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 2 of 18

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.

“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.

“One Way,” “American Assassin,” and “The Nanny:” Films at Christmas (Streaming)

We are currently watching “One Way.” Drea De Matteo, from “The Sopranos,” has a roleas Vic, as do Kevin Bacon and Colson Baker, otherwise known as Machine Gun Kelly. Travis Fimmel is another in the cast, and it is rated “R” on Amazon Prime for $4.99.

It will be interesting to see if Machine Gun Kelly is much of an actor, so the $4.99 price tag seems worth it. The film, by Andrew Baird, is an indie thriller and, so far, Colson (i.e., Machine Gun) is on a bus and attempting to escape. He portrays Freddy, who has stolen some coke and is on the lam. Freddy may not have thought out this heist too completely, as he seems to have sustained a gunshot to his abdomen.

The background music is pretty hard core and the person being tortured, Mac, is a Machine Gun Kelly knock-off, pink hair and all. Some commenters on ratings pages have mentioned that they had difficulty hearing all the dialogue because of the volume of the background music, but it is compelling and carries and sustains the suspense and momentum.

Two nights ago I watched “The Nanny,” another indie film, which had some good acting within it. The young nanny from Senegal, Aisha, (Anna Diopp) was good in her part, but the ending was rather abrupt. She was hired as the nanny for a couple, portrayed by Michelle Monaghan and Morgan Spector.  They don’t pay her what she is owed, and the boss even makes a pass at her. However, the film, which seems to be heading toward a tragic ending, has a rather sudden happy ending, so there’s that. Anna Diopp was impressive in her role.

I followed that up with a film called “American Assassin” which caught my eye as something being streamed live by YouTube. Every few minutes a message would appear on the screen saying, “We’ll be back in 1 minute and 58 seconds.” The film would buffer. Michael Keaton would be training assassins of the Navy Seal variety and acting all tough. I like Michael Keaton very much, but I prefer films in which he has witty dialogue, which he never fails to deliver well. [I’m still stuck on “Night Shift,” one of his very first films, with Henry Winkler as his boss.]

I had been eagerly awaiting Damian Chazelle’s “Babylon” film, but the advance word from those who have seen it is not positive. I met Chazelle at the premiere of “La La Land” at the Chicago International Film Festival” and he was very, very nice. I look forward to all of his films, and I’ll see this one, regardless of the bad reviews I’ve encountered.

Drea is playing a bad girl known as Vic. She and her minions have just murdered the Machine Gun Kelly look-alike (Mac), after torturing him to try to find out where the real Machine Gun Kelly had gone with their illegal product.

Time to start concentrating on the plot. So far, it is holding my attention better than either of the two mentioned above.

“Sheet Music” by Jaran Huggins Screens at Nashville Film Festival

It’s hard to grab an audience’s attention in 15 minutes. The attention span of the average audience member is about that of a gnat, especially these days, with so many things competing for our attention.

That being said, if I had been in Writer/Director/Producer Jaran Huggins’ shoes while writing directing his short “Sheet Music,” I would have started the 15-minute short with the song that concludes “Sheet Music.”

What song?

“The Song We Sing,” is the song,  performed by Chloe Kibble, a Nashville girl whose father was one of the members of the group “Take6.” She is truly wonderful delivering the closing original song; her gold dress is the perfect wardrobe choice.

Kudos to the writer of the song, Bryard Huggins, who wrote the lyrics. He is an accomplished performer who tours with Gladys Knight as her featured guest artist. Bryard has released 6 albums and 7 singles. Bryard Huggins is the brother of “Sheet Music” Writer/Director/Producer Jaran Huggins, a recent graduate of Temple University (BFA in Film and Media Arts.)

“Sheet Music”—the 15-minute short that Jaran created, which screened at the 53rd Nashville Film Festival— has some things going for it, but most of what makes it truly riveting happens in the final frames, when Chloe Kibble lets loose with “The Song We Sing.” Yowza! That girl can sing! I wanted to hear more of Chloe and to hear her sing much earlier in the short.

The plot, according to the press notes, “Tells the story of two Black performers who are able to find their liberation in the roots of oppression.” There really is not much evidence of “oppression” onscreen, other than the white usher failing to bring the about-to-perform female singer a glass of water.

For the first approximately 13 minutes, nothing happens.

Two Black performers wait backstage to perform in a white establishment in a Black neighborhood. The two are Adryan Coogan Jr. (played by Ty Norwood Jr.) and Leilani Drakeford (played by J.C. Willis). Leilani did a credible job with a not-very-riveting script. Her inability to get the white usher to bring her a drink of water is our clue that she and her accompanist are victims of oppression, along with a less-than-welcoming white doorman who opens the club door for the duo.

The production designer (Kimberly Redman) has done a fantastic job of reproducing a slightly down-at-the-heels small dressing room of the era. There are appropriate posters and, as J.C says, the dressing room is a small closet that might have belonged to the janitor. Then again, are dressing rooms in small, seedy establishments glitzy, as a general rule?

The conflict that Jaran shows us comes from Adryan forgetting the duo’s sheet music. The lead singer (J.C. Willis)—one half of the team billed outside as “Adryan Coogan Jr. and J.C. Willis” of “The All American Ragtime Blues” duo—doesn’t seem that concerned about the missing sheet music. However, the pair is waiting for their call to go onstage, which is imminent. Because of the MIA sheet music, the pair ultimately walks out, hand-in-hand down the alley.

This struck me as a poor way to launch a singing career (or any career). I was not overwhelmed at the logic of the two getting a shot at performing in front of an audience (that will be mostly white) and simply walking out, leaving the club owner to deal with the fall-out.

So, to sum up: 1) Slow opening

2) Not very interesting dialogue; the first 13 minutes dragged.

3)  Adequate articulation of the dialogue (better from Leilani Drakeford than from Ty Norwood, Jr.). For me, the couple’s decision to stiff the owner of the night club and run off was a very bad idea for a duo trying to jump start their performing career.

4) Great sets and costumes. (Kudos, Kimberly Redman).

5) Great performance of the song  “The Song We Sing.”

I’m not sure whether this short was originally created for a thesis at Temple or if it is merely a way for Jaran to launch a film career, but, if he is as talented as his brother Bryard, his anticipated move to Los Angeles may prove fruitful. There wasn’t enough of the music, but the one song was thoroughly enjoyable. After 13 minutes of waiting for it, it was like a cool drink after a long hot walk up a steep hill.

This Harriet Tubman quote from the press notes is prominent: “Every dream begins with a dreamer who dares to dream.” I don’t  want to get into a debate with Harriet Tubman, but the quote made me think of that other oft-used quote (author unknown): “Every journey of 1,000 miles begins with one small step.”

Both are true, but it would be a good idea to have talent, drive, stick-to-it-iveness, and maybe some influence with somebody at the top who can help you as you dream your dream or struggle towards your goal(s).

I wish Jaran Huggins the very best as he sets about making his dreams come true.

As for me, I would have started with the show-stopping song and lost most of the dialogue that preceded it. The conflict was not that evident in the dressing room scenes that lead up to the song.

Sitting through the pointless dialogue at the outset was still worth it, to hear Chloe Kibble, who was glorious. I wish she had had more to do (and sing) in the film.

 

Nashville Film Festival Screens “Still Working 9 to 5” on Sunday, October 2, 2022

Back in 1981, Dolly Parton’s theme song snagged an Oscar nomination for the film “9 to 5.” (Her song lost to the theme from “Fame”).

Some 42 years later the documentary “Still Working 9 to 5” by Camille Hardman and Gary Lee is playing the Nashville Film Festival. It is a documentary that heralds and memorializes the struggles of working women for “raises, rights and respect.” Women have, historically, been valued less than their male counterparts in the work force. That realization caused star Jane Fonda, in partnership with Gary Lane, to try to make a film that would be informative on this topic.

In 1970, one in every three women in the work force was engaged in clerical work, generally as a secretary. There were 20 million such office workers in the 1970s and they were routinely subjected to sexual harassment, poorer wages than their male co-workers and many other inequities. Not only were the women’s good ideas co-opted by male superiors (and then presented as the men’s own) but the women were often not promoted when they were as qualified (or more qualified) than the male worker (whom they had often trained). The men got the promotion. One line from the film that particularly resonated with me, an excuse for this obviously unfair labor practice: “Well, he does have a family to support.”

My own father (born in 1902) refused to support me in my desire to go to law school after completing my undergraduate degree, because there was a perception that there were “women’s jobs” and “men’s work. One male interviewee on the street articulated it this way in the documentary: “They (women) should do feminine work.” In the 60s, feminine work was being a nurse, a secretary, or a teacher. Other fields were not “suitable” because we women would just be taking up space that should rightfully be occupied by a male head of a family. (Oh, how time have changed!)

It was attitudes like these that were foisted on the American female work force and caused one worker, Lilly Ledbetter, to ultimately sue, when she learned that she was one of four managers doing exactly the same job as her three male co-workers, but the men were being paid $6,000 a month while she was being paid only $3,000 a month. Women in general, made only 60 cents on the dollar in the late 70s and the gender pay gap In the U.S. meant that we ranked #51 on a list of the world’s most equitable work forces. A white woman worker at the time the film was released (1980) made 79 cents on the dollar in comparison with a male worker, while a Latino female worker fell even further behind, making only 54 cents on the dollar  when compared to a man.

When Lilly Ledbetter sued in Alabama, the resulting bill, the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Restitution Act was the first bill that Barack Obama signed as President in 2009. The characters in the original “9 to 5”—Lily, Violet and Doralee—needed their jobs. They were not simply working to supplement their spouse’s incomes. They were career women before society allowed women to have lucrative careers. Only 6 out of every 100 of the clerical staff, if female, ever advanced to management in the 70s.

As nearly the only girl in my group of 10 high school female friends with a working Mom (a schoolteacher), I lived through that era. It was “okay” for a woman to be a nurse, a secretary, or a teacher, but when I mentioned becoming a lawyer, my father  expressed the same sentiments that the men on the street in this documentary articulated. It was (then) okay for a woman to have a job to supplement her husband’s income, (or as a hobby), but “real work” was for men.

This double standard caught the attention of Jane Fonda, well-known (and often vilified) for embracing and examining important cultural issues and trying to make a difference. Some called “9 to 5” a “militant feminist cry.” Others termed it “a breakout cultural moment.” As a busy rebel and pusher of causes, Fonda knew she wanted Lily Tomlin for the cast. Dolly Parton entered, Fonda said, when she heard Dolly singing on the radio; it occurred to her that Parton could probably act as well as sing.  One of the screenwriters had originally envisioned the film focusing on 5 women, but that number was whittled down to 3.

Fonda also realized that “a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down.” She and Gary Lane understood that comedy rather than drama was the best way to get their message across.  Colin Higgins—writer of such hits as “The Best Liittle Whorehouse in Texas,” “Harold and Maude,” “Foul Play” and “Silver Streak” —was brought in to write and direct.

Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin, and Dolly Parton in ‘Still Working 9 to 5.”

The studio wanted a movie star, not a television actor.  Dabney Coleman (now 90) was known for television appearances on shows such as “The Love Boat,” “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman,” and “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.” The studio preferred that either Steve Martin or Richard Dreyfuss play the part of Frank Hart, the sexist, egotistical, lying, hypocritical bigot (think Trump on steroids).

The film went on to become the second highest-grossing film of the year, second only to “The Empire Strikes Back,” taking in $100, 409, 707 at the box office. This documentary—which reunites Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin, Dolly Parton, Dabney Coleman, and other commenters, like Rita Moreno—  is shot against the backdrop of the turbulent years of the ERA (Equal Rights Amendment) movement, with Phyllis Schlafly’s Eagle Forum mobilizing opposition to giving women equal rights under the Constitution. (The ERA bill missed the deadline for passage and so never became law; my silver bracelet is still in my jewelry box.) The Clarence Thomas Supreme Court hearings are also revisited.

When asked if they intended to light the fire of feminine revolt against injustice back in 1980 with their movie “9 to 6” Fonda said, “Secretaries are lighting the fire; we’re just fanning the flames.” As one protest sign said, “Women are pissed off about being pissed on.”

When the Broadway version of “9 to 5” came to Broadway in 2009 (and again in a 2019 revival) it was quite interesting to see Harvey Weinstein (THE Harvey Weinstein), an investor in the play, say, “This play could run forever simply on the attitude of employees toward their boss. I know that everyone in my company wants to kill me.”

It was a great film back in 1980 and it’s a great documentary for the U.S to contemplate.— then and now. There’s also a new rendition of the Oscar-nominated theme song, featuring Kelly Clarkson and Dolly Parton.

“Jacir” Opens Up Worthwhile Discussion of U.S. Attitudes Towards Immigrants at Nashville Film Festival on September 30, 2022

“Jacir” at the 53rd Nashville Film Festival.

“Jacir” screened on Friday, September 30th, at the 53rd Annual Nashville Film Festival. It is the story of a refugee, Jacir, as he flees Aleppo (Syria) and tries to assimilate into the ghetto (Memphis, Tennessee). Written and directed by Waheed AlQawasmi, the 1 hour and 44 minute film is filled with great performances, good rap music, and a variety of profound insights into what life as an immigrant in the United States is like.”

Synopsis: “JACIR follows the life of a young Syrian refugee (Malek Rahbani) on the streets of Memphis, Tennessee, as he faces the stark reality of chasing the American dream. He finds himself alone, living in poverty, without knowledge of the culture, and struggling with his poor English… very far from the ideal new life he imagined.” (”Land of the free. Bullshit!”)

Jacir is a Good Samaritan who tries to help others. This propensity for being there for others gets him into trouble with the immigration authorities and his sponsor, Adam (Tony Mehanna). The authorities, represented by Agent Simmons (Mark Jeffrey Miller), just want refugees to become ghosts. Don’t make waves is the operating mantra.

Jacir, however, is the kind of person who tries to help others out of empathy and instinct. He saves his neighbor’s life on one occasion and intervenes when she is being robbed by burglars. This causes his name to appear on police reports, which brings ICE authorities down on him, causing increased scrutiny of his paperwork and an actual chase through the streets of Memphis. He faces deportation until a climactic moment when others reach out to help him.

A strange new environment is the least of Jacir’s problems. He befriends a cat, Morty, who belongs to his next-door neighbor, Meryl Jackson (Lorraine Bracco) “Good old Meryl” is a conservative Caucasian lady who is an opioid-addicted shut-in and former blues singer. Her character represents a large swath of America who reflexively reject people from another country as interlopers, reacting with suspicion and hostility, no matter how friendly the stranger appears. Unwelcoming is an understatement.

Tremendous Thespian Trio

“Jacir” at the 53rd Nashville Film Festival.

The three leads portraying Meryl, Jacir and Jerome are terrific. They are ably supported by the actors playing the restaurant boss, Adam, and his daughter, Nadia.

Lorraine Bracco, who plays Jacir’s next-door neighbor, is an Oscar, Emmy, and Golden Globe nominee known for her turns in Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas and David Chase’s The Sopranos, among many other films and TV projects. Bracco gets the line, “I’m not good at a lot of things, but I am good at listening.” I’m certain I’m not the only “Sopranos” fan in the audience who immediately thought of Bracco’s stint on that show as Tony Soprano’s psycho-therapist, Dr. Jennifer Melfi, a role she played from 1999 to 2007. That whiskey quality in her voice made her character’s back story as a blues singer very believable and gave her singing of the song “Night by Night” authenticity. Meryl, as a widowed woman estranged from her only son, finally “does the right thing” and accepts Jacir’s overtures of friendship and good will, instead of continuing her initial racist diatribes. Her performance is in line with her outstanding role in “Goodfellas” in 1990 for which she received an Oscar nomination as Best Supporting Actress at the 1991 Academy Awards.

Malek Rahbani is the grandson of Mansour Rahbani, the Lebanese composer, musician, producer, and one-half of the Rahbani brothers. Malek grew up surrounded by artists, music, and poetry. His TV career includes playing Tiger on Chawareh Al-Zill and co-writing and acting in the Jungle Law series, which he worked on with his brothers, Mansour and Tarek. He is one of a formidable trio of lead actors in this thoughtful film, gradually growing close to “good old Meryl” and experiencing rejection from his employer and sponsor, Adam, who tells him, “I curse the day I sponsored you.”

The third member of the Terrific Trio of actors in this exploration of the refugee experience in the United States is Black comedian and actor Darius “Tutweezy” Tutwiler, a  comedian and social influencer with over 700,000 followers on Instagram. Jerome, a co-worker of Jacir’s at the Arabic restaurant shares the realization that they are both outcasts in this country, shunned and discriminated against. At one point, Jerome tells Jacir that he is “one step closer to being a Memphis n—-.” Jacir’s showing up in a Trump/Pence shirt that says, “Making America Great Again” is a nice sarcastic touch (Jerome makes Jacir change).

Justin Toland composed the music; Al Kapone executive produced the rap song. The music is an integral part of the film. Like America itself, reactions to Jacir are a polyglot mélange of racist views that one might hear from the MAGA crowd (especially prominent in a restaurant scene). Against that fabric we see the hopeful attempts to fit in and be useful from the good-hearted Jacir, the general indifference of white residents like Meryl and the immigration officials, and the brave souls who recognize that Jacir is deserving of their compassion and empathy.

The script is insightful and thought-provoking. The character of Jerome makes it very clear that being Black in America is not much better than being an immigrant refugee; the destruction of the restaurant where Jerome and Jacir work, with graffiti saying “Sand N——” underscores the truth of what Jerome says. (“We go through the same shit, fool!”) Cinematography by Ryan Earl Parker depicts Memphis’ Beale Street almost as though it were a fever dream reflection of the nightmares that afflict Jacir routinely as he remembers the war-torn Syria from which he fled.

I nodded my head in agreement when the screenplay articulated the thought, “It’s just so much easier to tear things down than to build them up.” These are concepts that people like Steve Bannon should take to heart. Convicted con-man Bannon promotes “the second turning” of complete destruction of all established norms and authorities in interviews. (See “American Dharma”).

As the script points out, it seems as though “Everyone (in America) is just out for themselves.” But Jacir is living up to his mother’s words that he should stay strong and composed no matter what happens. He is one of the “good guys” whose assimilation can make our country stronger and cancel out the evil deeds of immigrants like those who perpetrated the Boston Marathon Bombing. It is easier to understand why a foreigner might strike out against his adopted country when we experience life seen through Jacir’s eyes. And, on the eve of Hurricane Ian, we must remember that good does still exist in this country, with strangers reaching out to help their fellow man, side-by-side with those who would collaborate to use pandemic funds set aside for hungry school children in Minnesota to buy personal luxuries. Even World Famous quarterbacks are implicated in immensely selfish behavior, but good people still exist, just as welcoming citizens balance out the racist isolationists.

At one point, Jacir cries out in agony, asking where he is supposed to be at home, since he has been driven from his own homeland and is now being rejected by his adopted country. However, as Jacir says, “When you have a couple of bullets fly past your head—at that point neither religion, money or citizenship will help you out.”

This is a great film with a Terrific Trio of three lead actors who make it work. The love interest is Leila Almas Rose as the feisty Nadia and the critical look at the U.S. and how we treat immigrants is both scathing and long-overdue. Both newcomers, “Tutweezy” and Malek Rahbani, do themselves and the film proud on what I hope will be the beginning of many future film appearances for each of them.

“Wannabe” Screens at the Nashville Film Festival on September 29, 2022

 

“Wannabe” is a 13 minute 33 second short written and directed by USC graduate Josie Andrews that will screen at the Nashville Film Festival, which opens September 29th.

It is bound to impress, as it is very slick, sophisticated, and timely—not necessarily in that order.

Quite apart from the original song performed in the short (“Control,” written by Michael Lloyd, Greg O’Connor and Writer/Director Josie Andrews, and performed by the Alley Kats), two things stood out, to me, about this impressive short.

First, the Director’s statement (from Josie Andrews), who graduated Salutatorian of her USC 2018 film class, and, second, the setting of the short, of which Director Andrews said: “We were lucky enough to shoot our performance + exterior scenes at Sunset Strip’s iconic Viper Room before its demolition while all backstage spaces were replicated and built on stage at USC.”

Director Josie Andrews with lead Jada (Margo Parker) on the set of “Wannabe.”

Here, in her own words, is Josie Andrews’ story of the inspiration for the short film’s story:

“Although I knew I wanted to be a storyteller from the day I was born, this is not a story I ever thought I’d tell.

I got my toes wet doing community theater and by second grade I was scouring backstage.com for auditions in New York, calling everyone in my parents’ phone book, begging someone to take me.  To all of our shock, I booked my first national tour at 8 years old and continued on to perform full-time.

While my many years onstage taught me what it meant to be a good collaborator, it did not teach me what it meant to be a woman navigating Hollywood.  Graduating early and moving to L.A.on my own at 16, other women’s stories in acting classes reinforced that objectification and harassment were commonplace and not to be questioned.  So, when I entered USC as an undergraduate acting major and utilized my student status to intern at places such as Lionsgate, NBC Universal and The Weinstein Company, I thought I had no choice but to tolerate explicit texts and inappropriate advances from my superiors.

1st Assistant Director Becca Han with Margo Parker, Victoria T. Washington and Daisy  in “Wannabe” at the Nashville Film Festival.

It wasn’t until an unknown assailant broke into my hotel room and raped me while I was traveling out of the country that my capacity for abuse reached a boiling point. For the first time in my life, I went to the police only to be told that despite security tapes and witnesses, pressing charges would involve staying in the country for a lengthy trial, thus not returning to school.

While my body returned to school, my spirit did not. Void of confidence, I dropped my major and stopped performing altogether, losing my identity.  But hiding in the back of a cinema studies lecture, I had a revelation:  perhaps I was still a storyteller, just a different kind than I initially thought. Perhaps the real agency lay behind the camera; perhaps that’s where I had to be to regain my own.

Wannabe is not just a plea to believe those who have come forward, but a cry to consider the thousands who have not.”

Ms. Andrews has woven the story of a girl band from the raw material of her personal experience coping with rape. In these days of MeToo, the mention of Harvey Weinstein is enough. It took investigative journalism by Mia Farrow’s son Ronan and brave victims to ultimately bring Weinstein to justice after years of abuse.

Daisy Lopez getting touched up in “Wannabe.”

From this raw material, Josie Andrews has fashioned the story of a girl band trio. the Space Girls, that is auditioning in the hopes of catching on with a producer who can help them achieve stardom. The role of the record producer who offers them a helping hand is played by veteran music producer Peter Zizzo as Landon.

Zizzo, in real life, has a lengthy history of musical successes in producing records for many well-known groups and soloists, including Jennifer Lopez, Celine Dion, Avril Lavigne, Jason Mraz, Billy Porter, Brie Larson, M2M, Pixie Lott,
BeBe and CeCe Winans (Grammy Winner: Best Gospel Album). Here he plays a straight dramatic supporting role.

 

As the female trio concludes their performance of the (original) song “Control” the lead singer, Jada (Margo Parker, known from Lifetime’s “If Walls Could Talk,” “Girls Night Out,” and “Retrograde L.A.”) recognizes the man taking notes on a clipboard leaning against the bar as her rapist. He feigns complete ignorance and innocence of the crime.

The Space Girls—lead singer Jada, Sky (Daisy Lopez) and Bianca (Victoria T. Washington)—are eager to be given that Big Break that every wannabe group dreams of, but should Jada agree to work with the man who raped her but suffered no consequences?

The fabled L.A. Viper Room.

She is obviously torn, and the group members are, as well. There is even a suggestion that Jada may not be positive that Landon (Peter Zizzo) was the true culprit.

This was the first USC post-pandemic production, and it is the product of a largely All Female cast. Cinematography was by Luke Evans; Production design by Colin Sheehan; Art direction by Hannah Kelly; Costume Design by Cristina Acevedo; Music by Greg O’Connor and Michael Lloyd; and Editing by Foustene Fortenbach.

Aside from the performance by the fictional group, which is good, the recreation of the Viper Room on a back lot is impressive. The L.A. hang-out was  partially owned by Johnny Depp until 2004.  It was the famous location outside of which actor River Phoenix collapsed and died on October 31, 1993, almost 30 years ago. River Phoenix was only 23 years old. He died of what is popularly known as a speedball, ingested at the club. (A speedball is a combination of heroin and cocaine.)

The once-thriving nightclub the Viper Room is being razed. If you ever wondered what the Viper Club looked like inside, this might be your only chance to find out.

Kudos to the nearly All Female cast and crew that has produced “Wannabe.” Very well-done and very professional in every respect. You get the impression that the “wannabes” are on their way to becoming successful in the film industry.

(Pictured, Writer/Director Josie Andrews with star of “Wannabe” Margo Parker, as Jada.)

“Vengeance” (B.J. Novak) Is A Great First-Time Film from “The Office” Star

The film “Vengeance” is written and directed by B.J. Novak of “The Office” fame. The synopsis of the plot reads: “A writer from New York City attempts to solve the murder of a girl he hooked up with, and travels down South to investigate the circumstances of her death and discover what happened to her.”

As the film opens, B.J.—who plays the main character Ben Manalowitz in a sort of early Woody Allen-esque fashion modeled on the “Annie Hall” template—is out and about in New York City with John Mayer, the singer. Mayer essentially plays himself. It is well-known that the singer (“Your Body Is A Wonderland”) has practically made a career out of dating numerous female pop icons. The conversation between Mayer’s character (John) and B.J.’s character of Ben, which seems to take place atop a New York City rooftop party, is all about hooking up with various women on a casual basis. The two are using their cell phones to revisit past and present conquests and agreeing with one another (without really communicating) with the rote response “100% !”

The next step in the plot has Ben (B.J. Novak) answering a late-night phone call from someone who says his name is Ty Shaw (Boyd Holbrook). Ty describes himself as the brother of a one-time hook-up of Ben’s named Abilene Shaw (Lio Tipton). Ty assumes that Ben will be coming South to Texas for Abilene’s funeral. Ben is at a loss to process this suggestion, as he barely remembers Abilene at all.

Where, in Texas, is this home town? Three hours from Dallas and five hours from Abilene, so literally in the middle of  nowhere in west Texas. Ben tries to beg off, saying, “I’ll be there in spirit,” which causes Ty (the brother) to respond that he will pick Ben up from the Spirit Airlines terminal at the airport.

Ben does fly to Texas, because he has the idea that his experiences in rural Texas might provide good raw material for a podcast topic he is pitching to a radio executive, played by Issa Rae as Eloise.

When Ty picks Ben up at the airport, he lays out a case for Abilene, an aspiring singer, having been murdered. They are in Ben’s pick-up truck and  Ben is quite taken aback, exclaiming “I don’t avenge deaths. I don’t live in a Liam Neeson movie.” This leads to a wry conversation with Ty about Liam Neeson movies, with Ty proclaiming “Schindler’s List” to be “a huge downer.” Hard not to laugh.

It also sets up the scene at the burial of Abilene where Ben—who barely knew the girl—is asked to get up and say a few words about his “girlfriend.” Ben does an excellent job of uttering platitudes along the lines of “I never expected to be in a situation like this.” He goes on to mention banal remarks about “spending more time” with someone (“All of us”) and mentions how she “loved music.” It should be mentioned that Jessie Novak actually wrote one of the songs entitled “I Finished My Shift at Claire’s” and B.J. Novak gets credit for one with a title something like “When I Get Signal.” Andrea Von Foroester was in charge of the music and Cinematographer was Lyn Moncrief in this Jason Blum production.

The eulogy from Ben graveside gets him off the hook with the family (re his relationship with Abilene) for the moment, but, because he needs more material for his podcast proposal, Ben is talked into staying at the family home and actually sleeping in Abilene’s old childhood bedroom. Ben keeps humoring Ty in his quest for vengeance, which, in one insightful line, the script explains is the new reality that the truth is too hard to accept, so people are always looking for someone to blame. There are also some deep nuggets concerning social media adding to the proliferation of conspiracy theories and those who hold forth their own opinions as everyone’s truth (without proof), so the film is not just all fun and games and searching for killers who may or may not exist.

The piece starts out to be a somewhat snobbish look down Ben’s nose at the fly-over country he is visiting, a land where, according to the locals, “In Texas, we don’t dial 9-1-1.” It ends up failing to endorse the proposal that all city folk are smarter and sharper and better. The sincerity of the locals cannot fail to impress. However, you do come away with the impression that the bright lights of the rural Heartland won’t win fame and fortune unless they move to a city where their talent can be recognized, so you tell me if that is a vote for west Texas or, like Sam Kinnison’s act, someone screaming, “You live in the desert. Move to the water.”

As it turns out, Abilene—(who initially is misrepresented as someone “who wouldn’t even touch an Advil)—did have a bit of a drug problem, and the reason seems to be the dead-end life she was living in rural Texas, her New York City dreams having not panned out.

Abilene attended a party near an oil field, where cell reception was poor. The party took place at the intersection of four competing jurisdictions off Highway 29. This meant that neither the local Banefield Police Department (Officers Mike and Dan), the border patrol, the DEA, nor Sheriff Jimeniz really would care enough to investigate a party like the one where Abilene died, which seems to have been a routine event in the area.

The Shaws are a family where the younger brother of Abilene’s (Eli Bickel as Mason) is routinely referred to as “El Stupido.” When Ben objects to categorizing the middle school-aged boy this way, Ty, his older brother, says, “It’s okay. He doesn’t speak Spanish.”

Ty is portrayed as “a good old boy” and a typical Texan. Only Quentin Sellers seems to have a clue about the Big City. At one point in the dialogue, Ashton Kutcher’s character mentioned that he had moved to this godforsaken spot from another state. I’d have to see it again to tell you if it was Iowa or Idaho, but we all know that, IRL, Ashton is from the Cedar Rapids/Amana area, so please let me know if Iowa got a plug.

The movie makes fun of the Texas fascination with the Whataburger franchise. The simplistic reason for liking it is given as “because it’s right there.” However, when Ty is pushed to explain further, he says, “You just love it, and that’s how love works.” This “heart to heart” theme comes off as perhaps superior to the lack of compassion or empathy evinced by city dwellers, early in the film.

Many of the snobby Jewish boy’s pre-conceived impressions about the South are shown up for what they are: prejudice. In a revealing debate with one of Abilene’s sisters (Isabella Amara as Paris Shaw) about literature, it becomes clear that Paris has actually read the source material, while Ben has not. (Harry Potter books abound in Abilene’s bedroom, thanks to 2 female set decorators who grew up in San Antonio and are about the same age as Abilene of the film.) Ben is merely reciting rote opinions without being as well-informed as this Texas high school girl, but he has retained an air of superiority. Alex Jones, without the shouting.

Ashton Kutcher, who has not appeared in a major movie role since roughly 2013 (“Jobs”) appears as Quentin Sellers. The Iowa-born native recently revealed that he had been suffering from “a super rare form of Vasculitis” that he contracted three years ago. The disease attacks the veins and arteries and is an auto-immune disorder that involves inflammation and can cause organ failure or aneurysms in its most severe form. Kutcher said, “Like two years ago, I had this weird, super-rare form of vasculitis,” Kutcher shared these experiences in an exclusive video clip released to “Access Hollywood” from an upcoming episode of National Geographic’s “Running Wild with Bear Grylls: The Challenge.”

“Knocked out my vision, knocked out my hearing, knocked out like all my equilibrium. It took me like a year to build it all back up.”

Therefore, it was a treat to see a healthy 44-year-old white-clad Kutcher playing Quentin Sellers, founder of the Quentin Sellers Music Factory in the middle of Texas. Quentin gives an inspiring speech about “all these bright creative lights with nowhere to plug in their energy,” as he holds himself out as a music impresario in the middle of nowhere. His wardrobe is a plus (mostly white) and he looks great.

The writing is extremely insightful. The actors do well with their parts, and, for a first-time director, Novak has hit a home run. The dry humor (see trailer) leaves you laughing out loud.

My only criticism would be the denouement of the film. It seemed out of character for the protagonist. I won’t say any more than that, because this is one you’ll want to rent and enjoy for yourself.

I look forward to B.J. Novak’s next writer/director outing.

“Low Cut Connie” Cuts Loose At Raccoon Motel on August 3, 2022

Low Cut Connie’s” Adam Weiner.

The live show at the Raccoon Motel on August 3rd, Wednesday, in Davenport, Iowa, featuring Low Cut Connie lasted for an hour and a half, beginning at midnight. It was like an All Night Energy Infusion, even if it was 1:30 a.m. on a weeknight when it ended.

The doors opened at 9 p.m. A lead-in group was scheduled prior to the main event. I actually called the venue in the afternoon and was told that the headliner (Adam Weiner) probably would not start before 10:30 p.m. or 11:00 p.m. We drove over around 10 p.m. and that projection was optimistic.

The main act did not commence until midnight, at which point headliner Adam Weiner expressed his relief that the crowd was still there at midnight on a Wednesday night. He expressed anxiety over whether the crowd would have gone home, but the roughly 100 fans present were rewarded with a true high energy rendering of the band’s songs.

I have some great video, but I have written to the publicist(s) for permission to post same, as I am currently on Double Secret Probation (or whatever they call it at YouTube) for posting one 30-second song from Bryan Adams’ “Candle in the Wind” tour (or whatever he called it when he played in Moline six years ago). YouTube has restricted all postings in recent years. Postings of various Rolling Stones concerts and others are still up and were not attacked as postings today have been. The threat: my account would be terminated if I were to sin again.

Frankly, I always thought that groups that were touring would welcome free publicity, if positive, but the group, itself, told YouTube to remove the short snippet, which notified me and put a big “Restricted” banner on my account that remained for the past 6 years. I had to go to “copyright” school and—mind you—this was for a mere 30-second spot from their concert. Understandable that a group would not want audience members to give away the store, but the particular song I wanted to use was posted from a previous concert in Miami by another YouTuber, which I then used, instead.   I am still wondering about the harsh nature of YouTube today and working to make sure that there will be no blow-back if I post some truly great video footage of Adam Weiner scaling his piano for the crowd’s enjoyment (while playing).

If it were possible for Adam Weiner to turn himself inside out to please the crowd, I think he would do that for his audience. I was front and right, front row. Weiner reached out and shook my hand. A bobblehead at 10 o’clock kept trying for physical contact, but Adam was too quick for him, most of the time. (*A Bobblehead is someone who goes absolutely batshit crazy at a concert, flailing around, throwing their fist in the air and, in this case, constantly reaching out and trying to touch the lead singer. Did I mention singing along so that the rest of us can’t hear the artist? That, too.)

Supporters include Elton John, Barack Obama, Howard Stern, Bruce Springsteen and  all of the respected music review magazines, such as “Rolling Stone.” Low Cut Connie performed as part of the festivities for the inauguration of President Joe Biden, appearing at a show called a Love Letter to Pennsylvania. In May of 2015, Low Cut Connie met President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama at the White House in a special meeting arranged by White House photographer Pete Souza and former President Obama listed them on his summer listening list of artists.

The COVID-19 crisis and the resulting shut-down of the live music industry forced Low Cut Connie off the road in early 2020. With music venues shuttered and his touring band in quarantine, Weiner performed a livestream concert for a virtual audience out of his South Philadelphia home beginning on March 19, 2020.   The show was dubbed Tough Cookies as a tribute to the band’s  devoted fan base.  Tough Cookies  received critical praise for its intimacy (Weiner sometimes performed in his bathrobe) and for Weiner’s high energy performance style. On December 21, 2020, The New Yorker published a full-length feature on the Tough Cookies variety show, naming Weiner “Pandemic Person of the Year” for his ongoing efforts to raise spirits during the  pandemic. We watched it quite regularly during the shutdown that began around March 13, 2021 (about the time I began my podcast).

We saw the band perform at Lucy’s Chicken in Austin, Texas “live” just prior to the pandemic shut-down, during the time that SXSW was in full swing. The performance on Wednesday night in Davenport, Iowa, was absolutely high-octane and superior to the Austin gig. Also, this time, the band performed the same song they performed on Seth Meyers’ late night show (“All These Kids Are Way Too High”), which they did not perform in Austin (despite repeated requests). Just when you think that the band can’t give the performance any more energy, they take it up a notch. At this show, even guitarist Will Donnelly climbed atop the piano briefly. My only criticism would be the “horn echo” effect in one song, which was very flat. (Lose the cornet echo).

The tickets to this remarkable night were only $20. The band’s tee shirts were also priced at that level and CDs on sale at the merchandise table were available for $5. It was a great night; the crowd went away very satisfied. The band was heading ultimately to the Minneapolis State Fair, where they would, no doubt, wow that crowd, too.

I’ve seen a lot of bands “live,” including the Beatles (San Francisco Cow Palace, 1965) and every Rolling Stones tour since 1982, but Low Cut Connie and Bruno Mars are the only bands working today with the fire and finesse of The Greats. If the media hadn’t already dubbed James Brown “the hardest-working man in show biz,” I’d nominate Adam Weiner (which, since James Brown has been dead for years, I’ll do right now.)

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