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: Politics Page 1 of 33

Presidential caucuses have been Connie’s specialty in Iowa as she followed the elections of 2004, 2008, 2012 and wrote the 2 books “Obama’s Odyssey: The 2008 Race for the White House.” She also continues to follow politics by avidly reading everything she can get her hands on, including “Rolling Stone,” “Mother Jones,” “Newsmax,” “Time,” etc.

Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., Holds Rally on May 13th, 2024 in Austin, Texas

Robert F. Kennedy Jr.

Robert F. Kennedy Jr. Holds Campaign Rally in Austin, TX is now available for viewing in the C-SPAN Video Library.

Let’s not forget that I covered the Presidential races of 2004, 2008, 2012 and 2016 and wrote 3 books on the candidates, often focusing as they came through the Iowa caucuses. I was named Content Producer of the Year for Politics in 2008 by Yahoo and my two books on that race are “Obama’s Odyssey: The 2008 Race for the White House,” Vols. I & II. I am also responsible for BEE GONE about the 2016 election, which I was not allowed to advertise during DJT’s tenure, since it is a comic book rhyming presentation that was hilarious, but which the MAGA folk did not like at all. [One of them called me “Hitler with breasts.” Perhaps that one did not hear about my breast cancer diagnosis?]

If you want to try to find THAT one, your best bet is to go to ConnieCWilson.com and scroll down to “other” books and look it up that way. It is truly hard to find on Amazon and, last time I looked, they only had one copy (which I sent to a friend), If you want one, send me a note.)

 

 

I traveled to downtown Austin tonight to hear Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., deliver a speech. The main message of the evening was that RFK, Jr., has gathered enough signatures (more than enough) to get on the ballot in Texas.When I got there, I was told that the speech was not going to be held at that venue. It had been moved to somewhere on Brazos Street and was going to be live-streamed by CNN. The nice volunteer said she doubted that I could get in, but told me it would be available on C-span, live-streamed, which suited me fine.

I left the book that had RFK, Jr.’s picture in it (p. 33“Obama’s Odyssey: The 2008 Race for the White House,” Vol. II) and went home, where I watched the speech on C-Span. This was a good thing, because out of an hour and 39 minutes, Bobby Kennedy (Jr.) didn’t come on for a very long time. With it being live-streamed, you could fast forward past the introductions and Nicole Shanahan’s speech.

The wealthy Nicole Shanahan, his running mate, gave a speech about soil.

Interesting, I thought. Something that everyone came for—[NOT].

I fast forwarded past all the greeters and announcers and the VP who is helping finance RFK, Jr.’s campaign (and paid for his SuperBowl ad) and listened to what Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., the doppelganger of his famous father, had to say. Robert F. Kennedy Jr. Holds Campaign Rally in Austin, TX is now available for viewing in the C-SPAN Video Library.

The first 2/3 of the speech (look it up on the C-Span archives) was random.

Then came RFK, Jr. Bobby told a lengthy story about an Amish farmer who does a podcast. This sounded like a contradiction in terms. Kennedy addressed that by saying that the 35-year-old young man (apparently an Ohio expert on soil and pesticides with very bright blue eyes) could not allow himself to be photographed. RFK (Jr.) had promised not to show the tape of his comments to the world. The conversation concerning the young Amish man’s encyclopedic knowledge of pesticides went on (and on) describing 2 rows of melons on the Amish podcaster’s farm, one of them grown without pesticides and, therefore, far healthier and more pest-free than the other. One was healthy. One was sickly. What this had to do with anything was hard to determine (but keep in mind that I skipped past the Shanahan soil speech, so shame on me). I am onboard with the idea that pesticides and pollution and the variety of pollutants that are covered so well in the documentary “Plastic People” that I reviewed during SXSW are harming us irreparably, so I will assume that RFK (Jr.) is as concerned about this as the Canadian documentary-filmmakers.

After talking about soil and Amish farmers for a rather lengthy time, the 70-year-old Kennedy talked about what a sick country we are, sharing the data that we have only 4% of the world’s population but, during the Covid pandemic, we had 16% of the world’s deaths. There were more remarks about how good health is not found at the end of a hypodermic needle (anti-vaccine position). I just watched (and reviewed) a documentary called “Plastic People,” mentioned above, and much of what RFK, Jr., was talking about this Canadian documentary supported, so I’m not throwing stones here. I have an interest in such things as why the incidence of breast cancer in young women is so much higher than in years of yore. Not to mention colon cancer in younger people, infertiity, and autism disorders.

The reason the CDC said so many of us succumbed to Covid, (said Kennedy), was that those who died had 3.8 pre-existing chronic diseases. Chronic disease was a recurring phrase and topic.  Kennedy named cancer, asthma, food allergies and then blanked out. He sought a disease to represent the fourth chronic disease, soliciting it from the predominantly young crowd. The crowd finally coughed up “diabetes.” (Heart disease did not rear its ugly head, and I wasn’t sure that food allergies qualified, but nevermind. Obesity might have made the list, based on another statistic he threw out about 40% of us being obese. No idea if any of these facts and figures were precisely accurate; just reporting what the candidate said,)

This is not a fact-checking article—so go ahead and listen to the speech (link above) for yourself. But don’t omit reading up about the candidate’s background, because we have already been “conned” once in 2016 and elected someone who built a totally fabricated background for himself based on being a success in business, when, in reality, that was very far from the truth. And don’t fail to check the candidate(s) out for their strength of character. We’ve seen THAT happen before (John Edwards, anyone?) and we don’t want to constantly be conned into accepting uncritically media presentations (Fox News, I’m talking about you.)

TRUST IN GOVERNMENT

One refrain that did strike a responsive chord for this seasoned political reporter was the remark that we no longer trust our government, because it’s been lying to us for years. To illustrate this, Kennedy repeated the Francis Gary Powers story.

For those of you who are too young to remember that 1960 U-2 event, Powers was shot down over Russia in a super-secret plane. Wikipedia:  “On May 1, 1960, Powers’ U-2A, 56-6693, departed from a military airbase in Peshawar, Pakistan,[13] with support from the U.S. Air Station at Badaber (Peshawar Air Station). This was to be the first attempt “to fly all the way across the Soviet Union. Powers was shot down by an S-75 Dvina (SA-2 “Guideline”) surface-to-air missile[15] over Sverdlovsk. A total of 14 Dvinas were launched,[16] one of which hit a MiG-19 jet fighter which was sent to intercept the U-2 but could not reach a high enough altitude.”

Attempted deception by the U.S. government

“When the U.S. government learned of Powers’ disappearance over the Soviet Union, they lied that a “weather plane” had strayed off course after its pilot had “difficulties with his oxygen equipment”. What CIA officials did not realize was that the plane crashed almost fully intact and that the Soviets had recovered its pilot and much of the plane’s equipment, including its new top-secret high-altitude camera. Powers was interrogated extensively by the KGB for months before he made a confession and a public apology for his part in the espionage.”

Kennedy’s point: that the American public quit trusting their government about the time that JFK was shot dead in the streets of Dallas and Bobby’s father was shot dead in Los Angeles, California, as a result of lies like the Francis Gary Powers incident, rang a bell with me. I am not a conspiracy theorist,  but I have always doubted the “single bullet” theory of JFK’s death. So did RFK, Sr.

If Bobby Kennedy (Sr.) had gone on to be elected, he had vowed to get to the bottom of his brother’s assassination. (I know this from reading the book by his nephew, Christopher Lawford.) I don’t doubt that there  would have been a much better inquiry than the Warren Commission provided. An investigation that Bobby (Sr.) would have conducted might have come to different conclusions about who was responsible for the death of his brother Jack (JFK).

RFK (Jr.) took a few shots at the national debt and how it is chewing up half of our tax moneys now, simply to service the interest on the debt. He pointed out that neither of the geriatric candidates has really addressed that very important issue. I do have one tiny bit of rebuttal there. While it is true that, “The national debt has increased by around $3.5 trillion under the Biden administration, as data from Statista shows, currently standing at $31.46 trillion. Year-on-year the debt has never decreased since 1957, according to Treasury data.”

However, it is also true that Biden is far from indifferent to the pressing need to reduce the national debt. Between 2020 and 2022, he was responsible for $1.7 trillion in deficit reduction. The exact quote that Biden gave was, “”I might note parenthetically: In my first two years, I reduced the debt by $1.7 trillion. No President has ever done that.” Obviously that is a drop in the deficit bucket and the GOP immediately began  to see investigating to see if it held up. (Does anyone besides me remember when Democratic President Bill Clinton left us with a budget surplus?)

Biden gets precious little credit for all of the good things he HAS done and selling a national debt decrease is going to be a hard sell. But it IS true that the debt went way up under DJT. (And the GOP would point fingers at Obama, before him.) We could also point out that desperate times call for desperate measures and some of those increases in 2020 on were created by the pandemic crisis. Was there graft and corruption during a tough time when we were navigating a nationwide pandemic? Is the Pope Catholic?

Fleeting references to the Issues of the Day (abortion, the border) were made. Bobby seemed more critical of the Republican candidate than of the Democratic candidate,  (despite the YouTube video that says the opposite). In fact, Bobby said that he, like his supporters in the room, needed to be independent of party noise. He added that he, therefore, had divorced himself from the Democratic party which so many of his relatives served. He said that divorce from being a Democrat was painful, as it went waaay back, even unto grandfathers and beyond. Traditionally, running as a third party has not worked well, even for Teddy Roosevelt and his Bull Moose Party,

The opening of the rally should be mentioned, as it had his famous father repeating some of his most famous quotes in that memorable voice (which, sadly, the younger Bobby cannot emulate because of spasmodic dysphonia, a disorder that causes his voice to quaver and makes speech difficult). He traveled to Kyoto, Japan, to have a titanium bridge inserted between his vocal cords to treat the condition.[315

]The film that  ran at the opening of the rally was very professionally done. It was certainly better than listening to a choir of January 6th miscreants singing from prison (and being hailed incorrectly as “hostages.”) Bobby Kennedy, Jr., was onscreen in this opening film introduction, but the voice was his famous father’s.

Many of the people introducing RFK, Jr. were Hispanic. The Big Announcement of the night was that Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.’s name will be on the ballot in Texas with over 235,000 signatures and that the campaign will next move to New York to get on the ballot. He described these two states as the most difficult states to get on the ballot. Kennedy claimed that Texas had actually introduced legislation raising the threshold from a smaller number (150,000?) to one that the Texas legislature thought was too high to ever be reached.

I think the number the team actually secured was more than what they needed. I remember it as being 235,000, but I’d have to wade through the speech on the CNN archives all over again to actually establish that. Feel free to do so and correct me.

To me, it seemed like getting on the ballot was so difficult that, in some way, RFK, Jr., has conflated that  with actually getting the electorate to vote for him. Lord knows the country would like a younger leader.  Bobby Kennedy is 70, so is that what is meant by “younger?” He is the 5th member of his family to run for President, said Wikipedia. (Don’t ask me to cough up the names of the others: I could only think of JFK, Bobby Kennedy Sr., Ted Kennedy and—-? Maybe running for VP counts? Didn’t Maria Shriver’s father have a flirtation with elective office? Help me out here!)

Bill Maehr on his show criticized Kennedy’s lack of government experience, We all know about putting someone in office, an office for which they have literally no training or experience, and how that works. Or doesn’t. RFK, Jr., doesn’t fall into that category, as you will see for yourself if you visit his Wikipedia page. There’s a lot there to unpack. There is also this Internet page:https://www.kennedy24.com/

And then the rally was over after 1 hour and 39 minutes.

“Civil War” Provides Much Food for Thought in 2024

The main characters in “Civil War” are four journalists. The film introduces the journalists as they cover a clash in New York City between what appear to be police forces from the official government and violent members of the opposition. The alliance in the civil war has paired Texas and California. This group is either known as WA or WF. (I, initially, thought WF referred to the Western Front, and it was only in reading about the film that I saw the initials as WA, so you’re on your own there.)

There are references to other military groups, including the Florida Alliance and the Portland Maoists. As writer/director Alex Garland scripts it, “There is no communication between the secessionists.”

When the film opens, Joel (Wagner Moura) predicts, “D.C. is falling and the President is dead within a month.” This sets us up for the journey to follow, the journalists determined to get the shot or film the fall in D.C. It’s an overland drive with the miles ticked off as they drive…508 miles to D.C…289 miles to D.C…176 miles to D.C…. They are joined by a new-comer, a young wannabe journalist named Jessie, played by Cailee Spaeney (Priscilla Presley in the bio-pic “Priscilla”).

Kirsten Dunst plays Lee, a legendary white female photojournalist in the tradition of her namesake Lee Miller. The film this instantly made me think of was 2018’s “A Private War” with Rosamund Pike playing Marie Colvin alongside Jamie Dornan as her photographer. Prior to that was Juliette Binoche as a war-time journalist in “1000 Times Good Night” (2013).

In this film, Dunst is partnered with a South American-born reporter named Joel (Wagner Moura). It’s unclear whether Joel ever actually writes anything or is primarily there as a chauffeur and bodyguard for Lee.

The third member of the troupe is the elderly Sammy (Stephen McKinley Henderson), a seasoned Black journalist who doesn’t want to give up reporting but is past his prime. Having both Sammy and Jessie in the back seat of the car causes Lee to say, “The back seat is both kindergarten and an old folks’ home.” Lee has reservations about taking the inexperienced Jessie with them, but Joe prevails. Lee also isn’t keen on having a relatively immobile old Black guy along for the trip, even though he “writes for what’s left of the New York Times.”

Lee Miller (Kirsten Dunst), portrays a journalist who has won various accolades during her storied career. She reminded me of three movies about such real-life veteran journalists, including “The Year of Living Dangerously”(Sigourney Weaver),  “A Private War” (Rosamund Pike) and Juliette Binoche in “1,000 Times Good Night” (2013).

As an active voting member of the Illinois chapter of the Illinois Women’s Press Association and the official photographer at the National Women’s Press Association in Baton Rouge, I drew on my days as a journalism major in college (I attended on a journalism scholarship) and my coverage of four presidential campaigns to empathize with the much more dangerous mission this quartet has embarked upon. The movie really does paint a picture of modern-day journalism and journalistic ethics.

I’m an “Old School” journalist. In “the olden days” we were taught that we were to remain neutral and objective, not endorse one side of an issue over the other.  I appreciated the film as a piece about contemporary journalism, as much as a film about a possible Civil War in the United States. My focus was covering the presidential races of 2004, 2008, 2012 and 2016, with two books on 2008 (“Obama’s Odyssey: The 2008 Race for the White House”) and an award as the Yahoo Content Producer for Politics in 2008.

I will say that the total brutality of the images, coupled with multiple fight scenes, seemed like the way it really would be after the lowering of civil standards brought on by the Trump years. Even the campus protests taking place nationwide now lack the slightest civility that used to prevail. In the days of refusing to adhere to the peaceful transfer of power after an election the total brutality of the civil war participants seemed sadly likely.

Alex Garland is known as mainly a science fiction storyteller. He wrote “28 Days Later,” “Sunshine” and “Dredd,” adapted “Never Let Me Go” from Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel, and wrote and directed “Ex Machina” and “Annihilation.” I thoroughly enjoyed those films and am particularly fond of “Never Let Me Go.”

This is a great, well-paced, engrossing movie that tells it like it is in a world where half of the residents embrace any lie that their chosen leader decides to tell them. It has echoes of dozens of other films and novels, and I’m old enough to remember when “Z” was groundbreaking in its hand-held cinematography.

Face it. Things are just going to get worse as we move into the world of AI and the heat of the 2024 presidential race. Let’s just hope things don’t disintegrate to the levels depicted in “Civil War.”

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

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

Liz Carpenter

Liz Carpenter in action.

 

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

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

SUPPORTING LBJ

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

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

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

LIZ AND JFK’S ASSASSINATION

Christy Carpenter

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

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

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

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

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

BEAUTIFY AMERICA

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

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

WAR ON POVERTY

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

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

AFTER THE WHITE HOUSE

Abby Ginzberg

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

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

WOMEN’S MOVEMENT

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

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

THE ERA

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

PHYLLIS SCHLAFLY & EAGLE FORUM

Phyllis Schlafly

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

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

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

LIZ’s HUMOR

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

CONCLUSION:

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

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

“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.

“An Army of Women” Profiles Sexual Assault in Austin, Texas on SXSW Opening Night

Director of "An Army of Women" Julie Lunde Lillesaeter.

Director of “An Army of Women” Julie Lunde Lillesaeter.

Norwegian director Julie Lillesaeter has directed a documentary about 3 Austin (Texas) women attempting to seek justice for their rapes or sexual assaults. Ultimately, the 3—Amy, Marina, and Hanna—join 12 other women in a groundbreaking federal class-action lawsuit. It is the first lawsuit to argue that sexual assault isn’t prosecuted enough, primarily because it is a crime that predominantly affects women. The plaintiffs also made clear that they were frequently not believed, despite proof that one perpetrator went on to assault 5 other people after raping one of the victims.

Three, in particular are highlighted: including Mary Reyes and Marina Garrett. Lawyers Jennifer Ecklund and Elizabeth Myers charged, in the original 2018 lawsuit, violations of survivors’ Fourth, Fifth, and Fourteenth Amendment rights.

The women are shown addressing the Austin City Council about the failure to prosecute their cases in a timely fashion.  One of the women had been fighting for justice for 15 years, since 2008. Their rallying cry: “We’re here to force change in a system that seems to be incontrovertibly broken.”

At the time, Norwegian director Julie Lunde Lillesaeter was living in Austin. It was 2019. She told Sarah Marloff (Austin Chronicle) “I was really shocked. I was naively thinking that when assaults happen, there’s a system in place to handle it properly, and make sure it doesn’t happen again. :When I learned about the lawsuit, I realized the system is really failing spectacularly. And there doesn’t seem like anyone in charge wants to fix it.”

THE GOOD

Lillesaeter felt the cause was worthwhile and that the David versus Goliath elements would spark European interest. She said, “I think it’s really hopeful, as serious as it is. It’s a sort of a story that show you can change systems. Even if it’s an Austin story, it feels very relevant no matter where you are.” The documentary has already sold in Germany, France and the Scandinavian countries.

Ultimately, the women persist and change the system, winning these concessions:

  • Enhanced training for police department and prosecutors.
  • Adding staff to the Austin Police Department sex crimes unit.
  • Notification of survivors about progress in ongoing cases.
  •  Creation of a soft interview room.
  • Releasing data to the public about cases involving sexual assault.
  • Survivor involvement in policy decisions.

Each plaintiff in the case got $75,000 with $100,000 toward legal fees, and $4,670,000 was assigned for policy improvements.

The women’s group also targeted then District Attorney Margaret Moore and helped elect current Travis County District Attorney Jose Garza (who is currently running for re-election.)

THE BAD

An Army of Women"

“An Army of Women” at SXSW highlights failures in the Austin, Texas, system for prosecuting sex offenders.

The film is slow-moving. It primarily takes place in courtrooms and the 84 minutes move very slowly. Since that is the point of the lawsuit, perhaps that is appropriate.

When one of the women, Marina, was awarded $20,000 after years of struggle in courtrooms, she seemed extremely excited about how much money she would be receiving. Marina’s story involved her drinking on 6th Street and being dragged into an alley and raped against her will. She said that the police did not believe her.

Even one of the lawyers said that she felt the amount ultimately awarded Marina was “pretty disappointing from a messaging standpoint,” despite the fact that Marina was exulting, saying, “I am so excited about the settlement.”

It seems clear that the Austin Police Department fell down on the job. The plaintiffs had high hopes that the new Travis County District Attorney (Jose Garza) would be a better listener and would do more in office to prosecute sexual assault than his female predecessor had done. (Recent ads during this primary election season run by Garza’s Republican opponents suggest failure(s) on Garza’s part in this department, but that would be standard operating procedure in elections.)

One of the plaintiffs (Hanna Senko) used a pseudonym at the outset of the film, calling herself Amy Smith, Victim #1. By the end of the film, she is willing to use her real name.  Her case involved being drugged and date-raped by a man she knew. Difficult to know what the reasoning was for initially concealing her true identity.  Marina Garrett, by contrast, began advocating for change back in 2016 when the city’s rape kit backlog made headlines. Several members of the Austin City Council also apologized to the women for how they had been not been believed and how long it had taken for justice to be achieved. Receiving an apology from the city was important to the women plaintiffs.

CONCLUSION

One reason the film seemed so long is that the subject matter is unwieldy. As Director Lillesaeter acknowledged, shaping the story into a concise narrative was a challenge. She said, “There’s so much more that could have been said…When you make a film like this, you have to make choices.”

It’s an important fight and it took too long a time for the long-suffering women to triumph, but the pace of this film also took too long a time.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Tired of Winning” by Jonathan Karl Tells It Like It Is

Excerpts from “Tired of Winning: Donald Trump and the End of the Grand Old Party,” by Jonathan Karl of ABC News:

Jonathan Karl's Biography - ABC News

Jonathan Karl of ABC News

 

“He lacks any  shred of human decency, humility, or caring,” a former White House official wrote of Trump, the man he had served for more than a year. “He is morally bankrupt, breathtakingly dishonest, lethally incompetent, and stunningly ignorant of virtually anything related to governing, history, geography, human events or world affairs.  He is a traitor and a malignancy in our nation and represents a clear and present danger to our democracy and the rule of law.” (p. 263, Jonathan Karl, CBS Political Affairs Reporter)

Jonathan Karl's book "Tired of Winning"

“Tired of Winning: Donald Trump and the End of the Grand Old Party” by Jonathan Karl of ABC News.

“Two and a half years after January 6th, the man whom many of the rioters said was ultimately responsible for the carnage seemed on the way to finally being held accountable…He faces a maximum of 55 years in prison—the maximum in the documents case is higher—but because Trump stands accused of betraying the very oath of office he hopes to take once again. The charges include defrauding the United States and depriving Americans of their right to have their votes count—a right central to the meaning of democracy.” (p. 269)

“President Trump is practically and morally responsible for provoking the events of the day.  No question about it.” (Mitch McConnell on Feb. 13, 2021.)

“Remnants of the Trump era will be a strange reminder of how Trump operated—his disregard for history and for the law—in this case, the Presidential Records Act of 1978—says that official presidential records are the property of the American people, not of any individual, not even a president. Trump destroyed some of them, others he took home to Mar-a-Lago as if they were personal souvenirs of his time as commander in chief.  Fortunately for future historians—and current criminal investigators—many of the documents he attempted to pilfer were returned, and many of those he tried to destroy were gathered, taped back together, and preserved  by government employees attempting to comply with a law their boss had no intention of following.” (p. 272).

The MITT ROMNEY IS A TOTAL LOSER napkin:  “One of the more unusual documents now under seal at the National Archives is a paper napkin from Air Force One.  The napkin—the existence of which has never been made public—is hardly a state secret, but it reveals much more than the words written on it by Donald Trump with a Black sharpie: MITT ROMNEY IS A TOTAL LOSER.” We don’t know the exact content of this presidential musing—or even the date it was retrieved—or  why Trump chose to scrawl those words on a napkin. Did he write it after Romney became the only Republican to vote to convict him in his first impeachment trial? Or when Romney became one of seven Republicans to vote to impeach him in his second impeachment trial? Or maybe it was after Romney and his wife, Ann, congratulated Joe Biden and Kamala Harris on winning the 2020 election.  “We know both of them as people of good will and admirable character,” Senator Romney said in a statement issued minutes after Biden and Harris were projected as winners of the election. “We pray that God may bless them in the days and years ahead.”

Trump had called Romney a loser many times, but the context of the words scrawled on the napkin—TOTAL LOSER—were different than those he blurted out on Twitter or during speeches. The napkin was a private note, probably one he had written to himself, and an indication Trump had Romney on his mind, and perhaps a reflection of the obsession with the man who won the Republican nomination four years before Trump did. Of course, the note wasn’t completely wrong—Romney, like Trump, was a loser.  Both men had lost a presidential election. But, unlike Trump, Romney took his loss with grace and dignity.  He did what Trump would never do.  He congratulated his opponent—Barack Obama—and put the country above himself, offering words of support to the man who had defeated him.

Sam Houston, 1859–1861 - Friends of the Governor's Mansion
Sam Houston, 1859–1861

SAM HOUSTON STORY:  Sam Houston, the former Governor of Tennessee, battlefield hero, and founding father of Texas independence.  Houston was the first president of the Independent Republic of Texas, the first senator from the state of Texas and  one of the most independent, unique, popular, forceful and dramatic individuals ever to enter the Senate chamber.  Houston put all of that on the line beginning with a vote he took in the Senate in 1854 against what would become the Kansas-Nebraska Act.  To Houston’s fellow Democrats, it was a must-pass bill, a test of Southern unity and survival.  Houston saw the bill for what it was—a way to reopen the the issue of expanding slavery that would set America on a path to civil war. Not a single Senate Democrat joined him in voting against it...His stand against Southern secession was so forceful, Houston received a few votes to be Abraham Lincoln’s vice president. He traveled around his state to make what had become a very unpopular case for Texas to remain in the Union. While he was campaigning in the city of Waco, a bomb exploded behind the hotel he was staying in—an unsuccessful attempt to either kill or intimidate him. He survived the bombing, but he lost the battle.  And when Texas officially seceded  from the Union and joined the Confederacy, Houston was once again defeated, removed from office after he refused to take the oath of the new Confederate state of Texas. Sam Houston was far from perfect, but at the end of his life, he stood up to the madness of his own party—and the madness of his own constituents.  Despite the steep personal price he paid, his place in history was secure—and it started with a vote, an act of political courage—made inside the Senate Chamber.” (p. 279).

“Trump’s betrayal shows just how vulnerable our democracy is and how much it depends on people who are in positions of responsibility to act responsibly.” (p. 281).

“The President of the United States summoned this mob, assembled the mob, and lit the flame of this attack.  Everything that followed (January 6th) was his doing.  None of this would have happened without the President.  There has never been a greater betrayal by a President of the United States of his office and his oath to the Constitution.” (Liz Cheney, R, Wyoming, while heading the January 6th Commission.) (p. 285).

Of the 10 Republicans who voted to impeach Trump the second time, the vote of Representative Tom Rice of South Carolina to impeach was among the most surprising. Rice’s reason for voting to impeach, articulated in Jonathan Karl’s book:  “When Trump watched the Capitol, the People’s House, being sacked, when he watched the Capitol Police officers being beaten for those three or four hours and he lifted not one finger or did one thing to stop it—I was livid then and I’m livid today about it.” (p. 285)

How DJT Was Groomed By Russia; The Tragic End of Alexei Navalny

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THE BAD

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THE GOOD

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CONCLUSION:

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

 

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

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

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

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

THE GOOD

Residente

Residente

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

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

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

THE BAD

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Stepping down off soapbox.)

 

 

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