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!

Category: Movies Page 1 of 53

Connie has been reviewing film uninterruptedly since 1970 (47 years) and routinely covers the Chicago International Film Festival (14 years), SXSW, the Austin Film Festival, and others, sharing detailed looks in advance at upcoming entertainment. She has taught a class on film and is the author of the book “Training the Teacher As A Champion; From The Godfather to Apocalypse Now, published by the Merry Blacksmith Press of Rhode Island.

“The Bikeriders” At Theaters On June 21, 2024

“The Bikeriders” screened as the closing film of the 59th Chicago International Film Festival on October 22, 2024, at the Music Box Theater with a presentation of the Artistic Career Achievement Award to Writer/Director Jeff Nichols. The film was inspired by the 1967 iconic photographs and tape recordings of photographer Danny Lyon. Writer/Director Nichols gave great praise and credit to Lyon, saying, “He really was supportive, but without being prescriptive.”

PLOT

Cast of "The Bikeriders"

HOLLYWOOD, CALIFORNIA – JUNE 17: (L-R) Jodie Comer, Austin Butler, writer/director Jeff Nichols and Norman Reedus at the Los Angeles Premiere of Focus Features’ “The Bikeriders” at TCL Chinese Theatre on June 17, 2024 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Eric Charbonneau/Getty Images for Focus Features)

“The Bikeriders” recounts the evolution of a Midwestern motorcycle club, called the Vandals in the film. (The Outlaws, originally). The photos drove the film. The interior of one bar was actually reconstructed from Danny Lyon’s photo.

The cast is top-notch, featuring Austin Butler, Oscar-nominated for “Elvis” as Benny and Jodie Comer (“Killing Eve,” “The Last Duel”) as Kathy. Tom Hardy (“Mad Max: Fury Road,” “The Revenant”) is Johnny, the leader of the motorcycle club, which originally existed for the members to race their choppers.

Jeff Nichols

Jeff Nichols at the screening of “The Bikeriders” on October 22, 2023 in Chicago. (Photo by Connie Wilson).

As Nichols (“Take Shelter,” 2011; “Mud,” 2012; “Loving,” 2016) told Jack Giroux 5 years ago, “And what I’m talking about making a movie about is its transition from this golden age of where it was less criminal and it was more just a place for outsiders to gather, but then how that kind of morphed and turned into somewhat more of a criminal organization.” He described the film as “A complete portrait of a subculture; maybe none of these guys needed to feel like outsiders, but they did.”

The cast is stellar, also featuring Michael Shannon—a close friend of Director Nichols who has made five films  with him—Bas Zipco. The breakout star of the “West Side Story” remake Mike Faist appeared as the photographer Danny Lyon.  Of Faist, Nichols said, “We were lucky to have him. I think he’s gonna’ have a great career.” Norman Reedus, from “The Walking Dead,” portrays Funny Sonny, and Boyd Holbrook (“Logan”) is Cal.

BACKGROUND

Nichols shared that the projectionist at the Music Box Theater in Chicago where the film screened was Danny Lyon’s daughter Rebecca. He also told the audience that he had only  learned last week that the characters Benny and Kathy, in real life, had a son who was present for this screening.

Jodie Comer and Austin Butler

HOLLYWOOD, CALIFORNIA – JUNE 17: Jodie Comer (L) and Austin Butler at the Los Angeles Premiere of Focus Features’ “The Bikeriders” at TCL Chinese Theatre on June 17, 2024 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Eric Charbonneau/Getty Images for Focus Features)

Jodie Comer’s character of Kathy is the central character telling the story of the rise and fall of the motorcycle group from 1965 to 1973. Saying “I used to be respectable” she details how the club went from a place where motorcycle enthusiasts could get together and talk about their choppers to something more sinister.

Comer has been mentioned for a potential Oscar nod; the struggle between Kathy and Johnny for Benny’s allegiance is a central conflict in the film. Describing some of the crazy things that Austin Butler’s character of Benny does, she says, “It can’t be love. It must just be stupidity.” Describing her time riding with Benny, she says of the Vandals, “The whole point of these guys is they can’t follow the rules, but as soon as they formed, they started making up rules.”

Jeff Nichols

Jeff Nichols in Chicago at the closing night of the 59th Chicago International Film Festival on October 22, 2023. (Photo by Connie Wilson).

Jeff Nichols has a way of exploring the inner rage of a character, as with Michael Shannon’s star turn in “Take Shelter.”  (Shannon told me in 2017, when I asked him on the Red Carpet for “The Shape of Water,” that “Take Shelter” was his favorite role.) In the case of Austin Butler’s character, Benny, we are told “That kid’s f**ing crazy.”

He is also extremely handsome (Nichols says even more so, in person) and comes across as iconic in the book. Nichols said, “I didn’t know Austin Butler even existed when I wrote this. ‘Elvis’ hadn’t come out yet. There is calculus beyond me just thinking he’s pretty.” (laughter from the crowd). Nichols secured Norman Reedus (“The Walking Dead”) after meeting him while serving on a jury at Cannes and is friends with Tom Hardy’s manager, Jack Whigham, who is the younger brother of actor Shea Whigham (“Take Shelter,” “Waco,” “Boardwalk Empire”).

At the beginning of the evening, commenting on his nervousness, he remarked, “I know this is Mike’s town,” referencing his close friendship with Chicago native Michael Shannon (to audience approval.)

MICHAEL SHANNON

Michael Shannon

Michael Shannon on October 13, 2023 at the 59th Chicago International Film Festival.

 

Shannon, who heard Nichols talk about making a movie from “The Bikeriders” for years, once said, “You’ve been talking about that damn idea for so long. You’re never gonna make that s***.”

Nichols acknowledged that he had, indeed, been trying to make this film for a long time and described it as his “most ambitious” project. Five years ago he told interviewer Jack Giroux (Oct. 19, 2018), “There are just a lot of things that intimidate me about it, but I truly hope one day I’ll get my s*** together and do it.”

VERDICT

Well, he has, and “The Bikeriders” is very good. References to 1953’s Marlon Brando picture “The Wild One” to 1969’s “Easy Rider” to television’s “Sons of Anarchy” aside, this is an-depth look at the characters in a Midwestern motorcycle club. It is a 116-minute study of the outsiders who started the club.

Although Chicago is prominently featured, the actual shoot took place in Cincinnati, Ohio, in October of 2022, completing filming in December of 2022. It premiered at the 50th Telluride Film Festival on August 23rd.

It’s a totally compelling character study from Jeff Nichols, who has given us such great films as “Take Shelter,” “Mud,” “Loving,” and “Midnight Special.” A great addition to the motorcycle films that have gone before,  fictionalized somewhat, but founded on real-life research, which makes it even more relevant and enjoyable.

Cher at "The Bikeriders" premiere

HOLLYWOOD, CALIFORNIA – JUNE 17: Cher at the Los Angeles Premiere of Focus Features’ “The Bikeriders” at TCL Chinese Theatre on June 17, 2024 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Eric Charbonneau/Getty Images for Focus Features)

The Bikeriders Poster

The Bikeriders

Jodie Comer

HOLLYWOOD, CALIFORNIA – JUNE 17: Jodie Comer at the Los Angeles Premiere of Focus Features’ “The Bikeriders” at TCL Chinese Theatre on June 17, 2024 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Eric Charbonneau/Getty Images for Focus Features)

Austin Butler

HOLLYWOOD, CALIFORNIA – JUNE 17: Austin Butler at the Los Angeles Premiere of Focus Features’ “The Bikeriders” at TCL Chinese Theatre on June 17, 2024 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Eric Charbonneau/Getty Images for Focus Features)

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).

“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.”

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.

“Cuckoo” World Premieres at SXSW on March 14, 2024

The World Premiere of Writer/Director Tilman Singer’s film “Cuckoo” took place on Thursday, March 14 at SXSW. It’s a horror thriller that is innovative enough that the emcee handling the Q&A, an enthusiastic film buff, dubbed it “delightfully weird.” He went even further, declaring “Cuckoo” would become a classic in the future.

PLOT

Hunter Shafer at the World Premiere of “Cuckoo” on March 14, 2024 at SXSW. (Photo by Connie Wilson).

The synopsis provided by the “Cuckoo” team said: “On a trip to the German Alps with her father and stepmother, Gretchen (Hunter Schafer, HBO’s “Euphoria”) discovers that the resort town where they’re staying hides sinister secrets. She’s plagued by strange noises and frightening visions of a woman pursuing her. Soon, Gretchen finds herself pulled into a conspiracy involving bizarre experiments by the resort’s owner that echo back generations.”

Gretchen Vanderkurt (Hunter Shafer) has just lost her mother—I think. Whether Mom is dead or simply alive and not answering phone messages is never fully explained (like many other plot points in the film.). The “trip” seemed to be becoming a permanent re-location in Gretchen’s life, especially when her father announces he has sold the house she lived in with Mom. That’s why I assumed Mom was dead. That could be right. Or it could be wrong. Who knows? “Only the Shadow knows,” for sure (a very old radio reference). And there were some uber-creepy shadows in this one.  Maybe we can ask one of the shadows chasing Gretchen as she rides her bike through the forest late at night —a particularly frightening scene—for clarification.  I also mention the very old radio reference, because there is no definitive time when this movie is set. It could be today; it could be any decade between 1940 and the present. Again, don’t know; can’t tell you. Just go with it.

The German trip, for Gretchen, is not a happy one. She doesn’t seem particularly fond of her mute half-sister Alma (Mila Lieu) —at least, not until guns come out in the over-long film finale. Her father Luis (Marton Csokas) seems much less interested in his teen-aged daughter than in his new daughter. Our sympathy goes out to Gretchen. The crowd applauded when Gretchen finally struck back at Dad.

Dan Stevens at the World Premiere of “Cuckoo” on March 14th at SXSW. (Photo by Connie Wilson).

At one point, Gretchen denies that Alma is her “sister.” Gretchen says, “She had her chance at getting a sister, but then she ate her.” This leads to a discussion of vanishing twin syndrome in the womb, a discussion which seems right at home in this weird 102-minute horror thriller. It gets stranger when the writer/director shared that he was inspired by a cuckoo documentary.

We learn that Gretchen’s father and his second wife Beth (Jessica Henwick) honeymooned at Alpshatten Resort eight years prior. (*Plot clue). They are returning to discuss more construction projects with Mr. Konig (Dan Stevens.
Downton Abbey,” 2010-2015; “Collateral”),
the resort owner and Luis Vanderkurt’s (Martin Csokas) boss.

Upon arrival Mr. König takes an inexplicable but avid interest in Gretchen’s mute half-sister Alma. The little girl is having seizures. Mr. Konig suggests that Dr. Bonamo (Proschat Malani), Superintendent of the Chronic Disease Treatment Facility nearby (which we learn precious little about) check out the little girl medically. Perhaps Alma is epileptic? Something doesn’t seem quite right in this tranquil vacation paradise, nor does the Convenient Care offer. The odd customers checking into the resort, the loopy behavior of Mr. Konig, the strange employees like Trixie (Greta Fernandez) fit right into our suspicion that, as Shakespeare said, “something is rotten in Denmark” (or, in this case, in Germany).  The people repeatedly vomiting in the lobby, the scary woman offering oozy goo to other women— also poorly explained creepy plot points. Use your imagination and enjoy the ride.

WRITER/DIRECTOR TILMAN SINGER

Writer/Director Tilman Singer.

“Cuckoo” Writer/Director Tilman Singer at the World Premiere, March 14, 2024, at SXSW. (Photo by Connie Wilson).

The 36-year old German director (Leipzig, Germany) previously directed the indie film “Luz” shot for less than 50,000 Euros ($54,478.10). Tilman’s vibe is best summed up by saying think “The Shining” and then combine a blend of David Lynch and David Cronenberg. For those of us who faithfully followed the antics of the Log Lady (and others) on “Twin Peaks” from 1990-1991, “Cuckoo” was less a revelation than a return to form. Eccentric weirdness, well-executed with German panache.

Singer shared that the film “all started with a feeling.” He mentioned the cuckoo bird’s odd habit of laying its eggs in the nests of other birds and abandoning the offspring. Said Singer, “That made me very sad. All the host birds die.  There was a kind of beauty to it.” Star Dan Stevens said, “Filmmaking is an exercise in collective madness.  We all believed in this madman,” alluding to Writer/Director Singer.

 LOCATION

Shot near the Belgian border at an abandoned British Army base, the entire movie gave lead actress, Hunter Schafer (“Euphoria”) a feeling “just like summer camp.” She described being in the forest with an abandoned town near the Alpschatten Resort from May until July of 2022, roughly 7 weeks. As the plot thickens, we learn that Alpschatten is the source of a series of medical experiments supervised by the evil Mr. Konig, played to the hilt with campy verve by veteran actor Dan Stevens (Matthew Crawley on “Downton Abbey,” 2010-2015; “Colossal”at SXSW in 2016.).

There were three filming locations:

  • Wuppertal, North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany
  • Krefeld, North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany
  • Mönchengladbach, North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany

DAN STEVENS

Dan Stevens in "Cuckoo."

Dan Stevens of “Downton Abbey”

When Stevens left “Downton Abbey” it created a stir. At the time, addressing the departure that disturbed his fans, Stevens said, “OK, what I really want to do is a twisted action thriller black comedy with horror elements. Preferably with an American accent.” That statement was made years ago, commenting on Stevens’ departing the series after 2015, but it could certainly apply to “Cuckoo.” Stevens shared during the Q&A that he only joined the cast of “Cuckoo” three weeks before the shoot began (May 11, 2022). Speaking fluent German to Director Tilman on the phone may have helped him win the role.

Praising his co-star, Hunter Shafer, from the stage during the Q&A, Stevens said, “It helps when you cast an icon in your lead role.” Stevens was referencing newcomer Hunter Schafer of “Euphoria” fame. The description “icon” applies more to the 42-year old Stevens, who has had a lengthy career (60+ films) and is fluent in three languages.

Shafer, who began modeling at 17, has 9 credits. A model turned actress, she is definitely a star on the rise (Shafer’s best friend is Zendaya).  But the term icon, by definition, applies more to Stevens than Shafer at this point in their careers (“a person or thing regarded as a representative symbol or as worthy of veneration.”)

HUNTER SHAFER

Tilman Singer, Hunter Shafer and Dan Stevens during the Q&A for “Cuckoo” at SXSW on March 14, 2024. (Photo by Connie Wilson).

Hunter Shafer is best known to audiences for her role in “Euphoria,” but she also appeared alongside Viola Davis, Peter Dinklage and Rachel Zegler in “The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes.” In her next film she will co-star with Oscar winner Anne Hathaway, (who is also at SXSW for the closing night film, “The Idea of You.”)

THE GOOD

The film is very original and uses sound creatively to enhance the horror. There are scenes that are re-run, shown back-to-back two and three times, with shaky camerawork that Director Singer credited his cinematographer Paul Faltz with suggesting.

Shafer has to carry this film, starring as the psychologically traumatized daughter of a negligent father. She is still suffering from missing her mother. By the time the film ends, the 5’10” former model looks about as physically damaged as it is humanly possible to be without dying. Shafer gives the part 100%, solidly anchoring the film.

THE BAD

 

 

SXSW 2024

Th-th-that’s all, Folks. “Cuckoo” cast flies the nest at the Paramount on March 14th; SXSW 2024 ends March 16th.

Some of the minor parts. Including the mysterious menacing woman, are not as good. Characters, including those that are supposed to convey menace, were either not well-chosen or not made up effectively enough.

The concept is original. Various means of conveying the story were novel. The  claustrophobic sense of dread growing from the creative visual and aural touches add to our sense of danger and impending doom. (Examples: the bicycle riding sequence; the bathroom sequence with Gretchen; a car crash scene).

There are strange avant garde touches like a pulsing throat, up close, that are odd and well-executed. Said Dan Stevens, “I remember being really freaked out by the throat.” It apparently was a large piece of artificial pulsing throat that was periodically wheeled in to be  photographed in close-up.

Some of those portraying the mysterious and monstrous villains of the plot are either so average-looking or so poorly made up that you yearn for better-looking (or better made-up) characters.  The plot—despite attempts to explain it along the way— is incoherent.  Here is one  half-hearted attempt to explain:  “In nature, modern man kills some species by our disregard. Some species need our help to survive.”

CONCLUSION: 

The emcee called the film “a cinematic smorgasbord.” Synonyms for “smorgasbord” include “muddle” and “jumble.”

Only time will tell whether the promising touches in “Cuckoo” lead to films that retain  this one’s originality but are more coherent. One thing is for sure: Writer/Director Tilman Singer has followed the local First Commandment: “Keep Austin Weird.”

“The Greatest Hits” World Premieres at SXSW on March 14th

The synopsis for “The Greatest Hits,” which had its World Premiere at SXSW on Thursday, March 14th said: “Harriet (Lucy Boynton) finds art imitating life when she discovers certain songs can transport her back in time – literally. While she relives the past through romantic memories of her former boyfriend (David Corenswet), her. time traveling collides with a burgeoning new love interest in the present (Justin H. Min).”

“The Greatest Hits” has echoes of older films like “The Butterfly Effect” (2004) or 1998’s “Sliding Doors.” Of newer films, there is the Hulu offering “Press Play.” This World Premiere at SXSW on Thursday, March 14th has time travel, a killer musical score, and a heroine (Lucy Boynton of “Bohemian Rhapsody” and “Murder on the Orient Express”) who relives the past via music.

 

Ned Benson

Director Ned Benson of “The Greatest Hits.”

Just hearing a snippet of a song can send Harriet (Lucy Boynton) back to a time when she and her boyfriend Max were happy and together. Director Ned Benson has tapped into the universal way in which music and certain songs can help us revisit memories. Benson has crafted a romantic 94 minute film that will stream on Hulu on April 12th and will show in theaters prior to that. From the stage during the Q&A Benson admitted to trying to “move into the John Hughes vein” with movies that have a great soundtrack. He has succeeded.

It’s been 2 years since Max (David Corenswet, “Pearl,” “We Own This City”) died in a tragic car accident that also put Harriet in a coma for a week with head injuries. Even before the accident Lucy could time travel via music. Therefore, she tried to warn and save Max even then. Harriet continues to try to save Max  throughout the film. Does she succeed?

COUPLES

Lucy Boynton and Justin H. Min.

Lucy Boynton and Justin H. Min of “The Greatest Hits,” World Premiere on March 14, 2024, at SXSW.(Photo by Connie Wilson)

 

Lucy Boynton and David Corenswet are a handsome and charismatic couple as Harriet and Max. The next love of Harriet’s life, David (Justin H. Min, “Beef”) represents a second chance at love for Harriet. There are multiple scenes of tender kissing, most of them involving Romance #2, Lucy and Justin.  The only true sex scene is an out-of-focus gauzy one, so the emphasis is on romance. It is also all about teaching us, through the counseling of Retta (“Parks & Recreation,” “Good Boys”) as Dr. Evelyn Bartlett, to go forward and live life in the moment.

Dr. Bartlett tells Harriet that we should all learn to “live the dashes.” She means the dash that appears on tombstones between the birth and death dates. Harriet is getting this message from close friends like Morris Martin, well-played by Austin Crute, too. She is told, “You’re making a conscious choice to hide out in your own grief.” Her friends and counselor want Harriet to move on and engage with life again.

Q&A

From the stage after this World Premiere showing of “The Greatest Hits” the director shared that his own home in Los Angeles was used for Morris’s apartment. He said that a friend’s house nearby was used as Max’s house, that Justin lived nearby, and shared, jokingly, that the neighborhood now hated him. Benson admitted that his editor, Saira Haider, had to convince him to lose some of the wonderful beach scene that the movie uses. “I was in love with that beach sequence.”

Austin Crute.

Austin Crute as Morris in “The Greatest Hits,” World Premiered on March 14th at SXSW 2014. (Photo by Connie Wilson).

An interesting question during the Q&A was to name a song that “took you back” in an important way. The team answered with very different responses (“Avalon” by Roxy for Ned Benson; “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” from Green Day for Justin H. Min; “I’m Sexy and I Know It” from Austin Crute) but Director Ned Benson gave credit to the enthusiastic crowd present this day in Austin, saying, “You guys were the inspiration (for this film) during Covid. This is such a special festival. I lived here in 2008. This film is a love letter to music.”

MUSIC & SPECIAL EFFECTS

Since the emphasis throughout the film is on love, grief, and music, special kudos go out to Sound Designer Ando Johnson and Music Supervisor Ryan Lott. During the credits for the many songs that comprise the amazing soundtrack (Mozart even made it in with “Fantasia in D. Minor”) there is even a credit for Ryan Lott and Nelly Furtado.  Nelly Furtado has other songs on the soundtrack, as well.

The presentation of time travel is done well. It’s a tough thing, if you think about it.  I had to think about it when writing one time travel novel (“Out of Time”). Exactly how do you describe or represent time travel in a book or movie?  Cinematographer Chung Hoon-Chung has figured it out for Director Benson; it works.

Cast of "The Greatest Hits" at SXSW 2024.

Director Ned Benson, Lucy Boynton, Justin H. Min and Austin Crute of “The Greatest Hits” on March 14, 2024, at SXSW. (Photo by Connie Wilson).

 

It’s too late for Valentine’s Day, but see this one with that special someone. It’s a well-done, romantic 94 minutes. My only regret when the end credits came up were that Harriet’s first boyfriend Max (David Corenswet) was not there in person. He was off being “Superman” for an upcoming movie (“Superman: Legacy”) and has also been at work on “Twisters.”

If I could make one change in what Director Ned Benson described as “the perfect cast” it would be to reverse the order of boyfriends for Harriet, so that we had more onscreen time between Harriet and Max. Their chemistry onscreen (Lucy Boynton and David Corenswet) was crazy hot. The David character seems like a very sweet guy, but Max seems to have been the love of Harriet’s life, and we lose him too soon in the narrative.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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