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Stage-screen star Vanessa Williams in concert with the Omaha Symphony

April 24, 2018 Leave a comment

Stage-screen star Vanessa Williams in concert with the Omaha Symphony

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in April 2018 issue of The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

The following story appeared in advance of the diva’s April 21 concert with the Omaha Symphony but after attending the show I can now report that she and her band in performance with the orchestra were off-the-chain that night. I have always admired Vanessa Williams for her beauty but I never followed closely or even casually her singing and acting career and so I never really formed an opinion about her as a performing artist. Well, count me as a convert to her immense talent after thoroughly enjoying her vocal artistry and stage presence. She delivered a world-class performance to the delight of the diverse crowd on hand. Her voice, her range and her stage craft and command are as good as anything I’ve ever witnessed live. This was her first performance in Omaha and I certainly hope it’s not her last.

 

Singer-actress Vanessa Williams, 55, brings a regal serenity wherever she goes.

The always put-together Tony, Grammy, Emmy nominee makes her metro debut headlining the April 21 Omaha Symphony Gala Concert at Holland Performing Arts Center. For the 8 p.m. gig benefiting the symphony’s community engagement programs serving youth, she’ll sing her own hit tunes (“Save the Best for Last,” “Colors of the Wind”) as well as American Songbook classics.

She looks forward to a backstage visit from an uncle who lives in Omaha.

The Broadway musical star, concert hall veteran, recording artist, film-television player and humanitarian has won multiple NAACP Image Awards.

“I’ve felt the embrace of the African-American community from the get-go – besides incidents where people felt I wasn’t black enough,” she said.

She’s proud of her behind-the-scenes reputation as a steadying influence.

“I’m usually the leader of calm. People say when I’m a part of an ensemble, it’s a calm and happy set. I know how to deal with people. I don’t like drama and I don’t engage.”

Thirty-four years into her career, she shows no signs of slowing. In February, she appeared in the New York City Center Encores production Hey, Look Me Over. She sang a tune idol Lena Horne originated in the show Jamaica.

Here, Williams will interpret standards immortalized by Horne and other icons.

She recently completed a three-week Asian tour. Then she went to Dallas to shoot an ABC episodic dramedy pilot, First Profits, about women cosmetics moguls. If picked-up, it will mark her fourth ABC series, following Ugly Betty,Desperate Housewives and 666 Park Avenue.

“It’s kind of like going back home. The character I play is a force to be reckoned with. I’m excited.”

She loves moving from one genre to another.

“It’s great because it exercises a lot of different muscles for me. It never gets stale and I get a chance to reach different audiences. Playing a small jazz club I can do some intimate, personal stuff. Doing a symphony concert allows beautiful, lush orchestrations I don’t get to hear all the time, so for me it’s a special treat. Then acting behind a camera, I get a chance to step into another character.

“The reason I get to do so many things is that I take care of my voice, I’m professional, I show up on time, I know my material. That’s how you have longevity in this business – being prepared and dependable.”

Performing is play. Preparing to play, especially doing eight shows a week on Broadway, can be a grind.

“The biggest effort is getting to the theater and going through the process of putting on your makeup and costume, especially when you’re exhausted or your voice doesn’t feel right or you’re dealing with distractions. Once you hear the downbeat, then it all goes away. You feel the electricity from the audience, the camaraderie of the cast, and it’s easy.”

The mother of four, who successfully manages her Type 1 diabetes, said she consciously “doesn’t try” striking a positive image but instead projects her authentic self.

“I think it’s a byproduct of who you are. I am who I am and I’m lucky I had great parents who instilled great values in me and I get a chance to demonstrate that. I think it’s also reflected in my children (one of her daughter’s is singer-actress Jillian Hervey).”

In 2012, she and her mother, Helen Williams, released a memoir they co-authored, You Have No Idea, in which Vanessa revealed being molested by a woman as a child. Though raised Catholic, she got an abortion as a teen. She became “a trailblazer” as the first black Miss America, only to have erotic photos she posed for published without her consent. Stripped of her crown, she recovered from the scandal.

“I’m seen as a survivor after being famous overnight at 20 and then having to create a career when, within 11 months, it all changed drastically. It shows fortitude, perseverance, talent. That’s what’s revered. That’ll never go away. That’s a badge of honor I continue to carry.”

She supports today’s women’s advocacy movements born from sexual harassment allegations against men, including some prominent film-TV-music figures.

“I know these are very positive and strong women helping to bring awareness to the issues,” she said.

She cautions branding all men with a broad-brush.

“I don’t want an attitude where every man is bad, a threat, a predator, untrustworthy. I’ve worked with some incredibly talented, wonderful, warm men – producers, directors, writers, actors – who are my good friends.”

She weathered divorce from NBA player-turned-actor Rick Fox – the father of three of her children.

She married businessman Jim Skrip in 2015.

Williams has come to represent what black women she admires symbolize.

“Lena Horne, Diahnn Carroll, Debbie Allen, Eartha Kitt.

All legendary women stellar in their career and active with civil rights. Their own personal struggles were such lessons for us and our generation. They paved the way.”

She’s a nurturing “mother bear” to younger artists.

“I’m always the one everyone comes to for advice. I love to connect people and make things happen.”

She’s encouraged by how many women of color have become creative forces behind the camera

“Progress is definitely apparent in movies and television,

Certainly, there’s plenty of opportunity now, which is fantastic.”

She’s may even direct one day.

Meanwhile, she despairs America’s divide. “The hate speak and the divisiveness,” she said, “is just really saddening”

Escape with her in music on the 21st.

For tickets, visit omahasymphony.org.

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A series commemorating Black History Month – North Omaha stories Part III

February 14, 2018 Leave a comment

 

Commemorating Black History Month
Links to North Omaha stories from 1998 through 2018.
Articles on social justice, civil rights, race, history, faith, family, community, business, politics. education, art, music, theater, film, culture, et cetera
 
A weekly four-part series
This week: Part III –  history, art, music, theater, film, culture, entertainment, society
 

Dundee Theater: Return engagement for the ages

October 28, 2017 3 comments

When the iconic Dundee Theater appeared in danger of being lost, perhaps to the scrap heap of history, along came a means to save it courtesy Susie Buffett. Her Sherwood Foundation purchased it and donated it to Omaha’s art cinema nonprofit Film Streams, which successfully raised millions of dollars for its renovation, led by Rachel Jacobson. Before the end of the year, the newly made-over movie and stage house that dates back to 1925 will reopen after being closed for more than four years and host the theatrical premiere of the latest major Hollywood motion picture by Omaha’s own Oscar-winning filmmaker, Alexander Payne, when his “Downsizing” plays there in December. This return engagement for the ages is a personal project for everyone involved. Buffett, Jacobson and Payne all grew up watching movies there. Payne’s first feature “Citizen Ruth” played the Dundee and now his seventh feature “Downsizing’ will play there, too. This time his movie will help usher in the theater’s new era. This is my November 2017 New Horizons cover story about the Dundee Theater – its past, present and future, The issue with my story should be hitting newstands and mailboxes this weekend and no later than October 31. The story includes comments about the Dundee from several people, including Payne, all of whom share a great love for the theater. On a personal note, I share that love, too. It’s where so many of us from here lost it at the movies. 

You can access a PDF of the New Horizons at:

https://www.facebook.com/newhorizonsnewspaper/

Here are some extra Alexander Payne reflections on the Dundee Theater:

“I spent a considerable amount of time in all of Omaha¹s movie theaters when I was growing up, from the old palaces downtown (Omaha, State, Cooper, and Orpheum) to the Admiral, Indian Hills, Fox, Six West and Cinema Center. But the one I probably spent the most time in was the Dundee, since I could walk to it, as soon as I could walk. I can¹t even say I was ‘proud’ of it – it was just always there.

“I saw ‘The Sound of Music’ there six times when I was 4 years old. It played there for many months, and you know how little kids like to see the same thing over and over again. My older brothers used to take me to the Saturday morning show for kids – usually monster movies, and they had giveaways.

“In the early ’70s, they showed revivals of W.C. Fields, Chaplin and Laurel and Hardy – those early comedies had something of a renaissance then. In more recent times, when the Morans had it, I used to love the midnight shows of ’70s movies. I caught ‘Midnight Cowboy’ there just a few years ago.”

On having “Citizen Ruth” play there:

Well, that was a big deal to me, to have my first feature play at my neighborhood movie house. I still have a framed photo of the marquee hanging in my house. It meant something to Laura Dern too – while shooting ‘Citizen Ruth,’ she, Jim Taylor and I had seen ‘The English Patient’ there and walked out halfway through.

On soon having “Downsizing” play there:

“I expect to have the same delight I had when ‘Citizen Ruth’ premiered there 20 years ago, but ever more-so because it now belongs to Film Streams. It will serve as a new anchor in the elegantly-blossoming Omaha and will exist as our neighborhood movie theater for the next 100 years.”

 

 

 

 

Dundee Theater: Return engagement for the ages

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appearing in the November 2017 issue of the New Horizons newspaper

The return this fall of the long dormant Dundee Theater under its new Film Streams brand is cause for celebration whether you’re a movie fanatic or not.

Once the theater closed in 2013 for renovations, then-owner Denny Moran assured the public the theater would reopen once renovations were completed. But the project kept getting delayed and by 2015 rumors spread he was looking to sell. The rumors were true. Moran fielded offers with no guarantee the theater would remain intact. Speculation grew. Neighbors and preservationists didn’t want an irreplaceable icon torn down for some generic new development.

With its future uncertain, many feared it might meet the same sad fate as the Cinerama palace Indian Hills that got razed for a parking lot in 2001.

Even before Moran called it quits, Rachel Jacobson and the board of her north downtown art cinema, Film Streams, eyed acquiring the theater as a second venue should the Dundee ever falter.

“We knew that as a nonprofit organization with a really strong board and donor base and with a good reputation in the community that we would be in the best position to take it on if it was threatened,” she said.

Once Jacobson learned the Dundee was indeed on the market and its fate in question, she contacted Moran and philanthropist Susie Buffett, a major Film Streams donor, and a deal was struck.

When news broke Buffett bought the Dundee and donated it to Film Streams, this two-reeler cliffhanger got a happy ending.

New life for theater gets thumbs-up 

From 2013 to now, it’s been the most closely followed local movie theater saga since the Indian Hills debacle. Why so much interest? In one fell swoop, Omaha’s regained a rare neighborhood theater that’s catered to audiences for nine decades and preserved an historic building that’s served as cultural touchstone, landmark and neighborhood fixture.

“The Dundee Theater has not only brought art and culture to central Omaha, it has also served to let people driving by know where they are for nearly a century,” said longtime Dundee resident and theater patron Thomas Gouttiere.

The 2016 announcement this historic building would be saved, undergo millions of dollars in renovations and have new life as a millennial art cinema center, was met with relief and gratitude by area movie fans and Dundee neighborhood residents.

That appreciation extended to $7.5 million raised in a public campaign to support the theater’s makeover.

“That kind of support does not grow on trees. It has to be earned the hard way – through vision, a lot of hard work and a high quality program. And Rachel Jacobson and her staff have them all.” said Film Streams booster Sam Walker.

“I don’t think we could have ever hoped for a better outcome for the theater than to have Film Streams renovate it and to be able to have the kind of programming they’re going to offer there,” said Vic Gutman. “It’s going to be a huge anchor for what’s already a very vibrant neighborhood,”

David Corbin and Josie Metal-Corbin shared similar sentiments in an email:

“It is nice to see the Dundee Theater returning to the neighborhood. We enjoyed walking to the theater together and seeing great films. Dundee may have lost our grocery store, hardware store and bookstore, but the renovation of the Dundee Theater helps the city and the neighborhood rebuild a sense of community.”

 

 

 

 

 

Dundee Theater found its niche

A sleek new marquee and main entrance pay homage to a rich film heritage while signaling a fresh new start.

“It’s honoring that whole history of moviegoing in our community that’s enriched so many lives,” said Film Streams founder-director Rachel Jacobson.

“Film is arguably the most engaging and innovative art form of the 20th century. How wonderful that art form will be shown in Dundee well into the 21st century in such a charming, hospitable and attractive venue,” Gouttierre said.

Though it grew rough around the edges by the early 2000s and faced increasingly stiff competition from cineplexes and streaming, the Dundee outlasted all the other independent locally owned and operated single-screen theaters. The fact it was the last of Omaha’s still active neighborhood theaters added to its nostalgia and luster.

When the sell was complete, an auction of its old theater seats drew many buyers.

The theater was the main attraction but it once also connected to a video store and bar owned by Moran.

The Dundee set itself apart with its niche for projecting independent, foreign and midnight movies. For a long time, it had the metro art film market nearly to itself. Other than an occasional art film showing up at a chain, it’s only competition for that fare were university (UNO), museum (Joslyn) and film society (New Cinema Coop) series. They eventually disbanded. A short-lived Bellevue operation didn’t last.

“Before Film Streams, the Dundee was the only spot in town if you wanted to see the cool films coming out. As a high schooler, the midnight movies were a big thing to look forward to,” said Nik Fackler, among an impressive group of Dundee devotees who became filmmakers.

“Growing up in the neighborhood, Dundee Theater was always a haven for independent cinema as well as an Omaha landmark,” Quinn Corbin said. “The midnight movies were a wonderful feature of the nightlife scene and the video store provided the movie posters with which I plastered my childhood walls.”

 

 

Changing times, moving on, handing it off

Later, two new players arrived on the scene: Film Streams in 2007 and Alamo Drafthouse Cinema in 2015. In between, the quirky Dundee held on. Then, after 88 years of nearly continuous operation, it closed for renovations that proved too much for Denny Moran and wife Janet. They owned other theater properties as well. The retirement age couple wanted out and sought and found a buyer for it and contiguous properties.

“I didn’t want to run anything anymore,” Moran said. “I’m tired, I don’t want anything. The kids are grown now. Jan and I just want to enjoy ourselves and travel a little bit.”

The Dundee holds many memories for the Morans.  While it was their baby, it was also a burden. Denny Moran is just glad it’s in good hands so it can generate memories for new generations of moviegoers.

“I’m glad its being saved,” he said. “It came down to two other buyers and one other buyer wanted to save it, too. We came close to selling it to them but the wife had little kids and Jan said, ‘I don’t want it to ruin her life like it did mine down there with all the time being spent on theater stuff while the kids are in day care.’ So we went with Susie’s offer. This other couple would have taken care of it, too, but it’s not many times when a Buffett calls.

She’s got the money to put in it for the new infrastructure and to secure its future.”

Alley Poyner Macchietto Architecture in collaboration with Lund Ross Construction have kept the old world charm while modernizing it, too. They uncluttered the roofline. They reconfigured the main entrance off Dodge Street on the south side to a new promenade on the north. They added a patio. They folded in a Kitchen Table cafe that leads right into an expanded theater lobby with its original terrazzo floor intact. They added a conference room, a bookstore and a micro auditorium, thus giving Dundee a second screen for the first time.

“It is going to be a neighborhood theater,” Jacobson said, “but we see the audience for the cinema being the entire community. I like to think of it as Omaha’s neighborhood cinema. It still has that feel, that history.”

“It’ll be more than just a movie theater,” Vic Gutman said. “It’s going to be a place for great conversations, for learning about film, being exposed to films you wouldn’t normally see and then having Kitchen Table there. So, I see it as a true social and educational space. And I love the fact that I can walk to it from my home.”

“The purpose of it is to be a real true community space,” Jacobson confirmed. “There are multiple spots throughout that facilitate people coming together and talking either before a film or after a film. It has that design intention of this is what a neighborhood theater can be in the 21st century. We tried to be really thoughtful about that by incorporating the bookstore, by having the micro cinema, which also has the potential to do not only ticketed shows but hosting new adult education ‘Courses’ program there,.

“Kitchen Table will give people another reason to go there, to hang out, without even going to see a movie, and so that creates all these opportunities for interaction, and that’s a big part of what we’re about.

We’re trying to create learning about film by osmosis.”

Jacobson said great care was taken balancing renovation versus restoration “to make what we know will be a sustainable place versus what we maintain for people’s memories and the history of the Dundee.”

Progress on the transformed theater, which sat idle four years, has been closely watched

None of this might have happened if Moran hadn’t hung in there for 30-plus years and waited for the right offer. The theater could easily have been history by now.

“I want to give a shout-out to Denny Moran, who kept it going for so long,” Gutman said. “I don’t think it was a money-maker for him. I think it was a labor of love and a commitment to the neighborhood. It could have been torn down or repurposed for something different a long time ago and he kept that property intact.

“So I think we owe him a thank you for doing that.”

 


Memories

Sentiments about the theater run deep. It’s meant so much to so many.

It’s not hard to imagine a pair of Hollywood legends who grew up in Dundee, the late Henry Fonda and Dorothy McGuire, may have frequented the theater. Though it was still a stage venue when he left Omaha to pursue his acting dreams, he twice did extended play runs here and it’s nice to think he might have caught a picture show or two at Dundee during his down time.

Future late night TV king Johnny Carson may have indulged in some movies at the Dundee when he was starting out at WOW in Omaha.

Other celebs who’ve known it as their neighborhood theater include billionaire investment guru Warren Buffett. His daughter Susie Buffett, who’s also seen her share of pictures there, is responsible for reactivating the theater through her Sherwood Foundation.

Some fans who cut their cinema teeth there have gone on to be feature filmmakers, including Dan Mirvish (Omaha, the Movie) and Nik Fackler (Lovely, Still).

Mirvish grew up near the theater. Besides the Dundee being a neighborhood staple, he echoes others in saying how supportive Moran was of the then-nascent local cinema community in letting emerging filmmakers like himself show their work there.

“I. of course, remember going to movies at the Dundee growing up in the neighborhood and then later renting tapes at the video-store,” Mirvish said. “But my most distinct memory is when we were shooting Omaha, the Movie in fall of 1993. We screened some of our dailies there. We were shooting 35mm film and the footage had to be sent to a lab in L.A. for processing and sent back to Omaha for us to watch. The Dundee was the best place to watch the footage once a week. Okay, so instead of ‘dailies.’ they were really ‘weeklies.

“Denny was great about letting us in there. The whole cast and crew came. It was a huge relief to see our footage.”

A few years earlier Moran set a precedent working with filmmakers when he allowed Sean Penn to screen dailies of the actor’s directorial debut, The Indian Runner (1991), which shot in and around Plattsmouth.

When local filmmaker Dana Altman, who produced Omaha, the Movie, needed a space to premiere his locally-made feature directorial debut, The Private Public, Moran agreed to play it at the theater. Altman protege Nik Fackler was a teenager making short films then with friend Tony Bonacci and the aspiring filmmakers got their shorts screened the same night. Fackler, who went on direct Oscar-winners Martin Landau and Ellen Burstyn, recalls the opportunity fondly.

“Like total nerds, we made tickets in photoshop and sent them out to our friends and family, we rented suits and a limo, got dates. We were like, ‘Here’s our one chance we could probably get dates.’ But, yeah, we got our short films shown at Dundee.”

An earlier “graduate” of the Dundee, the late Gail Levin, went on to make acclaimed documentaries about film (Making the Misfits, James Dean: Sense Memory). She remembered seeing Federico Fellini’s 8 1/2 as a teenager and what an impression that film and others by international artists made on her.

Jacobson appreciates the memories the Dundee holds for so many because it does for her, too. She said, “I grew up nearby, so we went to Dundee plenty. My dad tells the story that my very first movie was at Dundee. A 31-year old dad took his 18-month old daughter to The Empire Strikes Back, He said whenever Darth Vader came on, he would take me into the lobby. So, my first memory is not my own, it’s more my dad’s,” she said.

“In high school, I remember seeing Citizen Ruth there, which was huge, and Clerks – that was definitely a big one. I remember going to a full house and me and my girlfriends being the only girls opening night of Showgirls. We were just so interested because it had so much press and we really wanted to check it out.”

Memories just like these from movie lovers have been shared with Jacobson and her Film Streams staff ever since the nonprofit took over the Dundee.

 

 

Silver screen stirrings 

Two cinephiles who became famous filmmakers. Joan Micklin Silver (Hester Street, Crossing Delancey) and Alexander Payne (Election, About Schmidt, The Descendants, Nebraska), go way back with the Dundee.

Payne’s childhood home was within a couple blocks of the theater. It’s where he fell in love with 1970s cinema. Whenever back home from college in the ’80s, he’d return to whet his cinema appetite at the Dundee. Even after finding success with his filmmaking career in the ’90s and beyond, winning two Academy Awards and nominated for several others, he made the Dundee his go-to Omaha sanctuary for feeding his celluloid hunger.

Moran said, “Alexander would come in. His mom would come to movies here all the time, They’re both big Dundee fans .” Moran has a handwritten note by Payne thanking him for all he did in keeping the theater going.

In movie-movie fashion, Payne shot much of his first three feature films in Omaha, including scenes in and around various Dundee haunts, and his debut film Citizen Ruth starring Laura Dern played at the theatre.

“I’ve got a Citizen Ruth poster signed by Laura Dern

‘to my friends at the Dundee Theatre’ that I left in there for Film Streams,” said Moran, who collected other film memorabilia signed by visiting film artists.

“I had them framed in glass. It’s part of the theater and so I left it with the theater.”

Payne’s latest film Downsizing will make its national premiere at the new Dundee on December 22.

Given his personal history with the Dundee, he’s felt a sense of proprietorship in it. As a Film Streams board member, that ownership’s no longer symbolic but real.

“The reopening of the Dundee Theater is the realization of a dream – a dream we’ve had for a long time, first of all for preserving it in any form. That in the current incarnation of Omaha it belong to Film Streams is perfect. When the Morans closed the theater a few years ago, my hope was that if it was going to reopen that it become part of Film Streams, and now the dream is a reality and I couldn’t be more excited.”

His warm feelings run for its deep because as a second home the Dundee helped form his cinema sensibilities.

“I spent a huge amount of time in that theater watching movies.”

Payne also has a soft spot for vintage theaters. He’s supported the restored Midwest Theater in Scottsbluff and the World Theatre in Kearney. He speaks longingly of the time when neighborhood theaters dotted the urban landscape and he’s enthused about efforts to preserve and revive those theaters.

He said the Dundee, which once sat 470 people, stood out from some other cinemas.

“Few of these neighborhood theaters were as large as the Dundee. The Dundee had a more regal presence, so I’m extra glad it has survived.”

A generation before he cultivated his cinema passion there, Joan Micklin Silver attended movies at the Dundee. Her family, who owned Micklin Lumber, lived nearby and she saw standard post-World War II Hollywood fare growing up in the 1940s before moving East and becoming enamored with world cinema. By contrast, a decade later Gail Levin got turned onto world cinema at the Dundee. The difference in what the women saw at the Omaha theater is explained by the fact that during various eras and ownership regimes, it played very different slates of films.

Rich history

The Dundee’s shown motion pictures since the early 1930s, but it opened years before that, in 1925, as a vaudeville house. Harry Houdini once performed his escape artist act there. The locally owned Goldberg Circuit converted it from stage to film just as talking pictures became all the rage as a cheap escape from the hardships of the Great Depression.

The noted Omaha father-son architect team of John and Alan McDonald designed the historical revivalist venue that was Omaha’s then-westernmost theater. It opened to much fanfare in the Roaring Twenties. An ad touted it as a modern community asset to be proud of:

“The opening of the new Dundee Theater at 50th and Dodge is another example of the growth and development of this enterprising community. Only a personal visit can possibly give you an idea of the beauty of the lobby and interior of this beautiful showplace. All the latest developments in theater construction have been included in the building of the Dundee. All the new ideas for the comfort and entertainment of patrons will be found even in a greater extent than other houses … built just a few years ago.”

The ad went on to play up the beauty and comfort angle, referring to the “steel and concrete fireproof construction, finest ventilation and extra large upholstered seats with plenty of aisle space.”

The promotion continued: “Our policy is to bring to this theater the best pictures obtainable anywhere, and to present them as finely as possible.”

Finally, the ad played off the names of its McDonald designers. The elder John earlier designed the George A. Joslyn home, now known as Joslyn Castle, and First Unitarian Church of Omaha. The McDonalds later designed Joslyn Art Museum.

During the 1950s the Dundee was still part of the circuit owned by Ralph and Hermine Goldberg, who operated it as a first-run commercial house screening Hollywood studio releases. By 1958, Ralph Goldberg was dead and his widow sold the Dundee and State Theaters to the Cooper Foundation in Lincoln, Neb. That organization acquired the Dundee for its Cooper Theaters chain that later included the Indian Hills. Under Cooper management, the Dundee switched to showing art films from the U.S. and abroad.

“We have noted around the country a growing interest in the motion picture as an art form,” a Cooper rep told the Omaha World-Herald. “We hope to encourage this.”

Cashiers de Cinema critics in France led the film as art movement. Some became leading filmmakers (Jean Luc Godard, Francois Truffaut) themselves in the French New Wave. Great centers of international cinema and directors emerged in Italy (Federico Fellini, Luciano Visconti, Michelangelo Antonioni, Bernardo Bertolucci, Sergio Leone), Sweden (Ingmar Bergman), Great Britain (Tony Richardson, Joseph Losey), (Mexico-Spain (Luis Bunuel), Japan (Akira Kurosawa), India (Satyajit Ray) and behind the Iron Curtain – Roman Polanski in Poland and Milos Forman in Czechoslovakia.

Dundee’s artsy foray was interrupted when it exclusively booked The Sound of Music and ended up playing the mega-musical hit for more than two years on its solo-screen. The 20th Century Fox picture from Robert Wise began a reserved-seat, roadshow run in April 1965. In August 1966, Cooper Theaters reported that in its 69th week the film set records for the longest run and highest gross in Omaha. The previous records were held by South Pacific at the Cooper Theatre (64 weeks), grossing $430,000. Sound of Music passed those marks and added to them the next 49 weeks for a total of 118 weeks. It was the second longest run in the world, exceeded only in London, England, according to Art Thompson with the Cooper Foundation.

“The story around the Cooper Foundation was that a notation scribbled on the wall of the projection booth recorded the record run of The Sound of Music,” Thompson said.

The Omaha theater went on to host other long runs in its Cooper era. Funny Girl (1968) ran 55 weeks and Hello Dolly (1969) played 36 weeks.

Under Moran’s ownership, the Dundee enjoyed overwhelming receptions to very different kinds of movies. The South African comedy The Gods Must Be Crazy and the spare American drama Tender Mercies, featuring Robert Duvall in a Best Actor Oscar performance, each played several months.

After Sound of Music’s exceptional showing, the art emphasis resumed. When business waned, the theater was purchased by Omahans Edward Cohen and David Frank. They tried a family-friendly slate but eventually settled for second-run features. Nothing worked.

By the early 1980s, the Dundee struggled turning a dollar. It was already among the last single-screen commercial neighborhood theaters still in operation here. Virtually all the rest – in Benson, North Omaha, South Omaha – were closed and repurposed. All the downtown movie palaces were defunct or converted for new uses. Theaters moved west with the suburbs and independent locally owned and operated single-screen movie houses gave way to chains and multiplexes.

Cop who narrowly escaped death turned theater mogul

Then-Omaha police officer Denny Moran bought the Dundee in 1980 as a real estate investment. He was already buying and flipping houses in the area. His interest was the prime property the Dundee occupied, not the movie business. He already owned two adjacent lots and wanted to tie up all the land on that half-block. He initially planned to only keep the theater running until he found a national franchise, perhaps McDonald’s, to build on the site. But then a funny thing happened: He fell in love with it and the movie exhibition business.

Though Moran, an Omaha native, was a casual movie fan and frequented many local theaters growing up, he was a most unlikely candidate to carry on the Dundee’s legacy. For starters, he was not a film buff and he had zero prior experience in the film exhibition game.

“I didn’t know diddly squat about the movie business,” he told a reporter in 2012.

Besides, he was lucky to even be alive. A decade before buying the theater, he was a young cop in town when he intersected with a tragic incident that remains one of the darkest days in local law enforcement history.

On August 17, 1970, an anonymous 911 call of a woman being assaulted in a house at 2867 Ohio Street resulted in several police officers being dispatched. Moran and partner Larry Minard Sr. were first on the scene. They found two vacant houses. Minard and other officers entered the back of the 2867 dwelling while Moran investigated the other. Moran made his way outside when a tremendous explosion went off in the first house. Though protected by a tree, the concussive force sent him flying. Minard, a husband and father of five, died and several officers suffered injuries.

The call had been a ruse to lure the cops into a trap and when Minard opened the front door to exit the house a powerful homemade bomb detonated.

Two local Black Panthers were arrested, charged and convicted of the crime. They denied any involvement and never changed their stories. Controversy arose when documents revealed the federal government engaged in illegal measures to discredit and disrupt the Panthers. Many inconsistencies and irregularities were found in the prosecution of the suspects. Attempts to have the two men pardoned or their convictions overturned failed. One recently died in prison.

Asked about the incident, Moran confirmed the facts of that fateful night, his eyes watering at the memory of the trauma still with him. He became an undercover narcotics officer and a bodyguard-driver for the mayor.

Once he had the Dundee and celluloid got in his blood, he wanted to make it work as a going concern again.

“I said, ‘We’ve got to figure this out, this ain’t going to go.”

He finally hit upon returning to its recent past but this time going all in in making it an art cinema. The timing was right because the ’80s saw the end of the New Hollywood and the emergence of the Independent or Indie craze. Smart early bookings helped reestablish Dundee as a must-see cinema venue:

The Elephant Man

The Gods Must Be Crazy

Das Boot

Fitzcarraldo

Koyaanisqatsi

Tender Mercies

Local Hero

Then, Moran scored a real coup by getting Universal Studios’ rerelease of five classic Alfred Hitchcock films long unavailable and unseen:

Rear Window

Vertigo

The Man Who Knew Too Much

Rope

The Trouble with Harry

By the mid-’80s on, the Dundee was THE place to catch the latest Woody Allen film. By the ’90s. it was where you went to see works by breakout new talents such as Terry Gilliam (Brazil), the Coen Brothers (Miller’s Crossing), Atom Egoyan (The Sweet Hereafter) and Omaha’s own Alexander Payne.

The midnight movie screenings with their party-like atmosphere of fans reciting lines aloud, yelling and throwing popcorn, became a signature thing. The sound system was another attraction point.

“I was always a big sound guy,” Moran said. “We had the best sound of any theater in the area. It was clean sound, not loud sound. I was the first one in town with Dolby digital. It was expensive.”

Once, its high fidelity sound secured a coveted picture.

“We were talking about playing U2: Rattle and Hum and I had a guy come in from Paramount Pictures

because he wanted to check out the theater before he would give it to us. We screened Colors for him – the picture where Robert Duvall and Sean Penn play cops.

The guy’s sitting there when the digital sound comes in during an outdoor night scene and he starts complaining about ‘the freaking crickets chirping in back of the screen’ and I said, ‘They’re in the soundtrack.’ He goes, ‘What?’ ‘It’s in the soundtrack.’ He says, ‘You got the movie.’ After we started playing that movie, a local radio station said, ‘You can go see the movie, but if you want to hear that movie, go to the Dundee Theatre.”

Stephanie Kurtzuba, a busy film-TV actress (The Wolf of Wall Street) from Omaha, recalled seeing the movie “with a big group of friends and being enthralled by the experience.” “I think that was more about Bono than the theater,” she added, “but I sure was grateful Omaha had a movie house that showed things like concert films.”

 

Passing the torch

Dundee continued enjoying its art niche but once Film Streams came on the scene and on-demand services like Netflix, Hulu and Red Box appeared, margins got smaller. It became more grind-house than art house.

Moran said he and Film Streams enjoyed a friendly relationship.

“We always had a good rapport. Even when I was open here, I’d help them out with stuff, like spare parts when their projector broke down.”

“We had a pretty complementary relationship,” Rachel

Jacobson said. “It felt more collaborative than competitive.”

But industry changes took the fun out of running a theater for Moran. He enjoyed it when it was a more personal business. He learned the ropes from exhibition  veterans he met at theater owner conventions. He got to know distribution reps, too. But as small companies gave way to conglomerates, it became more corporate.

Moran held on as long as he could.

“We planned on keeping it,” he said.

But aft it got to be too much, he found the best deal for himself, the theater and the community.

“There’s a lot of people we need to thank for what’s happening there. Denny Moran. The Sherwood Foundation, which does so much for this city. Rachel (Jacobson) and her vision for Film Streams. All the donors,” Vic Gutman said. “We are fortunate to have so many visionaries and philanthropists who are helping to shape those visions and make them a reality.”

The Dundee’s back to projecting our collective dreams and nightmares, whimsies and follies, on the big screen.

Film buffs Sam and Mary Ann Walker can’t wait.

“Mary Ann and I practically live at Film Streams. And we live only a block and a half away from their new Dundee venue,” Sam Walker said. “I have had the thrill of seeing all my favorites from my college years, and finally a chance to see the great international films I never saw.”

Jacobson appreciates what good stewards the Morans were in keeping the theater viable for so long. She said she and her staff realize the “huge responsibility” Film Streams is taking on, but the fit seems so right.

“It’s seen so much film history and in that respect it’s so intricately tied to our mission and what we’re about. In one sense, it’s a big leap for us, and in another sense    something about it feels natural-next-step about it, too.”

She reassures people the theater will “continue to be the Dundee” but for a new age.

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,

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.

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