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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Four Days on the Road to the Land of Lincoln

Dallas

Driving through Dallas.

DAY ONE: Our annual trek to and from (in this case, from) Austin, Texas is over.

We stayed in town for the Premiere of “Hit Man” at the Paramount in Austin (see previous article below) and I have included a pictorial representation of the journey.

First up: Dallas skyscapes. You will note that there is what appears to be precipitation on the highway. This is because we drove through a 400-mile wide derecho, which was NOT fun. It was so bad that we saw one truck which had crashed into the retaining wall without being forced there by another vehicle. By the time we passed that point on our 4-day journey the driver was gone—probably to a hospital, judging from the looks of his vehicle, which was facing the wrong way and had a smashed-in driver’s side.

Dallas during the derecho.

Driving through a derecho, near Dallas.

The weather was so bad by the time we reached Waco—which isn’t that far away from Austin—that we needed to get off the road and try to wait it out. We stopped at a Denny’s, only to be told that they had been struck by lightning and were unable to cook anything. They were running on a generator and the owner of this Denny’s, who was far away in Houston, had instructed them to close down for the day soon, as the generator would only work to keep their foodstuffs good for that amount of time.

I asked, “Can you at least give us a Diet Coke?” The waitress acknowledged that they could do that much, and I pushed further and asked if they could make us a sandwich, since it was still pouring outside and it was so bad that it was difficult to stay in your lane because you could not see for the downpour. We spoke with our son back in Austin and the deluge that had hit us twenty minutes earlier had now descended on Ava and Elise at their school, who were soaked as they awaited pick-up.

They did make us a club sandwich and poured me a Diet Coke and my spouse an iced tea, The sandwich was really good and we had promised payment in cash, since the cash register could not be operated due to the power outage.

Durant, Oklahoma, Indian casino.

Choctaw Indian Casino in Durant, Oklahoma.

FIRST NIGHT: We had pretty much had it by the time we reached the Choctaw Indian Casino in Durant, Oklahoma. This place has to be one of the largest casinos anywhere, with a variety of towers and the like. I failed to take a picture of the exterior from the road, so I have scavenged one from the Internet.

We were pretty tired from battling the elements and we decided to check into this extremely large mini Las Vegas in the wilds. But, as usual, we had the two suitcases meant to be taken into motels, the cosmetics bag, the spill-over bag with food in it for the trip, my twelve-pack of Diet Dr. Pepper, the laptop on which I am now typing this (in a pull case) and a jacket to compensate for A/C which, inevitably, would be overdone. We needed a cart to transport this assorted paraphernalia, although my husband suggested that we simply “pull our suitcases.” (Ha!) I had just seen a gold cart go by, although he had not and asserted there were none. I went over to the Manager of the suitcase-dropping-off area to ask for the use of one, since we were self-parking (Parking was $20 if they did it, but the parking lot was vast and very close). The guy literally spit on me (by accident) while denying that carts to move luggage existed.

Me: “I just saw a gold one go by.” (in incredulous tone)

Manager: “Well, we have to have someone go with the cart.”

I was standing next to a young man who seemed to not be doing much of anything. So, I said, “He wants to go with us.” (I will change his name to protect the employee, who had only been on the job for a short time, calling him Juan.)

He (Juan) was more than happy to accompany us to the tower—although he did not know exactly how to get there.

We found it and, on our way to the 7th floor, Juan shared that he was new and said “my manager is an a******.”  He described a previous job that sounded even worse, which was at a big box warehouse. [I hope that my husband tipped Juan well.]

Still wiping the spit from my arm from the unpleasant manager who lied to me about the existence of carts to transport our bags,  I agreed completely with Juan’s assessment. The goal was to force the cars into the “check in” lane and charge an additional $20 for the overnight parking, which was roughly 10 yards away and could easily be done yourself, if you didn’t buy into the whole “Park your car for you” thing. I understand the casino’s desire to make an additional $25 or so on the check-in portion of  entering the casino, but bald-faced lying to the would-be guest that suitcase carts don’t exist was weak.

Dallas skyline.

Dallas.

We decided on naps and casino, in that order, rather than eating after our Denny’s club sandwich. That meant that we had only a club sandwich for a meal all day.  I found myself eating Doritos in the wee hours of the morning, which was not a great idea. But, hey! We’re on the road. (I paid for that indiscretion with an upset stomach for hours. I needed Tums for half a day.)

The casino is so large that we could not find (or understand) half of the machines, which is all I was willing to play, since the cheapest Blackjack table was $25 a hand. My available cash after the Denny’s “you must pay with cash” experience had left me with $40 in ten-dollar bills, Period. The cash was left over from the recent Cancun trip, or I probably wouldn’t have had even that much, but I definitely did not have enough to bet $25 a hand at an Indian casino.

We wandered around trying to find the machines that let you change the game to be played from poker to Blackjack.  We did not find any. We found one that had Blackjack only and had a side bet called “Lucky Charlie,” which apparently was lucky only for Charlie. My kind and generous spouse gave me a $20 bill to put in the machine, which I promptly lost. I inserted one of my few remaining $10 bills and lost that, as well. So, minus $30 down, for me.

My much-luckier than me spouse lost $20—but he won most of his back in the morning hours while I slept in, stomach destroyed by Doritos in the middle of the night.

SECOND DAY

Next day: Friday. We ended up in Springfield, Missouri, after driving through Oklahoma, which has to be one of the least scenic states to traverse. We stayed at the Embassy Suites, which was definitely a blast from the past. The hotel resembles the hotel interior popularized by the Mel Brooks film “High Anxiety.” The Radisson in downtown Davenport, Iowa, represents the same floor plan. The hotel did not have a refrigerator in the room (bad) and there was no small coffee-maker. However, in its defense, the breakfast was great! Fresh omelettes were made for us, and that carried us all day, just as eating at an I-Hop (breakfast eggs, pancakes, French toast,bacon, ham, sausage) had sustained us the previous day for our one on-the-road meal.

Uranus Fudge Factory in Missouri.

Part of the Uranus Fudge Factor and General Store complex along the Route 66 which we traveled for “Ghostly Tales of Route 66” books.

Uranus Fudge Factory in Missouri.

Part of the Uranus Fudge Factory and General Store complex in Missouri.

Uranus Fudge Factory in Missouri.

Uranus Fudge Factory and General Store.

On the last leg of the journey, we passed large billboards advertising Uranus Fudge Factory and General Store in Missouri. Since we had now deviated from the road to experience the casino, I suggested that we stop at Uranus, which turned out to be quite crowded with people with similar intentions.  They sell Route 66 paraphernalia, as it is on or near Route 66, which I know a lot about, after driving it and writing about 10 books focusing on “Ghostly Tales of Route 66.” It was a fun pit stop and we purchased one of their tee shirts for Mark’s June 7th birthday, as well as fudge to be eaten as dessert after dinner in St. Louis.

THIRD DAY

Uranus General Store.

The Uranus General Store.

Saturday we arrived at Uncle Mark’s house and got to see his new addition (still slightly under construction. Niece Megan and husband Aaron and their almost 3-year-old daughter, Winnie, came over and accompanied us to dinner. We all watched Saturday Night Live on the new porch addition and wished Megan and Aaron well as they await the birth of Child Number 2, a boy, in late June.

FOURTH DAY:

Today is Sunday and we are back in Illinois, where, last year, we encountered a completely ruined kitchen that took four months of work to fix. This year, so far, so good.

Dinner in St. Louis.

L to R) Craig, Mom-to-be Megan, husband Aaron Eddy, Mark Wilson, Winnie Eddy, me.

Glen Powell Inducted into Texas Hall of Fame (5/15/2024)

Glen Powell

Glen Powell onstage at the Paramount Theater in Austin, Texas, at the screening of his new film “Hit Man” on Mau 15th, 2024.

Hollywood heartthrob and Austin (Texas) native Glen Powell was inducted into the Texas Hall of Fame at the Paramount Theater in downtown Austin (Texas) on Wednesday, May 15, 2024. Powell’s newest film, directed by Austin director Richard Linklater, “Hit Man” screened after his remarks to the assembled audience.

The Netflix extravaganza was by random drawing from those who were members of the Austin Film Society and there were assigned seats throughout the venue. While I would normally have attempted to apply for Press Credentials, our original plans were to leave town on Monday, but things changed for us and, when I learned I would be in town after all, I applied and was selected for the screening.

Lots of directions were sent to us, including where to park for free parking. I, of course, could not find the right parking area, and ended up paying $51 for parking. But the movie (and the free popcorn and pop that was provided) were well worth that price of admission. Much like tickets to movies in Chicago for members of the corresponding Chicago film society, you have to show up early to claim them, and that meant 5:45 p.m. I thought I’d dine at the nearby Roaring Fork restaurant in downtown Austin, my favorite restaurant in the city, but that was not to be, as we were herded in and basically spent the time waiting around for the induction of Powell, which was to precede the showing of his new film at 7:30 p.m.

Hit Man Ticket.

Hit Man Ticket.

I was given a seat quite near the front of the stage, which was great. My only problem was that all the photographers working kept standing in front of me, but I still managed to get the shots you’ll see here.

Powell was introduced by local Austin director Robert Rodriguez, who shared that he had been the first to cast Powell in a film when he was 14 years old. (Powell is now 35). The film was “Spy Kids 3D: Game Over” and young Powell worked alongside Antonio Banderas, Carla Gugino, Holland Taylor, Ricardo Montalban, Sylvester Stallone, Salma Hayek, Mike Judge, Cheech Marin, Salma Hayek and Alan Cumming. Rodriguez wrote and directed the film and it started Powell on a film career that has included such films as “Top Gun: Maverick (2022), “Anyone But You,” “The Dark Night Rises” (2012), “Hidden Figures,” “Devotion” and—coming soon—“Twisters.”

When we entered the theater, there were white cowboy hats on some seats, which were assigned to Powell family members. At the end of the entire evening, many of the friends and family that Powell called out during his brief speech joined him onstage for photos.

Powell family members gather at the end of the evening for photos.

Richard Linklater and Glen Powell

Richard Linklater and Glen Powell on May 15, 2024, at the screening of his new Netflix film “Hit Man.”

Powell seems to be a genuinely good guy, who thanked four of his teachers, present for the film and the ceremony. Peggy Langford, Powell’s kindergarten teacher earned a shout-out. Fifth grade teacher Julia Allen earned kudos, with the additional comment that she taught him about working for what you want and delayed gratification. “Thank you for that lesson,” he said. “It’s really paid off. Coach Wood instilled in Powell the importance of “showing up” and a counselor (whose surname I will probably butcher), Michelle Caterez helped young Powell “work the system” when he continued to try to continue acting. “Thank you for continuing to game the system” he said, with a smile. Tenth grade Creative Writing teacher Dr. Shack let Powell attempt to learn screenwriting while still in high school, and introduced him to Director Richard Linklater, as well as Linklater’s long-time editor, Sandra Adair, who was the editor for this night’s film. It’s pretty impressive when someone famous hands out kudos to the teachers who helped them along the way, (says the teacher who taught from 1969 until 2005).

The most touching moment came when Powell thanked his always-supportive parents, who were always there for him. “It’s incredible to have wonderful parents,” he said, “truly incredible.” (Brief pause) He described how his parents were present for every one of his 26 performances in “The Sound of Music” as a young boy. He also said that his kindergarten teacher had told his parents to encourage his interest in performing.

Richard Linklater.

Writer Director Richard Linklater in Austin on March 15th.

He threw in mentions of Aunts Honey and Taffy, sisters Lauren and Leslie, and his father, the original Glen Powell.

I’ve attended other inductions into the Texas Hall of Fame (and photographed same). This one was more personal and more meaningful, as it highlighted a rising star who has already achieved his goal but will undoubtedly continue on an upward trajectory.

Director Robert Rodriguez and Glen Powell.

Powell with Robert Rodriguez, his first director.

Retta in Hit Man.

Retta at the Paramount.

Connie Wilson

Enjoying the evening. which was truly memorable. My new found friend (in line) was in the Mezzanine.

Glen Powell

Glen Powell

 

Adria Arjona

Adria Arjona, co-star of “Hit Man” onstage at the Paramount Theater in Austin, Texas on May 15, 2024.

 

Glen Powell & Richard Linklater Hit It Big with “Hit Man” on May 15, 2024

Austin’s own Richard Linklater and Netflix showed his latest film, “Hit Man,” to a packed audience on Wednesday, May 15th at the Paramount Theater in downtown Austin. Prior to the showing of the comedy/film noir, its lead and co-writer, Glen Powell, was inducted into the Texas Hall of Fame, established in 2001 by Linklater to honor those Texans who excel in the film world.

The film was a delight and will start streaming on Netflix in the very near future. It will also be showing at the Alamo Drafthouse Chain in Austin (release date June 7, 2024).  The 1 hour 55 minute film is well worth your time. It is based on a true story, as is often the case with Linklater’s films, but poetic license has been taken with the plot. There really was a Gary Johnson, however, who was profiled by Skip Hollandsworth in “Texas Monthly” magazine. Gary Johnson was a college professor and tech guy turned mole for the New Orleans police department (70 arrests). Linklater, who knew the man and had access to records of Johnson’s police work, described him as “the chillest dude ever.”

Richard Linklater and Glen Powell on May 15, 2024, at the screening of his new Netflix film “Hit Man.”

The synopsis on IMDB describes the plot this way:  “A professor moonlighting as a hit man of sorts for his city police department, descends into dangerous, dubious territory when he finds himself attracted to a woman who enlists his services.”  I was reminded of “BlacKkKlansman,” where the real-life exploits of Ron Stallworth as a Black man joining the Ku Klux Klan were explored. The difference in tone between the two films, however, is vast. That’s good news for the audience.

This “Hit Man” (not to be confused with the Michael Fassbender recent release)  is a screwball comedy/film noir with an original plot and excellent acting by Powell, co-star Adria Arjona (“Father of the Bride”) and Retta (“Good Girls”). The screenplay, co-written by Linklater and Powell, was hammered out during phone calls during Covid (“we were never in the same room”), and the film premiered at the Italian film festival in September, during the writers’ strike, causing Linklater to appear pretty much solo to his expressed chagrin.

Since the title character, Gary Johnson, is a college professor, moonlighting as a pretend hit-man, we get some uncharacteristic depth of thought about life and “the eternal mystery of human consciousness and behavior.” Powell’s character says, “I had a knack for being the person they needed me to be” of his hit man persona and adds, “I had somehow found my stage.”

Glen Powell onstage at the Paramount Theater in Austin, Texas, at the screening of his new film “Hit Man” on Mau 15th, 2024.

The talented (and good-looking) Powell, seen in the comedy “Anyone But You” as well as “Top Gun: Maverick” (2022), has been aiming at a Hollywood career since age 14, when he appeared in “Spy Kids 3D: Game Over.” His remarks prior to the film reveal an Austin native who loves Texas and loves making movies. (“The most fun job on the planet.”)

More about his touching remarks about family (he choked up at one point) and significant teachers (he called out four of them in the audience by name) after discussing this truly interesting look at the life of a bogus hit man.  Powell says “All pie is good pie” a lot, in the encounters that we see onscreen, and I’ll add, “All plot twists here are good twists” building on that.

THE SCRIPT

The screenwriting duo (Linklater and Powell) apparently had a great time writing the script during Covid and the cast contributed by improvising some of the best lines that remain in the film. Co-star Sanjay Rao (Phil) said his favorite line (of Retta’s) that made it into  the final film was her remark that she would “rip out my IUD for Ron,” the cool guy persona that Gary Johnson adopted for his encounters with would-be customers. (That line brought a big laugh from the crowd).

It is not often that we get a philosophical discussion of the difference between cat people and dog people in an otherwise comic film. “Dogs are too needy. They’re like people. We beg for more…embarrass ourselves for the scraps of others.” Another line that amused was the remark that if a man is sitting alone, reading “Catcher in the Rye,” “historically speaking, that is never a good sign.”

The depth of the discussion(s) of change and role playing, the Id versus the Ego, and morality, as such, is unusual for a comedy that we might call “lightweight.” It IS lightweight, in the sense that this expert ensemble has turned a complex plot with loads of frothy humor into an exploration of so many deeper issues., one being change.

A few lines to illustrate:

“Your reality will change over time in ways that you cannot even imagine.”

“Seize the identity you want for yourself. Life is short. You gotta’ live on your own terms.”

And, in a line reminiscent of Tom Cruise in Risky Business, “Sometimes, you just gotta’ make a move.” (Sidelight: Cruise, who headlined “Top Gun: Maverick” (2022), where we see Powell playing beach volleyball, paid for Powell to take flying lessons, so Powell is now a registered pilot.)

THE SEX SCENES

Editor Sandra Adair (who visited Powell’s classroom when he was in high school), after editing one of the film’s truly hot sex scenes said, “I thought the screen was going to melt in the editing room!” (Side note: the film’s 35-year-old leading man supposedly broke up with his model girlfriend in 2023.)

Adria Arjona, co-star of “Hit Man” onstage at the Paramount Theater in Austin, Texas on May 15, 2024.

There are so many good sex scenes that it’s hard to point to which ones are the best. There’s the dancing sene in a nightclub called Virgo. There’s the tub scene. There’s the role play when Aria’s character, Madison “Maddy” Figueros, dresses up as a flight attendant to play seductress. The chemistry onscreen is hot, hot, hot. After the movie, during the Q&A, Adria Arjana said, “You have seen a lot of me tonight.”

The IMDB website gives the release date as June 7th. It’s a very good movie. It’s original, and you’ll enjoy it on so many levels. The cell phone scene alone is worth the price of admission.

Don’t miss this Hit Man. And remember when discussing the plot’s resolution: “There are no absolutes, oral or epistemological, in life.”

(*Induction into the Texas Hall of Fame remarks to follow; stay tuned).

Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., Holds Rally on May 13th, 2024 in Austin, Texas

Robert F. Kennedy Jr.

Robert F. Kennedy Jr. Holds Campaign Rally in Austin, TX is now available for viewing in the C-SPAN Video Library.

Let’s not forget that I covered the Presidential races of 2004, 2008, 2012 and 2016 and wrote 3 books on the candidates, often focusing as they came through the Iowa caucuses. I was named Content Producer of the Year for Politics in 2008 by Yahoo and my two books on that race are “Obama’s Odyssey: The 2008 Race for the White House,” Vols. I & II. I am also responsible for BEE GONE about the 2016 election, which I was not allowed to advertise during DJT’s tenure, since it is a comic book rhyming presentation that was hilarious, but which the MAGA folk did not like at all. [One of them called me “Hitler with breasts.” Perhaps that one did not hear about my breast cancer diagnosis?]

If you want to try to find THAT one, your best bet is to go to ConnieCWilson.com and scroll down to “other” books and look it up that way. It is truly hard to find on Amazon and, last time I looked, they only had one copy (which I sent to a friend), If you want one, send me a note.)

 

 

I traveled to downtown Austin tonight to hear Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., deliver a speech. The main message of the evening was that RFK, Jr., has gathered enough signatures (more than enough) to get on the ballot in Texas.When I got there, I was told that the speech was not going to be held at that venue. It had been moved to somewhere on Brazos Street and was going to be live-streamed by CNN. The nice volunteer said she doubted that I could get in, but told me it would be available on C-span, live-streamed, which suited me fine.

I left the book that had RFK, Jr.’s picture in it (p. 33“Obama’s Odyssey: The 2008 Race for the White House,” Vol. II) and went home, where I watched the speech on C-Span. This was a good thing, because out of an hour and 39 minutes, Bobby Kennedy (Jr.) didn’t come on for a very long time. With it being live-streamed, you could fast forward past the introductions and Nicole Shanahan’s speech.

The wealthy Nicole Shanahan, his running mate, gave a speech about soil.

Interesting, I thought. Something that everyone came for—[NOT].

I fast forwarded past all the greeters and announcers and the VP who is helping finance RFK, Jr.’s campaign (and paid for his SuperBowl ad) and listened to what Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., the doppelganger of his famous father, had to say. Robert F. Kennedy Jr. Holds Campaign Rally in Austin, TX is now available for viewing in the C-SPAN Video Library.

The first 2/3 of the speech (look it up on the C-Span archives) was random.

Then came RFK, Jr. Bobby told a lengthy story about an Amish farmer who does a podcast. This sounded like a contradiction in terms. Kennedy addressed that by saying that the 35-year-old young man (apparently an Ohio expert on soil and pesticides with very bright blue eyes) could not allow himself to be photographed. RFK (Jr.) had promised not to show the tape of his comments to the world. The conversation concerning the young Amish man’s encyclopedic knowledge of pesticides went on (and on) describing 2 rows of melons on the Amish podcaster’s farm, one of them grown without pesticides and, therefore, far healthier and more pest-free than the other. One was healthy. One was sickly. What this had to do with anything was hard to determine (but keep in mind that I skipped past the Shanahan soil speech, so shame on me). I am onboard with the idea that pesticides and pollution and the variety of pollutants that are covered so well in the documentary “Plastic People” that I reviewed during SXSW are harming us irreparably, so I will assume that RFK (Jr.) is as concerned about this as the Canadian documentary-filmmakers.

After talking about soil and Amish farmers for a rather lengthy time, the 70-year-old Kennedy talked about what a sick country we are, sharing the data that we have only 4% of the world’s population but, during the Covid pandemic, we had 16% of the world’s deaths. There were more remarks about how good health is not found at the end of a hypodermic needle (anti-vaccine position). I just watched (and reviewed) a documentary called “Plastic People,” mentioned above, and much of what RFK, Jr., was talking about this Canadian documentary supported, so I’m not throwing stones here. I have an interest in such things as why the incidence of breast cancer in young women is so much higher than in years of yore. Not to mention colon cancer in younger people, infertiity, and autism disorders.

The reason the CDC said so many of us succumbed to Covid, (said Kennedy), was that those who died had 3.8 pre-existing chronic diseases. Chronic disease was a recurring phrase and topic.  Kennedy named cancer, asthma, food allergies and then blanked out. He sought a disease to represent the fourth chronic disease, soliciting it from the predominantly young crowd. The crowd finally coughed up “diabetes.” (Heart disease did not rear its ugly head, and I wasn’t sure that food allergies qualified, but nevermind. Obesity might have made the list, based on another statistic he threw out about 40% of us being obese. No idea if any of these facts and figures were precisely accurate; just reporting what the candidate said,)

This is not a fact-checking article—so go ahead and listen to the speech (link above) for yourself. But don’t omit reading up about the candidate’s background, because we have already been “conned” once in 2016 and elected someone who built a totally fabricated background for himself based on being a success in business, when, in reality, that was very far from the truth. And don’t fail to check the candidate(s) out for their strength of character. We’ve seen THAT happen before (John Edwards, anyone?) and we don’t want to constantly be conned into accepting uncritically media presentations (Fox News, I’m talking about you.)

TRUST IN GOVERNMENT

One refrain that did strike a responsive chord for this seasoned political reporter was the remark that we no longer trust our government, because it’s been lying to us for years. To illustrate this, Kennedy repeated the Francis Gary Powers story.

For those of you who are too young to remember that 1960 U-2 event, Powers was shot down over Russia in a super-secret plane. Wikipedia:  “On May 1, 1960, Powers’ U-2A, 56-6693, departed from a military airbase in Peshawar, Pakistan,[13] with support from the U.S. Air Station at Badaber (Peshawar Air Station). This was to be the first attempt “to fly all the way across the Soviet Union. Powers was shot down by an S-75 Dvina (SA-2 “Guideline”) surface-to-air missile[15] over Sverdlovsk. A total of 14 Dvinas were launched,[16] one of which hit a MiG-19 jet fighter which was sent to intercept the U-2 but could not reach a high enough altitude.”

Attempted deception by the U.S. government

“When the U.S. government learned of Powers’ disappearance over the Soviet Union, they lied that a “weather plane” had strayed off course after its pilot had “difficulties with his oxygen equipment”. What CIA officials did not realize was that the plane crashed almost fully intact and that the Soviets had recovered its pilot and much of the plane’s equipment, including its new top-secret high-altitude camera. Powers was interrogated extensively by the KGB for months before he made a confession and a public apology for his part in the espionage.”

Kennedy’s point: that the American public quit trusting their government about the time that JFK was shot dead in the streets of Dallas and Bobby’s father was shot dead in Los Angeles, California, as a result of lies like the Francis Gary Powers incident, rang a bell with me. I am not a conspiracy theorist,  but I have always doubted the “single bullet” theory of JFK’s death. So did RFK, Sr.

If Bobby Kennedy (Sr.) had gone on to be elected, he had vowed to get to the bottom of his brother’s assassination. (I know this from reading the book by his nephew, Christopher Lawford.) I don’t doubt that there  would have been a much better inquiry than the Warren Commission provided. An investigation that Bobby (Sr.) would have conducted might have come to different conclusions about who was responsible for the death of his brother Jack (JFK).

RFK (Jr.) took a few shots at the national debt and how it is chewing up half of our tax moneys now, simply to service the interest on the debt. He pointed out that neither of the geriatric candidates has really addressed that very important issue. I do have one tiny bit of rebuttal there. While it is true that, “The national debt has increased by around $3.5 trillion under the Biden administration, as data from Statista shows, currently standing at $31.46 trillion. Year-on-year the debt has never decreased since 1957, according to Treasury data.”

However, it is also true that Biden is far from indifferent to the pressing need to reduce the national debt. Between 2020 and 2022, he was responsible for $1.7 trillion in deficit reduction. The exact quote that Biden gave was, “”I might note parenthetically: In my first two years, I reduced the debt by $1.7 trillion. No President has ever done that.” Obviously that is a drop in the deficit bucket and the GOP immediately began  to see investigating to see if it held up. (Does anyone besides me remember when Democratic President Bill Clinton left us with a budget surplus?)

Biden gets precious little credit for all of the good things he HAS done and selling a national debt decrease is going to be a hard sell. But it IS true that the debt went way up under DJT. (And the GOP would point fingers at Obama, before him.) We could also point out that desperate times call for desperate measures and some of those increases in 2020 on were created by the pandemic crisis. Was there graft and corruption during a tough time when we were navigating a nationwide pandemic? Is the Pope Catholic?

Fleeting references to the Issues of the Day (abortion, the border) were made. Bobby seemed more critical of the Republican candidate than of the Democratic candidate,  (despite the YouTube video that says the opposite). In fact, Bobby said that he, like his supporters in the room, needed to be independent of party noise. He added that he, therefore, had divorced himself from the Democratic party which so many of his relatives served. He said that divorce from being a Democrat was painful, as it went waaay back, even unto grandfathers and beyond. Traditionally, running as a third party has not worked well, even for Teddy Roosevelt and his Bull Moose Party,

The opening of the rally should be mentioned, as it had his famous father repeating some of his most famous quotes in that memorable voice (which, sadly, the younger Bobby cannot emulate because of spasmodic dysphonia, a disorder that causes his voice to quaver and makes speech difficult). He traveled to Kyoto, Japan, to have a titanium bridge inserted between his vocal cords to treat the condition.[315

]The film that  ran at the opening of the rally was very professionally done. It was certainly better than listening to a choir of January 6th miscreants singing from prison (and being hailed incorrectly as “hostages.”) Bobby Kennedy, Jr., was onscreen in this opening film introduction, but the voice was his famous father’s.

Many of the people introducing RFK, Jr. were Hispanic. The Big Announcement of the night was that Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.’s name will be on the ballot in Texas with over 235,000 signatures and that the campaign will next move to New York to get on the ballot. He described these two states as the most difficult states to get on the ballot. Kennedy claimed that Texas had actually introduced legislation raising the threshold from a smaller number (150,000?) to one that the Texas legislature thought was too high to ever be reached.

I think the number the team actually secured was more than what they needed. I remember it as being 235,000, but I’d have to wade through the speech on the CNN archives all over again to actually establish that. Feel free to do so and correct me.

To me, it seemed like getting on the ballot was so difficult that, in some way, RFK, Jr., has conflated that  with actually getting the electorate to vote for him. Lord knows the country would like a younger leader.  Bobby Kennedy is 70, so is that what is meant by “younger?” He is the 5th member of his family to run for President, said Wikipedia. (Don’t ask me to cough up the names of the others: I could only think of JFK, Bobby Kennedy Sr., Ted Kennedy and—-? Maybe running for VP counts? Didn’t Maria Shriver’s father have a flirtation with elective office? Help me out here!)

Bill Maehr on his show criticized Kennedy’s lack of government experience, We all know about putting someone in office, an office for which they have literally no training or experience, and how that works. Or doesn’t. RFK, Jr., doesn’t fall into that category, as you will see for yourself if you visit his Wikipedia page. There’s a lot there to unpack. There is also this Internet page:https://www.kennedy24.com/

And then the rally was over after 1 hour and 39 minutes.

“Civil War” Provides Much Food for Thought in 2024

The main characters in “Civil War” are four journalists. The film introduces the journalists as they cover a clash in New York City between what appear to be police forces from the official government and violent members of the opposition. The alliance in the civil war has paired Texas and California. This group is either known as WA or WF. (I, initially, thought WF referred to the Western Front, and it was only in reading about the film that I saw the initials as WA, so you’re on your own there.)

There are references to other military groups, including the Florida Alliance and the Portland Maoists. As writer/director Alex Garland scripts it, “There is no communication between the secessionists.”

When the film opens, Joel (Wagner Moura) predicts, “D.C. is falling and the President is dead within a month.” This sets us up for the journey to follow, the journalists determined to get the shot or film the fall in D.C. It’s an overland drive with the miles ticked off as they drive…508 miles to D.C…289 miles to D.C…176 miles to D.C…. They are joined by a new-comer, a young wannabe journalist named Jessie, played by Cailee Spaeney (Priscilla Presley in the bio-pic “Priscilla”).

Kirsten Dunst plays Lee, a legendary white female photojournalist in the tradition of her namesake Lee Miller. The film this instantly made me think of was 2018’s “A Private War” with Rosamund Pike playing Marie Colvin alongside Jamie Dornan as her photographer. Prior to that was Juliette Binoche as a war-time journalist in “1000 Times Good Night” (2013).

In this film, Dunst is partnered with a South American-born reporter named Joel (Wagner Moura). It’s unclear whether Joel ever actually writes anything or is primarily there as a chauffeur and bodyguard for Lee.

The third member of the troupe is the elderly Sammy (Stephen McKinley Henderson), a seasoned Black journalist who doesn’t want to give up reporting but is past his prime. Having both Sammy and Jessie in the back seat of the car causes Lee to say, “The back seat is both kindergarten and an old folks’ home.” Lee has reservations about taking the inexperienced Jessie with them, but Joe prevails. Lee also isn’t keen on having a relatively immobile old Black guy along for the trip, even though he “writes for what’s left of the New York Times.”

Lee Miller (Kirsten Dunst), portrays a journalist who has won various accolades during her storied career. She reminded me of three movies about such real-life veteran journalists, including “The Year of Living Dangerously”(Sigourney Weaver),  “A Private War” (Rosamund Pike) and Juliette Binoche in “1,000 Times Good Night” (2013).

As an active voting member of the Illinois chapter of the Illinois Women’s Press Association and the official photographer at the National Women’s Press Association in Baton Rouge, I drew on my days as a journalism major in college (I attended on a journalism scholarship) and my coverage of four presidential campaigns to empathize with the much more dangerous mission this quartet has embarked upon. The movie really does paint a picture of modern-day journalism and journalistic ethics.

I’m an “Old School” journalist. In “the olden days” we were taught that we were to remain neutral and objective, not endorse one side of an issue over the other.  I appreciated the film as a piece about contemporary journalism, as much as a film about a possible Civil War in the United States. My focus was covering the presidential races of 2004, 2008, 2012 and 2016, with two books on 2008 (“Obama’s Odyssey: The 2008 Race for the White House”) and an award as the Yahoo Content Producer for Politics in 2008.

I will say that the total brutality of the images, coupled with multiple fight scenes, seemed like the way it really would be after the lowering of civil standards brought on by the Trump years. Even the campus protests taking place nationwide now lack the slightest civility that used to prevail. In the days of refusing to adhere to the peaceful transfer of power after an election the total brutality of the civil war participants seemed sadly likely.

Alex Garland is known as mainly a science fiction storyteller. He wrote “28 Days Later,” “Sunshine” and “Dredd,” adapted “Never Let Me Go” from Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel, and wrote and directed “Ex Machina” and “Annihilation.” I thoroughly enjoyed those films and am particularly fond of “Never Let Me Go.”

This is a great, well-paced, engrossing movie that tells it like it is in a world where half of the residents embrace any lie that their chosen leader decides to tell them. It has echoes of dozens of other films and novels, and I’m old enough to remember when “Z” was groundbreaking in its hand-held cinematography.

Face it. Things are just going to get worse as we move into the world of AI and the heat of the 2024 presidential race. Let’s just hope things don’t disintegrate to the levels depicted in “Civil War.”

Cancun, 2024, Is In the Books

This will be a stream-of-consciousness column from Cancun—sunny, windy Cancun, Mexico.

This is either our 29th or 30th straight year of spending two weeks in Cancun at Royal Resorts time shares we purchased in the nineties. Last year was our last year at the Penthouse 9th floor digs (#4492) and the Royal Islander has been sold in its entirety to Holiday Inn Vacation Clubs.

When we first started coming to Cancun we stayed at the Fiesta Americana Condessa, which still exists. We needed 2 rooms, one for the kids, who were then 7 and 26. We stayed there for 2 years, but beach-front rooms cost us $3,000  30 years ago. No kitchen. And no connecting rooms the second year, which was a real problem, because the then-7-year old couldn’t open the doors by herself and her brother was off hitting the nightspots.

Our third year in Cancun we rented a unit at the Royal Mayan from a woman from Indianapolis who dropped a Big Gulp cup on my foot while showing pictures of the unit to those who had stayed in it that week.

An enterprising salesman named Ricardo pointed out that buying into the then-new Royal Islander would give us almost 30 years of time before Mexico took it back, while the Mayan clock had been ticking for a while. He was right.

The Mayan is no more and has become a different hotel entirely with a name like the Emporium. Meanwhile, the Islander is off the market right now and I’m not sure if it is going to be retooled as another resort or made into apartments or what. All I know is that the fantastic walk to our penthouse unit (the highest floor that the Royals ever built was #9) will be missed. We loved our time there.

It used to be that a fixed-week time share owner could stroll from the Royal Mayan to the Caribbean to the Royal Islander and, ultimately, to the Royal Sands. There were dining rooms at each of the properties, which would have made an All Inclusive deal slightly more attractive. The Conquistador has closed as has Captain’s Cove and both were traditions for us.

Now, there is just the Veranda and Sisal and they are supposed to be building more restaurants, which, if they are going to continue to push people onto the A.I. plan, they are going to need. We prefer eating breakfast and dinner in our unit, from food that we can buy locally at the Soriano market within Kukulcaan Plaza (or at the small resort store, for a much higher price). We like to dine out at the nice restaurants in the evening, although doing so with 13 to 17 people is quite the challenge. This is still my Paradise on Earth, “the poor man’s Hawaii” and I remind all in the family that it was MY find and we’ll be deeding this family tradition on to the son and daughter until the year 2050, which will mean when our oldest child (father of the twins) is 82–older than we are now, even.

Now, within the Royal Sands,  we move from the first floor to the fifth floor and we have a decent view of the ocean, but not the spectacular penthouse view we had at the Islander. Still, time marches on and we are adjusting to our new digs this week.

The son and wife and granddaughters had to leave a day early. Elise had a volleyball tournament in Dallas. Go, Elise! They are still playing as I write this.

The daughter left today (picture below) traveling back to her home in Nashville and her job with SW Airlines.

We have five more days in Paradise.

Here are some photos. Enjoy.

Daughter Stacey and granddaughter Elise Wilson in Cancun, Mexico.

Shaking It Up: The Life & Times of Liz Carpenter- World Premiere at SXSW on March 10th

Liz Carpenter was a force of nature who, throughout her 89 years (1920-2010), was often front and center where history was unfolding. leaving her own indelible mark on events. She was a journalist, White House official, Women’s Rights activist, best-selling author, and humorist. Directors Christy Carpenter, Liz’s daughter, and Abby Ginzberg weave candid modern-day interviews with Dan Rather, Bill Moyers, Gloria Steinem, Luci Johnson and others into an entertaining and informative 77-minute World Premiere that took place at the Zach Theatre on March 10th at SXSW 2024.

Liz Carpenter

Liz Carpenter in action.

 

Born in Salado, Texas, five days after the 19th Amendment to the US Constitution granted women the right to vote in 1920, Liz’s family moved to Austin, the state capitol, when she was 7 years old. She earned a journalism degree from the University of Texas in 1942 and headed straight to Washington, DC, intent on starting her journalism career  in the midst of WWII.  .

At 22 years of age, she was attending press conferences held by both President Franklin and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt despite barriers against allowing women reporters to be present.

SUPPORTING LBJ

She began covering the political rise of Congressman Lyndon Johnson for the Austin American-Statesman. This developed into a lifelong friendship with LBJ and his wife Lady Bird.

Liz’s reputation as a dogged reporter quickly spread and, by the late 1940s, she and husband Leslie Carpenter established the Carpenter News Bureau. They covered Capitol Hill and the White House for more than a dozen newspapers. She was also known as “the funniest woman in Washington, D.C.,” which made her an in-demand speaker.

In 1954,  she was elected president of the Women’s National Press Club, a platform she used to attack barriers to participation in the males-only National Press Club, the foremost journalistic organization in Washington D.C..

LIZ AND JFK’S ASSASSINATION

Christy Carpenter

Christy Carpenter, daughter of Liz Carpenter and co-director of “Shaking It Up: The Life and Times of Liz Carpenter” at SXSW.

In 1960, Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson and Lady Bird persuaded Liz  to join his campaign for vice president. Once elected, LBJ convinced Liz to join his staff as the highest-ranking woman ever to work for a vice president. Liz Carpenter was one of a small number of his staff traveling with him to Dallas on November 22, 1963. She was riding in the motorcade, in a car behind JFK’s, when President John Fitzgerald Kennedy was assassinated.

Carpenter realized she was the only writer on LBJ’s staff aboard Air Force One.  On the return trip to Washington she crafted the newly sworn-in President’s first public remarks to a shocked world. LBJ delivered these 58 words, written by Liz while on the plane, upon landing and that footage is included in the documentary:

“This is a sad time for all people. We have suffered a loss that cannot be weighed. For me, it is a deep personal tragedy. I know that the world shares the sorrow that Mrs. Kennedy and her family bear. I will do my best. That is all I can do. I ask for your help and God’s.”

The archival footage of the delivery of these remarks is historic.

BEAUTIFY AMERICA

Liz was appointed st aff director and press secretary to the new First Lady.

Although Lady Bird and Liz had very different personal styles, they were both women of action and vision, and together, over the next five years, they pursued an aggressive agenda including, “the most ambitious national environmental effort since Theodore Roosevelt,” according to Lady Bird biographer Julia Sweig. (I can still do a pretty fair imitation of Lady Bird Johnson saying, “Plant a tree, a shrub, or a bush,” with the Texas twang on ‘bush,'”—fodder for comediennes of the era.) The ubiquitous campaign to remove blighted highway billboards and beautify America by planting vegetation became a trademark of Lady Bird’s. A lake and park in Austin in her name perpetuate her legacy.

WAR ON POVERTY

Liz enabled Lady Bird to put a human face on LBJ’s War on Poverty by organizing strategic press tours of Head Start and Job Corps programs across the nation. My mother was then a kindergarten teacher in a small Iowa town. She fought tirelessly for the Head Start program, which, gave disadvantaged youngsters from minority and poorer homes an equal starting point with other 5-year-olds entering the system.

Liz was sometimes dubbed the “P.T. Barnum of the White House,” and was the key mastermind of Lady Bird’s historic and unprecedented Whistlestop campaign tour through the South during the 1964 presidential campaign. In the immediate aftermath of the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Southern states were often far from welcoming to the wife of the man who had given Black citizens in the South the right to vote and a leg up on equal rights under the laws of the land.

AFTER THE WHITE HOUSE

Abby Ginzberg

Abby Ginzberg, co-director of “Shaking It Up: The Life and Times of Liz Carpenter” at SXSW on March 10, 2024.

After Johnson’s presidency ended in 1969, (with a populist anti-war backlash against Vietnam that saw my generation in the streets chanting “Hey! Hey! LBJ! How many kids did you kill today?”), Liz wrote a best-selling book about her White House years, entitled Ruffles & Flourishes. She would write other best-sellers, utilizing her storied wit and her historic experiences in government.

WOMEN’S MOVEMENT

Liz Carpenter got heavily involved in the growing Women’s Movement – a cause that would consume much of her time and energy until the end of her life at the age of 90 in 2010. Bill Clinton appointed her to serve on the White House Council on Aging.

In 1971, she joined feminist leaders such as Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinem, Congresswomen Bella Abzug, and Shirley Chisholm, to co-found a new organization, the National Women’s Political Caucus. This was a nationwide effort to elect more women to public office, eliminate discrimination, and to push forward legislation to improve the lives of women. Soon Liz was campaigning across  the nation, stirring up voters to elect women candidates.

THE ERA

Some fifty years after its introduction, the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) finally sailed through Congress in 1972 with huge bipartisan majorities, says the documentary. (*I still have my ERA  bracelet in a drawer somewhere, along with the POW bracelet of a U.S. soldier MIA in action from that era.) Sadly,  however, after many early successes on the state level, the momentum for ratification began to hit speed bumps. That is putting it mildly.

PHYLLIS SCHLAFLY & EAGLE FORUM

Phyllis Schlafly

Activist Phyllis Schlafly wearing a “Stop ERA” badge, demonstrating with other women against the Equal Rights Amendment in front of the White House, Washington, D.C.

The film doesn’t dwell much on Phyllis Schlafly and her Eagle Forum organization, but it should. That is my one criticism of this documentary.  It was Phyllis Schlafly and her anti-equal-rights work compiling lists of ultra-Conservative prominent women and men who were against the ERA that defeated it. Schlafly—who had her own political agenda—smeared the entire equal rights movement as a ploy for lesbians and women libbers and an anti-family movement. That was, at best, an over-generalization, a technique often used by the GOP to gloss over the realities of issues and, at worst, a hypocritical smear job. (*See “the border issue” in 2024). Although I realize that Phyllis Schlafly’s anti-ERA work merits an entire documentary of its own, I think she should at least have been mentioned in this one, as that opponent of the ERA kept it from passing nationwide and has left it mired in oblivion.

Donald Trump’s early organizational work involved getting those lists from the Schlafly organization, which had painted a biased picture of the efforts to achieve equality for women as being “a bunch of women’s libbers bent on destroying the family,” an untrue characterization.Liz Carpenter was called on to co-chair a new organization in 1976 – ERAmerica –focused on ratification by the last hold-out states. She spent several years lobbying states’ legislators, and governors, and galvanizing grassroots support. (It didn’t work.)

LIZ’s HUMOR

One important key to Liz’s success was her dynamic, magnetic personality, including her well-developed sense of humor — reflecting her pioneer roots and Texas-sized, can-do moxie. Humor was always integral to her identity and effectiveness. Like other recognizable Texas women such as Governor Ann Richards and journalist Molly Ivins, Liz was high-energy and innately funny, with a knack for shaking things up. Her life was spent trying to create a more just, democratic, beautiful and humane world.

CONCLUSION:

The archival clips, alone, are worth seeing this well-done documentary. It is a slice of 60s, 70s, 80s and 90s life and history. It details efforts— some successful, some futile— to advance equality for women world-wide, battles that Liz Carpenter helped lead.

While I have a few reservations about soft-pedaling the tactics of the opposition faced in the seemingly never-ending struggle for equality that women in the United States and the world face, this fine film goes a long way to showing how it can be done, if enough courageous, influential women remember Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s line, “And yet she persists.” See this one if, like me, you lived through it. If you didn’t, you need the history lesson,

“Hacks” Season Three Premieres @ SXSW on March 9, 2024

The Premiere of season 3 of “Hacks” (HBO Max) took place at noon on March 9th at SXSW. It was truly an audience of devoted fans. The feeling in the Paramount Theater was equal parts anticipation and shared enthusiasm, which is not always the case at SXSW. Everyone there knew they were in for a great time, although there was a remark about how it was pretty early for comedy. Saturday, March 9th in Austin, Texas, both Smart and Einbinder were at SXSW in person. Both looked great. Smart got a standing ovation.

SEASON 2

Jean Smart & Hannah Einbinder of "Hacks."

SXSW Season Premiere of “Hacks” with Jean Smart and Hannah Einbinder during the Q&A on March 9th. (Photo by Connie Wilson).

At the end of season two, Deborah Vance (Jean Smart) fired Ava Daniels (Hannah Einbinder).  Deborah reassured Ava that the firing would be good for Ava’s comedy writing career. It is quite clear that the separation has hurt Ava more than it has hurt Deborah. You feel that Deborah is a mother figure for Ava; Ava felt abandoned. Of course, there was the unfortunate spilling of Deborah Vance stories to a journalist and the lawsuits on both sides last season. But, never fear, the dynamic duo is back together again for season three’s nine episodes.

The viewership for season two’s first episode increased +125% over the first episode of season one. It isn’t difficult to understand why if you’ve seen the show. It is top-notch. There are more laughs per episode in “Hacks” than in any other comedy on the air. That is due in no small part to Jean Smart’s savvy portrayal of seasoned veteran comedienne Deborah Vance, a part she seems to have been born to play. Jean Smart is only the second female—Betty White was the first— to win an Emmy in all three categories: leading actress in a comedy, supporting actress in a comedy, and guest star in a comedy series. Glen Weldon of NPR said, “I don’t know if the role of Deborah Vance was written for Smart, but she certainly makes it seem like it was.”

SERIES SUCCESS

Lucia Aniello.

“Hacks” writer Lucia Aniello.

Smart took home the Emmy for the leading actress in a comedy series two years in a row, 2021 and 2022. Hannah Einbinder is also great and has earned nominations for her work as Deborah’s sidekick. Einbinder is wonderful in the first two episodes of Season Three and we learn more about her personal life apart from her career. Hannah is the daughter of SNL original cast member Laraine Newman. The comic chemistry and timing the two bring to the screen is a magical part of the success of “Hacks.” The series won the Emmy, a Peabody award, a Critics’ Choice award, the DGA, SAG, WGA and GLAAD awards.

SERIES SIZZLE

“Hacks’” wardrobe department makes it clear that glitter is back with a vengeance. The Disco era’s demand to return its glitz is being ignored. I have noticed the increase in sparkly clothes being worn by average concert-goers here in Austin. Check out the wardrobe for “Hacks.” You’ll get the idea in the opening sequence for series three. We see a tall woman in a dazzling bejeweled long coat walking confidently into a casino. I’m sure everyone in the theater this Saturday afternoon thought it was Deborah Vance making her entrance. It wasn’t. (Check the trailer above for that glimpse).

SMART’S RESUME

From finding that Jean Smart has been a Type I diabetic since the age of 13 to learning that she lost her husband of 30 years, Richard Gilliland, in March of 2021, it’s been discovery week for me looking back at Jean Smart’s storied career. Delay-wise, there was the writers’ strike, the heart procedure, and the 2 years off television for “Hacks.” It’s hard to feel the funny when negative things impact you.

But veteran character actor Jean Smart is a trooper. She was one of television’s “Designing Women” (1986-1991). She has been in episodes of “Frasier,” “Fargo,” “Watchtower” and, more recently, in 7 episodes of “Mare of Eastwick.” Damien Chazelle (“La La Land”) cast her in  “Babylon” as Elinor St. John, a gossip columnist based on Hedda Hopper and Luella Parsons. In “Hacks” she’s portraying a veteran comedienne based on such pioneering comedy greats as Joan Rivers, Lucille Ball, Phyllis Diller, Elayne Boosler, Rita Rudner, Paula Poundstone and Carol Burnett.

SCHEDULE

Q&A for "Hacks" on March 9th with Jen Statsky, Lucia Aniello, & Paul Downs.

“Hacks” Q&A at SXSW: Jen Statsky, Lucia Aniello, Paul Downs.

“Hacks” has been off the air for two years, leaving those of us who are true fans wondering if it were ever coming back. Didn’t it get renewed? The writer’s strike was given as one of the reasons that the absence was so lengthy. But, in February (2023) Jean Smart announced via her Instagram account that she had had “a heart procedure.” Even now, one department of “Hacks” has supposedly shut down while awaiting her complete recovery. The woman is 73, after all, and enjoying an unparalleled career resurgence.

The plan for season three is to air the Premiere episode (which is great) on HBO on May 3rd and then show two episodes a week until the Finale on May 30th. This season there will be guest stars like Helen Hunt, Christina Hendricks, Christopher Lloyd, George Wallace, and Tony Goldwyn. As for what the season holds, said writer Lucia Aniello, “I think there’s maybe a chasm between where they are respectively, in terms of their points-of-view of each other. I think it really brings up a lot, because they are so obviously invested in each other.”

And we, the audience, are so obviously invested in Deborah and Ava.

Lucia Aniello, Paul Downs, and Jen Statsky ("Hacks")

Lucia Aniello, Paul Downs, and Jen Statsky of ‘Hacks,

Hacks Season 3 Premiere
Showrunners: Paul W. Downs, Lucia Aniello, Jen Statsky, Director: Lucia Aniello, Producers: Jen Statsky, Paul W. Downs, Lucia Aniello, Michael Schur, David Miner, Morgan Sackett
A year after parting, Deborah Vance is riding high off the success of her standup special while Ava pursues new opportunities back in Los Angeles. Cast: Jean Smart, Hannah Einbinder, Paul W. Downs, Megan Stalter, Carl Clemons-Hopkins, Kaitlin Olson, Christopher McDonald, Mark Indelicato, Rose Abdoo, Lorenza Izzo (World Premiere)

“MoviePass/MovieCrash” Premieres at SXSW 2024

The very first day of SXSW 2024 a 96-minute documentary entitled “MoviePass/MovieCrash,” directed by Muta’ Ali,  had its World Premiere at the Alamo Theater on Lamar Boulevard. It chronicled how two black entrepreneurs—Stacy Spikes and Hamet Watt—spent a decade developing a way to bring the masses back to the theater experience with a credit card-like approach to movie-going called MoviePass. They described it as “Netflix for movies.” Initially, the two founders had the idea that a movie patron would pay somewhere between $39.95 to $50 monthly to be able to attend 2 movies a month. At first, AMC was going to help roll it out; that all changed with a change in AMC leadership. So no special pricing for MoviePass subscribers.

MONEY NEEDED

Although the Black developers were quite qualified—Stacy Spikes had been Vice President of Marketing for Miramax Pictures and had handled the publicity of films like “Trainspotting” and “Scream,”— they didn’t have access to the kind of investment money to make MoviePass a reality. MoviePass needed seed money. Since only 1 to 3% of investment money goes to minorities or women, the Black entrepreneurs turned to Chris Kelly, a white guy and former general counsel for Facebook. Kelly had once run for Attorney General of California; he lost to Kamala Harris. Kelly was genuinely enthusiastic about the MoviePass project.

Kelly immediately gave the entrepreneurial duo $500,000 of his own money. He soon followed the first half-a-million with a second $500,000 of his own money. It wasn’t enough. Investors would have to be found. And it would be better for MoviePass’s fund-raising if the leadership of MoviePass were white, not Black. Or would it?

2 WHITE GUYS REPLACE THE 2 BLACK FOUNDERS

Chris Kelly

Chris Kelly, entrepreneur; investor in “MoviePass”

Chris Kelly (donor of the first million in seed money) suggested bringing in a guy named Mitch Lowe to facilitate securing more funding. According to Wikipedia, Lowe was president of Video Droid from June 1984 to March 1998.[4][5] After Video Droid, Lowe was vice president of Business Development and Strategic Alliances for Netflix from March of 1998 to January 2003.[6] Then, at McDonald’s Corporation, Lowe was Senior Director and VP of Operations from May 2003 to December 2005.[7] After McDonald’s, Lowe worked at Redbox as Chief Operating Officer (2005 to 2009) and President (2009 to 2011).[8]  Mitch Lowe’s insertion into the company seemed logical. But Mitch Lowe  brought in Ted Farnsworth, and Ted Farnsworth may be the biggest scam artist since Mike Lindell and My Pillow.

It was Farnsworth who coined the slogan “Any theater. Any movie. Any day.” And the original plans to charge a higher amount that might have yielded a slight profit (or at least allowed the company to break even) was jettisoned in favor of a ridiculously low fee of $9.95 that gave users unlimited access to movies any time anywhere. Some users appear onscreen and admit to seeing “Crazy Rich Asians” 14 times. (Makes you wonder.) The audience member next to me, from L.A., described how the MoviePass card quit working properly and calls to management were not answered. The apps kept going down. The servers were getting annhialated.

This situation seemed very familiar to me. During SXSW my SXSW-Go Express pass app continuously failed to work at exactly 9 a.m. each morning , usually when the most popular films were in hot demand (“The Fall Guy,” “Bon Jovi”). Three of us manned my phone, computer and Ipad to no avail. I was able to get exactly zero Express passes during 8 days, but I did get up each morning at what is, for me, the absurdly early hour of 8:30 a.m. to attempt to use it and, yes, it is exhausting to continually be told to “check back later.” In my own defense, I had used the App successfully in the years 2017-2023. I even had Tech Support check my phone at registration to make sure the “code” was properly linked. From then on I was continuously told to put in the same “code,” which I did. Alas, I got nowhere fast and was turned away from most popular films without the unattainable Express Pass. (3 a week was the limit; I got 0 in 8 days). This is something like what the L.A. user of MoviePass described to me from his days as a MoviePass  subscriber.

CASH CRUNCH

Muta' Ali Muhammad

Director of “MoviePass,MovieCrash” Muta’ Ali Muhammad.

The cash crunch for MoviePass was on; the influx of capital was paramount. Mitch Lowe suggested bringing in a second white guy named Ted Farnsworth. One of the two original Black founders, Hamet Watt described Watt as “slick” and said, “I could tell that we didn’t share the same values.” That’s putting it mildly.

Farnsworth and Lowe reconfigured the board so that they had the power. Soon Hamet Watt was relieved of his duties, while Stacy Spikes was kept on and made COO. As Spikes said in the documentary, “We took the money and we didn’t ask what you want to get out of it. You’re set up to fail.”

NEGATIVE SPIRAL

When Stacey Spikes, whose original idea this was, questioned business decisions the white guys were making, he was told, “this is a company, not a family.” At this point, a relevant clip of the Anger Translater from Key & Peele provided just the right degree of levity to the otherwise bland recitation of who was funding what and how things were going. The answer, under the new white guys, was: not well. Although they were giving interviews to whomever asked that promised that everything was possible, they had no special pricing deal with the movie companies and there was no way that the $9.95 price tag would cover the expense of purchasing $11.50 movie tickets for 1.5 million subscribers, especially those that were turning up at theaters 4 and 5 times a week.

Spikes, who had a longer tenure than Watt, said that the sudden influx of subscribers was so intense that they couldn’t keep up with the delivery of the MoviePass credit cards and had to hire a Brinks truck to deliver them nationwide. Things were hectic. The employees who remained on the payroll had to use extension cords to secure electricity. They had to borrow pens from the nearby bank. Seven employees were fielding complaints from unhappy customers nationwide. The customers had gone to their theater of choice only to have their MoviePass cards not work. That was partially because Farnsworth and Lowe had okayed shutting down the cards, especially during the showing of a big hit like “Mission Impossible.” Going to “Crazy Rich Asians” 14 times, as one subscriber did, had become a thing of the past, and a short-lived one, at that.

LOWE & FARNSWORTH

The new leadership of MoviePass eventually fired Stacey Spikes, too. The Dynamic Duo of Lowe and Farnsworth continued to spend money on a lavish scale, hiring unqualified people, going to Coachella and Sundance, backing movies that tanked,  hemorrhaging $250 million in record time. While Stacy Spikes was still with the company, he described the experience as “We’re kind of learning how to fly the plane in mid-flight, and changing it from a two-seater to a Boeing 707.”

Meanwhile, as the former employees tell the story, only 7 employees were handling the phones, answering complaints from dissatisfied customers that their MoviePass didn’t work. They didn’t work because the two white guys were making the passes inoperable during peak periods of demand.All of the funding companies behind MoviePass went bankrupt, as did the company itself, taking with it the $80 million in stock options that the two founders had been promised when they were let go by the two free-wheeling white guys.

CRIMINAL CHARGES

Under Stacy Spikes and Hamet Watt, the company was losing $200,000 a month. Under Mitch Lowe and Ted  Farnsworth that escalated to $30 million a month. It took 10 years to build MoviePass. It only one year to fail under the new leaders. Share value dropped from $8,000 per share to 2 cents. As co-founder Hamet Watt said, “We’re not behind the wheel. We’re not even close to the wheel.”

On November 4, 2022, Mitch Lowe, along with Theodore Farnsworth, the former CEO of MoviePass’ parent company Helios and Matheson Analytics, were each charged with one count of securities fraud and three counts of wire fraud stemming from their time together at MoviePass. They go to trial in September of 2024. Khalid Itum, a former furniture salesman who Farnsworth brought in and promoted, was charged with 2 counts of embezzling  $260,000 during the Coachella fiasco. The two at the top face 20 years in prison if convicted.

Daymon Johns of “Sharktank” fame scoffed at the idea of losing $250 million in investment funding so quickly. With the remark that Lowe and Farnsworth seemed to be pursuing a “Thelma & Louise strategy,” the video of Susan Sarandon and Geena David sailing over the cliff in the convertible earned an appreciative laugh. I have to think that neither Stacy Spikes nor Hamet Watt were laughing, then or now.

CONCLUSION

If there is a happy ending, it is that the original MoviePass concept, after all the bankruptcies, was put up for auction and Stacey Spikes bought it back and, as of 2023, is trying to resurrect MoviePass. He remarked on how entrepreneurial giants like Steve Jobs and Michael Dell left their original companies, but came back after leaving, saying, “I’d never live with myself if I didn’t try.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

“My Dead Friend Zoe” Screens at SXSW 2024 on March 9, 2024

Cast of "My Dead Friend Zoe"

“My Dead Friend Zoe” Premieres at SXSW on March 9, 2024.

“My Dead Friend Zoe” was a crowd-funded first feature film from Army veteran Kyle Hausmann-Stokes, who served 5 years in Afghanistan and used his real-life experiences to craft this film that premiered at SXSW on March 9, 2024. He is co-founder of the nonprofit organization Veterans in Media & Entertainment.  It is a plus that he has cast nearly all parts in “My Dead Friend Zoe” with actual veterans. This is Travis Kelce’s first film as a producer.

KYLE HAUSMANN-STOKES

Klye Hausmann-Stokes, Director of "My Dead Friend Zoe"

Director Kyle Hausmann-Stokes on the Red Carpet at SXSW on March 9, 2024 at SXSW. (Photo by Connie Wilson).

Following its World Premiere at SXSW on Saturday, March 9th, the Writer-Director (aided in crafting the screenplay by A.J. Bermudez and Cherish Chen) told us of how his superior when he was serving in Afghanistan, (where he served for 5 years and earned a Bronze Star), noticed his skill in shooting film of the veteran experience. That Army superior, recognizing talent,  aided Hausmann-Stokes in allowing him to train  at the USC School of Cinematic Arts. Since then, this Madison, Wisconsin native has made films for a variety of veteran-related companies including the U.S. Air Force, UPS, the U.S. Department of Veterans, Google and IBM.

Now, Hausmann-Stokes has crafted a semi-fictionalized story about two real-life Army buddies of his, Ramirez and Ventura, who made it back home, but took their own lives, something that happens with alarming frequency. The use of actual veterans was similar to the use of real-life refugees from World War II in Europe during the filming of “Casablanca”, which helped give “Casablanca” its sense of authenticity. The performances from the cast are all totally believable.

PLOT

Natalie Morales in "My Dead Friend Zoe"

Natalie Morales on the Red Carpet at SXSW for her starring role in “My Dead Friend Zoe.” (Photo by Connie Wilson).

MY DEAD FRIEND ZOE, says the synopsis, is a dark comedy drama that follows the journey of Merit (Sonequa Martin-Green), a U.S. Army Afghanistan veteran who is at odds with her family thanks to the presence of Zoe (Natalie Morales, “Dead to Me”), her dead best friend from the Army. Despite the persistence of her VA group counselor, Dr. Cole (Morgan Freeman), the tough love of her mother Kris (Gloria Reuben) and an unexpected love interest in Alex (Utkarsh Ambud Kar), Merit’s cozy-dysfunctional friendship with Zoe keeps the duo insulated from the world. That remains the status quo until Merit’s estranged grandfather Dale Tillman (Ed Harris)—who lives at the family’s ancestral lake house—begins to lose his way mentally and is need of the one thing he refuses… help.”

The film is about a complicated friendship between Merritt (Sonequa Martin-Green) and Zoe (Natalie Morales). We know from the title that Zoe is dead, but she is very much alive in Merit’s daily life, as Merit obsesses about her. That particular plot point of Zoe’s death is carefully concealed until quite late in the film, but the scenes of Zoe’s intrusion into Merit’s daily life are both serious and comic. One line from the screenplay sums it up this way: “When you lose someone, you don’t know who you are without them.”

GRANDPA DALE

Sonequa Martin-Green on the Red Carpet at SXSW for "My Dead Friend Zoe"

Sonequa Martin-Green (Merit) on the Red Carpet for “My Dead Friend Zoe” on March 9th, 2024, at SXSW.

When Merit learns that Grandpa Dale Tillman (Ed Harris) has been diagnosed with the early stages of Alzheimer’s and may not be able to continue living alone at the lake house near Portland he loves, Merit returns for a visit. The ghost of Zoe says, to Merit, in a sarcastic aside, “You didn’t tell me your Grandpa lived on the set of a horror movie.” Zoe will make other such snide remarks throughout Merit’s days.  Mom Kris (Gloria Reuben) wants to put Dale into Shady Acres, an assisted living facility.

Dale spent 2 tours in Vietnam and left the service as a 22-year Lieutenant Colonel. It was her Grandfather Dale’s example that initially inspired Merit to join the Army. As the script tells us of our military, “You go out and do things that nobody else wants to do.” The sacrifice that our military men and women make to keep us safe and free is not always appreciated, as Lt. Col. Dale Tillman found out when he returned home from Vietnam.

FAMILY DYNAMIC

Gloria Reuben

Utkarsh Ambud Kar, who played Alex in “My Dead Friend Zoe” at the World Premiere on March 9, 2024.

Reuben’s largely unsympathetic character seems intent on sticking her father, Dale, in Shady Acres.  (Above, Gloria Reuben arriving at the Red Carpet for “My Dead Friend Zoe” at SXSW on March 9th in Austin, Texas.) When Merit takes Dale to the annual Fourth of July concert in the park and (temporarily) loses him, strife ensues. Kris (Gloria Reuben) says to her daughter, Merit, “I love you, Merit, but you’ve made a mess”

At the park, Dale and Merit accidentally encounter Alex (Utkarsh Ambud Kar), the son of the first Indian family in Portland who own and operate Shady Acres.  Alex is romantically interested in Merit. Grandpa Dale does not react well to accidentally finding out that others have been deciding that he should leave the home he and his late wife established many years ago.  Dale temporarily goes missing, and Kris, Merit’s Mom, admonishes Merit on the phone, saying, “I love you, Merit, but you’ve made a mess.”

THE GOOD

Morgan Freeman adds his usual sense of gravitas as Dr. Cole, the leader of a PTSD therapy group that Merit is supposed to faithfully attend in order to avoid jail-time for a minor altercation that may have happened due to her PTSD. Any time you’ve got Morgan Freeman and Ed Harris, you can count on good performances from true professionals. Neither made the Premiere at SXSW, but their work onscreen is up to par. In addition, the leads all turned in believable performances with nicely nuanced humor, primarily from Natalie Morales.

The camera work shooting the beautiful area around the lake is well-done; the park scene cinematography was particularly good (Matt Sakatani Roe). The music is handled well with an original song by Kaia Kater and Dan Romer and Music Supervision by Laura Katz. The use of Rihanna’s song “Umbrella” in an early portion of the film is particularly well-chosen, when the two friends sing snatches of  the song’s lyrics such as “These fancy things will never come in between,
You’re part of my entity, here for infinity, When the war has took its part, When the world has dealt its cards, If the hand is hard, Together we’ll mend your heart, Because.”

“My Dead Friend Zoe” is a great feature film debut at SXSW from Director Kyle Hausmann-Stokes.

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