in the article (Andrew Miller) and he went to Cedar Rapids (IA) Washington High School. Apologies to all names I failed to scribble down in the dark fast enough. Landry is a sound expert who works on other people’s films’ sound and his wife, who is expecting, is just about to add to their family in the new house in Pfluegerville.

The schools were Salada High School, Rogers High School, Hempstead High School, Randall High School, Barbers Hill High School and their various drama teachers and students. It’s a bit like “Glee” on television, where the tension rises as the competition nears and the stakes get higher and the students proceed from Zone to Area to Regionals to winnowing down to eight and making it to State. Andrew Miller, Director of Photography, shot literally loads of film, as he told me;  the editing was great, as was the sound. Will Patterson was brought in to provide the heart-pounding music that propelled the tension, and the choice of Rogers High School to present “Kholstomer: The Story of a Horse” (a German play, translated) means that a field trip to a horse farm is included and the students have to pretend to be horses onstage. (Always interesting). Solado High School chose a war story (“Boys of Winter”), and the director commented that she likes war stories because the students’ grandfathers had often been in VietNam, (which means my generation.) “Black Angel” segments looked very interesting (Hampstead High School) and only “MidSummer Night’s Dream” seemed as though it was a weak choice (Remember on “American Idol” when the judges would talk about how important the right song would be? Well, it applies here.)

The expressions used by the directors reminded me of the University of Iowa’s head coach for many years, Texas native Hayden Fry, who used the term “high porch picnic” (no idea what that means; I’m from Iowa, but I think I was told it had to do with snakes and flooding the last time I asked) and, in this case, one of the coaches says, “I want to beat you up and then beat your sister.” (Surely a Texas idiom?)

I was active in drama in high school in the state of Iowa, and, in fact, one of the founders of my high school’s Thespians troupe, and I can tell you that it is nothing like this. As one individual says, “If it wasn’t for the one-act play, there are thousands of kids in Texas who would not be exposed to theater.”

As for me, I was amazed that that many able-bodied macho boys took part. (It is not that way in all high schools, for sure.) Another great line: “There’s douchebags sitting in the front row.” And “Judges are weird.”

The young girl who declares this to be “the largest interscholastic competition in the world” (and then wonders whether it is just in Texas or the U.S.) was precious. This one should apply for the Chicago International Film Festival, where it would stand a very good chance of admission. A great flick!

 

 

 

 

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