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: Music Page 1 of 17

Connie plays 4 musical instruments and her daughter is a graduate of Belmont University in Nashville with a degree in Music Business and once worked for Taylor Swift. She may comment on concerts or reminisce on concerts of old.

“Porcelain War” Is Documentary Grand Jury Winner at Sundance, 2024

  • “Porcelain War” won the Grand Jury prize at Sundance 2024 and added to the ever-proliferating number of documentaries that are coming out of the horrific Russia/Ukraine War. The front-runner for an Oscar in the upcoming Academy Awards is “20 Days in Mariupol” from Ukrainian journalist Mstyslav Chernov. The “Porcelain War” is a joint project from Brendan Bellomo of the United States and Slava Leontyev, shooting inside Ukraine. Close friend Andrey Stefanov served as cameraman for the sequences within Ukraine and he and Slava deserve great admiration for their courage and resolve under pressure.

Having just seen “20 Days at Mariupol,” comparisons, for me, were inescapable. Plus, I am currently mid-way through a course at the University of Texas that traces Putin’s rise to power, leading to today’s invasion of Ukraine and the war that has dragged on since February 2022.

Both films show the “before” and “after” of a beautiful country now reduced to rubble. In the case of Mariupol (available on most major platforms and a “must see”) we see the city of Mariupol before it is totally ravaged by the Russians. The Writer/Director of “20 Days at Mariupol,” a Ukrainian AP reporter, chose to stay on with the troops and depict the true horrors of those left behind, including the young boy who was shooting baskets outdoors when a missile blew off his legs, ultimately killing him. The blood and grief mirror the scenes in Gaza that are horrifying in their brutality.

“Porcelain War” uses the metaphor of porcelain, which, as the film drives home relentlessly is this:

“Ukraine is like porcelain — easy to break, but impossible to destroy.” 

This is because the Ukrainian participants we become acquainted with are artists who work in porcelain.

The United States director, Brendan Bellomo, won a student Academy Award when he was a student at NYU and his expertise is quite evident here.

THE BAD

Cast of “Porcelain War,” including co-directors (front) and Frodo, the dog..

For me, it is the very slickness of the porcelain metaphor and the well-done visual effects in “Porcelain War” that detract when compared with the effect that the raw footage of “20 Days in Mariupol” evokes. There is somewhat a looking away from the horrors of war a bit more in “Porcelain War” than in the shorter “20 Days in Mariupol” film. In “Porcelain War” we see idyllic footage of  Ukrainian artists Slava, Anya, and Andrey coping with life in a war zone but also surrounded by great beauty. As “Variety” said in its review, “An accomplished visual effects supervisor whose credits include the 2012 Sundance smash ‘Beasts of the Southern Wild,’ Bellomo is attuned to the jolting sensations of combat both on the ground and above it.” It is precisely the excellence of Bellomo’s visual work in depicting the porcelain figures that takes away slightly from the less polished, but more visceral power of the shorter film (“20 Days in Mariupol.”) The porcelain work is beautiful and delicate. I, for one, wanted more of the brutal truth of war in Ukraine, to help me understand and process this latest aggression.

We do learn about the history of Russia’s land grab of Crimea in 2014. Ukraine gave up its nuclear weapons in exchange for promises of non-aggression from Russia, but those promises were bogus. Russia has a long history of not living up to its word. Putin seized Crimea in 2014 and collaborating director Slava Leontyev lived in Crimea at the time. He moved to Ukraine and he and others began re-establishing the military that they had abandoned when they believed Russia’s promises. So, for the past 10 years there has been an attempt to re-establish some kind of defense system for Ukraine, and Slava—who was present at Sundance along with Frodo, the dog in the film— has been instrumental in that effort, as we see.

A recent “New York Times” article speculated on the outcome of the Ukraine/Russia conflict. It said the Russian defense of parts of Ukraine it now occupies currently seems impenetrable. The war, it said, is beginning to resemble the WWI stalemate during which neither side seemed able to advance and the human toll inexorably rose. The article stated that Ukraine has lost 20% of its area and wants ALL of its country back. The odds of that happening (on Russia’s part) don’t seem good. With the Republican support for Ukraine seemingly mired in political gamesmanship that might re-install a leader who seems to think emulating Putin is a good thing, can we assume that our technical support and weaponry, that allowed Ukraine early in the fight to score some impressive wins, will continue after the November election if Trump were to win?

United States financial aid and expertise is necessary for Ukraine to move forward; there was a mention in the article of the potential firing of the Ukrainian Minister of Defense by Zelenskyy. If he IS fired, he was said to be the chief rival who might run against Zelenskyy. If Russia is feeling the crunch and would agree to settlement talks, said the article, it would almost certainly be predicated on Ukraine not joining NATO or other such groups. Meanwhile, Russia recruits from prison and will march those men forward to certain death simply to find out where their adversaries are concealed. The brutality of the Russian troops is legendary. The firsthand accounts of what has occurred are absolutely sickening; that, too, is not likely to improve over time.

Nobody trusts Putin to honor agreements he makes. The general feeling that would come from such a “settlement” would be anger that so many Ukrainians have given so much only to potentially be given back only a portion of their native land with conditions on how they might best defend themselves against future Russian aggression. The odds for the West and for democracy and for Europe are very large if you accept the premise that Putin will never stop his characteristic aggressive behavior and his dream of re-establishing the USSR as a Super Power. And, although Putin is 71, is a successor likely to be a change for the better? (Unlikely).

Ukraine’s largest military aid partner since the start of the war, the United States, has committed a total of €71.4 billion in aid to Ukraine when also considering financial and humanitarian support. Martin Armstrong on “Statista” (Dec. 13,2023) had these figures of support for Ukraine:

“Thanks chiefly to the €77.1 billion in pledged financial aid, European Union institutions are the largest aid donors to Ukraine. This is based on data from the IfW Kiel Ukraine Support Tracker which currently covers the period January 24, 2022 to October 31, 2023.

But will U.S. aid continue if Donald J. Trump is elected? And if Biden remains president, can he successfully negotiate continued support with the current GOP House and with the Senate’s current iteration?

All of these considerations enter into election year 2024. The analogy of porcelain (“Easy to break, but impossible to destroy”) may weaken in its appropriateness with the conflagration dragging on.

THE GOOD

Slava Leonytev is shown holding Frodo, the dog, with the cast of "Porcelain War."

Entire cast of “Porcelain War,” many of them direct from Ukraine.

Slava Leontyev became a weapons expert and has been training other civilians in how to load and fire weapons, in preparation for the war that Ukraine feared was coming. As one of the characters says, alluding to Russia’s history of aggression against the nations that broke away, “After 400 years we’re going to finally take care of it.” From watching Slava at work as a Ukrainian defense officer we get a better understanding of the reality of the current war.

The action in “Porcelain War” is centered in Kharkiv, which is 25 miles from the Russian border. In “Porcelain War,” we get to see the nuts-and-bolts of fighting the war in Ukraine. The emphasis on drone use is shown. We see “ordinary people in extraordinary situations” learning to fire weapons. We don’t see as much of the blood and guts and heartbreaking grief as in “20 Days in Mariupol,” but the horror of war is ubiquitous, emphasizing the message.

One line in the film is “Because of the invasion, we lost the substance of our lives.” Another analogy is that refugees are like snails without their shells. As Anya and Sonya are sent to Lithuania for their safety, their parents describe what an ordeal it was to get the girls out of the country by way of Poland. It reminded me of London residents, during the Blitz, sending their children to the countryside to protect them.  As the family says, “What is absolutely predictable is death.” We see face-time chats between the family members. The Ukraine residents feel that, “We’re fighting against evil. This is a historic opportunity to destroy aggressors.” The script adds, “It will keep pushing until it reaches you.”

The music is particularly effective. It is a fevered, clattering score from DakhaBrakha, a self-described “ethnic chaos” band based in Kyiv. The musical refrain is “A time to laugh, a time to cry. A time to live. A time to die.”

This film gives us a focused look at how the local populace, with aid from the United States and the European Union, is responding to Russian aggression. As Slava says, “Crimea ended in the blink of an eye, and we retreated to Ukraine.” At another point, as the struggle drags on, the line is “Armageddon is happening in Bakhmut.”

The drone group, decorated by the local artists, is dubbed “Saigon.” The reference to that Vietnamese city seems to be a nod to the effective guerilla fighting that the local populace employed against a super power.

CONCLUSION:

This is a film that is well worth watching. I would suggest viewing “20 Days in Mariupol” at the same time. One will give a very polished look at the Ukraine/Russia war; the other is more visceral, but both are terrific.

 

The Eagles with Steely Dan in Austin at the Moody Center on Feb. 3, 2024

“Kneecap” Is Irish Docu-Drama at 2024 Sundance

The Audience Award Winner at Sundance was a docu-drama about an Irish band, “Kneecap,” that is working to preserve the Irish language (Gaelic) and enjoys sticking it to the British. The members of the real-life band “Kneecap” played themselves. To appreciate the film, it is best to know this history of the band (from Wikipedia);  “Kneecap are a BelfastNorthern Ireland-based hip hop trio with the stage-names Mo Chara, Móglaí Bap and DJ Próvaí.[1][2] They sing in Irish and English and often reference their support for republicanism. They first began releasing music in 2017 with their single “C.E.A.R.T.A.” (Irish for “RIGHTS” as in human rights). They released their first album, 3CAG, in 2018,[3] and continued to release various singles such as “Get Your Brits Out”.

The three members of the Irish rap group — Liam Óg Ó hAnnaidh, Naoise Ó Cairealláin, and JJ Ó Dochartaigh — play themselves in this liberally fictionalized reimagining of their origin story set in Belfast, Northern Ireland. The plot goes back to “the Troubles” and the operating philosophy “Every word of Irish spoken is a bullet fired for Irish freedom.” Michael Fassbender plays the father of lead band member  Liam Óg Ó hAnnaidh and drifts in and out of the narrative as an escaped Irish prisoner who may (or may not) be dead. Writer/Director Rich Peppiatt said he “endorsed his inner low-life scumbag” to make the film, shot in 7 weeks in 2023.

The Wikipedia entry about the band adds a lot of background  for viewers of the film, especially if you’ve never heard of them before. The romance with a Protestant girl is another sub-plot of the mosaic that is the band rapping in a language that most of the audience neither understands nor has ever heard before. (Sub-titles for the lyrics would be helpful) Kneecap, the band, has an infectious enthusiasm and youth on their side,. The members are supposedly the offspring of legendary Irish Republican Army fighters, with a distinct enthuiasm for anarchy, rebellion and fighting for the underdog—all those things that youth is associated with. The band has also weighed in on the Israeli/Gaza conflict with sympathy for the Palestine cause. Of course, the original impetus for the film (as portrayed in the docu/drama/comedy), occurred when a member of the band refused to speak English while being interrogated in connection with a crime and insisted on speaking Gaelic. That is faithfully rendered—although, as with all films, there is a fair amount of embellishment for the sake of the narrative.

This Wikipedia insight also comes in handy: “In 2021 Kneecap released their single “MAM” as a tribute to their mothers, the song was acknowledged as a shift away from their usual style saying that they wanted to do something more ‘real’. Mo Chara stated in an interview that they wanted to show that “we can ’roundhouse’ you off the stage but we can also give you a hug afterwards. We wanted to do something a bit sentimental, we don’t wanna just box ourselves in with masculinity all the time.”] The trio also revealed on Instagram that Móglaí Bap’s mother had died of suicide before it could be released and that all proceeds from the song would be going to the Samaritans.”  

In regards to sentimental, one review took a broad swipe at Kenneth Branagh’s film “Belfast,” based on his own childhood memory of living in Belfast during the Troubles, calling it “sentimental” and “overly saccharine.” Belfast was one of the nominees for Best Picture of the Year that year.

During the Q&A following the film one of the band members was dressed in a leather outfit that looked like it was straight out of the latest iteration of “American Horror Story,” complete with Baliclava mask, as worn by the older D.J. in the film. It is a weird look. One  band member came onstage swilling from a bottle of booze, which seemed appropriate for the rabble-rousing drug-dealing rebels.

The music is infectiously high-voltage and the docu-drama has already secured a distribution deal at Sundance with Sony Classics films.  Those involved in the film were:

  • . Crew:Director, writer: Rich Peppiatt. Camera: Ryan Kernaghan. Editors: Chris Gill, Julian Ulrichs. Music: Michael ‘Mikey’ J Asante.
  • With:Liam Óg Ó hAnnaidh, Naoise Ó Cairealláin, JJ Ó Dochartaigh, Michael Fassbender, Josie Walker, Simone Kirby.

I’m Irish (maiden surname “Corcoran”) but I had no idea what any of the rapping lyrics meant, and would have appreciated knowing. They might as well have been singing in Vietnamese, given the lack of sub-titles to explain the message to those of us who are (a) out of our twenties and (b) not conversant in the Irish language. (And, if you think about it, that is a rather large number of the proposed audience.) On the bright side, as IMDB reported, domestic box office from all Sundance 2023 films was the best for any year since Covid. At around $100 million, it quadrupled the take from 2022 Festival titles, which was around $25 million. All told, about two thirds of the 2023 films have some sort of domestic distribution, including streaming outlets.

I enjoyed the convincing  acting by the band members. The stereotype of drunken Irish wife-beaters is alive and well in this one, personified by the band members, who did their best to perpetuate that old familiar stereotype. Perhaps Sony Classics will put a translation of the Gaelic lyrics onscreen before launching the film nationwide and worldwide, which would help add to our understanding of the mindset of the group

 

 

“In the Summers” Wins 2024 Sundance Grand Prize for Drama

“In the Summers” won the Grand Jury Prize for Drama at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival. Its theme is summarized this way on IMDB.com:

“On a journey that spans the formative years of their lives, two sisters navigate their loving but volatile father during their yearly summer visits to his home in Las Cruces, New Mexico.”

The film is the directorial debut of Alessandra Lacorazza Samudio, who also wrote the roughly autobiographical story of her summers spent with her divorced father. The film follows two sisters, Violeta and Eva, as they visit their father in Las Cruces, New Mexico, four times over a span of approximately 15 years.

THE GOOD

Residente

Residente

Three sets of sisters play the girls as they grow up, and that, alone, would be a difficult thing to handle as a first-time director. The young Eva is portrayed  by Sasha Calle and the young Violeta was Dreya Cad.  The lead, who plays their father, Vicente, is Residente. Residente is a member of the rap group “Calle 13” and has won 4 Latin American Grammys. The 46-year-old was born on February 23, 1978 in San Juan, Puerto Rico.  He was exceptional portraying a father who seems more scumbag than superhero. As an actor and director, he is known for Old Dogs (2009)Miss Bala (2019) and Residente Feat. Ibeyi: This is Not America (2022).

“In the Summers” won the U.S. Grand Jury Prize for Drama at Sundance, 2025. Handling the three sets of actors who portrayed Eva and Violeta from young to older as a first-time director was quite an achievement. Young Eva is portrayed (well) by Luciana Elisa Quinonez and young Violeta is portrayed by Dreya Castillo. Middle Eva is played by Allison Salinas and middle Violeta by Kimaya Thais. Teen-aged Eva is Sasha Calle and teen-aged Violeta is portrayed by Lio Mehiel. All did a great job.

The cinematography by Alexandre Mejia is top-notch and the music, as handled by Eduardo Cabra is also good.

THE BAD

One fan praised how the film was able to show how complex people can be without using a lot of expository dialogue. Agreed. This viewer went on to say, “I want to see more films like this that represent Latinx folks! And queer Latinx folks!”

I don’t want to see 1,000,000 more such films that represent constant insertions of queer/gay/transgender folk of any ethnic identity. It’s getting as predictable as the  horror movie trope that tells the teenagers not to go into the attic or the basement. It permeates every film, it seems.

I have nothing against films with lesbian, gay or transgender themes and nothing against lesbians, transgender, or queer folk. I applaud their struggle for acceptance and “equal” treatment. But shouldn’t the presence of these themes more-or-less reflect reality? Everyone should have the right to love whomever they want to love. The rest of us don’t have to gather round and watch them coupling, however,no matter whether they are shown with a person of the same gender  or a mate of the opposite sex. Pretending that there aren’t both homosexual and/or heterosexual individuals present in society or ignoring those themes is wrong. But over-emphasizing those themes is just as tiresome. Every other romantic film doesn’t need to (continue to) spoonfeed us a steady diet of gay/queer/transgender romance. Can’t the films simply represent the approximate reality of such relationships in the real world?

A recent Pew Research study said: “At a time when transgender and nonbinary Americans are gaining visibility in the media and among the public, a new Pew Research Center survey finds that 1.6% of U.S. adults are transgender or nonbinary – that is, their gender differs from the sex they were assigned at birth.” The article goes on to say that younger people are more likely to identify as transgender or non-binary and the % rises to 5% in adults younger than 30, while the % of 30 to 49-year-olds drops to 1.6% and the % of those over 50 identifying is .3%.

This means that 95% of the U.S. population (roughly) is not transgender. Yet 100% of movies today seem to have the “obligatory” gay/ lesbian or transgender romance. Movies today routinely and persistently depict trans, lesbian or gay love scenes/themes.  This is the demand for “equal time” between the sheets, since heterosexual romances were forced down everyone’s throats for so many years. Frankly, it gets old.  The % of films exploring this topic in such graphic detail should more accurately reflect reality, and the reality is as noted above by the Pew Research study.

I am not offended by non-mainstream romantic couplings. I’m just weary of watching so many of them, inserted in nearly every film at every opportunity. I won’t say “Enough, already!” because I understand that this cause is important to the generation under 30 who represent the future, but, again, 95% of that generation is not transgender, according to the latest Pew survey, so why is this theme everywhere all the time seemingly, especially at indie film festivals? Yes, it’s a young crowd at film festivals, but isn’t the goal of film to depict the real world with skill and honesty? These themes deserve a place, but dominating every festival simply to appeal to young filmmakers seems somewhat disingenuous and dishonest.

Residente, who plays Vincente in “In the Summers.”

In this case, the filmmaker has been recounting  experiences growing up as a transgender youth with a father who seems anything but exemplary. Since it is the writer /director’s own personal story, (and one that was so well executed), I’m just going to say this briefly and move on. I applaud the young daughter who stands up to her father when he is attempting to drive drunk. I/we loathe the drunken father’s macho man reaction to his realization of his daughter’s sexual orientation. The film portrayed the situation in a way that was real and honest and representative of the way the United States reacted to trans, gay and queer folk over the centuries. It was well done by this first-time writer/director on so many levels, and the actors deserve much praise. I did think that the mother of these young girls deserved more time, but I understand that it is difficult to fit everything into a 1 hour and 35 minute movie.

I remember when watching Jim Brown and Raquel Welch pose together for “100 Rifles”  in 1969 was a huge scandal because she was white and he was Black. Now, nobody thinks twice about an inter-racial romance. That was a good thing. I applaud the acceptance of inter-racial romances that now exists in society. I started reviewing the very next year (1970); I’ve been at it ever since, accepting of films that depict inter-racial romance and, now, accepting of films that portray the romantic entanglements that once were kept under wraps and hidden from society’s view.

It will be a good thing when there isn’t a need for every single film to climb up on a soapbox and subject viewers to the familiar story of how prejudiced we, as a nation (and a world) have been for so long. In the meantime—like the explosion of horror movies that launched the splatter craze (that still exists), or the Marvel Universe (that Director William Friedkin called “spandex movies”)  we are going to have to applaud this repetitive theme, graphic or subliminal, in film after film after film until the formerly unacceptable or aberrant is unremarkable in its ordinariness.

(Stepping down off soapbox.)

 

 

Reflections on Barbra Streisand’s Autobiography “My Name Is Barbra”

James Brolin & Barbra Streisand

Barbra Streisand & Husband James Brolin.

  • Has unresolved issues about her mother.
  • Has issues regarding a “father figure.”
  • Somewhat downplays the gift her voice has been to her life path.
  • Seems to have OCD tendencies, even as to placement of flowers.
  • Naturally curious.
  • Seems to have built a “family” from those she found more supportive of her.
  • Takes a few swipes at good old “Marty” (her manager),and at Mandy Patimken and others. Seems to want to portray herself as someone who others were constantly seeking for intimacy, yet she doesn’t share much about her “lovers.” In fact, she seems to be rather coy about whether or not a certain famous individual was or was not someone with whom she shared physical intimacy.
  • James Newton Howard seems to re-surface as someone who had a crush on her.
  • The Jon Peters guy sounds like a real shyster and opportunist, and that seems to have been how he was viewed by the Hollywood community, as well.
  • Loyalty to Prince—now King—Charles and to Pierre Trudeau. Probably explains her views on Meghan Markle, recently articulated.
  • Doesn’t say much about Elliott Gould, with whom she shares her son, Jason. Kind of implies that they just drifted apart, he wasn’t good-looking enough, and he had a gambling problem and possibly a drug problem later in life. Discusses Jason’s homosexuality in passing and claims he has a phenomenal voice. Jason is now 58 years old and, while he did release an album some years ago and sang with his mother on one of her tours, he doesn’t seem to have done much creating, musically speaking.
  • Seems to have found a man in James Brolin who can take her independent attitude in stride.
  • Starred or appeared in 19 films, but sounds like she is done.
  • Music seems to be the thing that she might continue doing to the bitter end, a la Tony Bennett, especially if it doesn’t involve touring or appearing in person.
  • Very detail oriented, to the point that would drive many people insane. (Lighting, rewriting lyrics, etc.). She actually requested that famous songwriters like Stephen Sondheim rewrite song lyrics for various reasons and other “pushy” things.
  • Tells some interesting stories about her famous friends (Donna Karan is one, Prince Charles, Secretary of State Madeline Albright, the Clintons) but doesn’t really dish much new dirt. Before I read the book, the Big Story seemed to be her rejecting Mandy Patimkin as a potential fling, saying she did not find him attractive. The truth hurts, but good for you, Barbara. [Nobody finds Mandy Patimkin attractive.]

    Mandy Patimken.

*Barbra’s father, Emmanuel Streisand, died at 35 and she was told by her cold mother that she kept waiting for him to return for days, sitting by the window. In her own words, “In some ways, I’m still waiting.”

*Her book is dedicated this way:  “This book is dedicated to the father I never knew, and the mother I did…” She, basically, says she loved her mother but she didn’t “like” her. Her mother seems to have had serious jealousy issues about Barbra’s phenomenal success and hurt her many times, both intentionally and unintentionally. Fortunately, Babs bonded with many women who were older than she is and they served as “surrogate” mothers. One of the more famous was Bill Clinton’s mother.

*She talks about how she doesn’t really take care of her voice and doesn’t like to warm up, etc. She also has crippling stage fright, brought on by having forgotten the words to a song while performing at a free concert in Central Park.

*Outspoken – Recently, Babs came out swinging against Megan Markle. She criticized everything about the woman, from her acting prowess to her relationship with the Royal Family. It has made all the tabloids and seems to be a throwback to her great friendship with King Charles and loyalty to him. Barbara doesn’t say that she and Charles had “a fling,” but she tells a semi-racy story about his dog coming in to get in bed with her one morning when she is visiting England.

Barbra Streisand with her only child, Jason Gould (age 58).

Jason Gould and Mom Barbra Streisand.

*The Jon Peters romance (he was her hairdresser) was one of the chapters in her life that she attributes to her “hippy” phase. He sounds like a real piece of work! He is portrayed in the movie “Licorice Pizza” and it isn’t pretty. He did rise to become the head of a studio, but he sounds like a real insecure opportunist. One thing that attracted her to him was that they both had sons about the same age.

*Barbra seems to have a fairly ruthless way of dealing with disloyalty. In her own words, “When I’m done with something, I’m done!” She describes cutting Agent Sue Mengers out of her life when she suspected that the woman had leaked some things to the media.

*She reveals that she has heard weird noises in her head since childhood.

*Several times in the book Barbra repeats this line from George Bernard Shaw’s play “St. Joan:” “It is an old saying that he who tells too much truth is sure to be hanged.” She also says, “I’ve always believed in telling the truth, but it has gotten me in trouble over the years.” We saw Barbra in concert in Chicago right before a presidential election and her remarks to the audience supportive of the Democratic candidate caused the couple next to us to yell (loudly), “Just shut up and sing.” I happen to agree with most of her political opinions, so I’m not one of the MAGA crowd who would be this rude. It was an “okay” concert, but it was not the Experience of a Lifetime I had hoped it might be, as I had been a fan for years.

*The book goes down easy and is a good read, but she goes into detail after detail after detail about every outfit she ever wore in her life, which reminded me of my own dear mother, who resembled Barbra’s mom in that she was not one to praise or express warm, fuzzy things, but I have tried to understand her chilly treatment of me in light of her own career and its demands. Barbra has had years of therapy and she tries to be even-handed about her mother’s indifference or jealousy towards her.

There is no question that Barbra Streisand is a formidable talent. She is a lot. I love her singing; I like most of her movies, so I enjoyed reading the behind-the-scenes stuff but I felt she put entirely too much time describing every outfit she ever wore in her life and casting herself in the most positive light possible, with all kinds of effusive notes of praise and uber-flattering photos.

 

M.J. The Musical Hits Chicago

“M.J.: The Musical” Hits Chicago

While taking in “Tommy: The Rock Opera” on my birthday, I became aware that “M.J.: The Musical” would be opening soon at the Niederlander Theater (formerly the Oriental Theater) on Aug. 1st and running only until September 3rd.

I had seen the New York City lead in the play on the Tony awards, and I thought it looked like something that would be very high energy and enjoyable. (It was nominated for 6 Tonys).

So, a quick trip to Chicago ensued.

The trip in put us in traffic for Soldier Field. There was a big soccer game between two European teams, Chelsea and Dortmund.

Also, Lollapalooza was scheduled to kick off on August 3rd in Grant Park, with Billie Eilish singing at 7:30 p.m. Many streets were closed for Lolla.

I secured tickets to the musical online and it said we were in Row B to the right side of the stage in the Orchestra section. It turned out that Row B was actually the first row and the musicians were playing almost directly beneath us, which means that we had an unobstructed view and our seats actually vibrated to the beat and pulse of all of the Michael Jackson hits through the years.

Several different actors portrayed the young and teen-aged and adult Michael Jackson and the play sketched his life as though a film crew were trying to document the preparations for the “Dangerous” tour.

 

All of the actors were fantastic. It sometimes became a wee bit confusing to have multiple actors playing the same role and to have one actor portraying two parts simultaneously. For instance, the very talented actress playing Michael Jackson’s mother held down a couple of roles, as did the burly gentleman portraying Joseph Johnson, who had a great voice.

The traffic in Chicago was absolutely horrific and, when we came out of the theater after the play, it took the better part of half an hour for the Lyft driver (Jose) to make his way to the theater for pick-up. Cabs were few and far between.

It was a wonderful uplifting play, if slanted to highlight only the positive P.R. of Michael Jackson.

“Swarm,” New Donald Glover Project, Premiered at SXSW on March 10, 2023

 

Donald Glover (“Atlanta”) and Janine Nabers, are the creative forces behind a new Amazon Prime series called “Swarm.” The series is set in Houston, until it takes our heroine on the road to a variety of cities, seemingly summoning memories of real-life fan-obsessed happenings in those cities. (The  episodes are represented by a date and a label.)

It is a super violent series starring Dominique Fishback (“Judas and the Black Messiah”) as an obsessed fan of a Black singer obviously modeled on Beyonce. The series contains the message upfront, “This is not a work of fiction. Any similarity to people living and dead is intentional.”

The Black songstress, Ni’Jah  Hutton (Nirine S. Brown) is about to embark on the Evolution Tour. Dre (Dominique Fishback) is so obsessed with Ni’Jah that any criticism or failure to appreciate the singer’s work as spectacular personally offends Dre, to the point of no return for the critical fan.

The first episode, which screened at SXSW on March 10th, built the relationship between Dre, her longtime best friend and roommate Marissa (Chloe Bailey) and Marissa’s boyfriend Khalid (Damson Idris). Marissa has achieved success as a make-up artist and Khalid—although he does not live with the girls—is always around. Dre’s reaction to a sex scene she unintentionally witnesses between Marissa and Khalid gives us a hint about Dre’s disdain for such emotional entanglements.

THE GOOD

“Swarm” on Amazon Prime video.

The cast, especially Dominique Fishback (“Judas and the Black Messiah”), is good. Dre (Dominique Fishback) has some serious mental issues, not the least of which is the ability to kill very energetically without much provocation. Watching someone bludgeoning another human being to death, especially those who have done nothing to deserve it, is not my idea of “entertainment.” [If it were, we would all be enjoying the mass shootings that seem to have reached epidemic proportions in the United States].  Yes, the victim failed to properly appreciate Dre’s singer of choice, but that hardly seems to merit death—except in “Swarm.” Social commentary, yes, and a good thing for this generation of social media-obsessed youth to ponder.

Call me old-fashioned. Or ask if you, too, want a modicum of violence, but not in such huge gratuitous doses with the violence being the entire plot focus. When I’m watching a character serially murder others with very little emotion (“Henry, Portrait of a Serial Killer”), I want to feel that the victim has done something to deserve it (even though that is not usually the case). Yes, I know that the Jeffrey Dahmer/Ted Bundy stories have been ratings winners.  I’m just not a huge fan of mindless gore or violence  for the sake of gratuitous gore or violence (which is why I disliked “Evil Dead Rise,” another SXSW film.). I’m a former active voting member of Horror Writers’ Association, so it’s not that I can’t handle blood and gore in moderation. (My novel series: “The Color of Evil.”) But I also swore off  80s slasher films after a while.
There is a lot of mindless violence in this series. Later in the series, I have read, we are going to learn more about the motivation for Dre’s devotion to  mayhem, but all we saw on March 10th was a proclamation that Dre has eschewed sex and its ability to control as counter-productive, probably because of the influence of her roommate Marissa.

The theme of unbridled fan enthusiasm is a good new one to explore. The Taylor Swift ticket fiasco even provoked Congressional hearings, and my daughter used to work for Ms. Swift. I’m all for unbridled fan enthusiasm, Beehive or Swifty, and the music is great from the outset, as are the costumes. The camerawork on film by Drew Daniels is excellent as is the direction by  Donald Glover, Adamma Ebo (“Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul”), Ibra Ake, and Stephen Glover.  In the series’ sometimes intentionally campy fashion, it will play buzzing sounds when Dre is ramping up for the next violent act. The score by Michael Uzowuru is  great.

THE BAD

While the acting is fine, there is a lot of what I will call “stunt casting.”  Paris Jackson (daughter of Michael Jackson) has a substantial role in the first episode. Billie Eilish is in one episode as Eva and shows real promise. Rory Culkin, brother of Macauley, shows up (sans clothing)  as a one-night stand of Dre’s.  Stephen Glover, who also appeared in “Atlanta,” is a presence and wrote two episodes.

And while we’re mentioning the writing, Malia Obama worked with Nabers to pen the episode “Girl, Bye.” She is credited as a staff writer.

CONCLUSION

I am not the target audience for this series. I found myself wondering about such practicalities as the disposal of bodies. That is probably  from writing novels, where you realize that a keen reader will be calling you out on “plot holes.” We’re all aware of the clean-up of mayhem that we’ve seen Liev Schreiber and Harvey Keitel handle as “fixers” (“Ray Donovan,” “Pulp Fiction”). Even in “The Sopranos” murders would lead to giving Tony Soprano a call to help with clean-up.

In the episodes of “Swarm” that I saw there was little forethought or planning prior to the murders; therefore, there were many plot holes that pointed to potential problems for the perpetrator. I can’t imagine that we are going to be following obsessed fan Dre into prison, but, judging from the lack of  any meaningful plotting before she commits the murder, that would be a logical conclusion for the 7 episode series.

“Swarm” will air on Prime Video. The Amazon project premiered at SXSW on Friday, March 10  was being released everywhere a week later.

“Little Richard: I Am Everything” Rocks the House At SXSW

“Little Richard: I Am Everything,” a documentary from Lisa Cortes, premiered at SXSW on March 13th.

I’ve saved the best for last, because this was genuinely one of the best documentaries—if not THE best documentary—-that I saw this year (and I saw a lot of them).

There are extensive clips of Little Richard, the flamboyant showman from Macon, Georgia, one of  twelve children of Leva Mae and  Richard Penniman, a minister who ran bootleg on the side.

Richard was born somewhat crippled (one arm was longer than the other) and queer and his father kicked him out of the house because of his sexual orientation. He found a place to stay at Ann’s Tic Toc speakeasy, where he sang blues and gospel and listened to Sister Rosetta, the Mother of Black soul.

Director of “Little Richard: I Am Everything” Lisa Cortes.

We learn that Billy Wright helped Richard get a record deal and that Esquerita, a musician, taught him to play piano. The technique  was boogie woogie on the left and Ike Turner with the right hand. However, the music that Richard was making was considered “race music” and was only allowed on Black stations. The documentary is right when it says, “It says something profound when Black music is the wellspring” for rock and roll. Of course, record producers tried to steal the sound and put white singers like Pat Boone on vinyl.

Little Richard  was not much of a businessman and was paid only half a cent a record, which was a very low return. He played to segregated audiences, but he was so popular and so electric that white teenagers broke the color barrier to get into his shows in Black clubs. As Richard said, “My music broke down the walls of segregation.” He mentions Fats Domino and Blueberry Hill, as well as Bo Diddly and B.B. King and others who followed.

Little Richard used make-up and said “I don’t give a damn what they think.” But, ultimately, he lived in a constant state of contradiction because of his religious upbringing and would try to go ‘straight’ multiple times. These were the days of Emmet Till (Sept. 2, 1955) and Richard wanted “the capacity to own the right to be in the world.”

As Bo and Richard said, “We built a hell of a highway and people are still driving on it. And they ain’t paying for it!”

Various singers like Tom Jones, David Bowie, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards pay tribute to Little Richard, who also helped the Beatles out when they were just starting out.

Then, Richard withdrew from rock and roll and enrolled at Oakwood College, a Black conservatory. He thought his music was the devil’s music, and a comet or Sputnik going overhead made him think the world might be coming to an end. He even married Ernestine Harvin, a fellow student, in Los Angeles. She described him as “positive, loving and caring” as a husband.

Richard toured in 1962 on a bill in London with Jet Harris and Sam Cooke. It was in Liverpool that he would meet the Beatles and Billy Preston in Hamburg at the Star Club. English bands, at that time, were very static, but Mick and the boys learned from Little Richard.

In 1964 Little Richard was on “American Bandstand” and, in fact, Dick Clark would organize the only testimonial awards tribute to Little Richard very late in his career, after he returned to music from spreading the word of God. Richard was described as “generous” and “so real” and he spoke up and told the world, at the 1989 induction of Otis Reddng into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, “He’s the root of all this.” Richard would also say, “I feel so real. I feel so unnecessary.”

It can truthfully be said that Little Richard paved the way for everything that followed.

The documentary director previously worked on “All in the Fight for Democracy,” a documentary about Stacey Abrams. She said she wants to “Explore figures and people who move things forward and are a continuation of how change is possible.” She gave credit to  Gus Wynner (“Rolling Stone”) for their partnership and said that the documentary took 18 months to make.

For instance, Ernestine Penniman, Richard’s one-time love, was said to be dead, but came forward when the film was in post production.  The family, when they finally saw the finished product, said, “You did Richard right.”

She sure did. It’s a terrific documentary and one of the best things at SXSW this year.

Critics’ Choice Awards Given on January 15, 2023

Critics’ Choice Awards 2023: WINNERS

 FILM

BEST PICTURE

Avatar: The Way of Water

Babylon

The Banshees of Inisherin

Elvis

Everything Everywhere All at Once – WINNER

The Fabelmans

Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery

RRR

Tár

Top Gun: Maverick

Women Talking

BEST ACTOR

Austin Butler – Elvis

Tom Cruise – Top Gun: Maverick

Colin Farrell – The Banshees of Inisherin

Brendan Fraser – The Whale – WINNER

Paul Mescal – Aftersun

Bill Nighy – Living

BEST ACTRESS

Cate Blanchett – Tár – WINNER

Viola Davis – The Woman King

Danielle Deadwyler – Till

Margot Robbie – Babylon

Michelle Williams – The Fabelmans

Michelle Yeoh – Everything Everywhere All at Once

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR

Paul Dano – The Fabelmans

Brendan Gleeson – The Banshees of Inisherin

Judd Hirsch – The Fabelmans

Barry Keoghan – The Banshees of Inisherin

Ke Huy Quan – Everything Everywhere All at Once – WINNER

Brian Tyree Henry – Causeway

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS

Angela Bassett – Black Panther: Wakanda Forever – WINNER

Jessie Buckley – Women Talking

Kerry Condon – The Banshees of Inisherin

Jamie Lee Curtis – Everything Everywhere All at Once

Stephanie Hsu – Everything Everywhere All at Once

Janelle Monáe – Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery

BEST YOUNG ACTOR/ACTRESS

Frankie Corio – Aftersun

Jalyn Hall – Till

Gabriel LaBelle – The Fabelmans – WINNER

Bella Ramsey – Catherine Called Birdy

Banks Repeta – Armageddon Time

Sadie Sink – The Whale

BEST ACTING ENSEMBLE

The Banshees of Inisherin

Everything Everywhere All at Once

The Fabelmans

Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery – WINNER

The Woman King

Women Talking

BEST DIRECTOR

James Cameron – Avatar: The Way of Water

Damien Chazelle – Babylon

Todd Field – Tár

Baz Luhrmann – Elvis

Daniel Kwan, Daniel Scheinert – Everything Everywhere All at Once – WINNER

Martin McDonagh – The Banshees of Inisherin

Sarah Polley – Women Talking

Gina Prince-Bythewood – The Woman King

S. S. Rajamouli – RRR

Steven Spielberg – The Fabelmans

BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY

Todd Field – Tár

Daniel Kwan, Daniel Scheinert – Everything Everywhere All at Once – WINNER

Martin McDonagh – The Banshees of Inisherin

Steven Spielberg, Tony Kushner – The Fabelmans

Charlotte Wells – Aftersun

BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY

Samuel D. Hunter – The Whale

Kazuo Ishiguro – Living

Rian Johnson – Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery

Rebecca Lenkiewicz – She Said

Sarah Polley – Women Talking – WINNER

BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY

Russell Carpenter – Avatar: The Way of Water

Roger Deakins – Empire of Light

Florian Hoffmeister – Tár

Janusz Kaminski – The Fabelmans

 Maverick – WINNER Miranda Claudion – Top Gun Maverick

Linus Sandgren – Babylon

BEST PRODUCTION DESIGN

Hannah Beachler, Lisa K. Sessions – Black Panther: Wakanda Forever

Rick Carter, Karen O’Hara – The Fabelmans

Dylan Cole, Ben Procter, Vanessa Cole – Avatar: The Way of Water

Jason Kisvarday, Kelsi Ephraim – Everything Everywhere All at Once

Catherine Martin, Karen Murphy, Bev Dunn – Elvis

Florencia Martin, Anthony Carlino – Babylon – WINNER

BEST EDITING

Tom Cross – Babylon

Eddie Hamilton – Top Gun: Maverick

Stephen Rivkin, David Brenner, John Refoua, James Cameron – Avatar: The Way of Water

Paul Rogers – Everything Everywhere All at Once – WINNER

Matt Villa, Jonathan Redmond – Elvis

Monika Willi – Tár

BEST COSTUME DESIGN

Ruth E. Carter – Black Panther: Wakanda Forever – WINNER

Jenny Eagan – Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery

Shirley Kurata – Everything Everywhere All at Once

Catherine Martin – Elvis

Gersha Phillips – The Woman King

Mary Zophres – Babylon

BEST HAIR AND MAKEUP

Babylon

The Batman

Black Panther: Wakanda Forever

Elvis – WINNER

Everything Everywhere All at Once

The Whale

BEST VISUAL EFFECTS

Avatar: The Way of Water – WINNER

The Batman

Black Panther: Wakanda Forever

Everything Everywhere All at Once

RRR

Top Gun: Maverick

BEST COMEDY

The Banshees of Inisherin

Bros

Everything Everywhere All at Once

Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery

Triangle of Sadness

The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent

BEST ANIMATED FEATURE

Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio – WINNER

Marcel the Shell with Shoes On

Puss in Boots: The Last Wish

Turning Red

Wendell & Wild

BEST FOREIGN LANGUAGE FILM

All Quiet on the Western Front

Argentina, 1985

Bardo, False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths

Close

Decision to Leave

RRR – WINNER

BEST SONG

Carolina – Where the Crawdads Sing

Ciao Papa – Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio

Hold My Hand – Top Gun: Maverick

Lift Me Up – Black Panther: Wakanda Forever

Naatu Naatu – RRR – WINNER

New Body Rhumba – White Noise

BEST SCORE

Alexandre Desplat – Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio

Michael Giacchino – The Batman

Hildur Guðnadóttir – Tár – WINNER

Hildur Guðnadóttir – Women Talking

Justin Hurwitz – Babylon

John Williams – The Fabelmans

 TELEVISION

BEST DRAMA SERIES

Andor (Disney+)

Bad Sisters (Apple TV+)

Better Call Saul (AMC) – WINNER

The Crown (Netflix)

Euphoria (HBO)

The Good Fight (Paramount+)

House of the Dragon (HBO)

Severance (Apple TV+)

Yellowstone (Paramount Network)

BEST ACTOR IN A DRAMA SERIES

Jeff Bridges – The Old Man (FX)

Sterling K. Brown – This Is Us (NBC)

Diego Luna – Andor (Disney+)

Bob Odenkirk – Better Call Saul (AMC) – WINNER

Adam Scott – Severance (Apple TV+)

Antony Starr – The Boys (Prime Video)

BEST ACTRESS IN A DRAMA SERIES

Christine Baranski – The Good Fight (Paramount+)

Sharon Horgan – Bad Sisters (Apple TV+)

Laura Linney – Ozark (Netflix)

Mandy Moore – This Is Us (NBC)

Kelly Reilly – Yellowstone (Paramount Network)

Zendaya – Euphoria (HBO) – WINNER

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR IN A DRAMA SERIES

Andre Braugher – The Good Fight (Paramount+)

Ismael Cruz Córdova – The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power (Prime Video)

Michael Emerson – Evil (Paramount+)

Giancarlo Esposito – Better Call Saul (AMC) – WINNER

John Lithgow – The Old Man (FX)

Matt Smith – House of the Dragon (HBO)

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS IN A DRAMA SERIES

Milly Alcock – House of the Dragon (HBO)

Carol Burnett – Better Call Saul (AMC)

Jennifer Coolidge – The White Lotus (HBO) – WINNER

Julia Garner – Ozark (Netflix)

Audra McDonald – The Good Fight (Paramount+)

Rhea Seehorn – Better Call Saul (AMC)

BEST COMEDY SERIES

Abbott Elementary (ABC) – WINNER

Barry (HBO)

The Bear (FX)

Better Things (FX)

Ghosts (CBS)

Hacks (HBO Max)

Reboot (Hulu)

Reservation Dogs (FX)

BEST ACTOR IN A COMEDY SERIES

Matt Berry – What We Do in the Shadows (FX)

Bill Hader – Barry (HBO)

Keegan-Michael Key – Reboot (Hulu)

Steve Martin – Only Murders in the Building (Hulu)

Jeremy Allen White – The Bear (FX) – WINNER

D’Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai – Reservation Dogs (FX)

BEST ACTRESS IN A COMEDY SERIES

Christina Applegate – Dead to Me (Netflix)

Quinta Brunson – Abbott Elementary (ABC)

Kaley Cuoco – The Flight Attendant (HBO Max)

Renée Elise Goldsberry – Girls5eva (Peacock)

Devery Jacobs – Reservation Dogs (FX)

Jean Smart – Hacks (HBO Max)

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR IN A COMEDY SERIES

Brandon Scott Jones – Ghosts (CBS)

Leslie Jordan – Call Me Kat (Fox)

James Marsden – Dead to Me (Netflix)

Chris Perfetti – Abbott Elementary (ABC)

Tyler James Williams – Abbott Elementary (ABC)

Henry Winkler – Barry (HBO) – WINNER

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS IN A COMEDY SERIES

Paulina Alexis – Reservation Dogs (FX)

Ayo Edebiri – The Bear (FX)

Marcia Gay Harden – Uncoupled (Netflix)

Janelle James – Abbott Elementary (ABC)

Annie Potts – Young Sheldon (CBS)

Sheryl Lee Ralph – Abbott Elementary (ABC) – WINNER

BEST LIMITED SERIES

The Dropout (Hulu) – WINNER

Gaslit (Starz)

The Girl from Plainville (Hulu)

The Offer (Paramount+)

Pam & Tommy (Hulu)

Station Eleven (HBO Max)

This Is Going to Hurt (AMC+)

Under the Banner of Heaven (FX)

BEST MOVIE MADE FOR TELEVISION

Fresh (Hulu)

Prey (Hulu)

Ray Donovan: The Movie (Showtime)

The Survivor (HBO)

Three Months (Paramount+)

Weird: The Al Yankovic Story (The Roku Channel) – WINNER

BEST ACTOR IN A LIMITED SERIES OR MOVIE MADE FOR TELEVISION

Ben Foster – The Survivor (HBO)

Andrew Garfield – Under the Banner of Heaven (FX)

Samuel L. Jackson – The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey (Apple TV+)

Daniel Radcliffe – Weird: The Al Yankovic Story (The Roku Channel) – WINNER

Sebastian Stan – Pam & Tommy (Hulu)

Ben Whishaw – This is Going to Hurt (AMC+)

BEST ACTRESS IN A LIMITED SERIES OR MOVIE MADE FOR TELEVISION

Julia Garner – Inventing Anna (Netflix)

Lily James – Pam & Tommy (Hulu)

Amber Midthunder – Prey (Hulu)

Julia Roberts – Gaslit (Starz)

Michelle Pfeiffer – The First Lady (Showtime)

Amanda Seyfried – The Dropout (Hulu) – WINNER

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR IN A LIMITED SERIES OR MOVIE MADE FOR TELEVISION

Murray Bartlett – Welcome to Chippendales (Hulu)

Domhnall Gleeson – The Patient (FX)

Matthew Goode – The Offer (Paramount+)

Paul Walter Hauser – Black Bird (Apple TV+) – WINNER

Ray Liotta – Black Bird (Apple TV+)

Shea Whigham – Gaslit (Starz)

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS IN A LIMITED SERIES OR MOVIE MADE FOR TELEVISION

Claire Danes – Fleishman Is in Trouble (FX)

Dominique Fishback – The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey (Apple TV+)

Betty Gilpin – Gaslit (Starz)

Melanie Lynskey – Candy (Hulu)

Niecy Nash-Betts – Dahmer – Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story (Netflix) – WINNER

Juno Temple – The Offer (Paramount+)

BEST FOREIGN LANGUAGE SERIES

1899 (Netflix)

Borgen (Netflix)

Extraordinary Attorney Woo (Netflix)

Garcia! (HBO Max)

The Kingdom Exodus (MUBI)

Kleo (Netflix)

My Brilliant Friend (HBO)

Pachinko (Apple TV+) – WINNER

Tehran (Apple TV+)

BEST ANIMATED SERIES

Bluey (Disney+)

Bob’s Burgers (Fox)

Genndy Tartakovsky’s Primal (Adult Swim)

Harley Quinn (HBO Max) – WINNER

Star Trek: Lower Decks (Paramount+)

Undone (Prime Video)

BEST TALK SHOW

The Amber Ruffin Show (Peacock)

Full Frontal with Samantha Bee (TBS)

The Kelly Clarkson Show (NBC)

Last Week Tonight with John Oliver (HBO) – WINNER

Late Night with Seth Meyers (NBC)

Watch What Happens Live with Andy Cohen (Bravo)

BEST COMEDY SPECIAL

Fortune Feimster: Good Fortune (Netflix)

Jerrod Carmichael: Rothaniel (HBO)

Joel Kim Booster: Psychosexual (Netflix)

Nikki Glaser: Good Clean Filth (HBO)

Norm Macdonald: Nothing Special (Netflix) – WINNER

Would It Kill You to Laugh? Starring Kate Berlant & John Early (Peacock)

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Damien Chazelle’s “Babylon” Defines Excess in Hollywood

“Babylon” is Damien Chazelle’s salute to the movies, following on the heels of Sam Mendes’  similar homage to film  in “Empire of Light.”

I’ve never met Sam Mendes, although I admire his work. But I have met Damian Chazelle, when he came to Chicago for the premiere of “La La Land” at the 52nd Chicago International Film Festival on October 13, 2016. Damien Chazelle is a genuine, personable, interesting young man. He has again partnered with longtime collaborator Justin Hurwitz, (who also did the music for “La La Land” and “Whiplash”). The  score was very reminiscent of the music from “La La Land.”

The film attempts to depict what Hollywood might have been like back when the silent movie era was giving way to talkies. It is both an homage to those chaotic times, beginning in 1926, and a criticism of the excesses of Hollywood. The opening 20 minutes, depicting an elephant being transported to an orgy-like party hosted by someone seemingly based on Fatty Arbuckle, goes a long way towards showing those excesses. It’s way over-the-top. You could say that about the entire film.

One of the things that amazes about this $80 million-dollar stroll down memory lane, is the cast. In addition to Brad Pitt as the male lead and Margot Robbie as the female lead,  there are bit parts for a myriad of actors, both known and unknown. Who were these masked men (and women)?

Flea has a part. Eric Roberts—who I interviewed on my WeeklyWilson podcast during the pandemic—plays Margot Robbie’s father. Lukas Haas who played  the small boy in “Witness” when he was nine years old in the seventies, plays George, Brad Pitt’s best friend.  Tobey Maguire, listed as an executive producer, has a truly hero-destroying role as a gangster. Spike Jonze plays Otto. Michael Dukakis has an uncredited part as a soldier. Anna Chazelle has an uncredited part as Bobbie Hart. Kaia Gerber, look-alike daughter of Cindy Crawford, has a bit part as a starlet.  Jovan Adepo plays jazz trumpeter Sidney Palmer. Jean Smart (“Hacks”) plays a composite character based on columnists like Hedda Hopper/Louella Parsons, Elinor O’Toole. Max Minghella (“The Handmaid’s Tale’s Nick Blaine) plays Irving Thalberg. Comedian/actor Jeff Garlin (“Curb Your Enthusiasm”) plays Don Wallach, Ethan Suplee  (“Remember the Titans” 2000) plays Wilson and spends most of his time onscreen spitting grossly, Manny Liotta plays a  P.A. (Production Assistant). This is a very partial list of the surprisingly elaborate cast list. (Hard to stage an orgy without a crowd, I guess.)

But the lead as Manny Torres is relative unknown Mexican actor Diego Calva, who comes to the screen in a major part as a relative unknown to U.S. audiences. Calva played a drug lord on Netflix’s “Narcos: Mexico” but, if you missed that, you missed him. He came to his star-making part in much the same way as the fictional Manny Torres: by doing whatever anyone in the movie business wanted/needed done. He reminded me of the “fixer” characters played by Harvey Keitel in “Pulp Fiction” or by Leiv Schreiber in “Ray Donovan.”

During an appearance on Jimmy Kimmel’s late night television show, Calva shared some behind-the-scenes insights into the film and into his own background. Golden Globe nominated for “Babylon,” Diego learned to speak English specifically for “Babylon.” He said he learned English from playing “Pokemon” video games in Mexico. He confirmed that the chicken in the orgy scene was a great actor.  He also confirmed that they used a chicken puppet for some takes. Diego admitted he was most excited to meet Tobey Maguire, since he had been a “Spiderman” fan from a young age.

Among other comments the young actor made was this one about the opening orgy scene:  “It was so crazy. I’ve never been surrounded by so many naked people before.” Of his co-star and love interest in the film, Margot Robbie, Diego said:  “She’s always going to do the unexpected. She’s a fearless actress, just full on energy.  When you’re so tired, she can play it 100 times more.”Diego studied at the Centro de Capacitacion Cinematografica in Mexico. He is a talent to watch.

The thing that resonated with me—especially since it was quite similar to Sam Mendes’ musings on the movies—were the lines that pin down Chazelle’s feelings about film. It’s not unique amongst creative types, whether filmmakers, writers, song writers, or painters that the work we leave behind gives us a feelingof a little bit of immortality. Ideally, whatever we have created has been good. It will be around long after we are gone.Immortality.

Chazelle scripted one scene, in particular, between Jean Smart and Brad Pitt where she tells the fading screen star “Your time has run out. There is no why. Film is bigger than you. No one asks to be left behind.” Telling him how he will live forever on celluloid, the columnist says, “You’ve been given a gift. Be grateful.” And Pitt’s character, in an earlier scene, states, “What I do means something to millions of people. For real people, on the ground, it means something.” He tells Olivia Wilde’s character (Ina) to spare him the pretentious notes on his reading of a script, expressing some disgust at those who try to characterize film as “a low art” and, instead, enshrine Ibsen and Strindberg and the theater.

The general critical consensus has been bad for the film among both critics and audiences. I understand that, as so many of the scenes are well over-the-top and, I’m sure, offensive to many. The opening scene with the elephant and elephant dung is but one example. There is a later one involving Margot Robbie at a party rejecting the urgings to be “elegant” and become more like the group at the party with whom she is associating. She tries, but fails, to “act” respectable, since her original nickname was “the wild child.” Now, she is to eschew her Jersey roots and act well-behaved, but she rejects that advice in a way that goes beyond the norm. She literally smears food all over her face, insults everyone at the party, and, ultimately, projectile vomits both outside the house and inside on a newly-purchased expensiv rug. It’s a bit much. The orgy scenes and naked bodies may have been necessary (although the golden shower scene with a Fatty Arbuckle type was a bit much) and the descent into the depths of depravity in L.A. that Tobey Maguire insists Manny and companion take with him was overkill.

The film cost a lot ($80 million) and when you see the voluminous cast list, it isn’t surprising. Not only does it have two of the biggest current stars in Hollywood (Pitt and Robbie) but it seems to have everyone else who might have been hanging around. My favorite small part was the inclusion of Eric Roberts. Roberts undoubtedly holds the record for most American movie appearances ever.

A lot of the scenes screamed gross—like the vomiting one and dung-spewing elephant. You  get the feeling that the creative license to try new things led to throwing everything but the kitchen sink at the wall.

Another thing that swelled the film’s length from a normal hour and a half to over three hours was the emphasis on the music. Chazelle has highlighted the music of his collaborator, Justin Hurwitz. Although trumpet player character Sidney Palmer (Jovan Adepo) admitted  that he did not really play the trumpet, the film focuses on the band and its performances. I don’t have an exact count of how many minutes this occupies, but it was substantial.

Another source pointed out that the film’s release in competition against “Avatar” was not great marketing.

Outside the door of the Alama Drafthouse Theater the day I saw it was a warning that the final scenes, paying tribute to many other movies that have gone before, might cause viewers to have seizures, if they were vulnerable.

I salute the effort to capture Hollywood magic of the 1920-1930 in a bottle, but it just didn’t work.

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