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!

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Any trends or popular fads may be described, whether it would be something like the hula hoop or the pet rock or simply new slang.

“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,

“Hacks” Season Three Premieres @ SXSW on March 9, 2024

The Premiere of season 3 of “Hacks” (HBO Max) took place at noon on March 9th at SXSW. It was truly an audience of devoted fans. The feeling in the Paramount Theater was equal parts anticipation and shared enthusiasm, which is not always the case at SXSW. Everyone there knew they were in for a great time, although there was a remark about how it was pretty early for comedy. Saturday, March 9th in Austin, Texas, both Smart and Einbinder were at SXSW in person. Both looked great. Smart got a standing ovation.

SEASON 2

Jean Smart & Hannah Einbinder of "Hacks."

SXSW Season Premiere of “Hacks” with Jean Smart and Hannah Einbinder during the Q&A on March 9th. (Photo by Connie Wilson).

At the end of season two, Deborah Vance (Jean Smart) fired Ava Daniels (Hannah Einbinder).  Deborah reassured Ava that the firing would be good for Ava’s comedy writing career. It is quite clear that the separation has hurt Ava more than it has hurt Deborah. You feel that Deborah is a mother figure for Ava; Ava felt abandoned. Of course, there was the unfortunate spilling of Deborah Vance stories to a journalist and the lawsuits on both sides last season. But, never fear, the dynamic duo is back together again for season three’s nine episodes.

The viewership for season two’s first episode increased +125% over the first episode of season one. It isn’t difficult to understand why if you’ve seen the show. It is top-notch. There are more laughs per episode in “Hacks” than in any other comedy on the air. That is due in no small part to Jean Smart’s savvy portrayal of seasoned veteran comedienne Deborah Vance, a part she seems to have been born to play. Jean Smart is only the second female—Betty White was the first— to win an Emmy in all three categories: leading actress in a comedy, supporting actress in a comedy, and guest star in a comedy series. Glen Weldon of NPR said, “I don’t know if the role of Deborah Vance was written for Smart, but she certainly makes it seem like it was.”

SERIES SUCCESS

Lucia Aniello.

“Hacks” writer Lucia Aniello.

Smart took home the Emmy for the leading actress in a comedy series two years in a row, 2021 and 2022. Hannah Einbinder is also great and has earned nominations for her work as Deborah’s sidekick. Einbinder is wonderful in the first two episodes of Season Three and we learn more about her personal life apart from her career. Hannah is the daughter of SNL original cast member Laraine Newman. The comic chemistry and timing the two bring to the screen is a magical part of the success of “Hacks.” The series won the Emmy, a Peabody award, a Critics’ Choice award, the DGA, SAG, WGA and GLAAD awards.

SERIES SIZZLE

“Hacks’” wardrobe department makes it clear that glitter is back with a vengeance. The Disco era’s demand to return its glitz is being ignored. I have noticed the increase in sparkly clothes being worn by average concert-goers here in Austin. Check out the wardrobe for “Hacks.” You’ll get the idea in the opening sequence for series three. We see a tall woman in a dazzling bejeweled long coat walking confidently into a casino. I’m sure everyone in the theater this Saturday afternoon thought it was Deborah Vance making her entrance. It wasn’t. (Check the trailer above for that glimpse).

SMART’S RESUME

From finding that Jean Smart has been a Type I diabetic since the age of 13 to learning that she lost her husband of 30 years, Richard Gilliland, in March of 2021, it’s been discovery week for me looking back at Jean Smart’s storied career. Delay-wise, there was the writers’ strike, the heart procedure, and the 2 years off television for “Hacks.” It’s hard to feel the funny when negative things impact you.

But veteran character actor Jean Smart is a trooper. She was one of television’s “Designing Women” (1986-1991). She has been in episodes of “Frasier,” “Fargo,” “Watchtower” and, more recently, in 7 episodes of “Mare of Eastwick.” Damien Chazelle (“La La Land”) cast her in  “Babylon” as Elinor St. John, a gossip columnist based on Hedda Hopper and Luella Parsons. In “Hacks” she’s portraying a veteran comedienne based on such pioneering comedy greats as Joan Rivers, Lucille Ball, Phyllis Diller, Elayne Boosler, Rita Rudner, Paula Poundstone and Carol Burnett.

SCHEDULE

Q&A for "Hacks" on March 9th with Jen Statsky, Lucia Aniello, & Paul Downs.

“Hacks” Q&A at SXSW: Jen Statsky, Lucia Aniello, Paul Downs.

“Hacks” has been off the air for two years, leaving those of us who are true fans wondering if it were ever coming back. Didn’t it get renewed? The writer’s strike was given as one of the reasons that the absence was so lengthy. But, in February (2023) Jean Smart announced via her Instagram account that she had had “a heart procedure.” Even now, one department of “Hacks” has supposedly shut down while awaiting her complete recovery. The woman is 73, after all, and enjoying an unparalleled career resurgence.

The plan for season three is to air the Premiere episode (which is great) on HBO on May 3rd and then show two episodes a week until the Finale on May 30th. This season there will be guest stars like Helen Hunt, Christina Hendricks, Christopher Lloyd, George Wallace, and Tony Goldwyn. As for what the season holds, said writer Lucia Aniello, “I think there’s maybe a chasm between where they are respectively, in terms of their points-of-view of each other. I think it really brings up a lot, because they are so obviously invested in each other.”

And we, the audience, are so obviously invested in Deborah and Ava.

Lucia Aniello, Paul Downs, and Jen Statsky ("Hacks")

Lucia Aniello, Paul Downs, and Jen Statsky of ‘Hacks,

Hacks Season 3 Premiere
Showrunners: Paul W. Downs, Lucia Aniello, Jen Statsky, Director: Lucia Aniello, Producers: Jen Statsky, Paul W. Downs, Lucia Aniello, Michael Schur, David Miner, Morgan Sackett
A year after parting, Deborah Vance is riding high off the success of her standup special while Ava pursues new opportunities back in Los Angeles. Cast: Jean Smart, Hannah Einbinder, Paul W. Downs, Megan Stalter, Carl Clemons-Hopkins, Kaitlin Olson, Christopher McDonald, Mark Indelicato, Rose Abdoo, Lorenza Izzo (World Premiere)

“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.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Cuckoo” World Premieres at SXSW on March 14, 2024

The World Premiere of Writer/Director Tilman Singer’s film “Cuckoo” took place on Thursday, March 14 at SXSW. It’s a horror thriller that is innovative enough that the emcee handling the Q&A, an enthusiastic film buff, dubbed it “delightfully weird.” He went even further, declaring “Cuckoo” would become a classic in the future.

PLOT

Hunter Shafer at the World Premiere of “Cuckoo” on March 14, 2024 at SXSW. (Photo by Connie Wilson).

The synopsis provided by the “Cuckoo” team said: “On a trip to the German Alps with her father and stepmother, Gretchen (Hunter Schafer, HBO’s “Euphoria”) discovers that the resort town where they’re staying hides sinister secrets. She’s plagued by strange noises and frightening visions of a woman pursuing her. Soon, Gretchen finds herself pulled into a conspiracy involving bizarre experiments by the resort’s owner that echo back generations.”

Gretchen Vanderkurt (Hunter Shafer) has just lost her mother—I think. Whether Mom is dead or simply alive and not answering phone messages is never fully explained (like many other plot points in the film.). The “trip” seemed to be becoming a permanent re-location in Gretchen’s life, especially when her father announces he has sold the house she lived in with Mom. That’s why I assumed Mom was dead. That could be right. Or it could be wrong. Who knows? “Only the Shadow knows,” for sure (a very old radio reference). And there were some uber-creepy shadows in this one.  Maybe we can ask one of the shadows chasing Gretchen as she rides her bike through the forest late at night —a particularly frightening scene—for clarification.  I also mention the very old radio reference, because there is no definitive time when this movie is set. It could be today; it could be any decade between 1940 and the present. Again, don’t know; can’t tell you. Just go with it.

The German trip, for Gretchen, is not a happy one. She doesn’t seem particularly fond of her mute half-sister Alma (Mila Lieu) —at least, not until guns come out in the over-long film finale. Her father Luis (Marton Csokas) seems much less interested in his teen-aged daughter than in his new daughter. Our sympathy goes out to Gretchen. The crowd applauded when Gretchen finally struck back at Dad.

Dan Stevens at the World Premiere of “Cuckoo” on March 14th at SXSW. (Photo by Connie Wilson).

At one point, Gretchen denies that Alma is her “sister.” Gretchen says, “She had her chance at getting a sister, but then she ate her.” This leads to a discussion of vanishing twin syndrome in the womb, a discussion which seems right at home in this weird 102-minute horror thriller. It gets stranger when the writer/director shared that he was inspired by a cuckoo documentary.

We learn that Gretchen’s father and his second wife Beth (Jessica Henwick) honeymooned at Alpshatten Resort eight years prior. (*Plot clue). They are returning to discuss more construction projects with Mr. Konig (Dan Stevens.
Downton Abbey,” 2010-2015; “Collateral”),
the resort owner and Luis Vanderkurt’s (Martin Csokas) boss.

Upon arrival Mr. König takes an inexplicable but avid interest in Gretchen’s mute half-sister Alma. The little girl is having seizures. Mr. Konig suggests that Dr. Bonamo (Proschat Malani), Superintendent of the Chronic Disease Treatment Facility nearby (which we learn precious little about) check out the little girl medically. Perhaps Alma is epileptic? Something doesn’t seem quite right in this tranquil vacation paradise, nor does the Convenient Care offer. The odd customers checking into the resort, the loopy behavior of Mr. Konig, the strange employees like Trixie (Greta Fernandez) fit right into our suspicion that, as Shakespeare said, “something is rotten in Denmark” (or, in this case, in Germany).  The people repeatedly vomiting in the lobby, the scary woman offering oozy goo to other women— also poorly explained creepy plot points. Use your imagination and enjoy the ride.

WRITER/DIRECTOR TILMAN SINGER

Writer/Director Tilman Singer.

“Cuckoo” Writer/Director Tilman Singer at the World Premiere, March 14, 2024, at SXSW. (Photo by Connie Wilson).

The 36-year old German director (Leipzig, Germany) previously directed the indie film “Luz” shot for less than 50,000 Euros ($54,478.10). Tilman’s vibe is best summed up by saying think “The Shining” and then combine a blend of David Lynch and David Cronenberg. For those of us who faithfully followed the antics of the Log Lady (and others) on “Twin Peaks” from 1990-1991, “Cuckoo” was less a revelation than a return to form. Eccentric weirdness, well-executed with German panache.

Singer shared that the film “all started with a feeling.” He mentioned the cuckoo bird’s odd habit of laying its eggs in the nests of other birds and abandoning the offspring. Said Singer, “That made me very sad. All the host birds die.  There was a kind of beauty to it.” Star Dan Stevens said, “Filmmaking is an exercise in collective madness.  We all believed in this madman,” alluding to Writer/Director Singer.

 LOCATION

Shot near the Belgian border at an abandoned British Army base, the entire movie gave lead actress, Hunter Schafer (“Euphoria”) a feeling “just like summer camp.” She described being in the forest with an abandoned town near the Alpschatten Resort from May until July of 2022, roughly 7 weeks. As the plot thickens, we learn that Alpschatten is the source of a series of medical experiments supervised by the evil Mr. Konig, played to the hilt with campy verve by veteran actor Dan Stevens (Matthew Crawley on “Downton Abbey,” 2010-2015; “Colossal”at SXSW in 2016.).

There were three filming locations:

  • Wuppertal, North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany
  • Krefeld, North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany
  • Mönchengladbach, North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany

DAN STEVENS

Dan Stevens in "Cuckoo."

Dan Stevens of “Downton Abbey”

When Stevens left “Downton Abbey” it created a stir. At the time, addressing the departure that disturbed his fans, Stevens said, “OK, what I really want to do is a twisted action thriller black comedy with horror elements. Preferably with an American accent.” That statement was made years ago, commenting on Stevens’ departing the series after 2015, but it could certainly apply to “Cuckoo.” Stevens shared during the Q&A that he only joined the cast of “Cuckoo” three weeks before the shoot began (May 11, 2022). Speaking fluent German to Director Tilman on the phone may have helped him win the role.

Praising his co-star, Hunter Shafer, from the stage during the Q&A, Stevens said, “It helps when you cast an icon in your lead role.” Stevens was referencing newcomer Hunter Schafer of “Euphoria” fame. The description “icon” applies more to the 42-year old Stevens, who has had a lengthy career (60+ films) and is fluent in three languages.

Shafer, who began modeling at 17, has 9 credits. A model turned actress, she is definitely a star on the rise (Shafer’s best friend is Zendaya).  But the term icon, by definition, applies more to Stevens than Shafer at this point in their careers (“a person or thing regarded as a representative symbol or as worthy of veneration.”)

HUNTER SHAFER

Tilman Singer, Hunter Shafer and Dan Stevens during the Q&A for “Cuckoo” at SXSW on March 14, 2024. (Photo by Connie Wilson).

Hunter Shafer is best known to audiences for her role in “Euphoria,” but she also appeared alongside Viola Davis, Peter Dinklage and Rachel Zegler in “The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes.” In her next film she will co-star with Oscar winner Anne Hathaway, (who is also at SXSW for the closing night film, “The Idea of You.”)

THE GOOD

The film is very original and uses sound creatively to enhance the horror. There are scenes that are re-run, shown back-to-back two and three times, with shaky camerawork that Director Singer credited his cinematographer Paul Faltz with suggesting.

Shafer has to carry this film, starring as the psychologically traumatized daughter of a negligent father. She is still suffering from missing her mother. By the time the film ends, the 5’10” former model looks about as physically damaged as it is humanly possible to be without dying. Shafer gives the part 100%, solidly anchoring the film.

THE BAD

 

 

SXSW 2024

Th-th-that’s all, Folks. “Cuckoo” cast flies the nest at the Paramount on March 14th; SXSW 2024 ends March 16th.

Some of the minor parts. Including the mysterious menacing woman, are not as good. Characters, including those that are supposed to convey menace, were either not well-chosen or not made up effectively enough.

The concept is original. Various means of conveying the story were novel. The  claustrophobic sense of dread growing from the creative visual and aural touches add to our sense of danger and impending doom. (Examples: the bicycle riding sequence; the bathroom sequence with Gretchen; a car crash scene).

There are strange avant garde touches like a pulsing throat, up close, that are odd and well-executed. Said Dan Stevens, “I remember being really freaked out by the throat.” It apparently was a large piece of artificial pulsing throat that was periodically wheeled in to be  photographed in close-up.

Some of those portraying the mysterious and monstrous villains of the plot are either so average-looking or so poorly made up that you yearn for better-looking (or better made-up) characters.  The plot—despite attempts to explain it along the way— is incoherent.  Here is one  half-hearted attempt to explain:  “In nature, modern man kills some species by our disregard. Some species need our help to survive.”

CONCLUSION: 

The emcee called the film “a cinematic smorgasbord.” Synonyms for “smorgasbord” include “muddle” and “jumble.”

Only time will tell whether the promising touches in “Cuckoo” lead to films that retain  this one’s originality but are more coherent. One thing is for sure: Writer/Director Tilman Singer has followed the local First Commandment: “Keep Austin Weird.”

“The Greatest Hits” World Premieres at SXSW on March 14th

The synopsis for “The Greatest Hits,” which had its World Premiere at SXSW on Thursday, March 14th said: “Harriet (Lucy Boynton) finds art imitating life when she discovers certain songs can transport her back in time – literally. While she relives the past through romantic memories of her former boyfriend (David Corenswet), her. time traveling collides with a burgeoning new love interest in the present (Justin H. Min).”

“The Greatest Hits” has echoes of older films like “The Butterfly Effect” (2004) or 1998’s “Sliding Doors.” Of newer films, there is the Hulu offering “Press Play.” This World Premiere at SXSW on Thursday, March 14th has time travel, a killer musical score, and a heroine (Lucy Boynton of “Bohemian Rhapsody” and “Murder on the Orient Express”) who relives the past via music.

 

Ned Benson

Director Ned Benson of “The Greatest Hits.”

Just hearing a snippet of a song can send Harriet (Lucy Boynton) back to a time when she and her boyfriend Max were happy and together. Director Ned Benson has tapped into the universal way in which music and certain songs can help us revisit memories. Benson has crafted a romantic 94 minute film that will stream on Hulu on April 12th and will show in theaters prior to that. From the stage during the Q&A Benson admitted to trying to “move into the John Hughes vein” with movies that have a great soundtrack. He has succeeded.

It’s been 2 years since Max (David Corenswet, “Pearl,” “We Own This City”) died in a tragic car accident that also put Harriet in a coma for a week with head injuries. Even before the accident Lucy could time travel via music. Therefore, she tried to warn and save Max even then. Harriet continues to try to save Max  throughout the film. Does she succeed?

COUPLES

Lucy Boynton and Justin H. Min.

Lucy Boynton and Justin H. Min of “The Greatest Hits,” World Premiere on March 14, 2024, at SXSW.(Photo by Connie Wilson)

 

Lucy Boynton and David Corenswet are a handsome and charismatic couple as Harriet and Max. The next love of Harriet’s life, David (Justin H. Min, “Beef”) represents a second chance at love for Harriet. There are multiple scenes of tender kissing, most of them involving Romance #2, Lucy and Justin.  The only true sex scene is an out-of-focus gauzy one, so the emphasis is on romance. It is also all about teaching us, through the counseling of Retta (“Parks & Recreation,” “Good Boys”) as Dr. Evelyn Bartlett, to go forward and live life in the moment.

Dr. Bartlett tells Harriet that we should all learn to “live the dashes.” She means the dash that appears on tombstones between the birth and death dates. Harriet is getting this message from close friends like Morris Martin, well-played by Austin Crute, too. She is told, “You’re making a conscious choice to hide out in your own grief.” Her friends and counselor want Harriet to move on and engage with life again.

Q&A

From the stage after this World Premiere showing of “The Greatest Hits” the director shared that his own home in Los Angeles was used for Morris’s apartment. He said that a friend’s house nearby was used as Max’s house, that Justin lived nearby, and shared, jokingly, that the neighborhood now hated him. Benson admitted that his editor, Saira Haider, had to convince him to lose some of the wonderful beach scene that the movie uses. “I was in love with that beach sequence.”

Austin Crute.

Austin Crute as Morris in “The Greatest Hits,” World Premiered on March 14th at SXSW 2014. (Photo by Connie Wilson).

An interesting question during the Q&A was to name a song that “took you back” in an important way. The team answered with very different responses (“Avalon” by Roxy for Ned Benson; “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” from Green Day for Justin H. Min; “I’m Sexy and I Know It” from Austin Crute) but Director Ned Benson gave credit to the enthusiastic crowd present this day in Austin, saying, “You guys were the inspiration (for this film) during Covid. This is such a special festival. I lived here in 2008. This film is a love letter to music.”

MUSIC & SPECIAL EFFECTS

Since the emphasis throughout the film is on love, grief, and music, special kudos go out to Sound Designer Ando Johnson and Music Supervisor Ryan Lott. During the credits for the many songs that comprise the amazing soundtrack (Mozart even made it in with “Fantasia in D. Minor”) there is even a credit for Ryan Lott and Nelly Furtado.  Nelly Furtado has other songs on the soundtrack, as well.

The presentation of time travel is done well. It’s a tough thing, if you think about it.  I had to think about it when writing one time travel novel (“Out of Time”). Exactly how do you describe or represent time travel in a book or movie?  Cinematographer Chung Hoon-Chung has figured it out for Director Benson; it works.

Cast of "The Greatest Hits" at SXSW 2024.

Director Ned Benson, Lucy Boynton, Justin H. Min and Austin Crute of “The Greatest Hits” on March 14, 2024, at SXSW. (Photo by Connie Wilson).

 

It’s too late for Valentine’s Day, but see this one with that special someone. It’s a well-done, romantic 94 minutes. My only regret when the end credits came up were that Harriet’s first boyfriend Max (David Corenswet) was not there in person. He was off being “Superman” for an upcoming movie (“Superman: Legacy”) and has also been at work on “Twisters.”

If I could make one change in what Director Ned Benson described as “the perfect cast” it would be to reverse the order of boyfriends for Harriet, so that we had more onscreen time between Harriet and Max. Their chemistry onscreen (Lucy Boynton and David Corenswet) was crazy hot. The David character seems like a very sweet guy, but Max seems to have been the love of Harriet’s life, and we lose him too soon in the narrative.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

Billy Preston

Billy Preston, the “Fifth Beatle.”

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

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

EARLY LIFE

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

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

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

BEING GAY IN AMERICA

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

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

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

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

1960s

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

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

1970s

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

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

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

CRACKS IN THE CAREER

Paris Barclay

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

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

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

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

1980s

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

1990s

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

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

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

BLOWS TO THE MUSICIAN

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

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

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

CONCLUSION

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

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

“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.

TV Pilots Screen at SXSW 2024

 

Six TV Pilots screened at SXSW 2024 on Sunday, March 10th. Here are descriptions of four of them.

Tossers Pizza TV pilot.

“Tossers” TV pilot at SXSW.“Tossers”  TV pilot featured a young girl applying for a job at two different pizza delivery services. Pizza Dome features a manager weird enough to drive Sophia from the joint and over to the competitor, Tossers Pizza. The overly attentive manager at Pizza Dome wants to give Sophia “the GT” or Grand Tour.  He talks about Domeo & Juliet and hassles a working employee to make sure that there are exactly 13 pepperoni per pie. There is talk of “slinging some za.” A yellow Gremlin car has a prominent role when Principal Thomson of Salt Lake Middle School calls in to order 125 pizzas by 1 p.m. due to the hot lunch supplies having gone bad. The task seems insurmountable, but, thanks to the emergency run to Foodies to buy more Mozzarella cheese. The showrunners/screenwriters/directors were Chase Block and Bryce Van Leuven and it was dedicated the loving memory of Papa T. It had its moments. My favorite line came when Sophia (who is told she needs to work for free for two weeks as “a trial,” which is a scam to avoid paying the help) assists in delivering a pizza, riding shotgun on the back of a motorcycle. The elderly customer takes one look at her and says to her companion, “She looks slutty.” Sophia, in a perfect deadpan voice, responds, “I’m wearing a helmet.” A relatable concept well executed.

"Marvin Is Sorry" TV pilot at SXSW.

“Marvin Is Sorry” TV pilot at SXSW 2024.

“Marvin Is Sorry” was the story of 25-year-old YouTube influencer Marvin Weaver who accidentally kills one of his fans during the filming of a YouTube video. The stunt was part of Marvin Weaver’s Ice Cap Refreezing Project. The participants are trying to see who can hold their breath the longest underwater. [Having just watched “7 Beats Per Minute” about freedivers who make deep dives without oxygen by holding their breath for more minutes than kills Marvin’s non-winner, the choice of 6 minutes seemed too little.] Marvin, well-played with elan by Sam Song Li, is sorry, as the film’s title suggests—at least at first. Marvin has 35 million subscribers to his YouTube channel but now that is gone.  He is told “No one with morals and a pulse wants you on his show.” Tag Taggart, a far right talk show host with 10 million watchers, however, does want Marvin to guest on the Tag Taggart Show. Pushed to near extinction by the backlash from the stunt gone wrong, Marvin finally gives in and makes an appearance on Tag Taggart’s show. Taggart, says the synopsis, is bent on “cultural domination.” The Tag Line is “life begins before conception.” Cinematographer was Ben Berkowitz. Director Clint Pang should have told his cinematographer that there are microphone booms visible in the upper left screen a lot of the time. The lead (Sam Song Li) saved the project with his personality.

"Neo-Dome" TV pilot screens at SXSW 2024.

“Neo-Dome” TV pilot screens at SXSW 2024.

“Neo-Dome” is a futuristic violent pilot about a woman traveling alone to the utopian dome on the horizon. It is a post-apocalyptic America, suffering economic collapse. Monica Dawes (Anna Camp) stops a car driven by Larry, whose shirt says Homestead Mechanic, his moronic sidekick, and what appears to be an old man asleep in the back seat (but is really a corpse). Monica tells the sketchy duo that she can give them a full tank of gas if they will give her a ride to her car, further down the road. The men are suspicious that Monica is not telling the truth and bargains back-and-forth with them, until things go South and bullets are exchanged. This Texas premiere was written by Matt Pfeffer and directed by Bonnie Discepolo. Producers were Anna Camp, Michael Johnson, and Matt Pfeffer. Cast was Anna Camp, Michael Mosley, Nicholas Logan, Anthony Discepolo. With only Monica still alive, one assumes that a series (of which this was the pilot) would involve other adventures that Monica would have on the road to the Neo-Dome, where the motto is “Trust no one on the road to the Neo-Dome.”

"Lucy & Sara" TV Pilot screens at SXSW 2024.

“Lucy & Sara” has Texas Premiere at SXSW on March 10, 2024.

“Lucy & Sara” – Showrunner/Director Screenwriter was Susan Park. Cast included Susan Park, Nicolette Morrison, Jeremy Joyce and Mark Holgate for this Texas premiere.  The synopsis says it is “a darkly comedic exploration of two unlikely sisters learning to lean on each other after the death of their beloved father in spite of their seemingly toxic relationship.” It was really about one sister urging the other sister to commit suicide, as she seems to be under the impression that her sister is simply “crying wolf.” I once saw George Carlin do a stand-up bit about suicide. People were streaming for the exits. For me, suicide isn’t funny. Especially in today’s climate of girlfriends urging boyfriends (or vice versa) to “just do it” (and some have) the topic seems sketchy. I can’t recommend this one.

“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!

 

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