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Native Omaha Days 2017: A Homecoming Like No Other

August 11, 2017 Leave a comment

Here is the Reader (www.thereader.com) story I did previewing Native Omaha Days 2017. From all reports, the celebration was a great success. Pam and I made it down to a few different Native Omaha Days events and we thoroughly enjoyed outselves, too. If you’ve never been, you’ve got to sample this autheniic slice of Omaha.

A homecoming like no other
by Leo Adam Biga

The African-American diaspora migration from the South helped populate Omaha in the 20th century. Railroad and packing house jobs were the lure. From the late 1960s on, a reverse trend has seen African-Americans leave here en mass for more progressive climes. A variant to these patterns finds thousands returning each odd-numbered August for a biennial community reunion known as Native Omaha Days.

The 21st reunion happens July 31 through August 7.

If you’ve not heard of it or partaken in it, you’re probably not black or some of your best friends are not black, because this culture-fest is in Omaha’s Afrocentric DNA. But organizers and participants emphasize everyone’s welcome to join this week-long party.

Featured events range from gospel and jazz concerts to talks and displays to a parade to a ball.

Nobody’s quite sure how many native Omahans living outside the state head home for it to rekindle relationships and visit old haunts.

There are as many takes on it as people engaging in it.

Thomas Warren, president-CEO of the Urban League of Nebraska, which this year hosts its 90 anniversary gala during Omaha Days, may put it best:

“People make it a purpose to come back.”

Reshon Dixon left Omaha for Atlanta 24 years ago and she’s been coming back ever since, except when military commitments prevented it. She hopes to free up her schedule for this year’s fest.

“I’m trying to. I usually plan a year ahead to come back.”

She said she brought her children for it when they were young because “that’s pretty much where our roots are from.” She’s delighted her now grown kids are “planning to come back this year.”

Serial nonprofit executive Viv Ewing said Omaha Days touches deep currents.

“People look at this event very fondly. In the off-year it’s not being held, people ask when is it happening again and why isn’t it every year because it’s such a great time bringing the community together with family and old friends. People look forward to it.

“There are people who have moved away who plan their vacations so that they come back to Omaha during this particular time, and that says a lot about what this event means to many people across the country.”

Even Omaha residents keep their calendars open for it.

“I’ve cut business trips as well as vacations short in order to make sure I was at home during this biennial celebration,” Warren said.

Sheila Jackson, vice president of the nonprofit that organizes it, said, “It’s one big reunion, one big family all coming together.”

Juanita Johnson, an Omaha transplant from Chicago, is impressed by the intentionality with which “people come together to embrace their commonality and their love of North Omaha.” She added, “It instills pride. It has a lot of excitement, high spirits, energy and enthusiasm.”

As president of the Long School Neighborhood Association and 24th Street Corridor Alliance, Johnson feels Omaha Days could play a greater role in community activation and empowerment.

“I think there’s an opportunity for unity to develop from it if it’s nurtured beyond just every two years.”

Empowerment Network director of operations Vicki Quaites-Ferris hopes it can contribute to a more cohesive community. “We don’t want the unity to just be for seven days. We want that to overflow so that when people leave we still feel that sense of pride coming from a community that really is seeing a rebirth.”

Ewing said even though it only happens every two years, the celebration is by now an Omaha tradition.

“It’s been around for four decades. It’s a huge thing.”

No one imagined it would endure.

“I never would have dreamt it’d be this big,” co-founder Bettie McDonald said. “I feel good knowing it got started, it’s still going and people are still excited about it.”

She said it’s little wonder though so many return given how powerful the draw of home is.

“They get emotional when they come back and see their people. It’s fun to see them greet each other. They hug and kiss and go on, hollering and screaming. It’s just a joyous thing to see.”

Dixon said even though she’s lived nearly as long in Atlanta as she did in Omaha, “I’m a Cornhusker first and a Peach second.”

Likewise for Paul Bryant, who also left Omaha for Atlanta, there’s no doubt where his allegiance lies.

“Omaha will always be home. I’m fifth generation. I’m proud of my family, I’m proud of Omaha. Native Omaha Days gives people another reason to come back.”

A little extra enticement doesn’t hurt either.

“We really plan things for them to make them want to come back home,” said McDonald. She drew from the fabled reunion her large family – the Bryant-Fishers – has held since 1917 as the model for Omaha Days. Thus, when her family convenes its centennial reunion picnic on Sunday, August 13, it will cap a week’s worth of events, including a parade and gala dinner-dance, that Omaha Days mirrors.

Bryant, a nephew of McDonald, is coming back for the family’s centennial. He’s done Omaha Days plenty of times before. He feels both Omaha Days and reunions like his family’s are ways “we pass on the legacies to the next generation.” He laments “some of the younger generations don’t understand it” and therefore “don’t respect the celebratory nature of what goes on – the passing of the torch, the knowing who-you-are, where-you-come-from. They just haven’t been taught.”

Sheila Jackson said it takes maturity to get it. “You don’t really appreciate Omaha Days until you get to be like in your 40s. That’s when you really get the hang of it. When you’re younger, it’s not a big thing to you. But when you get older. it seems to mean more.”

Sometime during the week, most celebrants end up at 24th and Lake Streets – the historic hub for the black community. There’s even a stroll down memory lane and tours. The crowd swells after hours.

“It’s almost Omaha’s equivalent of Mardi Gras, where you’ll have thousands people just converge on the intersection of 24th and Lake, with no real plans or organized activities,” Warren said. “But you know you can go to that area and see old friends, many of whom you may not have seen for several years. It gives you that real sense of community.”

Fair Deal Village Marketplace manager Terri Sanders, who said she’s bound to run into old Central High classmates, called it “a multigenerational celebration.”

Touchstone places abound, but that intersection is what Warren termed “the epicenter.”

“I’m always on 24th and Lake when I’m home,” said homegrown media mogul Cathy Hughes, who will be the grand marshall for this year’s parade. “I love standing there seeing who’s coming by and people saying, ‘Cathy, is that you?’ I always park at the Omaha Star and walk down to 24th and Lake.”

“I do end up at 24th and Lake where everybody else is,” Dixon said. “You just bump into so many people. I mean, people you went to kindergarten with. It’s so hilarious.
So, yes, 24th and Lake, 24th Street period, is definitely iconic for North Omahans.”

That emerging art–culture district will be hopping between the Elks Club, Love’s Jazz & Arts Center, the Union for Contemporary Art, Omaha Rockets Kanteen,
Jesse’s Place, the Fair Deal Cafe and, a bit southwest of there, the Stage II Lounge.

Omaha Days’ multi-faceted celebration is organized by the Native Omahans Club, which “promotes social and general welfare, common good, scholarships, cultural, social and recreational activities for the inner city and North Omaha community.” Omaha Days is its every-other-year vehicle for welcoming back those who left and for igniting reunions.

The week includes several big gatherings. One of the biggest, the Homecoming Parade on Saturday, August 6, on North 30th Street, will feature drill teams, floats and star entrepreneur Cathy Hughes, the founder-owner of two major networks – Radio One and TV One. She recently produced her first film, the aptly titled, Media.

Hughes is the latest in a long line of native and guest celebrities who’ve served as parade grand marshall: Terence Crawford, Dick Gregory, Gabrielle Union.

During the Days, Hughes will be honored at a Thursday, August 3 ceremony renaming a section of Paxton Blvd., where she grew up, after her. She finds it a bit surreal that signs will read Cathy Hughes Boulevard.

“I grew up in a time when black folks had to live in North Omaha. Never would I have assumed that as conservative as Omaha, Neb. is they would ever consider naming a street after a black woman who happened to grow up there. And not just a black woman, but a woman, period. When I was young. Omaha was totally male-dominated. So I’m just truly honored.”

“Omaha Days does not forget people that are from Omaha,” Reshon Dixon said. “They acknowledge them, and I think that’s great.”

During the Urban League’s Friday, August 4 gala concert featuring national recording artist Brian McKnight at the Holland Performing Arts Center, two community recognition awards will be presented. The Whitney M. Young Jr. Legacy Award will go to Omaha Economic Development Corporation president Michael Maroney. The Charles B. Washington Community Service Award will go to Empowerment Network president Willie Barney.

Maroney and Barney are key players in North Omaha redevelopment-revitalization. Warren said it’s fitting they’re being honored during Omaha Days, when so many gathering in North O will have “the opportunity to see some of those improvements.”

Quaites-Ferris said Omaha Days is a great platform.

“It’s an opportunity to celebrate North Omaha and also the people who came out of North Omaha. There are people who were born in North Omaha, grew up in North Omaha and have gone on to do some wonderful things locally and on a national level. We want to celebrate those individuals and we want to celebrate individuals who are engaged in community.

“It’s a really good time to celebrate our culture.”

“I really admire the families who are so highly accomplished but have never left, who have shared their talents and expertise with Omaha,” said Hughes.
She echoes many when she expresses how much it means returning for Omaha Days.

“Every time I come, I feel renewed,” she said. “I feel the love, the kindred spirit I shared with so many of my classmates, friends, neighbors. I always leave feeling recharged. I can’t wait.”

The celebration evokes strong feelings.

“What’s most important to me about Omaha Days is reuniting with old friends, getting to see their progression in life, and getting to see my city and how it’s rebuilt and changed since I left,” Dixon said. “You do get to share with people you went to school with your success.”

“It’s a chance to catch up on what’s going in everybody’s life,” Quaites-Ferris said.

Juanita Johnson considers it. among other things,
“a networking opportunity.”

Paul Bryant likes the positive, carefree vibe. “There we are talking about old times. laughing at each other, who got fat and how many kids we have. It’s 1:30-2 o’clock in the morning in a street crowded with people.”

“By being native, many of these individuals you know your entire life, and so there’s no pretense,” Warren said.

Outside 24th and Lake, natives flock to other places special to them.

“When I come back,” Dixon said, “my major goal is to go to Joe Tess, get down to the Old Market, the zoo, go through Carter Lake and visit Salem Baptist Church, where I was raised. My absolute favorite is going to church on Sunday and seeing my Salem family.”

Some pay respects at local cemeteries. Dixon will visit Forest Lawn, where the majority of her family’s buried.

Omaha Days is also an activator for family reunions that blend right into the larger event. Yards, porches and streets are filled with people barbecuing, chilling, dancing. It’s one contiguous party.

“It’s almost like how these beach communities function, where you can just go from house to house,” Hughes said.

The Afro-centric nature of Omaha Days is undeniable. But participants want it understood it’s not exclusive.

“It just happens to be embedded in the African-American community, where it started,” Dixon said. “Anyone can come, anyone can participate. It has become a little bit of a multicultural thing – still primarily African-American.”

Some believe it needs to be a citywide event.

“It’s not like it’s part of the city,” Bryant said. “It’s like something that’s going on in North Omaha. But it’s really not city-accepted. And why not?”

Douglas Country Treasurer John Ewing agrees. “Throughout its history it’s been viewed as an African-American event when it really could be something for the whole community to embrace.”

His wife, Viv Ewing, proposes a bigger vision.

“I would like to see it grow into a citywide attraction where people from all parts come and participate the way they do for Cinco de Mayo. I’d like to see this event grow to that level of involvement from the community.”

Terri Sanders and others want to see this heritage event marketed by the city, with banners and ads, the way it does River City Roundup or the Summer Arts Festival.

“It’s not as big as the College World Seriesm but it’s significant because people return home and people return that are notable,” Sanders said.

Her daughter Symone Sanders, who rose to fame as Bernie Sanders’ press secretary during his Democratic presidential bid, may return. So may Gabrielle Union.

Vicki Quaites-Ferris sees it as an opportunity “for people who don’t live in North Omaha to come down and see and experience North Omaha.” She said, “Sometimes you only get one peripheral view of North Omaha. For me, it’s an opportunity to showcase North Omaha. Eat great food, listen to some wonderful music, have great conversation and enjoy the arts, culture, business and great things that may be overlooked.”

John Ewing values the picture if offers to native returnees.

“It’s a great opportunity for people who live in other places to come back and see some of the progress happening in their hometown.”

Recently completed and in-progress North O redevelopment will present celebrants more tangible progress than at anytime since the event’s mid-1970s start. On 24th Street. there’s the new Fair Deal Village Marketplace, the renovated Blue Lion Center and the Omaha Rockets Kanteen. On 30th, three new buildings on the Metro Fort Omaha campus, the new mixed-use of the former Mister C’s site and the nearly finished Highlander Village development.

For some, like Paul Bryant, while the long awaited build-out is welcome, there are less tangible, yet no less concerning missing pieces.

“I think the development is good. But I truly wish in Omaha there was more opportunity for African-American people to be involved in the decision-making process and leadership process. But that takes a conscious decision,” Bryant said.

“What I’ve learned from Atlanta is that unlike other cites that wanted to start the integration process with children, where school kids were the guinea pigs, Atlanta started with the professions – they started integrating the jobs. Their slogan became “We’re a city too busy to hate.” So they started from the top down
and that just doesn’t happen in Omaha.”

He worked in Omaha’s for-profit and non-profit sectors.

“A lot of things happen in Omaha that are not inclusive. This isn’t new. Growing up, I can remember Charlie Washington, Mildred Brown, Al Goodwin, Bob Armstrong, Rodney S. Wead, talking about it. The story remains the same. We’re on the outside running nonprofits and we’ve got to do what we have to do to keep afloat. But leadership, ownership, equity opportunities to get involved with projects are few and far between. If you’re not able to share in the capital, if your piece of the equation is to be the person looking for a contribution, it’s hard to determine your own future.”

Perhaps Omaha Days could be a gateway for African-American self-determination. It’s indisputably a means by which natives stay connected or get reconnected.

“I think its’ critical,” said Cathy Hughes, who relies on the Omaha Star and her Omaha Days visits to stay abreast of happenings in her beloved North O.

She and John Ewing suggest the celebration could play other roles, too.

“I think it’s a good way to lure some natives back home,” Hughes said. “As they come back and see the progress, as they feel the hometown pride, it can help give them the thought of, ‘Maybe I should retire back home in Omaha.'”

“I think Omaha could do a better job of actually recruiting some of those people who left, who are talented and have a lot to offer, to come back to Omaha,” Ewing said, “and if they’re a business owner to expand or invest in Omaha. So there’s some economic opportunities we’ve missed by not embracing it more and making it bigger.”

Ewing, Sanders and others believe Omaha Days infuses major dollars in hotels, restaurants, bars and other venues. The Omaha Convention and Visitors Bureau does not track the celebration’s ripple effect, thus no hard data exists..

“I don’t think it’s accurately measured nor reflected in terms of the amount of revenue generated based on out-of-town visitors,” Warren said. “I suspect it has a huge impact on commerce and activity.”

Some speculate Omaha Days could activate or inspire homegrown businesses that plug into this migration,

“I think it can certainly be a spark or a catalyst,” Warren said. “You would like to see the momentum sustained.
You hope this series of events may stimulate an idea where a potential entrepreneur or small business owner sees an opportunity based on the activity that occurs during that time frame. Someone could launch a business venture. Certainly, I think there’s that potential.”

For Omaha Days history and event details, visit nativeomahacub.org.

Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at leoadambiga.com,

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Tacos and tequila take center stage at Hook & Lime


Tacos and tequila take center stage at Hook & Lime
by Leo Adam Biga

The high concept behind Hook & Lime Tacos + Tequila is a small plate nirvana paired with crafted margaritas for a fine dining-meets-street food experience.

The changing menu is anchored by tacos and tortas, family-style meals and appetizers. Seafood, pork, beef and chicken proteins predominate but some veggie dishes are available, too. The tortillas are made fresh on the premises every day. The extensive bar program is highlighted by homemade syrups and infusions and fresh-squeezed juices to complement the many varieties of tequila (140) and mescals (25).

Owner-manager Robbie Malm is vying for a North Downtown niche after making a success of Dudley’s Pizza in Ak-Sar-Ben Village. He’s confident Hook & Lime is reeling in the discerning diners it needs.

“I think we are starting to find our audience,” he said.
“When I drop food off at the table, people are just wowed by the presentation. They’re eating with their eyes first. They’re pleasantly surprised. It’s a lot tastier and more beautiful than they thought it would be. It’s fun to see because it feels like we’re over-delivering.”

He looked at other locations before fixing on NoDo,where a development boom is underway.

“I am very glad we ended up settling here. I like the idea of being part of an emerging neighborhood. I like being one of the anchors as the place builds up around us. It’s really exciting seeing everything going up. Right across the street we’ve got people that will be working here, staying here, living here.

“And obviously I’ve got a giant baseball stadium (TD Ameritrade Park) right behind me, which doesn’t hurt.”

Not to mention the CenturyLink arena-convention center. Then there are Slowdown and Film Streams on the same block and the Omaha Design Center and Hot Shops Art Center within easy walking distance.

“We get a lot of traffic from the Slowdown and Film Streams events and we’re starting to get a lot of neighborhood regulars,” Malm said.

Whoever ventures there is sure to note Hook & Lime is not your mainstream Mexican restaurant.

“We try to stay as far away from Tex Mex as possible and that is something we still have to explain to people,” said head chef Brandon Kalfut, He was chef de cuisine under Alex Sorens at the start-up before Sorens left. Kalfut previously worked in Denver and with Dario Schicke at Avoli Osteria and Clayton Chapman at The Grey Plume.

“If diners order a dish and they seem a little hesitant on it,” Kalfut said, “our servers are very well-trained on what goes into it and getting people set into a comfort zone on the menu. There are familiar things and adventurous things on the menu, and that’s kind of what we try to strike a balance between.”

Familiar include’s a battered cod fried fish taco. On the more adventurous side is the Yellow Tail Escabeche.

“But you don’t have to dive all into something that’s totally unfamiliar,” Malm said. “You can get one of each. That’s kind of what we want to promote. For people who are just dipping their toes in the water, that’s fine – start here, and then come back next week.”

With some authentic offerings, such as the Salsa Flight, certain notes have been toned down while remaining true to the original.

“Some of these traditional sauces tend to be bitter and very layered in flavor and sometimes that’s a hard sell because people aren’t expecting that,” Kalfut said.

Two signature dishes – the Chorizo Torta and the Bone-in Barbacora – represent the pains taken to do things right. The house-made sausage is made with select cuts from the whole hog used head-to-tail in the kitchen and the shank is prepared over several days.

“A lot of technique and time is dedicated into making our chorizo,” Kalfut said. “It’s a double grind. For every one pound of meat, it takes about 17 ingredients. We grind anywhere from 80 to a hundred pounds, so multiply those 17 ingredients by 80 or a hundred. It’s one day literally just creating all the seasoning for it. A thousand peppers go into a hundred-pound batch. We soak and char off the peppers. Somebody physically stands in front of the grill to lightly char each pepper individually.

“The second day you grind the meat and marinate it. On the third day you do a secondary grind. We do all this before it’s even capable of going on the menu.”

The dish then is ready to be composed.

“Our Chorizo Torta is a classic,” Kalfut said. “We complement the chorizo with a local wild arugula, marinated white onions, house-made creme and a fried egg. A lot goes into something that eats really well, yet it’s simple and a hundred percent approachable.”

So is the Bone-in Barbacoa.

“It’s a five-pound bone-in beef shank. We actually have people call-up to make reservations just to reserve one because we can only do so many per week. It’s a cut of the cattle (femur) rarely used whole. We do a 24-hour salt cure and a three-day sous-vide (precision cook in a water bath). Then it rests one day before we even let it go on the menu.

“We do table-side service where I hand-shred the shank, tilt the bone up and pour all the bone marrow juices on it. We finish it with Kampala sea salt.”

“It’s an experience,” Malm said.

“It comes with our rice and Anasazi beans and we send out a bunch of accouterments,” Kalfut said. “Part of the bone-in presentation is an explanation of all these specialty components that don’t exist anywhere else on our menu because it’s all just infused into this one dish.”

For Malm, the care that goes into this single menu item is “a good example of our approach to everything, where we like to say nothing is an after-thought here. Rice and beans is the easiest thing to make an after-thought, but we have that same level of attention to detail for it.”

It all matters.

“And that extends to the bar program,” he said. “We make our own syrups. With our margaritas, instead of using Grand Marnier, we make our own orange brandy. That’s a collaboration between the chef and the bar manager. It’s always fresh-squeezed juice. We’re not using any kind of corn syrup, sour mix garbage. I would say these are the best margaritas in town.”

Bar manager Brian van Egmond, who learned his trade working at various Omaha spots and in Monterrey, Calif., said, “This is my first full cocktail menu and I am very excited being able to take our margaritas and give people a craft experience. Everything here is handmade in-house. We’re not carrying any liqueurs, we’re actually building them in-house. It’s something to really round the experience and we’re doing it at a great price point.”

Using his alchemy with flavors and Kalfut’s food science savvy, he said, “we’re able to take a 30-day infusion and crash it down into a five-hour process, which is hugely significant in keeping costs down.”

Details make magic of what could be mundane.

“The house margarita is a lot of times the after-thought
cocktail on the bar menu at Mexican restaurants,” Malm said. “We start with Exotico Blanco – a citrus zest infused tequila. We use the orange brandy – pulling that citrus essence into the mix, and our in-house made Turbinado syrup. All those things combined make a damn tasty margarita – and that’s the house margarita.

“That’s what sets us apart.”

Kalfut and van Egmond work closely on food-drink pairings.

“Finding the nice subtle differences between two or three Blancos to complement two or three fish dishes,” van Egmond said, “means one is going to have a grassier note and another one’s going to be a little sweeter and pull through to complement a more savory dish. You’re trying to get two completely different items to work together in a sort of harmony.”

Having someone with Kalfut’s experience, van Egan said, is an advantage.

“Brandon’s been a great source to learn from during this whole process.”

Collaboration “makes the pairings a lot more fun,” Kalfut said. “From the chef’s side of it, I’m like, ‘These are tasting notes for the dish,’ and then Brian reads them, spends time thinking about it and starts pulling stuff off the shelf and matching key points from the food’s flavor profile with key points from tequila or mescal profiles.

“Brian’s very open to us saying, ‘No, that won’t work with that dish.’ Then he grabs another bottle down. With his knowledge and palette, he has the ability to find what will complement the dish.”

It helps, Kalfut said, that “we take the criticisms of the food and the tastings very well from each other” and from customers, too. “We do take guest feedback very strongly, so if there’s something that needs to be tweaked, we evolve to what diners are looking for.
Getting it out of our heads and onto a plate is the first step and then after that it’s just feedback, feedback, feedback, until you get it to that perfect little bite.”

Hook & Lime is also a reflection of its chef’s and owner’s
personal cuisine adventures. A trip to Mexico made Malm a tequila convert and fired his passion for tortillas.

“One of my favorite dining experiences there was this giant market with food vendors making the tortillas right in front of you. An old Mexican woman would roll up a ball of masa in her hand and put it right on the grill. Seeing and smelling that fresh cooked tortilla was one of the main inspirations.”

As for Kalfut, “I go down to Austin, Texas a lot and try to hit up as many of the authentic restaurants as I can. My (culinary) background is very much French-Asian, so I would say a lot of the stuff I do is influenced by the places I’ve eaten, the places I’ve gone to.

“Ten years ago I didn’t think this (Mexican cuisine) was something I’d be doing. But I am very strongly influenced by outside sources and putting my own little love on it. I mean, I put own love on every dish, but you’ve got to start from somewhere.”

He and Malm, who both advocate sustainable practices.

“We’re as close to zero waste as we can be on all of our proteins,” Kalfut said, “Everything we bring in is head-to- tail and we find a way to use every component. Same with our produce. Every single day we only have about one Slim Jim trash can worth of food waste.”

The team takes it one step farther by recycling its oil, cardboard and glass.

Local sourcing is also important to Hook & Lime. Its local purveyors are listed right on the menu.

When the restaurant first opened Malm was strictly focused on the business side but he’s gotten more involved on the food side.

“To the point that he expos now,” said Kalfut. “He does all the final touches on a lot of the plates that go out. The first two months he was like, ‘Nope, don’t bother me with it,’ and now he’s the final touch on a lot of plates and he does it just as fast and as god as I can do it.”

“”Maybe not just as good, but I’m coming close,” Malm said.

Those last-minute touches complete the dish and plate.

“Like our Caesar salad needs to get some olive oil as well as fresh black pepper,” Kalfut said. “Our chicken taco gets Espelette french pepper as well as micro cilantro, olive oil and finishing salt.

“Sometimes it’s tweezer work where we literally use micro tweezers to place these things directly on each individual taco, for example.”

Malm enjoys it all, but “what really jazzes me,” he said,
is “the creation part” of turning concept into reality.

“Figuring out how it’s going to look, getting samples of plates and figuring out how they’re going to go together, piecing the menu together little by little – I really like that part of it. At Dudley’s, once that was done, there wasn’t a lot of opportunity for reinvention and that was one of the main reasons I wanted to do something smaller. I wanted to find a little more of a niche where the menu could be reinvented on a regular basis.

“The idea was always an elevated tacos and small plates concept restaurant. It’s a little more elevated than I originally had in mind. It’s evolved a lot, like every idea does. You tweak some things and little by little you find out what it wants to be.”

“We’re on our 12th menu adaptation,” Kalfut said. “I think we’re finding our stride. We’re continuously pushing.”

He’s happy to have an owner equally motivated by quality.

“Robbie’s never once said, ‘No, don’t buy that, it’s too expensive, no don’t bring that in, it’s too foreign.’ It’s always, ‘Yeah, bring it in, we’ll try it, we’ll see if it makes sense, we’ll see if it works, and if it doesn’t, we’ll try something else.’ That, from a chef’s perspective, is a dream come true.”

A by-request-only tasting menu is available on a select basis.

Open 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. for lunch and 5 p.m. to close for dinner, Tuesday through Sunday. Closed Monday.

Visit http://www.hookandlime.com.

TODAY: A Gospel Concert in the Park – “We will worship our Lord in the Open Spaces”


In case you missed it – more of Leo’s Hot Movie Takes from winter-spring 2017


In case you missed it…

More of Leo’s Hot Movie Takes from Winter-Spring 2017.

Reviews, essays and trailers on an eclectic collection of films brought to you by–
Leo Adam Biga, author of “Alexander Payne: His journey in Film”

 

The Place Beyond the Pines Poster

Trailer

The Place Beyond the Pines Official Trailer #1 (2013) – Ryan …

Hot Movie Takes  – “The Place Beyond the Pines”

©By Leo Adam Biga, Author of “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film” 

 

The best film I’ve seen this year is a 2012 dramatic feature titled “The Place Beyond the Pines” directed by Derek Cianfrance (“Blue Valentine”) and co-written by Cianfrance, Ben Coccoi and Darius Marder. The crime story showing on Netflix stars Ryan Gosling, Bradley Cooper, Ben Mendelsohn, Eva Mendes, Ray Liotta, Bruce Greenwood, Harris Yulin, Mahershala Ali, Emory Cohen and Dane DeHaan. The story it tells is very rich, deep, dark and troubling and early on it threatens to careen out of control but Cianfrance always manages to keep it on the rails.

The first half belongs to Gosling as Luke Glanton, a sociopath thrill-seeker capable of great violence and tenderness. It is a disturbing, affecting portrait precisely because of how human Gosling makes him. He’s a carnival motorcycle stunt driver and that rootless life fits this drifter who doesn’t really fit anywhere in society. He ends up in Schenectady, New York, where he had a fling with Romina (Mendes) and when they bump into each a year later he discovers he’s fathered a child with her. The revelation of his infant son so strikes him that he decides to stay behind in an attempt to assert his parental rights. He also wants to edge out the man, Kofi (Ali), whom Romina is involved with. Romina, her mohter and the baby all live in Cofi’s home. It’s a stable environment. Eva still has feelings for Luke and even seems open to his idea of she and the baby and Luke going off together. Except he has no means to support them. In need of money, he decides to rob banks with an accomplice, Robin (Mendelsohn).

For almost the first hour we’re asked to care about these characters and I found myself wondering why I should. I mean, the performances are fine and there are some interesting things going on, but the film sometimes felt aimless and pointless. That changed for me when the first major twist of the film happens. Luke has gotten increasingly brazen in his robberies and when he finally pushes things too far he ends up being chased by cops. He crashes his bike in a residential neighborhood and is pursued on foot by a young cop, Avery Cross (Cooper). Luke, who is armed with a handgun, forcibly enters a home whose occupants, a mother and son, he soon orders out of the house as he takes stock of the mess he’s made of things. He seems resigned to being arrested or dying in a confrontation. With Avery outside the house, Luke makes a phone call to Romina asking that she never tell their son who he really is and what he did. With Luke on the phone, Avery, gun drawn, checks each room and finally finds himself outside the room where Luke is talking behind the closed door. What happens next turns the picture from Gosling’s film to Cooper’s film.

Most of the second half follows Avery’s post-incident experience on the police force, which he soon finds is rife with corruption. Events transpire that turn this supposed hero into a rat whose launched into a political career. Avery is a haunted man by what happened in his violent encounter with Luke. Like Luke, he has an infant son. But Avery is married, educated and from a wealthy, reputable family. That’s when the film makes its second great twist and we’re fast-forwarded 15 years into the future. Avery, now divorced, is running for high political office and his estranged misfit of a son, AJ. comes to live with him. At his new school AJ is immediately drawn to another misfit, Jason (DeHaan). The two boys don’t know at first how they’re connected and let’s just say that the sins of the fathers are revisited on them. And then the third and final great twist happens at the end and the final grace notes of this story are beautifully, harmoniously played for all their worth without in any way seeming false or exploitive.

It’s a rare thing when I’m indifferent or conflicted about a film for as long as I was about this one and end up considering it a superb achievement, but that is exactly what I consider this film to be. A mark of any good narrative film that operates in genre territory as that the film expands or transcends or reinvigorates the genre, and that’s just what “The Place Beyond the Pines” does. It could fit into any number of genres – crime, policier, suspense, noir. It contains elements or conventions or plot-points that remind me of any number of other films, including “Serpico,” “The Friends of Eddie Coyle,” “American History X,” “A Simple Plan” and “Crash” but this film plows some original ground within these similar themes and stakes out its own territory as a singular dramatic work.

The acting is quite strong across the board in what is a perfectly cast project. The two young actors as the ill-fated sons are particularly good. The kinetic photography, the mature direction and every creative department right down the line enhances the story. The writing, though, is what most impressed me. It covers very familiar subject matter yet it’s without cliche and is not derivative in the least. The writing is why the film ultimately is so raw, truthful and powerful. The structure of the story brings everything together at the end and in a way that never seems contrived, but instead fated.

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 Hot Movie Takes  – “Barry”

©By Leo Adam Biga, Author of “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film” 

 

After watching “Barry,” the 2016 dramatic film that portrays the young Barack Obama during his critical first year at Columbia University in New York City in 1981, I’m sure that had we been in each other’s orbit then we would have been friends. I don’t say that to flatter myself, rather to make the point that I would have felt a kinship with him if for no other reason than I believe I would have recognized how out of place he felt and was often made to feel. Though his identity and insecurity issues were different than mine, we would have shared a sense that we don’t easily fit in anywhere and on top of that we would have had going for us a mutual love of books, films, sports and culture. I come from a lower middle class family and my very Italian mother and very Polish father were very different than most of my friends’ parents. My ethnicities were a big part of who I was and they remain a big part of who I am. I also grew up on a North Omaha block where white residents fled once blacks started moving in but we stayed and after a while all our neighbors were black. That made our family “the black sheep” among our Italian-American and Polish-American relatives, almost all of whom lived in South Omaha, and provided me yet another enriching and educational life experience.

My first real job out of college was as the public relations director at the Joslyn Art Museum, where I felt much more comfortable with the security and cleaning staff, most of whom were black, than I did the administrative and curatorial staff, most of whom were white, though to be fair there were some down-to-earth professionals there despite their Ph.D.s. Having been in three significant interracial romantic relationships in my lifetime, I also know what it’s like to be the object of looks, comments and attitudes from people who don’t approve of such things. I know that my partners have felt the sting of these things, too. Just as Barry, the nickname Obama went by then, finds out, a lot of times our struggle connecting with others has as much or more to do with our own hangups as it does others’. I mean, it is a two-way street and it does, as another cliche says, take two to tango.  And – how’s this for a third cliche? – we’ve got to meet people half way or at least where they’re at. Of course, as Barry also discovers there are times when despite minding your own business or even your own best efforts to relate and blend in, others are going to remind you that you’re different, that you don’t belong, that you’re somehow overstepping your bounds. That’s when you just have to stand your ground and make your way no matter what others think or say. It’s your life, not theirs.

I really like this film. It offers an authentic glimpse at how this nation’s first African-American president struggled to find himself in this racialized and classist society as a mixed race young man growing up in Hawaii and Indonesia and then having his world expand in California, New York and ultimately Chicago. His mother was a white Midwesterner and his father a native of Kenya but they split when he was only an infant. Barry was raised by his mother and her second husband, an Indonesian, as well as by his maternal grandparents and his step-father’s parents. His most formative years were spent In Honolulu, whose more open, inclusive society shaped his world view.

He was very much a citizen of the world by the time he transferred to Columbia from Occidental College in California. As the film depicts, finding his place in the urban African-American world he intersected with in New York City would prove challenging and enlightening. That wasn’t the only new world he navigated then. There was also the elitist halls, classrooms and campus life of a nearly all-white academic institution. There was his relationship with a fellow Columbia student, Charlotte, who came from a completely different world than his with her blue-blood lineage. There was his friendship with PJ, a Columbia student from yet another entirely different experience. It’s PJ who introduced him to life in NYC’s public housing projects. There was his friend and roommate Saleem from Pakistan with whom he got high and shared his Otherness experience as a brown-skinned outsider.

Barry encountered racism and disdain of The Other  from all sides. He went through what almost any bi-racial person does at some point  – being told or being made to feel as though he or she is not enough this or too much that. Some of the lessons he learned were quite harsh and others more benign and practical. Several times during he course of the film Barry tells people “this is not my scene” or “I fit in nowhere.” He’s told he’s “a whole different type of brother.” He’s reminded he’s half-white. When we meet him, he’s reading Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man.” And from the start, he’s working up the courage to write to his biologiical father, whom he hasn’t seen in years, working up tp visiting him in Kenya, and then his father suddenly dies and he’s lost that opportunity to connect with a vital piece of himself.

Throughout it all, Barry tried coming to terms with straddling these different worlds, with his own  blackness, and with exactly where he is and where he can call center or home. It’s only at the very end that he gains an insight offered by an older mixed race couple who tell him that his mixed heritage makes him, in fact, an American. At that moment, it dawns on him he embodies our pluralistic ideals. He’s told too that life is a journey full of struggles and joys and it must all be taken together as part of the whole. You simply do the best you can with it. He begins to see that being one of many things and influences and backgrounds is an enriching strength and that his home is wherever he happens to make it at any given time. The story concludes with Barry understanding that what he’s been searching for all along has been within him the entire time. He comes to realize happiness is based on accepting himself for who he is and not in comparison to others and their lives or identities. His diversity makes him who he is and, ultimately, as his life played out it made him able to get on with people of all persuasions, in all situations.

Those are profound life lessons for any of us on our respective life journeys. Barack Obama being who he was and is, took it all in and became much wiser and stronger for it.

Devon Terrell is really good as Barack Obama. He doesn’t make the mistake of playing him as someone destined for greatness and instead plays him as just another student trying to figure out things. Indeed, the entire cast is spot on for being so real and present in their roles, including Anya Taylor-Joy as Charlotte, Jason Mitchell as PJ,  Avi Nash as Saleem, Ashley Judd as Barry’s mother and.Jenna Elfman and Linus Roache as Charlotte’s parents. Vikram Gandhi, who is a Columbia graduate himself, directs with a sure hand.

This is a great companion piece to the other dramatic film made about the slightly older Barack Obama, “Southside with Me,” that details his momentous first date with Michelle in Chicago. You can find my Hot Movie Take about it on my blog. These are two excellent biopics about a man whose place in history is assured and while they reveal much about the forces that formed him, they reveal even more about the America that produced and that he came to lead. We are in so many ways an impossible country to govern. Just in my lifetime alone, the same nation that produced Ike, also gave gave us JFK. Fate brought career politician and Southener Lyndon Johnson to office. Company men Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford were followed by liberal outlier Jimmy Carter. Arch conservatives Ronald Reagan and George Bush I were succeeded by wild Bill Clinton. Then came George W. Bush. Who would have ever thought Barack Obama could be elected president? How could we expect he would be followed by Donald Trump? That is an incredibly mixed bag of elected leaders ranging from far left to far right to centrist. From old money to new money. From intellectuals to hayseeds to actors. From elitists to grassroots organizers. If not for major gaffes made by Hillary Clinton, we would have a woman in the White House right now. Our democracy is a mess but it does seem to get around to representing most of us, if not in one administration, than in another.  Our system does tend to reflect the currents out there at any given time and when they no longer do, a change in power always results. That’s the way it’s designed to work and while it works very imperfectly it does work. And that’s why both these films are very hopeful testaments to the democratic process.

Both films are available on Netflix.

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The Flowers of War Poster

Hot Movie Takes  – “The Flowers of War”

©By Leo Adam Biga, Author of “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film” 

 

It’s not often I see a film that elicits as many conflicted feelings as “The Flowers of War” did. The 2011 Chinese epic set during the Nanking Massacre of 1937 is an impressively mounted production whose recreation of that devastated city is done at enormous scale and with great veracity. It was reportedly the biggest budgeted Chinese film up to that time. I should mention that the film is also quite graphic in depicting violence of all kinds. The invading Japanese forces committed atrocities at a staggering level during the six week siege in which somewhere between 140,000 and 300,000 Chinese were killed. Tens of thousands of women and girls were raped. The vast majority of the casualties were civilians because Chiang Kai-shek ordered his troops out of the city except for a small contingent soon overrun by the much larger, better equipped and trained Japanese army.

The film is directed by Zhang Yimou, who is perhaps China’s preeminent filmmaker. He’s made several international hits, including “Red Sorghum,” “Jo Dou,” “To Live,” “Hero” and “Flying Daggers.” His “The Flowers of War” is adapted from a novel inspired by an entry in a diary kept by a Western woman, missionary Minnie Vautrin, who ran a college for women in Nanjing. Ginling Girls College became a sanctuary for students and other women in the city, including some prostitutes. When Japanese soldiers arrived demanding “comfort women,” Vautrin faced the dilemma of who to give over to the soldiers to appease their debauchery. “This moment is very crucial,” novelist Geling Yan told the BBC. “If those prostitutes don’t step forward, the Japanese will take the civilian women.” The prostitutes volunteered, were taken away and never heard from again. “Ms. Vautrin spent her whole life thinking … contemplating this event, and she regretted that she submitted these women to the Japanese,” said Yan.

Yan used the Vautrin account as the jumping off point for a work of fiction in which two groups of females – schoolgirls and prostitutes – take refuge in a church- school compound that’s supposedly untouchable by the Japanese. In the book, the resident priest, a middle-aged European, must protect his charges against all odds. In the movie, the priest is killed before the action ever takes us to Winchester Cathedral. Instead, a seemingly callous American drifter played by Christian Bale ends up impersonating the priest when the Japanese ignore the off-limits decree and make prisoners of the occupants.

The film’s writer, Lei Heng, and director, Yimou, made a dubious decision introducing the American character. Bale is a superstar with limited range that hardly moves from brooding to self-absorbed and I found his performance quite irritating at first, though I must admit he won me over in the end. His mortician character, John, is portrayed early on as only interested in money, and then once the whores arrive, in sex, but we eventually learn he feels a deep sense of responsibility for the girls-women. We also learn he’s grieving a deep hurt that explains his drinking and nihilistic way of life. And, we learn, he takes his mortician duties quite seriously and is in fact quite gifted at his profession. He and the madame do have an attraction for each other and one of the schoolgirls has a crush on him. Perhaps the most interesting character is the priest’s young assistant, George, who makes it his life or death duty to keep the girls safe. He’s the one who implores John to help the girls escape by fixing a truck.

While John, George and the girls-women do what they can to cope with an impossible situation, one lone Chinese soldier does his valiant best defending the compound. There are tensions between the girls and prostitutes and the well-off father of one of the girls gains entry to the compound, only to have his daughter discover he is conspiring with the Japanese. He does, however, aid the girls’ escape after much pleading and prodding by John.

Getting out requires a small miracle because the compound is guarded by Japanese, the truck needs parts and tools to work with them and it soon becomes clear there’s no way the enemy will let the truck leave with the girls without some special arrangement. The officers and the troops are only aware of the schoolgirls, who occupy the main quarters, but not the prostitutes, who have the cellar. When the Japanese commander demands that the girls attend a celebration, John knows it will result in their being ravaged. He tries appealing to the commander’s better nature but to no avail. That’s when the inspiration for the movie and John’s talents with hair and makeup come into play.

There is much to recommend this film in terms of its production design, themes of sacrifice and duty and strangers becoming a kind of family in a time of peril.

The sheer carnage depicted is rather staggering and perhaps a bit overdone. Despite his attempts to create an even-handed vision of the events, Yimou’s film does come off as an anti-Japanese work of Chinese propaganda, but given the horrors perpetrated in that onslaught it’s understandable. And, to be fair, Yimou does show some humanity by a Japanese character. But there’s a crucial section in the last quarter of the film when we’re asked to believe that with all their fates hanging by a thread and a looming deadline fast drawing near that John, the madame, the rest of the prostitutes and the schoolgirls all find time for interactions that don’t jive with the fear and doom they’re facing.

My main vexation with the film is that for almost the first half I could not bring myself to care for what are mostly sympathetic characters (John being the exception)despite the great trauma they endured just get to the church and then to survive inside it. I finally did care, but I’d like to think there was something wrong with the film, and not me, to explain why it took so long for the empathy to hit home. My guess is that for my tastes anyway the film’s dimensions were too big and thus the story would have been better served on a much more intimate scale. I mean, how much killing and destruction and raping and pillaging do I really need to see to get the point? I mean, in this case anyway, much lesser would have made a much greater impact.

The film seems to have mostly positive if tepid reviews and viewers seem to be divided by some of the same critiques I pose here. Yimou by the way is the director of “The Great Wall” spectacle starring Matt Damon that came out to less than ecstatic reviews.

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Casting By Poster

Casting By Official Trailer #1 2013 Documentary HD – YouTube

Hot Movie Takes  – Marion Dougherty

©By Leo Adam Biga, Author of “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film”

 

The 2017 Academy Awards celebration singled out Nebraska’s own Lynn Stalmaster with the first Oscar ever presented for casting. The honorary Oscar recognition was long overdue not only for the casting profession overall but for Stalmaster, who made the independent casting director a vital collaborative art in the film industry. A few weeks ago I posted, as many others have written, that Stalmaster was a true pioneer in the casting field. After viewing an HBO documentary over the weekend, I find that a fellow casting director who was a contemporary of Stalmaster’s made an equally important if not greater contribution to the field during the same era, and it was a woman. The late Marion Dougherty first established herself as the top casting director in New York while Stalmaster ruled in Los Angeles. They both cut their chops casting television before breaking into feature casting, where they were the leaders in their field for decades. Stalmaster ran his own highly successful casting agency for decades. Dougherty enjoyed similar success with her agency before being hired away by the studios. Both Stalmaster and Dougherty were credited with discovering then-unknowns who became superstars. They each worked with top directors on great film after great film in getting just the right actors in the right parts.

Dougherty was so respected in certain circles of Hollywood that an effort was made clear back in the 1990s to get her recognized by the Academy with a special Oscar. It didn’t happen then, not did it ever happen the remainder of her life and career. She died in 2011. It was left to Stalmaster, not Dougherty, to be the beneficiary of the Academy finally dropping its reluctance to give casting directors their due when they selected him with the award. The fact that the Academy didn’t do the right thing before and effectively snubbed Dougherty is a reminder of the rampant sexism that permeates Hollywood. In the documentary “Casting By” then-Directors Guild of America president Taylor Hackford expresses the attitude of some directors, producers and executives that casting is somehow a minor and non-creative function. He even objects to the title casting director, bellowing, “they don’t direct anything.” He reiterates that casting decisions are made behind closed doors and that he as the director has final say on who’s cast and who’s not and that the casting director is just one of several people with input into he process. Hackford comes off sounding like an insecure jerk who can’t abide someone other than himself getting credit for finding the right actors for the right parts. It’s absurd because everybody knows filmmaking is all about collaboration and that casting is the single most critical element for the success of any narrative film. And very often casting directors find people directors don’t know anything about or pitch actors to be seen in new ways that no one’s thought of before. The documentary gives many examples of how the intuitive eye and ear of a casting director can see and hear things – qualities –others can’t because they take the time to know an actor’s training, skill set, potential and range. Dougherty got Robert Duvall, Robert Redford, Jon Voight, Dustin Hoffman and many others their first screen work. She fought long and hard for many of her finds. Invariably, her instincts were right. The film gives several examples of Stalmaster doing the same thing. It’s a gut thing they went by and the fact that they saw things others didn’t speaks to the fact that their contributions were vital. More importantly, several top actors and directors sing the praises of Dougherty and her peer casting directors as indispensable to helping further their careers and to making films better. The best casting directors, we learn, really go out on a limb for the actors they believe in. No less a leading film drector than Martin Scorsese, who was a bg fan of Dougherty, says what nearly all directors acknowledge – that casting is the single most vital element of a film’s success. Alexander Payne has told me and others the same thing. Payne’s casting director by the way is a local – John Jackson. Payne greatly values their collaboration and has called Jackson “my secret weapon.”

It’s interesting to note that Dougherty’s casting agency employed all women assistants. Several women she mentored became legendary casting directors in their own right. One of them, Juliet Taylor, took over for her when Dougherty got hired away by Paramount (she later worked at Warner Brothers). Behind the scenes, women have long been plentiful in the ranks of casting directors, screenwriters, editors, costumer designers art directors, production designers, even producers, but women are still few and far between when it comes to directors and studio heads. It’s the last two power positions in film that men are reluctant to hand over to women even those women have proven themselves more than capable when given the opportunity. The documentary helps shine a light on experts who should no longer work in obscurity and reveals the often shameful way casting directors have been dismissed or ignored by the industry.

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Woody Allen Picture  Alexander Payne Picture

 

Hot Movie Takes  – Woody Allen and Alexander Payne

©By Leo Adam Biga, Author of “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film”

 

In a new – well. new to me, anyway – documentary about Woody Allen I found on Netflix, the celebrated humorist-actor-writer-director refers to some of his comic influences. In the 2012 film there are specific references to Bob Hope, Sid Caesar and Mort Sahl. I’m sure there were many others. As a staff writer on Caesar’s “Show of Shows” Allen not only worked with the star but with fellow writers Mel Brooks. Larry Gelbart, Carl Reiner, Neil Simon and Mel Tolkin, all of whom went on to great success, just as Allen did, after working on the program.

As a comedy writer, Allen’s work shares some things in common with those other scenarists and with Golden Age Hollywood comedy scriptwriters, but his comic vision from “Annie Hall” on through today is far more existential, even bleak. So much of his comic viewpoint is based on the ethos that happiness is ephemeral and the good things in life fleeting. It’s a scarcity-based philosophy borne out of insecurity and angst. And yet many of his films, despite this nihilism and negativity, are also filled with expressions of love, hope and reconciliation. Fears and dreams play out beside each other in his films.

No matter how you feel about Allen – and I know by some he’s considered a creepy predator and by others a parochial New York elitist – he’s indisputably a comic genius based on the body of his work. His work consistently explores themes of love, sex, death and the meaning of life. I have no idea whether Allen believes in a higher power but in his films there is a recurrent search for spiritual connection and serenity amidst the chaos, conflict and fear of the unknown. They dig down deeper into the human heart and psyche than many serious dramatic films. His philosophical yet whimsical work has also been highly influential for bridging the worlds of screwball and romantic comedy and for often adding surrealistic flights of fancy to the mix. He’s not averse to breaking the wall and having characters directly address the audience.

His screenwriting has earned him more Oscar nominations (16) as a writer than anyone in film history. All the writing nominations are for Best Original Screenplay, which gives you a sense for the breadth and depth of his imagination. Two of those nominations (“Annie Hall” and “Manhattan” and one of his wins *Annie Hall”) was shared with Marshall Brickman.

Allen’s evolved into a sophisticated director of his own material. His “Annie Hall,” “Interiors,” “Manhattan,” “Stardust Memories,” “The Purple Rose of Cairo,” “Hannah and Her Sisters,” “Radio Days,” “Broadway Danny Rose” and “Crimes and Misdemeanors,” for example, are wonderfully literate and emotionally powerful stories for the eye and the ear.

Lest we forget, he’s also one of cinema’s great comedic actors. Indeed, he’s one of maybe a dozen Hollywood figures who’ve managed to create an enduring comedic persona that stands the test of time. In this sense, Allen’s nebbish neurotic is in the same company as Chaplin’s “Little Tramp,” Keaton’s stoic Everyman, Lloyd’s plucky striver, Fields’ sardonic grouch, Grouch’s acerbic wiseass and Hope’s blustery coward. He’s also created a niche for himself in the same way that such disparate figures as Spencer Tracy, William Powell, Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau did – by playing exaggerated projections of themselves– in film after film.

The documentary about Allen gives us a glimpse at how  he’s always generating and playing with ideas. We see that he assembles his scripts from disparate handwritten scribblings on note pads, stationary, envelopes or whatever’s nearby when an idea strikes him. When he fixes on a theme or plot-line and is ready to fashion it into a screenplay he sits down at the same portable typewriter he’s used for more than 40 years and very rapidly, perhaps only a matter of a few days, hammers it out. This is the chief reason why he’s able to churn out a feature film a year. That, and the fact he shoots very economically, almost never making more than a handful of takes, often getting everything he needs for a scene in a master shot,  therefore giving him less to wade through in editing.

He’s one of the best directors of actors in contemporary film and we learn that while he doesn’t have a lot to say to the performers in his films, he says just enough to elicit their peak work. His scripts are so good and they want to please him so much, that they rise to the occasion. Allen generously tells actors they can change any of the lines to suit themselves. While I’m sure some improvisation goes on, the writing’s so spot on that, as one of the actors interviewed for the documentary says, why would you want to change it?

The typically self-deprecating Allen downplays his success as a lot of good luck and describes moviemaking as “no big deal – it’s just storytelling.” But in his case there’s some truth to this in the sense that he’s been spinning stories since the 1940s and 1950s. He simply had a gift for it from early childhood and as he got a older he worked very hard at his craft and it became second nature to him. So, there’s no doubt he’s a natural. That native talent, combined with him mastering joke writing, sketch writing, playwriting and screenplay writing and him being a very disciplined worker explains, why he’s been so prolific for so long.

Allen’s humor is not everyone’s cup of tea but you can say the same for any comedic talent. Different strokes for different folks, The point is Allen’s work has endured across six decades, multiple mediums and changing cultural mores. He first broke through as a joke and sketch writer, than as a standup, then as an actor and finally as a triple threat actor-writer-director. He’s written hit plays and movies, best-selling books and popular pieces for newspapers and magazines. He’s starred in nightclubs, on television and the stage and in the movies. He’s even had hit recordings. There was never anyone quite like him before he arrived on the scene and there’s never been anyone quite like him since he became a household name. But those who have been influenced by him are legion. Start with practically any Jewish comic and they channel, consciously or unconsciously, the Allen schtick. His urbane, rooted in reality and surprisingly absurdist work is so strong and original and pervasive that it’s impossible for a comedian of any persuasion not to be influenced by him in some way.

All of this talk about influences got me thinking about some of the funny people, shows and publications, but mostly people that have shaped my own sense of humor. So, I made a list. The people on my list either wrote, directed or performed comedy or did some combination of them. And as I thought of names, I included some more comedic sources that may have shaped others. Then I wondered how many on my list may have influenced Allen as well as Omaha’s own great contributor to comedy, Alexander Payne.

As a state, Nebraska has given the world several notable comedic talents beyond Payne, including Harold Lloyd, Johnny Carson and Dick Cavett, all of whom are on my list.

My list is confined to influencers who made their mark before 1980 because Payne would have been in his late teens and Allen in his mid-30s then and thus their tastes in humor would have already been fully formed.

Mark Twain

Oscar Wilde

Charles Chaplin

Buster Keaton

Harold LLoyd

Laurel and Hardy

Groucho Marx

W.C. Fields

S.J. Perelman

Frank Capra

George Stevens

Howard Hawks

Preston Sturges

Burns and Allen

Jack Benny

Bob Hope

Billy Wilder

Red Skelton

Ruth Gordon and Garson Kanin

Steve Allen

Jacques Tati

Jerry Lewis 

Nichols and May

Lenny Bruce 

Mort Sahl

Woody Allen

Don Rickles

Richard Pryor

Mel Brooks

George Carlin

Johnny Carson

Dick Cavett

Robert Altman

Green Acres 

All in the Family

Mad Magazine

Saturday Night Live

Second City

Spy Magazine

Soap

If I ever get a chance to ask Woody Allen about his influences, I will do so. Since I do have access to Alexander Payne, I will most definitely explore this with him.

In the many interviews I’ve done with Payne I can’t recall him ever referencing Allen, though he may have, but I have to think he admires much of his writing and directing. I mean, Payne certainly grew up with Allen and part of his coming of age as a cinephile in the 1970s and 1980s had to have included seeing Allen’s work.

As Payne emerged a superb writer-director of comedies in the mid-1990s and has only further enhanced his standing since then, I have to believe that Allen admires Payne’s work.

I’m not sure if the two have ever met and if they did what on earth they might have talked about since they come from such very different worlds. But there would have to be mutual admiration for their respective accomplishments and so they could always exchange pleasantries about their films. Though Payne has never been a joke writer or standup comic, these two men do share the humorist’s sensibility. They are both satirists of the first order. Payne’s work is more grounded in the every day reality that most of us can relate to. But they’re both getting at many of the same things with their satire, irony and even farce. You would never mistake one’s films for the other’s, but at the end of the day they’re not so very different either, which is to say they both have distinctive tragic-comic takes on the world. A Payne film is a Payne film and an Allen film is an Allen film, but both filmmakers share the same inclination to see life through comic but humanistic lenses.

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The Shootist Poster

The Shootist – Trailer – YouTube

Hot Movie Takes  – “The Shootist”

©By Leo Adam Biga, Author of “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film”

 

Some film artists say that the best pictures invariably result from amiable, feel-good sets. It makes sense. But I’ve read and viewed enough interviews with actors and directors to know that very good, even great work can happen even in the most contentious of working relationships. Too much turmoil is inevitably bound to hurt the work, of course. Some rough patches though might just be what’s needed to get the blood flowing and keep everybody sharp. Though acrimony is not the recommended state of affairs on the making of a film, creativity is often borne of tension and conflict. It sort of comes with the territory when egos, paychecks and budgets are on the line. It’s what you do with the storm that matters. And part of being a professional is rising above the shit to do your job, which is to bring what’s on the page to vivid life. One of my favorite pictures from that great decade of American cinema, the 1970s, happens to be John Wayne’s last film, “The Shootist,” and its making endured a bad relationship between the Duke and director Don Siegel – though you’d never know it from the masterful Western they made together. While they couldn’t fully resolve their differences to make peace on set, they did put their bad feelings for each other aside enough to enable them to do some of the best work of their respective careers.

“The Shootist’ (1976) made a fitting elegy for that great screen icon Wayne. As a John Ford stock player he helped mythologize the West. In his last Western he played an old gunfighter dying of cancer reduced to being a dime novel legend and an unwanted anachronism in the dawning Industrial Age. In real life Wayne had beaten cancer once and there’s speculation that when he made “The Shootist” he knew his cancer had returned. He died of the disease three years later.

That personal resonance with mortality adds a depth to his performance that can’t be acted – only felt. Then there’s the parallel between his character John Bernard Books supposedly being past his prime and out of place in the dying Old West and the arch conservative Wayne being seen as passe and out of touch with the post-Vietnam and post-Watergate era.

“The Shootist” was also made in a period when the Western was being deconstructed and revisionist visions of the West were appearing, all of which seemed at odds with the Ford canon Wayne he was such an integral part of. But Siegel found a story in synch with the times, the man, the mythology and the reassessment. The film is based on a novel by the same name by Glendon Swarthout, whose son, Miles Hood Swarthout, adapted it to the screen with Scott Hale. Siegel was a veteran studio director whose career was mostly spent making B genre movies until the 1960s, when he started getting some A projects. He was known for running a tight ship and not brooking interference. In Wayne he ran up against a living legend who, working outside his comfort zone of cronies Ford, Howard Hawks, Henry Hathaway and Andrew MacLaglen, reportedly made life hell for Siegel by seeing Siegel’s set-ups and saying things like, “That’s not how John Ford would do it.” If true, then that was very disrespectful of Wayne. It may be that the real source of this attempted power play by Wayne had to do with the fact that his conservative leanings clashed with Siegel’s progressive sentiments.

Whatever the source of the problem between the two, they both knew they had a helluva good script on their hands and that Wayne was being given a fitting last hurrah right up there with Spencer Tracy’s last role in “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?” Siegel also surrounded Wayne with a strong supporting cast that included James Stewart, Lauren Bacall, Harry Morgan, Ron Howard, Sherrie North, Scatman Cruthers, Richard Boone, John Carradine and Hugh O’Brien.

Aided by good photography, art direction and music, along with authentic sets and locations, the picture has all the requisite elements of a crackerjack Western, and it more than lives up to its promise. Siegel knows how to pace a film and here he finds all the right internal dramatic rhythms to move the story right along but without feeling rushed or shortchanged. It’s a very full picture – very much on par with the best Westerns Wayne made, including those by the great John Ford. The film is a perfect companion piece to Ford’s “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” because it shares much in common with that earlier film’s cynical look at printing the legend and the uneasy place that notorious gunmen straddled between fame and infamy. Then there’s the eerie parallel between the way the characters he plays in the two films end up. As Tom Doniphon in “Valance” Wayne sacrifices his own chance at position and acclaim for the greater good by insisting that Tom Stoddard take credit for killing the outlaw Liberty Valance. As John Bernard Books in “The Shootist” he chooses death by gunfight over cancer in order to die on his own terms. Doniphon dies emotionally-spiritually after dispatching Valance and purposefully fading into obscurity. We learn he physically dies alone years later, with his hired hand his only friend. Before Books dies of his wounds in that last gunfight, he does have a fleeting moment with the boy (Ron Howard) who idolizes him. Though each man outlived his usefulness, he remained true to his code to the very end.

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Imperial Dreams Poster

Trailer

Imperial Dreams | Official Trailer [HD] | Netflix – YouTube

Hot Movie Takes  – “Imperial Dreams”

©By Leo Adam Biga, Author of “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film”

 

I don’t mean to sound like an advertisement for Netflix, but it is opening me to a world of cinema at my convenience and I am grateful for the enrichment. My latest discovery via the streaming movie service is “Imperial Dreams,” a searing 2014 urban drama by Malik Vitthal that in my estimation at least is every bit the film that this year’s Best Picture Oscar-winner, “Moonlight,” is. The two films tell similar stories in similar settings, namely The Hood. In “Imperial Dreams” it’s Watts in Los Angeles and in “Moonlight” it’s Liberty City in Miami. Each film centers on a sensitive, intelligent  young man shaped and scarred by his surroundings. Unlike “Moonlight,” whose protagonist we first get to know as a child, then as a teen and finally as a man, “Imperial Dreams” follows its 20-something year-old main character, Bambi, over the course of just a few days and nights following his release from prison and reunification with his little boy, Day. Because “Imperial Dreams” becomes something of a father-son story, the character of Day is important for representing how Bambi himself grew up: motherless; exposed to violence; living in fear and chaos; being taught to be hard. Bambi’s girlfriend and the mother of his child is doing a stretch in prison herself.

Bambi was raised to be “a soldier” by his ruthless Uncle Shrimp, an Old G who runs drugs and won’t take shit from anyone, not even his nephew. Uncle Shrimp represent the dark pull of that environment that Bambi tries hard to resist. In prison Bambi discovered a love for reading and writing and he’s already had a poem published in a national magazine. Upon his release he wants to escape the turmoil and violence of The Hood and use his gift to educate and inspire young people. Most of all, he wants to protect his son from the mess around him and get him on a different path. His uncle wants him to run drugs, but Bambi adamantly refuses, saying he’s not that way anymore and wants to get a legitimate job that pays wages and doesn’t entail breaking the law and risking his new found freedom.

But, as often happens with ex-cons returning to society, forces beyond Bambi’s control conspire to put him right back into the muck and mire. Even though he’s renounced The Life, he’s surrounded by the same bad influences, temptations and threats that previously led to his incarceration on multiple occasions. On the outside, he soon finds out that despite his best intentions, obstacles prevent him from finding work, from getting a driver’s license, from having secure shelter and from being able to keep his son. Before long he’s on the brink of doing things he vowed he never would again. Worst of all, Bambi gets caught up in events that expose Day to some harsh things that no one, especially not a child, is prepared to handle. As Bambi’s life spirals out of control, the sins of the father are revisited on the son. Bambi is determined to not give up on his dreams no matter how many obstructions are put in his way and come hell or high water he positively will not abandon his boy.

John Boyega is brilliant as Bambi. Pam and I were shocked to learn he’s British because his portrayal of an African-American ex-con is thoroughly authentic. There’s not a single wrong note in this demanding, heartbreaking and ultimately inspiring role. Glenn Plummer is equally brilliant as the nearly sociopathic Uncle Shrimp. Rotimi does a good job as Bambi’s equally ambitious brother Wayne. Keke Palmer is very good as Bambi’s girlfriend and Day’s mother Samaara. And really the whole cast is pretty much spot on, including a small but key performance by Anika Noni Rose as Miss Price, the child welfare officer who empathizes with Bambi and his predicament but follows orders.

The film has a lot to say about the broken criminal justice, penal and social welfare systems in America but it has even more to say about the prisons that ghettos are for many residents. The cycle of despair and dysfunction is too often generational and cyclical. As Uncle Shrimp tells Bambi, “there’s reasons why we are the way we are.”

The film is so well told through words and visuals that it’s hard to believe this was Vitthal’s debut as a feature director. The direction is that assured. He also co-wrote the picture. It has to rank among the best first features ever made. There’s more painful truth and reality in it than you’ll find in much higher profile films dealing with similar subject matter. “Moonlight” deserved all the acclaim it got but “Imperial Dreams” deserves similar recognition. The former was consciously an art film and perhaps a bit more ambitious and original in its storytelling arc and style. But on a pure cinema and narrative storytelling basis, “Imperial Dreams” compares favorably with that film and with the best films I’ve seen in the last half-decade or so. It’s that powerful.

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Slums of Beverly Hills Poster

Slums of Beverly Hills Official Trailer! – YouTube

Hot Movie Takes  – “Slums of Beverly Hills”

©By Leo Adam Biga, Author of “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film”

 

Re-watched via Netflix one of my favorite comedies from a couple decades ago, “Slums of Beverly Hills,” and found it every bit the caustic comedy of unmannered exuberance I remembered.

Writer-director Tamara Jenkins (“The Savages”) offers her wickedly funny take on a brash, awkward lower middle class Jewish-American family’s bittersweet attempt to use the posh upper crust set zip code for their aspirational pursuits. The roaming Abromowitz clan is led by older single-parent Murray, beautifully played by Alan Arkin, who has charge of his three kids, Vivian, Ben and Rickey, after having split with their mother. Curiously, the movie doesn’t explain why he got the kids and not his ex-wife did but it actually never occurred to me until my partner Pam pointed that plot hole out. I got so caught up in the characters that this seeming lapse didn’t matter to me. Murray has no visible means of support except for the loaner car he and the family use as their personal vehicle, so I guess he’s a car salesman who, as he likes to put it, is just in “a slump.” He gets by on pure bluster and handouts from his prick of an older brother, Mickey, played with great gusto by Carl Reiner. It’s interesting to me that Reiner has proven such a fine actor in his later life because I never liked his acting in the 1950s, 1960s, when he mostly played bland all-American WASPS. The exception to his acting in that era was his turn in as the egomaniacal and neurotic Alan Brady in “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” which of course Reiner created and wrote. Even though by all accounts Reiner’s a lovable mensch in real life, he’s always at his best playing assholes.

Arkin is another mensch in real-life and his best work has largely been playing likable if also neurotic characters, with the exception of his bad guy turn in “Wait Until Dark” and his irascible, politically incorrect grandpa in “Little Miss Sunshine.”

His unapologetic Murray in “Slums” is a one-time restauranteur fallen on hard luck who leads his kids on nomadic quests in the low rent districts of Beverly Hills. In a memorable flashback scene we see that he’s also no one to be trifled with. Now divorced and strapped for income, he wants his kids to have the cachet of a tony address but can only afford shit holes. He’s got pride and so he’s not above skipping out on paying rent when a place proves subpar. He’s clueless how to raise old-soul Vivian, played deftly by Natasha Lyone, who’s  budding into womanhood. Aunt Rita joins this traveling family circus after running away from a treatment center. In one of her early turns as a ditzy child-woman, Marisa Tomei hits all the right notes as Rita – crazy, spoiled, heartbroken. Her nonchalant sexuality becomes an education for Vivian and a distraction for Vivian’s oldest brother, Ben, a pot-smoking aspiring musical theater actor. Rita’s presence provokes a despairing Murray to do something he regrets. The baby of the family, Rickey, doesn’t have much to do except fetch his brother’s bong. luxuriate in the shag of the one palatial new digs the family lands in, innocently ask a woman his father’s wooing what a hermaphrodite is and go into a rage when Ben informs him their father is a senior citizen. Rickey doesn’t want anyone to remind him how old his dad is lest it suggest his father may not be around to see him grow up.

For all its dysfunction, this tight family unit works and nothing can break it up. Murray’s indefatigable spirit only flags once, near the very end, and his kids rally him out of his blues to meet the new day head-on with the cocksure confidence of those who have nothing to lose.

Arkin can be dour or manic in films and here he plays the darker, muted tones of an abrasive character who doesn’t know how to show love except to provide for his family, which he barely does. His best moments in the film are when Murray lets his guard down to show his vulnerability. Most poignant is the verbal abuse he takes from his brother with surprising docility,

The real star of the film though is Lyone, who exhibits a great gift for understated satire that meshes very well with Arkin. Lyone brings a worldly wise toughness yet sweet naivety that is just right for her character. She has reason to be disappointed in her dad but in the end she shows how this family rolls when she stands up to Uncle Mickey’s mistreatment of her dad by taking a cue from his past. I also really like David Krumholtz as her older brother Ben. He’s smart and sardonic and his rendition of “Luck Be a Lady Tonight” from “Guys and Dolls,” sung full-throttle to camera while only in his white briefs and white socks, is a min-tour de force.

Rita Moreno has a very brief but effective appearance as Uncle Mickey’s ball-busting wife.

The film’s fixation on breasts and bodily functions and its casual attitudes about sex – from doing it to talking about doing it to exploring it – are in keeping with this family’s let-it-all-hang-out ethos. Vivian and Aunt Rita indulge in a hilarious dance with a vibrator to the tune “Give Up the Funk” and things get pretty funky until someone interrupts the in-jest erotic fun.

If the ironic music sounds familiar it’s because it’s by Rolfe Kent, who scored several of Alexander Payne’s films.

The film’s writer-director Tamara Jenkins went on to make a very different but no less caustic film, “The Savages,” starring Philip Seymour Hoffman and Laura Linney. Jenkins is married to Alexander Payne’s writing partner, Jim Taylor, and Payne helped open doors to get studio financing for “The Savages” and he helped produce the movie as well. She’s in pre-production on her new film “Private Life” starring Kathryn Hahn and Paul Giamatti.

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Five Came Back Poster

Five Came Back | Official Trailer [HD] | Netflix – YouTube


Hot Movie Takes  – “Five Came Back” II

©By Leo Adam Biga, Author of “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film”

 

We finished watching the three-part Netflix documentary series “Five Came Back” about the classic Hollywood filmmakers who served in the military during World War II to make documentaries for the U.S. government. Episodes II and III were even stronger than Episode I, which is really saying something because right from the start this is a thoroughly engaging look at how five men interrupted their very successful careers to do their part in the war effort. Individually and collectively this cadre of artists – John Ford, William Wyler, Frank Capra, George Stevens and John Huston – plus other filmmakers involved in the same wartime work, essentially invented American propaganda filmmaking.

Speaking of invention, three of these five, Ford, Wyler and Capra, went far enough back in the industry that they helped define and refine narrative feature filmmaking in America during the silent era and early sound eras.

As the series progresses it reveals how under the pressures of their war documentary work the filmmakers didn’t always know what they were doing, couldn’t always get what they wanted from military brass and eventually did what they felt they had to do in order to get their films made and seen to their satisfaction.

The real story though is how each of the five featured filmmakers was impacted by what they saw and did in service to their country. Each exited the war a different man than before the conflict and their post-war work often reflected this change, sometimes subtly, sometimes overtly. In the case of Stevens, who was there for DDay, the Allied slog through Europe, the Battle of the Bulge, the liberation of Paris and Berlin and the discovery of death camps, he never again made the light entertainments he was known for prior to the war. Instead, he made heavy, brooding dramas the rest of his career. Wyler lost most of his hearing flying in bombers. He could never have made “The Best Years of Our Lives” as realistic and sensitive as it is about the challenges of returning war veterans had he not been one himself. Ford received a shrapnel would during a Japanese raid. His service in the Navy allowed him to make two of the best and most unconventional war films ever made – “They Were Expendable” and “he Wings of Eagles” – that deal with the high personal cost of duty. After the war Huston’s humanism went to new depths after spending time with troops in remote places and documenting the toll of post-traumatic stress on combat veterans. Capra didn’t witness combat first-hand like the others did but his idealism about the human heart was darkened by the stark, brutal war footage he saw and worked with. His “It’s a Wonderful Life” and “State of the Union” are reactions to the doubt and despair the war induced in him, though his faith in humanity was never completely shaken.

The series smartly pairs a contemporary filmmaker with each of the classic filmmakers. The contemporary filmmakers act as guide and narrator. Steven Spielberg, who executive produced the series with Scott Rudin from the Mark Harris book, is assigned Wyler. Paul Greengrass does Ford. Guillermo del Toro does Capra. Lawrence Kasdan does Stevens. Francis Ford Coppola does Huston. It’s quite evident the current filmmakers have great admiration for their predecessors and they off cogent insights into their personalities and films. Best of all, the series humanizes these iconic Hollywood directors, both the old ones and the new ones, to a degree we haven’t seen before.

Mark Harris adapted his own book for the documentary series and the parallel story he tells alongside the stories of the five classic filmmakers is of the war itself. Purely as a document of the war, “Five Came Back” is worth seeing because of the unique prism it tells that story through, namely through the lenses of these five men whose powers of observation and dramatization produced compelling glimpses of the conflict.

Netflix is also showing some of the documentaries that the “Five Came Back” subjects produced during the war, including Wyler’s “The Memphis Belle,” Ford’s “The Battle of Midway” and segments from Capra’s “Why We Fight” series.

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Poodle Springs Poster

Poodle Springs 1998 – YouTube

Hot Movie Takes  – “Poodle Springs”

©By Leo Adam Biga, Author of “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film”

 

Iconic crime writer Raymond Chandler died before he could finish his last detective mystery featuring his signature gumshoe creation Philip Marlowe. That final novel, with the working title “The Poodle Springs Story,” was completed decades after his death by noted contemporary crime writer and Chandler fan Robert B. Parker at the request of Chandler’s estate. Parker then adapted the book to the screen for director Bob Rafelson’s 1998 HBO movie “Poodle Springs” starring James Caan as Marlowe. That movie is available in full and for free on YouTube and I recommend it as a very good and interesting update of the Chandler world, the Marlowe mystique and the film noir genre.

Rafelson knows this territory well. He directed a strong, steamy remake of “The Postman Always Rings Twice” starring Jack Nicholson and Jessica Lange and he cast Nicholson twice more in crime stories, the disastrously reviewed comedy “Man Trouble,” which I’ve never seen, and the well-regarded “Blood and Wine,” which I can vouch for as a good film. Rafelson also directed Nicholson in “Five Easy Pieces,” and while that isn’t a crime film it has a neo-noir feel to it and the lead character of Bobby Dupree shares a lot in common with the anti-hero attitudes of noir protagonists.

In “Poodle Springs” Rafelson and Caan hit all the right laconic, languid and sarcastic notes we’ve come to expect from the Chandler-Marlowe canon. I think Caan is every bit as good as the most famous Marlowe interpreters from the past – Humphrey Bogart, Dick Powell and Robert Mitchum. I haven’t seen Elliot Gould, James Garner, Powers Boothe and Danny Glover’s characterizations of him yet, so I must reserve judgment on their portrayals. Caan’s iteration of Marlowe finds him well into middle-age with a bit of a paunch and newly married to a socialite young enough to be his daughter. Dina Meyer is smart and sultry as his hottie mate, Laura Parker. She has a rich, land-hungry daddy. J.P. Parker, played by Joe Don Baker, who’s thick with the Kennedys and mixed up in shady dealings with cutthroat businessman Clayton Blackstone, played by Brian Cox. The ruthless Blackstone will go to any lengths to protect his deranged daughter. Marlowe gets entangled in a mess that only gets worse with every new twist and turn and by the end the lies and bodies add up.

Some other character-actor notes: David Keith makes a fine scumbag as pornographer Larry Victor; Tom Bower, as Lt. Arnie Burns, does a good variation on the grizzled cop trying to keep Marlowe in line; Nia Peeples is a real fright as Angel; Julia Campbell is a bit too nutty for my tastes as Miriam “Muffy” Blackstone, and Sam Vlahos is outstanding as Eddie, the philosophical enforcer. Par for the course with Chandler, many of the characters lead double lives that Marlowe’s persistent digging uncovers.

Along the way, Marlowe must fend off forces that variously want to pin him to crimes he didn’t commit and buy him off to keep him silent. Negotiating the upper class proves every bit as treacherous as the criminal element he’s used to dealing with. Always looking ill at ease among the monied set, he can’t wait to get back to his own environment. The question is: Will he and Laura make things work between them given they’re from such different worlds? The script, by the way, has both Marlowe and Laura make fun of their age difference.

The setting is early 1960s Los Angeles and Nevada and those facts alone give the story ample room to play with some intriguing social-cultural-political themes of that time period and those places.

Much of the movie stacks up well with another film noir I recently posted about, the great “Chinatown,” and really the only things that keep “Poodle Springs” from rising to that level is a bland music score and rather pedestrian photography. If those two elements had provided more moody atmospherics then I think “Poodle Springs” would resonate more strongly with audiences and critics and be widely considered a new classic in the genre.

I also think Rafelson and Parker might have hedged a bit too far in the direction of snappy repartee and wiseass indifference because, as one critic noted, there’s not the sense that anything really is at stake here. I mean. there clearly is, because people are getting knocked off left and right, but because Marlowe doesn’t seem to care too much we don’t either. Because the tone of the film seems to suggest we ought not to take things too seriously it may somewhat undermine the sense of threat and danger that Marlowe faces. Of course, real jeopardy didn’t face earlier incarnations of Marlowe either. We knew going in that no matter how dark and dicey things got for Bogie or Mitchum, they’d come out of it alive, if a little worse for wear.

In my opinion, James Caan has never quite gotten the respect he deserves as an actor. It didn’t help that he dropped out of circulation for five years and turned down many notable roles that would have changed the trajectory of his career. Still, his body of work is formidable and his range is impressive. Because of his excellent portrayal of Sonny in “The Godfather” he’s always associated with tough guy roles and crime films and he is unusually effective in them. I rank his performances in “The Gambler” and “Thief” among the best of their era and I consider those two of the best films from the 1970s-1980s. Sticking with the crime theme, he also did very good work in “Freebie and the Bean,” “Hide in Plain Sight” and “Alien Nation” among many others in this vein. So playing Marlowe was certainly no stretch for him and I think he put his own inedible stamp on the character.

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The Way Poster

Hot Movie Takes Wednesday

“The Way”

©By Leo Adam Biga, author of “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Fim”

 

Netflix is my preferred way to catch up with movies I missed at the theater. Using that subscriber service I finally caught up with the 2010 Emilio Estevez-directed film “The Way.” It portrays a grief-stricken father, Tom, played by Martin Sheen completing the El camino de Santiago walk that his character’s estranged son, Daniel, essayed by Estevez, died on during an earlier attempt. When promos for the movie ran upon its original theatrical release I was immediately drawn to the subject matter and to the real-life father-son combination in the leads but I just never got around to seeing the pic. It was worth the wait. Estevez co-wrote the screenplay with Jack Hitt, the author of the book the movie’s based on. Their writing, Estevez’s direction and Sheen’s performance infuse a depth of feeling in the material that’s never maudlin but rather authentic. When we first meet Tom, we’re introduced to a cynical, well-off dentist who cannot accept his son Daniel’s choice to drop-out of a career to go find himself on adventures. Tom reluctantly sees Daniel off on his pilgrimage to Europe and soon thereafter gets news of his death. The angry, bereaved father goes to France to collect his son’s remains and decides the only way he can ever know him, even in death, is to make the trek his son set off on. Using his son’s gear and seeing visions of him at various points along the way, Tom completes the weeks-long journey by foot in the company of a motley band of fellow travelers from different countries. Each carries his or her own emotional-psychic baggage. While the members of this not-so-merry-band are there for their own personal reasons, they’re all in search of release from the burdens they bear. The Way becomes an act of individual and communal grace as they surrender what troubles them to the higher power of their understanding.

The trek takes Tom through various grieving stages. By the end, his rage and guilt have finally given over to love and gratitude. By almost literally walking in Daniel’s shoes and spreading his ashes along the route, Tom’s made a spiritual connection with his lost son that’s allowed them to complete The Way together. At the finish, having processed a range of emotions, there’s a sense of peace and atonement in Tom. whose humbling experience has renewed something lost in him: joy.

I love that Sheen was given one of his best lead roles by his son. Sheen never became a film superstar in the way many of his contemporaries (Dustin Hoffman, Robert De Niro) did, which I’ve never understood why, but he’s had a great career nevertheless. He gave one of the best performances I’ve ever seen on screen as the title character in the made-for-TV movie “The Execution of Private Slovik.” He’s also the star of two of the best films of the 1970s – “Badlands” and “Apocalypse Now” – that rate as masterpieces of any era.

Sheen hasn’t lost anything as an actor as he’s aged. If anything, he’s only further ripened and refined his work. Similalry, Estevez has matured as a filmmaker. His work seems more assured and modulated and not so desperate to make a point or show off a technique. I like the subtle way he used aspects of magic realism in “The Way.” Daniel appears to his father on the walk not as a ghost or as a divinely sent messenger but as a reassuring presence. Estevez, who’s only seen on screen for a few minutes, is appropriately subdued and serene in those moments. By contrast, the film opens with a tense exchange between Daniel and Tom that informs us how much these two have grown apart. The fact that Sheen and Estevez are father and son in real life gives this scene added weight. Neither overdoes it. They find the right tone that rings true.

The actors who play Tom’s fellow trekkers and seekers are all well-cast and I like how each tests Tom in different ways. With them as companions, the American gets far more than he bargained for on the journey. With his son as his gentle guide, he finds a union and understanding with Daniel he couldn’t in life. In reaching the end, Tom’s not only completed the physical journey but he’s completed something in himself. What was broken is healed.

“The Way” reminds us we sometimes have to shed all we know in order to find ourself.

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Deidra & Laney Rob a Train Poster

Hot Movie Takes Monday:

“Deidra & Laney Rob a Train”

©By Leo Adam Biga, Author of “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film”

 

This Netflix original movie is one of the most entertaining little nuggets to come across my home TV screen in a while. It’s essentially a screwball comedy for the millennial age. Teenage sisters Deidra and Laney literally live on the wrong side of the tracks of a nowheresville Idaho town that they just might be stuck in for life due to circumstances seemingly beyond their control. They live on the margin with their younger brother and mother, who’s struggling to make ends meet. The pressures are intense and when the mother loses it at her job and causes property damage, she winds up in jail. That leaves Deidra, a bright high school senior anxious to get out of town via a college scholarship, suddenly left in charge of her siblings and trying somehow to keep them fed and sheltered without an income. With child protective services breathing down their necks and threatening to place Laney and her little brother in foster care and utilities getting shut-off, Deidra hatches a plan to rob the freight trains that pass right by their house every day and represent a way out to some idealized better place or future. The kids have more than a passing connection with the trains that roll by because their estranged, ex-felon father works for the railroad. Playing around the tracks and walking the rails, even hopping freighters for joyrides, is part of growing up there.

Romanticizing the outlaw train robber tradition in her head, Deidra enlists Laney in her plot to stage not just a single robbery but a string of them. The girls approach it almost like an extracurricular school project, complete with decorated charts. Their plan is to break into shipping containers carried on flatbeds and steal portable consumer goods they can then sell on the black-market. The proceeds from these ill-gotten gains will pay their mother’s bail, keep the wolves from the door and help Deidra get to college. The plan unfolds pretty much the way they imagined it before  unexpected things happen and all hell breaks loose.

I love the anarchic, absurdist, yet plucky and practical spirit of these down-and-out sisters arriving at an expedient if dangerous and illegal means to an end. Nobody’s really hurt by their plundering. It’s all insured after all. That’s one school of thought, anyway. The film actually does stay grounded enough in reality to have several characters push-back at Deidra’s thievery, including a reluctant Laney, a loopy school counselor who becomes a co-conspirator, a sympathetic cop and the girls’ dad, Chet, who volunteers to be their inside man at the railroad. When Chet, a proverbial loser and opportunist, finds out what his girls are doing he doesn’t try stopping them, he actually takes perverse pride in their following their old man’s criminal ways. He also seizes on helping their illicit enterprise as a way to bond with his kids and to rekindle the flame that hasn’t extinguished between him and their mother.

The one part of the movie I could have done away with is the demented railroad detective who goes overboard with his investigation into the robberies. It’s a little too heavy-handed for a comedy that depends so much on striking a delicate balance between reality and fantasy, drama and farce. But it does serve its purpose in the end.

I think it’s important to note that this is a screwball comedy in the vein of “Juno,” “Little Miss Sunshine” “Superbad” “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” and “Election” only its protagonists are African-American, not white. We rarely see blacks in coming-of-age comedies of this quality and in stories that don’t make their blackness an issue. In fact, there’s nothing in the story specific to the characters’ racial identity and that’s proof of how many films could be color-blind cast if producers and directors would only chose to do do. Deidra, Laney and their brother are the bi-racial products of their mother, who’s a woman of color, and their father, who’s white, but it’s all played in a taken-for-granted, this-is-just-how-it-is manner that is actually refreshing and true to life. I mean, most people aren’t bogged down by their racial identity every day, and if the story had made that a plot point or theme it might have worked out just fine but it might have also gotten in the way. Most of the problems the girls face – peer pressure, academics, issues of self-worth, sibling conflicts and family dysfunction – are universal across race, culture and socio-economic status anyway. We’re talking about getting through the day, rites of passage survival here.

The real joy of this movie rests in the performances of its two leads, Ashleigh Murray as Deidra and Rachel Crow as Laney. They are really good young actresses who fully inhabit their roles, bringing loads of intelligence and passion to characters who are a bundle of emotions and contradictions. Each suitably plays vulnerable and tough and unlike many family-based stories I absolutely bought them as sisters even though they look nothing alike. Sasheer Zamata as the counselor also stands out.

This movie has received mostly tepidly positive reviews and I’m at a loss to understand why it’s not more strongly embraced. I think one reason may be that a lot of people don’t understand the screwball comedy genre. This form of film all about letting your defenses down and taking an anything-goes approach. Today’s best screwball comedies are more reality grounded than those of the past but I’m left scratching my head when people take this film to task for depicting poverty in such a frothy manner. What? First of all, it’s a screwball comedy, and even so I don’t see anything frothy about two girls desperate enough about their straits that they start robbing trains. I mean, when is desperate not enough of a measure of human despair? Implicit in the  reaction against the film’s light touch is criticism for its lack of depth, as if, say, “What About Mary” or “Dumb and Dumber” or “Bringing Up Baby” or “The Producers” are deep wells of human insight by comparison. No, “Deidra and Laney Rob a Train” is precisely true to what it means to be – a comedy not so much about teen angst but about what people are prepared to do when pushed to the edge. That precipice is where the best comedy usually comes from. Just ask a guy who knows a thing or two about comedy – Oscar-winning filmmaker Alexander Payne (“Election,” “Sideways,” “The Descendants,” Nebraska”).

An interesting side note: The opening half-minute of the film establishes the bleak town the characters live in via a montage of visuals and music that is tonally and rhythmically dead-on in-synch with Payne montages that similarly establish place. I have to believe that director Sydney Freeland and cinematographer Quyen Tran consciously or unconsciously took inspiration from Payne’s treatments of this same filmic territory. And it’s no coincidence there’s resonance between the opening music of “Deidra and Laney Rob a Train” and Payne’s “Nebraska” because composer Mark Orton did the music for both films.

Look for my next Hot Movie Take on the Emilio Estevez film “The Way” starring his father Martin Sheen.

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Coming Through the Rye Poster

Trailer

Coming Through the Rye Official Trailer 1 (2016) – Alex … – YouTube

Hot Movie Takes – “Coming Through the Rye”

©By Leo Adam Biga, Author of “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film”

 

Is it heresy to admit I don’t think much of that touchstone coming of age of book “Catcher in the Rye”? I mean, it seems to be so much a part of so many young people’s walkabout through adolescence and young adulthood that I almost feel obligated to fall in line with the majority opinion and stake my own psychic claim to it even though I would be lying. Mind you, I’m basing my personal take about the book on a single reading of it I made years ago. I did not come to the book in my adolescence but rather in the full flower of my adulthood, and so perhaps that accounts for some of my ambivalence about the revered J.D. Salinger work. Maybe I simply came to it too late to fully appreciate it. I just remember feeling let-down by the whole thing and not much connecting with Holden Caulfield even though I identified with some of his traits and attitudes. It seemed to me that while Salinger truthfully expressed through Caulfield what so many young people of any generation feel, there was nothing much revelatory about any of it. Maybe I’ll give it another go some day. My thoughts about the book were triggered by a movie I caught on Netflix the other night – “Coming Through the Rye” (2015), about a New England prep boarding school student with a persecution complex who takes his Caulfield fixation to extremes by penning a play based on the book. The character of Jamie Schwartz doesn’t stop there. He wants to put the play on at school and to portray Caulfield. Trouble is, his advisor tells him he needs to get Salinger’s permission to produce the adaptation of the iconic novel. Jamie’s attempt to reach the author through Salinger’s agent goes nowhere.  That’s when Jamie sets out to find the reclusive writer who’s turned down fortunes from leading directors and producers to adapt his book for the screen and stage. Finding Salinger becomes Jamie’s challenge and quest. Jamie is a boy poised to enter manhood who has lost the two loves of his life – his brother and a best friend at school. He’s also infatuated with the idea of Holden Caulfield or what he stands for, even though it’s as elusive as Salinger himself. Thus, Jamie is perpetually love-sick, though he doesn’t know it. Of course, the journey he takes in search of the author becomes a crucible and catharsis as he confronts feelings long buried about the death of his older brother in Vietnam and a betrayal between friends. Alex Wolff is splendid as the conflicted Jamie, Stefania LaVie Owen hits just the right notes as his best gal-pal Deedee and Chris Cooper is spot-on in his interpretation of the wary Salinger – who just wants to protect what he created. Writer-director James Steven Sadwith basically tells his own story in this film. In real life he was a love-sick boy infatuated with Caulfield and “Catcher in the Rye” and made his own cockeyed pilgrimage to find the author. The movie reminded me a bit of two other prep school films I adore – “Rushmore” and “The Chocolate War.” I don’t know why “Coming Through the Rye” doesn’t have a stronger reputation, but I dare say it’s a movie worth your time no matter how you feel about “Catcher” and Salinger.

In case you missed it – Leo’s Hot Movie Takes, March-April 2017


Hot Movie Takes  – “Queen of Katwe”

©By Leo Adam Biga, Author of “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film” 

Image result for queen of katwe

India native and longtime American resident Mira Nair deserves to be mentioned in the same breath with the great English-language filmmakers of the last quarter-century, but I’m afraid that because she’s a woman you’re unlikely to know the name. I have long been an admirer of her work (“Salaam Bombay!,” “Mississippi Masala,” “Monsoon Wedding”) and my esteem just grew after watching her “Queen of Katwe” on Netflix. This true story set in the Katwe slum of Kampala, Uganda follows the journey of a girl who rises to international grandmaster chess champion with the loving support of a coach who recognizes her talent and mentors her to excel despite the severe challenges she faces at home. Living in the kind of poverty Americans don’t know, Phiona is one of four children being raised by a single mother whose strict principles are meant to keep her family together and her kids free from exploitation. The mom doesn’t trust the coach at first but comes to see that chess may indeed be a way out for Phiona, whose prodigy abilities eventually take her far from home. Once Phiona has a glimpse and taste of life outside the slum, it causes her to rebel, for a time, before she realizes that what she wants more than anything is to win enough competitive chess prizes to open up doors that will enable her family to escape the daily threats and struggles for survival that make dreaming a luxury that can’t be afforded by most residents. Phiona must overcome self-doubt and learn some tough learn lessons in order to mature enough to achieve her dream but in the end there’s nothing that can deter her. Against all oddes, she becomes an inspiration to her community and her nation. And as the grace notes at the end reveal, Phiona and the other prinicpal charactrs depicted in the film are no longer surviving but thriving and still inspiring others.

This 2016 co-production of Disney and ESPN films is based on a book by the same title by Tom Crothers, who adapted the story to the screen with William Wheleer. Madina Nalwanga is outstanding as Phiona. David Oyelowo is perfectly cast as her coach Robert Katende, who in real life has gone on to start hundreds of chess clubs throughout Uganda. Lupita Nyong’o is great at Phiona’s mother Nakku Harriet. The cast from top to bottom is very good and Nair found many of the children in the film in the slum of Katwe where most of the picture was shot. Having visited some Kampala’s slums myself, I can tell you she shows you just as it is: an unending sea of disheveled shanties pressed up against each other; rutted dirt roads; gullies for sewers; men, women and children on foot lugging by hand jerry cans full of water or balancing atop their heads provisions for home or goods to sell at market; boda-bodas appearing out of nowhere; markets jammed with people, stalls and vehicles; and rainstorms that create rivers of debris and detritus. And everywhere, the colors of the rainbow in the clothes people wear, in the over-laden market stalls, in the red dirt and the green countryside.

Nair also shows the sharp discrepancy between the lives of the slum children, many of whom do not attend school, and those of the privileged children at private schools. Unfortunately, slum kids there are looked down on and made to feel less than there just as they are here. In my visit to Uganda I met many community organizers just like Robert Katende working to improve the lives of children and their families.

Image result for mira nair

Mira Nair

The filmmaker knows Uganda because she lives part of every year there. It’s where her husband Mahmood Mamdani was born and raised until he and his family were expelled during the Ida Amin revolution.

Nair, who comes from a documentary film background, has a knack for realistically portraying ghetto life in her dramatic features. You won’t see stereotypical images or characterizations in her work but rather carefully observed humanity. Her “Salaam Bombay!” won international acclaim for its dramatic story of street children. Most of the kids in the film actually lived on the streets of Bombay. Similarly, her “Queen of Katwe” is filled with people who live and work in the very environment she depicts.

There are a several Nair feature films I’ve never seen that I need to seek out – “The Perez Family,” “Kama Sutra: A Tale of Love,” “Vanity Fair,” “The Namesake” and “The Reluctant Fundamentalist” – because she never disappoints with her humanistic explorations of the human heart.

 
Queen of Katwe - Official Trailer

Queen of Katwe – Official Trailer2:25YouTube · 2,381,000+ views

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z4l3-_yub5A

So, why isn’t she and her work better known?

Hollywood remains a mail-dominated industry and that extends across production (both behind the scenes and in front of the camera), finance, marketing and even to those who write about the movies. Male filmmakers like Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, David O. Russell, Ridley Scott. Quentin Tarantino and Christopher Nolan are lionized by an apparatus that makes superstars and household names of certain directors, almost always male directors. The handful or so of women directors who have achieved some wide notoriety, such as Kathryn Bigelow, Jane Campion, Julie Taymor and Barbra Streisand, get their moment in the sun for a year or two, surrounding a certain project, and then disappear again. Women directors don’t enjoy the same kind of popular branding, mythologizing and following that men get. In the annals of film history, I can only think of two dozen or so women directors of English-language films who have enjoyed anything like a sustainable and highly praised career despite doing very good, even brilliant work:

Dorothy Arzner

Ida Lupino

Shirley Clarke

Barbara Loden

Lee Grant

Joan Micklin Silver

Martha Coolidge

Penelope Spheeris

Amy Heckerling

Gillian Armstrong

Penny Marshall

Mira Nair

Barbra Streisand

Kathryn Bigelow

Jane Campion

Julie Dash

Kasi Lemmons

Nora Ephron

Tamara Jenkins

Betty Thomas

Nancy Meyers

Jodie Foster

Diane Keaton

Julie Taymor

Sofia Coppola

Mary Harron

One of the above is Omaha native Joan Micklin Silver, whose sublime body of work (“Hester Street” “Between the Lines,” “Chilly Scenes of Winter,” “Crossing Delancey,” “Loverboy”) is sadly neglected.

Only one woman, Kathryn Bigelow, has ever won the Oscar for Best Director. Not many more have been nominated in that category. You can bet there have been many deserving women, including women of color, who have been passed over. Mira Nair is one of them.

Mira Nair – IMDb

http://m.imdb.com/name/nm0619762/

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Hot Movie Takes – “Southside with You”
©By Leo Adam Biga, Author of “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film”

Southside with You Poster

Trailer

Finally saw “Southside with You,” the 2016 dramatic film that lovingly, tenderly, never cloyingly portrays the first date that then-Michelle Robinson had with Barack Obama in 1989. And, oh, what a date it was in forging a bond that would not be broken. I am happy to report that it is a first-rate romantic movie worthy of the future First Lady and the first African-American U.S. president because it depicts them just as they were then – two young, idealistic lawyers still finding themselves and what they wanted to do with their lives. Tika Sumpter and Parker Sawyers are sensational as Michelle and Barack, respectively. They capture the fullness of their humanity, intelligence, wit and grace. They nail the dynamic the couple enjoyed as highly educated, aspirational young professionals looking to make a difference in the world.

They nail, too, a desire to find a soulmate with whom they can share their life. But neither will be easily satisfied. Each has defenses and hurts that must be overcome if they’re to let their guard down enough to let someone else in.

Writer-director Richard Tanne very smartly confines the entire story to everything surrounding that first date. The preparation. The anticipation. The awkward feeling out process. The long walks and talks. Viewing an Afroc-centric exhibition at a museum. Taking in a community meeting. Seeing Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing.” The after glow of their day into night first date.

We witness an intimate meeting of minds and hearts. The simple but revealing activities of that first time out on the town encapsulate what formed these two serious people, what drove them and why they were attracted to each other. The film reminds us that when really good writing is provided to well-cast actors under the direction of someone who knows how to stage things, then the mere act of two people talking to each other can carry an entire film. It works so well because the characters are firmly established at the very start and everything that flows from there reveals ever more layers of their personality and chemistry. I wondered during the film if I would care as much about these characters if they weren’t Michelle and Barack and I decided, yes, that these two people are engaging enough that I would still be swept up in their orbit. I would still want them to connect and for their budding relationship to click,

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yhd-yvMjImU

When the events of the film take place, the two of them work at the same law firm. She’s an associate and he’s an intern. She acts as his advisor there as he learns the ropes. It’s Barack who initiates their seeing each other outside of work on the pretext of taking her to a meeting he feels certain she’ll find interesting. She’s adamant about their outing not being a date and he’s just as insistent that it is a date as far as he’s concerned. We learn he’s been pestering her to go out with him for some time. On their various stops that fateful day in their lives, they learn vital things about each other that confirm they share many of the same passions even if they don’t always see eye to eye on everything.

Michelle really makes Barack work to earn entry into her heart and win her over. The clincher, we think, is when he’s asked to speak at the community meeting and he charms the crowd with his genuine, charismatic message of hope. She sees the common touch he has with people. But it’s really when he buys her her favorite ice cream that she finally melts.

I was amazed to discover this was Tanne’s feature film debut. He is a talent to be watched. Sumpter co-produced the film with him and music artist John Legend executive produced the project. The creators made the film on location in a variety of spots that Michelle and Barack actually traversed that first date – from downtown to the South Side to the West Side. It all plays out very naturally and organically, not forced or contrived.

I didn’t know either of the lead actors before this film but they both have impressive credits and I will definitely be looking for them from here on out because each brings an appealing presence to the screen, Together, they have real chemistry.

I like that the story ends with them basking in their individual homes after the date – each filled with his/her high from the heady experience. Their bright futures are before them and they already know they want to be together for wherever their journeys lead. They couldn’t possibly have known what history they would be making barely more than a decade and a half later. We’re left with two young people on the move, newly in love, and eager to make their mark. They certainly would go on to do that. Hell, the Obamas are still only in their early 50s and may have decades ahead of them to make even more impact.

For some reason the film didn’t do much at the box office but I hope it is finding its audience online. It did deservedly receive many away nominations. I found the film on Netflix and I’m sure it’s available on other viewing platforms as well. Check it out, as I’m sure you’ll find it well worth your time.

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Hot Movie Takes  –

My recap of Julianne Moore in conversation with Alexander Payne

©By Leo Adam Biga, Author of “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film”

In conversation with Alexander Payne, Julianne Moore talks of her years in Nebraska, early acting struggles
Image source : omaha.com

Alexander Payne owns enough cachet as a preeminent writer-director that he can pretty much get any peer film artist to join him for a cinema conversation at the Film Streams Feature fundraiser in Omaha. His latest get was Oscar-winning actress Julianne Moore. Monday night (April 24) Payne, a two-time Oscar-winner himself, and Moore talked craft and life at the Holland Performing Arts Center before a packed house. This seventh feature event raised a record $350,000 in kicking off the art cinema’s project to renovate and return the Dundee Theater back into service as a historic cultural touchstone and film haven.

Before Payne and Moore came on, Film Streams founder and director Rachel Jacobson thanked the assembled crowd, including many of its top patrons. She described the affair as “a magical” night for Omaha and she referred to the “extraordinary and inspiring support” that not only made the evening event possible but that’s making the growth of Film Streams possible. She called this “a busy and exciting time for Film Streams,” which is coming up on its 10th anniversary and nearing completion on the renovation and return of the Dundee Theater. She signaled the theme of the event in saying that cinema as a medium can help shape our dreams and that cinema as a place can help shape our community. She then introduced a TCM-like short tribute film produced by Tessa Wedberg and Jonathan Tvrdick that heralded the history of Film Streams and of the Dundee Theater. Many familar faces contributed comments in the film, including Payne, who praised Film Streams as a nonprofit cinemateque and echoed remarks by Jacobson and others about the important role it plays in treating film as an art form and thus as a conveyor of ideas and a convener of diverse audiences and issues. Payne brought things full circle by saying about the Dundee Theater, “Before Film Streams it was the only reliable place to see an art film (in Omaha).” He added his delight in soon having the Dundee back because it means art cinema is “now rooted in a place in Omaha of historical significance.”

These Inside the Actors Studio-like Feature events are not exactly thrilling entertainment and the intrigue of seeing and hearing world-class film figures soon wears off, especially sitting in the nose-bleed section, where anything resembling an intimate exchange gets lost in translation. Usually there’s not much new we learn about either Payne or the special guest and their individual processes but just enough nuggets are revealed to make the evening worthwhile beyond merely a financial windfall for Film Streams.

Payne is a capable interviewer and he thoughtfully let Moore do most of the talking. In the buildup to the event it was noted that she has a significant Nebraska connection having lived four years of her childhood here while her military father was stationed in the area and completed law school studies here. Moore attended one year at Dundee Elementary School and her family lived in a Dundee duplex. Payne shared that had he started Dundee Elementary, where he ended up, he and Moore would have been in the same class. That reminded me that filmmaker Joan Micklin Silver and cinematographer Donald E. Thorin were classmates at Omaha Central and that Dick Cavett and Sandy Dennis were only a class or two apart at Lincoln High.

Moore told us how during her visit for the Feature event she toured her old Omaha haunts and remembered various aspects of her family home here, her playing in the paved alley and walking a few blocks to school.

Her family followed her father’s assignments, ending up in Germany, where she found a high school teacher who encouraged her interest in theater. It was the first time someone told her she could make a living at acting and steered her toward drama schools. Not surprisingly her parents were horrified at the prospect of her trying to forge a career as an actor. Family’s important to Moore, who spoke with genuine pride about being a mother and wife in addition to being an actress.

Payne noted to her that many actors share an itinerant growing up background, including the military brat experience, and Moore said she feels that all the moving around teaches one how “to be adaptable” and to be quick, careful studies of “human behavior.” Combined with her natural curiosity and a love of reading, and she had all the requisite attributes for an aspiring actor.

Moore found her calling for the stage at Boston University, where she learned the techniques that would help carry her into the theater. Her lessons there were both a blessing and a curse as she said she felt she was taught to do exterior rather than interior work. She acted at the Guthrie, the Humana Festival, in off-Broadway plays. She broke into television in the mid- 1980s working on a soap and by the early 1990s she’d done her fair share of episodic series work, made for TV movies and mini-series.

For the longest time, she lamented, “I couldn’t book a movie.” But then she started getting small but telling parts in buzz-worthy pictures like “The Hand That Rocks the Cradle,” “The Gun in Betty Lou’s Handbag,” “Body of Evidence,” “Benny & Joon” and “The Fugitive.” All decent movies, but purely popcorn fare.

She explained that her epiphany as an actor came when she learned to not just be prepared for something to happen in an audition or a performance but to freely let it happen. In fact, to invite it to happen. “It” being an emotional response.

Her career took a different turn when she found herself in larger, showier parts in independent films made by serious filmmakers: Robert Altman’s “Short Cuts,” Louis Malle’s “Vanya on 42nd Street” and Todd Haynes’s “Safe.” She got in on the very beginnings of the modern indie movement and embraced it as a home for exploring real, true human behavior.

Then, after a commercial venture or two, she cemented herself as an indie film queen in Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Boogie Nights,” the Coen Brothers’ “The Big Lebowski,” Altman’s “Cookie’s Fortune” and Neil Jordan’s “The End of the Affair.” That just brings us up to the end of the 1990s. In the proceeding 17 years she’s added to her impressive gallery of work performances in such films as:

“Hannibal”

“The Shipping News”

“Far from Heaven”

“The Hours”

“Children of Men”

“I’m Not There”

“Blindness”

“The Kids are Alright”

“Game Change”

“The English Teacher”

“Still Alice”

“The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part I”

“The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part II”

By the way, Film Streams is screening a repertory series of Moore’s films through May: Check out the series at–

http://bit.ly/2ngST9t

I personally haven’t seen that much of her work, but what I have seen has impressed me. More importantly, her work impresses her peers. Count Payne among her biggest admirers. In his introduction he even referred to her as “our other Meryl Streep,” and hoped that she would take that loving comparison in the right way. She did. It turns out that Streep has been a major influence and inspiration for her. Payne said her interpretive, expressive skills are so finely honed that when watching one of her performance “we are truly seeing another person and, by extension, us.” Moore always gives whatever her character demands, thus taking on those vocal, physical, emotional traits, but never fails to give us herself as well. And I think Payne was also suggesting that, like Streep, she has that transformative ability to live inside very different skins from role to role without ever losing the humanity of those characters.

Payne and Moore got into an interesting discussion about how an actor’s responsibility is to study the director to know what film he or she is making. She said it’s important that she know what a director is trying to communicate in the frame in any given shot or scene and where the director’s eye is looking. Indeed, she said she believes the director’s main job is to direct the audience’s eye. She said she likes to see dailies to help her guage things but that some directors are overprotective and defensive about letting actors, even ones of her stature, see the work before it’s been refined and edited. Payne said it’s vital that the actors and the director are on the same page so that they know what film they’re making as co-storytellers.

Moore described movies as “an elaborate game of pretend” and she and Payne talked about how actors and directors have to find common ground with each other’s processes. In the end, they agreed, the script must be served, not egos. Payne also referenced something he told me in a recent interview: that because he only makes a movie every three or four years he’s often the least experienced person on the set and so he very much appreciates the experience and expertise that cast and crew bring. Moore seconded what a collaborative process any film is.

Interspersed through the conversation were clips from a handful of Moore’s films and even those brief excerpts demonstrated her intuitive talents and keen observations. She talked about the extensive research she ever more does for her parts in a never ending pursuit for what is present, real, truthful and alive. It is that pursuit that drives her. She said, “I become more and more deeply interested in it – human behavior.” She believes, as Payne believes, that we fundamentally want movies to reflect our experiences back to us. Invariably, the more human the movie, the more indelible it is.

Payne said to her, “I have the deep impression your best work is ahead of you, not behind you.” Interestingly, I feel the same way about Payne’s work. In some ways, his “Downsizing” may mark the end of a certain strain of themes in his work having to do with protagonists in crisis, mostly males, who set off on some journey. and it may also be the bridge to a new Payne cinema of big ideas and diversity.

It’s even possible the two artists may wind up working together in Omaha. Payne intimated as much. That might have just been wishful thinking or something one says in the giddiness of the moment, but it’s the kind of thing that Payne doesn’t usually say or do, especially not in public, unless he means it. His final words were, “She’ll be back.”

The discussion wasn’t entirely confined to career. Moore spoke glowingly of her roles as wife and mother. She tries to work on as many films as she can that shoot where she and her family live – New York City – so that she can have more time with her family. Payne pointed out she’s also the author of children’s books and he had her talk about her love for hand-crafted furniture and for home design and decor. It’s a passionate hobby of hers.

What Hollywood icon will Payne bring next? It’s anybody’s guess. My personal preferences would be for him to sit down and converse with more of the leading actors he’s worked with, including Matthew Broderick and Reese Witherspoon from “Election,” Paul Giamatti ad Thomas Haden Church from “Sideways,” Jack Nicholson from “About Schmidt,” George Clooney from “The Descendants” and Matt Damon from “Downsizing.”

Another preference would be Payne doing a similar program with fellow Nebraska natives in film, such as Joan Micklin Silver. Nick Nolte, John Beasley, Marg Helgenberger, Gabrielle Union and Yolonda Ross.

Then there’s my long-dreamed of event featuring Payne one-on-one with Robert Duvall, who in the late 1960s came to Nebraska to make the Francis Ford Coppola film “The Rain People” and later returned to make the great documentary “We’re Not the Jet Set” about an Ogallala area ranch-rodeo family. Link to some of the story behind the amazing confluence of talent that came to Nebraska for what became three films at–

 https://leoadambiga.com/film-connections…ucas-caan-duvall/ ‎

 

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Hot Movie Takes  – “Chinatown”
©By Leo Adam Biga, Author of “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film”

Chinatown

Languid has never felt as sexy or as menacing as it does in “Chinatown,” the great 1974 film noir classic that hasn’t been topped since. Not even close. Robert Towne wrote a script that many feel is as perfect a screenplay as has ever been written. Roman Polanski’s interpretation of that script is so fully developed that he creates as evocative a work of expressionistic screen drama as I’ve seen. The photography by John Alonzo, the editing by Sam O’Steen and the music by Jerry Goldsmith are in perfect sync with the redolent rhythms and moods of this hard-boiled period piece set in Depression-era Los Angeles. The locations and sound stage sets all complement the out-of-his-element, bigger-than-he-can-handle mystery that private eye J.J. “Jake” Gittes gets lured into. He’s an urban man used to working the streets yet he finds himself unraveling a mystery over water rights that plays out in city hall offices, courtrooms, desert wastelands, fruit-growing groves and ocean-side docks. He’s out of his comfort zone and his depth but he’s smart and dogged enough to put most of the puzzle pieces together. Faye Dunaway puts her spin on the femme fatale role with a performance as Evelyn Cross Mulwray that is intoxicating and heartbreaking. John Huston as her depraved father is the epitome of corrupt power. Several other character turns are worth noting, including: Perry Lopez as Jake’s cynical old partner on the police force; Diane Ladd as the scared shill who gets Jake involved in the case; Burt Young as the abusive client who owes Jake a favor; Bruce Glover as an associate concernd for Jake’s well-being and Polanski as the hep-cat enforcer who slices Jake’s nose.

Even though they tell very different stories in very different settings, I’ve always thought of “Chinatown” as a companion film to “Casablanca.” Start with the fact that they’re both studio projects made within the conventions of genre filmmaking that rise far above the average production because of a wonderful alchemy of talent and vision that made art of potboiler material. The two films share a number of other things in common as well. They’re both period pieces. The chief anti-hero protagonist of each, Rick in “Casablanca” and Jake in “Chinatown,” is a cynical, embittered man haunted by the past and the woman he lost. That past comes back to plague Rick and Jake. They are are also part of ill-fated love triangles. Rick and Ilsa can never be together because of Victor. Jake and Evelyn can never be together because of Noah. When Ilsa shows up at Rick’s club in Casablanca, he’s catapulted right back into the pain of her abandoning him in Paris. When Jake attempts to make things right with Evelyn and her daughter, he’s brought right back to where things went astray for him years earlier in Chinatown. The multi-layered story-lines are interlaced with themes of loyalty, betrayal, honor and deception. Mystery and danger lurk behind seemingly benign facades. Dark currents of irony, sarcasm and fatalism run through these dramas populated by characters who are desperate or duplicitous or both.

And perhaps most significantly Rick and Jake get caught up in events beyond their control. In “Casablanca” it’s the evil Nazi threat forcing people to flee their homelands and to barter for their freedom. In “Chinatown” it’s greedy monied interests stopping at nothing to steal property from people in order to gain control over land and natural resources and thus line their own pockets. Rick must confront a formidable foe in Major Heinrich Strasser. He’s aided in that risky effort by Captain Louis Renault. Jake must contend with his own considerable nemesis in the person of Noah Cross. In the end, Jake’s one ally, Escobar, isn’t there for him. In each scenario, the anti-hero has an uneasy relationship with authority and challenges the unlawful wielding of power. In the more romantic “Casablanca” Rick succeeds against Strasser and in the less sentimental “Chinatown” Jake fails against Cross. Though the film’s have very different endings, both Rick and Jake are faced with impossible ethical and moral decisions and they each do the right thing. It’s just that in “Casablanca” right prevails and in “Chinatown” it doesn’t. That’s because the earlier picture is at its heart a romance while the later picture is a film noir. It also has to do with the fact Casablanca” director Michael Curtiz was not about to deny us a bittersweet but happy ending as a contract studio hand and dreammaker in 1942 Hollywood while “Chinatown” director Roman Polanski was all about ambiguous, even despairing endings as a New Hollywood auteur and survivor of Nazi atrocities. If Polanski had made “Casablanca” it would have been a bleaker, less linear work, just as if Curtiz had made “Chinatown” it would have been a sunnier, faster-paced film. Each project was best served though by the filmmakers who made them and as audiences we are the beneficiaries.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3aifeXlnoqY

Chinatown movie poster image

Finally, I need to comment on a few more things about “Chinatown” and its creators. I think Nicholson gives his best performance in the film. He’s only made a few crime films and he’s excellent in all of them. He’d earlier established himself in the line of great rebel screen personas with his turns in “Easy Rider” and “Five Easy Pieces”. With “Chinatown,” “The Last Detail” and “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” he put himself right there with Cagney, Bogart, Garfield, Clift, Brando, Dean, Newman and McQueen. And he followed an equally long tradition of actors who made their marks as hardbitten anti-hero private eyes, cops or low life lifes and he showed he belonged with Mitchum, Powell, O’Keefe and all the rest. He and Dunaway show great chemistry in “Chinatown” and it’s a shame they never worked together again. With “Rosemary’s Baby” and “Chinatown” Polanski went from being a rising international director known for his Eastern Europe art films to being a superstar Hollywood director of artfully done but mass appeal movies,

Former actor Robert Evans was the head of production at Paramount in the late 1960s-early 1970s when that studio made some of the era’s most compelling works:

“Rosemary’s Baby”

“The Godfather”

“Harold and Maude”

“Serpico”

“Save the Tiger”

“The Conversation”

He was also the producer on “Chinatown,” “Marathon Man,” “Black Sunday” and “Urban Cowboy.”

Evans and Polanski both ran afoul of the law, with the former now remaking himself a Player n the game and the latter working in exile the last few decades. Neither Nicholson nor Dunaway worked again with Polanski.

 

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Hot Movie Takes – “Rawhide”
©By Leo Adam Biga, Author of “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film”

I love a good Western. This quintessential American film form is full of possibilities from a storytelling perspective because of the vast physical and metaphorical landscapes it embodies. The American West was a wide open place in every sense. Everything there was up for grabs. Thus, the Old West frontier became a canvass for great conflicts and struggles involving land, resources, power, control, law, values, ideas, dreams and visions. With so much at stake from a personal, communal and national vantage point, dramatists have a field day using the Western template to explore all manner of psycho-social themes. Add undercurrents of personal ambition, rivalry, deceit and romantic intrigue to the mix not to mention race and ethnicty, and, well, you have the makings for a rich tableaux that, in the right hands, is every bit as full as, say, Shakespeare or Dickens.

All of which is to say that last night I viewed on YouTube a much underrated Western from the Golden Age of Hollywood called “Rawhide” (1951) that represents just how satisfying and complex the form can be, This is an extremely well-crafted work directed by Henry Hathaway, written by Dudley Nichols and photographed by Milton Krasner. Tyrone Powers and Susan Hayward head a very strong cast rounded out by Hugh Marlowe, Jack Elam. Dean Jagger, George Tobias, Edgar Buchanan and Jeff Corey.

“Rawhide” isn’t quite a Western masterpiece but it’s very good and elements of it are among the very best seen in the Western genre. Let’s start with the fact that the script is superb. It’s an intelligent, taut thriller with a wicked sense of humor leavening the near melodramatic bits. Nichols wrote some of John Ford’s best films and so in a pure story sense “Rawhide” plays a lot like a Ford yarn with its sharply observed characters and situations that teeter back and forth between high drama and sardonic relief.

Like most great Westerns, this is a tale about the tension between upstanding community, in this case a very small stagecoach outpost stop, and marauding outlaws. Across the entire genre the classic Western story is one variation or another of some community, usually a town or a wagon train, under siege by some threat or of some individual seeking revenge for wrongs done him/her or of a gunman having to live up to or play down his reputation.

tyrone and susan

rawhide2

In “Rawhide” escaped outlaws are on the loose and the stagecoach station manager (Buchanan) and his apprentice (Power), along with a woman passenger (Hayward) and her child, are left to fend for themselves by U.S. cavalry troops hot on the bad guys’ trail. When the four desperate men show up they make the station inhabitants their captives. The leader (Marlowe) is an educated man who exhibits restraint but he has trouble keeping in line one of the men (Elam) who escaped prison with him. Sure enough, things get out of hand as tensions among the outlaws and with the surviving hired hand and woman mount. The criminals are intent on stealing a large gold shipment coming through and the captives know their lives will be expendable once the robbery is over, and so they scheme for a way to escape. The trouble is they are locked in a room most of the time and when let outside they’re closely guarded. Their best chance for getting out of the mess seems to be when a nighttime stage arrives but it and its passengers come and go without the man or woman being able to convey the dire situation. But one more opportunity presents itself when the daytime coach with the gold shipment approaches and the pair, aided by the outlaws’ own internal conflicts. use all their courage and ingenuity to face down the final threat.

The dramatic set-up is fairly routine but what Nichols, Hathaway and Krasner do with it is pretty extraordinary in terms of juxtaposing the freedom of the wide open spaces and the confinement of the captives. A great deal of claustrophobic tension and menace is created through the writing, the direction and the black and white photography, with particularly great use of closeups and in-depth focus. Hathaway’s and Krasner’s framing of the images for heightened dramatic impact is brilliantly done.

Rawhide-01

The acting is very good. Power, who himself was underrated, brings his trademark cocksure grace and sense of irony to his part. Hayward, who is not one of my favorite actresses from that period, parlays her natural toughness and fierceness to give a very effective performance that is almost completely absent of any sentimentality. Marlowe is appropriately smart and enigmatic in his role and he displays a machismo I didn’t before identify with him. Buchanan, Jagger, Tobias and Corey are all at their very best in key supporting roles that showcase their ability to indelibly capture characters in limited screen time. But it’s Elam who nearly steals the picture with his manic portrayal that edges toward over-the-top but stays within the realm of believability.

“Rawhide” doesn’t deal in the mythic West or confront big ideas, which is fine because it knows exactly what it is, It’s a lean, realistic, fast-paced Western with just a touch of poetry to it, and that’s more than enough in my book.

Hathaway made more famous Westerns, such as “The Sons of Katie Elder” and “True Grit,” but this is a better film than those. With his later pics Hathaway seemed to be trying to follow in the footsteps of John Ford with the scope of his Westerns, but he was no John Ford. Hathaway was best served by the spare semi-documentary style he employed earlier in his career in film noirs like “Kiss of Death,” “13 Rue Madeleine” and “Call Northside 777” and Westerns like “Rawhide.” One exception was “Nevada Smith,” which does successfully combine the leanness of his early career with the sprawling approach he favored late in his career.

 Rawhide 1951 Full Movie – YouTube
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z03hbI7IZ8g

 

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Hot Movie Takes  – Gregory Peck
©By Leo Adam Biga, Author of “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film”

Image result for gregory peck

Gregory Peck was a man and an actor for all seasons. Among his peers, he was cut from the same high-minded cloth as Spencer Tracy and Henry Fonda, only he registered more darkly than the former and more warmly than the latter.

In many ways he was like the male equivalent of the beautiful female stars whose acting chops were obscured by their stunning physical characteristics. Not only was Peck tall, dark and handsome, he possessed a deeply resonant voice that set him apart, sometimes distractingly so, until he learned to master it the way a great singer does. But I really do believe his great matinee idol looks and that unnaturally grave voice got in the way of some viewers, especially critics, appreciating just what a finely tuned actor he really was. Like the best, he could say more with a look or gesture or body movement than most actors can do with a page of dialogue. And when he did speak lines he made them count, imbuing the words with great dramatic conviction, even showing a deftness for irony and comedy, though always playing it straight, of course.

I thought one of the few missteps in his distinguished career was playing the Nazi Doctor of Death in “The Boys from Brazil.” The grand guignol pitch of the movie is a bit much for me at times and I consider his and Laurence Oliver’s performances as more spectacle than thoughtful interpretation. I do admire though that Peck really went for broke with his characterization, even though he was better doing understated roles (“Moby Dick” being the exception). I’m afraid the material was beyond director Franklin Schaffner, a very good filmmaker who didn’t serve the darkly sardonic tone as well as someone like Stanley Kubrick or John Huston would have.

Image result for gregory peck

Image result for gregory peck

 

Peck learned his craft on the stage and became an immediate star after his first couple films. He could be a bit stiff at times, especially in his early screen work, but he was remarkably real and human across the best of his performances from the 1940s through the 1990s. I have always been perplexed by complaints that he was miscast as Ahab in “Moby Dick,” what I consider to be a film masterpiece. For my tastes at least his work in it does not detract but rather adds to the richness of that full-bodied interpretation of the Melville classic.

My two favorite Peck performances are in “Roman Holiday” and, yes, “To Kill a Mockingbird.” I greatly admire his work, too, in “The Stalking Moon” and have come to regard his portrayal in “The Big Country” as the linchpin for that very fine film that I value more now than I did before. He also gave strong performances in “The Yearling,” “Yellow Sky,” “The Gunfighter,” “12 O’Clock High,” “The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit,” “Pork Chop Hill,” “On the Beach,” “Cape Fear,” “The Guns of Navarone,” “How the West was Won,” “Captain Newman M.D.” “Mirage” and “Arabesque.” I also loved his work in two made for television movies: “The Scarlet and the Black” and “The Portrait.”

He came to Hollywood in the last ebb of the old contract studio system and within a decade joined such contemporaries as Kirk Douglas and Burt Lancaster in producing some of his own work.

Image result for gregory peck

Peck’s peak as a star was from the mid-1940s through the late 1960s, which was about the norm for A-list actors of his generation. Certainly, he packed a lot in to those halcyon years, working alongside great actors and directors and interpreting the work of great writers. He starred in a dozen or more classic films and in the case of “To Kill a Mockingbird” one of the most respected and beloved films of all time. It will endure for as long as there is cinema. As pitch perfect as that film is in every way, I personally think “Roman Holiday” is a better film, it just doesn’t cover the same potent ground – i.e. race – as the other does, although its human values are every bit as moving and profound.

Because of Peck’s looks, stature and voice, he often played bigger-than-life characters. Because of his innate goodness he often gravitated to roles and/or infused his parts with qualities of basic human dignity that were true to his own nature. He was very good in those parts in which he played virtuous men because he had real recesses of virtue to draw on. His Atticus Finch is a case of the right actor in the right role at the right time. Finch is an extraordinary ordinary man. I like Peck best, however, in “Roman Holiday,” where he really is just an ordinary guy. He’s a journeyman reporter who can’t even get to work on time and is in hock to his boss. Down on his luck and in need of a break, a golden opportunity arises for a world-wide exclusive in the form of a runaway princess he’s happened upon. Lying through his teeth, he sets out to do a less than honorable thing for the sake of the story and the big money it will bring. It’s pure exploitation on his part but by the end he’s fallen for the girl and her plight and he can’t go through with his plan to expose her unauthorized spree in Rome. I wish he had done more parts like this.

Here is a link to an excellent and intimate documentary about Peck:

Just last night on YouTube I finally saw an old Western of his, “The Bravados,” I’d been meaning to watch for years. It’s directed by Henry King, with whom he worked a lot (“The Gunfighter,” Twelve O’Clock High,” “Beloved Indidel”), and while it’s neither a great film nor a great Western it is a very good if exasperatingly uneven film. That criticism even extends to Peck’s work in it. He’s a taciturn man hell-bent on revenge but I think he overplays the grimness. I don’t know if some of the casting miscues were because King chose unwisely or if he got stuck with certain actors he didn’t want, but the two main women’s parts are weakly written and performed. Visually, it’s one of the most distinctive looking Westerns ever made. Peck also had fruitful collaborations with William Wyler (“Roman Holiday” and “The Big Country”),  Robert Mulligan (“To Kill a Mockingbird” and “The Stalking Moon”) and J.L Thompson (“Cape Fear” and “The Guns of Navarone).

Two Peck pictures I’ve never seen beyond a few minutes of but that I’m eager to watch in their entirety are “Behold a Pale Horse” and “I Walk the Line.”

Peck’s work will endure because he strove to tell the truth in whatever guise he played. His investment in and expression of real, present, in-the-moment emotions and thoughts give life to his characterizations and the stories surrounding them so that they remain forever vital and impactful.

For a pretty comprehensive list of his screen credits, visit:

Gregory Peck – IMDb

http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0000060

 

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Hot Movie Takes  – “Taxi Driver”
©By Leo Adam Biga, Author of “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film”

Taxi Driver Movie Poster

It’s hard to imagine general American moviegoing audiences being prepared for “Taxi Driver” when it hit theaters in 1976. I mean, here was ostensibly a film noir that eschewed standard conventions for a dark fever dream of one man’s mounting paranoia and revulsion in the urban wasteland of New York City.

The character of Travis Bickle didn’t have any direct cinema antecedents but he did emerge from a long line of disturbed screen figures going back to Peter Lorre in “M,”  James Cagney as Cody Jarrett in “White Heat,” Richard Basehart as Roy Martin in “He Walked By Nigh,” Robert Walker as Bruno Antony in “Strangers on a Train” and Robert Mitchum as Harry Powell in “Night of the Hunter.”

There are even some hints of Robert Ryan as Montgomery in “Crossfire” and as Earle Slater in “Odds Against Tomorrow” and of Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates in “Psycho” and as Dennis Pitt in “Pretty Poison.”

Bickle also anticiated many screen misfits to follow, including some of the whack jobs in Coen Brothers and Quentin Tarantino films.

As a disenfranchised loner who sees the world around him as a venal place, Bickle obsessively reinvents himself into a self-made avenging angel ridding the streets of scum. His response to the violent, lurid subculture of sex for sale is an explosive bloodletting that is, in his mind, a purification. In the end, after carrying out his self-appointed cleansing mission, are we to believe he is mad or merely misguided? Is he a product or symptom of urban isolation and decay?

Paul Schrader’s brilliant script, Martin Scorsese’s inspired direction and Robert De Niro’s indelible performance took what appeared to be Grade B grindhouse thematic material and elevated it into the realm of art-house mastery. They did this by making the story and character an intense psycho-social study of disturbance. Bickle is not some nut case aberration. Rather he is one of us, which is to say he is an Everyman cut off from any real connections around him. The way he’s wired and the way he views the world make him a ticking time bomb. It’s only a matter of time before he’s set off and goes from talking and fantasizing about doing extreme things to actually enacting them. He lives in his head and his head is filled with disgusting images and thoughts that occupy him as he drives his cab through the streets of what he considers to be a modern-day Gomorrah. He fixates on certain things and persons and he won’t be moved from his convictions, which may or may not be the result of psychosis or sociopathic tendencies.

Schrader’s script and Scorsese’s direction, greatly aided by Michael Chapman’s photography and Bernard Herrmann’s musical score, find wildly expressive ways to indicate Bickle’s conflicted state of mind. Atmospheric lighting captures a surreal landscape of garish neon signs, steam rising from the streets and back street porno theaters, strip clubs and whorehouses. He grows to hate the pimps and pushers, the johns and addicts littering the city. When he tries to intersect with normality, it’s a complete disaster. Languid, dream-like music underscores the moral turpitude bringing Bickle down. Emotionally-charged, driving music accompanies Bickle’s trance-like rituals and final hypnotic outburst that is simultaneously savage and serene.

Travis Bickle is a troubling symbol who straddles the legal, moral and psychological line of impulse and premeditation. Does he know what he’s doing? Is he responsible for his actions? Or is he insane?

De Niro’s transformation from mild-mannered cabbie to scary vigil ante, complete with the famous “Are you talking to me?” break with reality, is where the real power of the film resides. He somehow makes his character believably frightening, revolting, pathetic and sympathetic all at the same time. To me, it will always stand as one of his two or three greatest performances because he completely inhabits this disturbed character without ever going over the top or resorting to cliches. He creates a true original in the annals of cinema that belongs to him and him alone.

There are some fine supporting performances in the film by Peter Boyle, Cybill Shepherd. Albert Brooks, Harvey Keitel and, of course, Jodi Foster as the adolescent prostitute Bickle anoints himself as protector and rescuer of. They and De Niro share some strong moments together. But it’s when De Niro’s character is alone and brooding, stalking and staring, that he most comes alive as a terrible reflection of our dark side run amok.

You can read “Taxi Driver” anyway you want: as exploration or examination, as cautionary tale, as  prescient forecast, as potboiler crime pic. But however you read it, it is a vital, compelling and singular work of its time that endures because no matter how bizarre the story and stylized the effects, it’s always grounded in the truth of its single-minded protagonist. The film never stops giving us his point of view, even at the height of his mania.

Like a lot of the best ’70s American movies, this one doesn’t leave you feeling good but you know you’ve had an experience that’s challenged your mind and emotions and perhaps even moved you to some new understanding about the human condition. That’s what the best movies are capable of doing and this one certainly hits the mark.

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Hot Movie Takes  – “The Bronx Bull”
©By Leo Adam Biga, Author of “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film”

1980’s “Raging Bull” is a great film that captures the demons of boxing legend Jake LaMotta through stylized filmmaking expressing the state of this complex figure’s tortured soul. Until I found it on Netflix the other night I didn’t know that a new filmic interpretation of LaMotta came out in 2016 – “The Bronx Bull.” While it’s not on the same level as the Martin Scorsese-Robert De Niro classic, it’s a good film that takes a less arty and more traditional look at those demons that made LaMotta such a ferocious fighter and haunted man.

Veteran character actor William Forsythe plays the older adult LaMotta and delivers a stellar performance that in many ways has as much or more depth as De Niro’s famous turn as LaMotta. Don’t get me wrong, De Niro’s work in “Raging Bull” is one of cinema’s great acting tour de forces for its compelling physical and emotional dimensions. but Forsythe gives perhaps a more subtle and reality grounded performance. In this telling of the LaMotta tale, the violence of his character is rooted in a Dickensian growing up that saw him abused and exploited by his own father. We are asked to accept that LaMotta was the way he was both inside and outside the ring because he had basic issues with rejection and abandonment. And he can’t forgive himself for apparently killing a fellow youth in a back alley fistfight for pay. Reality might be more complex than that, but these are as plausible explanations as any for what made LaMotta such a beast and Forsythe draws from that well of hurt to create a very believable flesh and blood man desperate for love and forgiveness.

There’s a lot of really good actors in “The Bronx Bull” and while the writing and directing by Martin Guigui doesn’t always do them justice, it’s great to see all this talent working together: Paul Sorvino, Joe Mantegna, Tom Sizemore, Ray Wise, Robert Davi, Natasja Henstridge, Penelope Ann Miller, Cloris Leachman, Bruce Davison, Harry Hamlin and James Russo.

Mojean Aria is just okay as the very young LaMotta. I think a more dynamic actor would have helped. Then again, the young LaMotta is not given many moments to explain himself or his world. That’s left to his cruel father, well-played by Sorvino. But this is Forsythe’s film and he’s more than up to the task of carrying it. Whenever he’s on screen, he fully inhabits LaMotta as a force of nature to be reckoned with. Forsythe very smartly stays away from a characterization that’s anything like what De Niro did in “Raging Bull.” Forsythe finds his own way into LaMotta and pulls out some very human, very tender things to go along with the legendary rage.  The trouble with the film though is that writer-director Guigui sometimes apes “Raging Bull’s” style, either consciously or unconsciously, especially in some of the scenes inside the ring and in the way he handles the Mob characters, and since he’s no Martin Scorsese, those scenes don’t measure up.

Any story about professional boxing set in the 1940s and 1950s, as this one is, must deal with the Mob, which controlled the upper levels of prizefighting in this country in that period. This story doesn’t so much go into what Mob influence looked like during LaMotta’s career as it does what it looked like after he hung up the gloves. That said, the movie begins with a retired LaMotta testifying before a U.S. Senate sub-committee on how the Mafia ordered him to throw a fight and how he did what he had to do to get the title shot he craved.  The story then picks up on how what LaMotta always feared – the Mob getting their hooks in and not letting go – catches up with him years later.

The Bronx Bull Poster

Tom Sizemore is pretty good as one Wiseguy but Mike Starr wears out his welcome playing the same kind of bungling Wiseguy he’s played in one too many pictures. In a very brief but telling scene Robert Davi is superb as a character who appears almost as a ghost to LaMotta. Natasja Henstridge is every bit as good as Sally as Cathy Moriarty was as Vickie in “Raging Bull,” and that’s saying something. After a strong opening, Penelope Ann Miller’s character of Debbie is mishandled. Debbie and LaMotta make an unlikely but interesting pairing and then she’s almost dismissed as irrelevant when she begins to tire of his antics and he’s once again threatened by rejection and abandonment. As Debbie’s mother, Cloris Leachman is fine but she’s basically reduced to being a cliche.

Joe Mantegna is a good actor and his character of Rick is compelling at the start but by the end he seems to be there more as a plot-point device than as a real figure and by then he’s frankly irritating.

According to this telling of the LaMotta story, the fighter and those close to him paid a high price for his deep reservoir of insecurity but through all the hell he put himself and others through he did eventually find peace and atonement. In the end, I wanted it and bought it, too.

This is not a great film and not even a great boxing film but you may well find it worth your time. It’s title got me thinking about a much better film with the name Bronx in it – “A Bronx Tale,” the first movie Robert De Niro directed and the project that made its writer and star, Chazz Palminteri, a star. It’s the subject of my next Hot Movie Take.

The Bronx Bull Official Trailer (HD)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Jg__5Aflc3g

 

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Hot Movie Takes  – “Across the Universe”
©By Leo Adam Biga, Author of “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film”

Perhaps the best American dramatic film to deal with the 1960s since “Hair” came out a decade ago to some fanfare but it inextricably faded quickly despite being a distinctive marriage of words, images and music. I am referring to “Across the Universe.” the 2007 Julie Taymor-directed flick that uses the music of the Beatles and the content of their songs as narrative inspiration for its coming of age storylines and musical-dance flights of fancy.

It is a sometimes stunning, sometimes dubious pastiche of Taymor’s own Broadway (“The Lion King”) style, the frenetic Richard Lester Beatles’ movies of the ’60s, Golden Age Hollywood musical fantasy sequences and hopped-up psychedelia. At its best it captures the energy and spirit of the era in a visual and sonic feast that works on many levels. At its weakest, it’s not quite sure what it wants to be and lacks a driving core. In some scenes Taymor goes in for bold visual stylistics, going overboard in places, to boldly open up the story with great big sets or locations or visual effects, sometimes all at once. Other times she constricts scenes to intimate interior spaces. For my tastes anyway I thought sometimes she went big when she should have gone small and went in close when she should have pulled back and opened wide.

The love story at the heart of the film is actually quite good, even if we’ve seen variations of it in countless films. It’s strong enough though that the relationship engages us even apart from using the Beatles’ music variously as backdrop, context and exposition.

Brit Jim Sturgess is outstanding as Jude, a working stiff Libverpullian who crosses the pond to find the father he’s never met. He forms a best friend bond with Max, well played by Joe Anderson, and a romantic entanglement with Max’s sister, Lucy, portrayed with real depth by Evan Rachel Wood.

Pretty much every one of the principals was an unknown at the time. Dana Fuchs gives the showiest and grittiest performance as the Janis Joplin-like singer Sadie. Martin Luther brings the soul his Jimi Hendrix-like guitarist character demands. T.V. Caprio has just the right vulnerability as Prudence.

They’re all searchers eventually thrown together in the maelstrom of ’60s counterculture life in New York City. They meet or imagine a motley crew variously played by Joe Cocker. Eddie Izard, Bono and Salma Hyek, all of whom represent characters in Beatles songs or fictional versions of certain types found in that time and place.

The film touches on a great many of the currents that made the ’60s the ’60s, including civil rights, feminism, riots, protests, Vietnam, rock music, the drug culture, the sexual revolution and the generation gap.

There are some indelible images throughout. The Let It Be montage is an especially powerful melding of music and dramatic action.

The film plays like a series of related music videos and that gives it both its internal rhythmic strength and a disjointed self-limiting structure. The only thing holding the whole works together is the music and the boy meets girl plot. The songs are a series of set pieces unto their own though many of them are about love and searching. The thinly developed main characters’ moods and motivations get expressed through the music. When it all comes together, its thrilling stuff.  When it doesn’t mesh, it seems a bit forced.

That said, I really admire the imagination and heart that went into this film. For the most part Taymor and her creative collaboratives found striking and moving ways to have the music carry a love story that is both singular and universal. The music and the story remind us that  peace and love were counter-irritant strains in a decade of violence and hate. It’s also a reminder that love and life can endure no matter the tumult or conflict happening around us. Outside forces don’t have to keep us down or keep us apart.

This movie anticipated what was coming with movies like “La-La Land” and television shows like “Glee” and “The Get Down” and stands alone for capturing the vitality of an era when the whiff of anarchy and anything’s possible was in the air. And not surprisingly the music of the Beatles provided the soundtrack and narrative thread for decade that defined a new America.

Link to the film’s IMDB site at–

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0445922/

 

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Hot Movie Takes Monday – “Mississippi Masala”

©By Leo Adam Biga, Author of “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film”

Over the weekend I revisited one of my favorite films from the early 1990s – Mira Nair’s “Mississippi Masala.” I remembered it as one of the richest cross cultural dramas of that or any era and upon re-watching it on YouTube my impressions from then have been confirmed.

The story concerns an Indian family exiled from Uganda during Idi Amin’s reign of terror. They were forced to leave everything they owned and loved in terms of home, The patriarch of the family was born and raised in Uganda and lived there his entire life, building a life and career that made him feel at one with a nation his people had been brought to by the British to build railways. Though his ancestral roots are not of that continent, he identifies as African first, Indian second. The family ends up in Mississippi, owning and operating a motel and a liquor store. The patriarch, Jay, and his wife are the parents of an only child, Meena, who was a little girl when her left Uganda as refugees. When we meet her again she is a lovely, single 24 year old woman and still devoted daughter but strains under her parents’ overprotectiveness and their insisting she adhere to strict traditions concerning matrimonial matches and such. Those traditions aren’t such a good fit in America.

Also weighing heavily on Meena is the burden her father carries from being torn from his homeland. He can’t let that severing go. For years he’s petitioned the Ugandan government for a hearing to plead his case for his property and assets to be restored. He is a haunted figure. Part of what haunts him is the way he rebuked his black Ugandan friend from childhood, Okelo, when Amin’s military police rounded up foreigners for arrest, torture, deportation. Okelo is a devoted family friend who is like a brother to Jay and a grandfather to Meena. When Jay is arrested for making anti-Amiin remarks in a broadcast TV interview, Okelo bribes officials to free him. He tries to convince Jay that there is no future for him in Uganda anymore. Okelo tells him, “Africa is for black Africans.” He says it not out of malice but love. Jay is deeply hurt. He can’t accept this new reality but he realizes he and his family have no choice but to flee if they are to remain alive. Jay leaves without saying goodbye to Okelo. Meena sees and feels her father’s bitter anger and her beloved Okelo’s broken heart.

Grown-up Meena, played by Sarita Choudhury, lives with her parents in a diverse Mississippi town where they are the minority. A meet-cute accident brings together Meena and a young African-American man, Demetrius, played by Denzel Washington. He’s a devoted son who owns his own carpet cleaning business. He’s immediately attracted to Meena but at first he pays attention to her to get back at his ex, who’s in town and intent on belittling him. But things progress to the point where he and Meena spark the start of a real relationship. She meets his family and is embraced by them. Then the prejudice her extended family and community feels for blacks gets in the way and things get messy. As it always is with race, there are misunderstandings, assumptions and fears that cause rifts. Meena’s father is reminded of his own close-mindedness – that Indians in Africa wouldn’t allow their children to marry blacks. Demetrius and his circle must confront their own racist thinking.

Everyone in this film has their own wounds and stones of racism to deal with. No one is immune. No one gets off the hook. We’re all complicit. We all have something to learn from each other. It’s what we do with race that matters.

The theme of being strangers in homelands runs rife through the film. Just as African-Americans in Mississippi were enslaved and disenfranchised and often cut off from their African heritage, Indian exiles like Meena’s family are strangers wherever they go and distant from their own ancestral homeland of India.

Meena finally asserts her independence and her father finally gets his hearing. His bittersweet return to Uganda fills him with regret and longing, ironically enough, for America, which he realizes has indeed become his new home. The simple, sublime ending finds Jay in a street market where residents of the new Uganda revel in music and dance that are a mix of African and Western influences. As he watches the joy of a people no longer living in oppression, a black infant held by a man touches his face and Jay ends up holding the boy close to him, feeling the warmth and tenderness of unconditional love and trust.

There’s a great montage sequence near the end where the diverse currents of India, the American Deep South and Africa converge in images that some hot harmonica blues cover. By the end, the movie seems to tell us that home is a matter of the heart and identity is a state of mind and none of it need keep us apart if we don’t let it.

I saw the film when it first came out and though it spoke to me I was still a decade away from being in my first interracial relationship. I was already very curious about the possibilities of such a relationship and I was also acutely attuned to racial stereotypes and prejudices because of where and how I grew up. Seeing the film again today, as a 15 year veteran of mixed race couplings and a 21 year veteran of writing about race, it has even more resonance than before. And having visited Uganda in 2015 I now have a whole new personal connection to the film because of having been to that place so integral to the story.

This was the second movie by Nair I saw. The first, “Salaam Bombay,” was a hit on the festival circuit and that’s where I saw it – an outdoor screening at the Telluride Film Festival. Years later I saw another of her features, “Monsoon Wedding.” I still need to catch up with two of her most acclaimed later films, “The Perez Family” and “The Namesake.”

Watch the “Mississippi Masala” trailer at:

 

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Hot Movie Takes Saturday – FIVE CAME BACK

©by Leo Adam Biga, Author of “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film”

Five Legendary Filmmakers went to war:

John Ford

William Wyler

Frank Capra

George Stevens

John Huston

Five Contemporary Filmmakers take their measure:

Paul Greengrass

Steven Spielberg

Guillermo del Toro

Lawrence Kasdan

Francis Ford Coppola

When the United States entered World War II these five great Hollywood filmmakers were asked by the government to apply their cinema tools to aid the war effort. They put their lucrative careers on hold to make very different documentaries covering various aspects and theaters of the war. They were all masters of the moving picture medium before their experiences in uniform capturing the war for home-front audiences, but arguably they all came out of this service even better, and certainly more mature, filmmakers than before. Their understanding of the world and of human nature grew as they encountered the best and worst angels of mankind on display.

The story of their individual odysseys making these U.S, government films is told in a new documentary series, “Five Came Back,” now showing on Netflix. The series is adapted from a book by the same title authored by Mark Harris. The documentary is structured so that five contemporary filmmakers tell the stories of the legendary filmmakers’ war work. The five contemporary filmmakers are all great admirers of their subjects. Paul Greengrass kneels at the altar of John Ford; Steven Spielberg expresses his awe of William Wyler; Guillermo del Toro rhapsodizes on Frank Capra; Lawrence Kasdan gushes about George Stevens; and Francis Ford Coppola shares his man crush on John Huston. More than admiration though, the filmmaker narrators educate us so that we can have more context for these late filmmakers and appreciate more fully where they came from, what informed their work and why they were such important artists and storytellers.

The Mission Begins

As World War II begins, five of Hollywood’s top directors leave success and homes behind to join the armed forces and make films for the war effort.

Watch The Mission Begins. Episode 1 of Season 1.
 

Combat Zones

Now in active service, each director learns his cinematic vision isn’t always attainable within government bureaucracy and the variables of war.

Watch Combat Zones. Episode 2 of Season 1.
 

The Price of Victory

At the war’s end, the five come back to Hollywood to re-establish their careers, but what they’ve seen will haunt and change them forever.

Watch The Price of Victory. Episode 3 of Season 1.

Ford was a patriot first and foremost  and his “The Battle of Midway” doc fit right into his work portraying the American experience. For Wyler, a European Jew, the Nazi menace was all too personal for his family and he was eager to do his part with propaganda. For Capra, an Italian emigre, the Axis threat was another example of powerful forces repressing the liberty of people. The “Why He Fight” series he produced and directed gave him a forum to sound the alarm. A searcher yearning to break free from the constraints of light entertainment, Stevens used the searing things he documented during the war, including the liberation of death camps, as his evolution into becoming a dramatist. Huston made perhaps the most artful of the documentaries. His “Let There Be Light” captured in stark terms the debilitating effects of PTSD or what was called shell shock then. His “Report from the Aleutians” portrays the harsh conditions and isolation of the troops stationed in Arctic. And his “The Battle of San Pietro” is a visceral, cinema verite masterpiece of ground war.

The most cantankerous of the bunch, John Ford, was a conservative who held dear his dark Irish moods and anti-authoritarian sentiments. Yet, he also loved anything to do with the military and rather fancied being an officer. He could be a real SOB on his sets and famously picked on certain cast and crew members to receive the brunt of his withering sarcasm and pure cussedness. His greatest star John Wayne was not immune from this mean-spiritedness and even got the brunt of it, in part because Wayne didn’t serve during the war when Ford and many of his screen peers did.

Decades before he was enlisted to make films during the Second World War, he made a film, “Four Sons,” about the First World War, in which he did not serve.

Following his WWII stint, Ford made several great films, one of which, “They Were Expendable,” stands as one of the best war films ever made. His deepest, richest Westerns also followed in this post-war era, including “Rio Grande,” “Fort Apache,” “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon,” “The Searchers,” “The Horse Soldiers” and “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.” Another war film he made in this period, “The Wings of Eagles,” is another powerful work singular for its focus on a real-life character (played by Wayne) who endures great sacrifices and disappointments to serve his country in war.

Even before the war Ford injected dark stirrings of world events in “The Long Voyage Home.”

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William Wyler had already established himself as a great interpreter of literature and stage works prior to the war. His subjects were steeped in high drama. Before the U.S. went to war but was already aiding our ally Great Britain, he made an important film about the conflict, “Mrs. Miniver,” that brought the high stakes involved down to a very intimate level. The drama portrays the war’s effects on one British family in quite personal terms. After WWII, Wyler took this same closely observed human approach to his masterpiece, “The Best Years of Our Lives,” which makes its focus the hard adjustment that returning servicemen faced in resuming civilian life after having seen combat. This same humanism informs Wyler’s subsequent films, including “The Heiress,” “Roman Holiday,” “Carrie,” “The Big Country” and “Ben-Hur.”

Wyler, famous for his many takes and inability to articulate what he wanted (he knew it when he saw it), was revered for extracting great performances. He didn’t much work with Method actors and I think some of his later films would have benefited from the likes of Brando and Dean and all the rest. One of the few times he did work with a Method player resulted in a great supporting performance in a great film – Montgomery Clift in “The Heiress.” Indeed, it’s Clift we remember more than the stars, Olivia de Havilland and Ralph Richardson.

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Frank Capra was the great populist director of the Five Who Came Back and while he became most famous for making what are now called dramedies. he took a darker path entering and exiting WWII, first with “Meet John Doe” in 1941 and then with “It’s a Wonderful Life” in 1946 and “State of the Union” in 1948. While serious satire was a big part of his work before these, Capra’s bite was even sharper and his cautionary tales of personal and societal corruption even bleaker than before. Then he seemed to lose his touch with the times in his final handful of films. But for sheer entertainment and impact, his best works rank with anyone’s and for my tastes anyway those three feature films from ’41 through ’48 are unmatched for social-emotional import.

Before the war George Stevens made his name directing romantic and screwball comedies, even an Astaire-Rogers musical, and he came out of the war a socially conscious driven filmmaker. His great post-war films all tackle universal human desires and big ideas: “A Place in the Sun,” “Shane,” “Giant,” “The Diary of Anne Frank.” For my tastes anyway his films mostly lack the really nuanced writing and acting of his Five Came Back peers, and that’s why I don’t see him in the same category as the others. In my opinion Stevens was a very good but not great director. He reminds me a lot of Robert Wise in that way.

That brings us to John Huston. He was the youngest and most unheralded of the five directors who went off to war. After years of being a top screenwriter, he had only just started directing before the U.S. joined the conflict. His one big critical and commercial success before he made his war-effort documentaries was “The Maltese Falcon.” But in my opinion he ended up being the best of the Five Who Came Back directors. Let this list of films he made from the conclusion of WWII through his death sink in to get a grasp of just what a significant body of work he produced:

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre

The Asphalt Jungle

Key Largo

The Red Badge of Courage

Heaven Knows Mr. Allison

Beat the Devil

Moby Dick

The Unforgiven

The Misfits

Freud

The List of Adrian Messenger

The Night of the Iguana

Reflections in a Golden Eye

Fat City

The Man Who Would Be King

Wiseblood

Under the Volcano

Prizzi’s Honor

The Dead

That list includes two war films, “The Red Badge of Courage” and “Heaven Knows Mr. Allison,” that are intensely personal perspectives on the struggle to survive when danger and death are all around you. Many of his other films are dark, sarcastic ruminations on how human frailties and the fates sabotage our desires, schemes and quests.

I believe Huston made the most intelligent, literate and best-acted films of the five directors who went to war. At least in terms of their post-war films. The others may have made films with more feeling, but not with more insight. Huston also took more risks than they did both in terms of subject matter and techniques. Since the other directors’ careers started a full decade or more before his, they only had a couple decades left of work in them while Huston went on making really good films through the 1970s and ’80s.

Clearly, all five directors were changed by what they saw and did during the war and their work reflected it. We are the ultimate beneficiaries of what they put themselves on the line for because those experiences led them to inject their post-war work with greater truth and fidelity about the world we live in. And that’s really all we can ask for from any filmmaker.

 

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Hot Movie Takes 
John Huston

By Leo Adam Biga, Author of “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film”

When I originally posted about the subject of this Hot Movie Take, the late John Huston, I forgot to note that his work, though very different in tone, shares a penchant for unvarnished truth with that of Alexander Payne. Huston was a writer-director just like Payne is and  he was extremely well-read and well-versed in many art forms, again just as Payne is. The screenplays for Huston’s films were mostly adaptations of novels, short stories and plays, including some famous ones by iconic writers, and the scripts for Payne’s films are mostly adaptations as well.  Huston also collaborated with a lot of famous writers on his films, including Truma Capote and Arthur Miller. The work of both filmmakers shares an affinity for ambiguous endings. I think at his best Huston was more of a classic storyteller than Payne and his films more literate. Where Huston mostly made straight dramas, he showed a real flair for comedy the few times he ventured that way (“The African Queen,” “Beat the Devil,” “The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean” and “Prizzi’s Honor”). Payne insists that he makes comedies, though most would say he makes dramedies, a terrible descriptor that’s gained currency. More accurately, Payne’s comedy-dramas are satires. I think he’s more than capable of making a straight drama if he chose to, but so far he’s stayed true to himself and his strengths. If Payne is the ultimate cinema satirist of our tme, and I think he is, then Huston stands as the great film ironist of all time. With one using satire and the other using irony to great effect, their films get right to the bone and marrow of characters without a lot of facade. Just as it was for Huston, story and character is everything for Payne. And their allegiance to story and character is always in service to revealing truth.

Of all the great film directors to some out of the old studio system, only one, that craggy, gangly, hard angle of a man, John Huston, continued to thrive in the New Hollywood and well beyond.

It’s important to note Huston was a writer-director who asserted great independence even under contract. He began as a screenwriter at Universal and learned his craft there before going to work at Warner Brothers. But Huston was an accomplished writer long before he ever got to Hollywood. As a young man he found success as a journalist and short story writer, getting published in some of the leading magazines and newspapers of the day. Indeed, he did a lot things before he landed in Tinsel Town. He boxed, he painted, he became a horseman and cavalry officer in the Mexican uprisings, he hunted big gamma he acted and he caroused. His father Walter Huston was an actor in vaudeville before making it on the legitimate stage and then in films.

What he most loved though was reading. His respect for great writing formed early and it never left him. Having grown up the son of a formidable actor, he also respected the acting craft and the power and magic of translating words on a page into dramatic characters and incidents that engage and move us.

He admired his father’s talent and got to study his process up close. Before ever working in Hollywood, John Huston also made it his business to observe how movies were made.

But like most of the great filmmakers of that era, Huston lived a very full life before he ever embarked on a screen career. It’s one of the reasons why I think the movies made by filmmakers like Huston and his contemporaries seem more informed by life than even the best movies today. There’s a well lived-in weight to them that comes from having seen and done some things rather than rehashing things from books or film classes or television viewings.

Because of his diverse passions, Huston films are an interesting mix of the masculinity and fatalistic of, say. a Hemingway, and the ambiguity and darkness of, say, an F. Scott Fitzgerald or Eugene O’Neill. I use literature references because Huston’s work is so steeped in those traditions and influences. In film terms, I suppose the closest artists his work shares some kinship with are Wyler and John Ford, though Huston’s films are freer in form than Wyler’s and devoid of the sentimentality of Ford. As brilliantly composed as Wyler’s films are, they’re rather stiff compared to Huston’s. As poetic as Ford’s films are, they are rather intellectually light compared to Huston’s.

At Warners Huston developed into one of the industry’s top screenwriters with an expressed interest in one day directing his own scripts. Of all the Hollywood writers that transitioned to directing, he arguably emerged as the most complete filmmaker. While he never developed a signature visual style, he brought a keen intelligence to his work that emphasized character development and relationship between character and place. He made his directing invisible so as to better serve the story. When I think of Huston, I think of lean and spare. He perfected the art of cutting in the camera. He was precise in what he wanted in the frame and he got as close to what he had on the page and in his head as perhaps anyone who’s made feature-length narrative films. He did it all very efficiently and professionally but aesthetic choices came before any commercial considerations. He was known to be open to actors and their needs and opinions, but he was not easily persuaded to change course because he was a strong-willed artist who knew exactly what he wanted, which is to say he knew exactly what the script demanded.

His films are among the most literate of their or any era, yet they rarely feel stagy or artificial. From the start, Huston revealed a gift for getting nitty gritty reality on screen. He was also very big on location shooting when that was still more a rarity than not and he sometimes went to extreme lengths to capture the real thing, such as encamping in the Congo for “The African Queen.” Look at his “The Man Who Would Be King” and you’ll find it’s one of the last great epic adventure stories and Huston and Co.really did go to harsh, remote places to get its settings right.

The realism of his work is often balanced by a lyrical romanticism. But there are some notable exceptions to this in films like “Fat City.”

He sometimes pushed technical conventions with color experiments in “Moulin Rouge,” “Moby Dick” and “Reflections in a Golden Eye.”

As a young man learning the ropes, he reportedly was influenced by William Wyler and other masters and clearly Huston was a good student because right out of the gate with his first film as director, “The Maltese Falcon,” his work was fully formed.

In his first two decades as a writer-director, Huston made at least a half dozen classics. His best work from this period includes:

The Maltese Falcon
The Treasure of the Sierra Madre
The Asphalt Jungle
Key Largo
The Red Badge of Courage
Heaven Knows Mr. Allison
Beat the Devil
Moby Dick
The Unforgiven

Huston remained a relevant director through the 1960s with such films as:

The Misfits
Freud
The List of Adrian Messenger
The Night of the Iguana
Reflections in a Golden Eye

But his greatest work was still ahead of him in the 1970s and 1980s when all but a handful of the old studio filmmakers were long since retired or dead or well past their prime. Huston’s later works are his most complex and refined:

Fat City
The Man Who Would Be King
Wiseblood
Under the Volcano
Prizzi’s Honor
The Dead

I have seen all these films, some of them numerous times, so I can personally vouch for them. There are a few others I’ve seen that might belong on his best efforts list, including “The Roots of Heaven.” Even a near miss like “The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean” is worth your time. And there are a handful of ’70s era Huston films with good to excellent reputations I’ve never gotten around to seeing, notably “The Kremlin Letter” and “The Mackintosh Man,” that I endeavor to see and judge for myself one day.

Arthur Miller and John Huston pose with the cast of "The Misfits"

Three star-crossed iconic actors with Huston, Arthur Miller, Eli Wallach and Co. on the set of “The Misfits”

It would be easy for me to discuss any number of his films but I elect to explore his final and, to my tastes anyway, his very best film, “The Dead” (1987). For me, it is a masterpiece that distills everything Huston learned about literature, film, art, music, life, you name it, into an extraordinary mood piece that is profound in its subtleties and observations. For much of his career, Huston portrayed outward adventures of characters in search of some ill-fated quest. These adventures often played out against distinct, harsh urban or natural landscapes. By the end of his career, he turned more and more to exploring inward adventures. “The Dead” is an intimate examination of grief, love, longing and nostalgia. Based on a James Joyce short story, it takes place almost entirely within a private home during a Christmas gathering that on the surface is filled with merriment but lurking just below is bittersweet melancholia, particularly for a married couple stuck in the loss of their child. It is a tender tone poem whose powerful evocation of time, place and emotion is made all the more potent because it is so closely, carefully observed. Much of the inherent drama and feeling resides in the subtext behind the context. Discovering these hidden meaning sin measured parts is one of the many pleasures of this subdued film that has more feeling in one frame than any blockbuster does in its entirety. “The Dead” is as moving a meditation on the end of things, including human life, that I have ever seen.

Huston made the film while a very sick and physically feeble old man. He was in fact dying. But it might as well be the work of a young stallon because it’s that vital and rigorous. The fact that he was near death though gives his interpretation and expression of the story added depth and poignancy. He knew well the autumnal notes it was playing. The film starts his daughter Angelica Huston. It was their third and final collaboraton.

If you don’t know Huston the writer-director I urge you to seek out his work and even if you do you may discover he made films you didn’t associate with him. Just like we often don’t pay attention to the bylines of writers who author pieces we read and even enjoy, some of us don’t pay strict attention to who the directors of films are, even if we enjoy them. Some of you may even be more familiar with Huston’s acting than his directing. His turn in “Chinatown” is a superb example of character acting. My point is, whatever Huston means or doesn’t meant to you, seek out his work and put the pieces together of the many classics he made that you’ve seen and will make a point to see.

 

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Hot Movie Takes Sunday

When Cinema First Seduced Me – “On the Waterfront”

©by Leo Adam Biga, Author of “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film”

Borrowing from the title of a famous film book, I share in this hot cinema take how I lost my virginity at the movies. It wasn’t a person who stole my innocence and awakened my senses, it was a film, a very special film: “On the Waterfront.” Though in a manner of speaking you could say I gave it up to the film’s star, Marlon Brando.

It was probably the end of the 1960s or beginning of the 1970s when I first saw that classic 1954 film. I would have been 11 or 12 watching it on the home Zenith television set. The film still has a hold on me all these years later. It moves me to tears and exultation as an adult just as it did as a child. I’m sure that will never change no matter how many times I see it, and I’ve seen it a couple dozen times by now, and no matter how old I am when I revisit it.

Nothing could have prepared me for that first viewing though. I mean, it stirred things in me that I didn’t yet have words or meanings for. I remember lying on the living room’s carpeted floor and variously feeling sad, excited, aroused, afraid, angry, disenchanted, triumphant and, though I didn’t know the word at the time, ambivalent.

The power of that movie is in its extraordinary melding of words, images, ideas, faces, locations, actions and dramatic incidents. Great direction by Elia Kazan. Great photography by Boris Kaufmann. Great music by Leonard Bernstein. Great script by Budd Schulberg, Great ensemble cast from top to bottom. But it was Marlon Brando who undid me. I mean, he’s so magnetic and enigmatic at the same time. There’s a charm and mystery to the man, combined with an intensity and truth, that projects a palpable, visceral energy unlike anything I’ve quite felt since from a film performance. His acting is so real, spontaneous and connected to every moment that it evokes intense emotional immediate responses in me. It happened the first time I saw it and it still happens all these decades later. What I’m describing, of course, is the very intent of The Method Brando brought to Hollywood, thus forever changing screen acting by the new level of naturalism and truth he brought to many of his roles.

His Terry Malloy is an Everyman on the mob-controlled docks of New York. He looks like just any other working stiff or mug except he’s not because he’s an ex-prizefigher and his older brother Charley (Rod Steiger) is in the employ of waterfront boss Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb). The longshoremen can’t form a union and don;t dare to demand anything like decent work conditions or benefits as long as Friendly rules by threat and intimidation. In return for keeping the men in check, he and his crew take a cut of everything that comes in or goes out of those docks. And Terry, who’s part of Friendly’s mob by association, doesn’t have to lift a finger on the job. Not so long as he does what he’s told and keeps his mouth shut. A law enforcement investigation into waterfront racketeering has everyone on edge and the price for squealing is death.

A conflicted Terry arrives at a moral crossroads after being used by Friendly’s bunch to set-up a buddy, Jimmy Dolan, that henchmen throw off the roof of a brownstone. Already racked by guilt for being an accomplice in his friend’s death, Terry then falls for  Dolan’s attractive sister, Edie (Eva Marie Saint), who’s intent on finding the men responsible for her brother’s killing. At the same time, the waterfront priest, Father Barry (Karl Malden), urges the longshoremen to stand up and oppose Friendly by organizing themselves and telling what they know to the authorities. Terry is questioned by investigators, one of whom detects his anguish. But he can’t bring himself to tell Father Barry or Edie the truth,

With Friendly feeling the heat, he applies increased pressure and goon tactics. Concerned that Terry may turn stool pigeon under Edie’s and Father Barry’s influence, he orders Charley to get his brother in line – or else. Terry refuses the warning and Charley pays the price. Terry then lays it all on the line and comes clean with Edie, Father Barry and the authorities. All of it leads to Terry being ostracized before a climactic confrontation with Friendly and his stooges.

“On the Waterfront” could have been a melodramatic potboiler in the wrong hands but a superb cast and crew at the peak of their powers made a masterpiece instead. It’s the unadorned humanity of the film that moves us and lingers in the imagination. Then there’s the powerful themes it explores. The film is replete with symbols and metaphors for the human condition, good versus evil and principles of sacrifice, loyalty and redemption. The story also reflects Kazan’s and Schulberg’s view that “ratting” is a sometimes necessary act for a greater good. Like Terry, Kazan became persona non grata to some for naming names before the House Un-american Activities Committee at the height of this nation’s Red Scare hysteria. Some have criticized Kazan for making a self-serving message picture that at the end celebrates the rat as hero.

The film has come under the shadow cast by Kazan’s actions. Some say his cooperating with HUAC directly or indirectly made him complicit in Hollywood colleagues getting blacklisted by the industry. However you feel about what he did or didn’t do and what blame or condemnation can be laid at his feet, the film is a stand the test of time work of social consciousness that works seamlessly within the conventions of the crime or mob film. I think considering everything that goes into a narrative movie, it’s as good a piece of traditional filmmaking to ever come out of America. There have been more visually stunning pictures, more epic ones, better written ones, but none that so compellingly and pleasingly put together all the facets that make a great movie and that so effectively get under our skin and touch our heart.

It would be a decade from the time I first saw “On the Waterfront” before I reacted that strongly to another film, and that film was “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

 

 

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Hot Movie Takes Friday

Indie Film

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©by Leo Adam Biga, Author of “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film”

 

There’s a common misconception that indie films are something that only came into being in the last half-century when in fact indie filmmaking has been around in one form or another since the dawn of movies.

Several Nebraskans have demonstrated the indie spirit at the highest levels of cinema.

The very people who invented the motion picture industry were, by definition, independents. Granted, most of them were not filmmakers, but these maverick entrepreneurs took great personal risk to put their faith and money in a new medium. They were visionaries who saw the future and the artists working for them perfected a moving image film language that proved addictive. The original Hollywood czars and moguls were the greatest pop culture pushers who ever lived. Under their reign, the narrative motion picture was invented and it’s hooked every generation that’s followed. The Hollywood studio system became the model and center of film production. The genres that define the Hollywood movie, then and now, came out of that system and one of the great moguls of the Golden Age, Nebraska native Darryl F. Zanuck, was as responsible as anyone for shaping what the movies became by the projects he greenlighted and the ones he deep-sixed. The tastes and temperaments of these autocrats got reflected in the pictures their studios made but the best of these kingpins made exceptions to their rules and largely left the great filmmakers alone, which is to say they didn’t interfere with their work. If they did, the filmmakers by and large wouldn’t stand for it. After raising hell, the filmmakers usually got their way.

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Zanuck made his bones in Hollywood but as the old studio system with its longterm contracts and consolidated power began to wane and a more open system emerged, even Zanuck became an independent producer.

The fat-cat dream-making factories are from the whole Hollywood story. From the time the major studios came into existence to all the shakeups and permutations that have followed right on through today, small independent studios, production companies and indie filmmakers have variously worked alongside, for and in competition with the established studios.

Among the first titans of the fledgling American cinema were independent-minded artists such as D.W. Griffith, Charles Chaplin and Douglas Faribanks, who eventually formed their own studio, United Artists. Within the studio system itself, figures like Griffith, Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Cecil B. De Mille, Frank Capra and John Ford were virtually unassailable figures who fought for and gained as near to total creative control as filmmakers have ever enjoyed. Those and others like Howard Hawks, William Wyler and Alfred Hitchcock pretty much got to do whatever they wanted on their A pictures. Then there were the B movie masters who could often get away with even more creatively and dramatically speaking than their A picture counterparts because of the smaller budgets and loosened controls on their projects. That’s why post-World War II filmmakers like Sam Fuller, Joseph E. Lewis, Nicholas Ray, Budd Boetticher and Phil Carlson could inject their films with all sorts of provocative material amidst the conventions of genre pictures and thereby effectively circumvent the production code.

Maverick indie producers such as David O. Selznick, Sam Spiegel and Joseph E. Levine packaged together projects of distinction that the studios wouldn’t or couldn’t initiate themselves. Several actors teamed with producers and agents to form production companies that made projects outside the strictures of Hollywood. Kirk Douglas and Burt Lancaster were among the biggest name actors to follow this trend. Eventually, it became more and more common for actors to take on producing, even directing chores for select personal projects, to where if not the norm it certainly doesn’t take anyone by surprise anymore.

A Nebraskan by the name of Lynn Stalmaster put aside his acting career to become a casting direct when he saw an opportunity in the changing dynamics of Hollywood. Casting used to be a function within the old studio system. As the studios’ contracted employee rosters began to shrink and as television became a huge new production center, Stalmaster saw the future and an opportunity. He knew just as films needed someone to guide the casting, the explosion of dramatic television shows needed casting expertise as well and so he practically invented the independent casting director. He formed his own agency and pretty much had the new field to himself through the 1950s, when he mostly did TV, on through the ’60s, ’70s’ and even the ’80s, when more of his work was in features. He became the go-to casting director for many of top filmmakers, even for some indie artists. His pioneering role and his work casting countless TV shows, made for TV movies and feature films, including many then unknowns who became stars, earned him a well deserved honorary Oscar at the 2017 Academy Awards – the first Oscar awarded for casting.

Lynn Stalmaster

Lynn Stalmaster

Photo By Lance Dawes, Courtesy of AMPAS

In the ’50 and ’60s Stanley Kubrick pushed artistic freedom and daring thematic content to new limits as an independent commercial filmmaker tied to a studio. Roger Corman staked out ground as an indie producer-director whose low budget exploitation picks gave many film actors and filmmakers their start in the industry. In the ’70s Woody Allen got an unprecedented lifetime deal from two producers who gave him carte blanche to make his introspective comedies.

John Cassavetes helped usher in the indie filmmaker we identify today with his idiosyncratic takes on relationships that made his movies stand out from Hollywood fare.

Perhaps the purest form of indie filmmaking is the work done by underground and experimental filmmakers who have been around since cinema’s start. Of course, at the very start of motion pictures, all filmmkaers were by definition experimental because the medium was in the process of being invented and codified. Once film got established as a thing and eventually as a commerical industry, people far outside or on the fringes of that industry, many of them artists in other disciplines, boldly pushed cinema in new aesthetic and technical directions. The work of most of these filmmakers then or now doesn’t find a large audience but does make its way into art houses and festivals and is sometimes very influential across a wide spectrum of artists and filmmakers seeking new ways of seeing and doing things.  A few of these experimenters do find some relative mass exposure. Andy Warhol was an example. A more recent example is Godfrey Reggio, whose visionary documentary trilogy “Koyaanisqatsi,” “Powaqqatsi” and “Naqoyqatsi” have found receptive audiences the world over. Other filmmakers, like David Lynch and Jim McBride, have crossed over into more mainstream filmmaking without ever quite leaving behind their experimental or underground roots.

Nebraska native Harold “Doc” Edgerton made history for innovations he developed with the high speed camera, the multiflash, the stroboscope, nighttime photography, shadow photography and time lapse photography and other techniques for capturing images in new ways or acquiring images never before captured on film. He was an engineer and educator who combined science with art to create an entire new niche with his work.

Filmmakers like Philip Kaufman, Brian De Palma, Martin Scorsese and many others found their distinctive voices as indie artists. Their early work represented formal and informal atttempts at discovering who they are as

Several filmmakers made breakthroughs into mainstream filmmaking on the success of indie projects, including George Romero, Jonathan Kaplan, Jonathan Demme, Omaha’s own Joan Micklin Silver, Spike Lee and Quentin Taratino.

If you don’t know the name of Joan Micklin Silver, you should. She mentored under veteran studio director Mark Robson on a picture (“Limbo”) he made of her screenplay about the wives of American airmen held in Vietnamese prisoner of war camps. Joan, a Central High graduate whose family owned Micklin Lumber, then wrote an original screenplay about the life of Jewish immigrants on New York’s Lower East Side in the early 20th century. She called it “Hester Street” and she shopped it around to all the studios in Hollywood as a property she would direct herself. They all rejected the project and her stipulation that she direct. Every studio had its reasons. The material was too ethnic, too obscure, it contained no action, it had no sex. Oh, and she insisted on making it in black and white,which is always a handy excuse to pass on a script. What the studios really objected to though was investing in a woman who would be making her feature film directing debut. Too risky.  As late as the late 1970s and through much of the 1980s there were only a handful of American women directing feature and made for TV movies. It was a position they were not entrusted with or encouraged to pursue. Women had a long track record as writers, editors, art directors,  wardrobe and makeup artists but outside of some late silent and early sound directors and then Ida Lapino in the ’50s. women were essentially shut out of directing. That’s what Joan faced but she wasn’t going to let it stop her.

Joan Micklin Silver

Long story short, Joan and her late husband Raphael financed the film’s production and post themselves and made an evocative period piece that they then tried to get a studio to pick up, but to no avail. That’s when the couple distributed the picture on their own and to their delight and the industry’s surprise the little movie found an audience theater by theater, city by city, until it became one of the big indie hits of that era. The film’s then-unknown lead, Carol Kane, was nominated for an Academy Award as Best Actress. The film’s success helped Joan get her next few projects made (“Between the Lines,” “Chilly Scenes of Winter”) and she went on to make some popular movies, including “Loverboy,” and a companion piece to “Hester Street” called “Crossing Delancey” that updated the story of Jewish life on the Lower East Side to the late 20th century. Joan later went on to direct several made for cable films. But “Hester Street” will always remain her legacy because it helped women break the glass ceiling in Hollywood in directing. Its historic place in the annals of cinema is recognized by its inclusion in the U.S. Library of Congress collection. She’s now penning a book about the making of that landmark film. It’s important she document this herself, as only she knows the real story of what obstacles she had to contend with to get the film made and seen. She and Raphael persisted against all odds and their efforts not only paid off for them but in the doors it opened for women to work behind the camera.

The lines between true independent filmmakers and studio-bound filmmakers have increasingly blurred. Another Omahan, Alexander Payne, is one of the leaders of the Indiewood movement that encompasses most of the best filmmakers in America. Payne and his peers maintain strict creative control in developing, shooting and editing their films but depend on Hollywood financing to get them made and distributed. In this sense, Payne and Co. are really no different than those old Hollywood masters, only filmmakers in the past were studio contracted employees whereas contemporary filmmakers are decidedly not. But don’t assume that just because a filmmaker was under contract he or she had less freedom than today’s filmmakers. Believe me, nobody told Capra, Ford, Hitchcock, Wyler, or for that matter Huston of Kazan, what to do. They called the shots. And if you were a producer or executive who tried to impose things on them, you’d invariably lose the fight. Most of the really good filmmakers then and now stand so fiercely behind their convictions that few even dare to challenge them.

But also don’t assume that just because an indie filmmaker works outside the big studios he or she gets everything they want. The indies ultimately answer to somebody. There’s always a monied interest who can, if push comes to shove, force compromise or even take the picture out of the filmmaker’s hands. Almost by definition indie artists work on low budgets and the persons controlling those budgets can be real cheapskates who favor efficiency over aesthetics.

  • Director Alexander Payne grew up in Nebraska.
©Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

Payne is the rarest of the rare among contemporary American filmmakers in developing a body of work with a true auteurist sensibility that doesn’t pander to formulaic conventions or pat endings. His comedies play like dramas and they’re resolutely based in intimate human relationships between rather mundane people in very ordinary settings. Payne avoids all the trappings of Hollywood gloss but still makes his movies engaging, entertaining and enduring. Just think of the protagonists and plotlines of his movies and it’s a wonder he’s gotten any of them made:

Citizen Ruth–When a paint sealer inhalant addict with a penchant for having kids she can’t take care of gets pregnant again, she becomes the unlikely and unwilling pivot figure in the abortion debate.

Election–A frustrated high school teacher develops such a hate complex for a scheming student prepared to do anything to get ahead that he rigs a student election against her.

About Schmidt–Hen-pecked Warren Schmidt no sooner retires from the job that defined him than his wife dies and he discovers she cheated on him with his best friend. He hits the road to find himself. Suppressed feelings of anger, regret and loneliness surface in the most unexpected moments.

Sideways–A philandering groom to be and a loser teacher who’s a failed writer go on a wine country spree that turns disaster. Cheating Jack gets the scare of his life. Depressed Miles learns he can find love again.

The Descendants–As Matt King deals with the burden of a historic land trust whose future is in his hands, he learns from his oldest daughter that his comatose wife cheated on him. With his two girls in tow, Matt goes in search of answers and revenge and instead rediscovers his family.

Nebraska–An addled father bound and determined to collect a phantom sweepstakes prize revisits his painful past on a road trip his son David takes him on.

Downsizing–With planet Earth in peril, a means to miniaturize humans is found and Paul takes the leap into this new world only to find it’s no panacea or paradise.

Payne has the cache to make the films he wants to make and he responsibly delivers what he promises. His films are not huge box office hits but they generally recoup their costs and then some and garner prestige for their studios in the way of critical acclaim and award nominations. Payne has yet to stumble through six completed films. Even though “Downsizing” represents new territory for him as a sci-fi visual effects movie set in diverse locales and dealing with global issues, it’s still about relationships and the only question to be answered is how well Payne combines the scale with the intimacy.

Then there are filmmakers given the keys to the kingdom who, through a combination of their own egomania and studio neglect, bring near ruin to their projects and studios. I’m thinking of Orson Welles on “The Magnificent Ambersons,” Francis Ford Coppola on “One from the Heart”, Michael Cimino on “Heaven’s Gate,” Elaine May on “Ishtar” and Kevin Costner on “Thw Postman” and “Waterworld.” For all his maverick genius, Welles left behind several unfinished projects because he was persona non grata in Hollywood, where he was considered too great a risk, and thus he cobbled together financing in a haphazard on the fly manner that also caused him to interrupt the filming and sometimes move the principal location from one site to another, over a period of time, and then try to match the visual and audio components. Ironically, the last studio picture he directed, “Touch of Evil,” came in on budget and on time but Universal didn’t understand or opposed how he wanted it cut and they took it out of his hands. At that point in his career, he was a hired gun only given the job of helming the picture at the insistence of star Charlton Heston and so Welles didn’t enjoy anything like the final cut privileges he held on “Citizen Kane” at the beginning of his career.

Other mavericks had their work compromised and sometimes taken from them. Sam Peckinpah fought a lot of battles. He won some but he ended up losing more and by the end his own demons more than studio interference did him in.

The lesson here is that being an independent isn’t always a bed of roses.

Then again, every now and then a filmmaker comes out of nowhere to do something special. Keeping it local, another Omahan did that very thing when a script he originally wrote as a teenager eventually ended up in the hands of two Oscar-winning actors who both agreed to star in his directorial debut. The filmmaker is Nik Fackler, the actors are Martin Landau and Ellen Burstyn and the film is “Lovely, Still.” It’s a good film. It didn’t do much business however and Fackler’s follow up film,” Sick Birds Die Easy,” though interesting, made even less traction. His film career is pretty much in limbo after he walked away from the medium to pursue his music. The word is he’s back focusing on film again.

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Other contemporary Nebraskans making splashes with their independent feature work include actor John Beasley, actress Yolonda Ross and writer-directors Dan Mirvish, Patrick Coyle, Charles Hood and James E. Duff.

These folks do really good work and once in a while magic happens, as with the Robert Duvall film “The Apostle” that Beasley co-starred in. It went on to be an indie hit and received great critical acclaim and major award recognition. Beasley is now producing a well-budgeted indie pic about fellow Omahan Marlin Briscoe. Omahan Timothy Christian is financing and producing indie pics with name stars through his own Night Fox Entertainment company. Most of the films these individuals make don’t achieve the kind of notoriety “The Apostle” did but that doesn’t mean the work isn’t good. For example, Ross co-starred in a film, “Go for Sisters,” by that great indie writer-director John Sayles and I’m sure very few of you reading this have heard of it and even fewer have seen it but it’s a really good film. Hood’s comedy “Night Owls” stands right up there with Payne’s early films. Same for Duff’s “Hank and Asha.”

Indie feature filmmaking on any budget isn’t for the faint of heart or easily dissuaded. It takes guts and smarts and lucky breaks. The financial rewards can be small and the recognition scant. But it’s all about a passion for the work and for telling stories that engage people.

 

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More Hot Movie Takes

Dennis O’Keefe and Film Noir

©by Leo Adam Biga, Author of Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film

Dennis O'Keefe Picture

Dennis O’Keefe

These riffs are about some very different cinema currents but they’re all inspired by recent screen discoveries I made once I put my movie snobbery in check.

My first riff concerns an actor from Old Hollywood I was almost entirely unfamiliar with and therefore I never thought to seek out his work: Dennis O’Keefe. I discovered O’Keefe only because I finally made an effort to watch some of Anthony Mann’s stellar film noirs from the 1940s. O’Keefe stars in two of them – T-Men” (1947) and “Raw Deal” (1948). Neither is a great film but the former has a very strong script and the latter is like an encyclopedia of noir and they both feature great cinematography by John Alton and good performances across the board. These are riveting films that stand up well against better known noirs, crime and police pics.

Whatever restrictions the filmmakers faced making these movies for small poverty eow studios they more than made up for with their inventiveness and passion.

As wildly atmospheric and evocative as Alton’s use of darkness, light and shadow is in these works, it’s O’Keefe’s ability to carry these films that’s the real revelation for me. I find him to be every bit as charismatic and complex as Humphrey Bogart. James Cagney, Robert Mitchum and other bigger name tough guys of the era were, and I’m certain he would have carried the best noirs they helped make famous. O’Keefe reminds me of a blend between Bogart and Cagney, with a touch of another noir stalwart, William Holden, thrown in. Until seeing him in these two pictures along with another even better pic, “Chicago Syndicate” (1955) directed by the underrated Fred F. Sears, who is yet another of the discoveries I’m opining about here, I had no idea O’Keefe delivered performances on par with the most iconic names from the classic studio system era. It just goes to show you that you don’t know what you don’t know. Before seeing it for myself – if you’d tried to tell me that O’Keefe was in these other actors’ league I would have scoffed at the notion because I would have assumed if this were so he’d have come to my attention by now. Why O’Keefe never broke through from B movies to A movies I’ll never know, but as any film buff will tell you those categories don’t mean much when it comes to quality or staying power. For example, the great noir film by Orson Welles Touch of Evil was a B movie all the way in terms of budget, source material, theme and perception but in reality it was a bold work of art by a master at the top of his game. It even won an international film prize in its time, though it took years for it to get the respect it deserved in America.

Black and white film noir photo

Like all good actors, O’Keefe emphatically yet subtly projects on screen what he’s thinking and feeling at any given moment. He embodies that winning combination of intelligence and intuition that makes you feel like he’s the smartest guy in the room, even if he’s in a bad fix.

My admittedly simplistic theory about acting for the screen is that the best film/TV actors convey an uncanny and unwavering confidence and veracity to the camera that we as the audience connect to and invest in with our own intellect and emotion. That doesn’t mean the actor is personally confident or needs to play someone confident in order to hook us, only that within the confines of playing characters they make it seem as though they believe every word they say and every emotion they express. Well, O’Keefe had this in spades.

Now that O’Keefe is squarely on my radar, I will search for of his work. I recommend you do the same.

  

     

By the way, another fine noir photographed by John Alton, “He Walks by Night,” starring Richard Basehart, may have been directed, at least in part, by Mann. Alton’s work here may be even more impressive than in the other films. The climactic scene is reminiscent of “The Third Man,” only instead of the post-war Vienna streets and canals, the action takes place in the Los Angeles streets and sewers. I must admit I was not familiar with Alton’s name even though I’d seen movies he photographed before I ever come upon the Mann trilogy. For example, Alton’s last major feature credit is “Elmer Gantry,” a film I’ve seen a few times and always admired. He also did the great noir pic “The Big Combo” directed by Joseph E. Lewis. And he lit the great dream sequence ballet in “”An American in Paris,” for which he won an Oscar. Now I will look at those films even more closely with respect to the photography, though I actually do remember being impressed by the photography in “Big Combo” and, of course, the dream sequence in “Paris.”

Alton was an outlier in going against prevailing studio practices of over-lighting sets. He believed in under-lighting and letting the blacks and greasy help set mood. The films he did are much darker, especially the night scenes, than any Hollywood films of that time. He studied the work of master painters to learn how they controlled light and he applied his lessons to the screen.

It turns out that Alton left Hollywood at the peak of his powers because he got fed up with the long hours and the many fights he had with producers and directors, many of whom insisted on more light and brighter exposures. Alton usually got his way because he knew his stuff, he worked very fast and he produced images that stood out from the pack. Apparently he just walked away from his very fine career sometime in the early 1960s to lead a completely distant but fulfilling life away from the movies.

Alton setting up a shot in “Raw Deal”

With actress Leslie Caron – “An American In Paris

Regarding the aforementioned “Chicago Syndicate,” it’s a surprisingly ambitious and labyrinthian story told with great verve and conviction by Fred Sears. It’s a neat bridge film between the very composed studio bound tradition and the freer practical location tradition. Sears was another in a long line of B movie directors with great skill who worked across genres in the 1930s through 1950s period. I watched a bit of a western he did and it too featured a real flair for framing and storytelling. His work has some of the great energy and dynamic tension of Sam Fuller and Budd Boetticher from that same period. I can’t wait to discover more films by Sears.

Glen Campbell’s sweet goodbye

February 6, 2017 Leave a comment

Glen Campbell’s sweet goodbye

©by Leo Adam Biga

 

When pop-country crossover music legend Glen Campbell announced that he has Alzheimer’s disease a few years ago, he could have retreated into the shadows but instead he made some courageous decisions that put him and the disease quarely in the public eye. First, he went public about his diagnosis. Then he went on an extensive national tour to give himself, his family, his friends and his fans one last chance to savor his talents before the ravages to his mind and body made it too late. This was a farewell tour unlike any other. Start with the fact that audiences knew up front that this Glen Campbell was already damaged goods and so any idea of flawless performances went out the window. This was all about him expressing love to his fans and the fans in turn giving their love right back. Making it all the more poignant was that Campbell’s back up band consisted of some of his adult children and longtime cronies. His wife Kim Wollen was along for the entire 100-plus cities tour.

Campbell also allowed a documentary film crew to accompany him on and off tour as his disease progressed and his faculties diminished. I recently saw that film, “I’ll Be Me,” directed by James Keach on Netflix. It is as intimate and vulnerable a portrait of an artist as I’ve ever seen. The challenges of the disease to the aflicted and to those around him are seen up close and personal but it never seems intrusive or exploitive. It’s all done out of love and public service.

The tributes to Campbell and his artisty in that film put in perspective just how respected he is by his peers, past and present, who recognize his greatness.

The film led me to search online for more things featuring Campbell and through all of it I’ve come away with a much deeper appreciation for the gifts he gave us as a singer, songwriter, guitarist and performer. He’s a consummate entertainer whose like is rarely seen. He conquered every medium open to pop-country musicians and erased boundaries between styles, genres and categories.

He’s recorded many tunes that became and remain standards in the Great American  Songbook. But there’s a particular song, “Gentle On My Mind,” whose lyrics have poignant resonance with his affliction. I have copied and pasted the lyrics below. That song, of course, originated during the peak of Campbell’s career and it’s only now, in light of his condition, that it has this other, deeper meaning.

Not long before Campbell’s mind and motor skills left him, he and producer Julian Raymond co-wrote an original song, “I’m Not Gonna Miss You,” for the documentary and this much acclaimed song, which I only now became aware of, is one of the simplest yet most profound meditations on memory loss to be found anywhere. It is a beautiful heartbreaking ballad that stacks up with the best work this artist ever did. That he had the presence of mind to make this his final message to the world is an act of radical grace. I don’t know of another example of a recording artist who spoke so directly to the very thing that was stealing his mind andvery being even while writing and recording the piece and giving it as a gift to the world. He recorded the tune with some of his old session musician mates from The Wrecking Crew.

The words and music remind me, and I’m sure many others, of some tracks on “Pet Sounds,” the brilliant Beach Boys album he played on during his session or studio musician days.

Just as “I’m Not Gonna Miss You” fearlessly and frankly addresses his disease, his final album,”Ghost on the Canvas” does the same in exploring the ups and downs of a life that’s straight out of a Hollywood move. He went from rural poverty in Arkansas to smallt-time band work and recordings to becoming a session king to breaking big as a solo artist who won Grammys, co-starred in movies, headlined his own prime time TV show, went through four marriages, battled alcohol and drug addiction and then, when he finally got it all together, found his memory going.

The video to “I’m Not Gonna Miss You” is breathtakingly moving. Enjoy it here–

Here are the lyrics to “I’m Not Gonna Miss You”:

I’m still here, but yet I’m gone

I don’t play guitar or sing my songs

They never defined who I am

The man that loves you ’til the end

You’re the last person I will love

You’re the last face I will recall

And best of all, I’m not gonna miss you

Not gonna miss you

I’m never gonna hold you like I did

Or say I love you to the kids

You’re never gonna see it in my eyes

It’s not gonna hurt me when you cry

I’m never gonna know what you go through

All the things I say or do

All the hurt and all the pain

One thing selfishly remains

Songwriters
GLEN CAMPBELL, JULIAN RAYMOND

Published by
Lyrics © Warner/Chappell Music, Inc.

Song Discussions is protected by U.S. Patent 9401941. Other patents pending.

 

And here are the lyrics to “Gentle On My Mind”:

It’s knowin’ that your door is always open
And your path is free to walk
That makes me tend to leave my sleepin’ bag
Rolled up and stashed behind your couch
And it’s knowin’ I’m not shackled
By forgotten words and bonds
And the ink stains that have dried upon some line
That keeps you in the back roads
By the rivers of my memory
That keeps you ever gentle on my mind

It’s not clingin’ to the rocks and ivy
Planted on their columns now that bind me
Or something that somebody said because
They thought we fit together walkin’
It’s just knowing that the world
Will not be cursing or forgiving
When I walk along some railroad track and find
That you’re movin’ on the back roads
By the rivers of my memory
And for hours you’re just gentle on my mind

Though the wheat fields and the clothes lines
And the junkyards and the highways come between us
And some other woman’s cryin’ to her mother
‘Cause she turned and I was gone
I still might run in silence
Tears of joy might stain my face
And the summer sun might burn me till I’m blind
But not to where I cannot see
You walkin’ on the back roads
By the rivers flowin’ gentle on my mind

I dip my cup of soup back from a gurglin’ cracklin’ cauldron
In some train yard
My beard a rustlin’ coal pile
And a dirty hat pulled low across my face
Through cupped hands ’round a tin can
I pretend to hold you to my breast and find
That you’re waitin’ from the back roads
By the rivers of my memory
Ever smilin’, ever gentle on my mind

Written by John Hartford • Copyright © Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC

And here is Glen performing it–

 

Camille Metoyer Moten: With a song in her heart

December 26, 2016 Leave a comment

Omaha has a corps of performing artists who command a level of admiration and respect that rises above the norm. These special entertainers have earned this status by the high craft and integrity they exhibit. When it comes to musical theater and singing, Camille Metoyer Moten is pretty much at the head of this class. She’s been captivating audiences for some four decades. She’s won all kinds of accolades and awards for her artistry. Not one to rest on her laurels, she’s as busy today as ever and she may just be in her prime now in her 60s. She’s as smooth and unruffled on stage as one can be, but don’t mistake her carefree manner for being untouched by trouble or pain. She’s seen plenty of both. Her from-the-gut performances draw on a lifetime of experiences, some of them tragic and traumatic, others joyous and blessed, and always informed by her deep faith, unflagging spirit and unflappable demeanor.

My New Horizons cover story on Camille appears in the January 2017 issue hitting stands and arriving in mailboxes the last week of 2016. My blog leoadambiga.com also features earlier stories I’ve done on Camille and other Omaha songstresses. Link to some of these stories at –

https://leoadambiga.com/2016/02/15/omahas-black-sirens-of-song-and-spoken-word/

And here are links to yet more stories I’ve done on popular Omaha singers:

Mary Carrick

https://leoadambiga.com/?s=mary+carrick

Anne-Marie Kenny

https://leoadambiga.com/2011/05/28/life-is-a-cabaret-the-anne-marie-kenny-story-from-omaha-to-paris-to-prague-and-back-to-omaha-

Karrin Allyson

https://leoadambiga.com/?s=allyson

Quiana Smith

https://leoadambiga.com/2011/01/23/quiana-smiths-dream-time-2/

 

 

Camille Metoyer Moten: With a song in her heart

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appearing in the January 2017 issue of the New Horizons

 

Lady sings the blues

Classy, sassy Camille Metoyer Moten has entertained with her cabaret singing and musical theater performances since the late 1970s. Besides being much beloved, she’s considered a real pro. Her much sought-after stagecraft has earned critical acclaim as well as Omaha Community Playhouse and Theatre Arts Guild awards.

The free, easy way she handles a song and wins over an audience belies the family tragedies and personal struggles she’s endured. Listen and look close enough and you’ll detect the wistful blue notes of the jazz vocalists she grew up listening to. Like them. she knows about pain. Her late parents were at the forefront of Omaha civil rights work before their lives were cruelly cut short. Her mother Lois died of brain cancer at age 43. Seven years later her father Ray was shot to death at the family barbecue joint at age 52.

Bigotry and bias have confronted her. Illness has attacked her.

A strong faith, a sure sense of self and a rock solid marriage to husband Michael Moten have helped Camille cope with loss and setbacks and thus avoid the pitfalls many of her idols suffered.

Music was all around her as a girl. She and her sister Lanette, also an award-winning musical theater artist, inherited their singing chops from their mom. Lois would harmonize, scat and sway to records she played in the family’s northeast Omaha home.

“She was a wonderful singer,” Camille recalled. “We grew up listening to lots of jazz albums. Dinah Washington. Billie Holiday. Sarah Vaughan. Nancy Wilson. That was her thing. She was so into it.”

Her mom oft-told the story how she auditioned for and was asked to tour either with the great Count Basie or Duke Ellington but turned the opportunity down. Though flattered by the offer, Lois was engaged to her future husband, Ray Metoyer, a serious Creighton University student not about to let his fiancee go on the road.

Camille began showing off her own pipes as a toddler.

“I wanted to sing but I didn’t know a song, so I would sing about the furniture and anything that came into my view.”

Encouraged by her mother, Camille learned lyrics to standards but was timid to have an audience around.

“She loved that I would sing but I was really shy to sing, so I would be like in the basement singing and if I’d hear somebody coming. I’d stop. I would always pretend there was a microphone.”

Her first time on stage came in the first grade at Sacred Heart School when she, Lanette and their brother Raymond sang “Do Re Mi.”

“I just remember being so scared but I wanted to do it so bad.

Everybody was like, ‘Oh, my gosh, this little girl with this big voice.’ I think my desire to perform really got reinforced then because people made a big deal of the fact my voice was fuller. The more I sang for school programs the more compliments and confidence I got.”

 

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A wide music repertoire

Even early on she drew on diverse musical influences.

“There were so many things I liked. I loved the jazz. I also loved the musical theater. And I also loved classical music.”

The same holds true today.

“It’s a mishmash of several things. A lot of it’s Barbra Streisand. I always liked the way Nancy Wilson presented herself. Lena Horne, too.

Just very classy. So I always want to at least appear classy on stage because I’m really kind of an awkward person. But when I’m on stage I feel like I have a little more finesse.”

She holds Barbra in special regard.

“I think her voice is amazing. I just got to see her in concert for the first time in August in Chicago. My children bought me a $500 ticket. It was so awesome to listen to her. She’s 74-years old but she can still soar up to those high notes.”

No wonder then Camillle’s stoked about a March 31 tribute concert she’s doing in honor of her idol. The “Bubbly with Barbra” show at the Playhouse is a fundraiser for the theater’s operations.

“I’m so excited about it because I’ve been worshiping her since I was 11-years-old,” Camille said.

Kathy Tyree, Dave Wingert and Jim Boggess will join her on select numbers.

 

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Race

The role of Fanny Brice in Funny Girl that Streisand made famous on stage and in film resonated strongly with Camille, who made playing the part a life-time ambition she realized in 1994.

“I related to that character so much. She’s this odd little duck that has talent that nobody could appreciate because of her package,” said Camille, whose light-complexion, blonde-hair and green-eyes made her conscious of her nontraditional African-American appearance.

“I got a lot of comments about my look.”

The many shades of black were inescapable, she said, because “my family’s all different colors and it’s something that really sticks out.” She added, “My father was very fair, my mother was pretty brown, so all of us came out different. I came out with all the recessive traits.”

Descendants on her father’s side are of mixed race Creole heritage. Both her paternal and maternal family trees owned property in the South. There’s quite a story behind her father’s family line in Louisiana. The first Metoyer there built a plantation and his son Claude Thomas Pierre Metoyer befriended a family that owned a slave, Marie Coincoin, with whom he became infatuated. He built a plantation for her and she lived in the house with him and they had children together. Threatened with excommunication by the Catholic Church, he built her a separate house in back. When he decided to have white heirs, he gave her her freedom and let her keep their children. She became a leading entrepreneur in the state, even building her own plantation. The black branch of the Metoyers lived as aristocrats.

Lanette and Camille dream of making a musical out of the story.

Their mother grew up in Mississippi and though their father was born in Omaha, thier grandfather Victor came from Louisiana. Victor worked as a railroad dining car waiter for Union Pacific. He and a fellow waiter opened a BBQ eatery. They alternated operating it based on their UP runs. When Victor was on his Omaha to California run, his partner manned the joint, and when his partner was on his Omaha to New York run, Victor handled things. Grandpa Victor also co-founded the adjacent Key Club. Eventually the Metoyer family owned the restaurant outright. Three generations ultimately ran it.

Camille’s father dropped out of Creighton just short of earning a degree in order to support his family. He worked many years as a Boys Town counselor. Camille and her siblings got to know some of the boys. One escorted Lanette to a homecoming dance. Raymond vacationed at Lake Okoboji with students his father brought to camp.

At night Ray Metoyer helped his father Victor run the family barbecue place. Ray’s eldest son Raymond, who became a television news reporter, partnered with his father and grandfather in the business.

Camille knew her dad caught flak the way she did.  “We looked alike, so he was very sensitive to making us understand that it doesn’t having anything to do with anything.”

Both parents made sure their kids knew that light or dark needn’t define them.

“They always impressed upon us that that didn’t make a difference,” Camille said. “That was their main thing with us – it doesn’t matter what you look like. Your blackness has nothing to do with your physical appearance.”

 

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Camille and her brother Raymond on the family home’s backyard, circa 1970s

 

 

Civil rights

Camille’s parents were both active in local civil rights efforts. Her father was part of the social action group the De Porres Club whose boycotts in the late 1940s and early 1950s forced businesses to hire and serve blacks. He also headed the Urban League of Nebraska when it hosted Malcolm X and Jesse Jackson in separate events. Camille met both leaders and recalls Malcolm X as a very tall and tender man who mentioned that she reminded him of his daughter.

Her folks also participated in demonstrations by the 4CL or Citizens Coordinating Committee for Civil Liberties in the ’60s. The Metoyer kids got dragged along to organizing meetings at Zion Baptist Church.

“It seems like it was always in the summer. It was so hot and packed in, everybody sweatin’ on each other,” recalled Camille.

She and her siblings were young when the civil rights marches and speeches filled the airwaves.

“I don’t think we understood the whole significance nationally. I understood there needed to be change and it was going to make the world the way it should be. Our parents sort of instilled in us this is what it’s going to be, this is what we’re working for, this is where we’re going to get to. They were dedicated to lifting black people to the place that we deserve to be. That was their focus. That, and impressing upon us that you’re just as good as anybody, so there’s no reason feeling like you’re falling short.

“It was very important to them. Sadly, we’re not there all these years later. As I reflect back on it, I appreciate more or understand better the sacrifices they made to do the things they did.”

Social justice was discussed in the Metoyer home.

“We were the family that all sat down to dinner together and all the conversation was about what was going on.”

Once, Camille was with her folks and others at a protest when they were all arrested.

“We were protesting for open housing down at the City Council chambers. I was in the fourth grade and my parents decided it was important I participate. The police came and we all sat down. I sat on my dad’s lap and when the police picked us up they had to pick us up together. He was going to make this as difficult as he could for them.”

A press photographer snapped a pic that went national of cute little Camille in braids, tortoise shell frame eyeglasses and dress carried by her indignant but dignified father like a precious bundle.

“This picture of my dad carrying me out went out on the Associated Press all around the country.”

“I remember being excited because there was so much energy. I knew what we were doing was something very important about fighting for our rights as black people. I remember being just a little bit scared by the police but my dad was there so I felt very safe with him.”

The poignant photo got new life five decades later when Camille and Lanette appeared in Having Our Say, a play about the real-life Delany sisters living through generations of racism. The themes echoed things the Metoyers experienced themselves.

Doing the play brought Camille and Lanette, who’ve always been close, even closer together. The project also gave them a chance to honor figures like their parents who had the courage of their convictions to stand up and be counted.

“It’s like finally they’re having their say,” Camille said.

 

Camille and her sister Lanette in Having Our Say
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Camille’s late parents Lois and Ray Metoyer

 

Strong stock

Hardly a day goes by Camille doesn’t think of her parents.

“My dad was the epitome of a professional, educated man, although he could be very crazy as well. But I never heard him swear. But my mother on the other hand would come out with a few things if she got irritated enough. His thing was always about professional appearance and how you present yourself. My mom was concerned about that, too, but she was more of a gregarious, outgoing, earthy person. She was maybe a combination of what Lanette and I are now,”

Her parents’ fight for equal rights got personal when her family integrated all-white Maple Village in 1966.

Camille said, “My father wanted to have a closer commute to Boys Town and he felt the education we were getting in North Omaha schools was not equivalent to what west Omaha schools offered.”

Even aspirational couples with the desire and means to live outside segregated areas had to take special measures to get around red lining practices and restrictive housing covenants. The Metoyers had black realtor George Thomas secretly negotiate with NP Dodge to arrange for the family to purchase their new house.

“We had to go through the backdoor to get that house,” Camille said.

‘We surprised the neighborhood because they didn’t know a black family was coming.”

Lanette recalled, “It eventually was known blacks had purchased the house and therefore our dad, grandfather and several white male employees that worked for my dad would spend nights at the house until we moved in.”

Camille said, “We had a lot of backlash. It was crazy.”

A petition circulated to try and prevent them from moving in.

The family moved in late at night to avoid a scene but some neighbors gathered outside to glare.

For several nights. Camille’s father and grandfather stood armed guard inside. It reminded her mother of what she thought she’d left behind in Mississippi.

“We knew it was something kind of groundbreaking but we were prepared because all of our lives we’d been taught to be on the front-line,” said Lanette.

The siblings remember threatening phone calls, nails scattered in the driveway, strange cars pulling up at night to train headlights in the windows, tense looks, awkward exchanges. Once, the house got egged and shamed neighbors hosed off the mess.

At their various schools the kids encountered racism.

“If things happened at school we’d come home and talk about it. We always just knew how to handle it. Before we moved there, our parents anticipated there would be issues. They warned us. But they added we have every right to be where we want to be and don’t let anybody tell you anything different.”

Camille said her parents admonished she and her siblings to  “always address discrimination from an educational standpoint,” adding, “They were like, ‘Don’t get mad, just be enlightened.'”

Whatever the sitaution, like the family being refused service at King Fong’s downtown, it became a teachable moment.

“My mom explained how it was their loss and we would encounter people that would not like us without ever knowing us. I guess they always gave the impression there was something wrong with those people – there was nothing wrong with us. They told us when you come across people who are ignorant you educate them, you don’t argue or get angry, because they need help. To this day, if I have the opportunity to enlighten somebody, I will, as opposed to getting angry. That works with my whole Christian faith.”

Finding a foundation for her music and faith

The Metoyers found acceptance if not fairness. Auditioning for a role in Guys and Dolls at Burke High School, Camille said the music director opposed her being cast on account of her race. Camille had an ally in her drama teacher, who swore “she’d never let that happen again.”

Despite resistance, her passion for performing wouldn’st be denied. She planned going to California to pursue a singing-acting career but then her mother became ill. Losing her mother, she said, “really took me off my path.” She wasn’t sure what to do next when a friend of her father’s who ran the music department at Xavier University in New Orleans convinced her to give it a try.

“It sounded just great to get away. I went and auditioned and got a       scholarship. That’s how I ended up there. The great thing about Xavier is that I got classical training but I also sang with the jazz band,

so now I’m able to do all of that – which makes me marketable.”

Still bereft by her mother’s death and far away from home, she searched for answers and came of age as a young woman.

“I was really angry and I became kind of agnostic. I thought how could God take such an amazing person. I lived like that for awhile. I hooked up with Michael and we were into the fast scene.”

Getting high became her lifestyle. Then one day Michael had a born again experience.

“He was completely changed after that day. I was still getting high and just out there and suddenly we were incompatible because he didn’t want to do the things I wanted to do anymore. My own born again experience took a while. I refused to go to church with him and continued to party while in my heart and mind knowing I wanted what he had. I just didn’t want to give up me.

“Finally one evening he was going to church and he begged me to come with him and I said no. He was literally in tears. I found out later he was thinking that if I didn’t come this was to be the end of our relationship. After he left for church I felt bad, so I drove to the church. When they had the altar call he took me down but I didn’t want to go – I was not ready.”

Her willfulness wilted in the following days.

“God made Himself more and more real to me until finally one day I agreed to pray with Michael and some of his new friends from church.  That night as I prayed God took over my tongue and I spoke in a heavenly language which the Bible explains is God’s spirit dwelling in us. And by that spirit being in us we can now be saved.

“From that moment my life changed – no more getting high, no profanity. My view of mankind changed and my purpose changed. It was no longer about me but about Him.”

 

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Camille and her husband Michael Moten back when they were first married
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Camille and Michael today

 

A new beginning from a terrible end

Her faith was soon put to a severe test when her father was murdered at the family restaurant on a late summer evening in 1979.

“A year before there was a woman that got hired at the restaurant. He caught her taking money and also soliciting the male clients and so he fired her and she didn’t like that. She would call the house and tell people she was her man. She harassed him for a year and it was getting more and more severe: a window broken out in the house;  showing up at his job and security escorting her off campus.”

On September 17 the woman went to the restaurant and confronted Metoyer with a small caliber gun. She fired it once and the bullet struck him in the neck and he bled out on the scene.

Not long before, Camille and Michael, who were by then married and raising their first child, interviewed to be family teachers at Boys Town and they were hired. They moved to Omaha to start their new life and career in the shadow of Ray Metoyer’s senseless death.

“The thing that was so difficult about it at the start was that it was two weeks after my father was murdered, so I was coming to the place where he worked. i heard over and over again how much they admired and respected him and what a loss it was, so I was constantly reminded of him.”

It was the most challenging period of her life until a bout with cancer 30-plus years later.

“I moved across country, I lost a loved one and I had a 2-year-old. I had all of those stressors. Today, Michael looks back and says, ‘How did you get through that?’ Through a lot of prayer and believing this is where God wanted us to be.”

The decision to be a family teacher continued her parents’ legacy.

“That’s how we were raised. It’s always about giving back, contributing, making a difference, helping however you can. Besides, once Michael and I  gave our lives over to Christ it seemed like a natural thing to do..

“We had the very first girls program. Boys Town had just started the family teaching model. We had an off-campus home at 35th and Davenport. Our girls were all local, so we were able to work with and counsel parents. Then we moved to campus, where we had a transitional living home for boys to learn to live independently.”

It took some adjusting for Camille and Michael, too.

“Initially, the greatest challenge if you have children is being able to divide your time in a way that everybody has a significant amount of you without sacrificing one for the other. A lot of family teacher couples are not successful with that. My kids became very close with a lot of those Boys Town kids.”

She said an important lesson she learned is “don’t take things personally and understand what’s happening.” She added, “There were some kids that can really get under your skin but you can’t let them get under your skin. I would always think, If only I could have had you as a baby. I would have loved to have given them what they should have had early in life. That always made me soften my anger.”

Feeling burned out after 16 years, Camille left Boys Town for a job at the YWCA coordinating programs that introduced girls to nontraditional careers. Then she applied her behavioral management skills to the former Western Electric plant then recently renamed Lucent Technologies, where her sister worked.

 

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A performing life

Meanwhile. Michael, an ordained minister, felt the call to form a church, One Way Ministry, in 1994, that he still pastors today. For years, Camille served as music director and only recently stepped down so that she can sing in the choir.

All the time she worked regular day jobs she rehearsed and performed musicals and concerts evenings and weekends. Her music career took off when she joined a cabaret troupe formed by old friend Becky Noble. They’ve long paired as Nebraska Arts Council touring artists. Camille’s performed with the Omaha Symphonic and Opera Omaha chorus and she’s toured with the Nelson Riddle Orchestra. She sang with Soli Dep Gloria Cantorum on a concert tour to Barcelona, Spain.

She’s enjoyed a long collaboration with Chuck Penington and his band. She also headlines her own band. Her keyboardist, David Murphy, offered his take on what makes Camille such an enduring favorite.

“The reason the community loves her is she’s authentic. She’s the real deal. She walks the walk and sings her heart out. It all comes from her soul. She intuitively manages to find the heart of any song,” including ones he’s penned. “It’s about the music and not about her. She consistently respects and enhances the material she tackles and still makes it her own. I absolutely believe she could’ve gone to either coast and had a brilliant career as a performer. Omaha is lucky to have her.”

When Camille’s two kids were small she dragged them to rehearsals. Even today, with her kids grown and out of the home, she’s busy booking, preparing and doing shows. Though her schedule can be draining, she said performing “fills you back up.”

Even though art should be color-blind, race can be an issue, as when she broke color barriers as Fanny Brice in Funny Girl and Eva Peron in Evita, and when her voice and repertoire aren’t what people expect.

“I don’t have a gospel voice. People expect that because I’m black. I was raised Catholic, so I didn’t have that whole gospel thing. Jazz and musical theater are my influences.”

She’s also a rather subdued performer.

“It’s the purity that I’m into and not all that other stuff and I think people eventually appreciate it.”

At the invitation of friend and sometime collaborator Kathy Tyree she sang at Salem Baptist Church last summer for a gospel program.

“I don’t have gospel arrangements, so I sang ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’ because I find that song very spiritual and they loved it. It was the most talked about song of the evening amidst all these amazing gospel songs. It was the purity of that that people related to.”

Her muted voice blended with Tyree’s big sound for a Divas By Design show they did at the Blue Barn Theatre last fall. The two go way back.

“Camille and I did our first show together 26 years ago: Sophisticated Ladies at the Playhouse,” said Tyree, “What I admired most about Camille back then is what I admire most about her now and that is her peaceful spirit and how beautifully and easily she shares her gifts. She’s not only an amazing artist but a beautiful person as well. Her unshakable faith in God keeps me in awe and her love for people is one of the many reasons I love her so much.”

Not long after Camille’s spiritual awakening in New Orleans and her resettling in Omaha, she landed the role of Mary Magdalene in a production of Jesus Christ Superstar at the Orpheum Theater. She went in to audition for a spot in the chorus but got the plum female part. Her performance won raves and established her as a bright new talent. But she was wary before the opening night curtain rose.

“I had never done anything other than high school-college shows. It was a big leap. I remember standing backstage looking out at that full house and my heart going ker-thump, ker-thump, ker-thump. I started saying a prayer and I heard God say, ‘What is wrong with you, this is your dream, I’m giving you one of the desires of your heart – would you please enjoy it.’ He made me think how trivial this really is compared to homelessness and sickness and that I should just go out and do what I do and entertain the audience.

“I don’t think I’ve gotten nervous-nervous like that again. It just calmed me right down.”

Whether doing a play or a concert, her approach is “very consistent.”

“Doing musical theater, whatever that character is, that’s who I am. Doing cabaret, each song is like its own little vignette, so every song is its own character. When I perform my purpose is to take whatever the composer and lyricist wrote and try to interpret it with whatever he or she had in mind and bring the audience into it. I want to be true to that.

“Somebody told me a long time ago it’s not only about a pretty voice. and it really isn’t it. If you think about all the successful entertainers it really in’t about their singing … but it’s what they do with a song, it’s the passion they bring out of a song. Once you know the song and once you understand what’s behind the song then that’s what happens.”

Her sister Lanette’s seen her on stage perhaps more than anyone and she marvels at Camille’s “persistence to step outside her comfort zone and create any character she tackles and make it believable.”

 587447Surviving health crisis and moving on

Everything was coming up roses for Camille personally and professionally when she got diagnosed with breast cancer in 2012. As a woman of faith, she sought healing through prayer. Heeding her Higher Power, she canceled a surgery and found a new doctor.

“She confirmed I still had the cancer. I told her my story and she revealed she is a woman of faith, too, Most doctors don’t talk about it.

She said, ‘First of all, I understand where you’re coming from spiritually and secondly you’ve had this cancer for a really long time – it is a slow growing cancer and if you’re not ready to have surgery then we don’t do the surgery because then you won’t heal.’ She had total respect for my belief. I knew God provided me her. He got me to the right team.”

Camille underwent radiation chemo treatments, hormone blocker regimens but in the end she required a mastectomy. She continued performing during most of the journey, even proudly displaying her bald head. She had reconstructive surgery in 2014 and 2015.

Not one to dwell on anything, she’s moved forward from the experience.

“The mindset I had at the time is my mindset and it goes along with my philosophy – that’s over, it was a little side step.”

She chose to share her cancer odyssey with the public via Facebook posts. She and her “prayer warriors” exchanged messages of hope about the challenges, indignities and joys of the journey. Her observations ranged from silly to sweet to sublime. Thousands followed her progress, including the inevitable ups and downs, and she later compiled her affirmations into a book.

“I just want to be able to make people understand that Jesus is our healer. We use medicine also but it doesn’t always work. He’s the plan and medicine is the backup plan. I think the more people understand that the better the outcome is.”

Camille’s as busy as ever these days. “I just think of it as this continuum that keeps going.” It’s not like she’s slowed down since realizing her dream of playing Fanny Brice. “That was a high, high point for me but then as things developed there’s been so many other high points.”

It always comes back to keeping it real and finding the root.

“Somebody told me not too long ago, ‘When you sing, you sing from here,’ putting her hand on her midsection. I said, ‘Oh, thank you very much,’ and she said, ‘I mean that, not everybody sings from there.’ And I think she meant from my core, from my heart. That’s what I strive for, that’s my intent.”

From her gut, springs all the glory.

Visit www.musicbycamille.com.

Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at leoadambiga.com.

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