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 2 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.

“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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Billy Preston Bio-Pic “That’s the Way God Planned It” Has World Premiere at SXSW 2024

Billy Preston

Billy Preston, the “Fifth Beatle.”

“Billy Preston: That’s the Way God Planned it” is a documentary from Paris Barclay (“In Treatment,” “Glee”), whose own film accomplishments put him in a class that few can match. It was co-written by Cheo Hodari Coker. This is an outstanding documentary. It  will go right up there with my favorite from last year’s SXSW, “Little Richard: I Am Everything.” (Lisa Cortes) It is a tribute to the man who was multi-talented and always the best musician in the room.

Says the synopsis: “With his signature gospel sound on the Hammond B3, Billy Preston double-handedly elevated the greatest artists of his time – from the Beatles to the Rolling Stones, from Aretha Franklin to Eric Clapton, from Ray Charles to Barbra Streisand to Sly and the Family Stone. In our film, we explore Billy’s career and influence on generations of musicians, as he scored several number one hits of his own and became one of the most sought-after musicians in the world. He did all of this as a soul divided — by his deep roots in the church, in constant conflict with his identity as a gay Black man, searching for a family of his own that would accept him for who he was.”

EARLY LIFE

Preston was an early phenomenon, playing piano and organ from the age of three by ear. In fact, he appeared on television for the first time at the age of 5. He sang a duet of Fats Domino’s song “Blueberry Hill” on Nat King Cole’s television show in 1957 at age 11, and from there his career went straight up, intersecting with nearly every major musical name of the past 60 years.  On film, Preston says “It’s been the way God planned it for me. I’ve never gone out and auditioned.”

Preston himself said, “You don’t know how glad I am that God laid his hands on me.” But, as articulated by Billy Porter (“Kinky Boots” on Broadway), “It’s hard being queer.” Porter, born in 1969, knows how much worse it was for someone like Billy Preston, born in the forties (September 2, 1946). Porter acknowledged that his own ability to openly declare his sexuality is based on those, like Billy Preston, who came before him. Director Paris Barclay, who is President of the Directors Guild of America, is an openly gay Black director of great acclaim.

Very close to his mother, Robbie Preston Williams, the Joe Cocker hit “You Are So Beautiful To Me” was  co-written by Williams for his mom. Robbie is shown playing and singing with Billy. Sadly, she didn’t protect him well enough from those who would take advantage of the youth. Billy was repeatedly molested by a piano player when he was working for the “Amos ‘N Andy” radio show. His mother either didn’t believe him or didn’t want to deal with it. That’s the way it was in 1955.  He also went on a European tour with Little Richard in 1962 when only 16, an experience that he would never discuss.

BEING GAY IN AMERICA

Billy Porter (“Kinky Boots” on Broadway)  appears onscreen commenting. Porter dismissed the idea that early sexual abuse would cause the young boy to become gay. Regardless, the sexual abuse when young did leave Billy Preston psychologically scarred. Preston was very careful not to discuss his sexual orientation. In the era that he grew up in, that was the way it was. It is not something he should have had to do. Porter tells us “God wouldn’t be so narrow-minded.” But I lived through those years. I understand his decision. (Think Liberace and his many lawsuits against those who publicly called him out.)

Narrow-minded defined the growing-up years that Billy Preston was ascending to fame and fortune. His talent was undeniable, but, on a personal level, he suffered. Part of it was his struggle with his sexuality. The Black church, so important in his life, said homosexuality was a sin. But Preston also suffered because he lost his older brother. His brother entered his home smoking a lighted cigarette. He was killed in the explosion that resulted from a gas leak.

Preston did not talk about his brother. He did not discuss the repeated abuse when he was nine. He simply threw himself into music, saying, “Music is my life.”  When not playing with the most famous names of the day he had a ranch in Topanga Canyon and rode horses, a stress-reliever that he shared with the documentary subject whose life story kicked off SXSW 2024, Stormy Daniels. (“Stormy”).

It would take a large book to list every famous musician who  worked with Billy Preston. Onscreen we hear from Ringo Starr, Eric Clapton and Mick Jagger. There is archival footage, showing Billy collaborating with the Beatles, whom he met in 1963 when touring Europe with Little Richard. The man was a dynamo, playing, singing and dancing.

1960s

When Billy returned to America, he did not talk about the Little Richard Tour, but he did talk about the Beatles. Preston developed a special friendship with George Harrison. Olivia Harrison, George’s widow, is one of the principal cast members speaking onscreen.

In the sixties Billy collaborated with the Beatles on the Abbey Road Album and is the only artist given a credit on a Beatles album for “Get Back:” The Beatles With Billy Preston.  Preston was dubbed “the Fifth Beatle.” Preston played keyboards on the Beatles very last performance from the New York City rooftop on January 30, 1969. He also appeared on television’s “Shindig” as musical director.

1970s

In 1971, Billy would leave Apple for Herb Alpert’s A&M records. He wanted to step out of his identity as just an instrumentalist and be able to do more, including more solo and singing performances.

In 1972, he won a Grammy for “Outa-Space’ as the Best Pop Instrumental Performance. (He was nominated for 9 Grammies and won 2, including Album of the Year in 1973.) In 2021 he was inducted into the rock-and-roll Hall of Fame for musical excellence.

Billy Preston was the Rolling Stones primary touring keyboardist from 1973 to 1977. I saw him on their Bridges to Babylon tour two times, once in Chicago and once in Minneapolis. Mick Jagger appears onscreen and admits to teasing Preston about the many wigs he wore onstage. They allowed the musician to wear a trademark huge Afro onstage, but remove it and become relatively anonymous.

CRACKS IN THE CAREER

Paris Barclay

Paris Barclay, Director of “Billy Preston: That’s the Way God Planned It” at SXSW 2024.

There may have been a romance with a woman named Kathy Silva in the early 70s. If there is a criticism of this documentary, it is how much this was soft-pedaled in the narrative. Whatever the relationship between Preston and Silva, it ended badly when Preston returned home to find her in bed with Sly (of Sly and the Family Stone). Some sources say that Preston swore off women from that point on.

It couldn’t have helped that Silva married Sly onstage in Madison Square Garden shortly afterwards. The film’s point-of-view is that Preston had both male and female lovers; everyone within the loop knew he was gay. His talent was so unparalleled that his homosexuality was not an issue. Perhaps accurate, but such a public betrayal had to cut deep and leave the artist feeling betrayed.

Disputes over money led to Preston’s departure from the Rolling Stones. In 1975 he was also the very first musical guest on the very first airing of “Saturday Night Live.” In 1978 he was cast as Sergeant Pepper in Robert Stigwood’s musical treatment of the famous Beatles album. It involved an all-star cast; it was a failure, which also bothered Preston.

1980s

With the dawn of the eighties and the emergence of disco, Preston’s star began to fade. He was Gospel, rhythm and blues, rock-and-roll—not disco. He became addicted to illegal substances and drank too much. A nighttime program built around comedian David Brenner, “Nightlife,” hired him to be  musical director. The program tanked after one season (1986-1987).

1990s

Preston was asked to tour with The Band in 1991. He did, but he was sentenced for cocaine and assault in 1991. That was the end of his ability to tour. In August, he was sentenced to 9 months in drug rehabilitation (in Malibu) and given 3 months of house arrest. In 1992 he was given 30 days in jail on another offense. There was a sex charge involving a 16-year old youth. (Think Kevin Spacey).

Preston’s intense for money to feed his drug habit became so great that he burned his own house down. When apprehended, he pled guilty to the $1 million insurance fraud and was ordered to prison and to pay $60,000 in restitution.

At this point, the film brings on the judge who sent him to prison, Bernard J. Kamins, a judge in Los Angeles District Court (who said it was his first interview in 80 years). The court appearance was in 1992. Billy Preston was 44 years old and had various probation violations. Although 7 (of 8) charges were dropped the judge felt that if the musician didn’t clean up his act, he’d soon be dead (the Mayo Clinic agreed.) He was sent to Avenol State Prison for a term that ended up being much less than the 4 years for which he was sentenced. However, his health—especially his kidneys—were failing.

BLOWS TO THE MUSICIAN

George Harrison, Billy’s great and good friend, died in 2001. (Preston participated in the Concert for George in November of 2002). His beloved mother Robbie died in 2005 (1917-2005). Even his good friend Eric Clapton said, “I had to let him go” (Clapton tears up after that comment).

Clapton was a kindred soul  and wanted to help Billy heal from his addiction, but it wasn’t happening. Billy’s last session was with Sam Moore (of Sam & Dave). Randy Jackson (of “American Idol”) fame is seen in the footage. We also see Sam Moore and Billy Preston flanking Paul Shaffer on a “Letterman” gig. Preston appeared on one “American Idol” segment.

Billy Preston called his last manager and revealed that he had finally told the others in group therapy that he was gay, something he had refused to do his entire life. He lapsed into a coma four days later, dying on June 6, 2006, in Scottsdale, Arizona (site of a Mayo Clinic facility) at age 60.

CONCLUSION

As one of Preston’s oldest friends, interviewed onscreen said, “How did we let someone like Billy Preston slip away?” She added (to spontaneous audience applause), “Can you imagine if church was really what it says it is?”

Do yourself a favor and make it a double-feature night. Watch the Little Richard documentary (“Little Richard: I Am Everything”) and follow it with “Billy Preston: That’s the Way God Planned It.” The documentary is an absolute gem and extremely well-done.

“Bettendorf Talks” Screens at March 10th TV Pilots Program at SXSW 2024

Bettendorf Talks

“Bettendorf Talks” cast.

The improv team of David Pasquiesi and T.J. Jadowski and Director Jack Newell attended the World Premiere of their television pilot, “Bettendorf Talks” at the Alamo Theater on Lamar at 3 p.m. on March 10, Sunday, Oscar day. I was rooting for them to hit a home run with a comic take on Bettendorf, Iowa.

Comedy isn’t easy. We can’t all be David Sedaris or Neil Simon. It’s hard to find “something new under the sun,” and go forth to mint comedy gold. However, the two leads have established themselves as funny improvisational partners on the Chicago scene. Their track record is good.  I’ve seen Pasquiesi’s work at the Windy City Film Festival where he was brilliant portraying a brain-injured pianist.

So, I really wanted to root for “Bettendorf Talks.”

As someone who had two businesses in Bettendorf for close to 20 years I was eager to see this comedy that would focus on a place I know well. The synopsis in the SXSW program says: “A sharp and smart show-within-a-show, Bettendorf Talks is both a witty workplace comedy and the newest (and most unlikely) local talk show to come out of the titular Midwestern Quad City. Hosted by the has-been comedy duo T.J. Jagodowski and David Pasquesi (who star as hilarious caricatures of themselves), the two attempt to mount a hit show in search of a sliver of their former glory.”

“Each episode follows our ensemble for one day of the writing, producing and airing of our program as T.J. & Dave grapple with how to live in these new, lesser roles, the team around them deal with T.J. & Dave, and Margaret fights to keep the show going because it’s always one day away from being canceled.”

The leads (Dennis Pasquiesi and T.J. Jadowski) are very funny when doing improv. The supporting cast, including the band called The Assassination Band (Brian King, Dave Cottini, Pete Cimbalo, Adam Krier and Phil Karmets) are good and featured onscreen. The supporting cast members, especially Nnamdi Ngwe, were fine.

T.J. Jagodowski

T.J. Jagodowski of “Bettendorf Talks.”

BACKGROUND

There have been comedies set around radio stations (“WKRP in Cincinnati”) and television shows (“Mary Tyler Moore Show”). Perhaps the pinnacle of comedy shows focusing on television shows was “The Garry Shandling Show.” Others, like “Community” and “Parks and Recreation” (and, for that matter, “Cheers”) have built good shows around feelings of work site comraderie in various settings. The idea of following the ensemble for one day of writing, producing and airing of the program was a good one. It is easy to see the quirks that are being developed for future comic use, should the pilot make it to air (which I hope it does). Writer/Producer/Star Pasquiesi, in his remarks after the pilots aired, said he and his partner wanted to make an entertaining comedy show like many of those that used to exist.

The on-air team here is described as “an unmotivated deeply disorganized group of individuals.” That charge can be fairly made about the characters in some of the other classic comedy shows mentioned.

Tim Kazurinsky

Tim Kazurinsky

Tim Kazurinksy.

Tim Kazurinksy–who was part of the comedy ensemble on “Saturday Night Live” from 1981 to 1984—has a small role as the annoying older owner of the station, who constantly hums or does similarly annoying things while the team is trying to conduct a live talk show. The character Margaret, who manages the station, is his niece. It’s a good thing Kazurinsky’s real name is used (he plays the station owner), because he might be difficult to recognize otherwise. I saw him in Chicago doing something post-SNL years ago; haven’t seen him since. The Margaret character is attempting to be the lynch-pin holding the show together. It was easy to see the conflict that would develop, if the series goes further.

THE MATERIAL

Jack C. Newell

Jack C. Newell, Director of “Bettendorf Talks.”

There was a bit about the Borden 24-hour towing company. It didn’t work for me, but  the snide asides did, including the reference to a poorly-made commercial. The child calling in the tow of David’s car was not clearly defined (for me) as being anyone’s illegitimate son, but, hopefully, there’s time for that in future episodes. (I hope he doesn’t quickly grow out of the role as happened on “Three and A Half Men”).

There were jabs at businesses that have ceased to exist (Border’s, K-Mart). Those remarks seemed  universal, as opposed to being a shortcoming specific to the small town of Bettendorf, Iowa. Probably a good relatable thing for other small towns in America losing their chain stores.

The bit about “which one of the Quad Cities is best” with Rock Island entering the competition was well-received by the crowd present at the premiere. I’m not sure it deserved throwing on long white wigs and judges’ robes to drive home the point that each of the several cities in the Quad Cities maintains that IT is “the best.” (“We shall not use superlatives in discussing the Quad Cities.”)

At some point, hopefully, the comedy duo will get around to actually naming the Quad Cities. It’s a two-state area, with the slogan “joined by a river” and there are about 350,000 souls residing there in the states of Illinois and Iowa, joined by I-74 (down from a one-time high of 500,000.).The map in the background didn’t help and was partially obscured. I wondered if shooting in one state was influenced by state “perks” financially, which is part of the game. I remember that there was a big scandal within the state of Iowa during a brief film Renaissance, when it emerged that someone had been playing fast and loose with the funds for making movies in the state. One very good movie (“Sugar”) came out of those halcyon days, set in Davenport’s John O’Donnell Stadium, but the scandal seemed to, at least temporarily, turn off the spigot for money for movies in Iowa. It’s too bad, because the Quad Cities is a very pretty area with many historic homes and locations that filmmakers could utilize. But does Iowa give filmmakers the breaks that Illinois does? (A good question for a Q&A, if there had been one aimed at this specific film and not at all six of them.)

Bettendorf Talks cast

Bettendorf Talks” stars T.J. Jagodowski (left), David Pasquesi, and Director Jack C. Newell at the TV Pilot Screening on March 10th at the Alamo Lamar Theater at SXSW.

I’ve lived in the area since 1968. I still can’t figure out which exact cities are “the Quad Cities.” Why are there only four cities implied by the name when there are really more like nine? You’ve got Davenport, Bettendorf, Pleasant Valley and LeClaire in Iowa and Moline, East Moline, Rock Island, Silvis, and Hampton on the Illinois side of the Mississippi River which is 9 cities. (Go figure). In February of 1996 there was a popular song by a group called the Quad City D.J’s, (“C’mon N’ Ride the Train”). When the Quad City D.J.’s were asked about their name, it emerged that they were simply driving through the area and selected the name randomly. They were from Jacksonville, Florida. Seems about right.

In the pilot there’s talk of a dentist who brings on a dangerous rodent and sells whippets out of the back of a truck. There was an actual local doctor (an accordion enthusiast) who had Friends in High Places and his life’s adventures would make for some good comic Bettendorf fodder, but he did not sell wild animals. He was more into politics and hooking up with much-younger Miss Iowa pageant contestants. (Hmmmm…sounds familiar on the national scene.)

There’s a gag about a manure shop burning (“an actual shit show”), plus lines like “I’ve got my Grandma’s gams” to which the response is “How does she get around.” [*I haven’t heard a line like that since “I just flew in from Chicago and boy are my arms tired!”]

A couple representative lines:

“Don’t have a sponsor on as a guest…Let him buy a badly-produced commercial like everybody else.”

“Your buddy gets drunk and takes a dump in your gas tank…Happens every week.”

THE GOOD

David Pasquesi

David Pasquesi of “Bettendorf Talks.”

The leads (Dennis Pasquiesi and T.J. Jadowski) are very funny. The supporting cast, including  The Assassination Band (Brian King, Dave Cottini, Pete Cimbalo, Adam Krier and Phil Karmets) are good and featured onscreen. The supporting cast members (Sadieh Rifai, Emma Pope, Cassie Kramer,Nnamdi Ngwe, Tim Kazurinksy) were fine.

So far, aside from a few exteriors (Logomarcino’s, which is actually in Moline, not Bettendorf; WQAD’s headquarters which is mis-identified as being in East Moline—it’s in Moline), it doesn’t look like the film is being shot in the actual Quad Cities. Most scenes were in the purported studio. It would be nice if it were actually shot in Bettendorf (and Iowa),  because, as I’ve been saying to those on the Illinois side of the river for some time now, “Will the last one out of the Quad Cities please turn out the lights?”

I was quite excited to learn that a funny comedy TV show might be focusing on the Quad Cities, since Chicago has taken up all the bandwidth on television for years now with shows depicting what goes on there (“Chicago P.D.”, “Chicago Fire,” Is Chicago Shit Show next?). Manure (shit) jokes proliferated in both of the better pilots. Audience present this day approved of most, a good sign. However, never under-estimate the intelligence of the audience. [Except we are living through a particularly odd time, nationally, that makes one wonder about that old truism]

I guess we can’t always have a local city coming up a big winner (as Rock Island did in “The Blues Brothers.”) But there can still be some unique, original jokes associated with Bettendorf that this team can produce, if given more time.

CONCLUSION

David Pasquiesi and his partner T.J. Jagodowski are talented and funny. It’s a good start. The material is  not quite up to their normal comedic standards right now, but I hope a distributor will give it time to develop on the air. Seems that is the way most of the Great Comedy Series started out before catching on with audiences.

Good luck to the team!

 

“Audrey” Has World Premiere at SXSW 2024

Jackie VanBeek as Ronnie in "Audrey".

“Audrey” at SXSW 2024.

First-time Australian feature director Natalie Bailey has crafted a tale of a dysfunctional family from a Lou Sanz script. It had its World Premiere at SXSW on March 10th, 2024. The synopsis for the film : “Self-appointed Mother of the Year, Ronnie has given her daughter Audrey everything, so when Audrey selfishly falls into a coma, Ronnie has no choice but to keep their dreams alive by assuming her identity.”

BACKGROUND

Some background for what initially sounded like a comedy: Ronnie Willis Lipsick is the married mother of two daughters, Audrey and Norah. Norah, the youngest, has cerebral palsy. Audrey, the eldest, is a rebellious teenager who has a poor relationship with her mother.

Ronnie, portrayed by New Zealand actress Jackie VanBeek, won awards appearing as a young actress in  “Jillaroo.” That was 18 years ago. Now, Ronnie seems to be attempting to live her life over through  her daughter, Audrey. It isn’t going well.

Audrey (Josephine Blazier) , rather than appreciating her mother’s helicopter parenting, is a surly, sullen teenager with a bad attitude. Audrey’s rebelliousness brings comments from Mom like, “I don’t want you diddling away your time with boys,” Or, “The future is not something you find in the back seat of a car.” Audrey is fairly representative of 50% of American teenage daughters. (Trust me on this; I raised one).

AUDREY VERSUS NORAH

Norah and Audrey in 'Audrey."

Norah and Audrey in “Audrey” (SXSW, 2024).

Audrey says things to her mother like, “You’re a shit actress, and you know it. You just quit before anyone else realized it.”  Audrey also posts a video on her social media account ridiculing Mom that goes viral. It reduces Ronnie to tears.

Since Norah  (Hannah Diviney) is confined to a wheelchair with muscular dystrophy, she is  left alone by Mom. That may be why she comes off as the more likeable of the two sisters. Although Norah has her moments, as evidenced by her behavior when she sits bedside next to her comatose older sister in the hospital. Norah doesn’t express any affection for Audrey, even when encouraged by Mom.

Dad Cormack (Jeremy Lindsay Taylor) initially seems to be almost a non-factor in the family dynamic. As the plot progresses, Audrey falls from the roof and ends up in a coma; (not sure I’d use the adjective “selfishly.”) Cormack’s part takes on surprising new dimensions beyond the role of grieving father. He seems to be sexually out-of-control, in a kind of creepy fashion.

THE GOOD

Lou Sanz’s script had some great lines. My own personal favorites were: “If there’s one thing your Mom can do, it’s make a killer lemonade,” and “I’m going to take care of you, like any good mother would.”

The cinematography by Simon Ozilin is equally good, especially in the climactic scenes when the camera cuts from Ronnie playing Medea onstage (“Oh, doomed children of an unloved mother…”) to what is going on back at the house between Audrey and her friend Max.

THE BAD

“Audrey” and Mom Ronnie in the Australian film “Audrey” at SXSW.

The adult Ronnie misrepresents herself as her teen-aged daughter at an audition. That presents obvious problems. For Ronnie, trying to portray ages 13 through 25 is a stretch. Initially, I thought this would be addressed with an all-out comic tone.

However, the plot, described as “an exploration of the human psyche” never really goes for funny. It goes for (more-or-less) serious with a few comic situations. Again, not sure I’d say someone “selfishly” fell off a roof, but that sort of adjective choice in the synopsis led me to think this was going to be a funny movie.

TONE

For me, the subject matter didn’t really go far enough in either direction. It’s either going to be a light-hearted examination of the mother/daughter relationship when the daughter is difficult (think “Lady Bird”) or it’s going to be a serious, touching drama that examines the statement, “We need to take the time to acknowledge that our lives aren’t always as we would wish.” (“American Beauty”). It tries to keep a foot in both worlds.

I was at a performance of George Carlin’s in Chicago when Carlin was performing a sketch about suicide. (In his defense, it was near the end of his career and his health was not good.) The attempt to make comedy out of such a serious subject did not work. It caused many in the audience to streak for the exits.

The resolution of “Audrey” has the same problem. Despite some great scripted lines from Lou Sanz, when I asked Director Natalie Bailey about the film’s tone, she responded, “Morally, you have to choose where you stand. “ An interesting position, which reminds of this line from the script: “The world’s a broken place these days.”

CONCLUSION

Audrey's parents at the hospital after she falls from the roof.

“Audrey” at SXSW 2024.

I could relate to the situation the film explores. I’m the mother of a teenaged daughter (and was once a rebellious teenager, myself). However,  I couldn’t embrace Ronnie walking away Scott-free at film’s end. Just as the audience for Carlin found his comic premise unacceptable, while I enjoyed the acting and the expert execution by this first-time feature director (especially the finale), I was disappointed by the moral position the film chose to take.

Maybe the recent court case in my home town area where a mother was found to have stuffed the dead body of her elementary school-aged son in a trash can in the garage for months played into my moral position. To say it was shocking is putting it mildly. The resolution of that case (in Rock Island, IL) did not point to child abuse or murder, however, as the death itself seems to have been an accident that the mother was made aware of (child playing with gun) only after the fact. She wasn’t even home when it happened.  Still, respect for life and protecting one’s child  at all costs and—if the worst happens—providing a decent burial or decent treatment for the youngster seemed the least a parent (no matter how shocked or unprepared for the event) should do. Somehow, a different ending for this one seemed like a better (or more acceptable?) idea.

(Whatever happened to happy endings?) 

TV Pilots Screen at SXSW on Oscar Day, March 10, 2024

The  TV pilot section at SXSW went off at 3 p.m. at the Alamo Drafthouse on South Lamar on Oscar Day (March 10th), with six TV pilot episodes shown, one after another. I did not realize that the program was comprised of all six of the entrants. I was  originally focused on one entitled “Bettendorf Talks.”

Some of the many TV Pilot participants, post March 10th screening.

I may be the only critic here who owned and operated the Best Business in Bettendorf (Iowa) for close to 20 years, so, naturally, I was intrigued by the title alone. I looked up the creators of this TV pilot and contacted (via e-mail) one (of two) of the leads, a very good actor named David Pasquesi, whom I have  seen perform in Chicago. He does improv with his partner, T.J. Jagodowski,—the leads in the TV pilot— but he also acts in other vehicles. He was impressive portraying a brain-damaged pianist in a short that screened at the Windy City Film Festival the same year I had a screenplay in competition.

My e-mail mentioned that I had seen him in that short and I received a friendly response, that suggested he hoped we might meet in Austin. He said he was “looping in” a publicist who was representing the pilot.

I had asked for a screener but was told (by the star) that it was “a World Premiere.” Most of the films here are World Premieres. Generally, a screener is sent with an embargo date and time, which I always abide by.  I did ultimately receive the 18-minute film. Since I was not aware that ALL six of the films would be showing at once, I  prepared remarks for just “Bettendorf Talks,” which I will conscientiously review tomorrow.

I was so enthused about helping publicize the existence of a pilot that might highlight the Quad Cities that I invited the two leads to dinner at my expense, at a very nice downtown restaurant, the Roaring Fork. That invitation was sent (e-mail) on February 22nd. I have only invited one other individual to join me for a meal so I could do an in-depth interview ever in over half a century. That one person was Suzanne Weinert. Here is the link to that piece:  https://www.themovieblog.com/2019/04/writer-producer-director-suzanne-weinert-flatiron-pictures-talks-movies-and-a-good-son/

That is not to say that I have never done interviews that were conducted in spaces provided. Last year, I interviewed the leads of “A Small Light,” a National Geographic special.

My intention for “Bettendorf Talks” was different.

I wanted to run a  lengthy article on “Bettendorf Talks” and its stars and their background(s).  I wanted to help launch “Bettendorf Talks” and I had some Bettendorf stories that the team might be able to use if their pilot were to be picked up.

I literally never heard another word back from anyone, so that plan died. I’m sure the team was busy and may not have even been in town. A note to that effect would have been nice, but I was busy covering “Stormy” on Opening Night, anyway, and it ran late.

The short observations below are in the order of which  were the best of the pilots screened this afternoon:

“Halfrican American” TV Pilot.

  • Halfrican American” – This one came from real life, said its Showrunner/Director/Screenwriter, Zeke Nicholson. The short synopsis in the program said, “Zeke attends a cookout with his boisterous black family and estranged father.” Zeke is from New York, but not THAT New York. As he tells his assembled relatives, he is from Reinbeck. New York, a small town upstate. When his dad asks him what they do in Reinbeck, Zeke mentions antiquing. His father’s hilarious response is “that shit sounds white.” Zeke has already admitted that the most exciting thing that ever happened in Reinbeck is that Chelsea Clinton got married there. Among other laugh-out-loud funny moments were his description of an old photo of himself from high school with chin hair and sideburns as “a chin-strap situation,” admitting that “It kind of looked like a helmet I couldn’t take off.” Zeke meets a sister named Destiny he didn’t know he had (“I don’t meet a new sister every day”) and asks her to help “explain the proper hand service” to him, as he doesn’t seem to have the Black hand signals down completely. There were also jokes about colonoscopies and 6-hour erections, but I’ll leave the shit jokes (quite numerous in the two best pilots) for later, with this one exception: Zeke’s father expresses some opinions about California, a state, he says, where people “howl at the moon.” Walt goes even further suggesting that it’s a place where anything goes, saying, “You could eat your neighbor’s shit and somebody will join you.”

See what I mean?

The cast was vibrant, funny,  lively and the concept seems like one that would “play” well on television today—with some censorship of the racier parts. It was definitely an “A” effort.

  • There’s actually a tie for the two that were second-best, based on today’s viewing:

Bettendorf Talks” and “Tossers” seemed equally funny, but I had prepared remarks for “Bettendorf Talks” only.

“Bettendorf Talks” cast.

This was because I didn’t realize that ALL the pilots would screen one right after another. Also, I thought I might have an opportunity to ask questions of the Bettendorf duo, such as, “Who is the person on your writing team that actually knows the Quad Cities?” There’s always someone. The two young men who created “A Quiet Place” (Scott Beck and Bryan Woods) are from Bettendorf and that film has now become a franchise with John Krasinski at the helm. So make fun of Bettendorf all you want. I don’t live there, and I didn’t grow up there. Go for it, but be funny and witty. I would also mention that the WQAD television station isn’t in East Moline; it’s in Moline. Logomarcino’s? Also in Moline—but this is fine, since we are all “joined by a river”—right? After all, when they shot “Cedar Rapids” (Ed Helms) they used Pittsburgh as a stand-in for C.R.

Let me mention the Top Two pilots (“Halfrican American,” above, and “Bettendorf Talks”)  and resume with lengthier descriptions of the others tomorrow, since it’s Oscar night and it’s now after 3 a.m. While conducting our annual Oscar Night Party I received a terse text message from the publicist for “Bettendorf Talks.” It was a little after 6:30 p.m.

My boss (from New York City) and the only one that I am aware of who sets the time(s) for reviews to go live on his blog, is here in Austin.  His e-mail is now sporting a message that he is “away from his desk.” We have not spoken or seen one another. I know that he was on the Red Carpet for “Roadhouse” on Friday, because I read it on TMB. He is basically unable to be reached by me or anyone else. I know he is busy, because I am busy (although I did set aside tonight for the annual Oscar predicting party, with ballots, a traveling trophy, friends and snacks.)

Keep in mind that we mere reviewer types have been laboring in the fields, attempting to get screeners in order to get a head start on all the activity. I  filed at least 10 such reviews from screeners and clearly indicated all “embargo” dates and times. When I was accused of running a review of one such documentary less than an hour earlier than the time it was to go “live” (7:30 CDT), via a brusque message from the publicist’s cell phone,I responded that I did not set the timing of the run on that blog; it’s not my job. I did not, consciously or unconsciously, violate any embargo. It was also, at most, a one hour discrepancy. (If you’re trying to go early, wouldn’t you jump the gun by more than a few minutes?)  I offered a potential explanation on behalf of whoever did set the blog to automatically post. It would have been done in NYC, which is Eastern Time versus Central Time and today was the day the clocks changed. But I sense that the goal was really something quite different from what we will laughingly call “public relations.”

“Bettendorf Talks” leads T.J. Jagodowski and David Pasquesi after the March 10th TV Pilot showing.

I offered up this evidence of my own innocence:

(1) It was NOT up on MY smaller blog, WeeklyWilson at the time of the brusque message, which proves my point.  I DO set times for that one, but am only one contributor of many on TMB.

(2) The boss operates on Eastern Standard Time, normally, but today was the day that we “spring forward” with daylight savings time here in Central Daylight Time. Either one could account for going “live” very slightly early. The point is, it was a really nice review (and a big one) and I do not set the time that things run on TMB. I wish I did, but I do not have that power. It’s well above my pay grade. If it did run slightly earlier than intended, it was accidental and—if you check—there is publicity on the piece well back in the month from other sources (interviews, etc.). Was it really a good and/or nice thing to call me up and give me grief?

If it were my film, I’d want as much free P.R. as I could get. The best way to get it is to get reviewers the materials when they actually have time to prepare their words well and, yes, it can be embargoed and everyone should attempt to comply. I, at least, definitely did comply.

(3)  I have not been able to speak with the very busy Boss Man since he hit town. I tried sending an e-mail, but got the “away from the desk” thing. Phone messages are going straight to voice mail.

The publicist suggested I should do what I could to take the very nice, very large review down immediately. If it were my film, I would most definitely not want that. (*Note: the review was not of “Bettendorf Talks.”)

I instantly agreed that I would do what I could, which is nothing.

David Pasquesi of “Bettendorf Talks.”

I have never been the one who sets the “run” time for The Movie Blog’s pieces. I only can be held responsible for my own little blog, which clearly had been in compliance. If it was one hour “off,” I’m guessing it is because it was set to run automatically quite some time ago.

Man! I guess I don’t understand what a Public Relations person is supposed to try to do, even though I worked in that capacity for many years as the CEO of two companies. Harassing me at home while I’m having an Oscar party and accusing me of something I did not do never seemed like it would be high on the list of “things I should do to promote.” Asking a large blog to remove an excellent review that goes out to a large audience also seems counter-productive if you’re working to promote the film. Of course it would be bad to intentionally violate embargo dates and times, but that did not happen.

I always thought P.R. people were supposed to concentrate on trying to create good will. No?i

(Post Script: I checked the Premiere time for the review in question. It started at 6 p.m. and went until 7:36 p.m. This means that the film was well underway when I received the phone message that I must remove it from being read. On Oscar night. While throwing an Oscar party. Anyone going to the movie was already in the film. It had been going on for over half an hour, at least. If I’m this film’s publicist, I am exulting at the good reviews, not telling big outlets to take them down. Maybe I’ve been doing P.R. wrong for half a century, but I would definitely be out celebrating (as, in fact, I was trying to do here in Austin) at the good reviews my efforts had produced and not hassling an underpaid reviewer for jumping the gun on a review by less than an hour,— especially when setting the time to run the review was not even the reviewer’s job.

 

 

 

 

“Resynator” Documentary at SXSW 2024 Showcases Electronic Music Pioneer

 

Alison Tavel

Director Alison Tavel.

Alison Tavel has directed a film about her father’s invention, the Resynator, one of the first synthesizers and a step forward into electronic music. Her father, Don Tavel, died in a car crash in 1988 when Alison was 10 weeks old. Don, a trailblazer in the field of electronic music, was, by all accounts, a genius in pioneering electronic music efforts.

Don Tavel began working on the Resynator at the age of 25, after graduating from the University of Indiana. Don played 17 different instruments, started the University of Indiana’s department of electronic music engineering in what a professor called “a seminal moment for music technology.” Don’s goal was to push the musical envelope and create a way for a musician to “play” or sing into the machine and have it electronically altered in a way that also retained some semblance of the musician’s input, unlike other synthesizers that simply mimicked the sound of a particular instrument.

Alison, who works for singer/songwriter Grace Potter, is involved in music herself, and, in the course of this journey back in time to attempt to discover who her father really was, she speaks with musicians like Kenny Aronoff (drummer for John Cougar Mellencamp), Peter Gabriel, Ornie McIntyre of the Average White Band, Butch Vig (Nirvana, Garbage), Money Mark of the Beastie Boys, Fred Armison, and Rami Joffee of the Foo Fighters. All her life, Allison had heard stories about her father’s encounters with famous artists like Stevie Wonder, B.B. King, and Paul McCartney. She had never known whether these stories were true or merely family legends.

The film starts out as a mystery about the electronic instrument Don Tavel invented. It was abandoned for 25 years and ended up stashed away in a box in Don’s mother’s attic in Indianapolis, Indiana. The discovery of this “lost Indiana Jones-like item” begins as a straightforward investigation. Utilizing old family film of her father and using  voice-over, Alison shares the many positive stories about her award-winning father that she has been told over the years.

Then, things take a very different turn and the information shared with her by Don’s former friends, family and colleagues lead to a very different place—a place that is real, raw, and honest.

There are so many things about Don’s family that emerge and puzzle us. For instance, Don had an identical twin brother, R.J., but Allison has never met him. In fact, when Ron tells Alison, “When Don died, our Mom wrote me out of her life.” Who does that? Why does someone do that?

Investigating the Resynator electronic instrument.

Allison Tavel, Grace Potter, and Michael Tavel.

For the first time, Alison learns less-than-positive things about her genius father. His mercurial temperament had never been discussed before. Letters that Don left say things like, “I must not allow myself to ruin the last half of my life. I felt unloved my entire life…Instead of love, I got awards. I have never been able to make you love me.” These gut-wrenching peeks into the psyche of Don Tavel reduce Alison’s mother, Tamara, to tears at one point, and Allison herself ends up transporting the Resynator all the way to Minca, Columbia, and, later, to such venues as the Midwest Acoustics Conference and the NAMM show, where it was demonstrated in 1980, 44 years earlier.

We learn that only 2 completely workable Resynators reached the public, although there were 6 prototypes and 200 ordered, but not produced (3 by Peter Gabriel). Colleagues share stories of how Don seemed to lose enthusiasm for the project after a 1982 trip to London to demonstrate the instrument for Paul McCartney did not yield fruit. The friction between Tammy and Don is fully revealed to Alison for the first time; there are more questions than answers.

At various points, clever animation is used to fill in the story blanks. Danny Madden did a fine job with the animation, and the music, supervised by Chris Ruggiero, is excellent. Especially touching is audio of Alison’s father singing Leon Russell’s “A Song for You” at film’s end.

Resynator instrument/machine.

Resynator” at SXSW 2024 on March 10, 2024.

This was a true revelation, as the synopsis doesn’t really reveal the revelations to come. Don Tavel crashed his car on November 28, 1988 and was declared brain dead at age 36 on December 3, 1988. Alison had just reached 2 and ½ months of age on September 14, 1988. By all accounts her life growing up with her mom and stepfather  Alen Rosenberg, who entered her life in 1997, was idyllic.

The film is both enlightening, informative, and interesting on a psychological level.  While it is true that tekkies might be less thrilled with the personal stuff, cut the one hour and 36 minute film some slack. It is a major achievement for this musician/filmmaker and it makes us hope that the Resynator will rise, Phoenix-like, from the ashes 35 years later and potentially achieve the acclaim that was denied Don Tavel during life.

“Stormy” Documentary World Premiere on March 8th at SXSW Is Cautionary Tale About Crossing DJT

Jud Appatow

Executive Producer Judd Apatow.

The documentary “Stormy” had its World Premiere on Friday, March 8th, at SXSW in Austin, Texas. Directed by Sarah Gibson and executive produced by Judd Apatow, the film was a sympathetic look at the Stormy Daniels saga. It was comprised of film that Stephanie Clifford (Daniels’ real name) shot previously in an attempt to do her own documentary combined with new footage.

Sara Bernstein Executive Produced, while Erin Lee Carr Produced, and Editor Ben Kaplan and Inbal B. Lessner did great editing work. The score was provided by Jeff Morrow for this 104 minute film. With the Stormy Daniels “Hussia” (hush money) case set to go to court on March 25th this is indeed a timely film. And a good one. Don’t miss it.

When porno actress Stormy Daniels met Donald J. Trump at a golf outing in July of 2006 at Lake Tahoe, Nevada, she couldn’t have known that her association with the man who was then the star of “The Apprentice” would lead to financial ruin, the end of her marriage and non-stop death threats. She was 27; he was 60. Stormy’s daughter from her third marriage  was then seven.

Donald J. Trump invited Stormy to dinner. She arrived at the door to The Donald’s hotel room early.  He was attired in black satin pajamas.  Stormy said, “Go put some clothes on. Hefner wants his pajamas back.” Trump did, and they talked for three hours, but when Stormy emerged from Trump’s bathroom (where she noticed gold things everywhere and Old Spice cologne) Trump made a move on her, sexually, and she didn’t say no (although she wishes she had). No dinner was had.

Stormy Daniels

Stormy Daniels at the Stateside Theater on March 8, 2024 at SXSW.

Trump told Stormy he wanted to put her on his TV show, “The Apprentice.”  From her book “Full Disclosure” we learn that the two watched “Shark Week” together in The Donald’s hotel room and Hillary Clinton called during the program. The Donald told Stormy that he wanted to put her on his TV show “The Apprentice.” Trump called her for months thereafter, stringing her along with that promise and suggesting more meetings, but finally admitted that he couldn’t put her on his show. Stormy quit taking his calls after 18 months, saying, “I thought we were done.” The story began in 2006, when Barron Trump was 4 months old (Melania Trump had just given birth to their now-7-foot tall son.) Stormy was 27 and Donald Trump was 60.The story re-surfaced in 2011.

Stormy grew up in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with a somewhat indifferent mother in a father-absent home. (She hasn’t talked to her father since she was 17). Throughout life, Stormy has seemed to look for love in all the wrong places. She says, “I’ve gotten ripped off by everybody.” We learn that one of her better friends tried to sell the Stormy/Trump story to the tabloids.  Her first attorney, Michael Avenatti, who got her the book deal in September of 2018, stole $300,000 of Stacey’s book profits. Avenatti ended up in prison for 4 years for defrauding Stormy and received more time for defrauding Nike and other clients. He has been in prison since February 7, 2022.

Judd Appatow, Erin Lee Car and Sarah Gibson at SXSW

Judd Apatow (Executive Producer), Erin Lee Carr (Producer) and Director/Producer Sarah Gibson at the World Premiere of the documentary “Stormy.”

On December 5, 2022, Avenatti was sentenced to an additional 14 years for stealing millions from clients, bringing his total sentence to 19 years without the possibility of parole.

The betrayal by Stormy’s supposed friend and by her first attorney lend credence to her charge that she has been ripped off by everyone. Throughout the film, Stormy’s love and concern for her third husband Brendon Miller and her daughter are an ongoing theme.

Stormy’s husband took responsibility for the care and feeding of their daughter, when Stormy went on gigs, including her “Making America Horny Again” tour. A rift developed when Stormy’s husband learned that she actually did have sex with Donald J. Trump, something she had previously denied.  Stormy was set up for arrest after playing a gig at the Siren’s Club in Columbus, Ohio, when 2 female officers attended her show and then contacted authorities to have her arrested, charging assault. The charges were dismissed within 24 hours when it became clear that the female officers were MAGA supporters of Donald J. Trump.  Stormy’s lawsuit against the city of Columbus resulted in a $450,000 payout when the bias of the officers was revealed. Stormy also related being threatened by an unknown man in the parking garage while she was with her 7-year-old daughter. (She passed a lie detector test alleging this.)

Director/Producer of "Stormy" Sarah Gibson at SXSW on March 8, 2024.

Director/Producer of “Stormy” Sarah Gibson on March 8, Friday, at the SXSW World Premiere at the Stateside Theater in Austin, Texas.

There was an incident that took place at the Canadian border when border patrol said Stormy could not enter the country because she had 17 assault charges in her FBI file. It became evident that Stormy’s FBI file had been tampered with. This occurred during Trump’s presidency. It is yet another example of why Michael Cohen, who went to prison for making the hush money payments to Stormy Daniels, texted her and told her he was seriously concerned for her safety.

The photos of Stormy Daniels onstage show a woman under a great deal of stress. She came late, surrounded by some very large bodyguards. She has been threatened continuously since the rendezvous with Trump emerged in 2011. Those threats have escalated as the trial looms close later this  month.

Stormy herself, onstage at the Stateside Theater, used the adjectives “ridiculous, terrifying, and pointless… I have no hope about it any more.” She described the current situation in 2024, when compared with the saga from 2011 and beyond this way: “It is different from 2018. I have more knowledge, but the threats have become more violent.”  Her once promising career as a director of porno flicks dried up by 2019. She has given up full custody of her daughter to the child’s father, reasoning that their daughter will be safer with him. The threats against her life are not to be dismissed lightly. There are a lot of zealots in the  MAGA camp; it only takes one.

Stormy Daniels in the Stateside Theater lobby before the World Premiere of the documentary "Stormy."

Stormy and cast and crew at the Stateside Theater on March 8, 2024 at SXSW.

She has been called every name in the book, but liar is one epithet she won’t take without fighting back. Said Daniels  in this must-see documentary, “My soul is so tired. I’m out of f***. I won’t give up, because I’m telling the truth.”

During the Q&A that followed the impressive documentary Director Sara Gibson said she could not believe the level of stress that Stormy endured. “It makes it very hard to lead your life. I couldn’t believe how stressful this was for her.”

Commenting on the large amount of footage that the editors had to integrate with new film in a very short time, Apatow said he had known Stormy Daniels for a long time—ever since she had a small part in his 2006 film “Knocked Up.” He said that his goal was to “Tell an accurate, empathetic story of what she has really been through.”

When Ms. Daniels took the stage she recounted getting the part in Apatow’s movie, but then potentially losing it because of the death of her step-daughter when filming was to take place on this very date (March 8th) many years ago. Apatow sent flowers to her home in sympathy. He changed the shooting schedule so she could still participate. For someone who expressed the opinion that “nobody ever helped me” and felt as though she were 9 years old again (the year she was repeatedly abused by a neighbor) you can tell that she was genuinely grateful.

Stormy Daniels

Stormy Daniels onstage at the World Premiere of “Stormy” on March 8, 2024 at SXSW in Austin, Texas.

Stormy said, “Nobody cares what the truth is any more.” Describing a never-ending avalanche of court documents, this statement during the Q&A seemed fair: “She deserves to have a voice in a lot louder, larger way.  She was a tax-paying American citizen, and she deserves better.”

“Stormy” is one of the investigative documentaries that the American public needs to see before November’s election. It is a Peacock original and will stream there beginning March 18th.

The "Stormy" team at SXSW on March 8, 2024.

The “Stormy” team at the world Premiere.

 

Bodyguards for Stormy Daniels (2 of 4).

Stormy Daniels bodyguards on March 8 2024 at SXSW.

 

 

 

 

[Among the team producing “Stormy”: Director Sarah Gibson and Executive Producer Judd Apatow (“The 40-year-old Virgin,” “Knocked Up”) of Apatow Productions, Olivia Rosenblum, Erin Lee Carr (Producer), Sara Bernstein (Executive Producer), Meredith Kaulfers, Kelsey Field (Imagine Entertainment), Amanda Rohlke, Emelia Brown, Natalie Goldberg, Brooke Snyder, Ben Kaplan and Inbal Lessner (editors), Shiho Fukada, Jonathan Furmanski, Wolfgang Held, RA Barrett (Cinematography), Denver Nicks, Bob Rose, Jason Sager (Co-producer) and music by Jeff Morrow]

“Lions of Mesopotamia” World Premieres at SXSW 2024

 

Director of “Lions of Mesopotamia,” Lucian Read, one of the very best—if not THE best— documentaries at SXSW 2024.

One of the more riveting World Premieres of a documentary at SXSW was “Lions of Mesopotamia,” directed by Lucian Read. The film screened on Saturday, March 9th, at 7:15 at SXSW. It outlines the victory of the Iraqi National Soccer Team at the Asia Cup in 2007, a win over Saudi, Arabia.

THE GOOD

More importantly, the win is referred to as “the Miracle of 2007.” It was definitely on a par with the U.S. hockey team Miracle on Ice victory over Russia in 1980. That was a tremendous and unexpected sports victory, but it didn’t  take place against the backdrop of both an 8-long war (between Iran and Iraq) nor the March 20, 2003 invasion of Baghdad by George W. Bush. Civil insurrection then befell the war-torn country.

Iraqi National Team members, 2007, with participants in the film's interviews boxed.

Iraqi National Team members, 2007.

Players from the original team speak about the overthrow of Saddam Hussein as we see the effect of the U.S. bombing (“Shock and awe”) of Baghdad. As the President of Jupiter Entertainment, which produced the film, Patrick Reardon said of the Iraqi team’s defeat of Saudi, Arabia in the Asia Cup Finals, “It’s quite possibly the most incredible heartfelt sports story that very few know.”

The players themselves describe how football (soccer)  was “an escape in life for the Iraqi people.” As one commentator says, “Other than that, what else is there to make the Iraqi people happy?” One player describes how, after sanctions were imposed on the country by the U.S., he and his family had, literally, only one shirt to wear. It was worn by the player to his practices, by his sister to work, etc. It was the only shirt they owned. He says, simply, “Football was all I had…We were sanctioned, tormented and starving.”

There is some history of the vicious treatment of the national team members by Saddam Hussein’s son, Uday, who once made the team play soccer with a ball made of concrete, as punishment for not winning. The players describe receiving 10 lashes for a bad pass, 20 lashes for a yellow flag, being locked in “the red room” if their play was not up to the dictator’s standards.

Bombing of Baghdad, 2003.

Bombing of Baghdad, 2003.

Mashat Akram, a mid-fielder, is quoted, as are other players like Arwa Damon, Hawar Mullah Mohammed and their revered coach, Ammo Baba— a national figure in the sport who begged the occupying U.S. forces to give the country back its soccer field. The field had become a parking lot for U.S. tanks. U.S. envoy J. Paul Bremer did return the use of the soccer field to the Iraqi players. The result was a national team made up of Sunni, Shia and Kurdish players, the sons of sworn enemies battling in a bloody war, uniting their country in its darkest hour.

As the players relate, they were initially happy to see Saddam’s regime fall: “We wanted freedom, but we lost security.” Chaos reigned in the city, with blatant kidnappings, especially of soccer idols. Many players left the country as a result, but the team that was put together at the last minute and had only about 16 days to prepare under a new coach (he was only given a 40 day contract) felt that: “We all believed that the team was a symbol that the nation could follow.” After the regime fell, sectarian violence broke out in a civil war that caused the deaths of many. The players were almost ready to stop playing, due to the violence that occurred during celebrations of their victories. A mother who had lost a young son to violence sent the message, “I will not accept condolences for my son until the Iraqi team brings the cup home.”

That spurred the team on to victory. It reminded Iraqis that they are better together than apart.  As one former player said, “The goal sparked joy in wounded Iraq.”

THE BAD

Saddam Hussein statue falls.

Tearing down of Saddam Hussein’s statue in Baghdad, Iraq in 2003.

There really is no “bad” to point out. It’s a tremendous film, emotional and inspiring. The footage of the fall of Baghdad is historic, including the infamous pulling down of the statue of Saddam Hussein. Eleven soccer players came together to heal their country when diplomats could not achieve unity.

Special mention should be made of the music (Mark Bartels and Jace Blayton), an underlying current of tension, culminating in a rap song that is part in English, part in the native tongue. The ending with a participant breaking down in tears over the import of the Asia Cup historic win is touching. The cinematographer (Adam Carboni) and editor (Lucas Harger) have done a great job  in helping bring Director Lucian Read’s little-known story to the screen.

CONCLUSION

See “Lions of Mesopotamia” when it inevitably sells to a streaming service. It’s great! If you’re also a soccer fan, you’ll enjoy it even more.  The historic significance should not be downplayed.  It shows how George W. Bush’s decision to take us to war on two fronts during his terms in office did not help the U.S. win  friends and influence people. As one participant says, “It’s horribly painful what’s happening in this country.” Many lessons can be learned about the need to stand united as a people, and not  allow any country to devolve into destructive sectarian violence.

Page 2 of 53

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén