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Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film screenings-discussions – “The Descendants” next on tap Saturday, April 21

April 19, 2018 Leave a comment

Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film screenings-discussions–

“The Descendants” next on tap

Saturday, April 21

Join me this spring for my Metropolitan Community College Continuing Education non-credit class–

Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film

Saturday mornings @ DoSpace

Take this opportunity to explore the creative process of Indiewood filmmaker Alexander Payne through screenings and discussions of his more recent work. The book “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film” serves as an informal guide for this appreciation of the American cinema master who calls Omaha home. Don’t be surprised if some film artists drop in to share a few things about Payne and their own cinema careers.

Optional textbook available for purchase the first night of class for $25.95. If you register for all five classes, you can purchase the book at a discount for $20. Must be 18.

Register for all five classes and get one free!

The class has five weeky sessions meeting at MCC at DoSpace

Saturdays, 04/14-05/12

9:30am-12:30pm

Instructor:

Leo Adam Biga

Author of “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film”

Alexander Payne: Paris Je t’aime, 14 Arrondissement, Hung, et cetera.

Between “Sideways” and his next feature, Payne directed two short works: “14 Arrondissement,” his installment for the omnibus film “Paris Je t’aime;” and the pilot episode for the HBO series “Hung.” He and Jim Taylor also did write-for-hire gigs on blockbuster movies (“Jurassic Park III”) and Payne produced films as well.

MCC at Do Space

Saturday, April 14

9:30a-12:30p

Alexander Payne: The Descendants

After a hiatus, Payne enjoyed a triumphant return to features with “The Descendants.” This tale of a man coping with a family crisis marked Payne’s second project with a mega-star (George Clooney) and second feature shot outside Nebraska (Hawaii). This was the filmmaker’s first experience writing a feature without Jim Taylor and his script work won him his second Oscar.

MCC at Do Space

Saturday, April 21

9:30a-12:30p

Alexander Payne: Nebraska

Many years had passed since Payne made a film in his home state and he returned to make arguably his most artful to date, “Nebraska.” Distinguished by its fine ensemble cast, rural settings, black and white photography and Oscar-nominated script by Robert Nelson, the film follows a father-son road trip of healing and discovery. The small pic didn’t do much at the box-office but it was warmly received by those who saw it.

MCC at Do Space

Saturday, April 28

9:30a-12:30p

Alexander Payne: Downsizing 

Payne ventured into new territory with “Downsizing,” his first big visual effects film. For it, he collaborated with a-name-above-the-title star in Matt Damon, who headed a large international cast, and re-teamed with old writing partner Jim Taylor. The late 2017 release filmed in Los Angeles, Omaha, Toronto, Norway and other spots has an original take on looming world crises.

MCC at Do Space

Saturday, May 5

9:30a-12:30p

Alexander Payne: Recap/Looking Ahead

Few filmmakers have accumulated a body of work of such depth and quality as Payne has in two decades. He’s given us much to think about already but he may only be at the mid-point of his career, which means there’s much more to come. It’s fun to speculate on what might come next from him. We we will screen excerpts from his films to date and discuss what Payne’s work has meant to world cinema thus far and we expect to see from him in the future.

MCC at Do Space

Saturday, May 12

9:30a-12:30p

 

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Filmmaker Alexander Payne and his father George remember the family’s Virginia Cafe


Filmmaker Alexander Payne and his father George remember the family’s Virginia Cafe

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

It’s nearly 40 years since filmmaker Alexander Payne‘s family owned and operated the Virginia Cafe, a restaurant that for generations held a niche in the city’s downtown dining market. Recently, the filmmaker’s father, George Payne, shared some history and memories of the place and the family with The Reader.

George’s immigrant father, Nicholas (Papadopoulos) Payne, was founder and proprietor of the Virginia.  Nick, as the patriarch was called, came to America in 1910, learning the confectionery trade from an uncle, John Birbilis, who helped Nick and brother Peter open the Palace of Sweets in Council Bluffs. In 1920 Nick, with cousin Fred Schizas and two other partners, bought the Calumet, a large, busy, around-the-clock food joint at 1413 Douglas Street that dated back to 1893. They remodeled it, renamed it the Virginia and kept it one of Omaha’s few 24-7 operations, George said. The other partners eventually dropped out.

According to George the Virginia served strictly American fare — steaks, chops, sandwiches, salads, a full breakfast line, daily lunch and dinner specials and traditional holiday favorites. The cafe housed its own bakery, had its own butcher and stocked a freezer with eight kinds of ice cream.

At its peak, he said, the popular cafe kept a payroll of 85 employees on three different shifts and served up to 3,000 diners a day.

George joined his father in the family business in the early ’50s. An Omaha Central High, Dartmouth and Northwestern University grad, George is a World War II vet who worked on the war production board in Washington D.C., where he met his wife, Peggy. He and Peggy settled in Omaha, where the youngest of their three sons, Alexander, fell in love with movies.

The future filmmaker was only 9 when a fire destroyed the Virginia but he has fond memories of the cafe.

“People loved that place,” Alexander Payne said by phone. “There was no key to the front door. They didn’t need one — they never closed. I used to like to go back to the kitchen and watch the chefs work. I remember all the wait staff and cashiers were so nice to me because, of course, I was the owner’s son. Our family ritual was dinner there every Thursday night.”

The Paynes ordered right off the menu.

While no Greek food was on the menu, the restaurant embodied Nick Payne’s classic immigrant made-good success story. Like many newcomers he went out of his way to be a super patriot. He sold millions of dollars worth of government Liberty Bonds during the Second World War, said George Payne, who added his father landed “quite a coup” when he inked a contract to feed all area military enlistees. From WWII through Vietnam, the Virginia served “last meals” to wide-eyed recruits en route to basic training.

“Those are the kinds of things that are a little unique from the Virginia,” the dapper George Payne said. There’s more. The cafe played a part in a tense chapter of Omaha history when a 1935 streetcar strike erupted in violence. George was 20 then and working part-time in the restaurant. Martial law was declared and more than 1,000 National Guard troops sent in to restore order. “That was serious stuff,” George recalled. The Virginia, located right on the streetcar line, was near the conflict between strikers and strikebreakers. The soldiers’ presence quelled the rioting. The cafe was commandeered into serving three meals a day to the troops.

“They came in and took over our business,” said George, who remembers the first guardsmen tromping in with their boots and packs and hanging their rifles on coat hooks attached to the fine mahogany wainscoting, which sent his father into a fit. From that point on the soldiers stacked their weapons safely out of harm’s way.

The Virginia was justly proud of its decor. Its glorious neon signage, plate glass windows, decorative tile-fronted exterior and rich mahogany interior with white table cloth covered tables and booths were straight out of an Edward Hopper painting. Distinctive murals of the American landscape and fine renderings of all 50 state seals adorned the lounge and dining room and the massive cross-section of a redwood tree was mounted in the party room.

“There wasn’t a restaurant in town that had that kind of atmosphere at all,” George said. “It was very well done. My dad had vision.”

This eclectic design reflected the diverse customers the Virginia catered to  — professionals, office workers, politicos, housewives, clerks, stock boys, cabbies, crack-of-dawn delivery men, night owls and bar crawlers.

Up front, right at the door greeting customers, was Nick, trademark cigar in hand, dressed impeccably in a suit and tie and kibitzing with the line of people that formed at lunchtime. If anyone tired of the wait and started to leave George said Nick would coax them to stay with, “‘Don’t go. You know you’ll be back in five minutes. Where you going to go?’ He had a way with people.”

The cafe enjoyed a brisk trade before it went up in flames in 1969. Neither Nick nor George were there when the fire broke out on a Sunday night. They were awakened with the news and came down to see a burned out shell. After two full days of being hosed down, George said, the building collapsed in on itself. It was a total loss. George salvaged a few mementos and artifacts. There was talk of reopening at another spot but the family opted to walk away. The site of the Virginia was sold to the city, which built the W. Dale Clark Library near there.

“I really didn’t quite know what I was going to do…” George said. He wound up with the Sheraton Hotels group and then the U.S. Department of Commerce’s International Trade Administration — posts that took him around the world.

Nick Payne left a rich legacy that George has carried on. The elder Payne helped found the Omaha Restaurant Association, which his son presided over as president, as he did the Nebraska Restaurant Association. In 1956 American Restaurant Association Magazine inducted Nick into its Hall of Fame. The father was heavily involved with St. John Greek Orthodox Church. Nick Payne died in 1989. George Payne, now 92, has continued, with Peggy, his father’s support of the church.

The family retains close ties to Greece and has made periodic trips to their ancestral homeland. Alexander Payne one day intends to shoot a film there.

Prodigal filmmaker comes home again to screen new picture at Omaha Film Fest

March 27, 2018 Leave a comment

Prodigal filmmaker comes home again to screen new picture at Omaha Film Fest

 

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

 

The 13th Omaha Film Festival projects March 6-11 at Village Pointe Cinema with its eclectic mix of indie fare from around the world. But a film by Omaha native Dan Mirvish brings things home for area cineastes.

The fest’s opening and closing night films are prestige feature-length studio releases with big name stars: Borg McEnroe at 6 p.m. on March 6 and Beirut at 5:30 p.m. on March 11. The March 10 OFF Conference includes guest panels on Documentary Filmmaking, Writing for Pixar and Filmmaking in Nebraska. The March 11 Writers Theatre showcases live readings of scripts.

Mirvish, an L.A.-based director, will be at a 3:30 p.m. March 10 screening of his new narrative feature Bernard and Huey, whose script is by Pulitzer Prize-winner Jules Feiffer. The presence of indie veteran Mirvish, who co-founded Slamdance, is an important gesture for the local filmmaking community. He’s not only “one of our own” bringing back a well-reviewed new work with serious pedigree, but he’s emblematic of the inventive, resilient spirit that animates the indie industry.

The resourceful Mirvish is the author of The Cheerful Subversive’s Guide to Independent Filmmaking, an irreverent yet practical compendium of lessons learned over his 25-year filmmaking career.

Every Mirvish film – Omaha – The Movie (1995), Open House (2004), Between Us (2012) and now Bernard and Huey (2017) – has been an object lesson in opportunity meets accident meets persistence meets imagination. He cobbles together micro budget projects financed by friends and family, doubling locations and stealing shots in guerilla-style fashion.

How he came to make his latest took things to new extremes. The original script went unproduced when Feiffer wrote it decades ago. Then it vanished. Mirvish long admired his work as a cartoonist and scenarist. Feiffer’s adult cartoons in The Village Voice, The New Yorker and Playboy were hipster reads, Also a respected playwright (Little Murders), he adapted an unproduced play for what became the acclaimed Mike Nichols’ film Carnal Knowledge. He adapted Murders for Alan Arkin. He penned Popeye for Robert Altman.

Mirvish went to some lengths to track down the elusive script inspired by an old Feiffer cartoon series. The protagonists are similar to the lifelong male buddies in Carnal Knowledge, only these misogynists navigate a post sexual revolution-feminist age.

Just finding a copy of the script proved daunting as most players involved in trying to get it made decades earlier were dead. Upon rediscovering and reading it, Mirvish fell in love with the material.

“I thought it was a great satire on masculinity and men behaving badly. Kind of timeless characters and even more so now a timely theme,” Mirvish said. “I thought it was very funny and similar to my sense of humor.”

Even after securing the property and Feiffer’s blessing to develop it, lawyers had to clear rights. All this took time. Meanwhile, Feiffer was anxious to see a film finally realized from the script and was in no mood for delays or misfires this go-round.

“Once we got the rights cleared away jules was like I’m 87, let’s make this thing already.”

Mirvish detailed the whole backstory on the project’s Kickstarter campaign Web page.

He knows things could have gone wrong to sabotage the project but he never lost faith it would work out and, more importantly, he never let the process defeat him.

“I have fun with the process and that’s kind of what I say in the book. Look, if you’re not having fun doing all the stages of the game then you shouldn’t play because, you know, making films is not an intrinsically fun process all the time. It’s studded by long bouts of boredom, anxiety, stress and failure, so if you’re not finding the joy in that somewhere along the way, you probably shouldn’t be doing it.

“When it comes to casting, for example, other filmmakers may complain, ‘Oh, it’s a Hollywood game these agents are playing.’ Yeah, it’s a game and you should have fun playing it, too, and you just have to play it better than they do, and that’s kind of how you have to look at the whole process. Yeah, there’s going to be challenges and downsides to everything but as long as you’re having fun during the other moments. it’s worth doing. That’s my attitude.”

Mirvish also takes satisfaction in having “hung in there” to do what it took to get it made.

“When we were able to finally sign all the paperwork, then it really was off to the races. We had our Kickstarter campaign up within two months and were casting and financing and getting the film together. From that point it was actually a fairly quick process.”

His old producing partner and fellow Omaha native, Dana Altman, executive produced.

“Dana remembered Feiffer on the set of Popeye because Dana worked on that movie (for his grandfather Robert Altman), so there was that connection.”

Only minimal script changes were made.

Mirvish has a knack for attracting name talent to his little films and he did it again by getting two hot comedic actors: Jim Rash (Community) as Bernard and David Koechner (Anchorman) as Huey. Mirvish enjoyed having two leads with strong improv backgrounds: Koechner with Second City and SNL and Rash with The Groundlings. Rash is also a writer.

“It was just great having them around in rehearsal and then on set. We did four days dedicated to rehearsal, which is pretty rare even on a studio film.”

Flashbacks glimpse Bernard and Huey as young men and Mirvish found two actors, Jake O’Connor and Jay Renshaw, who make uncanny matches.

“Once we cast David and Jim, we had to look for younger versions of them, so we had an open casting call and we found these two terrific actors. The young guys really shadowed the older guys. That was a great experience for all four of them. They really developed this kind of big sibling-little sibling relationship and kind of picked up each other’s little quirks and things.

“Jules and I talked about how it wasn’t about the physical look of these characters. They didn’t have to look like the cartoon. We met with many actors who didn’t. Ironically, Rash and Koechner look almost exactly like the cartoon characters – next to each other especially. In the end credits you see some original Feiffer cartoons. It’s nice to see what these guys are supposed to look like and they really kind of do. I mean, to the point when Feiffer first saw Rash he was like, ‘He’s great, but couldn’t you find someone more handsome?’ because Bernard was always an autobiographical dopple-ganger for Feiffer himself.”

Mirvish grew fond of the eternally clever and young Feiffer. He’s pleased that “Jules really liked the movie and was very happy with the casting.” Feiffer remains prolific at 89. He just finished a new graphic novel and had a new musical open. “For a man of any age, he’s hard to keep up with. It’s a lot of fun whenever I see him because he’s always got these amazing stories.”

Character actor Richard Kind (Gotham), who personally knows Feiffer, has scene-stealing moments as Huey’s older brother Marty.

The women playing the female foils are receiving high praise for their performances: Mae Whitman (Parenthood) as Zelda; Sasha Alexander (Rizzoli & Isles) as Roz; Nancy Travis (Last Man Standing) as Mona; and Bellamy Young (Scandal) as Aggie.

Mirvish shot interiors in L.A. and exteriors in New York.

The film has a domestic distribution deal and awaits a foreign sales deal.

Mirvish hopes to return with the movie in the spring at the Dundee Theater – his neighborhood cinema growing up.

For complete OFF details, visit omahafilmfestival.org.

In case you missed it: Hot Movie Takes November 15, 2017 through March 12, 2018

March 12, 2018 Leave a comment

Hot Movie Takes – “A Perfect Day” (2015)

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

The 2015 dark comedy “A Perfect Day” is the first film I’ve seen by acclaimed Spanish writer-director Fernando León de Aranoa and I don’t need to see anything else by him to know that he has major filmmaking chops. This is easily one of the better films I’ve seen from the past few years with its funny, ironic, disturbing and moving portrayal of international aid workers encountering a series of surreal but all too human situations in the uneasy peace and devastation of the ethnic fueled Balkans War, Working with an excellent international cast headed up by Benicio del Toro, Tim Robbins, Mélanie Thierry, Olga Kurylenko and Fedja Štukan and employing a largely Spanish creative crew led by cinematographer Alex Catalán, editor Nacho Ruiz Capillas and composer Arnau Bataller, Aranoa has created a seering companion piece to David O. Russell’s classic “Three Kings.” Where that earlier film set during the Gulf War in Iraq is filled with excessive violence amidst its satire of a disparate team finding more than they bargained for in a vainglorious looting adventure turned humanitarian mission, we do not see a single act of violence committed in “A Perfect Day.” But we do see its aftermath, along with dark intimations that the horrors, atrocities and divisions are still close at hand and might erupt again at any moment.

The movie begins with our four main protagonists, Mambru (del Toro), B (Robbins), Damir ((Stukan) and Sophie (Thierry) stuck for a solution on how to remove a corpse that’s been dumped in a fresh water well that area rural residents depend on for their drinking and cooking supply . As head of security for this Aid Across Borders mission, Mambru is in charge of the operation. His assigned interpreter Damir helps as best he can. Mambru’s colleague B brings Sophie, a sanitary water expert, to the site. But nothing is easy in conditions where basic infrastructure and civility have broken down. Even getting rope for the unpleasant job proves next to impossible. Then the team is warned by higher authorities that the corpse cannot be touched. Political jurisdictional protocols take precedence over practical realities. All this gets ratcheted up to a new level when Katya (Kurylenko) arrives, ostensibly to shut down the entire mission, but ends up stuck with the others in the wilds of the Balkan hinterlands. Adding to the tension, Mumbru and Katya once had a fling. Then Sophie witnesses something she shouldn’t and for the first time she understands the extent of the human toll. Along for the ride is an orphaned boy Mumbru befriends and shields from unimaginable tragedy. The team travels in a two-jeep caravan across treacherous mountain roads made more dangerous by mines buried in the dirt. Every encounter with the conflict’s survivors is fraught with anxiety because life has turned into bitter hardship, distrust, exploitation and trauma.

Benicio del Toro is perfect as the world-weary but still good-hearted and impassioned Mambru. Tis engaging  character wants to make a difference despite all the regulations and restrictions that often tie his hands. Robbins is also just right as the free-spirited B. He always tries to find the humor in the carnage. As a native of Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Yugoslavia, Stukan Damir could not be any more authentic as Damir. He brings a stoic yet empathetic presence that counterbalances the overt sensibilities of del Toro and Robbins. As the sweet yet feisty Sophie, Thierry creates an indelible portrait of a stubborn idealist whose naivete is shattered but whose commitment remains unchanged. As the calculating Russian bureaucrat Katya, Kurylenko transforms her from cold and superficial to more humanistic. Katy’s experience on the ground with this makeshift team and the challenges they happen upon opens her eyes to how much more needs to be done before survivors’ lives can return to any semblance of normality.

The filmmaker, León de Aranoa, and his team do an excellent job immersing us in this no-man’s land where everyone must find his or her accommodation with evil and indifference. The story reminds us how hard it is to do humanitarian work in war ravaged countries where ethnic divides persist, basic services may not exist, threats loom around every corner, the native people may not even want you there and red tape often prevents you from lending aide. Defying all that to try and do the right thing anyway takes some chutzpah. In keeping with the story’s irony, the team is once and for all foiled in their efforts to extricate the corpse from the well only to have a force greater than themselves do it for them.

“A Perfect Day” is available on Netflix.

https://www.traileraddict.com/a-perfect-day-2015/trailer

 

Hot Movie Takes – “Black Panther”

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

Five days after seeing “Black Panther” and my head is still reeling from the sheer volume of ideas bound up in it. It’s hard to know where to begin, so let me just start by saying that this film absolutely works as an intellectually and visually engaging dramatic story whether or not you’re a fan of the superhero fantasy genre and have any familiarity with the comic book characters on which it’s based. I am a moderate fan of superhero movies. I have never seen a Black Panther comic. I’d never even heard of this particular character until the movie came out. So I went into Black Panther only knowing it was based on a Marvel character whose front and back stories are replete with African and African-American themes and that it was a word-of-mouth, must-see phenomenon. Upon seeing the film adaptation for myself, I can see why people are so excited about this picture. First off, it is refreshing to see a black superhero and universe depicted with such love on the big screen. And to have such a strong central character, T-Chailia (Chadwick Boseman), ruling over such a technologically advanced mythical kingdom (Wakanda) that resists white colonial encroachment and corruption is a truly empowering thing. I love that the Wakandans have secret agents working all over the world to monitor goings-on as an early warning system about any potential threats to the kingdom, Having T-Chailia’s uncle, N’Jobu, working undercover in urban, African-American-centric Oakland, Calif. is very thought-provoking, as is N’Jobu feeling that his people should be sharing rather than hiding their advanced ways, especially with their oppressed brethren in places like America. Then there are the sub-plots. Racist white South African smuggler Ulysses Klaus (Andy Serkis) has stolen a quantity of the precious Wakandan resource, vibranium, and uses it for his own criminal gain. He’s also attempting to make it available to the highest bidder, believing it’s wasted in hands of the Wakandans, whom he regards as savages. The most potent subplot of all is the emergence of N’Jadaka (Michael B. Jordan), the step-brother that T-Chailia never knew he had, who is intent on claiming the throne he believes is his to take. Growing up in Oakland as the unacknowledged heir to the Wakanda throne, N’Jadaka works up a lifelong hatred for having been abandoned. Experiencing firsthand how African-Americans are an oppressed people makes him despise the way Wakanda  chooses to withhold its power from the the black diaspora. Straight out of a Shakespearean drama, he plots to overthrow his step-brother and to assert his place at the royal table. Not content with stopping there, he also intends unleashing the weapons of Wakanda by putting them in the hands of black brethren and thus leading a resistance against white colonizers everywhere. The ensuing conflict is classic stuff.

Providing further fuel to the drama’s fire is our protagonist’s independent former lover, the War Dog Nakia, played by Lupita Nyong’o, and the fiercely loyal Okoye (Danai Guirra) as the head of the all-female special forces. Shuri (Letitia Wright) is T’Challa’s sweet, saucy and brilliant sister who is the lead technology designer for the nation. M’Baku (Winston Duke) is a proud mountain tribe leader caught between tradition and progress whose attempt at wresting control doesn’t mean he’s disloyal, only ambitious and looking out for his own people’s interests.

Then there is the whole subplot involving CIA operative Everett K. Ross (Martin Freeman), who eventually gets directly caught up in the fight to save Wakanda from a fate worse than death.

The cast is superb. Boseman has the strength and grace needed for T’Challa. Angela Bassett doesn’t have much to do as his mother, but she’s appropriately regal, wounded and indefatigable. Jordan has the right resentment and rage as the wronged sibling. Serkis is a bit over the top for my tastes as the villain but he does make it easy to hate his character, which is the point. But it’s the three young women who play the characters of Nakia, Okoye and Shuri that I will remember most from this film. They are strong, smart, beautiful black women whose loving, selfless acts help preserve a nation.

Director-cowriter Ryan Coogler (“Fruitvale Station,” “Creed”) deserves major props as does co-writer Joe Robert Cole, cinematographer Rachel Morrison, production designer Hannah Beachler, the art direction teams headed by Alan Hook, set decorator Jay Hart, costumer designer Ruth E. Carter, the makeup department and, of course, the entire visual effects team. They’ve taken the spirit of the comic and all its evolutions over the years and brought it to life in a way that makes it work for general audiences even with its strong black nationalist and pan-African themes. Mainly, though, it has universal humanist themes that speak to us all. And in the Black Lives Matter era, no superhero, comic-book inspired movie could be more timely than this.

https://www.traileraddict.com/black-panther-2018/trailer

 

Hot Movie Takes – “The Gift”

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

Hands-down, the best film I’ve seen from the past few years is “The Gift,” a superb psychological thriller that is nearly the equal of Hitchcock’s masterpieces. This stunning 2015 feature directional debut by actor Joel Edgerton, who wrote the intelligent screenplay and delivers a haunting central performance as the enigmatic Gordon and elicited fine performances by his co-stars Jason Bateman and Rebecca Hall, is pretty much right there with the best ever directed films by artists known primarily as actors – joining the ranks of Robert Duvall’s “The Apostle” and Robert Redford’s “Ordinary People.” I’m tempted to say it’s equal to Charles Laughton’s “The Night of the Hunter,” but the only reason I hesitate to put it in that company (and it’s the same reason I’m slightly reluctant to compare it to the best by Hitchcock) is that while it is visually sophisticated it doesn’t stretch the medium the way Hitch and Laughton did.

But that’s quibbling over small stuff. “The Gift” is available on Netflix and all I can say is that it is required viewing for anyone who loves cinema and appreciates a good suspense-mystery. Truthfully, this film defies categorization though. It has thriller elements that reminded of the classics “Shadow of a Doubt,” “Strangers on a Train,” “Cape Fear” and “Seven, but it also works equally well as a domestic drama whose married couple protagonists Simon (Bateman) and Robyn (Hall) are in a relationship that appears perfect on the surface but begins devolving when Gordon, an old high school classmate of Simon’s, suddenly appears in their lives. Gordon is socially awkward but sweet. We learn that Simon and Robyn are starting anew after she lost a fetus and developed a prescription drug habit. They have a gorgeous new home and he’s in line for a huge promotion at work. When Gordon begins a pattern of giving the couple inappropriately extravagant gifts, Simon is alarmed and Robyn is charmed. Things get very strange and strained as Simon believes Gordon is obsessed with his wife and Robyn intuits he’s been breaking into their house. Or has she been imagining things? It increasingly appears as if Gordon is unhinged and meaning to do them harm. But the real sociopath may be Simon. A series of creepy, nerve-wracking confrontations occur that heighten our sense of dread even though nothing overtly violent or horrible unfolds.

Edgerton has created an intoxicating, edge-of-your-seat drama through brilliant intimation and a twist so delicious that it’s bound to be much imitated. Kudos for casting Bateman as ambitious Simon, whom his wife begins catching in lies that reveal an ugly truth he’s concealed. His real nature and something that happened between him and his old classmate decades ago in high school is what drives the story to its emotionally devastating conclusion. Simon thinks he’s put behind him the incident that transpired. But as Gordon tells him, “The past isn’t through with you.”

Edgerton is mesmerizing as Gordon, whom he plays as a sinister innocent. He reminds me of a cross between John Savage and Michael Shannon. Bateman has never been better as Simon, who’s a real SOB. Hall has a knack for playing characters like Robyn who are on the edge of a nervous breakdown.

The cinematography by Eduard Grau, editing bLuke Doolan and music byDanny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans heighten the sense of impending dread.

Hot Movie Takes – “Mudbound”

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

After finally watching “Mudbound” on Netflix the other night, I was left somewhat underwhelmed. It’s a good film, mind you, but it’s a long way from anything revelatory. In no way does it break any new narrative or thematic ground and while its direction, production values and performances are very solid, they’re not anything special. I will say that “Mudbound” may compact more Southern Gothic dysfunction and racism into a single film than I’ve seen before, but I actually think that’s where this picture sort of lost me along the way. I thought the story tried taking too much on and would have been better served to focus on less and thereby derive more impact in the end. As it stands, the film does work as a sensitive, honest and harrowing evocation of the weird twinning that played out between white land owners and black tenants in the American South. The story is set in mid-20th century rural Mississippi – from just before the start of World War Ii to just after its conclusion.

The best narrative device about “Mudbound” is its parallel depiction of a black family and a while family bound to each other and the land by circumstance and custom. The Jacksons are black tenant farmers or sharecroppers who’ve worked the land for generations but have never been land owners and thus have little to show for their blood, sweat and tears. Given the exigencies of the Jim Crow South, the Jacksons lead a subsistence life and are saving every penny just so they can one day get a place and a plot of their own. Until that happens, they work at the behest of white owners. Hap (Rob Morgan) is the proud patriarch. Florence (Mary J. Blige) is his devoted wife. And Ronsel (Jason Mitchell) is their headstrong oldest child. The McAllans are a white family who become the new owners of the land. For Henry (Jason Clarke), it means he’s the boss whose requests he expects them to obey like orders. For his father Pappy (Jonathan Banks) it means they are the overseers of the Jacksons, whom he clearly regards as inferior and hates with every fiber of his being, and he treats them no better than slaves. For Henry’s progressive younger brother Jamie (Garrett Hedlund) and for Henry’s empathetic wife Laura (Carey Mulligan), the Jacksons are not less-than servants but fellow humans struggling to provide for themselves the same as they are. The dramatic core of the story unfolds when Ronsel enlists in the Army and goes off to serve in the tank corps under Patton in the fight to free Europe. Meanwhile, his father suffers a fall back home that puts him out of commission and forces Florence to work the fields and to help Laura with childcare and domestic duties. In keeping with the parallel stories, Jamie becomes a B-25 bomber pilot in the war while Henry and Laura grow apart and their farm undergoes hard times. Having fought for his country and seen the world, Ronsel returns an emboldened young man unwilling to accept Jim Crow. Having endured his own shattering combat trauma, Jamie returns a broken man unable to adjust to civilian life. The two returned war veterans strike up an unlikely friendship that ultimately nearly gets them both killed.

if there is a message behind the film, it’s that racism is a poison that damages everyone infected by it and that sometimes the only way to move forward is to move on and break the shackles of convention. The movie shows that some people will be forever stuck in their misguided beliefs and narrow life horizons and others will escape and break free from the muck and mire. But there is a price to pay either way. In the end, we’re all brothers and sisters under the skin bound by circumstances, some of which are beyond our control. It’s what we choose to do and in some cases what fate allows that determines our destinies and legacies.

In adapting the Hilary Jordan novel by the same title, writer-director Dee Rees and co-writer Virgil Williams have honed a powerful work that, again, could have been even more powerful with a sharper focus. I actually think the naturalistic yet heightened look that cinematographer Rachel Morrison achieved with the hardscrabble Mississippi scenes may be the single best element of the film. The brief but important scenes overseas come off (for my sensibilities anyway) as asides or throwaways, which I believe diminish their impact. Better to have not had them there at all than to have given them less gravity than the stateside scenes.

The best performance in the bunch is by Morgan as Hap, followed closely by Mulligan as Laura, Mitchell as Ronsel and Clarke as Henry. Blige is sturdy as Florence but I think her minimalist approach might have detracted rather than added to her character. Banks is appropriately evil as Pappy but his pathological racism seems out of proportion to how his own two sons relate to blacks. Henry is a racist for sure but he’s nothing like his father. Jamie comes to despises his father and what he represents enough to commit patricide.

I think “Mudbound” is an important addition to the pantheon of race films. Depending on your point of view, it may or may not measure up to, say, “Intruder in the Dust,” “Nothing But a Man,'” “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?,” “Killer of Sheep,” “To Sleep with Anger,” “Do the Right Thing,” “Monster’s Ball,” “Crash”(2004), “12 Years a Slave” and “Free State of Jones” but it certainly goes to some dark, deep places and for that it must be commended.

 

Hot Movie Takes – “Up in the Air”

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

In our ever expanding universe of catching up with good movies we missed upon their original release, Pam and I thoroughly enjoyed 2009’s “Up in the Air” the other night on Netflix. This film by writer-director Jason Reitman plays a lot like an Alexander Payne film. Indeed, Reitman shares a very similar satiric, yet sweet sensibility with Payne. Their respective work shares a lot in common in terms of the way they frame characters and situations, use music and show places. They even utilize some of the same creative collaborators. Here, George Clooney delivers a deeply felt performance as protagonist Ryan Bingham, who is the star handler for a fictitious Omaha-based company that other companies hire to implement their downsizings. He spends two-thirds of every year flying to other cities to do the dirty work of telling people they’re fired. In turns out there’s a real art to it and he’s the best at it. it helps that he doesn’t get emotionally involved – with anyone – and never makes it personal. Yet, he does show great sensitivity for and insight into the people he’s letting go by giving them the breathing space to exit with some dignity and hope as well as a portable philosophy for turning this trauma into opportunity.

Then something strange happens to him as he finds himself emotionally involved with four women. One is a new colleague, the anal Natalie (Anna Kendrick), a fresh out of college climber whose idea to replace in-person firing with virtual-firing and her utter lack of understanding of what her company and its star performer actually does angers Bingham. When their boss Craig (Jason Bateman) suggests she hit the road with Bingham to learn the ropes, Bingham initially resists having her tag along. But he eventually sees the benefit of having her experience up close and personal how delicate and complex the work is. He also begins to see that beneath her cold, hard exterior is a naive, insecure girl in desperate need of affirmation and affection. Meanwhile. Bingham has started up a casual relationship with fellow frequent air business traveler Alex (Vera Farmiga). After seeing her a few times he really falls for her, only he miscalculates what his heart and head are telling him and misreads the signals she’s giving off. He then heads home to attend his little sister’s wedding. This prodigal son and brother has been estranged and largely absent from the family. Reuniting with his sisters is strained and awkward. They love him but also resent him for his fast, free and loose lifestyle that only rarely finds him visiting, only to swoop right back out of their lives again. But fate gives him the chance to do a graceful thing for his sisters and he comes through. Then, when things go wrong with him and Alex and when Natalie abruptly quits her job after a downsized employee does something drastic, Bingham gets two more chances to do the right thing and he once again steps up to deliver.

Bingham’s also made a name for himself as a motivational speaker whose branded message is all about living a fluid, on-the-go, backpack life without attachments. But when the very things and persons he’s become attached to abandon him, he’s left rootless and vulnerable – his only “home” the airports, planes and hotels he frequents. Its a devastating statement about the price of disconnection and isolation and to his credit Clooney honors, never sends up or makes maudlin his character’s fragile, conflicted feelings. The best line in the film comes when Bingham has finally hit the coveted super exclusive ten million miles club on the airline he prefers and he gets to have a one-on-one chat with the pilot while in mid-air. The pilot, played by Sam Elliott, asks Bingham where he’s from and he fumbles for a second before answering, “I’m from here,” which is to say he’s an air bum or gypsy whose only home is this transitory conveyance 35,000 feet up in the air.

All the other players are equally effective, especially Farmiga as Alex. She and Clooney have a real chemistry together. Kendrick is very good as Natalie, who is unsympathetic most of the way through, but she makes us feel sorry for the real mess that Natalie is beneath her confident exterior. Playing against type, Bateman makes a fine cynical boss more concerned about numbers than people. JK Smmons has a scene-stealing turn as an axed employee who finds redemption with the help of Bingham’s informed perspective.

In many ways, this is a very sad film about the cost of people not making real human connections with each other and a sober reminder that even when they do there’s the risk of getting hurt. Putting yourself and your feelings out there always invites the possibility of rejection and disappointment. A poet said, “Tis better to have loved and lost, than never to have loved at all.” The movie seems to agree with that sentiment but to also ask if it’s true for everyone. Whatever lifestyle one chooses, marriage, commitment and family or single and free-agent, no one escapes unscathed. Infidelity, abandonment and loneliness are not exclusive to one lifestyle or the other. In the end, it’s whatever you make of things that counts.

“Up in the Air” shot for a couple days in Omaha at the  Eppley Airfield passenger terminal and in the Old Market. Soon thereafter Clooney worked with Nebraska’s own Alexander Payne on the filmmaker’s under-appreciated “The Descendants,” which I think is an even better film than this, only it was made far away from the Midwest in Hawaii. With those Omaha connections intact, I’m still waiting for Payne to bring Clooney here for a Film Streams Feature Event at the Holland.

 

Hot Movie Takes – “Grace of Monaco”

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

Pam and I keep finding films on Netflix that are much better than the critical consensus would have you believe, The most recent of these is “Grace of Monaco,” an exquisitely rendered 2014 picture that dramatically interprets a critical juncture in the experience of former Hollywood star Grace Kelly in the fairy tale new life she assumed as Princess Grace-Serene Highness of Monaco. This international production took great pains to get the locations just right and to strike just the right aesthetic look and feel for its early 1960s setting amid the Euro rich and famous. The story quite rightly emphasizes that in marrying Prince Rainier, Kelly undertook the most demanding role of her lifetime. Her social breeding, grace, charm, high ambition and thespian skills gave her some unique advantages in pulling off this audacious change of status from Hollywood royalty to real life royalty. But there was nothing to prepare her for the Machiavellian rivalries, political inner workings, intense scrutiny and withering pressure that came with the title and the responsibility of being the wife of a monarch, the mother to his heir and the symbol for a nation.

I am not a royal-phile and I’m not even that fond of Kelly’s body of work as an actress, but I found this a compelling take on the personal journey of a very famous and somewhat naive woman getting in over her head, being very unhappy and then rising to the occasion to become a princess in more than name and image only.

Nicole Kidman is superb as Kelly. Except for a key speech she gives near the end, she never really tries to imitate the actress but rather, wisely, elects to express her essence, and clearly Kelly possessed enormous strength of will. Only an extraordinary woman could have done what Kelly did within full view of the world. It took real guile and guts.  The supporting cast is excellent as well: Tim Roth as the cunning, rather cold-blooded Rainier, desperate to save his empire, Frank Langella as the confidante priest, Tuck, Parker Posey as the stern secretary Madge, and Derek Jacobi as the Professor Higgins-like Count.

Olivier Dahan brings Arash Amel’s script to life, though apparently Amel was upset with is meddling and interpretation of the screenplay. The Weinstein Company also apparently didn’t entirely like what Duhan did and released a version of the film that was cut against his wishes. Nevertheless, the film I saw stands on its own as engrossing, entertaining drama.

Hot Movie Takes – “Where the Heart Is”

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

John Boorman has directed some of the most visually stunning narrative feature films ever made:

Point Blank

Hell in the Pacific

Deliverance

Zardoz

Exorcist II: The Heretic

Excalibur

The Emerald Forest

Hope and Glory

He often chooses provocative dramatic storylines to go along with those sumptuous, sometimes surreal visuals. At its best, his work is sensual, revelatory and moving. At its worst, naive and awkward. One of his least known and rarest seen pictures is among his greatest – “Where the Heart Is” (1990) Unusual for Boorman, it’s a social satire. It manages to combine the anarchic spirit and innate goodness of a Frank Capra screwball comedy with the issues-laden gravity and explicit criticism of an Oliver Stone treatise. All that is wrapped in a Coen Brothers and Pedro Almodovar package to create this totally original vision of American capitalism on the skids and the enduring salvation of the family when all else fails. The story centers around the McBains, a privileged contemporary New York City family who get a rude comeuppance that actually saves them in the end.

Family patriarch Stewart McBain (Dabney Coleman) is a self-made man who owns his own highly successful demolition and development company that’s publicly traded on the stock market. He represents the American preponderance for tearing down the old and building up the new – history and aesthetics be damned. His wife Jean (Joanna Cassidy) is a shallow consumer too preoccupied with her city brownstone and country estate to appreciate the merry-go-round her husband is on. The couple’s spoiled young adult children have it too good at home to leave. Chloe (Suzy Amis) is an aspiring visual artist. Daphne is a certified free spirit without an ounce of practicality in her bones. Jimmy (David Hewlett) is a sweet young man obsessed with computer video games and intent on getting laid. When Papa McBain is thwarted in his effort to build a skyscraper by preservationists who save an old building on the proposed site from being razed, he devises a plan to force his lazy, leeching children out of the house by staking them to live in the building. When their front money is exhausted, they’ll have to find ways to make it on their own. Maybe even get jobs. This tough love tactic freaks them out. But little by little the three misfits make the cavernous wreck into a creative studio and salon. They recruit four more lost souls into their space: fashion designer diva-in-the-making Lionel (Crispin Glover), who secretly pines for Chloe; down and out ex-magician Shitty (Christopher Plummer), who brings a grit and grace to the house; crass stockbroker Tom (Dylan Walsh), who thinks he wants Chloe but ultimately falls for Daphne; and ditzy but earnest spiritual seeker Sheryl (Sheila Kelley).

Between Chloe’s elaborate painted backgrounds and having her siblings and friends pose as body paint models, Jimmy’s cyber video game obsession. Lionel’s emerging fashion designs, Shitty’s enigmatic sayings and magical tricks and Sheryl’s communing with spirits, the house is A Midsummer Night Dream idyll.

Meanwhile, things go haywire for the father’s business and overnight his over-leveraged and exposed company collapses. His anal associate Harry (Maury Chaykin) grows desperate and angry. His snarky banker Hamilton (Ken Pogue) circles like a shark smelling blood. Stewart and Jean are devastated and left with nothing. Homeless, they have no other option but to move in with their kids, who were counting on Chloe’s calendar project and Lionel’s first collection to put them all on easy street. With no one else to turn to, this extended family turns to each other and they all band together to finish Chloe’s and Lionel’s projects by variously posing and sewing. Then this tribe suffers another reversal of fortune when they get evicted and the building is boarded up. That’s when Stewart puts his demo expertise to use and reaps the assets they need to show Lionel’s collection to big buyers, who naturally are agog about his work.

The only film I can compare this to is Wes Anderson’s “The Royal Tenenbaums” but this is more a cutting edge cautionary about the perils of greed and  more of a sweet valentine to the enduring power of family and love. The entire cast is strong but special shouts out go to Coleman, who portrays a wide dramatic-comedic arc from mendacity to hysteria to vulnerability, and to Plummer, who is almost unrecognizable because of the extreme look and voice he chose for his enigmatic character. Boorman’s incisive eye found a playground of rich images to fill the screen with – from NYC excess to detritus and from corporate calculations to artistic expressions. He and his late daughter Telsche Boorman co-wrote this wonderfully whimsical film.

NOTE: Don’t confuse this 1990 gem with a 2000 film by the same title.

The Big Brothers who police the Web are increasingly taking down uploads of things like this movie, so all I can say is search for it on YouTube and hope that it’s still there. If it is, watch it while you still can.

https://www.vidimovie.com/movies/film/where-the-heart-is-1990

 

Hot Movie Takes – “Rising Son”

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

It continues to amaze me the quality films one can find uploaded on YouTube for free and in full. Just watched a 1990 cable movie that marked Matt Damon’s screen debut – “Rising Son” – which stars Brian Dennehy as a Willy Loman-like father who makes life hell for his two sons because he can’t let go of dreams he has for them that they don’t have for themselves. Dennehy has the right intimidating physical frame and emotional gravitas to bring his gruff character of Gus to life. Gus is a middle-aged workingman World War Ii combat vet in charge of production at an automobile parts manufacturing plant on its way out in the Rust Belt of early 1980s America. Damon is his younger son Charlie, who’s come back to town after dropping out of pre-med at Penn State. He’s questioning what he wants to do with his life. Only he can’t bring himself to tell his father that he wants no part of his father’s dream for him to be a doctor. That’s because Gus doesn’t like anyone bucking him or telling him he’s wrong. Gus has created a false narrative about himself and his family that he refuses to acknowledge is a cover for his own sense of failure and guilt. Knowing he can’t live up to what people have come to believe about him, Gus has forced his sons to pursue studies and careers they don’t care anything about. His oldest son, Des, hates him for it. Charlie resents him for it.

Damon is very good as the troubled coming of age Charlie. The actor obviously had star quality written all over him. It’s an impressive debut by any measure. The depth of talent in the cast is also impressive. Jane Adams co-stars as Charlie’s empathetic girlfriend from college, Piper Laurie plays his long-suffering mother, Richard Jenkins is the weak former owner of the plant who’s sold-out, Ving Rhames is a principled foreman and union rep at the plant and Graham Beckel is a hot-headed production floor manager who most keenly feels the sting and betrayal of the factory’s closing.

One issue I have with the film is that it has trouble fixing on whose story is paramount in the proceedings. Is it the father’s? The son’s? The workers? Or the dying town’s? They’re all equally compelling stories and they’re all dealt with to one extent or another. I also laud the writer (Bill Phillips) and director (John David Coles) for taking on such richly textured material and exploring these different layers of social-cultural-familial conflicts and issues. It all works well together but I just thought that things might have worked even better had one of these themes been developed more. To be fair, in the end, it’s the family-son dynamic that comes most into focus. And aside from Gus having a change of heart and head at the end that seemed a bit too sudden to be fully believed, this is a superior TV movie that would play very well in theaters. The performances are that strong and supporting them is evocative cinematography by Sandi Sissel, production design by Dan Leigh and set decoration by Leslie Rollins. The creators really captured the grit and grime and desolation of the town.

Though Dennehy has won a Golden Globe and other awards, he’s somehow never won an Emmy or Oscar, and this has to be one of the worst oversights in the annals of screen acting. This powerhouse actor certainly deserved recognition for his performance in “Rising Son.”

https://movienightseries.com/movies/id/726622/Rising-Son-1990.pl

Hot Movie Takes – “The Hurt Locker”

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

Until watching it on Netflix the other night, it had been a decade since I last saw “The Hurt Locker,” the acclaimed 2008 dramatic war film directed by Kathryn Bigelow. Her helming of the film made her the first woman to win the Academy Award for Best Direction. She remains the only woman to receive Oscar recognition in that category. The film had the same effect on me this time that it did ten years ago with its intense, spare, unrelenting portrayal of the work done by a U.S. explosive ordinance disposal team in Iraq. Jeremy Renner is superb as James, an ex-Army Ranger who replaces the team’s previous leader, Matthew (Guy Pearce) who’s killed by an IED (improvised explosive device). On James’ very first mission with his new team, he proceeds to challenge the way the veteran members, Sanborn, played by Anthony Mackie, and Owen, played by Brian Garaghty, are used to operating out in the field. Where they act with caution. preferring whenever possible to let the engineers and Rangers deal with hairy situations, James wades right in by himself with cover from his teammates. Sanborn and Owen regard James as reckless for exposing himself and them to unnecessary risks. Indeed, James has an unhealthy need for the adrenalin fix that comes with intentionally walking into harm’s way in order to uncover and defuse bombs that can rip his body to shreds. All he has between himself and oblivion is a bomb suit that can only provide a measure of protection and won’t save him if a device goes off in his hands. What compels him to  endanger himself time after time?

The film’s writer, Mark Boal, was a journalist embedded with U.S. troops in Iraq, where he even spent time with a bomb disposal unit. These experiences led him to write a magazine story that he later adapted into the original screenplay for “The Hurt Locker’ that Bigelow directed. He earlier wrote the screenplay for another military drama, “In the Valley of Elah,” also based on reporting he did. “Valley” was  directed by Paul Haggis. Boal later went on to write and produce “Zero Dark Thirty” and to script “Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare” Bigelow directed “Zero” and she also directed Boal’s script for her latest feature, “Detroit,” making her and Boal one of Hollywood’s top collaborative teams.

What makes “Hurt Locker” so effective is that it almost never leaves the high stress trauma at the core of the story. In the characters of James, Sanborn and Owen we see three very different yet related responses to repeated exposure to life and death situations. No one comes out of that experience unscathed. The bomb suit that Renner dons becomes a symbol for the armor – both literal and figurative – that combat troops wear to guard against physical and emotional injury. It can only ward off so much hurt though. What it can’t deflect, soldiers internalize. Bigelow and Boal keep the focus intimately trained on this personal radius of pain. Even when the men leave the strict confines of their assignment, they encounter only more pain. By nature or nurture, James has the ability to detach from the hurt and horror, but he’s only human and bound to break.

The cinematography by Barry Ackroyd and the editing by Chris Innis and Bob Murawski serve to heighten our immersion in the shit and the tension that comes with it. This movie helped establish new standards in realism for the depiction of warfare. Intense, urgent, graphic. The close confines of soldiers under extreme duress and eminent danger create a visceral experience for us watching helplessly on. But to Bigelow’s credit, she doesn’t go over the top, with the possible exception of a body bomb surgically implanted in a boy that our protagonist feels compelled to remove. Believing he knows the boy who died from the butchery that placed the explosive inside him, James seeks vengeance against those responsible. In this instance and in others, the story reveals how lines get crossed when emotions and prejudices take hold, making it even harder than it already is to tell foe from friend, combatant from civilian, ugly American from war criminal.

 

Hot Movie Takes – “Aguirre, the Wrath of God”

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

Werner Herzog’s films insert you into hypnotic worlds of obsession that elicit visceral responses to the dark, disturbing, hallucinatory images you can’t stop watching. A good example is one of his early masterpieces, “Aguirre, the Wrath of God” (1972), which amazingly is available in a superb upload on YouTube. This is one of those essential movies for understanding just how extreme filmmakers and their companies of cast and crew can go in order to create indelible experiences that defy logic in pursuit of capturing art and truth.

Here, he went to extraordinary lengths in visualizing the misadventures of a group of Spanish conquistadores inin search of the legendary city of gold, El Dorado. After months of preproduction work and scouting, Herzog brought his entire cast and crew into the Peruvian rainforest of Machu Picchu and the Amazon River tributaries of the Ucayali region for an arduous and hazardous five-weeks shoot. The cautionary story reminds one of the 1948 John Huston classic “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” and anticipates Francis Ford Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now” for its jaundiced look at men destroying themselves in the reckless pursuit of wealth and power. At the core of each story is a madman hellbent on exploiting the natural landscape and its indigenous peoples regardless of the costs.

Herzog used a combination German, Spanish and South American cast who lend great authenticity to the story. The late Klaus Kinski portrayed the demented warrior title character, Lope de Aguirre, who hijacks the expedition when the journey begins to look lost and its leader orders they turn back. Aguirre has the party’s commander, Don Pedro de Ursua, shot and shackled and he encourages nobleman Don Fernando de Guzman to claim the title of emperor over this uncharted land. The deeper the expedition journeys into the forest and down the river, the more threats and dangers materialize and one by one the members fall from illness, execution, attacks by Indians until Aguirre, who by then is completely lost in his delusions of grandeur, is left alone, only with monkeys as his subjects.

The visual storytelling is spellbinding and haunting. It’s a work of pure cinema that relies little on words and instead shows how the overwhelming forces of nature dominate man’s folly in the attempt to play God. Kinski is as usual a magnetic, maniacal dynamo and even though not all the performances by the other actors are as strong as they might be they are naturalistic and thus help anchor the film in reality even as the story grows ever more bizarre. Herzog and Kinski enjoyed one of the great if troubled collaborative teamings in film history. As extreme as “Aguirre” was to realize, they outdid themselves on the subsequent “Fitzcarraldo” about a rubber baron who had a steamship hauled across mountainous Peruvian jungle. Herzog being Herzog, he recreated this epic, herculean effort without benefit of any special effects.

Herzog is a fearless, some say reckless and manipulative artist who puts himself and others at great risk in making his films. His methodologies may be suspect but it’s hard to argue with the results. Whatever you may think of what he puts up on the screen and how he managed to achieve it, you won’t be able to get the images he captures out of your mind.

 

Hot Movie Takes – “44 Minutes: The North Hollywood Shootout”

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

As a sheer act of anarchy, the 1997 North Hollywood shootout ranks right up there with real-life modern urban American nightmares. Two bank robbers swathed in body armor brazenly, wantonly fired their arsenal of fully automatic weapons at dozens of citizens and L.A. police officers in what turned out to be a 44 minute ordeal. Much of it was captured on camera by a helicopter news team and other journalists on the scene. This was before cell phone cameras were around or else the video documenting the horrific event would have been exponentially greater. Enough footage was shot to give the makers of this dramatic interpretation of the incident a play by play blueprint for recreating the chaos and carnage that, miraculously, only resulted in the deaths of the two perpetrators. This made for Fox television movie is not great but it’s actually a quite ambitious and impressive take on what went down in broad daylight that winter day inside and outside the Bank of America branch the armed robbers chose at random.

The movie takes us inside the lives and routines of some key participants, including a veteran cop and his trainee, a male-female patrol team, a detective, a SWAT officer, a bank manager and assistant and the two bad guys.The best thing the movie does is capture the surreal experience of what starts out as a normalday turning chaotic in an instant and no one being prepared for two maniacs taking on a small army of law enforcement officers and willfully shooting to kill anyone standing in their way. This sudden, unpredictable fury erupted in full view of nearby business owners, residents, shoppers, bystanders and passerby, Anyone caught at the scene in this storm of gunfire became engaged in the horror and danger because that’s just how out of control it became. No one in the vicinity was safe. Everyone was a potential target and casualty.

I recall feeling sickened and angered watching the event play out on camera because here were two guys armed to the teeth standing off and dominating a much larger but woefully ill-equipped professional police presence. In the end, the police did take them out, but for a long time it appeared as if the gunmen had the upper hand and that nothing short of a military strike force would do. As crazy as that sounds, a military option would have been necessary had the gunmen used or commandeered an armored vehicle for their attempted escape. I mean, I gotta believe that nothing short of a tank blast or a rocket propelled grenade would have stopped them. Again, this was way before drones were around. Anyway, I got the same feelings all over again watching the dramatization, but at least this time I knew how it was going to end.

Director Yves Simoneau, writer Tim Metcalfe, cinematographer David Franco and editor William B. Stich deserve props for creating a taut thriller. The actors playing the lead cops responding to the incident all do a good job of making us feel what it was like to be there during that frightening and chaotic firefight. Michael Madsen portrays Detective Frank McGregor, a fictitious character who’s an amalgam of real life officers, while Ron Livingston plays SWAT officer Donnie Anderson and Ray Baker, Douglas Spain and Mario Van Peebles also play characters drawn from an amalgam of real-life officers.

The movie is available (or was) in full and for free in an excellent YouTube upload.

Hot Movie Takes – “The Pistol: The Birth of a Legend”

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

As a sports movie connoisseur, I was surprised that I had never heard of a 1991 drama about the early life of the late great basketball legend “Pistol” Pete Maravich. I found the film on YouTube in a decent upload and decided to give it a look. I found it to be a well-made but by no means classic sports film. The thing that makes it worth watching is that the story centers entirely on one key year in Maravich’s childhood, when his passion for the game could no longer be contained and he showcased for the first time his talents on a stage bigger than the local playground or his driveway. at home Thus, it focuses on the birth of his legend and the incalculable drive and work he put into becoming the greatest showman the game’s ever seen. The tale takes place in 1959-1960 South Carolina, where Maravich, then 13, was already an eight year disciple of the holy hard-court gospel of his father Press, who coached the Clemson University team at the time. His dream to be the best player in the world took hold then and he wouldn’t let it go for almost 20 years, until his body and mind couldn’t take the pressure anymore.

The boy cast as the young Pistol, Adam Guier, actually learned many of the demanding training regimens Maravich dedicated himself to under the tutelage of his father and mastered some of the precocious skills that made the Pistol such a sensation, including behind the back, through the legs and no-look passes and acrobatic shotsHaving the actor portraying young Pete perform those passes and shots adds a layer of realism that’s hard to beat even if the basketball sequences aren’t always staged at the pace and with the physicality or urgency needed to really sell the action. There’s also a crucial hoops sequence near the very end that falls way short of what it could have been due to some lazy editing. But what this movie really hangs on and does a great job of is telling the story of a father and son. Press and Pete were both obsessed with changing the sport from its tired old conventions into something new and dynamic. Nick Benedict is very good as Press – a hard, disciplined man with a soft heart who used his son to live out his own unrealized dreams and to prove his unpopular concepts. Guier never acted before this and he brings a nice naturalism to the part as the hero worshiping son devoted to fulfilling this father’s expectations of him. Millie Perkins is fine as the exasperated mother-wife who worries that Pistol is too consumed with hoops for his own good. Boots Garland is a hoot as the crusty high school coach who reluctantly accepts the 5-2, 90-pound eighth grader named Peter onto his varsity basketball team knowing that he has a once in a lifetime talent on his roster but he’s too afraid and stubborn to play him the first several games of the season because he represents a threat to everything he holds dear about the sport.

An important theme in the movie is to embrace being different even though it may cause you angst. Maravich received a lot of push back for his revolutionary style of play and he paid a price for it. No one had seen anyone outside the Harlem Globetrotters, and certainly no white player, style on the court the way he did. In college, where his father insisted he play for him at Louisiana State University and encouraged him to take upwards of 40 shots a game, Pete became the NCAA’s all-time leading scorer alright but there were times when his self-absorbed play had little to do with the team and more to do with him. From a purist’s standpoint, he should have had much higher assist totals than he did given his knack for seeing the floor and ability to draw defenders and to deliver the ball to teammates. He should have made more simple, fundamentally sound plays and tried fewer creative stunts in pursuit of wins over thrills. Those same showboat tendencies did not translate well with teammates and coaches in the NBA until he learned to adapt his game to the greater good. Not long after he became a complete team player though his body started giving out. Before physically, mentally and emotionally burning out from his candle burning at both ends way of life, he did establish himself as one of the league’s 50 greatest players of all time. None of this is shown in the movie, which stops at the conclusion of that pivotal year in his youth, but it is what happened and then, after abusing alcohol and drugs, losing his mother to suicide and retiring from the game adrift and angry, he found Christ and he devoted his life to his faith and family. He cared for his ailing father, who died in his arms. Pete, who by the end of his life found great peace and a bigger purpose, died far too young at age 40, suffering a massive heart attack after a pickup basketball game. There are documentaries on YouTube that detail all that befell him after his youth. the transformation he made and the tragic death that took him too soon. The docs serve as strong complements to the dramatic movie.

Props to director Frank C. Schröder and writer Darrel Campbell for working from Maravich’s autobiography and creating a good family film that deserves to be more widely seen and known. Pete, who died 30 years ago this coming summer, did not live to participate in the making of the project, but I have to think that he and his wife and children are proud of the portrayal. Though he died in 1988, he lives on in the way the game is played today. He was a true pioneer who opened the sport up to a creative, expressive style that permeates every level of hoops. This movie reveals the origins of his legend while helping continue to burnish it.

https://www.pistol-pete-videos.com/product/the-pistol-the…

 

Hot Movie Takes – “Our Souls at Night”

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

The much talked about re-teaming of Robert Redford and Jane Fonda for the 2017 Netflix original film “Our Souls at Night” is mostly deserving of the acclaim and attention it’s receiving. This is a sweet, understated, contemporary adult romantic drama about two widowed octogenarians in a small Colorado town who start up a friendship in their 80s that grows in intimacy and survives life interruptions. These seasoned actors have a good if not great chemistry together but what really makes their union work in this film is how minimalistic they are at this stage of their careers. Each has always underplayed things and with age and experience they’ve become even sparer and more simple and that translates into a pleasing naturalism they wear with ease and grace. It helps, too, that they’re both icons whose bodies of work inform whatever they do. They’ve part of our collective consciousness and we have grown up and with or grown old with them.

The hook of this story has Fonda’s character Addie show up at the home of her neighbor Louis Waters (Redford) one day with a seemingly audacious proposal: that they sleep together. Not for sex – but for companionship. Share a bed and some conversation in in order to help each other get through the night. He asks if he can think it over and, of course, upon reflection this seemingly provocative idea is actually quite pragmatic and he agrees to give it a try. I mean, who wouldn’t, if the fellow senior citizen asking you were Jane Fonda? She looks better and fitter than most 50 and 60 year olds. Not that it’s all about physical attraction. Their characters have mutual regard for each other, even though they really never knew each other. But it’s easy to believe they would find the notion attractive and stand a good chance of partnering or pairing well together. After an awkward first few nights, their shared need for genuine human connection can’t be bought or faked or ignored. Neither can the spark of feelings for each other. Their arrangement finds them engaging each other with more and more tenderness, vulnerability, transparency, honesty, desire, affection and compassion.

Both Addie and Louis are scarred by past traumas. She lost a son when he was hit by a car and afterwards her relationship with her other son and with her husband were never the same. Louis briefly abandoned his wife and child for another woman and when he went back toresume his life with his family, he found something irreparably broken. Both Addie and Louis have survived their spouses and after years living alone have hit upon this sleepover arrangement.

Then things get complicated when Addie’s 7 year old grandson comes to live with her. She and Louis have a great time giving the boy what his father won’t or can’t emotionally provide him. But Addie’s son resents Louis in her and his boy’s life. He regards Louis as an intruder imposing himself into the family and he purposely tries driving a wedge between them. In keeping with the film’s tone, no blowups happen. It’s a film about deep interior spaces and implosions, not explosions.

Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber adapted the novel the film is based on and Ritesh Natra directed their screenplay with the sensitivity to match their subtlety. The ending may not be the satisfying feel-good some expect or want but it once again works in step with everything that precedes it.

Hot Movie Takes – “Poolhall Junkies”

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

While no great shakes of a film, “Poolhall Junkies” (2002) is a very entertaining diversion with some nice performances by star-writer-director Mars Callahan and supporting heavyweights Chaz Palminteri, Christopher Walken and Rod Steiger. Rick Shroder is also good in a supporting role. There aren’t that many films where billiards is the main storyline and this one certainly falls short of the two most famous pool hall flicks, “The Hustler” and “The Color of Money.” But it’s not nearly the misfire than the aggregator review scores you find online lead you to believe and it should have done much better at the box office than the $500,000 it earned in a limited release. The considerable presence alone of Palminteri, Walken and Steiger should have draw in audiences. But for whatever reasons, the film didn’t register, though it has earned something of a cult following since it died at theaters. With a more charismatic lead, a sharper script and better direction, this film could have really been something, but even as is it’s pretty damn good.

Callahan was apparently a pool hustler growing up, as was co-writer Chris Corso, so the film is very well informed about that subculture. He plays Johnny, who’s been groomed from childhood on to be a hustler by Joe (Palminteri), his low life, bad news handler. Comes the day when Johnny, now all grown up and tired of marching to Joe’s orders, finally breaks with him. Johnny actually sets him up to take a beating from some thugs and you just know there’s going to be hell to pay for that some day. Johnny’s girlfriend (played by Allison Eastwood) is an upper crust law student who disapproves of his hustling ways. He tries going straight and leaving the stick behind but the pull is too great. His younger brother and the gang down at the pool hall allidolize him. Even though he hungers to get back in the game, he can’t fully commit himself again – at first. The pool hall’s proprietor, Nick (Steiger) tells him that being the best pool player in the world is his destiny and he needs to go after it. Meanwhile, he meets Uncle Mike, a rich guy who appreciates Johnny’s talent. When Joe comes back looking to settle the score with his stickman in tow (Schroder) and Johnny no where to be seen, Johnny’s brother takes the challenge and gets messed up in the process. That’s when Johnny steps up to take down Joe and his pro with the help of Uncle Mike’s bankroll.

The characters and settings ring real. The acting is strong. But where the film loses its punch is its inability to balance its drama and humor. There seem to be two distinctly different films – one a drama and the other a comedy – vying or struggling for predominance here and Callahan couldn’t or wouldn’t decide which it should be. There’s nothing wrong with having it be both as long as each aspect complements the other, but in this case the drama jars with the comedy and the comedy undercuts the drama. And that’s a problem. The other problem is that Callahan seemed hell bent on mimicking the work of Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino and Spike Lee. His homages to them in storytelling, tone, energy, dialogue and even camera angles makes his film too obviously derivative.It’s actually a distraction.The other thing that makes it seem like we’ve seen all this before is that Callahan drew on just about every cliche and stereotype out there for this subject matter. Better that he and Corso had drawn on personal, specific anecdotes from their own experiences in that world than stock situations and characters we’ve seen before. Finally, Callahan has way too much business going on with minor characters who should have remained far more in the background.

What the film lacks in finesse and modulation, it almost makes up for in heart and color, it reminded me of two wildly different features – “Rounders” and “Boondock Saints” – about similar subcultures. The former is a slicker but not much better film. The latter is a rawer but not much better film. Both of those were commercial hits. This, as I indicated above, was an outright failure. Hard to understand how that’s possible, but i totally understand why “Poolhall Junkies” subsequently found its audience through rentals and streaming. It deserves to be seen. I think most people that watch it will enjoy it.

The triple threat Callahan is an intriguing cat. He’s not a great actor or writer or director, but he’s good enough at each that he gets your attention and keeps it. I read that he’s endured some serious health problems in recent years and that may help explain why we haven’t heard or seen much from him since this movie.

By the way, I think a better title for the film would have been “Poolshark Junkies.”

“Poolhall Junkies” is available in a good upload on YouTube. Check it out while it lasts.

https://www.movie-trailer.co.uk/trailers/2002/poolhall-junkies

 

Hot Movie Takes – “In Bruges”

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

This British equivalent of “Pulp Fiction” is a deliriously funny and poignant 2008 dark comedy about two Irish assassins sent to Bruges, Belgium by their employer after the newbie of the pair fouls up a job back home. Brendan Gleeson is superb as the wise, veteran hit man, Ken, and Colin Farrell has never been better as his brash protege, Ray. Wonderfully sinister as their psychotic contractor Harry is Ralph Fiennes, whose call they nervously await.

Our oil and water protagonists have two weeks to kill in Bruges, where the laid-back Ken wants to take in the sights, soak up the history and make the most of being on the lam. High strung Ray wants to get out of Bruges as quickly as possible because he doesn’t appreciate any of its charms and is guilt-ridden over having accidentally killed a boy on the last job. Then Ray gets smitten with a local girl and he suddenly finds a reason to stay besides hanging around for the call Harry’s supposed to make. When Harry finally does call, he has an assignment – but it’s for only one of them. The rest of the movie finds the three men dancing with death.

The irreverent, sardonic tone of the film is perfectly embodied by Ken and Ray, who have a kind of father-son, big brother-little brother relationship. These two guys are hired killers but they love each other. Ken is forever trying to teach Ray a little culture and moderation and Ray is forever champing at the bit for action. Ken sees right through Ray’s bravado and impatience and realizes he has a sweet if rough around the edges man-child on his hands who’s not cut out to be a hit man. He also knows that Ray is haunted by what happened with the boy on the botched job. Meanwhile, Ray feels forever constrained and criticized by his too overly cautious mentor who, to his embarrassment and frustration, plays wet nurse to his childish antics.

Gleeson strikes just the right vibe as the smart, slightly world-weary sort who doesn’t like making waves or mistakes. The actor has a real solidity and honesty about him that fits his no bullshit character. Farrell brings the appropriate nervous energy, quick temper and mercurial personality to his brio-filled character. Where Ken is refined and restrained, Ray follows his street sense sensibilities. Both have a weird loyalty to the job, to their employer and to each other and it’s that last fidelity that gets tested in the end. Meanwhile, Fiennes throws himself into the role of the cunning and volatile Harry, who can’t let anything go. Writer-director Martin McDonagh has great fun with the personal codes these monsters live b. Even through all the carnage they engage in they’re always portrayed as charming if unredeemable blokes out on a romp whose closed circuit of mayhem must lead to their own mutually assured destruction. Thankfully, the fatalism is never bogged down by sentimentality. McDonagh has this trio intersect with the world the rest of us live in but no matter how much they try to be normal human beings, their violent, killing ways catch up to them, and they accept this as the price they pay.

I actually prefer this film to “Pulp Fiction” because as good as that film is this one doesn’t call attention to its dialogue, which is far more naturalistic, or to its visuals, which eschew style for clarity and tension – both comedic and dramatic.

The production values are very high for this great looking and sounding film made in Bruges and London. Cinematographer Eigl Bryld, production designer Michael Carlin, art director Chris Lowe, set decorator Anna Lynch-Robinson, editor Jon Gregory and composer Carter Burwell really create a verisimilitude of place that fills your senses.

“In Bruges” is available in full and for free in a pristine upload on YouTube. Catch it while it lasts.

 

Hot Movie Takes – “The Godfather”

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

What I am about to say may be heresy or fighting words to some, but I always regarded “The Godfather” to be somewhat overrated and after seeing it again recently I feel even more convinced of it. This is a film that lives more on reputation than merits. Don’t get me wrong, this is a very good American film, just not a great one. If it is, you’d have to make an awfully strong case why, for example, it’s superior to the 1946 Bogart-Hawks classic “The Big Sleep” or the 1958 Orson Welles classic “Touch of Evil,” the first of which is narratively more imaginative and the second of which is visually more interesting and inventive. Certainly, “The Godfather” is not the masterpiece many make it out to be. Like a fair number of cineastes, I prefer the 1974 sequel, “The Godfather II,” to the 1972 movie. I think writer-director Francis Ford Coppola made two more superior films to boot – “The Conversation” and “Apocalypse Now.” Those are very original works that have little or no antecedent cinematically-speaking. “The Godfather,” on the other hand, doesn’t really break any new ground in the medium. Indeed, at its core it’s a pretty standard, even old-fashioned gangster film. Granted the film does transcend the genre through its focus on family and the somewhat epic scale of the story. The stellar cast sets it apart to a certain degree as well. There are other crime films with strong principals and supporting players who form a great ensemble only just not in the same quantity because “The Godfather” does have an unusual number of speaking parts by highly accomplished actors. But the script, cinematography, settings, productions design and direction in “The Godfather’ are nothing revelatory or even that special, even within the genre. I prefer some more ballsy crime films that came out in the same era as “The Godfather” but that didn’t get nearly the love and didn’t do nearly the business it did:

“The Friends of Eddie Coyle”

“Charley Varrick”

“Night Moves”

A film from that same time span that I also prefer butthat did score well with audiences and critics is:

“Chinatown”

For me, those four films have more texture and life than “The Godfather,” which seems rather slow and dull, even shallow, by comparison.

I also think more highly of several later crime films, including:

“Straight Time”

“The Long Good Friday”

“Thief”

“The Black Marble”

“True Confessions”

“Once Upon a Time in America”

“Goodfellas”

“One False Move”

“The Devil in a Blue Dress”

“A Simple Plan”

“Heat”

“The Departed”

The Limey”

As for earlier ones, I would put the following at least on par with if not ahead of “The Godfather”:

“The Roaring Twenties”

“The Big Sleep”

“Ride the Pink Horse”

“The Asphalt Jungle”

“White Heat”

“The Big Combo”

“On the Waterfront”

“Touch of Evil”

“Murder Inc.”

“Bonnie and Clyde”

In my opinion, a mythology has grown up around “The Godfather” and its meta-Method cast. As good as Brando, Pacino, Caan, Duvall, Cazale and Co. are, there are narrative holes in their characters and their back stories that no amount of acting talent can fill. Much of what they’re left to give and we’re left to receive is behavioral business that doesn’t really reveal a whole lot beyond surface things. Mind you, it’s compelling characterization, but there’s very little meat there. It’s largely body language and intonation. Exposition and deep insights, not so much. I mean, what really motivated Michael to break away from the family to go off to college and war in the first place? What made Fredo so weak? How is it that Tom got taken in as a surrogate brother into this secret society of an Italian mob family? And what made the Don the way he is? Well, starting with that last question, of course, the much richer sequel provides answers. This is why Coppola later re-edited the two films to combine them into a somewhat seamless epic that actually does make the whole greater than the sum of its parts.

At the risk of being guilty myself of the cult around the cast, “The Godfather” is at its best whenever Brando is on the screen. It’s not that he’s the only actor who could have played the character, but he is the only one who could have brought such dimension to Don Corleone. Good thing, too, because he didn’t have nearly as much to work with as Robert De Niro did portraying the young Don in “The Godfather II.”

I’ve personally always likened the mafia subculture depicted in “The Godfather” to an underground vampire society whose blood lust is the source of familial, generational and rival conflicts in which no one is spared. It is a dark, perverse universe animated by creatures of the night who steal the life and soul of everyone they encounter. The only escape is death.

Also, the women characters in “The Godfather” are stunningly, annoyingly weak. It would have been a far richer film if Coppola and Puzo had developed each female character more as fully realized human beings.

On a purely visceral level, “The Godfather” suffers in comparison to other quality crime films even of the same era. It is a victim of it’s own internal weight and slow pace, which four and a half decades ago seemed magisterial and grand, but today plays as plodding and ponderous. I would suggest that what Coppola attempted in “The Godfather” he mostly achieved in the melding of “Godfather I and II,” but those films were not released and seen as a unified whole until years later. I don’t mention “Godfather III” because it’s not worthy of discussion here. Sergio Leone actually managed to accomplish the epic gangster story in a single compelling film – the director’s cut or long version of his “Once Upon a Time in America,” whose narrative textures and tones are more finely calibrated and complex than those of “The Godfather.”

“The Godfather” is still a deeply satisfying work but I’m not prepared to automatically confer greatness on it just because that’s the popular, even critical assessment that’s grown up around it. Unlike, say, “Citizen Kane” or “The Best Years of Our Lives” or “It’s a Wonderful Life” or “Paths of Glory” or “To Kill a Mockingbird,” the film resonates far less, not more, over time, which is to say it seems much less special now than it did 46 years ago.

https://www.movie-trailer.co.uk/trailers/1972/the-godfatherß

 

Hot Movie Takes – “Control” (2004)

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

You never know where or when you’re going to find a new movie gem. Last night, it was via an excellent YouTube upload of the 2004 straight to video crime thriller “Control” starring Ray Liotta, Willem Dafoe and Michelle Rodriguez, which I found better than many a highly touted, big box office grossing picture of the same genre. It’s not great, mind you, but it will hold your attention right through to the end. Tim Hunter, a once hot feature director who’s mainly worked in television the last 25 years, directed this clever, gritty piece that melds crime thriller, science fiction and horror conventions into a real ride. The main reason to see this is the performance by Liotta. He channels the danger and rage of his “Something Wild” breakthrough to play sociopathic killer Lee Ray Oliver. Liotta went to some deep, dark place to find the savagery and brutality he portrays and it makes the film’s hook all the more powerful.

The hook is that pharmaceutical researcher Dr. Michael Copeland, played by Dafoe, has found a drug that specifically acts on brain chemistry to reduce aggression and ideally in humans will promote feelings of empathy and remorse. Up till now, the drug has only been tested in animals. An unholy deal is struck by the mega company Copeland works for, the warden where Lee Ray has been on death row and the local coroner to fake Oliver’s lethal injection execution and place him in a human test trial on the drug. Under secure, close observation, Lee Ray shows no signs of his violent tendencies decreasing, at first, but after a short time he begins to change, especially under greater dosage and it isn’t long before he’s put on supervised release to see how he handles life on the outside. This behavior modification through science scenario has been around a long time in fiction and so there’s nothing original here. and this film certainly doesn’t have the ambition of, say, “A Clockwork Orange.” But it does make the case that the stakes for all involved are extremely high. Should Lee Ray be discovered alive or revert back to his violent, homicidal ways, he’s a dead man because the company can’t afford to be exposed participating in this illegal experiment. The movie skirts lots of details and leaves too many questions unanswered and uses too many cliches to be fully satisfying on an intellectual level, but it still works.

Not surprisingly, Lee Ray’s violent past catches up with him. Soon on his trail is a Russian mob hit man sent to avenge the murder of the gang-leader’s son whom Le Ray killed while robbing a drug dealing outfit. Also stalking him is the brother of an innocent man left brain impaired by head shots inflicted by Lee Ray when fleeing the scene of the aforementioned incident. Meanwhile, Lee Ray starts to get involved with a woman (Rodriguez) he meets at his car wash job. As all this plays out, Copeland gets far more emotionally wrapped up than he should in Lee Ray’s transformation. He’s convinced that Lee Ray is living proof the drug works. His boss and the security detail assigned to monitor Lee Ray are less sure. The final third of the film finds Lee Ray pushing the boundaries of this second chance while fending off the two men hellbent on killing him. A late twist is revealed that debunks the effectiveness of the drug. By the end, Lee Ray is hunted by not only the revenge seekers but by the security agents now tasked with eliminating him and his only protection is Copeland, whose conflict of ego and responsibility, arrogance and remorse, is not unlike that of Dr. Frankenstein with the monster in the Mary Shelley classic.

The story is an kind of update on the 1968 film “Charly” in which a drug is found that makes a developmentally disabled man a genius. This is a better film than that. In “Control” Hunter has a good script to work with from Todd Slavkin and Darren Swimmer. The pair were the creative and producing talents behind the small screen series “Smallville.” Hunter is very familiar with the dark material of “Control” because it’s the same kind of territory he explored so well in the films that first brought him to the attention of the world (“Tex,” “River’s Edge,” “The Fort of Saint Washington”), though this is unusually violent material for him. He makes good use of a strong cast and interesting settings. The ending may not be to everyone’s tastes, but it works within the framework of the overall design.

Apparently, “Control” was an international production and perhaps for tax reasons the film was shot in Bulgaria, though the story is entirely set in America. I don’t know why this film never got a theatrical release because it had the star power, story hooks and production chops to become a box office success if given the chance. Anyway, the movie has been finding its audience ever since and it’s well worth your time if you’re looking for a fast-paced, thinking man’s thriller that still satisfies at the most visceral level.

https://www.traileraddict.com/control-2004/trailer

 

Hot Movie Takes – “50 Years Ago: Saluting 1968 Movies”

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

1968 wasn’t a great year for English-speaking films but there were just enough memorable pictures released that year to inspire this post. My personal Best of Year list for 1968 is limited to films from that year I’ve actually seen in their entirety. From a quick survey I did courtesy the Web, I think I’ve seen most of ’68s well-regarded pics with the exception of “The Thomas Crown Affair” and a few others.

This was one of the awkward transition years for the industry between the collapse of the old contract studio factory system and the emergence of the New Hollywood. Feature filmmaking was still in the hands of some old-time moguls but was quickly being taken over by brash new executives with college degrees, television hot shots and film school grada. A great mix of old and new talents made for a lively scene, though the emphasis was still heavy on tried and true genre projects. There were still lots of Westerns, crime pics, war movies and comedies being cranked out. Even though musicals were just about played out, the studios still produced some big ones. There were a few science fiction and horror entries, including some notable, groundbreaking ones. And there were some attempts at youth-counterculture stories. But the stripped down realism, humanism and risk taking that the 1970s would be known for had yet to hit the mainstream. It would be a few years yet, too, before the disaster and blockbuster movie trends would start. Nearly a decade would pass before a full slate of Vietnam War films would appear.

I like the fact that in the same year filmmakers as diverse in age, style and nationality as Stanley Kubrick, Sergio Leone, Roman Polanski, Mel Brooks, Robert Mulligan, Franklin Schaffner, Peter Yates, William Wyler, Don Siegel, Richard Lester, John Boorman, Peter Bogdanovich, Richard Fleischer and George Romero would release major works. And I like the fact that stars as different as Henry Fonda, Jason Robards, Mia Farrow, John Cassavetes, Ruth Gordon, Anthony Perkns, Tuesday Weld, Zero Mostel, Gene Wilder, Alan Arkin, Gregory Peck, Steve McQueen, Jack Lemmon, Walter Matthau, George Segal, Rod Steiger, Lee Remick, George C, Scott, Julie Christie and Vanessa Redgrave delivered some of their greatest performances. Surprisingly, it was a year in which older stars, not newer ones, dominated the screen.

An interesting note about this same year in film is that the cast and crew of a small road picture called “The Rain People” came to the middle of Nebraska for its last few weeks shooting. The writer-director was Francis Ford Coppola, his top assistant and protege was George Lucas, the cinematographer was Bill Butler and the stars were Robert Duvall, James Caan and Shirley Knight. “The Rain People” was released the following year, 1969, and it spawned, directly and indirectly, two additional films: the Lucas directed “The Making of The Rain People” and the Duvall directed ocumentary “We’re Not the Jet Set” about a Nebraska ranch-rodeo family he met during production on “The Rain People.”

Here are my picks saluting the best of movies 1968 (in a rough order from best to worst):

2001: A Space Odyssey

Once Upon a Time in the West

Rosemary’s Baby

Pretty Poison

Will Penny

The Producers

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter

The Stalking Moon

Planet of the Apes

Bullitt

King of Hearts

Funny Girl

The Odd Couple

No Way to Treat a Lady

Coogan’s Bluff

Romeo and Juliet

Petulia

Isadora

Star!

Firecreek

The Devil’s Brigade

Hang ‘Em High

Hell in the Pacific

Charly

Targets

Barbarella

The Boston Strangler

The Shoes of the Fisherman

The Night of the Following Day

5 Card Stud

Where Eagles Dare

Night of the Living Dead

Ice Station Zebra

Hellfighters

The Shakiest Gun in the West

Upon reviewing the list, my first thought is that more of my all-time favorite films are on it than I expected. Those faves are led by:

2001: A Space Odyssey

Rosemary’s Baby

Pretty Poison

Will Penny

The Producers

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter

Those six are among the best films ever made in my opinion.

These next four are very good, enduring classics:

The Stalking Moon

Planet of the Apes

Bullitt

King of Hearts

The Odd Couple

And there are a few more I really like that are not quite as strong but still deserve special merit:

No Way to Treat a Lady

Coogan’s Bluff

Firecreek

The Devil’s Brigade

Night of the Living Dead

Because I feel so strongly about my favorites from this list, I will be posting individual takes on them throughout the year. First up: “Will Penny” written and directed by Tom Gries and starring Charlton Heston, Anthony Zerbe, Lee Majors, Donald Pleasance and Bruce Dern.

https://www.movie-trailer.co.uk/trailers/1968

 

Hot Movie Takes – “Pete ‘n’ Tillie”

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

Let me start out by saying that after watching Carol Burnett in a feature film dramedy and an episode of a long-running dramatic anthology series, I have to reassess what I thought of her as an actress. For those of you who are fans of Burnett, I’m speaking to the choir and you’re wondering how I could have been so blind, but for whatever reasons I was never a big fan of her straight acting, although I admired her comedic talent. I never regarded her as much of an actress beyond the sketch comedy format. Boy, was I wrong. Last night I searched YouTube and food a good upload of the 1972 dramedy “Pete ‘n’ Tillie starring Burnett and Walter Matthau. I remember seeing the film decades ago and being less than enthralled with it. I must have been too young at the time to appreciate it because this superbly written, directed and played piece about middle-age love and marriage is just about as good a portrayal of that subject as I’ve ever seen. Interestingly, Matthau’s character of Pete is the comic foil and Burnett’s character of Tillie is the “straight man.” Of course, Matthau was a great comedic actor and Burnett was a genius comic. But even though the movie is full of humor, don’t expect a laugh riot. The story is just about evenly balanced between comedy and drama. Both lead actors are at their very best and play wonderfully well off each other. He’s an incurable womanizer and a sarcastic wit. She’s the level-headed antidote to his mania and she can match puns and put-downs with him when she tries. This movie takes a very mature, unvarnished look at the joys and challenges of a romantic relationship and a marriage over a decade or so. The couple’s union is tested by his infidelity and the loss of their only child.

Geraldine Page is brilliant as the eccentric busy body friend who plays matchmaker for them. Rene Auberjonios is excellent as a gay go-between. Barry Nelson hits the right notes as a harmless lech forever lusting after Tillie.

The prodigious talent behind this project is staggering. Start with the perfect casting of Matthau and Burnett. Director Martin Ritt (“Hud,” “Cross-Creek”) was famous for his faithful interpretations of literate scripts taken from novels and here he helmed a highly intelligent script by the great Julius J. Epstein that Epstein in turn adapted from two novels by Peter De Vries. The legendary John Alonzo did the cinematography and the legendary John Williams the music.

This movie is woefully underrated and underappreciated and I have to think it’s because most people nowadays don’t know how to respond to really literate screenplays. This is a masterful work in which not much happens on the surface, but in fact the true, honest inner workings of a man-woman dynamic get expressed. It’s an insightful, loving, tough, funny and even despairing look at what goes on between two people in the throes of love and the mechanics of marriage. This ranks right up there with the best romantic and domestic movies of, say, George Cukor, Mike Nichols, Woody Allen and Alexander Payne.

BTW, the dramatic anthology series I referred to up front was “Insight” and the episode featuring Burnett costarred her with her “Pete ‘n’ Tillie” partner, Matthau, in a satire called “This Side of Eden.” The short has the two actors playing Adam and Eve after their banishment from paradise, where they’re visited by God, played by Ed Asner. It’s a delightful riff on the strained relationship that humans have had with God from the beginning. Burnett and Matthau have an even better chemistry this time around. “Insight” was a much honored Catholic Paulist produced series that used top Hollywood talent to explore stories about modern man’s search for meaning, freedom and love. Many episodes can be found on YouTube.

https://www.movie-trailer.co.uk/trailers/1972/pete-n-tillie

 

Hot Movie Takes – “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory”

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

Few films musical and children’s films dare to be really different. But “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” revels in its bold, modern fairy-tale source material and therefore doesn’t shirk from combining adult social satire and sarcasm with whimsy, fantasy and the supernatural. The film has strong moral lessons to teach but does it in such a clever and subversive way that it’s never saccharin or preachy. This highly intelligent entertainment confection largely shot in actual Munich. Germany locations and on sound-stages there is reminiscent of the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm, Hans Christian Andersen and Lewis Carroll and of the films of Michael Powell (“The Red Shoes”) with a dose of “The Wizard of Oz” and “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” for good measure. But the truth is it’s an original cinematic feat that doesn’t really owe anything to any previous works of imagination other than to the Roald Dahl book from which it’s adapted.

The film does a wonderful job contrasting the gritty, glum reality of the normal world with the absurdist, fun-house factory where the world’s greatest fictional candy-maker, Willy Wonka, presides. Five children earn the privilege of touring the top-secret factory, each accompanied by an adult, and their adventure is a surreal “Alice in Wonderland” trip. The children think they’re there to claim a lifetime supply of candy, but they’re really there to undergo a test of character. Four of the five children represent a panoply of unpleasantness, variously expressed as greedy, spoiled, gluttonous and disrespectful. Only one, Charlie, has the pure heart that Wonka hopes to find. In Wonka, the visitors are introduced to a world-class eccentric genius who has all the qualities you’d expect of a man who’s holed himself away in a factory for many years to create the most creative, sought-after candy in the world and protect his secrets from spies. He’s brilliant, yet childlike. Kind, yet cruel. Charming, yet menacing. Everything about him and his factory is unconventional. Gene Wilder is splendid as Wonka. I think it’s his best film performance outside of “The Producers” and he revealed aspects of himself, namely some of those darker tones, that he rarely if ever showed in his other roles. But that darkness must have been there or else he couldn’t have been so real as this visionary turned MadHatter who goes to extremes in order to stop his ruthless candy competitor from stealing his secrets. The more eccentric the part, the better Wilder was because he kept these characters firmly grounded in reality, never allowing his characterizations to become caricatures but instead making them fully fleshed our human beings.

The child actors playing the featured children are all quite good, particularly Peter Ostrum as Charlie Bucket. Jack Albertson is a delight as Grandpa Joe. Some of the other adult actors are very good at providing skeptical, even hostile leavening to the sweet, surreal proceedings.

Director Mel Stuart and his production team deserve high praise for bringing to life an imaginary universe so richly detailed and evocative. Production designer Harper Goff deserves special mention as does the special effects work by Logan Frazee and the visual effects by Jim Danforth, Richard Kuhn, Dennis Muren and Albert Whitlock. The music by Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley evokes the wonder and whimsy at the heart of the film. I have never read Dahl’s book, called “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” but he disowned the film for the many changes made to his never completed screenplay and to his book but that certainly doesn’t make it a bad film. Indeed, this is among the best films ever made across several categories or genres, including fantasy, musical and children’s films. The great popularity it’s enjoyed over three generations since its original tepid box office performance attests to an enduring and lofty place in cinema history reserved for only a select few films.

The classic “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” is available on Netflix. I can’t speak to the 2005 Tim Burton version with Johnny Depp since I haven’t seen it. It’s supposedly closer to the source material, but that doesn’t necessarily make it a better film. I’ll have to see one of these days to judge for myself.

https://www.traileraddict.com/willy-wonka-and-chocolate-factory/…

 

Hot Movie Takes – “Like Water for Chocolate”

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

Keeping with the theme of finally seeing films that were sensations in their time, I watched 1992’s “Like Water for Chocolate” last night on Netflix at the insistence of Pam and while I didn’t feel the movie the way she does, I did like it very much. This is the first film I’ve seen by the great Mexican actor-writer-director Alfonso Arau and there’s no doubt he has an intoxicating cinematic style that combines soap opera with magic realism in an earthy setting of frothy . This film is a rich stew of savory and sweet adapted from a popular novel whose fable-like story about the power of love is given phantasmagorical treatment by Arau. What quibbles I have with some of the film’s flights of fancy are mostly made up for by the earnest acting and the fluid storytelling.

In a variation on the “Cinderella” story, Tita is the long-suffering youngest of three daughters of a stern widowed matriarch of a Mexican ranchero whose hardened heart forbids Tita to marry even though she and a suitor, Pedro, have fallen madly in love with each other. Indeed, so the fable goes, Pedro and Tita are hearts joined by destiny that can never be separated. But bitter Mama Elena denies their fated union and instead enforces a family tradition whereby the youngest daughter must remain a chaste old maid who looks after the mother in her old age. The mother’s cruelty takes things to an extreme and treats Tita more like a servant than a daughter, Tita and her grandmother Nacha do all the cooking for the family and they create the most wondrous, elaborate feasts made with love. Tita is able to imbue her emotions directly into the food she prepares.

When Pedro calls on Tita’s mother to ask for his beloved’s hand in marriage, Mama Elena forbids it and shamelessly proposes that he wed her daughter Rosaura. To Pedro’s father’s surprise, his son accepts the proposition, explaining that it is the only way he can remain close to Tita without being her husband. Tita is devastated.

Pedro finally gets the angry Tita to believe he married her sister as a strategic ploy to be near his true love. Frustrated in consummating their feelings for each other, Tita pours all her desire into her cookingDuring a communal feast she prepares, her other sister Gertrudis is so inflamed and aroused by the passion-infused meal that, according to this fable, her pheromones set fire to an outhouse and attracts a lover from afar. Gertrudis rides away with the man, an armed revolutionary leader, to join him and his comrades in their freedom fight. In order to deny Tita and Pedro the satisfaction of seeing each other, Mama Elena sends the pregnant Rosaura and Pedro off to San Antonio.

Tita falls into a deep, dark depression that the local doctor.a gringo named John Brown, helps her out of with his sweet. tender care. He falls hopelessly in love with her. When Mama Elena passes, Pedro and Rosaura eventually return and he and Tita are can no more deny their love for each other than they could before. Mama Elena haunts Tita, but the daughter finally summons the will to banish her black spirit. Gertrudis also returns – having become a general in the field. When Rosaura passes, Tita and Pedro’s still burning passion literally ignites sparks, then flames, and the two star-crossed lovers are joined forever in the ashes and ethers.

The acting is uniformly good, including Lumi Cavazos as Tita, Marco Leonardi as Pedro, Regina Torné as Mama Elena, Mario Iván Martínez as Doctor John Brown, Ada Carrasco as Nacha, Yareli Arizmendi as Rosaura and Claudette Maillé as Gertrudis. But the real revelation for me is the vision of filmmaker Alfonso Arau. I need to see more of his work and since Pam has a DVD of another of his directorial efforts, “A Walk in the Clouds,” you can expect a post from me about it.

Not to be sexist, but this is far more of a women’s picture than a men’s picture in its fantastical romanticism, but it is undeniably well made and pleasing and probably unlike anything you’ve ever seen before.

Hot Movie Takes – “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead”

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

The 2007 drama “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead” is supposed to have been Sidney Lumet’s last great film and while it’s a very good picture, I hesitate to use the word great in describing it. Indeed, as much as I admire the late Lumet’s work, I’m not sure he ever made a truly great film, with the possible exceptions of “Twelve Angry Men” and “The Verdict.” Those two are the best of his that I’ve seen, with “Prince of the City” a close runner-up. He sure made a lot of other very good ones though (others from his impressive filmography include “Long Day’s Journey into Night,” “Fail Safe,” “The Pawnbroker,” “Serpico,” “Dog Day Afternoon,” “Network” and “Q&A).

“Before the Devil” bears many of the themes that characterize his work: strained romantic relationships; dysfunctional family life; political machinations; tenuous morality; personal betrayal; secrets and lies; bending the rules to take justice into one’s own hands. Like many of his best films, this one is largely set in New York City, whose frenetic energy, cold calculus and labyrinthian intrigues he was a master at weaving into tight, straight forward narratives. But this time Lumet departed from a chronological telling to use multiple flashbacks.

Philip Seymour Hoffman and Ethan Hawke are troubled brothers whose separate yet intertwined lives are unraveling before them. Hoffman plays the older brother Andy who is a success on the surface but an unmitigated mess on the inside. He holds an executive position with a large real estate company but he’s only going through the motions anymore and apparently cooking the books to help support his cocaine and heroin addictions. Hawke plays his baby brother Hank, who works a lower level job at the company and is the family’s designated screw-up. He’s divorced and unable to keep up with child support payments and he has some less than desirable acquaintances. Oh, by the way, he’s having an affair with his brother’s wife, Gina, played by Marisa Tomei, who for the umpteenth time at that point in her career has nude scenes. She, along with Theresa Russell, Melanie Griffith and Jennifer Jason Leigh, were the mainstream American actresses who shed their clothing on screen with about the same frequency as Helen Mirren from across the pond.

Andy, who’s a real SOB, manipulates his weak brother into a shameless scheme that finds Hank robbing their parents’ suburban jewelry store. In selling the idea, Andy paints it as a victimless crime since his folks’ are well-insured for this kind of thing. But in the actual planning and execution of the heist, everything goes terribly wrong. Hank enlists a deadbeat friend to accompany him on the job and the guy gets high and brings a loaded gun. The brothers’ mother is unexpectedly working at the store the Saturday morning they’ve chosen for the deed. With Hank in the getaway car, the accomplice bursts in the store, gun drawn, ski mask over his head, and the mother, played by Rosemary Harris, is traumatized but still has the presence of mind to grab a gun of her own from the register and fire at the man robbing her and her husband’s livelihood. She shoots him and he shoots her. Both die. Everything that led up to that moment for Hank, Andy ad their parents is explored in flashbacks. The father is played by Albert Finney, a fine British actor whose weird American accent is always hard for me to ignore. He is estranged from his boys but especially from Andy, who hates him.

The aftermath of that senseless tragedy finds the sons devastated at being responsible for their mother’s murder. Meanwhile, Hank is being blackmailed by the accomplice’s widow, who sigs her menacing brother played by Michael Shannon, to get him to make good. As Andy’s shenanigans at work get exposed and his marriage falls apart. he learns from his wife that she’s been cheating on him with his brother. The father is obsessed with finding out why his wife’s killer, who was from the city, picked their out of the way store in the first place. Just as his private investigation leads him on the trail of his sons, Andy devises another desperate scheme to get out from under the shit about to come down on him and Hank. Everything goes wrong again and this time the father takes matters into his own hands to deliver a measure of justice.

This is one of Hoffman’s finest lead performances. He’s fascinating and always fully human even as we’re repelled by his malicious, monstrous behavior. He’s almost a Shakespearean character in terms of how intelligent he’s is and yet he can’t seem to help destroying himself and those around him. Hoffman played anger as well as any actor I’ve ever seen. Hawke is very good playing a pathetic but sweet man who won’t or can’t summon the strength to do the right thing. I really liked his reactions to how far his brother Andy went in trying to clean up the mess he’d made. The rest of the cast is solid, too. Shannon, in a relatively small part, almost steals the movie (much in the way Hoffman used to in his early supporting roles) as the aggrieved collector and blackmailer. The brothers know he’s trouble. But he doesn’t that Hank has a brother in Andy who is capable of anything.

This dark familial story is not unlike others I’ve seen on screen. It made me think, for example, of “A Simple Plan” and “Fraility,” which for my tastes are better films. But this is a darn good one, too, by a masterful director who still had his chops. Lumet was among a group of superb directors who came out of television to infuse Old Hollywood with new life in the 1960s. Others included John Frankenheimer, Arthur Penn, Sam Peckninpah, Robert Altman, Franklin Schaffner and George Roy Hill.

“Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead” is on Netflix.

 

Hot Movie Takes – “Lion”

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

I bawled like a baby at the end of “LIon,” the 2016 true life dramatic story of an epic journey undertaken by a boy turned young man to get back to the family he was separated from by great distance and time due to a tragic and quixotic twist of fate. When we first meet Saroo. he is a poor, rural Indian boy whose hero is his older brother Guddu. Then one night Saroo gets separated from his brother. At only age 5, a distraught Saroo suddenly finds himself on his own. He unintentionally winds up on a train that take him more than 1,000 miles from home. Alone, afraid and lost in the big city, Saroo must fend for himself, narrowly escaping predators and all manner of bad outcomes. He is eventually rescued by child welfare authorities and sheltered in a home for orphaned or abandoned or missing children. Because he’s so young, he knows next to nothing about his biological family. Not even their surname or the name of the district or village he’s from. He’s soon adopted by a white Australian couple who raise him in Australia in a privileged Western lifestyle. Though well loved and educated, he’s acutely aware and haunted by the missing pieces and places of his life.

By the time he’s an emancipated young man, he finds himself stuck because all he can think of is reunification with his mother and siblings back in his ancestral homeland. Without them, he is not whole. Only, all he has to go on are fragile memories from his early childhood, yet seared there by the trauma of the dislocation that happened. Using technology, he conducts a remote search online using the images in his head as reference points for any satellite images of rural India that might match.

The film is based on the book “A Long Way Home” by Saroo Brierley. The screenplay adaptation is by Luke Davies. The film was directed by Garth Davis, who made his feature debut with this project a memorable one. The film deserved the multiple Oscar nominations it received. The two actors who play Saroo – Sunny Pawar as young Saroo and Dev Patel as adult Saroo – are brilliant in their own ways. Nicole Kidman has never been better than as Saroo’s adoptive mother, Sue Brierley. The writing is deceptively simple because this story dives deep into the depths of what makes us human without ever becoming academic or preachy or sentimental. It is riveting and moving, disturbing and,inspiring in showing us every day glimpses of the best and worst of humanity that happen all around us. The truth is, we’re oblivious to these moments and gestures and events that shape lives unless it’s happening to us or we’re given a story like this to witness.

The way Davies and Davis conceived and executed the search that adult Saroo undertakes to find his home is cinema at its best. Most of it’s done without words. The reunification that occurs at the end is as emotionally powerful an affirmation of life and resilience, love and family that I’ve ever seen and is made all the more impactful by how simple and truthful e it is.

Less is indeed more.

“Lion” is available on Netflix.

Hot Movie Takes – “Strictly Ballroom”

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

In my ongoing quest to see much-talked about movies I missed the first or second time or third time around, I used Netflix last night to go way back and watch “Strictly Ballroom” from 1992. This was writer-director Baz Luhrmann’s first feature film and he immediately showcased what we’ve come to know as his signature kinetic style of over-the-top art direction paired with gritty actual locations, garish colors, pitched emotions and charged music. Here, as in his subsequent “Romeo + Juliet” and “Moulin Rouge!,” he creates a sensory visual and sonic overload to carve out a meta kitsch cinema space all his own. I really liked the film, though I could have done without so many extreme closeups and I would have preferred less aggressive artifice for what often seemed like artifice’s sake. Less is more is apparently a philosophy Luhrmann does not subscribe to. But for pure entertainment, this Australian romantic comedy is hard to beat with its inventive melding of Hollywood screwball and musical conventions with threads of Cinderella and West Side Story thrown in.

Luhrmann also achieves the difficult balancing act of at once satirizing and adoring the ballroom subculture. The story revolves around a legacy family steeped in the Australian ballroom world of instruction and competition. Former competitor Shirley Hastings runs a ballroom school whose star pupil is her son, Scott, played by Paul Mercurio. She is a stage mother living out her own performance dreams through her son, whom she’s been grooming to be a champion since he was 6. Conflict erupts when Scott, now in his early 20s, balks at dancing the prescribed standard steps and improvises his own. His domineering mother throws fits. His partner goes berserk and ditches him for a competitor. His distant father remains mum and seemingly lost in his own world – dancing by himself. The pressure is on because Scott is going rogue just as the penultimate competition looms near. While tryouts are held to find him a suitable new partner, he secretly begins practicing with the school’s resident, frumpy misfit, Fran, who’s never had a partner before, but only after she pushes through her shyness to assert herself and say that she likes his original steps and she wants to dance with him the way he prefers.

As Scott and Fran work together, she blossoms and reveals the beauty and life she’s been hiding. Under the tutelage of her Argentine family, he learns to dance with more freedom, heart and soul. The partners develop romantic feelings for each other that promise they are sure to be an intimate couple off the dance floor, too.

By the time the competition rolls around, the local ballroom guru, who views Scott’s rebel ways as a threat to the ballroom establishment and to his own authority, tries manipulating events to force compliance. Thoughtelegraphed that whimsy will win the day, it’s mostly delirious fun and spectacle seeing the tables turned and Scott and Fran getting to strut their stuff. His mom is finally silenced. His dad comes out of his shell to speak up. And the ballroom big shot is humiliated.

The acting and dancing are great. The production values off the charts, especially considering the film’s low budget. The writing could have used some work but the story grabs you and keeps you engaged, which is all that’s required here.

Now that I’ve finally seen an entire Luhrmann film (I’d only seen bits of “Moulin Rouge!” and “Romeo + Juliet” before this), i owe it to myself and to him to discover more of his work, including the Netflix series “The Get Down” co-starring Omaha’s own Yolonda Ross. I saw most of the pilot episode and only glimpses of subsequent episodes and now I know I need to give it its proper due.

Luhrmann’s style may not always work for me but he’s a serious talent whose original vision and energy bear watching and consideration. And he clearly finds collaborators who buy into that vision and energy to create singular works that are his and his alone.

 

Hot Movie Takes – “The Iceman”

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

The actor Michael Shannon is new to me. So when I settled in to watch the 2012 film “The Iceman” on Netflix the other day to take in his portrayal of real-life hit man-serial killer Richard Kulkinski, I had no idea what to expect. All I can do now is join the chorus of critical acclaim that has anointed him as one of the best actors of his generation. Shannon is mesmerizing and real in this chilling performance that largely does not lapse into cliche, even though the territory the story covers is familiar with its mob culture and dark underbelly themes.There’s even Ray Liotta as a mob guy. Shannon reminds me a lot of the late Powers Booth with his commanding presence and voice, his sly, dark demeanor and menacing charm and the suggestion that he could blow up at any moment. He also reminds me some of Christopher Walken in the weirdness he projects. And, finally, there’s a bit of Tim Robbins in his angular frame and quixotic, inscrutable face that leaves you wondering what he’s thinking, though you know something’s always churning inside. Shannon also has that air of danger and mystery about him that is in the same vein of earlier male screen acting greats such as Marlon Brando, Robert Mitchum,Steve McQueen, Jack Nicholson and Nick Nolte.

“The Iceman” is not for the faint of heart. It’s a head-on depiction of human monstrosity amidst us. The thing that made the discovery of Kuklinski’s crimes so disturbing is that he carried out all manner of killings while leading an on the surface normal life as a seemingly devoted husband and father. His wife apparently never seriously questioned how he was such a good provider and even if she had she would have incurred his wrath. Kuklinski was an intimidating hulk of a man whose quick temper could be scary. The movie infers that even if his wife, played by Winona Ryder, did suspect he was mixed up in very bad things, she was too afraid to confront him or leave him. What she apparently only saw occasional glimpses of was that he was capable of breaking from rationale, healthy behavior and flying off into rages. She didn’t see how those rages, over even minor slights, could be deadly.

We learn from the movie that as a child he suffered terrible physical and emotional abuse at the hands of both parents and that he started killing things, animals at first, at a young age. The sociopath learned early on to disassociate himself from feelings, certainly from empathy, and thus killing came very easy to him. He killed out of anger, for sport, for pay and just because he could and was very good at it.

Liotta is very good as the mobster who hires Kuklinski. Robert Davi is believable as another mobster with whom he gets involved. Chris Evans is almost unrecognizable as a fellow hit man-serial killer who exchanges trade secrets with Kuklinski. The two actually go into the business of killing, freezing dismembering together. Ryder is effective as Kuklinski’s wife. There are some great cameos by A-list talent, including James Franco as a victim, David Schwimmer as a mob associate who gets too ambitious and Stephen Dorff as Kuklinski’s disturbed and incarcerated brother.

Writer-director Ariel Vromen shows a sure touch with the crime genre and knows how to set moods with the sets, actors and camera that hold us spellbound. It’s not a great film as a work of art but it’s very well crafted and Vromen did get several strong, even indelible performances, the most important of course belonging to Shannon, who is an absolute force of nature. As the killer, he is scary, unhinged and even charismatic. He makes you understand how Kuklinski got away with his crimes for so long because the killer could submerge himself in the everyday world of ephemera. And yet Shannon never lets you forget that at the same time his character is the embodiment of a dark soul and black heart who can rationalize the most horrific deeds. I won’t forget his portrayal of Kuklinski and I feel compelled now to seek out more of Shannon’s work because he is an essential actor for our times.

Hot Movie Takes – “Tuesdays with Morrie”

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

It took me nearly two decades to finally see the made-for-television movie made from the best-selling book”Tuesdays with Morrie” and it was certainly worth the wait. This sweet but never maudlin 1999 work about one man’s dying process and another man’s way of living is one of the most life-affirming things I’ve ever seen. Leave it to Oprah Winfrey to produce this movie in order to bring its message to the masses. The late Jack Lemmon was one of those rare Old Hollywood leading men who never grew stale as an actor and who kept delivering great performances at the end of his career. Only a couple years before his own death, he is remarkably full and fresh in the role of Morrie Schwartz, the late sociology professor whose joy of living never wanes, not even in his end of life journey suffering from ALS. Always the teacher, he had one last series of lessons to give – all centered around the art of how to live. The recipient and conduit of his lessons turned out to be a former student of his at Brandeis University, sportswriter Mitch Albom, played by Hank Azaria, who went from saying a simple, single goodbye to his favorite prof to spending countless Tuesdays with him and recording the old man’s wise ruminations on the meaning of life. Azaria well captures the neurotic, work-obsessed, too-busy-to-stop-and-smell-the-roses Albom, who after much prodding from Morrie learns to reorder his priorities and take time out for what really matters.

Some of the movie’s best moments are when Morrie tries to get the uptight Albom to acknowledge his discomfort with human touch and outward displays of emotion. Morrie has just the right disarming charm and slyness to get under Mitch’s skin but never in a mean-spirited or self-serving way. By nurture or nature or both, Morrie is a giver, not a taker. Now that he’s dying, he’s about as free as a human being can be when facing his own mortality. His only agenda is to die on his terms, which means surrounded by friends and family, and in the process to impart those lessons so that others may benefit from them. Living and dying with grace is Morrie’s credo. Sensing that Mitch has no spiritual anchor in his life and is afraid to commit to anything or anyone outside his career, including his longtime girlfriend, Morrie seizes upon his pupil’s desire to preserve his philosophies. Albom’s instincts as a reporter tell him something important is being shared that needs to be documented but what he doesn’t understand or acknowledge at first is that his own heart and soul ache for the very wisdom Morrie offers. Albom starts by recording Morrie’s free-form dissertations as an act of posterity but it turns into receiving the perspectives and instructions he needs for his own life. The film ends before his later realization that he’s collected the most profound material of his professional career and that it needs to be shared with the world. I like the fact the story concludes before Albom commercializes what was an intensely personal experience. There’s nothing wrong with him unexpectedly making millions off the sell of the original book and the related books that followed because Morrie wanted these lessons to be his enduring legacy.

Inspiring others to live well and joyously would have given him great pleasure. But depicting that would have taken away from the one-on-one meeting of minds and hearts that is the power of this film.

Writer Tom Rickman’s words and director Mick Jackson’s visuals accentuate the beautiful spirit that Morrie embodied. I particularly liked the images of Morrie dancing, gazing out his bedroom window at the glory of nature and appreciating all the simple yet vital pleasures still afforded him, such as eating his favorite foods and visiting with his favorite people. Morrie accepts that he will eventually lose all control of his own body and become completely dependent on others for even his most basic needs. Rather than rage at God or the world for being handed a raw deal, he sees this turn of events as the natural course of things as life cycles from the dependence we all have as newborns to the dependance we all have, if we live long enough, at the end. In truth, he said, our need for love and connection, our dependence on being held and touched, is actually greatest during whatever lifespan we’re granted between birth and death. Instead of spending the bulk of our lives accumulating or chasing things, he tells us, we should live in the moment and focus on giving and receiving love. It’s the one thing we all crave and can never get enough of. To love and to be loved is the true meaning of life is the message of this movie.

“When you know how to die, you know how to live,” Morrie instructs. “Dying is just one thing to be sad about. Living unhappily, that’s another matter.”

Lemmon’s natural decency and vulnerability and his own nearing mortality made him a perfect choice for Morrie. Azaria brought just the right mix of innocence and skepticism to Mitch.

I found an excellent upload of “Tuesdays with Morrie” on YouTube, but I can’t promise that it’s still available. It’s worth checking out though.

https://www.movie-trailer.co.uk/trailers/1999/tuesdays-with-morrie

 

Hot Movie Takes – “It’s a Wonderful Life”

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

Here are some thoughts on a 1946 holiday movie staple that has the power to restore hope in humanity.

For many of us, the ugly, vitriolic tenor of the current culture wars combined with the incendiary comments and divisive ideas expressed by President Donald Trump have cast a dark pall on things. That’s why there’s no better time than now to watch that great American chestnut of cinema, “It’s a Wonderful Life,” than this particular holiday season.

Film Streams in Omaha is screening this tragic-comic masterwork directed by Frank Capra Dec. 23-28 at the Ruth Sokolof Theater in North Downtown.

The project was Capra’s response to the horrors of the recently concluded Second World War and the recent Great Depression. What Americans today forget is that while the Allied victory over Germany and Japan was greeted with relief and jubilation, the scars of that conflict and of the harsh realities experienced by those who fought it took a deep psychic toll on the nation. Just as America lost its innocence during the Civil War and World War I, it lost any pretense of an idealized world following WWII. Oh, sure, the nation got on with the business of work, marriage, family and the creation of the consumer age we’re now hostage to, but Capra knew that Americans were an insecure, wounded people behind all that bluster and bravado. It’s no coincidence that that dark cinema of film noir found its apex of expression in the years immediately following the war.

The message of the 1946 film has never been more relevant now as people reeling from the last several months despair over policies and executive orders that threaten to undo the fabric of a nation that for all its inequities does have programs and measures in place to protect the vulnerable among us.

Many folks upset with the political-social climate and fearful of what might be in store the coming years. feel hopeless, as if their votes and wishes don’t count, and perhaps even harbor a sense that they just don’t matter in the cold calculus of the new world order.

If you’re familiar with the Capra classic movie’s plot, then you know that protagonist George Bailey played by James Stewart is a small town dreamer forever putting off his personal desire for adventure in service to his family’s proletariat building and loan. The business is the last hold out against ruthless Bedford Falls tycoon Mr. Potter, a banker and real estate magnet whose power grab lust will make him stop at nothing to crush his competition. Where George and his late father before him have worked with clients of all races and ethnicities to get them in or keep them in modest homes they could afford, Potter’s only interest is the bottom-line, and if that means pricing them out, then so be it. He represents the bourgeoisie at its most heartless.

It is the classic conflict between the Everyman and the Privileged Man, between the haves and the have-nots, between the forces of good and the forces of evil, between fascism and pluralism. All sorts of parallels can be found between Potter and Trump. Both are pompous assess who are unfeeling and unbending in their pursuit of wealth and power and they make no apologies for the corners they cut, the contracts they break, the lies they tell and the damage they do.

George Bailey is a young progressive who would have supported FDR then and would have backed Hilary or Bernie today. The disenchanted majority who feel Trump usurped their presumptive president elect by using fear and hate mongering rhetoric are adrift now, no longer at all certain that the democratic process works the way it was intended. Many have thrown up their hands in frustration and worked themselves into fits of anger, desperation and anxiety over the reality of the Trump administration. In the movie. George loses his faith in America and humanity when things go from bad to worse and it appears to him that all his work and life have been a waste. The tale, which can best be described as a light romantic comedy fantasy meets gritty film noir fable, has George grow so depressed that he contemplates suicide, uttering the wish that he’d never been born. A surreal heavenly intervention shows him how different the world would have been and how empty the lives of his family and friends would be without him having made his mark.

The populist message with spiritual overtones is a reminder, even a challenge that life is a gift that we are expected to cherish and that our imprint, no matter how small or insignificant we believe it to be, is irreplaceable and unique only to us. In this spirit, “It’s a Wonderful Life” calls each of us to do our part in finding our path and following it to do unto others as we would have them do to us. We may not like or understand the path, especially when it grows hard and we grow weary, but it is in the doing that we fulfill our destiny.

In an interview I did with Oscar-winning filmmaker Alexander Payne he expressed his immeasurable regard for the professional extras who once populated the Hollywood studio factory system. He marveled at how perfectly cast these variations of character actors were and how fully realized, detailed, curated and directed were the business they did and the wardrobe they wore, whether in the background or foreground of shots. He used the example of “Casablanca” as being the epitome of this. “It’s a Wonderful Life” illustrates the same. By the way, the reason why Payne discussed extras at some length with me is that he used a lot of them, as in hundreds, not ever all together in any one shot or scene mind you, in his new movie “Downsizing.”

By the way, “Downsizing’s” own themes become ever more prescient with each new American blunder and world crisis. Just as “Downsizing” will reflect back to us where America and the world have come and where it might go, “It’s a Wonderful Life” is an ageless morality play in the Shakespearean and Dickensian mold that reveals universal truths of the human heart and soul in extremis.

“It’s a Wonderful Life” has had a profound effect on me the many times I’ve seen it and I have no doubt it will move me again when I watch it this holiday season.

After seeing Payne’s “Downsizing” twice now, I believe it induces the same kind of hope in humanity affect that “It’s a Wonderful Life” does. Look for an upcoming post about that new film’s deeply humanistic themes.

Hot Movie Takes – “Manhunt: Unabomber”

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

The Netflix original dramatic miniseries “Manhunt” follows the extensive FBI investigation that was mounted to find the Unabomber. The series focuses much of its attention on a three year period from 1995 to 1997 during which profiler James R. Fitzgerald (Sam Worthington) used the then-theoretical forensic linguistics approach to find signature traits in word usage and spelling unique to the suspect. The method ultimately identified Ted Kaczynski (Paul Bettany) as the domestic terrorist whose homemade mail bombs killed three and maimed nearly two dozen others over about a two-decade span. Mega box office star Worthington (“Avatar”) is not often given his due as a serious actor, which is regrettable, because he has serious chops and here as Fitzgerald, the profiler who gets too close to the case, he once again proves he can not only carry a film but dive deep inside a troubled character. Bettany makes the most of playing the brilliant, mentally disturbed Kaczynski. He finds just the right balance portraying someone who is rationale in some respects and unhinged in others and who is part pathetic victim and part evil monster. Kaczynski can be viewed in many ways but at some level he’s the product of a maladjusted youth, of criminally inhumane experiments he was subjected to at Harvard and of longstanding untreated mental illnesses. He never learned healthy socialization skills, much less coping mechanisms. When he broke with society to live in isolation in the wilds of Montana, he had nobody or nothing to check his craziness and his propensity for wanting to harm others. Thus, he acted out his anger at real and imagined slights, betrayals and threats in a terror campaign that was his sick way of gaining control and recognition.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about the film is that it portrays the highly intelligent Fitzgerald as strongly identifying with the Unabomber as a fellow oddball or freak who runs afoul of authority for his unconventional ideas. When Fitz, as he’s called, begins pursuing forensic linguistics as the means to ID the Unabomber, he’s met with skepticism, even outright hostility by his superiors and colleagues. At one point, he’s even thrown off he case. When Fitz’s all-consuming focus with catching the Unabomber begins damaging his relationship with his wife and kids, he eventually feels the sting of loss and abandonment that the suspect felt in his own life. Later, after Kaczynski has been captured,Fitz must deal with his FBI bosses being lauded for breaking the case and one even taking credit for the forensic linguistics method as his own. Much like his adversary, Fitz is a narcissist eager to play the victim.

The story shows that Fitzgerald tended to agree with Kaczysnki’s rant against technological society turning us into automatons whose free will has been suppressed by our dependence on and enslavement to machines. In the course of examining the Unabomber’s letters and manifesto, Fitz pieces together a profile of a man who gave up everything and went off the grid to ensure his personal freedom. Fitz admires that the suspect had the courage to live out his convictions no matter what. Of course, Fitz also understands what the Unabomber does not: that instead of freedom, the Unabomber made himself a slave to his own warped sense of being wronged. Kaczynski’s mind and cabin essentially become prisons he cannot escape. He is powerless against his own dark obsessions and he turns his home into a terroristic weapons factory that represents death, not life.

The story departs from its primary three year timeline toexplore the probable childhood roots of Kaczynski’s mental disturbance and these are some of the most telling moments of the series. While Fitz dominates the first half of the series, Kaczynski is the predominant figure the second half and this proves essential to understanding the life the Unabomber led in the wild and to how he resorted to terror to repress old and new feelings of rage, inadequacy, discomfort, longing and loneliness. He forever reopened his wounds and wallowed in self-pity. By the time Kaczynski and Fitz finally meet, it’s a fascinating confrontation between two men on opposite sides of the law who see more than a little of themselves in each other, especially their shared intelligence and dedication. Fitz is tasked with getting Kaczynski to confess his guilt and their meetings become tests of will and wits.

Chris Noth and Jeremy Bobb are fine as the two by-the-book FBI superiors who doubt Fitz’s concepts and methods but are desperate for any line of inquiry that will crack the case. For my tastes, too much time and attention is paid to the push-back Fitz gets from them. Less would have been more, though the emphasis on this does strongly establish a key way in which Fitz identifies with Kaczynski.

Because the real James Fitzgerald is a producer, co-writer and adviser for the series, it must be assumed the movie’s account of events is heavily influenced by his interpretation or version of things. The saving grace from any ax he may have to grind against certain FBI figures and any tendency he has to make himself a martyr or unsung hero is that he’s portrayed as a flawed human being who could be cold, distant and insensitive to those around him.

Creator and co-writer Andrew Sodroski and director Greg Yaitanes deserve props for creating a thoroughly engrossing miniseries that mostly depends on carefully-calibrated psychological conflict and not sensationalism for its dramatic currency. A real attempt is made to explore the perpetrator as well as the man whose efforts caught him and this examination yields great insights into the intricacies and hurts of the human mind and heart. Great pains were also taken to show the personal fall-out and cost that both men experience in pursuit of their obsessions and the effect it has on those that care about them. The well-cast series boasts an impressivedepth of talent from top to bottom. Kudos to the production design, art direction, set decoration and location teams for providing the authentic settings that help give this film a strong sense of place wherever and whenever the action is set. Kudos as well to cinematographer Zack Galler and music director Gregory Tripi for enhancing the dramatic tension, not distracting from it, with an air of menace in their work.

Two movies with similar titles bear mentioning: “Man Hunt” is a classic 1941 suspense film directed by Fritz Lang about an expert big-game hunter who stalks Hitler before the outbreak of World War II; “Manhunter” is a 1986 Michael Mann thriller that was the first film adaptation of the Hannibal Lecter novels by Thomas Harris. Both of these are superb films. “Man Hunt” is an adaptation of the novel “Rogue Male,” which was made into a very fine 1976 film of the same title.

http://www.indiewire.com/2017/06/manhunt-unabomber-trailer-sam-worthington…

 

Hot Movie Takes – “Citizen Kane”

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

So, why does “Citizen Kane,” a 1941 black and white dramatic movie made within the Hollywood studio system, long before the Method or social realism or psychoanalysis infiltrated the mainstream industry, still hold a place of reverence as one of the greatest films, indeed often ranked THE greatest film, ever made? The answer is complicated but it has everything to do with its brash genius writer-director-star, the late Orson Welles, and how he and his collaborative team went about consciously breaking barriers and taboos to create an audacious work of art and entertainment that dared to be different and to ruffle feathers. That he engineered this feat with complete creative control right under the noses of RKO studio bosses in what was his first feature film is a remarkable accomplishment that had no precedent and can’t be repeated. In all the decades that have followed, perhaps only a handful of American filmmakers have been able to even come close to what he did in a single film. Stanley Kubrick came the closest with “2001: A Space Odyssey.” Francis Ford Coppola made three remarkable films in a seven year span: “The Godfather” “The Godfather II” and “Apocalypse Now”Terence Malick made his most enduring masterpiece with “The Thin Red Line.”

Some could argue for other filmmakers and films, such as Michael Cimino with “The Deer Hunter” and “Heaven’s Gate” and James Cameron with “Titanic” and “Avatar”

But all of those films were made well into their makers’ careers.

What Welles achieved in his early 20s has been much admired and emulated but nevermatched because he packed so much that was new or innovative or revelatory or brave into that one film of his, which it can never be emphasized enough, was his first of any scale beyond a home movie type experiment he made years earlier.

He came to Hollywood as a much hyped radio-theater actor, playwright and director and revealed himself a fully formed cinema master right out of the gate. That’s why he was variously described as a prodigy and a genius. The audacity of his talent and ambition was not well received by executives and producers. From the start, he was regarded by the controlling interests and stakeholders as a threat to their factory-like apparatus because he was so accomplished and independent and so dismissive of their manufacturing-like sensibilities. Everything they represented ran counter to his maverick artistic impulses. But because moviemaking at that scale is both an art and a business, he depended on their money and resources to actually realize his dreams. When his “Kane” ran afoul of William Randolph Hearst whose media empire blacklisted it in newspapers and theaters despite the picture being considered an artistic and entertainment trump, that prestige held little water for a studio that didn’t get the return on investment in it they expected. Then, when Welles went AWOL upon completing the shoot for his second and arguably even better movie, “The Magnificent Ambersons,” also for RKO, his absence and arrogance gave the studio all the excuse they needed to take the film out of his hands and to edit it against his wishes. Thus, he became a rebel, a sell-out and an irresponsible egoist all at once. He never recovered his Hollywood career and from that point on he was a vagabond and gypsy filmmaker. His only Hollywood return as a writer-director resulted in another masterpiece, “Touch of Evil,” but it too was taken out of his hands.

“Kane” is a miracle of cinema because it could only happen once. Welles was the right person at the right time at the right place to turn carte blanche freedom into enduring brilliance by melding radio, theater. literature and film techniques to create a vital work that is both of its time and timeless. Nothing like “Kane” appeared before it and nothing like it has appeared since in terms of unabashed creativity, boldness and verve. Welles set out to shake up cinema and that’s exactly what he did and in some ways the medium still hasn’t caught up to him and that film despite him being gone 32 years and “Kane” being 76 years old. In some ways, he was never forgiven for being so good, indeed unsurpassable, right from the very start. He could never live it down. I suspect “Citizen Kane” still ends up at the top or near the top of all-time best film polls and surveys and lists in part out of blind homage and de facto reverence status. But the thing is, the film totally deserves the massive attention, critical analysis and praise it’s received because of all the inventive and effective things it did in lighting, photography, editing, sound and so on that pushed narrative cinema to its limits.

And there’s never been a better time to watch “Kane” then now because its title character is somewhat remindful of Donald Trump. Charles Foster Kane inherits great wealth and all the entitlement it brings and he eventually builds a media and diversified empire as well as many monuments to himself. He assiduously acquires things. He attacks and bullies anyone who gets in his way. Then, in order to feed his boundless ego, he reaches for political power in the belief that he is the people’s champion. The fictional story of Kane and the true life story of Trump diverge at that point, but there’s plenty of time for Trump to suffer the same great fall as Kane.

Hot Movie Takes– “Where the Day Takes You”

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

A while ago, I stopped worrying about not seeing the hot new movies while they’re in first or even second release runs at the theaters. For my tastes, the theater experience is overrated and, anyway, I tend to prefer getting lost in movies in the privacy of my own home, unencumbered by distractions not of my own making. One of the joys of movies is that there are so many from the past to be discovered. Found one last night on Netflix that had completely escaped my attention when it came out in 1992 – “Where the Day Takes You.” The tagline about a young homeless man who tries being a kind of surrogate father to the L.A. street youth whose lifestyle he knows all too well peaked my interest, as did a cast stellar credits list:

Dermot Mulroney

Sean Astin

Balthazar Getty

James Le Gros

Will Smith

Peter Dobson

Kyle MacLachlan

Lara Flynn Boyle

Ricki Lake

Laura San Giacomo

Adam Baldwin

Alyssa Milano.

I mean, that has to be one of the best young adult casts ever assembled. It certainly ranks right up there with the casts Francis Ford Coppola pulled together for “The Outsiders” and “Rumble Fish,” the two films that “Where the Day Takes You” most reminded me of, although some of it also reminded me of “River’s Edge.” I was also intrigued by the fact that I’d never heard of the film’s director, Marc Rocco, He co-wrote this dramatic feature as week. I went into the movie hoping for the best and it far exceeded my expectations, It is a heavy, mature and very gritty look at the castaway life it portrays. A sure sign that Rocco mostly got this tough material right is that despite all those familiar faces, you feel so immersed in the story and the characters that you forget about the stars and the personas we’re by now so familiar with. Of course, at the time the film came out, most of these actors were only just starting to get known, which may have made their performances in this film ever more startling for audiences then because they were blank slates in our minds. Aside from a bit of dramatic and commercial contrivance here and there, this movie compares favorably with more contemporary indie life-on-the-streets movies such as “Imperial Dreams” and “Moonlight,” though its sense of verisimilitude and its aesthetic ambitions don’t quite rise to those two admittedly masterful films.

I’ve never been a big fan of Mulroney’s work but I really like him in this role as King, the mentor figure to this band of lost youth. He has sort of a Matt Dillon-Sean Penn tough-tender thing going on here that works for the part. The great revelation to me was Getty, who found just the right raw intensity and unpredictability as a disturbed young man capable of exploding at any moment. It’s a performance James Dean would have admired. Just a year before his sweet take in “Rudy,” Astin is a low down, dirty, hopeless strung out addict here. MacLachlan also goes against type as a callous dealer who treats people and their habits as commodities for profit or loss. Le Gros is a sweet-natured good old boy whose only agenda is a good time. Smith is a double amputee who talks smack and is a friend to the tribe that King leads. Boyle is a newcomer to the street. She’s unaware of the dangers around her and finds her protector in King, whose vulnerable side she’s able to eventually draw out, Dobson is King’s downright evil rival. Lake is a smart-alecky hanger-on. Milano is a street hustler. Baldwin is a cop who hates this population and has it it for King. Giacomo is a psychologist interviewing King.

Stephen Tobolowsky and Christian Slater have small but telling roles as a john and as a probation officer, respectively.

Some Melissa Etheridge songs supply the searing musical backdrop for this fever dream story with a fatalistic yet redemptive end written all over it.

I would like to see some of Rocco’s other features. Unfortunately, there won’t be any new ones because he died at 46. If you look at his Wikipedia entry or IMDB page you’ll note that his movies almost always attracted a host of name actors, which indicates that this writer-director created scripts and made movies that caught the interest of A-listers. Certainly, this film has some sharply delineated, multi-dimensional characters, potent themes and disturbing, moving scenes and really never lags or lapses. It’s made by someone who was a careful observer, original thinker and visual stylist without being overly conscious about it. Rocco wasn’t a household name as a filmmaker but based on my seeing this single feature of his and reading about his others, it’s clear that he was one of the more accomplished directors of his generation and that he leaned toward dark subject matter that explored characters in various states of grace and extremis. We’re all the poorer for him not being around to give us more visions of ourselves.

“Where the Day Takes You” is on Netflix.

 

Hot Movie Takes– “Wheelman”

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

The new Netflix original crime film “Wheelman” is a “Run Lola Run” meets “Fast and Furious” hybrid with a bit of “The Getaway,” “Ronin,” “Reservoir Dogs” and “Pulp Fiction” thrown into the mix. This is maybe a 3 1/2 out of 5 stars feature, so it’s nowhere near being an instant classic, although I can see it as a cult favorite. Lead actor Frank Grillo, who also produced, plays the title character – a hardened, ex-con gear-head with high level skill behind the wheel of a souped-up getaway car. That makes him an expert accomplice on bank robberies and other criminal endeavors. His very specific, precise job is supposed to be limited to getting the crew cleanly to and from the target without him getting his hands dirty. Only on the particular job that the film’s story centers on, the Wheelman finds himself the unwitting pawn in a mob war that forces him to play both ends against the middle just in order to survive. His none too bright, strung out buddy Clay has gotten him in a fix that has two rival outfits vying for the same $230,000 bank loot the wheelman ends up in possession of but the real beef between the gangs is territorial. Each is willing to do anything to be top dog and to save face. Almost too late, the Wheelman learns he’s been set up and the only thing he wants to do is to deliver the money and go home to his daughter. But the bad guys are holding him responsible for a job gone wrong and when one of the outfits makes threats against his family, he must choose a side and hope for the best. And because the wheelman abides by a certain code of principles, he won’t allow himself or those he loves to become victims.

Almost all of the action takes place within two cars – the supercharged ride he’s provided for the job and his own personal Porshe when everything goes to hell – and the entire story plays out over the course of a single, eventful night. This is a high-octane, intense piece of work that is close in on Grillo virtually the whole way. It demands that he command our attention with charisma and authority, edginess and brio. He’s largely up to the task, too. Much of his performance revolves around him responding to characters he engages with on the phone. Many of those conversations are tense and full of conflict, rage, rants and threats. That frankly gets repetitive and some of the power of those verbal confrontations lose their punch as a result. But as a narrative device, it still works because those interactions do move the story forward even when it seems as if they’re retreading the same ground. Certain things are established in those exchanges that pay off later. For example, we learn something about his 13-year-old daughter, Katie (Catkin Carmichael), whom he’s trying to get to mind him, but she’s strong-willed like him. We also learn that she’s been doing a lot of high performance driving on tracks under her father’s tutelage. But mainly we learn that the Wheelman’s partner, Clay, has betrayed him and that only one of the three treacherous men that the Wheelman is negotiating with on the phone can be trusted. Maybe.

In his attempt to deliver the money without getting killed for his trouble he’s variously pursued, shot at, forced to beat out a confession and to defend himself – ultimately being responsible for several deaths. He also has to rely on his protege to save his ass. In the process, h e does a lot of fancy, evasive driving to stay alive. Through it all, the professional in him doesn’t allow himself to lose his cool.

Writer-director Jeremy Rush shows real talent and verve in keeping this taut neo-noir thriller in high gear, He is no doubt a huge fan of Quentin Tarantino’s work, whose influence shows all over the film in its dark themes and attitudes and in its sarcasm, It’s a very impressive debut feature and I suspect we’ll be hearing more from Rush.

“Wheelman” is now on Netflix.

Hot Movie Takes – “Long Shot”

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

The new original Netflix documentary “Long Shot” is a microcosm of how prone the American law enforcement and criminal justice systems are to human error, racism, incompetence ad intransigence. Every human field of endeavor has these same inherent weaknesses because even the best intentioned individuals are flawed. We can tolerate this as part of the price of human fallibility so long as the stakes aren’t life and death. But when someone is falsely arrested and charged with a capital crime the way Juan Catalan was, someone’s future and life is on the line. The only thing that got Catalan off was the existence of extraordinary video evidence and cell phone pinging records usually unavailable to defendants that proved beyond a reasonable doubt he wasn’t in the vicinity of the crime that Los Angeles police and prosecutors say he committed.

Catalan is Latino. At the time of his arrest he had a very short nonviolent criminal record consisting of one arrest, when he drove a motor vehicle for his older brother Mario who was a habitual thief and had a long criminal record. Juan worked full time and helped support his two daughters. When a woman was shot and killed at point blank range, the lazy cops, operating on scant and sketchy eyewitness testimony and biased generalizations, generated a list of not only the usual suspects but of any Latino male even remotely resembling the generic composite sketch created. Because Catalan’s brother was a co-defendant in an earlier case involving the victim, Juan was in the courtroom when Mario testified. and based on that guilt by association appearance in court and the eyewitness identifying him from among many other alleged suspects, Juan was arrested when for the woman’s murder. Under interrogation and with no legal representation present, but with the questioning recorded on tape. Catalan repeatedly denied any involvement in the crime. At the time, under all the stress of being accused of murder, he was not able to provide a specific, verifiable alibi for where he was the night of the incident, which happened to be Mother’s Day. Then Juan remembered that that same evening he’d taken his daughter to a Dodgers game. He’s a lifelong fan who’s attended hundreds of games. They were joined that night at the ballpark by a cousin and a friend. Juan’s girlfriend searched his place for the tickets that had been given him and found the stubs.

This is where Todd Melnick, his attorney, went to great lengths to place Juan at that game. He worked with the Dodgers to find out precisely where Juan, his girl and the others sat and if any fans in the same section could corroborate their presence. None were willing to swear on oath that it was Juan. Then the attorney got the Dodgers to let him view the roaming stadium camera videos and he was able to pinpoint a shot of Juan and his daughter but the resolution was terrible and therefore inadmissible. Finally, in a twist of fate almost too good to be true except that it is, Juan recalled there was some extracurricular video-film activity that took place during the game in the very section he sat in. The attorney checked and discovered that the hit HBO show “Curb Your Enthusiasm”captured shots inside and outside the ballpark with star-creator Larry David and an actress. On a side note: I happened to see that episode, “Carpool Lane.” In it, David is on his way to a Dodgers game when he gets stuck in traffic and he picks up a prostitute in order to qualify for driving in the faster carpool lane.

Juan even recalled that at one point he and his little girl left their seats to get something from the concessions area in the concourse and when they tried to return to their seats, they were stopped by a production assistant. The producers let the attorney view the raw footage and, sure enough, anyone watching can plainly see Juan and his girl walking down the aisle and returning to their seats just as David gets up and walks up the same aisle, passing them just as they settle into their seats. Additional shots from different angles further confirm Juan being there. But that still wasn’t enough to get Juan freed because cell phone records showed he and his girlfriend exchanging calls around the time the murder happened. The last bit of convincing evidence to save Juan was unassailable proof that his call’s were made right by Dodger stadium, a considerable distance from the scene of the crime, at the time the murder went down.

Still, it required a judge to have the charges dismissed and Juan set free. This only occurred after Juan was behind bars four years and endured countless hearings. Clearly, the investigating officers and the prosecutor in the case decided that he was guilty until proven innocent based on weak eyewitness testimony and questionable identification, no real investigation into his emphatic denials and character references and their profiling him based on his ethnicity, appearance and associations.

Director Jacob LaMendola does a commendable job telling a complex story with clarity, taste and empathy. Without ever exploiting the subject matter, LaMendola’s 40 minute film is a deeply moving indictment of authority figures playing with people’s lives. Sadly, as well all know, far too many people are wrongfully accused. In Juan’s case and in cases like it, the powers that be play God and care more about filling quotas and making perceptions, hunches, assumptions and biases come true than they do about gathering facts and discovering the truth. Juan did win a civil suit against the City of Los Angeles, but It’s safe to say he’d rather have those lost years back than the money. Amazingly, he seems to have come out of this traumatizing experience without much bitterness or aniymosity. He’s a sweet man in love with life but forever now wary or aware of what can befall us or as the film puts it, of “what if…” What if he didn’t go to the game that night? What if his girlfriend didn’t find the stubs? What if he wasn’t captured on video? What is his attorney was a deadbeat or just not that committed to his defense? What if he’d given up or capitulated or confessed to something he didn’t do? What if the judge ruled against him?

http://www.slate.com/blogs/browbeat/2017/08/31/trailer_for_netflix_s_documentary_long_shot_video.html

 

Hot Movie Takes– “All Good Things”

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

The problem with a movie whose protagonist is a nihilistic sociopath is that, well, its protagonist is a nihilistic sociopath. That is ultimately why Andrew Jarecki’s 2010 film “All Good Things” left me feeling empty and uninvolved despite its intriguing plot, good dialogue, solid acting and drawn-from-real-life-story source material. Ryan Gosling is well cast as David Marks, the damaged son of a ruthless and corrupt New York City real estate magnate, but the trouble is that even when Gosling is playing more well-adjusted characters he has a rather inscrutable persona that’s hard to read and engage, and here he’s playing a nut job who conceals from himself and others the depths of his own disturbance. That leaves us with a dour, closed character study that doesn’t reveal much of anything beyond what we’re shown and that is more than a little murky and open to wide interpretation. About all we really know about him from the film is that he was traumatized by seeing his mother kill herself, he underwent extensive psychotherapy and hated his father (played by Frank Langella). Then there’s his wife Katie played by Dunst, who’s unenviably tasked with playing a kind if sphinx herself. She’s a weak domestic violence victim unable to directly confront his deviousness and she’s always returning to him despite his escalating callousness and abuse. She eventually turns to drugs to numb her pain and escape her nightmare. With two such unsympathetic and emotionally distant characters, it’s hard to care very much what happens to them, which I can’t imagine is what the filmmakers intended, but that’s what they’ve given us. Despite more than once being tempted to stop watching. I stayed with the movie to the end because it is well made and it’s story is compelling – if for no other reason than on a prurient interest basis. In the case of Marks, who is the monster amongst us here, I wanted to witness just how far his imbalance and evil could take him, and it turns out it took him far down a dark path of murder and misery.

The story of Marks is based on the life events of Robert Durst, who was never implicated in the missing persons case involving his wife Kathleen McCormack but is now widely considered to have killed her. At the time of her disappearance though, Durst was never even a suspect. The film implies that his family’s political ties and money protected Durst from official suspicion. Members of his family reportedly began fearing for their own lives at the hands of Durst, whom they knew to be sick and dangerous.

Years later, Durst did become the chief suspect in the murders of two friends, Susan Berman (Deborah Lerhman in the movie) and Morris Black (Malvern Bump in the movie). Authorities came after him around the same time that Jarecki reached out to Durst and began conducting a series of recorded interviews with him that became the core of the HBO documentary mini-series “The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst.” I have a feeling that acclaimed and controversial docu-series may be stronger than the earlier dramatic feature Jarecki made or at least that it needs to be seen in order to give that feature film more context. Of course, a film should be able to stand on its own merits without that kind of context. And while I have serious reservations about “All Good Things,” it’s far from being a bad movie. In fact, it’s pretty darn good and at times very good. It just fails to connect enough dots to make it a completely satisfying work.

Gosling is appropriately creepy as Marks/Durst but his lack of charisma, though perhaps right for the part, does nothing to draw one in. Dunst is just okay as his long suffering wife but as usual with her I had trouble fully connecting with her character. Langella is fine as the father, who is a monster in his own way. Philip Baker Hall is entertaining as the quirky, deranged neighbor and accomplice who has no idea how in over his head he is with Marks/Durst. Lily Rabe is perhaps the most alive actor in the whole piece as Susan Berman/Deborah Lehrman. Kristen Wiig has a small but affecting role as an enabling friend of Katie’s.

Perhaps the most disturbing thing about the story is that many people in Durst’s life knew or suspected that he was deranged and dangerous and did nothing about it. The truth is, in cases like this, there’s very little one can do legally to protect and prevent mayhem because the law is predicated on only acting when there is an evidence based clear and present danger to one’s self or others. In real life, things aren’t so clear-cut and that’s how monsters like Durst get away with their crimes.

The film’s director, Andrew Jarecki, is not to be confused with his two even more accomplished filmmaker brothers, documentarian Eugene Jarecki (“The Wars of Henry Kissinger,” “Reagan,” “Promised Land”) and doc and feature director Nicholas Jarecki (“Arbitrage”). This has to be the First Family of Filmmakers in America today.

“All Good Things” is now available on Netflix.

 

Hot Movie Takes– “The Interview”

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

Hands-down, the best film I’ve seen this year is a critically acclaimed, though obscure 1998 Australian psychological drama titled “The Interview” starring Hugo Weaving. In this cult classic now available on Netflix he plays Eddie Rodney Fleming, a suspect in a series of missing person cases, only he and we don’t know that at first. The police, guns drawn, storm into his apartment and arrest him. Though not officially charged with anything, he’s brought to a police station for questioning without counsel present. As the interview plays out, it appears the cops have made a gross miscalculation and miscarriage of justice because Fleming genuinely acts innocent. He has plausible deniability about all the evidence the interrogators throw at him. He’s appropriately indignant at being detained and accused of lying. He’s variously intimidated and threatened in the cold, grey, claustrophobic interview room, whose recorded proceedings prove crucial later on. The lead detective and interviewer John Steele (Tony Martin), has a history of extra-legal tactics and while under internal scrutiny for his methods he’s also under pressure from his boss, Jackson, to get results. Steele and his partner, Wayne Prior (Aaron Jeffrey), try everything they know to break Fleming and are frustrated at every turn. They’re also working within a highly charged and politicized police department where conflicting agendas get in the way of good law enforcement.

More than half way through the story, the aggrieved Fleming still proclaims his innocence and though the cops have mounting evidence against him, it’s thin and circumstantial at best. Yet they are convinced they have their man and it’s clear they’ve targeted him for some time in their efforts to build a case that will stick or at least induce him to incriminate himself. Finally, after Steele and Prior acknowledge to Fleming that they are interested in knowing what he knows about a stolen car and the whereabouts of its gone-missing owner-driver, the tired, hungry, irritated and frightened Fleming begins spinning a tale that, to the detectives’ surprise, turns into a full-blown confession. By the time he’s through, there seems no doubt that the mild-mannered Fleming is actually a sociopathic, cold-blooded serial killer. The way that Weaving turns, before our eyes, from falsely accused, cowed suspect to arrogant, calculating, conscience-less murderer is chilling. Beyond implicating himself in a string of murders, his Jekyll and Hyde transformation is all indicated by voice, demeanor, attitude and body language. He doesn’t lift a finger or make a threat to the police, but he’s a monster in their midst just the same. It;s one thing for Martin to have strongly suspect that Fleming was a cunning, remorseless killer, but sitting face to face with that evil is something else. As Fleming reveals, he kills simply because, well, he can, and its surprisingly easy, too, finding victims while hitchhiking. Making Fleming all the more terrifying and dangerous is that he has no apparent motive for what he does and whom he chooses next.

Then, the interrogation is abruptly interrupted by Steele’s superior, who reprimands him on the spot for going too far, Fleming suddenly changes his story and contends everything he said about the murders was made up under the cops’ coercion. He claims to have said these things because it’s what the cops wanted and it was the only way he could think of to get them off his back. What happens next helps elevate an already very good movie into the ranks of all-time best crime pictures because it takes its gamesmanship to another level without, again, ever resorting to mayhem. The film ends with Fleming well satisfied at having out-smarted the police and back on the road hitching rides.

Apparently, there is an alternate ending, which by the way I anticipated as the movie was coming to a close, that suggests the frustrated cops will take matters into their own hands. Even though I’ve only read about this other ending, I think the enigmatic conclusion I saw was the perfect way for this nightmarish tale to leave us wondering about Fleming’s fate and whether the grisly pastime he described was the truth or a concoction, though the filmmaker leaves little doubt it’s the former, not the latter.

Writer-director Craig Monahan and his production team deserve great credit for fashioning a taut psychological thriller on par with the best work of Alfred Hitchcock, Roman Polanski, David Cronenberg and David Lynch. It’s that good. It turns out that Monahan and Weaver have made a string of well-regarded dramatic films together, including “Peaches” and “Healing.” I need to see these. Weaving is, of course, one of the most accomplished and financially successful actors of all time for his co-starring roles in two mega-franchises: “The Matrix” (Agent Smith) and “Lord of the Rings” (“Elrond”) and like the character actor he is at heart he’s able to play many different shades of human nature and disappear in his parts. His performance in “The Interview” is brilliant. He’s well supported by Martin as his foil, Steele, and by a host of other Aussie actors who add a great sense of realism, tension and even black humor to the piece.

“The Interview” is available on Netflix.

Hot Movie Takes– “Against the Wall” & “Andersonville”

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

I recently watched via YouTube two John Frankenheimer films he made for cable networks during the 1990s: “Against the Wall” is his HBO dramatization of the Attica uprising of 1971 and “Andersonville” is his TNT depiction of the notorious Civil War Confederate prisoner of war camp of the title. Frankenheimer made these two, plus three other television movies (“The Burning Season,” “George Wallace,” “Path to War,” all to great acclaim, over an eight year period that brought his career full circle and marked something of a comeback. The director first made a name for himself in the 1950s as one of the preeminent directors of live television dramas. He helmed several of the most lauded feature length live TV dramatic productions and their success landed him in Hollywood. Along with Sidney Lumet, Arthur Penn, Franklin Schaffner, Sam Peckinpah and Robert Altman, he was part of a vanguard of TV directors who invaded the feature film ranks and helped create the New Hollywood with film school wiz kids Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas, Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese. He gained great recognition for his big screen work in the 1960s (“The Manchurian Candidate,” “The Birdman of Alcatraz,” “The Train,” “Seven Days in May”) and then his career faltered somewhat the ensuing three decades, with more misfires than hits. “The French Connection II,” “Black Sunday” and “52-Pickup” marked his best work then before he found himself again by going back to television and then making one last killer feature, “Ronin.” In my opinion, the late Frankenheimer never made a truly great film and the closest he got was “Seven Days in May” and “Ronin.” Even his best work suffers from flaws that show up time and again in his movies. That doesn’t make his movies any less watchable though because he was a great storyteller who knew how to frame and move a story. But his best work, to my eyes only, never rose to the level of the best work of contemporaries like Lumet and Peckinpah.

I’m reviewing “Against the Wall” and “Andersonville” in the same post since they’re both by the same director and they’e both prison films. Though their action is separated by a century and one is a civilian prison and the other a military prison, the human rights violationsand systematic dehumanization closely parallel each other.

“Against the Wall” is a typically well-crafted Frankenheimer film with a tough veneer of reality to it, a characteristic flair for kinetic camera movement and dynamic, mayhem-filled crowd scenes. Where the film lacks is in character development and in settling for cliche over subtlety.

Kyle MacLachlan stars as Mike Smith, the son and nephew of lifer guards at Attica state prison in New York. We meet him after he’s returned home from going off to find himself. He’s come back to working-class rural America. Attica is a factory town and the prison there is referred to as another factory where you can do an “easy eight” (eight-hour shift). Mike’s father, Hal (Harry Dean Stanton) is retired from the prison and runs a bar but his uncle Ed still works at the correctional facility. Mike, whose wife Sharon (a very young Anne Heche) is pregnant with their first child, has resigned himself to work in the family business and his very first days on the job turn out to be a microcosm for the incompetence and cruelty that will spark the riot. He’s given no training. His supervisor, Weisbad (Frederic Forrest) is a sadist. He’s informed that the inmates run the place and the guards are just there to prevent anarchy. Through Mike’s eyes we see that even the prisoners’ reasonable demands are ignored or dismissed. Conditions are terrible. Tensions run high. Prisoners are systematically brutalized, humiliated and degraded. It’s a tragedy and explosion waiting to happen.

Samuel L. Jackson and Clarence Williams III are black activist inmates with very different agendas. As Jamaal, Jackson seeks to work proactively with the administration and the system to improve conditions. As Chaka, Williams wants revenge. Both men get their chance when a seemingly minor incident results in a group of inmates breaking ranks, overpowering their guard and proceeding to wrest controls of entire tiers and cell blocks, eventually overpowering several more guards and releasing the entire prison population out into the yard. There is no possibility of escape since the rest of the guards, by now heavily armed, man the walls looking straight down onto the yard. But the prisoners do have the guards they overran as hostages. Mike, his uncle Ed and Weisbad are among them.

My main issue with the film is the performance of MacLachlan. I honestly didn’t know what he was playing half the time. He’s a limited actor and I feel he got in over his head with the conflicted feelings he was asked to express in this role. Williams plays the patented wild eyed militant that wore thin years ago and here he just retreads the same old ground. Jackson, who can rely too much on sneers and shouts, gives a restrained performance here that helps hold the whole works together and serves as a counterbalance to both Williams and Forrest, another player guilty of over the top emoting.

Carmen Argenziano as the warden is fine if a bit one-note. The same for Philip Bosco as the commissioner. Perhaps the two most effective portrayals are by Harry Dean Stanton and Anne Heche. I think the real problem though is with the script. It’s too thin on character exposition and therefore the characters either come across as stereotypes, rather than archetypes, or as too vague and equivocal, as in the case of MacLachlan.

On the positive side, the movie did keep me engaged and by TV movie standards in the ’90s it has a gritty veracity to it that largely holds up. Frankenheimer was at his best directing scenes of pitched emotion and he had plenty of opportunities here to do so. Where I think he faltered was in striking the right balance between high drama and low drama. Scenes tend to be overplayed or underplayed and it’s more noticeable in this movie than in some of his others because of the wildly fluctuating nature of the events depicted.

The strongest thing the movie has going for it is its unvarnished look at the shit that went down at Attica. This was America at its worst and the problems bound up in that single prison were a reflection of what was happening in prisons all over America, and the sad thing is that even while prison reforms have been enacted, the incarceration culture has only grown.

“Andersonville” represented one of the biggest scaled productions Frankenheimer undertook. It appears that he and his team took great pains to make an historically accurate recreation of the POW camp. Hundreds, perhaps at times thousands of extras filled out the scenes, many of which were shot in awful weather that mirrored what the prisoners endured. The primitive, open stockade without any enclosures for the prisoners was meant to hold a fraction of the men who ended up there. With the Confederacy running desperately short of resources and the prison run by a Mad-Hatter Prussian with a cruel streak, the men were exposed to the elements except for what crude shelters they could erect from whatever scant supplies their knapsacks carried. Thy POWs had no access to clean water except for what rainwater they could collect and their only food was a meager and inconsistent apportionment of mush. Between the weather, the lack of clean water, the starvation diet, no sanitation, no real medical facilities and the overcrowded conditions, disease ran rampant. Nearly one of every four men imprisoned there died.

The story the film tells centers on a unit of Massachusetts men captured during a battle and taken to Andersonville. Through their eyes we are introduced layer by layer to the nightmare of the place. One member of that troop, private Josiah Day (Jarrod Emick) is the main protagonist, and his close comrades include Sergeant McSpadden (Frederic Forrest), Martin) Ted Marcoux) and Billy (Jayce Bartok). When our band of brothers first enters the prison yard they are greeted by Munn (William Sanderson), who attempts to lead them to a certain section on the pretext of protection but he’s intercepted by Dick Potter (Gregory Sporleder), a veteran of the hell-hole and an old comrade assumed killed in action. Dick, who was shot in both legs, walks with a crude crutch and is such a sight with his unkempt shoulder length hair and dirty rags on his back that the men don’t recognize him at first. Dick warns them that Munn is part of a rouge gang of “raiders” who beat and kill fellow Union soldiers to steal their provisions.

Much of the story revolves around the threat of the raiders, led by the flamboyant and treacherous Collins (Frederick Coffin), and the rest of the prison camp working up the will or courage to confront them. Another big thread of the story is the digging of a tunnel led by Sergeant John Gleason (Cliff DeYoung) and his men from a Pennsylvania detachment. They are joined in the endeavor by Josiah and his unit. And then there’s the steadily deteriorating conditions killing off scores of inmates and the harsh, inhuman way the men are treated at the orders of the martinet commandant, Captain Wirz (Jan Triska). William H. Macy plays a visiting Confederate colonel sent to document conditions there and he’s appalled by what he finds.

The performances are universally good and, as usual, Frankenheimer draws us in and moves the story right along, though it does tend to drag a bit toward the end. I think this movie is somewhat stronger than “Against the Wall” and comes close to the filmmaker’s best feature work. I don’t know if Frankenheimer purposely cast mostly then-unknowns in the leading parts but it works to the advantage of the film because we’re not projecting any past performances onto their work.

The roving, hand-held camera shots place us as the viewer right in amongst the prisoners and their misery. Frankenheimer and cinematographer Freddie Francis do a good job of alternating between the intimate, claustrophobic shots and the more establishing shots. We get a good sense for just how large and yet overcrowded the prison is and for where the various segments of it are, such as the raiders’ camp and the contaminated creek, in relation to our protagonists.

Strangely, for all the time and emphasis given over to the digging of the tunnel, I never got a clear sense for where it was in relation to the wall until the tunnelers popped out of the ground to try and make their break for escape and freedom.

POW movies are only as good as the interactions between the inmates, the dramatic tensions between the prisoners and their keepers and the personalities of the characters. If there’s a failing with this film it’s that the most charismatic of the prisoners, Dick Potter, is killed off fairly early on and even though Jarrod Emick is a fine actor his Josiah Day is too placid and passive. The bad guys in this film are far more interesting and tend to throw the whole works out of balance. Frederick Coffin as Collins is wildly entertaining if a bit hammy and Jan Triska as Captain Wirz goes him one further. Carmen Argenziano almost steals the show as the attorney who defends the raiders in a trial the troops hold to bring the vanquished cutthroats to justice. Argenziano is so powerful in his scenes that it practically throws the whole film out of balance. He and Forrest were in Frankenheimer’s “Against the Wall.”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RyyUMEQ2iOk

 

Hot Movie Takes – The Dundee and “Downsizing”

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

A filmmaker and his new film with a message. for our troubled times. His childhood neighborhood theater and his return to his hometown. All of it came together for the grand reopening of the Dundee Theater and the premiere of Alexander Payne’s “Downsizing.”

A Hollywood premiere, Omaha style, unfurled December 15 at the newly made-over Dundee Theater. Favorite son Alexander Payne and star-is-born Hong Chau represented their beautiful new film “Downsizing” at the neighborhood movie house’s grand reopening.

The night’s main attraction screening served up a rare occurrence – a film that largely lived up to the hype surrounding it. With this film Payne has taken themes he’s long been concerned with and married them to planetary issues to produce a work of large scale and big ideas that’s grounded in intimate relationships.

The story imagines Scandinavian scientists finding a process by which humans can be downsized to help mitigate overpopulation and depleted natural resources.

Everyman Paul Safranek of Omaha transitions into the small world, where he meets up with a cosmo Serbian importer, Dusan, and a fierce Vietnamese human rights activist, Ngoc Lan Tran. The supposed paradise of the miniature Leisure Land they live in is a lie, as normal-sized problems of greed, laziness, consumerism and classism are actually magnified there. Outside Leisure Land, abuses of the downsizing process as reprisals strip it of its utopian ideal. Then, with the end of the world drawing near due to melting ice caps, Paul enlists as a pioneer in a bold move to preserve the human species from extinction. At the crucial hour, he must choose between living fully now or giving up this life to be a symbol for a new age.

From the festival circuit through the Omaha premiere, the critical and popular consensus is that Payne’s created his most visually stunning. humanistic and moving picture yet. Certainly his most ambitious. From the moment the story moves from Paul’s drab normal existence to the brave new small world, we’re treated to memorable images: from a Euro party acid trip to a makeshift ghetto housing project to breathtaking Norwegian fjords to a tribe of tree-huggers saying farewell to the world.

Chau is well deserving of the Best Supporting Actress nominations she’s received because her original character anchors the second half of the film and her authentic, heartfelt performance carries the story home. Christoph Waltz is his usual sardonic, charismatic self. Matt Damon delivers the goods as the sweet, slightly pathetic protagonist we project ourselves onto.

The perfect dream Film Streams founder-director Rachel Jacobson had of reopening the theater Payne grew up in with the premiere of his new film is like something from a movie. And in a it-could-only-happen-in-Omaha moment, Payne shared how he walked to the theater the night of the big event because, well, he could. His childhood home, where his mother Peggy still lives, is only four blocks away. The main auditorium at the Dundee is named in her honor, The final credit is a dedication to his late father: “For George.”

The high aesthetics of both the theater and of the movie crowning its rebirth befitted the formal, black-tie December 15 affair whose blue-blood audience helped realize the Film Streams-Dundee marriage. Chau looked every bit the part of a movie star. Payne, the new father, appeared fit and content. Two of Nebraska’s three most famous living figures were in the same room chatting it up: Payne and fellow Diundee resident, Warren Buffett. The billionaire investor’s daughter, Susie Buffett, purchased the Dundee and donated it to Film Streams through her Sherwood Foundation. Susie Buffett was there, too.

It was a celebration all the way around:

Film Streams adding to its inventory of cinema resources and enhancing the local cinema culture

A preservation victory that saved and returned the Dundee to its former glory

A homecoming for Payne

A coming-out party for Chau.

A coronation for what promises to be Payne’s biggest box-office hit and possibly his most awarded film to date.

On a night when the theater and the film shared equal billing, it was hard not to recall all the great cinema moments the Dundee’s offered since the 1920s. Downsizing may not be the best film to ever play there, but it’s safely among the best. It’s also safe to say that the theater’s never looked better. The historic redo features simple, clean designs accented by a black-and-white motif and a new entrance, restaurant and video-bookstore so well integrated into the existing works that they look and feel as though they’ve always been there.

Alley Poyner Macchietto melded the historic and contemporary elements into a pleasing whole in much the same way Payne and his visual effects team blended the film’s CGI and live action into seamless scenes. When the big and small worlds converge onscreen, they hold up as more than arresting set pieces but as compelling dramatic and amusing comedic moments that comment on the smallness of some people’s minds and that size doesn’t really matter.

Just when Payne’s message movie gets too polemical or idealogical, he pokes fun at something to take it down to size. This hugely entertaining movie reminds us, not unlike a Frank Capra movie, that we don’t have to go far or to extremes to find the best things in life, but if we do, it’s best to keep things simple and close to home.

Kudos, too, for Payne taking us on this journey. All of his films are journeys or odysseys of one kind or another, “Downsizing” is the most provocative journey he’s given us yet in one of his films. He and co-writer Jim Taylor went global with this story and therefore we see a diverse, international cast of characters unlike anything we’ve seen in his work. Powerful images and storylines depict the range of humanity and the ways in which people of different cultures , circumstances and beliefs live. Because of the politically charged climate the film resides in both in its fictional story and in real life, these images and plot points are loaded with multiple meanings and interpretations. By the end, we’re left with a positive affirmation about the beauty and folly of human nature and with a challenge to protect and preserve Mother Earth.

Thanks for the message, and welcome back home, Alexander.

Hot Movie Takes– “Tony Bennett: The Music Never Ends”

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

Growing up, I am ashamed to say I felt lukewarm about that Great American Songbook interpreter, Tony Bennett. Maybe it was because crooner Frank Sinatra was such a venerated icon in our extended family – right next to the Pope, JFK and Jesus. But I think it’s mostly because I just didn’t know any better and therefore never made an attempt to understand his gifts as a bel canto stylist. That realization and appreciation has been fairly recent for me and I’m glad to have discovered what many others have known for decades – that Bennett is not only THE popular singer who succeeded Old Blue Eyes but may have surpassed him in the end with his artistry.

Pam and I saw a fine documentary about Bennett several months ago called “The Zen of Bennett” that focused on how he’s remained forever relevant and keeps finding new generations of fans and collaborators. That film also went into how Bennett’s career and life hit a low ebb in the 1970s before his sons took over managing and recording him and the vocalist enjoyed a renaissance that hasn’t stopped yet. We thought we’d learned all there was to know about Bennett, the performer and person, but then we found his new Netflix doc about him called “Tony Bennett: The Music Never Ends” and we discovered some fascinating new facets that helped to enlarge and deepen our understanding, including his long, great friendship with Harry Belafonte. Then there’s the fact that Jimmy Durante, Bob Hope and Pearl Bailey, among others, were important to his career. We also learn some telling things about his experiences in World War II.

The 2007 film originally premiered as part of the “American Masters” series on PBS. The film was co-produced by cinema legend Clint Eastwood, a jazz aficionado and pianist who is shown interacting with Bennett. Those moments together seemed a bit strained or forced to me. But I very much liked the comments and insights by Arthur Penn, Martin Scorsese, Gay Talese and others and I thought the clips of Bennett and some of his own idols, many of whom I got to perform with, were quite well done.

The thing you can’t help but take away from both films is that Bennett is a dear, humble, generous human being with a fine sense of social justice and a never ending respect for his fellow artists. And then there’s his genius.

It’s simply undeniable. I love it when classic artists like Bennett get rediscovered by new generations and champion someone old enough to be their grandfather or great-grandfather as a cool, timeless hipster. As new audiences continue to find, his kind of music never goes out of style.

I also like the fact that Bennett has pretty much always known who he is and therefore, with only a few exceptions, hasn’t tried to be something he’s not. After only a few dramatic acting attempts, he dropped any notion of a screen or stage acting career and focused all his energies on perfecting his true craft. I admire that dedication and we are all the beneficiaries of it.

He was and remains the coolest cat in whatever room or venue he walks in. And his authentic cool vibe really comes from his heart and soul. There’s nothing phony about it.

“Tony Bennett: The Music Never Ends” is on Netflix.

 

Hot Movie Takes– “August Rush”

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

It took me 10 years to finally see “August Rush” and I have to say it instantly captured my imagination from its opening frames right through to its end credits. The spell it cast over me almost never lapsed during the nearly two-hour run time, though those tiny lapses do keep the film from being truly great in my mind. Even so, I can honestly say this now ranks as one of my new all-time favorite movies and I look forward to reliving its magic all over again. The unabashed tearjerker is made at a very high level of craft and reminds one that a film doesn’t have to be a cold aesthetic, intellectual experience to achieve high art, but it can be a warm, emotional, soul-stirring celebration, too. “August Rush” actually works on several levels. It is a throughly engaging, thought-provoking fiction that also happens to be heartwarming, romantic, idealistic and inspirational.

This contemporary fairy-tale takes as its subject matter a child genius or prodigy, played by Freddie Highmore, who emerges fully formed upon the world, missing the absent parents who conceived him and using his gift for music as a kind of sonic tuning fork to find them. The story imagines that this once in a millennium talent results from the one-night communion of two musicians, Lyla and Louis, who get separated and spend the next 11 years in worlds apart. The star-crossed lovers are played by Keri Russell and Jonathan Rhys Meyers. Meanwhile, the child they conceived is denied them both when the birth mother is hit by a car and is told by her controlling father that the child she carried was killed in the accident when in fact the child was given over to the state without her consent. The infant boy’s father is never even informed he existed. The premise is that music and life are harmonic convergences and that no amount of time or distance can keep a musical progeny apart from its root. The boy born out of wedlock, Evan, grows up in the New York foster care system a freak of nature because he communes with and composes to the symphony of sound and music around him without any training or putting anything down on paper. The music is all inside him, always available, just waiting to burst out given the right circumstances. The parents – she’s a classical cellist and he’s a rock singer-songwriter-guitarist – have moved on separately in their lives and yet each feels a void they cannot explain. Meanwhile, Evan, despite evidence to the contrary, is sure that his parents are searching for him and just as certain that music will bring them all together. A sympathetic child welfare officer played by Terrence Howard recognizes the boy’s unusual sensitivity and intelligence. When Evan escapes the rural group home he lives in for the big city, he’s immersed in a whole new sonic world that opens him up to many wonders and possibilities. Then the story takes a Dickensian turn as Evan falls in with an emotionally disturbed Fagin-like figure, The Wizard, played by Robin Williams who takes in lost boys and girls at a condemned theater and has them perform on street corners to earn meal money. The Wizard soon recognizes Evan’s remarkable talents and sets out to exploit them, renaming him August Rush in anticipation of his discovery.

Fortunately, Evan’s discovered by more benevolent forces who also appreciate his special gifts and he ends up being the star pupil at a renowned music school.

Meanwhile, Evan’s parents launch separate quests for what’s missing in their lives. Lyla, upon learning that the child she was pregnant with did survive. Louis, upon learning where Lyla lived. Music for them died when they lost each other. As they move toward reunionwithout even knowing it, music reenters their lives. Lyla’s active search for him brings her into contact with the foster care official and their efforts lead them in her son’s direction, Then, call it fate or convergence, Evan’s symphonic score is slated to be performed by the New York Philharmonic at the same concert in the park marking Lyla’s return as a featured cellist. Louis has felt called to New York to rejoin the band he and his brother had. While in the city, he happens upon a boy playing music in the park. It’s Evan, of course, and neither knows they are father and son. Then, just when it looks like Evan’s great coming out as a composer will be foiled by the Wizard, events unfold to bring the prodigal son and his parents together at the right time, in the right place.

I was so swept away by the powerful storytelling that I could let some plot holes and conceits slide the first two thirds of the film. But two things happen near the end that made it impossible for me to ignore the implausible happenings. Yet, the film’s still good enough for me to forgive these things and to surrender myself over to its moving finale.

Kirsten Sheridan did a commendable job directing the original script by Nick Castle and James V. Hart from a story by Castle and Paul Castro. The photography by John Mathieson is a great mix of gritty and glorious. The music by Mark Mancina, with many great selections by old and new masters, keys the film’s many moods and twists.

The principal players are all well cast but the part of Evan, aka August Rush, demanded an enigmatic performance of youthful innocence and old soul wisdom and Freddie Highmore delivers. I totally believed him in this role and what’s so impressive is that much of his performance is silent as he listens, observes, conducts, feels and expresses the music, often only with his body. He essentially portrays a perfect instrument in search of its/his home. And we melt when he finds what he’s been looking for.

It baffles me why this movie doesn’t have a higher average rating. I recommend it without pause.

“August Rush” is now available on Netflix.

https://http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nRGYeyS1jzw

Hot Movie Takes– “Ride Lonesome”

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

Pam was in the mood for a Western the other night. She wanted a good old-fashioned one. After a quick search on YouTube, we food a great upload of a good 1959 Cinemascope oater called “Ride Lonesome.” It’s part of the highly regarded cycle of seven feature Westerns directed by Budd Boetticher, several written by Burt Kennedy, and all produced by Harry Joe Brown that starred Randolph Scott, who always played a variation on the same enigmatic loner that had to have been an inspiration for Sergio Leone’s and Clint Eastwood’s Man with No Name in their famous Spaghetti Western franchise.

Boetticher-Brown definitely developed a formula that worked. Stunning isolated locations. Intelligent dialogue bristling with sarcasm. An anti-hero protagonist who lives by a code of justice – sometimes to a fault. An attractive woman in distress. A cynical villain. Marauding Indians. And a small band of people with competing agendas brought together by circumstance who must navigate conflicts and threats both within their own ranks and from external forces. “Ride Lonesome” is not the best in the cycle, but it’s fully emblematic of its motifs and themes. The taciturn Scott plays southwestern bounty hunter Ben Brigade, whose dogged pursuit and capture of a wanted murderer, Billy John (James Best) is a cover for his real obsession involving the prisoner’s brother, Frank (Lee Van Cleef). Years before, as a sheriff, Brigade brought Frank in on charges and when Frank escaped he kidnapped and raped Brigade’s wife and hanged her. Brigade is using Billy John as bait to draw in Frank, so that he can avenge his wife’s death.

Along the way to bringing Billy John in and setting the trap for Frank, Brigade meets up with Carrie Lane, the wife of a station manager who’s gone missing and a pair of saddle tramps, Sam (Pernell Roberts) and Whit (James Coburn) with designs on stealing away Billy John to collect the bounty for themselves. En route, Mescalero Indians hound this group of misfits whose trek becomes one of survival. Brigade has his hands full keeping Carrie Lane safe, Billy John in his grasp, Sam and Whit under control and the Indians at bay.

Boetticher worked with some fine cinematographers on these pictures, including Lucien Ballard, whose son Caroll Ballard became a great cinematographer in his own right and then proved himself a fine director as well (“Never Cry Wolf,” “The Black Stallion”). “Ride Lonesome’s” director of photography was Charles Lawton Jr., whose name I wasn’t familiar with until watching the picture but he had a long, distinguished career lighting all manner of films, including others in the Boetticher-Brown-Scott cycle as well as Westerns for John Ford and Delmer Daves. His visuals are gorgeous and make great dramatic use of the frame.

The morally ambiguous but ultimately stalwart characters Scott played in the Boetticher Westerns were similar to the figures James Stewart played in the great run of Westerns he did with Anthony Mann. Indeed, the two cycles are remarkably alike. The biggest difference was that Stewart was a better actor than Scott and therefore imbued his performances with a richer interior life that got expressed in a wider range of emotions and gestures. But there is a power in Scott’s minimalism that is hard to deny and that works well for the leaner Boetticher films. If you’re not familiar with the Boetticher-Brown-Scott collection and you love Westerns or classic cinema in general, then do yourself a favor and seek these films out. Several are on YouTube. The other titles to look for are:

“Seven Men from Now”

“The Tall T”

“Decision at Sundown”

“Buchanan Rides Alone”

“Westbound”

“Comanche Station”

After completing the cycle with Boetticher, Scott made one last great Westerm, “Ride the High Country,” with Joel McCrea, and directed by Sam Peckinpah.

Boetticher was a talented filmmaker who, right at the peak of his career, lost himself in the years-long pursuit of making a documentary about a bullfighter in Mexico. His obsessive pursuit of the project nearly cost the director his life and sanity and effectively ended his Hollywood career.

Burt Kennedy, the writer who penned “Ride Lonesome” and three more in the Boetticher-Brown-Scott cycle, went on to become a director of several mediocre and occasionally above average Westerns, but he didn’t have the finesse or chops of Boetticher, whose best work comes close to the standards of the Western’s great interpreters: John Ford, Howard Hawks, Anthony Mann, Sam Peckinpah and Segio Leone.

https://www.videodetective.com/movies/ride-lonesome/731514

 

Hot Movie Takes– “Carol”

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

Todd Haynes, a maverick of both queer and neo-soap opera cinema, is a conscious formalist and stylist whose work is an interesting bridge between Douglas Sirk, Alfred Hitchcock, Andy Warhol and Woody Allen. I finally caught up with his acclaimed 2015 dramatic feature “Carol” starring Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara as lesbian lovers in 1950s New York. This adaptation of the semi-autobiographical Patricia Highsmith novel “The Price of Salt” is an exquisitely rendered portrait of forbidden love unfolding in a more repressed era when such relationships carried extra portents of dangers in the event of discovery. Blanchett plays the upper-crust, beautifully-appointed Carol, an older woman comfortable in her own sexual identity, yet still going through the motions of a failed marriage, mostly for the benefit of her and her estranged husband’s young daughter. The husband, Harge, cannot accept his wife’s true nature and is determined to win her back, even by having her spied on and psycho-analyzed and shamed. She feels like a prisoner in their palatial country home, where her close friend and former lover, Abby, is a frequent awkward presence. One day, while Christmas shopping in the city, she and a department store clerk, Therese, played by Mara, exchange glances that communicate desire. We later learn that Therese is a single young woman being courted by a man to be his wife. She keeps putting him off. She aspires to be a photographer and to find herself. In that chance encounter at the store, the mature, beguiling Carol and the curious Therese establish an immediate attraction and connection. When Carol leaves her gloves behind, Therese makes a point of returning them. Little by little, Carol, knowing full well that same-gender romance is new to Therese, indicates her interest in knowing the young woman she clearly wants to be with. The feeling is mutual. It isn’t until they make a road trip together that they finally consummate the long stirring passion that’s joined them together. Of course, back then, pursuing a lesbian love affair had to be done even more discreetly or risk condemnation and ostracization. In this fictional story, both women act boldly to the extent society allowed, which is to say they carry on in secret and yet don’t completely deny their feelings-leanings in public. When found out, each faces her own steep price. And when things are made very ugly for them, each must decide how bad she wants the relationship and the stigma it carries.

Haynes fills his films with loaded signifiers. To use a fancy film studies term, these semiotics are embedded in the words that characters speak and in the clothes they wear, in their smallest gestures, expressions and touches, in the colors, decor, music, design, moods and rhythms of the world that Haynes and his cinematographer, production designer and editor meticulously create. Context and subtext ooze meaning in every frame, shot, scene, sequence. Haynes pulls you into a delirious realm of intense emotional content that’s mostly muted and only occasionally bursts forth and the long waits and slow burns give the blow ups added power. But the real resonance of his work is found between the lines – in those symbolic expressions of characters’ rich, often conflicted interior lives. This is the territory Haynes explores.

Blanchett and Mara deliver performances every bit as brilliant as the rave reviews and award recognitions indicate and they are well complemented by supporting players, especially Sarah Paulson as Abby and Kyle Chandler as Harge.

Phyllis Nagy did a great job adapting Highsmith’s novel and she couldn’t have asked for a more sensitive interpreter of the material than Haynes because this subject matter is right in his creative wheelhouse. The subtle movements and austere palettes created by cinematographer Ed Lachman, editor Alfonso Goncalves, production designer Judy Becker and art director Jesse Rosenthal and composer Carter Burwell give the film the signature languorous, melancholic look and feel that describes much of Haynes’ work.

In Haynes’ treatment of the taboo, there is a prurient, voyeuristic element that makes you aware that you are observing private matters that should only happen behind closed doors. He also has an uncanny sense of infusing his stories’ intimate conversations, confessionals and confrontations with a delicious mix of hyper-realism, high art and sensationalism. He finds the universal humanism in the lurid, gossipy aspects of his subject matter, so that they become more than the sum of their parts, therefore rising above tabloid titillation to move us and to reveal truth.

“Carol” is available on Netflix.

 

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, intelligentyoung 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 this film than there is in most, including 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 Dream” compares favorably with that film and with the best films I’ve seen in the last half-decade or so. It’s that powerful.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ofYNrO77clY

 

Hot Movie Takes – “A Football Life: Curtis Martin”

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

Like most sports fans outside the east coast, I was vaguely aware of college and NFL running back Curtis Martin during his playing days but because he performed for mostly mediocre teams (University of Pittsburgh, New England Patriots before Bill Belichik and New York Jets) he therefore didn’t get as much attention or love as others, I never really appreciated his abilities and accomplishments. He also played in an era (1995-2005) when other, more high-profile backs (Emmitt Smith, Terrell Davis, Barry Sanders, Edgerrin James, Jamal Lewis, Ricky Williams Priest Holmes, LaDanian Tomilson, Shaun Alexander) got most of the ink and highlight love. His teams’ so-so performances and his own workmanlike, run-between-the-tackles. keep-the-chains-moving style and impressive but unspectacular consistency, along with his low-key, demure personality, actually worked against him receiving more accolades. His best years also came before the 24-7 news-sports cycle and social media craze. Even now, still ranking fourth all-time in rushing yards (14,101) and tenth all-time in combined rushing-receiving yards (17.330) in NFL history, he’s remained a relatively undervalued and unheralded enigma outside the league and the eastern shore. This despite his 2012 induction in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. But after watching the “A Football Life” segment on him, I finally have a clear view of this remarkable athlete who, it turns out, is an even more remarkable human being. He’s instantly become a hero in my eyes as both an athlete and a man.

As tough as things got on the football field with the physical punishment and injuries he endured, the game was a breeze compared to the harsh life he knew growing up in a bad section of Pittsburgh. The threat of violence in his neighborhood was a constant. Becoming a victim of crime or getting caught up in a criminal web was a real danger, He estimates 35 to 40 friends and family members died, many violent deaths, when he was coming up. But the worst of it for him happened in his own home, where his mother was physically and emotionally abused by his father. If his father hadn’t finally left home, he feels he might have killed him at some point in order to protect his mother. Like many inner city athletes, sports became Martin’s escape. Despite a very late start in football, he exhibited a natural gift for the game matched with a rare skill-set that allowed him to run with great vision, determination, change of direction and speed. When he played for the Pitt Panthers, his high level play had people talking about him being the second coming of Tony Dorsett. The only knock on him was his tendency to get injured.

In the NFL, he found a mentor and father-figure in Bill Parcells with the Patriots. Pats’ owner Robert Kraft and his family also became very close to Martin, who made the most of these opportunities to grow his personal life. On the field, Martin helped lead the Pats to a Super Bowl but the franchise was just then laying the groundwork for the dynasty to follow when Parcells left for the Jets and Martin soon followed. Year after year, Martin piled up the yards and TDs (he scored 100 in his 10 seasons), establishing himself one of the most reliable backs to ever play the game, but it was away from the fray where he made his greatest impact.

From early childhood on, Martin was afraid that he was fated to die young like so many people around him had from violence. He said he even endured a recurring nightmare that he would not live past age 20. It was during his collegiate career that he made a bargain with God: let me live, and I will do your will in all things. That promise has guided his principled life ever since. He befriended a young woman and her family who randomly reached out to him and he stood by her when she developed health issues. He reached out to his estranged father to mend things with him. He encouraged his mother, who naturally held extreme bitterness, to reconcile with and forgive the man who’d caused her such so much hurt and harm. Martin and his mother were there for this man in his dying days. He’s a loving father and husbandHe’s used his football fortune to lift up people and community. In programs and presentations, he uses his personal story and high character to demonstrate the tenets of mindful living and a purpose-driven life. His inspiring journey and message are well-captured in this “A Football Life” profile that is worth watching for its humanistic themes that rise above sports or race or circumstance to show the power of humility, gratitude, forgiveness and faith in action.

 

Hot Movie Takes– “The Case for Christ”

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

Though I have never been an atheist like the protagonist who comes to be a believer in the well-made 2017 film adaptation of Lee Strobel’s autobiographical best-seller “The Case of Christ,” I have had my skeptical leanings over the years. Riddled as I was by doubts, fears and resentments, I made many things higher powers in my life. All to no avail. Much misery resulted. Despite growing up in a very Catholic family, it’s only in the last decade or so of my now middle-aged span that I’ve embarked on anything like a real spiritual journey, and the rewards have been great. I am still but an infant learning to crawl on this path, but I now know what it is to be a follower of Christ and a child of God and to have a personal relationship with a savior and redeemer who unconditionally loves me and only asks that I seek Him out with love, humility and gratitude.

Strobel’s personal faith struggle resonates with millions because it represents nothing less than the universal human condition and the quest for the meaning of life. What is behind life on Earth and the existence of the universe? Why are we here? Is all this random or is it intelligent design? As many of you surely know, Strobel was not just a skeptic but antagonistic towards the very idea of an omniscient God. He was an investigative journalist who by training, disposition and profession demanded irrefutable facts and evidence. Once he really confronted the concept of a divine creator and ruler, he discovered that a supreme being’s existence cannot be explained merely by observation or calculation, but requires a leap of faith, and that’s where his resistance stuck. He only sought out God when his wife Leslie, a then-fellow skeptic, found Christ and became transformed. Her coming to Christianity was a heart thing. Dismayed and threatened by her conversion, he set about trying to prove God was a delusion or an invention. He was wholly intent on denying the presence of God, not affirming it. He tried really hard, too. For him, the notion of God was an intellectual-cultural conceit humans concocted to assuage their fears. But, to his utter surprise, he found supporting documentary evidence that not only satisfied his mind but pricked his heart. Indeed, the more experts from various disciplines he interviewed, the less sure he was of his own agnostic beliefs. Slowly, the wall of defenses and rationalizations he’d erected wore away until he freely received the truth of God in what an only be described as a vital spiritual experience. Then, Strobel, just as his wife before him, was released from the bonds of doubt and despair in a born again new life.

Being the superb communicator he is, Strobel’s become one of this era’s great public champions of Christ. The strength of this evangelistic message is found within the very struggle he endured to come out of darkness and into the light. The strength of the film is that it focuses squarely, unflinchingly on that struggle and search because it’s one that most of us can identify with. His story powerfully illustrates how faith arises out of questioning and examining as long as that quest is done with an open, earnest heart and mind. As the film illustrates, the path to faith is often difficult, filled with trials and tests. If we only stay the course, the rewards are great.

Mike Vogel and Erika Christensen are very good as Lee and Leslie Strobel. There are a number of fine supporting performances, including cameos by two heavy-hitters: Robert Forster and Faye Dunaway. Writer Brian Bird and director Jon Gunn do a stellar job dramatizing the internal and external conflict Strobel feels at work and at home as he goes out of his way to discount the validity of God. The writer and director also accurately depict the machinations of a working newsroom, the varying points of view that believers and nonbelievers profess and the tension that surfaces between a husband and a wife at different stages of their spiritual progress. Lee and Leslie become unyoked and nearly undone by their separate paths but their way eventually converges and they strengthen and grow themselves and their marriage in the process.

Personally, I think the movie works regardless of where you may come from or happen to be in your own spiritual journey or lack thereof. Sure, it’s a Christian film, but more importantly it’s a humanistic film.

“The Case for Christ” is available on Netflix.

https://www.tribute.ca/trailers/the-case-for-christ/22164

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.

 

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 Otherfrom 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 ownblackness, 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.

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.

 

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.

 

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 howhe’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.

 

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.

 

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’sbudding 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.

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.

 

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.

 

Hot Movie Takes Wednesday

“The Way”

From 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.

 

Hot Movie Takes Monday:

“Deidra & Laney Rob a Train”

From Leo Adsm 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 beforeunexpected 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 thereaction 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.

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.

 

Hot Movie Takes– “Release: The Jackie Ryan Story”

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

As you regular followers know by now, I am am a big movies and sports fan. In my time, I’ve seen a lot of good sports films – documentaries and dramatic features – but few compare with a 2007 short doc I recently stumbled across online: “Release: The Jackie Ryan Story” or “Black Jack.” This is a must-see for any of you hoops lovers out there. Jackie Ryan is a New York City playground legend whose ball-handling and shooting prowess should have carried him to collegiate stardom and an NBA career. Like the vast majority of playground legends, however, it didn’t happen for him. What makes his story unique though is, one, he’s white, and secondly, he actually got his chances at various junctures but more or less pissed them away because he couldn’t conform to a system. He was uncoachable. At the peak of his athletic life, he let himself go in terms of taking things to the next level and he became a pariah to his own family and friends with his drunken binges, his abusive language and his selfish, self-destructive lifestyle. Always told he was a fuck-up, he internalized it and lived down to that low standard. But transformation was still not out of the cards for him. The one thing that he could do and do right, though his temper had often spoiled that, too, was play ball. Oh, my, how he could ball. He was right there among the best of the best ever produced by the rigorous testing grounds of those NYC courts.

Then, when it looked like he was destined for a very bad and sad end, he got another chance of a lifetime and for the first time ever he made good on it. He ended up becoming the star attraction with the Harlem Wizards. That’s right, he became the main showman with the otherwise all-black Wizards. And then he went off to establish his solo career as The Lone Wizard. He’s still at it today. What he found in these experiences performing for mostly families and students was the unconditional love he’d never felt before in his life and, more importantly, the gift of giving back and bringing joy to audiences, particularly children. He learned to love himself and to have healthy self-esteem. If only he’d had this maturity and insight as a young man, he might be in the College and/orPro Basketball Halls of Fame and not just the New York City Playground Hall of Fame. But he expresses no bitterness or regrets at having missed out on what could have been because he found something far more valuable: himself. And in the process he’s living a fulfilling life doing what he loves best and in the process making other people feel good.

Co-directors Aaron Bierman and Mitchell Tanen do a great job profiling their rich subject by incorporating original interviews with Jackie, friends, families and fellow hoop heads and with archival stills and film footage from various points in his basketball-centric life – both on the court and off the court.

This gritty story of redemption is one for the ages. I wouldn’t be surprised if someone turns his story into a dramatic film.

The film is available in full and for free in an excellent upload on YouTube.

Hot Movie Takes– “The Wolfpack”

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

The 2015 Crystal Moselle documentary “The Wolfpack” is one of the most arresting films I’ve seen in awhile. The filmmaker recognized the magical human story at the heart of her doc when when she saw it and she took it as far as real life events allowed. In 2010, while walking the streets of the Lower East Side in New York, Moselle happened upon a group of long-haired, striking-looking young men outfitted in “Reservoir Dogs” get-ups. Their exotic appearance and demeanor so captured her that she made it her business to get to know them. When she learned they were siblings with the surname of Angulo who obsessively watched and reenacted movies, she knew there was a story there. Her instincts were confirmed when she discovered they had only recently liberated themselves from the confinement of their family’s apartment, where their paranoid father was so controlling that he never allowed them outside – not to go to school or the store or the movies or anywhere. The father, a native of South America, held strange beliefs and named his children after Eastern gods. Under his influence, his family became a tribe apart. The boys’ entire universe revolved around themselves, their parents, the DVDs and tapes they lived though and other rituals they devised. The intricate movie reenactments they did inside their apartment were down to the exact words and physical movements and the boys made detailed costumes and affected dead-on characterizations. Their creativity was boundless despite them being confined to the apartment. The siblings’ emotional anchor was their loving mother, an unreformed hippie, who home schooled them. She met her husband at Machu Picchu and their shared quest for enlightenment turned sour when they ended up living like hermits on the Lower East Side. She apparently resisted her husband’s autocratic eccentricities at her own peril – suffering emotional and physical abuse – but as her older boys began asserting their independence, she too found the courage to rebel.

Moselle came to the Angulos after the power dynamic in the home changed from the father calling the shots to the older boys having sway. After years dominating the home, the father retreated into a passive kind of oblivion. By gaining the family’s trust, Moselle got the access she needed to film the family over four years and her footage, combined with home movies the boys shot, creates a fascinating, entertaining, intimate, sometimes awkward and ultimately beautiful portrait. The story starts disturbing but ends life-affirming. Despite the harsh isolation the boys endured earlier in their lives, they turned out remarkably sweet, well-adjusted young men. They are now all off pursuing their own interests, still devoted to their mother and still estranged from their father.

The film offers evidence that there is no one prescribed way to grow up and to find one’s self in the world. The boys and mother established unshakable bonds that narrowed their world view but when it was time to break free of the artificial strictures, they had rich imaginations as well as strong love and support to draw on to face their fears and chase their adventures. As dysfunctional as some aspects of their lives were, this family of creatives bridged the imaginary and real worlds and, as one of the boys points out, they never lost sight of what was fictional and what was authentic. When the boys declared their emancipation by venturing outside the apartment to discover the world beyond, they for a time continued living at home, which given the extreme nature of the deprived socialization they had for so long no doubt eased their way into normalcy.

“The Wolfpack” has been well-received wherever it’s played, even winning the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival.

The film is now available on Netflix and I highly recommend you view it.

 

Hot Movie Takes– “The Manhattan Project”

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

“The Manhattan Project” is a 1986 movie that can’t help but remind one of “War Games.” Both have a precocious male teen protagonist with an unhealthy obsession for things that not only get them in serious trouble but pose a nuclear nightmare in the bargain. In “The Manhattan Project,” the insouciant Paul pulls off the unusual combo of being both a cool kid and a nerd. When a scientist played by John Lithgow learns of his interest in lasers, he invites him to tour the lab he runs and Paul (played by Christopher Collet) immediately suspects the biomedical facility is really a cover for producing weapons-grade plutonium. Collet, with a personality and delivery strikingly similar to the young Matthew Broderick who played the computer geek in “War Games,” decides to secretly build a nuclear bomb and spring it on the national science project he enters. He and his girlfriend Jenny (Cynthia Nixon) want to expose the lab’s work and Paul also wants to show the world just how smart he is. In “War Games” Broderick’s character hacks into the U.S. military’s missile defense system and engages in a game with a computer that interprets his actions as a real threat and brings the world to the brink of nuclear war. That is probably an easier scenario to imagine happening than what Paul does, which is to single-handedly steal plutonium from the secure lab, in his spare time build an operational bomb from cannibalized parts found around his home and somehow not suffer radiation sickness or blow himself up in the process. Yet the movie does a credible job getting us to buy into the scheme and that’s largely due to the writing of writer-director Marshall Brickman and the acting and chemistry of Collet and Nixon. Brickman finds a mostly successful balance between comedy and drama, though sometimes the movie veers oddly in one direction or another and seems to forget or be confused that at it’s heart it’s a light comedy with heavy themes in which no real harm will come to its protagonist. The climactic sequence plays like a flat-out drama, and it works, but its tone does contradict what preceded it. Maybe that contrast is precisely what Brickman intended. Maybe he was setting us up for that tense, high stakes final sequence. But I can how the film’s veering from one extreme to the other could be off-putting to some viewers. Having it both ways is okay, but I’m not sure Brickman’s writing or direction is up to the task. He famously collaborated on the scripts of some very good, even great Woody Allen films, but he’s no Allen as a writer and director. I mean, he’s quite good, but he doesn’t handle the various moving parts of his movie as fluidly and coherently and pleasingly as Allen does at his best.

By the way, the film’s trailer plays like the story is a straight dramatic suspenser, which it most definitely is not, which indicates to me the studio didn’t know what it had on its hands and so took the most expedient means to market it.

I think Christopher Collet does a fine job as the dashing egg-head lead and I’m rather surprised he didn’t have more of a feature career but the may he may have been one of those teen actors who didn’t transition gracefully to adult roles. I’m not overly fond of John Lithgow, even though I admire his talent. I just happen to find his voice and mannerisms a bit annoying and cloying. He is well cast, however, as the scientist who gets caught up in the drama of the story. Cynthia Nixon shines the brightest as the girlfriend of our protagonist. She almost seems too mature and worldly wise for the part but she practically steals the picture every time she’s on screen, though she’s really not given enough to do. Jill Eikenberrry is also good in an underwritten part but she does have more to play as the story moves toward its conclusion. Two more heavyweight actors appear in the piece: John Mahoney as a military officer and Richard Jenkins as the lab administrator. They’re both solid, of course, but their talents are largely wasted in generic parts.

You can watch “The Manhattan Project’ on Netflix.

http://www.youtube.com › watch?v=spOWFb7zfOo

 

Hot Movie Takes – “Keep on Keepin’ On”

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

If you’re in the mood for a heartwarming true story about a jazz legend near the end of his life mentoring a jazz prodigy ready to carry on the torch, then watch theNetflix documentary “Keep on Keepin’ On.” Jazz drummer Alan Hicks got complete access to film this beautiful work about his mentor, the late jazz trumpet master Clark Terry over a four year period when Terry’s health was in decline due to the ravages of diabetes. But the story is not about the relationship between Hicks and Terry. Rather, it’s about the relationship between Terry and another of his students, Justin Kauflin, who has since emerged as one of the most promising jazz pianists of the last half century. Hicks started the project as a straight out tribute to Terry but then wisely decided to focus on the burgeoning mentor-mentee dynamic between the buoyant Terry and his sweet protegee, Kauflin, who is blind.

The film captures the essence of Terry, who’s seen just as he’s remembered – as a humble, generous genius eager to share his vast knowledge and enthusiasm with the next generation of jazz musicians. Terry’s name is not as familiar to some casual music fans as those of Duke Elliington, Count Basie, Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis, for example, but he was right there with them as an all-time great, originator and influencer. We learn that Terry loved nothing more than nurturing young talent and he saw and heard something in Kauflin that found him encouraging the young man to break free of self-doubt and to apply himself to the gift he possesses. The two forged an incredibly close bond only deepened by the fact that they each confronted disabilities made more poignant when Terry’s own eyesight began failing. Then his legs had to be amputated. The first half or so of the film follows Kauflin preparing for and then performing at one of the world’s most prestigious jazz competitions and when things don’t go his way, Kauflin takes it in stride per the positivity advice of Terry. Then a wondrous thing happens. The first student Terry taught was Quincy Jones, whose immense drive and talent Terry noted when Jones was a boy. Jones, of course, became a legend in his own right. We learn that Terry felt the same warm way about Kauflin as he did about Jones and recognized the same kind of potential in him. In a twist of poetic justice and of each-one-to-teach-one legacy, the film captures Jones hearing Kauflin play at Terry’s 91st birthday party and being mesmerized by his sound, so much so that he later invites the young man on his world tour and later signs him to a recording contract.

Terry’s personal, powerful support of Kauflin extended to long one-on-one talk and riff sessions, personal notes of encouragement and a pair of his lucky socks. He told Kauflin “I want you to know I’m with you all the way. I believe in your talent and I believe in you.”

The eternally grateful and indebted Kauflin has now been launched on a bright career and through him and Hicks and countless others who were students of Terry, the legacy of Terry’s gentle spirit and expert knowledge lives on and the future of jazz as a vital, living art form is assured.

Kauflin composed the music for the film with jazz great Dave Grusin.

Throughout the doc, we see the enduring love of Terry’s devoted wife and we see and hear just how much respect jazz legends had for Terry, whom they considered not only one of their own but a master among masters.

The 2014 release has been an audience favorite wherever it’s played and fortunately for us it’s available to enjoy on Netflix.

Here’s a link to Justin playing his tribute to Terry, “For Clark” at the Montreux Jazz Festival–

https://web.musicaficionado.com/main.html#!/video/pu5w4zBGPiY

 

Hot Movie Takes – “Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond”

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

No matter how you feel about the late conceptual comedian Andy Kaufman, and I have mixed feelings about him myself, he was an original. The same goes for his good friend and fellow comedic talent, Jim Carrey. After Kaufman died, Milos Forman directed a rather pale, uninspired biopic drama about him starring Carrey called “Man On the Moon” (1999). Now there’s a Netflix documentary out called “Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond” directed by Chris Smith and produced by Spike Jonz that is more interesting than that feature film, though it’s definitely not for everyone because the whole solipsistic exercise revolves around how far Carrey went in order to portray Kaufman and Kaufman alter-ego Tony Clifton, This immersion or embodiment went so far, Carrey claims, that he lost himself in the process. The entire documentary consists of an intimate interview Carrey gave the filmmakers, excerpts from behind the scenes footage that Kaufman’s then girlfriend Lynn Margulies shot on the set of “Man On the Moon,” glimpses of Kaufman performing on stage, in “Taxi” and appearing on variety and talk shows and snippets of Carrey’s rise from unknown to box officer superstar.

The doc is getting a lot of buzz because of how revealing and transparent the interview and the set footage is about Carrey’s disturbing plunge into the depths of Kaufman’s own strangeness. The lengths that some actors will go to in finding their character befuddles me because they endanger their physical, mental and emotional health in the delusion that they must strip away themselves in order to become the character when in truth the best acting comes from finding the character within yourself. Everything that is part of human nature is within each of us if we only honestly look there. Anyway, the best thing about the doc is its intimate look at what became Carrey’s own self-destructive method approach to not only that part but to the way he dealt with fame. In middle-age, he’s found his authentic self and doesn’t seem to care so much about how he’s perceived. When you stop craving that outside approval, you find freedom.

Just what Kaufman was searching for is hard to figure. There’s no doubt he chose a path of most resistance by almost always doing what you least expected or wanted. He was the antithesis of the mainstream, formulaic comic even though what he did became a schtick all the same. The conflict or conundrum with Kaufman is that he seemed to do things to deliberately antagonize audiences and hosts but there’s no question he desperately courted their affection, too. He was all about breaking the artificial bounds of standup, concert and episodic TV structures by making anything a bit, from reading aloud from “The Great Gatsby” to lip-synching to the “Might Mouse’ anthem to wrestling women to transforming from the Foreign Man to Elvis. He and Steve Martin were the American artists going down this surreal performance art comic path. The difference is, Martin lived long enough to evolve into a more mature and versatlie performer and Kaufman did not.

The weakness of the earlier Forman film is the same impenetrable surface artifice that made Kaufman such an enigma. It’s as if Carrey worked so hard to mine the Kaufman’s persona but found no there, there. Maybe there were no inner depths to plumb or Carrey simply didn’t find them. Whatever Forman was after, I have to think he found it elusive. An empty feeling is what I recall after watching “Man On the Moon.” I didn’t necessarily feel anything more after watching the new doc but at least it made me think and I could definitely relate to some of the self-searching journey Carrey’s been on because, well, it’s a journey we all take at one time or another if we stick around long enough. At one point Carrey says something to the effect that all of life is a search for identity – and that’s as good an insight as you’re going to get from any film. But if you’re looking for insights into Kaufman, you won’t find them here anymore than you will in “Man On the Moon.” What will you find is a kind of philosophical cautionary tale.

“Jim & Andy: The Great Divide” is now showing on Netflix.

 

Hot Movie Takes – “The Insider”

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

Michael Mann brought a signature energy and style to American feature films with his insistent, hand-held camera work, dreamy visuals, music-soaked soundtracks and intense, feverish dramatic set-pieces in a succession of pictures that stand with anyone’s work in Hollywood from 1980 through 2005:

“Thief”

“The Keep”

“Manhunter”

“The Last of the Mohicans”

“Heat”

“The Insider”

“Ali”

“Collateral”

He’s misfired since then but there’s great anticipation for his “Enzo Ferrari,” which is expected to have a 2019 release. Personally, I consider the 1981 crime drama “Thief” starring James Caan his best work. I need to write a Hot Movie Take about that one someday. A close second for me is “The Insider” from 1999, followed by “Heat” (1995). It has been some years since I last saw “The Insider” and on a whim last night I decided to watch a VHS (that’s right) copy of it and I was once more swept away by the brilliance of its storytelling. The film contains great performances by the three male leads; Al Pacino, Russell Crowe and Christopher Plummer and very solid performances by a large cast of supporting players, especially Bruce McGill and Gina Gershon. Lots of familiar faces fill out the cast: Diane Venora, Philip Baker Hall, Lindsay Crouse, Debi Mazar.

The film dramatizes a real-life David and Goliath story of a whistle blower going up against corporate America and the moral and ethical implications at play. Big tobacco focused its considerable resources against former Brown and Williamson head of R & D Jeffrey Wigan when he tried going public with damning information that directly contradicted the cigarette-makers contention they didn’t know if tobacco was an addictive substance. A national media entity, CBS News, got caught in the middle of a harsh struggle in which the public interest and right to know was on the line and Wigan’s reputation and perhaps very life was in danger. It’s a story of corporate greed and arrogance meeting its match in a brave man who risked everything to expose the truth and of the journalist, 60 Minutes producer Lowell Bergman, who stood by him even when his colleagues, including correspondent Mike Wallace, were ready to let him hang.

Until watching it again last night, I didn’t remember that the primary catalyst for the film’s energy is Pacino as Bergman. Despite that character perhaps coming off a bit too much a martyr in the behind the scenes machinations at CBS over whether to air the explosive interview Wallace did with Wigand or not, he’s the hard-boiled, high-octane wedge who won’t stop at getting the story told and won’t betray his source. The best thing about the film as far as I’m concerned is its authentic depiction of the dogged work that goes into producing good journalism and of the conflicts that happen in the course of that work getting published or aired in an industry that is part public service and part business.

When the consequences are as high as they were with this story, the excitement and pressure go off the charts. Because the players in this drama were living right on the edge of a story in which tens of billions of dollars were riding on the line, there’s a great neo-Noir suspense mood and theme throughout. Its melding of high-stakes journalism and real-life good guy versus bad guy suspense is remindful of an earlier breaking news classic, “All the President’s Men,” and its whistle-blower theme amidst the win-at-any-cost corporate culture anticipates “Michael Clayton.”

Pacino’s world-weary demeanor yet earnest passion are just right for Bergman. As Wigand, Crowe strikes just the right notes as an almost too-smart-for-his-own-good man of science who drowns in the chaotic emotions and tough push-back of his actions. Plummer captures the brusque arrogance of Wallace.

But the real star is Mann’s writing (he co-wrote the script with Eric Roth) and direction, both of which are electric. The writing and tone echo the work of David Mamet.

There is a great kinetic, pure cinema look ad rhythm to the film and cinematographer Dante Spinotti and editors William Goldenberg, Paul Rubell and David Rosenbloom certainly deserve some credit for that. The music put together by Lisa Gerrard and Pieter Bourke is impressively diverse and spot-on for enhancing the moods and themes.

If you’ve never seen “The Insider” or it’s been awhile, i urge you to seek it out. It shouldn’t be too hard to find in some digital format or on some online platform.

 

Hot Movie Takes – “The Words”

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

Another film about writing has captured my imagination. I refer to “The Words” (2012), a hard to resist mind game that is a story within a story within a story. In the present, a best-selling author named Clay Hammond has written a new book that tells the story of a frustrated writer, Rory Jansen, who finds an unsigned brilliant manuscript in an old valise and claims it as his own. Much to Jansen’s delight and despair, “his” book is published to great success. Jansen becomes famous, wealthy and respected overnight but he’s dogged by the lie he carries all alone, not even telling his wife, Dora. Then, in the story that Hammond has put to paper in the book titled “The Words,” an old man makes himself known to Jansen. The mysterious old man turns out to be the author of that purloined manuscript. The autobiographical stories the old man hand-typed were drawn from his adventures years before as a young man in Paris during the war, when he met and married a French girl, who bore him a daughter. The old man announces himself as the author not wanting Jansen’s money or downfall or the record set straight. He just wants Jansen to know that he didn’t get away with this unethical act as cleanly as he imagined. Jansen learns from the old man how the manuscript came to be written and lost. Immediately after the war, the old man suffered great losses and the missing manuscript pushed him to the breaking point. He never wrote again.

The manuscript fell into Jansen’s hands by fate or accident when his wife purchased an old satchel at a second-hand store in Paris, where Jansen religiously visited all the sights of the American ex-pat writers who lived and worked there.

By the end of the movie, we suspect that the story of Jansen, the manuscript and the old man is not fiction at all, but is based on Hammond’s own experiences. We are led to infer that Hammond did in fact do what he describes Jansen doing. Hammond is a fraud and though still tortured by it, he doesn’t apologize for it. Like Jansen, it’s a choice he made and owns.

Dennis Quaid plays Hammond as a breezy star writer who isn’t nearly as together as his cool, calm, collected demeanor appears in public. The truth of what he did eats at him because all his success is a reminder that his laurels come by way of false pretenses. Bradley Cooper plays Jansen as a man so desperate for recognition that he does this regrettable thing. He’s not a bad man. Just weak one. Zoe Saldana plays Jansen’s loving wife who nearly comes undone when he reveals his lie. J.K. Simmons plays Jansen’s hard-bitten father the then-struggling son must return to for financial help. Jeremy Irons plays the old man who’s known heartbreak and solace and doesn’t give a rat’s ass about the torment Jansen feels because the young author made his choice and now must live with the consequences. Ben Barnes plays the old man as the ardent young artist in love with life, books and the power of stories until his world comes crashing down around him.

Olivia Wilde plays Daniella, a fetching young writer smitten with Hammond. Her probing into the story of his book “The Words” and her longing to be with him touches raw nerves in the author, who’s self-hate and shame is evident.

Brian Klugman and Lee Stemthal both co-wrote and co-directed the film. They ask us to believe many creative and narrative conceits and for the most part I went along willingly, happy to be drawn into the intricacies of this triptych exploration of the value and ownership of words.

Can words belong to someone? Are they pieces of a person?

“The Words” is available in full and for free in an excellent upload on YouTube. Catch it while it lasts.

 

Hot Movie Takes – “Night Train to Lisbon”

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

Exquisite.

Luminous.

Romantic

Idealistic.

Nostalgic.

Dramatic.

Multi-layered

Revealing

“Night Train to Lisbon” is all of these and more. This 2013 international film about the way people live through words and ideas may not be for everyone, but I found it to be beautifully evocative about the way life really is, not the way Hollywood crafts it to be. To my amazement, the film has quite low approval ratings from some reviewers. I’m amazed because all facets come together here: script, plot, direction, production design, cinematography, editing, music, acting. All are done at a very high level. Detractors seem to be unmoved or irritated by what they consider its old-fashioned style and slow pace but I prefer to see those qualities as classic, timeless and luxurious assets too seldom seen today. This is a richly appointed film story to be savored and indulged like a good novel.

The movie is adapted from a novel by the same name that has a teacher and scholar named Raimund , who loves books, at a Swiss school drop his intricately ordered, measured life for an unplanned adventure when he chances upon a young woman about to kill herself. He saves her from taking her own life but then she disappears, leaving behind only her coat. In a coat pocket is a slim book of prose by an obscure Portuguese male author, Amadeu do Prado, that Raimond becomes hopelessly engrossed in. It is a memoir describing Prado’s experiences in the repression and revolution that occurred there in the 1960s and 1970s. With only the names of the author, his compatriots and the bookstore the volume came from to go on, Raimund impulsively takes the night train to Lisbon in search of the girl whose life he saved and the legacy of the man whose words move him to his inner core.

Jeremy Irons plays Raimund with just the right calibration of reserve and obsession. In Lisbon, he finds Prado died a young man shortly after the revolution began and that he was a physician by training and practice and never published any more of his prose. The passion players Prado wrote about in his book – his sister Adriana, his best friend Jorge – and others that Raimund discovers in retracing Prado’s life including colleague Joåo, and a woman, Estefånia his book never referenced, are very much alive and harbor long-buried secrets and feelings from the intense fervor of that revolutionary period. Raimond acts as a kind of amateur sleuth in Lisbon and with each new nugget of information, he delves deeper and deeper into the life of Prado, trying to feel what he felt. Raimund is struck by how much living and risking the object of his fascination did in such a short life.

The film is largely told in extended memory sequences that play out whenever Raimund interviews someone about Prado. The reminiscences of events that these sources describe play out before our eyes as the interviewees remember them happening or as Raimund imagines them to have happened. Each flashback, if you will, builds on the other, filling in gaps where one story or memory leaves off until by the end of the film Raimund has as complete a picture as any of them of who Prado was and what transpired in those heady days of personal and political intrigue. Jack Huston is appropriately charismatic as Prado, who is portrayed as an intellectual rebelling against everything in the repressive society he finds himself in. That includes his own father, a judge who does the bidding of the state.

Among other discoveries, Raimund finds why Prado’s sister Adriana, played as an older adult by Charlotte Rampling, owed such allegiance to him. She’s the one who published his writings after his death. She’s the one who guards his memory. Raimund finds that Prado had at least one close encounter with the head of the secret police, Mendes, when he rendered him medical care. Aiding the “butcher of Lisbon” made Prado a pariah and effectively ruined his practice. But Prado was later able to leverage what he’d done in saving Mendes’ life by getting the torturer to let him and Estefånia cross the border into Spain. Ah. Estefånia. She was the revolutionary seeing Jorge until she met Prado and fell madly in love. The young Estefånia is played with great conviction by Mélanie Laurent and the older Estefånia is played with an air of beguiling mystery by Lena Olin.

August Diehl plays the young, impassioned Jorge, whose relationship with Prado is ruptured when his friend steals here away. Bruno Ganz plays the bitter older Jorge. Marco d’Almeida portrays the young Joåo, who is disfigured and disabled for life by the police. Tom Courtenay plays Joåo as an old man who reveals no bitterness, only bemusement at life’s folly.

Near the end, Raimund is reunited with the young woman he prevented from killing herself. In her, he finds yet another layer of complexity about the events of the revolution and the contradictions of humanity.

During his Lisbon stay Raimund is befriended by Joåo’s niece, Mariana, played by Martina Gedeck. The two become very fond of each other but don’t act on it. By the end of the film, Raimund, who’s conflicted about even returning to the teaching job he abandoned, is about to board the train to take him home when Mariana asks him to take the kind of risk that Prado would have taken and stay behind in Lisbon to make a new life for himself. It ends on a freeze frame of them together. Will he stay or will he go? Only desire will tell.

Bille August does a masterful job directing the picture, whose screenplay adaptation by Greg Latter and Ulrich Herrmann is beautifully modulated. The cinematography by Filip Zumbrunn, the editing by Hansjorg Weissbrich, production design by Augusto Mayer and music by Annette Focks all work together to create the pensive, wistful mood that pervades this examination of the power of words and the meanings and lives behind them.

“Night Train to Lisbon” is available in full and for free in an excellent upload on YouTube. Catch it while it lasts.

https://www.aol.com/video/view/night-train-to-lisbon-trailer/518438681

 

Hot Movie Takes – “The Homesman”

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

If you’re up for a spare, art house Western that has a somewhat original take on the old plot-line of a rugged cowboy escorting women across the treacherous, wide open Great Plains, then you could do worse than “The Homesman.” Tommy Lee Jones stars in this 2014 drama he also directed and co-wrote from a novel by the same name. This is a film about oblivion. Harsh things happened to people settling the bare territories. It was survival of the fittest. The weak died or fell ill or quit. Some went mad. This story set in the sparsely populated Nebraska territories follows the hard road taken by a man and a woman who agree to transport three mad as hare prairie wives and mothers to sanctuary in Iowa. Hilary Swank plays Mary Bee Cuddy, an independent spinster land owner from New York state capable of handling her own affairs yet desperate for marital companionship. When the local minister (played by John Lithgow) comes to her with news that three of the community’s women have lost their minds, Mary Bee ends up volunteering to take the women by wagon to a town a great distance away. Jones plays George Briggs, a reprobate ex-soldier whose claim jumping nearly gets him hanged until Mary Bee happens upon him and rescues him – on the condition Briggs accompany her on this strange expedition as her hired hand.

The first half of this film has an instant classic quality to it that kept me enthralled with its stark, acerbic look at the unmerciful vagaries and desolation of the homesteader experience.  The second half of the film is filled with many fine things and I never once considered not seeing it through, but it does lose some steam along the way and by the end it’s more glossing the surface of things than digging deep underneath as it did previously.

I think the three actresses who play the deranged trio tried very hard to act insane and that’s where they went wrong. Their characters and the story would have been better served had Jones gotten them to be less obviously unhinged and disconnected. As the plot plays out, it turns out that Mary Bee is also going crazy. We see subtle signs at first and then suddenly she snaps and the story that we thought was hers all along actually becomes that of Briggs. Swank and Jones are very good, though it seems like we’ve seen these performances from them before. I wish they had more time together on screen. Tim Blake Nelson and Meryl Streep have cameo appearances that I feel end up being distractions because they’re such recognizable faces. Better had those parts been filled by relative newcomers or fresh faces. I also feel the film loses its way and conviction in its last half hour or so. The anti-heroic Briggs fulfills his promise to deliver the women despite his own misgivings – he even abandons them at one point – and eventually losing his employer. At one point, he cavalierly commits an atrocity that leaves us feeling conflicted about this sinner, not saint, who does risk life and limb to carry out the story’s mission of mercy. There are no neat resolutions or redemptions to be found here. Cruel things are done by and to this motley band of travelers and it’s all so pitilessly random.

This is an unsparing portrait of the brutal conditions that pioneers and settlers confronted. The photography by Rodrigo Prieto, who’s become Martin Scorsese’s cinematographer of choice, captures the great vast emptiness and despair of those wind-swept plains where people are at the mercy of nature and fate. The music score by Marco Beltrami also captures this dislocated sense of being swallowed up by forces larger than yourself and struggling to find safe harbor.

Jones is obviously drawn to journey stories. He is, of course, the stoic center of “Lonesome Dove” – perhaps the penultimate Western epic journey tale. One of his previous directorial efforts, “Three Burials,” follows his character on a determined journey to lay to rest his best friend. Jones has a sure hand as a director and I now need to seek out two more films he helmed: “The Good Old Boys” and “The Sunset Limited.”

“The Homesman” is available on Netflix.

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
 

Alexander Payne’s Homecoming

January 10, 2018 Leave a comment

Alexander Payne’s Homecoming


©By Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in the Jan-Feb 2018 issue of Omaha Magazine

Alexander Payne’s new tragicomedy Downsizing imagines the fate of an overpopulated world hanging in the balance due to depleted natural resources. When scientists find a way to miniaturize humans, adventurous souls choose going small as an act of conservation or exploitation. Matt Damon plays Paul, an average Omaha man whose pioneering micro-me experiences range from surreal to sublime.

The Omaha native’s big-budget sci-fi satire premiered in December at the newly reopened Dundee Theater, where Payne practically grew up. His debut feature Citizen Ruth also played there.

Now that this prodigal local son and world- class filmmaker is 56, remarried, and a papa— daughter Despina Evangeline Payne was born in Greece last fall—he’s downsizing from hurly-burly L.A. to his laid-back hometown with wife Maria and baby in tow.

Putting down roots is important to Payne. His mother Peggy, extended family, and close friends live here.

“I love Omaha and have been looking for a chance to be there full time,” says Payne, speak- ing from Greece before his relocation. “I miss Omaha very much when not there, and having quiet time in town with the new kid feels like the right move…and I hope to find some other trouble to get into.”

The active Film Streams board member brings Hollywood to Omaha. Making this his main residence only further enriches the local cinema culture.

“He and I have always fantasized about pro- grams we can plan, people we can bring to town, and ways he can be even more involved with what we bring to Omaha when he has a chance to spend more time here,” says Rachel Jacobson, Film Streams’ founder and director.

Payne is no stranger to making movies in his “backyard.” His latest, Downsizing, shot three days here—a fraction of the time he spent on his first three locally filmed features.

“Of course, I wish I’d shot all of the scenes per- taining to Omaha in Omaha, but it just wasn’t possible,” he says. “What I really missed about shooting in Omaha was the extras.”

On Toronto soundstages, he recreated a Creighton Prep class reunion and a farewell party at Jam’s Old Market.

“It was a drag having to train Torontonians to behave like Omahans. Once, when I caught two gals pretending they hadn’t seen each other in years kissing on both cheeks, I about had a heart attack,” Payne says, adding that he was glad to have captured some key local scenes in the film. “One of the great locations I was able to shoot in Omaha—complete with the people who actually work there—was Omaha Steaks,” he says.

The well-traveled and socially conscious auteur has made his most issues-oriented film of international scope at this mature career point, though he doesn’t concede to middle age.

“I don’t feel as though I’m at the midpoint of life; I still feel as though I’m at the beginning,” he says. “I can’t help but feel I’m still barely learning how to make a film, and now that I’m a father, well, that’s a new sense of beginning. My friends all have grown children. My best friend from college is a grandfather twice over, and me, I’m just now wading into these waters for the first time.”

He can taste the irony of his words: “I remember seeing [Akira] Kurosawa speak in 1986 in L.A. to promote Ran. He said, ‘I’ve made 30 feature films, I’m almost 80 years old, and yet I feel as though I have less of an idea now of what a movie is than when I was younger.’ I thought he was just trying to play Mr. Humble. Now his words are haunting. I think my gravestone will read, ‘I was just getting started.’”

Downsizing pushed Payne to the limit with its complex storyline, epic scale, and special effects. It took a decade getting made from when he and co-writer Jim Taylor completed the script’s first draft. Once shot, fixing on a final cut proved elusive.

“I’m just glad it’s over and I can get on to something new,” he says. “It was a very long process. The script took a long time to corral, finding financing was nearly impossible, and the movie fell apart three times before finally jelling. Production was long and costly, and it was tricky to pinpoint the final movie in the editing room. It’s a film I had to get out of my system—Jim and I believed in it for all these years, believed in its wacky but very interesting idea, and we finally got it made.”

Payne and longtime casting director John Jackson of Council Bluffs assembled an impressive international acting ensemble. As Paul, superstar Damon (the Bourne franchise lynchpin who recently starred in the Coen Brothers’ 2017 film Suburbicon) takes us on a wild, downsized journey.

“He’s a wonderful actor,” Payne says of his leading man.

Of Kristen Wiig, Paul’s spacey life partner, (who previously starred alongside Damon in Ridley Scott’s 2015 film The Martian) Payne says: “Lovely woman, super-funny, able to be either subtle or overt with the same level of commitment and humor.”

On two-time Academy Award winner Christoph Waltz (the Nazi antagonist in Quentin Tarantino’s 2009 film Inglourious Basterds), Paul’s amoral guide in the new world, Payne says: “A very smart, very funny, very committed actor. We disagreed a couple of times, but something very good came out of it.”

Newcomer Hong Chau (who starred in P. T. Anderson’s 2014 film Inherent Vice) plays an activist who gets under Paul’s skin. Payne echoes what others say about her breakthrough, Oscar buzz-worthy work.

“A star is born,” he says. “I often get asked why my movies ‘always’ seem to be about adrift, middle-aged white males. But in fact, I’ve had the most fun, midwifing, terrific performances by females: Laura Dern [Citizen Ruth, 1996], Reese Witherspoon [Election, 1999], Kathy Bates [About Schmidt, 2002], June Squibb [Nebraska, 2013] and Shailene Woodley [The Descendants, 2011]. I’d say Hong Chau really takes the cake.”

“It was the right role finding the right actor at the right time,” Payne says, “and she all but steals the whole damned movie. Matt Damon calls her a ‘thoroughbred.’”

Chau confirms what others note about Payne.

“I have so many feelings for Alexander,” she says. “He’s an amazing person, an amazing director. It’s really been a joy getting to work with him and also getting to know him as a person. It’s the first time I’ve worked on something where I feel like he’s going to be my friend for life.”

His “gentle” directing style suited her.

“I don’t feel the heavy hand of directing,” Chau says. “All of the redirections are tweaks—a very small degree or two on the dial where to turn an emotion or a word in a sentence. A lot of his writing is filled with comedy, so there’s some precision needed in order for the humor to land the way it’s supposed to.”

Payne invited her to observe the editing pro- cess. She marveled at what he cut to make the film leaner.

“It really showed how disciplined he is to telling the story and keeping it sharp in terms of what the audience should be receiving,” Chau says. “It’s why Alexander has become one of the great American masters.”

Leading up to its debut in Omaha, the film gen- erated strong word-of-mouth from trailers and festival screenings. It opened to uniformly warm praise at the Venice Film Festival, where Payne, in attendance for the first time, was joined by Damon, Chau, Wiig, and new Paramount head Jim Gianopulos.

After the high of Venice, Downsizing receiving mixed reviews at the Telluride Film Festival in Colorado and the Toronto International Film Festival.

“Some people really dig it. Others think it maybe bites off more than it can chew,” Payne says. “Sure, maybe the screenplay is a little greedy, but what the hell? The movie was designed as episodic—a sort of road trip through the world right now. We think that’s what makes it fun.”

Editing footage down to the theatrical release’s 135 minutes (including credits) was an arduous task.

“I kept hearing the same thing all directors always hear from studio executives: ‘Make it shorter,’” he says.

The studio is bullish on Downsizing’s potential.

“It’s Paramount’s big Christmas release,” he says, “and they see the movie plays great with audiences—lots of laughs. They’re expecting it to do well commercially, and I pray to God they’re right.”

With seven completed features under his belt, Payne is eager as ever to make movies. For the time being, this family man is content to wait for inspiration before jumping into the fray again.

“I wish I were making a movie all the time,” he says. “But I also want to speak only when I have something to say.”

Sculpture by Derek Joy

This article was printed in the January/February 2018 edition of Omaha Magazine.

Hot Movie Takes – The Dundee and “Downsizing”

December 19, 2017 Leave a comment

 

Hot Movie Takes – The Dundee and “Downsizing”

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

A Hollywood premiere, Omaha style, unfurled December 15 at the newly made-over Dundee Theater. Favorite son Alexander Payne and star-is-born Hong Chau represented their beautiful new film “Downsizing” at the neighborhood movie house’s grand reopening.

The night’s main attraction screening served up a rare occurrence – a film that largely lived up to the hype surrounding it. With this film Payne has taken themes he’s long been concerned with and married them to planetary issues to produce a work of large scale and big ideas that’s grounded in intimate relationships.

The story imagines Scandinavian scientists finding a process by which humans can be downsized to help mitigate overpopulation and depleted natural resources.

Everyman Paul Safranek of Omaha transitions into the small world, where he meets up with a cosmo Serbian importer, Dusan, and a fierce Vietnamese human rights activist, Ngoc Lan Tran. The supposed paradise of the miniature Leisure Land they live in is a lie, as normal-sized problems of greed, laziness, consumerism and classism are actually magnified there. Outside Leisure Land, abuses of the downsizing process as reprisals strip it of its utopian ideal. Then, with the end of the world drawing near due to melting ice caps, Paul enlists as a pioneer in a bold move to preserve the human species from extinction. At the crucial hour, he must choose between living fully now or giving up this life to be a symbol for a new age.

From the festival circuit through the Omaha premiere, the critical and popular consensus is that Payne’s created his most visually stunning. humanistic and moving picture yet. Certainly his most ambitious. From the moment the story moves from Paul’s drab normal existence to the brave new small world, we’re treated to memorable images: from a Euro party acid trip to a makeshift ghetto housing project to breathtaking Norwegian fjords to a tribe of tree-huggers saying farewell to the world.

Chau is well deserving of the Best Supporting Actress nominations she’s received because her original character anchors the second half of the film and her authentic, heartfelt performance carries the story home. Christoph Waltz is his usual sardonic, charismatic self. Matt Damon delivers the goods as the sweet, slightly pathetic protagonist we project ourselves onto.

The perfect dream Film Streams founder-director Rachel Jacobson had of reopening the theater Payne grew up in with the premiere of his new film is like something from a movie. And in a it-could-only-happen-in-Omaha moment, Payne shared how he walked to the theater the night of the big event because, well, he could. His childhood home, where his mother Peggy still lives, is only four blocks away. The main auditorium at the Dundee is named in her honor, The final credit is a dedication to his late father: “For George.”

 

The high aesthetics of both the theater and of the movie crowning its rebirth befitted the formal, black-tie December 15 affair whose blue-blood audience helped realize the Film Streams-Dundee marriage. Chau looked every bit the part of a movie star. Payne, the new father, appeared fit and content. Two of Nebraska’s three most famous living figures were in the same room chatting it up: Payne and fellow Diundee resident, Warren Buffett. The billionaire investor’s daughter, Susie Buffett, purchased the Dundee and donated it to Film Streams through her Sherwood Foundation. Susie Buffett was there, too.

It was a celebration all the way around:

Film Streams adding to its inventory of cinema resources and enhancing the local cinema culture

A preservation victory that saved and returned the Dundee to its former glory

A homecoming for Payne

A coming-out party for Chau.

A coronation for what promises to be Payne’s biggest box-office hit and possibly his most awarded film to date.

On a night when the theater and the film shared equal billing, it was hard not to recall all the great cinema moments the Dundee’s offered since the 1920s. Downsizing may not be the best film to ever play there, but it’s safely among the best. It’s also safe to say that the theater’s never looked better. The historic redo features simple, clean designs accented by a black-and-white motif and a new entrance, restaurant and video-bookstore so well integrated into the existing works that they look and feel as though they’ve always been there.

Alley Poyner Macchietto melded the historic and contemporary elements into a pleasing whole in much the same way Payne and his visual effects team blended the film’s CGI and live action into seamless scenes. When the big and small worlds converge onscreen, they hold up as more than arresting set pieces but as compelling dramatic and amusing comedic moments that comment on the smallness of some people’s minds and that size doesn’t really matter.

Just when Payne’s message movie gets too polemical or idealogical, he pokes fun at something to take it down to size. This hugely entertaining movie reminds us, not unlike a Frank Capra movie, that we don’t have to go far or to extremes to find the best things in life, but if we do, it’s best to keep things simple and close to home.

Kudos, too, for Payne taking us on this journey. All of his films are journeys or odysseys of one kind or another, “Downsizing” is the most provocative journey he’s given us yet in one of his films. He and co-writer Jim Taylor went global with this story and therefore we see a diverse, international cast of characters unlike anything we’ve seen in his work. Powerful images and storylines depict the range of humanity and the ways in which people of different cultures , circumstances and beliefs live. Because of the politically charged climate the film resides in both in its fictional story and in real life, these images and plot points are loaded with multiple meanings and interpretations. By the end, we’re left with a positive affirmation about the beauty and folly of human nature and with a challenge to protect and preserve Mother Earth.

Thanks for the message, and welcome back home, Alexander.

 

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