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: Of Local (Quad Cities’) Interest Page 2 of 51

The category is self-explanatory, but it would include new or old businesses, political elections, trends, restaurants in town, entertainment in town, etc.

Cancun, 2024, Is In the Books

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We have five more days in Paradise.

Here are some photos. Enjoy.

Daughter Stacey and granddaughter Elise Wilson in Cancun, Mexico.

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

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

Liz Carpenter

Liz Carpenter in action.

 

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

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

SUPPORTING LBJ

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

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

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

LIZ AND JFK’S ASSASSINATION

Christy Carpenter

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

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

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

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

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

BEAUTIFY AMERICA

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

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

WAR ON POVERTY

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

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

AFTER THE WHITE HOUSE

Abby Ginzberg

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

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

WOMEN’S MOVEMENT

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

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

THE ERA

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

PHYLLIS SCHLAFLY & EAGLE FORUM

Phyllis Schlafly

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

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

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

LIZ’s HUMOR

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

CONCLUSION:

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

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

“MoviePass/MovieCrash” Premieres at SXSW 2024

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

MONEY NEEDED

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

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

2 WHITE GUYS REPLACE THE 2 BLACK FOUNDERS

Chris Kelly

Chris Kelly, entrepreneur; investor in “MoviePass”

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

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

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

CASH CRUNCH

Muta' Ali Muhammad

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

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

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

NEGATIVE SPIRAL

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

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

LOWE & FARNSWORTH

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

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

CRIMINAL CHARGES

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

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

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

CONCLUSION

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Plastic People” At SXSW Describes A Harrowing Future

 

Ziya Tong.

Ziya Tong, one of the directors of Canada’s documentary “Plastic People.”

The Canadian documentary “Plastic People,” directed by Ben Addelman and Ziya Tong, had its World Premiere at SXSW on Saturday, March 9th, 2024. It is an absolutely terrifying piece of detective work, investigating how our fixation on plastic came to be and what plastic is doing to us. The synopsis said: “Plastic People is a landmark feature documentary that chronicles humanity’s fraught relationship with plastic and one woman’s mission to expose shocking new revelations about the impact of microplastics on human health.”

Directors of the Canadian documentary are Ben Addelman and Ziya Tong. Producers: Vanessa Dylyn, Stephen Paniccia.  Ben Addelman also wrote the screenplay.The film explores the origins of plastic (petroleum products) and suggests that, “Now we’re realizing that we made some big mistakes…We’re finding them wherever we look in the human body.”

Noting that 83% of tap water has plastic in it, the experts tell us, “We are slowly turning into plastic people.” Among other cheerily prophetic statements are these: “We are poisoning ourselves with our own hands. We are producing poisonous food.” And Christy Tyler, a PhD scientist says, “Every single person is exposed.”

BIG MONEY

Plastic People documentary at SXSW 2024.

“Plastic People” at SXSW 2024.

The income of makers of plastic is mind-boggling. With the efforts to curb the production of vehicles that use gas, the makers of plastic are looking at other ways to push up production and sales. One avenue was to support the single use of plastic, rather than recycling. Furthermore, says the film, the myth that some plastic can be recycled is pretty much that, since less than 10% of plastic, worldwide, gets recycled. (Forget the handy-dandy little recycle symbol.)

The film documents the following money made by big petroleum:

BASF – $65 billion

Exxon obil – $231 billion annual revenue

Dow Chemical – $48 billion

SABIC – $35 billion

Chevron Phillips – $3 billion

Plastic bottles used daily? 1.5 billion. Two million plastic bags are used every minute, amounting to 400 tons a year.

The film asks whether we want “to destroy the world to enrich a few?”

THE VERY BAD

plastic waste that is recyclable?

“Plastic People” at SXSW.

The entire message of the film is depressing. It doesn’t get any better when we see Dr. Celticki performing a brain operation and noting the presence of plastic that has crossed the blood-brain barrier. “If it can go to the brain, it can go everywhere,” he says. His message, “We are living in a synthetic world made mostly of plastic.”

Transferring all of this to an unborn generation means risking losing that entire generation. The effects of all of these chemicals on our bodies may not become clear for decades. What kinds of chemicals are we talking about?

Dibutylphthalate, Bisphonol A, Diethylnexyl phthalate, Decabro modiphenyl ether, hexabromo cyctodecane, perfluoralkyl and polyfluoralkyl nonyl phenol. All of them bad, of course.

All of these chemicals in our modern-day world have led to major increases in breast cancer, prostate cancer, and thyroid cancer. It is well-known that chronic inflammation is a precursor to serious illnesses. Fracking is another example of a very bad idea, health-wise.

In Portland, Texas a local resident talks about how the nearby Gulf Coast Growth Ventures Exxon Mobil plant spews pollution (1.6 tons of ethylene) and burns so brightly that you can come outside and read a newspaper at night.

PREVIOUS FILMS ABOUT POLLUTION

Plastic People documentary at SXSW.

“Plastic People” at SXSW.

Like the movie “Erin Brockovich,” Diane Wilson of San Antonio, who was defending the fishing industry, described taking on 10 chemical plants that were dumping 5 million gallons of toxic waste daily. (“Corporations do not have a conscience.”) She sued Formosa and won a $50 million-dollar settlement.  Her fight reminded me  of that waged against Teflon coating in frying pans by Mark Ruffalo’s character in the 2019 film “Dark Waters” or the 1998 John Travolta film “A Civil Action.”

RESOLUTIONS

Plastic People documentary

“Plastic People” documentary at SXSW 2024.

At film’s end, a Rwanda effort to curb single-use plastics is lauded, but its spokesperson says, “We need big countries to ban the use of single use plastic items.” The watchword is RESTRAIN and REDUCE (but nobody’s doing it).

CONCLUSION

This is not a “happy” film, but it is a necessary one. The scripted line, “Only when the problem becomes too big do we ask the questions” struck home. That sentiment also applies to climate change.  The weird weather anomalies that we are all experiencing now have come about because we have ignored a major problem for much too long.

One small bright spot was how the Philippines has done some clean-up of their extremely polluted shores. It followed right after the news that the big countries export their waste to the small countries, like the Philippines, something referred to as pollution colonialism. The prophetic word spoken to Dustin Hoffman in “The Graduate” (Plastics) has come back to haunt us Big Time.  What we are now seeing is described as “the embodiment of capitalism.”

After watching “Plastic People” I felt like I needed a drink, but straws are out now.

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

Bettendorf Talks

“Bettendorf Talks” cast.

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

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

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

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

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

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

T.J. Jagodowski

T.J. Jagodowski of “Bettendorf Talks.”

BACKGROUND

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

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

Tim Kazurinsky

Tim Kazurinsky

Tim Kazurinksy.

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

THE MATERIAL

Jack C. Newell

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

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

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

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

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

Bettendorf Talks cast

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

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

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

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

A couple representative lines:

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

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

THE GOOD

David Pasquesi

David Pasquesi of “Bettendorf Talks.”

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

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

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

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

CONCLUSION

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

Good luck to the team!

 

“Audrey” Has World Premiere at SXSW 2024

Jackie VanBeek as Ronnie in "Audrey".

“Audrey” at SXSW 2024.

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

BACKGROUND

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

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

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

AUDREY VERSUS NORAH

Norah and Audrey in 'Audrey."

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

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

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

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

THE GOOD

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

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

THE BAD

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

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

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

TONE

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

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

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

CONCLUSION

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

“Audrey” at SXSW 2024.

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

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

(Whatever happened to happy endings?) 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My intention for “Bettendorf Talks” was different.

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

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

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

“Halfrican American” TV Pilot.

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

See what I mean?

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

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

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

“Bettendorf Talks” cast.

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

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

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

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

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

I offered up this evidence of my own innocence:

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

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

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

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

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

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

David Pasquesi of “Bettendorf Talks.”

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

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

Jud Appatow

Executive Producer Judd Apatow.

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

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

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

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

Stormy Daniels

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

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

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

Judd Appatow, Erin Lee Car and Sarah Gibson at SXSW

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stormy Daniels

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

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

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

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

The “Stormy” team at the world Premiere.

 

Bodyguards for Stormy Daniels (2 of 4).

Stormy Daniels bodyguards on March 8 2024 at SXSW.

 

 

 

 

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

“Lions of Mesopotamia” World Premieres at SXSW 2024

 

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

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

THE GOOD

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

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

Iraqi National Team members, 2007.

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

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

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

Bombing of Baghdad, 2003.

Bombing of Baghdad, 2003.

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

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

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

THE BAD

Saddam Hussein statue falls.

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

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

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

CONCLUSION

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

“7 Beats Per Minute” At SXSW on March 8th, 2024: Cinematically Gorgeous

 

7 Beats Per Minute (Canada) – 2024 SXSW Film & TV Festival Official Selection

7 Beats Per Minute (Canada)

The documentary “7 Beats Per Minute,” helmed by Canadian/Chinese/Mongol director Yuqi Kang screened at SXSW on March 8th, Friday. The director of “A Little Wisdom,” which was named the Best Canadian Feature and is available on Amazon Prime, has done a cinematically gorgeous job with this World Premiere.

The documentary  tracks Chinese freediver Jessea Lu (Lu Wenjie) as she attempts to break the world record in freediving. Jessea Lu has won 15 Gold Medals in international competition. She seems to have a compulsion to go deeper and force herself “so close to death and close to the abyss.” Freediving seems less a sport than a compulsion to risk death. Jessea Lu trains herself to hold her breath for long periods of time and, during her world dive attempt, blacks out and is unconscious for nearly 8 minutes after reaching the surface. Her near-death experience causes her to return to the scene of what she later refers to as her “rebirth” in the Bahamas at the Blue Hole.

Every frame of this story of freedivers is like a stroll through a world class exhibit of paintings/photographs. The gorgeous cinematography is by a team of cinematographers (including underwater photography) supervised by Kalina Bertin and Alex Lampron. Filmmaker Yugi Kang followed Jessea Lu for five years. They became close.  Yuqi seems to be trying to get Jessea Lu to answer the question, “What is this need to go deeper?”Jessea Lu’s near-death experience causes her to return to the scene of what she later refers to as her “rebirth” in the Bahamas at the Blue Hole.

THE GOOD

Jessea Lu in "7 Beats Per Minute" at SXSW 2024

7 Beats Per Minute” at SXSW.

The images in this documentary are phenomenally beautiful. They are absolutely striking. Whether it is Jessea Lu standing on a cliff overlooking the ocean or the moon through a dark, cloudy sky, every image is beautifully shot and framed. Visually, it is a gorgeous film. The original music (Frannie Holder, Mario Sevigny, Lauren Belec) and sound design (Sasha Ratcliffe) contribute to the film’s appeal with whale-like noises.

The question of what compels Jessea Lu to dive ever deeper is answered somewhat by her response that she feels the existence of herself shrinking when in the water. In the water she feels safe and content. She especially feels that way when surrounded by the safety divers who accompany a freediver to the surface. These safety divers saved her life in 2018 at the Blue Hole in the Bahamas.

THE BAD

There are characters who wander into frame and speak. There is no identification of who “Francesca” is. “Kirk” is onscreen making several questionable pronouncements, yet not really very well identified, either. We eventually figure out that Kirk runs the school to train safety divers.

Kirk makes several remarks that seem tenuous at best.

For one, he says that the critical point of hypoxia is getting to the surface, but, because of the safety divers, “it’s not having to worry about your safety.”

WHAT? 

Just a few minutes later the dialogue onscreen (subtitles) remarks that “the tension is heavy and contagious” and that “fear is magnified.” Another Kirk pronouncement is “It’s absolutely a mental game.” I would agree that the diver’s mental state contributes to success or failure, but not breathing is much more a physical game than a mental game. The body fights for oxygen. During a deep dive like these, the diver feels that he/she is suffocating. That is physical, and not a “game” at all.

So, the gorgeous photography is breathtakingly beautiful. The attention to the details of who is speaking at any given moment: less impressive.

THE PSYCHOLOGICAL

Jessea Lu and Yuqi Kang in “7 Beats Per Minute” at SXSW on March 8, 2024.

Naturally, the near-death dive in 2018 is the climactic high point of the film, providing its most dramatic moments. I found it odd that, after Jessea Lu nearly dies during her attempt at breaking the world record and lies there, on deck, unconscious for nearly 8 minutes, the film later shows the team celebrating that day as her “rebirth.”

Jessea Lu even changed her birth date on her social media platforms to reflect the day she almost died in the Bahamas. Jessea Lu operates much differently than I do in memorializing days when bad things happened to her. I have blocked out the exact dates of my parents’ deaths, because it is so painful to remember. Jessea Lu has embraced the date on which she almost died and celebrates it. We can argue that she DID live and, therefore, it is a happy day for her, but is it really?

Because Yuqi,  the filmmaker, is constantly probing to find out what makes Jessea Lu tick, we learn much, much more about her potential motives for freediving. Jessea Lu recounts a first suicide attempt at the age of six.

Her mother and father split when she was young. Her mother told Jessea Lu when she was eight, that she would be better off if Jessea Lu were dead. Words that describe Jessea Lu are “lonely” and “heartbroken.” Jessea Lu says “I was always miserable growing up.” She describes verbal and physical attacks as a youngster and received no physical intimacy from her mother in the form of hugs, etc.  Keep in mind that Jessea Lu is the product of China’s “one child” policy years, when boys were much preferred. Jessea Lu is describing a broken soul. She wants and needs someone to fill that void from her childhood. She wants to be able to do whatever she wants to do with someone 100% devoted to protecting her life.

It is this deep desire for autonomy, plus someone checking on her, someone in her corner, that motivates Jessea Lu. She convinces filmmaker Yuqi Kang to become her safety diver and dive with her in an out-of-the-way spot near the Blue Hole, out of competition. Yuqi will later question whether a line has been crossed between  director and  subject, saying, “I’m here to support you, but at some point it becomes too much.” The tone of voice reveals that there is (as we say in the U.S.) “trouble in River City.”

Much of the conflict within the film focuses on the relationship between the diver (Jessea Lu) and the filmmaker (Yuqi Kang). Yuqi says, “Perhaps I have become an intruder, emotionally stuck in a dark place…I feel stuck, but I move forward with Jessea Lu because we are a team.”

CONCLUSION

The film is so beautiful  in its gorgeous imagery that the question of Jessea Lu’s emotional status doesn’t immediately emerge. We see Jessea Lu presented as a national TV star on Go Fighting, which is streamed to 10 million Chinese viewers, and celebrates Jessea Lu’s status as a Freediving Goddess.

Jessea Lu says that her goal in freediving (which she did not take up as a sport until the age of 30) is “to help myself have a more enjoyable life.” To survive her early psychological abuse, she learned to focus on surviving and not allowing her mother’s hurtful remarks to damage her—(although it obviously has). Yuqi has followed Jessea Lu’s exploits for 5 years. (It would be interesting to see whether the duo still have a friendship/partnership in 5 years’ time and, if so, what it is like.)

At film’s end, Jessea Lu (who says she has not seen her family members back in Changzhou, China for years) receives a message from her mother that acknowledge that “home should not be a war zone.” Jessea Lu has a PhD in Pharmacology, but she seems to need a Significant Other in her life. She lays out “20 years of the struggle in my heart” and  frightens us with talk of how the ocean, like the amniotic fluid that sustains a child before birth, might be “beckoning forgotten children to return.”

But, by film’s end, she expresses a desire to “connect to the force of life,” to  let “the natural flow of life force” dominate her future.

We wish her well as this outstanding 1 hour and 40 minute documentary concludes.

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