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

“Maestro” Is Bradley Cooper’s Baby, But It’s No “Barbieheimer” at the Box Office

“Maestro,” written by, starring, and directed by Bradley Cooper, is a worthy second attempt at directing (2018’s “A Star Is Born” was his debut). It will earn many Oscar nominations, but it does not seem to be capturing the imagination of the general public.  The music and the performances are spot on, but it’s not the “feel good” movie of 2023.

For me, that movie was “Dream Sequential.” “Maestro” won’t be acing that Nicolas Cage effort out on my “best of 2023” list. “Maestro” is a typical bio-pic structurally. This attempt to cram a remarkable life into a movie that runs less than 3 hours is impressive and one of the best efforts of 2023. It just isn’t “must see” viewing for most, and it isn’t doing that well so far on Netflix, according to Netflix’s own data.

Thematically, “Maestro” reminds of the 2004 film “De-Lovely” with Kevin Kline and Ashley Judd.  That 2004 film, directed by Irwin Winkler and written by Jay Cocks, had Kevin Kline playing Cole Porter and Ashley Judd playing Linda, his wife. Linda also had to learn to cope with Cole Porter’s bi-sexuality and infidelity within their marriage. Kevin Kline sat behind the piano playing a bit more in that one. But the message about open-minded women trying valiantly to accept the bisexuality of their husbands was similar. This one is far more accomplished because of the 6 years of effort trying to get everything “right” (and, of course, the $80 million-dollar Netflix budget.)

As far as “getting it right,” “Maestro accomplishes that, but falls short of enchanting us. It doesn’t draw us into what we hope will be an absorbing drama. It “works” musically. The performances and make-up and cinematography (Matthew Libatique) and editing (Michelle Tesoro)  are all top-notch, but it just didn’t fly, Orville.

BEST ACTRESS NOMINEE

Bradley Cooper and Carey Mulligan as Mr, and Mrs. Leonard Bernstein.

 

For me, the stand-out—and front-runner for Best Actress award come Oscar time—is Carey Mulligan. She lost out when nominated for Emerald Fennell’s 2020 film “Promising Young Woman” but she has amassed a body of work that merits nomination and a win, going all the way back to “An Education” (2009) and “Never Let Me Go” (2010). She anchors this movie, which is really the story of Leonard Bernstein’s bisexuality and genius as a composer and musician, and their romance and marriage. (I met Carey Mulligan at the Chicago International Film Festival when she appeared with Paul Dano’s directorial debut “Wildlife” in 2018).

In the scene where Mulligan and Cooper quarrel while the Thanksgiving Parade drifts by their window (not authentic, by the way), Felicia warns Bernstein that he may wind up a “lonely old Queen.” Mulligan portrays Bernstein’s wife Felicia Montelegre, a Chilean actress, who said, before they married after four years of romance,  “I know exactly who you are. Let’s give it a whirl.”

It is clear that Felicia is aware of Bernstein’s sexual proclivities. In a private letter written after their marriage, Felicia acknowledged her husband’s sexual orientation. She wrote to him: “You are a homosexual and may never change – you don’t admit to the possibility of a double life, but if your peace of mind, your health, your whole nervous system depend on a certain sexual pattern what can you do?”  In the script (written by Cooper in collaboration with Josh Singer) Felicia rationalizes, “If it is going to give him pleasure and stop him from suffering and it’s in my power to do it, then what-the-hell.”

But the price of sharing her husband’s affections with other male lovers has a high cost. During their big argument Felicia cites a Chilean parable that says one should not stand under a bird that is about to shit. Adds Felicia, “And I’ve just been living under that bird for so long.” She adds, “Your truth is a fucking lie.” In another scene, a friend of Bernstein’s comments to Bernstein on Felicia’s depressed state, saying, “Something in her seems crushed.” He remarks on her “keen sense of futility.”

For me, this film was more a tribute to the open-minded woman who allowed Leonard Bernstein to create and provided him with three children and a stable home life and a sense of sartorial style that was one of his enduring trademarks. Their true affection for one another is undeniable. But in the 1950s when Bernstein produced some of his most impressive work, a “beard” was necessary so that the world saw a happily married man, not a gay musician who was cheating on his long-suffering wife.

When Felicia is diagnosed with breast cancer that has metastasized, Bernstein returns from a period in 1976 when he lived in northern California with music scholar Thomas Cothran. This rupture in their marriage is somewhat soft-pedaled in the bio-pic. We see “Tommy” and realize that Felicia does not appreciate his presence in their lives (she gives a great side-eye during one concert where Leonard and Tommy are holding hands, while she sits next to her husband on his right.) When she is diagnosed with cancer, however, Bernstein nurses Felicia through her final illness. She died on June 16, 1978.

Leonard Bernstein lived until October 14, 1990, dying at age 72.  Leonard Bernstein is quoted this way in the script about life’s challenges, “As death approaches, an artist must be allowed to create with absolute freedom…I must live the rest of my life, no matter how long or short it may be, exactly the way that I want.” That sounds fairly selfish in the context of a marriage. The opening quote, appearing in black-and-white at the beginning of the film, ties in with these statements: “A work of art does not answer questions, it provokes them; and its essential meaning is in the tension between the contradictory answers.”

The “contradictory answers” for Bernstein in life are clearly delineated for us in Bradley Cooper’s script and performance. At one point Bernstein says, “I really believe that man is this trapped animal. A victim of his own greeds and follies. Either one believes in the divine element in this, or one doesn’t. …I have to believe in the remote corner of my soul that there is a way out.”

INTERESTING THINGS ABOUT THE FILM

The film opens in black-and-white. The various periods in Bernstein’s life are, in a sense, limned by the different methods of shooting. The film goes full color about 49 minutes into the 2 hour and 9 minute film. Daughter Jamie Bernstein (well-played by Ethan Hawke/Uma Thurman’s daughter Maya) was struck by how much Cooper resembled her father. Jamie noted how the actor-director utilized her memoir, 2018’s Famous Father Girl: A Memoir of Growing Up Bernstein, praising Cooper for seeking the same perfection in his work that her famous father constantly sought. The family members also defended Cooper when the prosthetic nose he wore to appear more Jewish was criticized.

MAKE-UP ARTIST

Cooper’s resemblance to the real Leonard Bernstein is pronounced, thanks to the expert make-up work of Kazu Hiro. We can predict that he will be Oscar nominated this spring. He previously won Academy Awards for turning Gary Oldman into Winston Churchill for “The Darkest Hour” and Charlize Theron into Megyn Kelly for “Bombshell.”

SOUND

The music, of course, is “all Bernstein  (nearly) all the time.” One scene that is not Bernstein’s music is a tour de force for Cooper as an actor. That is a six-plus minute recreation of Bernstein leading the London Symphony Orchestra in Mahler’s “Resurrection” Symphony No. 2 at Ely Cathedral in 1973.

Yannick Nézet-Séguin was Cooper’s conducting consultant; his work obviously paid off.

One other thing that I noticed was how nasal Bernstein’s voice sounded when Cooper uttered certain lines in the script.

CONCLUSION

Leonard Bernstein was one of the most talented and influential musicians in American history, and one of the most prodigious. He won 7 Emmy Awards, 2 Tony Awards, 16 Grammy Awards (including a Lifetime Achievement Award) and was  one of the Kennedy Center Honorees in 1981.

This bio-pic, produced by Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese, premiered at the Venice International Film Festival and was the Spotlight Gala at the 61st New York Film Festival. It is an ambitious chronicling of the man who directed the New York Philharmonic from 1961 to 1969 and the dedicated  musician who spent over 50 years teaching and mentoring young musical talent at Tanglewood. Best Picture of the Year? Not this year. But “Maestro” is a tremendous achievement in its own right.

Christmas, 2023, Is In the Books

 

Christmas, 2023,  has come and gone.

The daughter has just left for the airport, to fly back to Nashville and, from there, to Chicago for work with SW. She will check on the status of my Chicago digs (and the weather).

Her father was driving her, attired in a pair of shorts and used sandals that he got as a gag gift for Christmas.

The Wilson family at Xmas, 2023

Christmas, 2023.

As has become my custom, I concentrated on primarily gift cards: Amazon, Ulta, Walgreen’s, the Cheesecake Factory, Alamo Drafthouse, Long John Steakhouse, B.J.’s Steakhouse, Lowe’s, Chik Fil A—the list goes on. When you have a family member who has to fly out with the presents, gift cards make a lot of sense, When you have two fourteen-year-old twins, it is folly to think you will “get it right” if you are the one doing the picking,

A few key gifts were purchased, as requested—boots, a coat for the daughter, a Texas Hook ‘Em Horns shirt, a water pik, a cover for my Ipad to replace on that gave up the ghost, a flannel nightgown for the few really cold nights here in the Lone Star State.

Games were played following a sumptuous feast of prime rib (prepared beautifully by the son), cheesy potatoes, creamed peas, green bean casserole, and a tasty dessert prepared by CostCo. We even had home-made ice cream from the brand new ice cream maker!

Wilson family Christmas, Dec., 2022,

Christmas, 2022. (L to R) Scott, Stacey, Connie, Ava, Jessica, Elise, Craig.

I primarily feel grateful that the daughter’s close brush with an EF-3 tornado in Madison, Tennessee, was as minimal as it turned out, because it was truly a terrifying event.

I am happy that the son and wife and daughters will be able to spend some quality time with her Mom and family in Brownsville, celebrating the New Year. (We will celebrate with Anderson Cooper and Andy and miss our friends the DeJonghes and euchre.)

Euchre was played at son Scott’s house, along with Code Names, poker, Wheel of Fortune (a new board game), and Sequence and various clips from stand-up comics were enjoyed.

It was a lovely Christmas. Here’s to an equally festive New Year’s Eve and a better 2024 than 2023!

Tennessee Tornado Hits Daughter’s Madison Neighborhood:

Nesbitt Lane in Madison, TN after tornado

Madison, Tennessee Tornado of December 10th.

We received a phone call about 5 p.m. from our daughter, Stacey, in Madison, Tennessee, on December 10th; she was absolutely terrified. Her terror was justified. The EF-3 tornado that struck Nashville went right over/past her house. It was pitch black. She doesn’t really have a basement, but only a crawl space. She was huddled in the tub with the neighbor’s cat, whom she has dubbed “Squeaky.”

She sent the attached picture of the street next door (Nesbitt Lane) to her small home in Madison, TN, which she has only been in for a brief time. I’m not sure I’ve ever received a more stressful phone call. Three people died in Madison on Nesbitt Lane. When you get a phone call like that it’s like talking to someone on a plane that is crashing. We talked to her throughout the ordeal (no power for 3 days) and she says “it’s crazy here.”
Tornado blows up transformer

Madison, TN, Dec. 10 Tornado

I had seen that this storm was (possibly) going to hit both Memphis and Nashville while doing my nightly Wordle, Spelling Bee, Connections and Quordle night time ritual, so I wrote her about the horrible weather that, it said, was going to start outside Houston and then cross the Midwest in a sort of diagonal before heading out East.

I always try to pass these nuggets along to her because she is always traveling for work as a flight attendant, and I am always trying to find out if the weather is likely to be a bad thing for her work day.  They had predicted 40 million people would be affected by flooding in cities like New York and Philadelphia. So, I was not unaware of this Monster Storm (as they termed it on the late night news summary) but you never know if our children are paying as much attention to mundane stuff like weather as I am.
Tornado

Tornado in Madison, Tennessee.

nyway, she was really upset, and with good cause.  The air became pitch black and the wind did damage to her singles and her chimney.

Take a look at the street next door to her Heritage Drive location in Madison, TN, which is to the North and East of Nashville. (We visited her there in September for the Nashville Film Festival.) Her house appears to have escaped serious damage, although the new grill we bought her when we were on Nashville was pushed all the way across her small deck and the umbrella fell on a potted plant and broke. Six people were killed in Madison.
Stacey says there are giant trees down everywhere and no access to the Interstate and her recycling bin went all the way to the end of the street and it was full of stuff.  Stacey went to her friend Kayla’s house, which had power, and for whom she was cat-sitting. However, after arriving at Kayla’s house, Kayla’s house lost power. The street lights were all out. She said her house is like a dead zone: she cannot send calls. All regular cell towers must be down.
It  rained there until 11 p.m. Sunday. Nesbitt Lane, near her house, is just rubble and the Home Depot that Stacey and Craig shopped at during our trip, for the grill (etc.) was hit hard.
Very scary.

Family Fest 2023 in Austin, Texas Is In the Books

My son (Scott) and his wife (Jessica) and their girls (14-year-old twins Ava and Elise) just concluded another successful Family Fest at their home in Austin, Texas.

People normally fly in from St. Louis, Denver, the Quad Cities, Boston, Nashville and our numbers have been as high as 30, although this year there were some defections in the ranks and we topped out at 14.

Of that number, eleven slept at his house and three of us commuted back and forth from the Hills of Bear Creek (Mench aaca) 3.3 miles away.

On Sunday, most of the group floated for 3 and ½ hours down a river in inner tubes. I think it was the Calumne River, but don’t quote me on that.

Son Scott grilled many things: sausage, ribs, brisket. Jessica made many delicious side dishes and I contributed a Texas sheet cake and deviled eggs. On Labor Day we had a birthday cake for the 2-year-old, Winnie Eddy.

Craig, Connie, Stacey, Megan (blue suit kids).

The Ken Paxton impeachment trial is ongoing, creating a major political scandal in the Longhorn state. The “New York Times” was covering it on an hourly basis.

There was a shoot-out in nearby Buda today and the temperature here is predicted to top 100 degrees for the foreseeable future.

Most days and nights, we staked out the pool, playing water volleyball, bags, and other games. Only one board game was used, Baby boomers versus Millennials, which was way too easy.

A birthday cake was secured for Winnie Eddy, the youngest member of the group, who had recently turned two.

Wrigley, the dog, had a good time and neighbors Bill Kohl and Satch and Brandi Nanda and daughter Kira stopped by, along with the Beans from next door, who came with Jackson, Penny and Milly in tow. (Penny was very excited about the idea of a baby in the house.)

 

 

 

Scott at outdoor bar in Buda, Texas.

A good time was had by all.

Christopher Nolan’s “Oppenheimer:” Instant Classic

Head and shoulders portrait

Oppenheimer, c. 1944

Roughly one-half of the movie “Oppenheimer” focuses on the unjust way Robert J. Oppenheimer, the father of the atomic bomb, was persecuted after he performed so spectacularly in heading up Los Alamos and giving the United States the atomic bomb to end World War II in Japan. Oppenheimer was denied a security clearance during kangaroo court hearings in 1954, which basically meant he could no longer work in his field. He continued to lecture, but he was ruined.

Director Christopher Nolan has made one of the—if not THE—most important film in a very important career. This $100 million depiction of how the United States came to create the atomic bomb at Los Alamos is a dense subject. The movie was based on the 2006 Pulitzer Prize winning book “American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer” by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin (2005). Prometheus, of course, was the god who gave fire to mankind. For his crime he was chained to a rock and a vulture ate his liver each day, which grew back each night.

There are so many characters in the book and it appears that Nolan has attempted to wrap his creative mind around all of them and present every character onscreen. I applaud him for taking the dense text and transforming it into this three-hour epic film. The “L.A. Times” critic said: “Arguably Nolan’s most impressive work yet in the way it combines his acknowledged visual mastery with one of the deepest character dives in recent American cinema.”

At three hours, it’s a long film.

It’s deep, all right.

I felt fairly dense myself after trying to follow all of the twists and turns in the plot. I was especially ill-prepared when it comes to quantum physics, having dropped out of Physics in high school after two days. (That act was almost a replay of “Peggy Sue Got Married” where Kathleen Turner gets up from an algebra test and announces that she happens to know that she will never need this stuff in the future.)

VISUALLY

The movie, shot on 70 mm film, has stunning imagery, especially in the early parts. (Later sections that deal with the security clearance hearings in offices are more black-and-white).  I was immediately reminded of the sweeping panoramas of filmmakers like Terrence Malick (“Days of Heaven,” “Tree of Life”), or David Lean (“Dr. Zhivago”), or Stanley Kubrick (“2001: A Space Odyssey”). No less a movie maven than author David Morrell commented on the different color palettes employed throughout the film.

The movie does not show the actual dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which killed 220,000 people, but, instead, gives us the test explosion in New Mexico, called Trinity. Cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema deserves Oscar nominations for his work. I disagree with the critic who said you didn’t need to see this one on the IMAX big screen. If ever there was an argument for IMAX, a film like this is it. (Last one I shelled out for IMAX treatment was the remake of “West Side Story.”)

If I may wander from the actual film’s words for a moment, supposedly Oppenheimer’s brother, Frank, also a nuclear physicist (who was also hounded from the field) said that his brother’s words after the test were, “I guess it works.” That is not in the film. But the lines that do appear, with Matt Damon and others articulating them, describe the after-effects of the Trinity test blast. Says a witness to the Trinity blast, “I hope you learned something.” To which Matt Damon’s character responds, “We learned we’re going to need to be lots further away!”

That’s about as close to humor as this film will get.

CAST

Cillian Murphy, who visually resembles Oppenheimer (and was actually up for the lead role in a previous Oppenheimer treatment), has worked with Nolan on 6 films. He uses his preternaturally large blue eyes to good advantage in portraying this tortured genius. Murphy supposedly subsisted on a diet of fruits, nuts and figs and very little else to keep the elfin stature of the real man intact throughout filming. In real life, Oppenheimer was said to often forget to eat, so that seems apropos.

The number of Oscar-winning or nominated actors in the film is a tribute to the director’s stature. I will probably accidentally omit someone, but Robert Downey, Jr., is bound to be an Oscar nominee for his pivotal role as Lewis Strauss, the two-faced politician who set Oppenheimer up for ruin because of personal animus and Cillian Murphy comes into his own as a leading man.

Others in the cast include Josh Hartnett in a welcome return to form, Gary Oldman, Kenneth Branagh, Tom Conti (who plays Einstein), Matthew Modine, Alden Ehrenreich, Casey Affleck, Rami Malek, Emily Blunt, Florence Pugh, Tony Goldwyn, James D’Arcy, Jason Clarke and Matt Damon. I’m sure I’ve forgotten some of the bigger “name” actors or actresses, but the wealth of talent is very deep when you’re casting an Oscar winner like Malek in a small part. All of the actors complimented Nolan, the mastermind.  Some critics have mentioned the relatively meager parts for women, as opposed to the meatier male roles. This “it’s a man’s world” depiction is true to the period, however.

Personally, I related to the four-times married Kitty (Emily Blunt), shown at her wit’s end with two squalling toddlers and stuck in the quickly thrown-together town built for the Manhattan Project scientists in Los Alamos. She mentions that there is “no kitchen” upon being shown the house for the first time.

Oppenheimer had his hands full with prima donna scientists who constantly quit or are in conflict, but Kitty was stuck in the house with two extremely colicky kids. Baby Peter is even taken to a friend’s house by his father when his constant crying becomes too much for the couple. Younger daughter Katherine (“Toni”), who was born at Los Alamos in November of 1944 is only seen as an infant in the film. She grew up and studied to be a United Nations interpreter but was denied a security clearance because of her father’s fifties security clearance hearings. This was 10 years after Oppenheimer’s 1967 death from throat cancer. In 1977, after that denial, Toni—who had inherited the St. Thomas cottage where her parents lived in later life, hanged herself. She left the family cottage and grounds to St. Thomas for the use of the public.

PERSONAL LIVES

Oppenheimer was a World Class womanizer. Matt Damon has an exchange with Oppenheimer where he says, “You’re a dilettante, you’re a womanizer, unstable, theatrical, neurotic!” Oppenheimer’s affair with Florence Pugh (virtually unrecognizable with dark hair) portraying paramour Jean Tatlock causes much conflict in the film. The couple see each other shortly after Oppenheimer’s second child is born.

A troubled soul who ultimately committed suicide, Jean Tatlock WAS a Communist. This bit of personal information on Oppenheimer’s affair was brought out during the 1954 kangaroo court hearings with Oppenheimer’s wife Kitty (Emily Blunt) sitting there to hear it, as Oppenheimer is interrogated by Jason Clarke (“Pet Semetary”). Still, Kitty and J. Robert stayed together.

Lewis Strauss (Robert Downey, Jr.) pretended, to Oppenheimer’s face, to be a friend. He was as two-faced as they come and set Oppenheimer up for his fall, out of vindictive animus. Strauss (who was angling to become the Secretary of Commerce) felt he had been held up to ridicule during testimony that Oppenheimer gave. One dispute was over the exporting of radioactive isotopes to Sweden. The testimony used in the screenplay showed Oppenheimer saying that radioactive isotopes were “less important than electronic devices, but more important than, let us say, vitamins.” In the screenplay the comparison became “a bottle of beer.”

Another change from reported wording seemed to be in what President Truman (portrayed by Gary Oldman) actually said after meeting with Oppenheimer in the Oval Office. In the movie, Oppenheimer tells Truman that he feels he has “blood on his hands.” This is because of how conflicted Oppenheimer is regarding the death of 220,000 Japanese civilians when the bomb was dropped. Oppenheimer is urging (somewhat naively) international cooperation on the use of nuclear weapons, with an entity like the United Nations in charge. The generals and the Army and the politicians do not see it his way.

Truman, during a visit with Oppenheimer in the Oval Office, hands him a handkerchief after his  comment about regulating nuclear weapons internationally and then, when Oppenheimer walks out of the Oval Office, tells his Undersecretary of State, Dean Acheson, “I don’t want to see that son-of-a-bitch in this office ever again.” In the movie, the script has Truman saying, “Don’t let that crybaby back in here.” The profanity is probably more accurate, because Truman was known for his salty language. (They didn’t call him “give-’em- hell-Harry” for nothing.)

MORAL VACILLATION

Oppenheimer vacillated over his feelings of guilt over the deaths in Hiroshima and Nagasaki from the dropping of the bomb he created.

After the successful drop. The screenplay has him telling a jubilant room full of Los Alamos employees, “It’s too soon to determine the results of the bombing, but I’ll bet the Japanese didn’t like it. I just wish we had had it to use against the Germans.”

At another point in the plot, this line appears, “Nobody knows what you believe.  Do you?”

Repeated throughout the piece, however, is this refrain:  “Just because we’re building it doesn’t mean that we get to decide how it is used.”

Matt Damon’s character, General Leslie Groves, tells Oppenheimer, “We’ve given them an Ace.  It’s for them to play the hands.” Another repetition of this thought: “The fact that we built this bomb does not give us the right or responsibility to determine how it is used.” All of these lines seemed to be justifications. After all, Oppenheimer was the American Prometheus, “the man who gave the Americans the ability to destroy themselves.” As Nolan says at another point in the screenplay which he wrote, “The day will come when people will curse the name Los Alamos.”

MUSIC

Leslie Goranssen’s music has been singled out as one of the best scores of the year (Oscar?.)  Terms like “masterful” and “mercurial” were used. I kept noticing how many of the scenes that had subtle background music would be totally unremarkable without his musical contribution. The use of stamping feet was unique and original.

OVERALL

For tension, structure, sense of scale, startling sound design (very impressive when viewed in IMAX) and remarkable visuals—not to mention the superb cast of actors—this one is going to be hard to beat. Yes, it is overlong and dense and made me feel woefully inadequate to understand the quantum physics discussed, but phrases like “Power exists in the shadows” were universal and I had to agree with the remark attributed to Wernher von Braun, who said, of Oppenheimer’s poor treatment by Lewis Strauss and the bureaucracy, “In England, Oppenheimer would have been knighted.”

On a personal level, since Wehrner Von Braun of Hitler’s rocket program ultimately ended up in Iowa City, Iowa (my alma mater) for the remainder of his life after fleeing Nazi Germany, I thoroughly agree.

I  have personally met and spoken with at least five of the actors/actresses onscreen in “Oppenheimer” at various film festivals, those being Gary Oldman (in Chicago for “Soldier, Sailor, Tinker, Spy” in 2011), Kenneth Branagh (in Chicago with “Belfast” in 2021), Casey Affleck (in Chicago with “Gone, Baby, Gone” in 2007),  Emily Blunt, in Austin at SXSW for “A Quiet Place” (2018), and Jason Clarke at SXSW for the remake of “Pet Sematary” (2019).

It seems fitting to end the review of this extraordinary film with the quotation from the Bhagavad Gita that Oppenheimer repeats, “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”

Three-Day Birthday Extravaganza in Chicago

Just returned from a long weekend in Chicago celebrating a birthday and attending various events.

First, there was the Cubs/Cardinals baseball game, covered in a previous entry.

Next, there was a luxurious dinner atop the Hancock Building, in the Signature Room.

The view from the 95th floor is, of course, spectacular, but this particular night the rain we had just experienced (and, possibly, smoke from fires somewhere?) meant that the view was not as clear as one would have liked.

Still, the food and service were excellent and, even though we went early (5:30 p.m.) we didn’t miss out on any sunsets or fantastic views, because of the weather. It was really odd, because, on television, Wrigley Field as having a rain delay, but where we were in the South Loop it was sunny. Go figure.

After the dinner and dessert, we went home and had a birthday pie (chocolate, of course). We had tried to buy a white cake at the Jewel store, but our choices were a chocolate cake with Elmo on it or one that said, “Happy Sixth Birthday.” I’m not

averse to shaving some time off my age, but that might be pushing it!

On Sunday—which was the real birthday date—we went to see the play based on “Tommy: The Rock Opera.” It was at the Goodman Theater and it was spectacular. The New York Times had raved on about this show, saying, “Why is there nothing like this in New York City?” The innovative use of special effects was truly unique and all of the cast had terrific voices. The entire place was sold out and they received a standing ovation.

Afterwards, we had an early dinner at Petterino’s, which is attached to the Goodman Theater.

I want to thank my close family and friends for the kind birthday greetings. I thoroughly enjoyed the three-day extravaganza.

Granddaughter Ava.

“Relative” Shows at Alamo Drafthouse in Wrigleyville for Final Time on May 22nd, 2023

Writer/Director Michael Glover Smith of “Relative.”

Chicago filmmaker Michael Glover Smith, (awarded the Gene Siskel Film Center’s Star Filmmaker Award in 2017), has written and directed four feature films since 2015. The newest film, “Relative,” was screened at Wrigleyville’s new Alamo Drafthouse Cinema on May 22nd for what may be the last time. However, negotiations are underway for a streaming deal that could take place as soon as this summer.

The film will be a good one for serious film buffs to stream. It is well-acted, thoughtful and the music (Cait Rappel) and editing (Eric Marsh) add to the overall excellent product. The cinematographer was Olivia Aqualina.

I drove out to a local college where Smith teaches film history and aesthetics when his last film, “Mercury in Retrograde” screened. It, too, was very good. Way back in 2022 I promised to try to attend a screening of “Relative” before it ended its run. Ill health and treatments for same delayed that trip until Monday night.

I thoroughly enjoyed the film, not only because Smith is a talented writer/director who knows how to put a film together, but because the characters were much more relatable, to me, than the majority of films dealing with millennials and Generation X that I recently took in at SXSW. Sure, the obligatory same sex relationship was included (de rigeur these days) and there aren’t a lot of plot twists and surprises, but the cast is beyond excellent and, as another famous filmmaker once said, “The cast is everything. You get that right, and your film will be successful.”

Writer/Director Smith told the audience in the Q&A following the film, “I wanted to stretch myself as a writer in depicting a family. I wanted to depict older characters. My first three scripts were about younger people.”

He went on to say that this was the largest cast he had assembled, his biggest ensemble. “To me, the cast was everything. They had that chemistry. They found it instantly. It was the best experience I’ve ever had.” The film was also well-received during its run and, on its opening night, was the 23rd highest-grossing film nationwide.

When asked about preparation amongst the cast for the film, zoom calls between characters were mentioned, and Clare Cooney said, “I’m allergic to preparation.” The consensus seemed to be that if you do something too many times, spontaneity goes away.

As far as instructing his actors, Smith said, “I really like giving the actors a whole lot of freedom.” This echoes directors such as Brian DePalma, who told RogerEbert.com’s Matt Seitz, “But you have to be very patient and loving with your actors, because they’re putting everything on the line, and you have to try to get everything out of the way to not hurt their performances or distract them.”

 

Clare Cooney in Chicago on May 22, 2023.

THE GOOD

The cast that Smith assembled was, indeed, very, very good. “Twin Peaks” alumnus Wendy Robie (who played Nadine Hurley, eye-patch and all) portrays sixty-something matriarch Karen Frank, and Steppenwolf theater actor Francis Guinan plays her husband, David Frank. They are the parents to four offspring, who are gathering to celebrate the graduation of the tag-along child, Benjy (Cameron Scott Roberts of “The Walking Dead,” “Chicago Fire,” and “Ben Is Back.”) Benji—the “happy accident”—was eight when his older siblings were all away at college. In my own nuclear family unit, my son was a freshman in college when his sister was born, 19 years later.  I can relate to the “surprise” element of family formation. (Our family motto: “Every 20 years, whether you need to or not.”)

The Franks’ oldest son Rod (Keith D. Gallagher) is an unemployed 34-year-old who moved into his parents’ basement after his wife Sarah (Heather Chrisler), a webcam performer at a sex site, divorced him and took custody of their young son. Rod is also a veteran who suffers from PTSD, although younger brother Benjy doubts that Rod’s psychic pain is for real. Rod shares with Benjy that having his father refer to him as “a fungus” at one point is very demoralizing; the father/son bond certainly seems strained to the point of incivility—especially when it comes out during the gathering that the parents might sell the house, which makes Rod wonder, “What about me?”

Tensions mount at the graduation party for Benji, which only amplifies Rod’s feelings of failure and David’s resentment of him for living in his parents’ basement and delaying their mother’s retirement.

Daughter Evonne (Clare Cooney) comes into town from Madison, Wisconsin with her girlfriend Lucia (Melissa DuPrey), a Black woman, and their mixed-race daughter Emma (Arielle Gonzalez). Clare Cooney, who portrays Evonne, flew in all the way from Cannes to join the other 7 cast members, where she was participating in the Cannes Film Festival.  I only hope that Cooney’s excellent short “Runner” was part of that Cannes’ offerings. It was one of the most impressive shorts at the Windy City Film Festival in Chicago the year my own script was in a different category. Clare Cooney—who both acts, writes, directs, and, in this case, produces and casts—is a very talented filmmaker.

Another sister, Norma (Emily Lape), has driven in from Bettendorf, Iowa (where I had a business from 1985 to 2003). Smith told us during the Q&A that Norma represents the “normal” family member, hence her name. Norma talks openly to her parents about her perception that the family is disintegrating. The line that applies here is William Butler Yeats’ “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold.” Or, as Smith has re-phrased that, “The more things change, the more they stay the same. Only, they don’t.“ (“I used to think that things would always be like that.”)

All of the film’s actors are terrific. The characters, as written, are multi-faceted and complex. For a film fan older than 30, it was nice to see Mom and Dad portrayed so well and to see the interactions of the four siblings. Writer/Director Smith shared that he considered Benjy, who is graduating and going on to a career as a cartographer for Google, to be “a selfish little prick.” I thought Benjy was rather harsh in his early judgment of his older brother, Rod, and certainly his desire to pick up a cute blonde girl from Iceland  (rather than attend his own graduation celebration) was selfish. But Benjy seemed as though he might join Norma in the “normal” category with the passing of time.

The film had many worthwhile observations:  the sadness of the “empty nest;” it’s hard to go home/ it’s hard to leave home,” nothing stays the same; death, as a sub-text. Mom Karen’s explanation of why she married David, rather than another suitor, was spot-on (says the woman married 55 years).  Karen explains that fierce loyalty beats all hell out of madly in love. Karen, the matriarch, talks about marital success as “just keep putting one foot in front of the other.” These observations spoke to me, because I’m not a Millennial. I’ve lived those truths. I enjoyed having an “adult film” that showed thought and did so with wit, as when the couple talks about their now adult children and comments that they haven’t done such a bad job. (“At least none of them became a Republican.”)

THE BAD

So, yes, I thoroughly enjoyed the film.  I would have found my way to the director and told him so, personally, but my 4-hour parking garage time stamp was about to run out and I was looking at a $19 surcharge if I ran over. When you drive 3 and ½ hours (from the Quad Cities) and wait for 2 years (through some ill health) to make it to (potentially) the film’s last theatrical showing out of 45, you want to provide feedback that shows that you, too, are pondering all the ideas that have been so well depicted. And if this means displaying your own ignorance, so be it. [After all, I’ve only been at  reviewing for 53 years, so don’t pay my very minor criticism any attention.]

At one point, the character known as Hekla (which means volcano in Icelandic) is asked to insert a monologue from “The Importance of Being Earnest.” She does so. Why? I’m sure there was a reason for including this, but, to me, it just looked like padding. I didn’t “get” its significance. I would have asked about this from the audience after the showing, but the actress who portrayed Hekla was going on about her delivery (“I was scared about that monologue”) and time ran out. Plus, I had to finish my $9 Diet Coke and settle the Alamo Drafthouse bill.

The other point—-coming from a woman who has been reviewing film since 1970—(author of “It Came from the 70s: From The Godfather to Apocalypse Now”) is this: I take issue with Writer/Director Smith’s statement regarding characterization versus plot. His exact words: “As a filmmaker, I’m all about character. I don’t give a f*** about story.”

I may be all wrong about this  (feel free to disagree), but I have written and published extensively, and I know how difficult writing is. I definitely agree that characterization is very, very important, but so is something happening (i.e., plot). I think the people who mentioned that they expected Norma to have a car accident on her way home were just waiting for that “something” to happen. If all films eliminate the “something happening,” fickle and disappointed filmgoers will leave the theater griping that “nothing happened.” (Please do not throw brickbats at the messenger who has articulated what other filmgoers told the director in previous Q&As).

I agree that a lot is shown happening as a “lead-up” to something climactic. Call me silly, but I expected that to be the matriarch (Wendy Robie) telling the kids that either she or her spouse had cancer and only “x” months to live. {That is probably because I now know how much drama that particular pronouncement will provide, having lived that particular story line since Pearl Harbor Day, 2021.} (*Note to self: Never have a mammogram on Pearl Harbor Day!)

If the “C” word wasn’t going to be the coup de grace for the film’s dramatic moment, what else might have sufficed?  There are other menu options: given the recent tenor of the times, we could have a “Crying Game” transgender surprise involving the young couple (Benjy and Hekla). Too bold? We could find out that Dad David and Mom Karen are not on the same page about selling the house (which seemed to be the case). Something more dramatic could have been portrayed at the party between the lesbian couple who are contemplating breaking up. They seem preternaturally calm about it all.  There are any number of dramatic possibilities; none were selected. The porch scene with the cigarillos might as well have been the “finale,” then, if Norma was just going to drive back to Bettendorf to continue being norma(l).

I know. Some of these suggestions are too “out there;” some are too ordinary. It’s my obsession with plot and character AND story, my downfall since age twelve.

I look forward to more films from Michael Glover Smith.  I hope he will at least consider upping the plot game, not for his own preference(s), but for that of more average movie buffs who DO want to see “something happen,” but also want to have a deep dive into character. I suspect that films that “don’t give a f*** about plot” might have difficulty finding financing, but, then again, making four films in just 8 years (and during a pandemic) is remarkable. And, with 8 nominations and 5 wins at film festivals, so is this film.

 

 

The Top Five on “The Voice” on Dec. 5, 2022

SAVED | Omar Jose Cardona (Team Legend)

ELIMINATED | Justin Aaron (Team Gwen), Parijita Bastola (Team Legend), Kim Cruse (Team Legend)

Another blog asked readers to vote on who SHOULD have been eliminated, with these results:

  • Brayden Lape  28.9%

 

  • Bryce Leatherwood  17.53%

 

  • Parijita Bastola  11.53%

 

  • Kim Cruse  10.03%

 

  • Justin Aaron  9.64%

 

  • bodie  8.69%

 

  • Omar Jose Cardona  8.3%

 

  • Morgan Myles

In years of yore, I used to be a faithful devotee of “American Idol” during the Simon Cowell years.

I’ve not been a faithful watcher of any talent show since, but I did catch the last few shows of “The Voice” and was truly impressed with the singing of the two African American contestants, in particular. The best of the lot was Kim Cruse, who was a large woman with an even larger voice. She was spectacular  on the program where she covered “Summertime” and “All By Myself” was just as good. Yet she was eliminated, which has to be chalked up to teeny-boppers voting for “cute” boys.

The second contestant who deserved to go forward was Justin Aaron, a former teacher’s aide, who delivered every single time he sang and was nearly as amazing as Kim Cruse.

After that, I would have placed Omar Jose Cardona (Team Legend) and Morgan Myles (Camilla Caballo’s team) in the final five.

Brayden Lange, the high school kid who hadn’t done much singing prior to this show, was not that good. He was that cute, but his singing was not that good. The weird guy with the white hair or wig, whom Blake Shelton seemed fond of, Bodie, was not that good, either.

The Final Five should be Kim Cruse, Justin Aaron, Omar Jose Cardona, Morgan Myles and probably Bryce Leatherwood. Leatherwood wasn’t, technically, as good a singer as Pariita Bastola (he was often flat), but the C&W group must be served and the country singer in the cowboy hat filled that bill.

I was embarrassed by the final five as chosen by teenagers nationwide. Eliminating both Kim Cruse and Justin Aaron was a grave miscarriage of justice. It reminded me of the presidential election of 2016 when the wrong candidate won under mysterious circumstances.

Steve James’ “A Compassionate Spy” Opens 58th Chicago International Film Festival on October 12th, 2022

A Compassionate Spy

101 min | Documentary

The incredible story of Manhattan Project scientist Ted Hall, who shared classified nuclear secrets with Russia.

Director:  Steve James

Producers:  Steve James/David Lindorff/Mark Mitten

Cinematographer:  Tom Bergmann

“A Compassionate Spy” opened the 58th Chicago International Film Festival at the Music Box Theater on Wednesday, October 12th. The 101 minute documentary from Kartemquin, a Chicago-based company, was written and directed by Steve James, while the cinematography was by Tom Bergmann.

The synopsis calls it “the incredible story of Manhattan Project scientist Ted Hall, who shared classified nuclear secrets with Russia.” They should add, “And got away with it.”

The sober discussion on the actions of wunderkind Ted Hall—recruited out of Harvard to work on the Los Alamos nuclear bomb project at age 18—was well done, but not the quality of the wonderful Kartemquin documentaries that have gone before.

The last Kartemquin documentary I watched was “All the Queen’s Horses” (2017) by Kelly Richmond Pope. That is not a Steve James documentary, but it was terrific and riveting.

Steve James made his bones way back in 1994 with “Hoop Dreams.” His documentary “Abacus: Small Enough to Jail” (2016) was fantastic (and Oscar-nominated). The documentary “Life Itself” about the life and career of Roger Ebert (2014) was also great. He has spent 37 years writing and directing documentaries for Kartemquin (headquartered in Chicago) and has twice been Oscar nominated.

Those were all extremely interesting documentaries that never lagged.

This one?

Not so much.

More later.

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