Posts Tagged ‘Film Criticism’

In Case You Missed It: Hot Movie Takes from September-November 2017

November 17, 2017 Leave a comment

Hot Movie Takes – “Rock the Kasbah”

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

“Rock the Kasbah” (2015) is one of those movies that has a really low aggregate rating on Rotten Tomatoes and I can’t for the life of me figure out why because it’s a superior dark comedy starring Bill Murray and directed by Barry Levinson with a great hook that largely delivers in terms of laughs and tears. That hook finds a Pashtun girl in Afghanistan possessing a golden singing voice and secretly dreaming of performing on the TV show “The Afghan Star” (the equivalent of “American Idol”) but her fundamentalist warlord father would never permit it. She must sneak out of her village at night to a cave just in order to sing and to watch the show alone. In this isolated, repressed place, no one will ever get to appreciate her talent. Then, one night, a desperate American music promoter named Richie Lanz, who’s been forced into doing irregular business with her father, strolls outside the village and hears her once in a lifetime voice. Lenz is a part Murray was born to play. He’s a burn-out whose marriage and small-time career have hit the skids. He winds up in Afghanistan by pure accident when, in the throes of promoting a singer back in the States played by Zooey Deschanel, he stumbles upon a USO tour opportunity. Once over there, his American singer goes AWOL, taking his passport and money with her. He’s in a bad fix and winds up fronting for a pair of sleazy U.S. arms dealers who extort him into closing a deal with the warlord. That’s when he’s smitten by the sweet sounds of Salima. The next day he tries convincing her father that he should let her try out for “Afghan Idol” and dad rejects the idea as an insult. Driving away from the village, Richie and his driver discover that Salima’s stowed away in the trunk.

And here’s where this film, which had the potential to be great, veers into trite territory. As entertaining as Lanz is as a character, Levinson should have made Selima’s character the protagonist, not Lenz. That’s right – the film tells the wrong story or gives emphasis to the wrong part of the story. Instead of fleshing out her character and culture, including the dynamic of her life with her father, family and community, Levinson spends 90 percent of the picture on Lenz – on his foibles, on his budding partnership with a super whore played by Kate Hudson and on his regrets. But we already know Lenz. We’ve seen his type in a hundred movies and even though Murray is excellent bringing him to life, it’s Selima’s dilemma and courage, passion and commitment, that the story should not only celebrate but dive deep into. A girl risking everything in a closed veil society in the midst of war is the rich content and context this movie needed to realize its potential. As it is, it’s a variation on “Good Morning, Vietnam,” another Levinson film, though I think “Rock the Kasbah” is better and Murray’s performance is more nuanced than Robin Williams’ performance in that earlier picture. His character here is something of a stoner Ugly American whose hustle nearly gets him killed. He’s basically a good dude, and in the end he does the right thing.

Bruce Willis adds nothing as a mercenary who winds up protecting Lenz.

Leem Lubany is good as Selima but she’s not given enough to do.

Fahim Fazil is quite good as her father.

Beejan Land is fine as the “The Afghan Star” host.

Arian Maoyed nearly steals the show as Lenz’s driver.

The script by Mitch Glazer is a bit hit and miss but when it’s on it’s very good. Sean Bobbitt’s cinematography adequately frames the disparate locations. which range from wrong side of the tracks Van Nuys Calif. to war-torn Kabul to remote villages to seedy nightclubs to desert badlands. Levinson mostly keeps this pastiche together and flowing. yet his miscalculation about the story’s emphasis is hard to forgive even though it doesn’t ruin the movie. He’s saved by Murray’s winning performance and the sheer entertainment value of this engaging story about culture clashes, impossible odds and two people’s passion to follow their dreams no matter what.

I highly recommend seeing “Rock the Kasbah” with the proviso that it could have been much more yet. It is available on Netflix.

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.

Hot Movie Takes – “Barbarosa”

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

It usually takes repeated viewings of a movie over a period of years before its images, moods and plot points get fully embedded in me. If I’ve only seen a movie once and years go by, then the less distinct my memories of it are. That’s true, with rare exceptions, even when it comes to good movies, The more time that passes, all I’m left with are general impressions. I mean, about all I know for certain is that I either really liked or disliked a movie. Such was the case with the off-beat 1982 Western “Barbarosa” starring Gary Busey and Willie Nelson, which I resolutely recall liking a lot but with the passage of time I had few vivid details of it left at my disposal. Until watching it last tonight in a superb upload on YouTube, it had been three decades since I last saw this picture directed by Fred Schepisi (“The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith,” “Iceman,” “Plenty,” “Roxanne,: “Six Degrees of Separation,” “Empire Falls”). I did have some residual artifacts of its look, its spirit, its lead actors’ performances and its use of lyrical realism and romanticism against a stark and harsh pre-Civil War Texas-Mexico backdrop. But I couldn’t have been much more specific than that other than to say it tells the story of a naive initiate rube, played by Busey, falling in with a sly, aging, red-headed bandit, Barbarosa, played by Nelson, whom generations of a Mexican family named Zavala have been sworn to kill. Oh, and that by the end, the young man carries on the Barbarosa persona.

The inspiration for the movie and the character of Barbarosa is Nelson’s album “The Red Headed Stranger.” Nelson asked his friend and fellow Texan, writer William Wittliff, to write a script based on the fictional outlaw figure in that album. Nelson chose well because Wittliff is one of the most talented screenwriters of the last half-century and some of his best work is in the Western genre. His credits include the mini-series “Lonesome Dove” and the film “Legends of the Fall.” He was also a writer on the feature “Honeysuckle Rose,” which Nelson co-starred in.

Now that I’ve seen “Barbarosa” movie again, I can confirm it is still the richly satisfying romp that registered with me the first time I saw it. And with it fresh in my head, I can be detailed about what makes it special. As Karl, Busey is the lone son of a farmer in Southern Texas. He’s accidentally killed his brother in law and is escaping the shame he feels and the revenge he’s sure will pursue him. In the Mexico badlands, he’s run out of provisions when he encounters Barbarosa. Within seconds of their meeting, Barbarosa is faced with a kill or be killed situation when a Zavala comes gunning for him, pistols blazing away. Karl sees for himself that he’s met up with a brave man very handy with his sidearm but it takes a few more incidents before he realizes he’s in the presence of a legend. Barbarosa, out of pity or loneliness or decency,  takes on Karl as his partner. There’s much the greenhorn has to learn from him. The two men, individually and together, must face down a series of threats and predicaments that are variously comic and tragic. Eventually, Karl learns that the trouble he’s trying to run way from is similar to the trouble that brings assassins after Barbarosa and that he, too, must confront the sins of his past.

The longer Karl rides with Barbarosa, the more he learns about the older man’s story and the deeper he gets into the outlaw life. He’s also forced to kill or be killed in the same way that Barbarosa is. We learn, along with Karl, that the Zavalas have been after Barbarosa for three decades and that Barbarosa has dispatched several of them over that time. And yet Barbarosa won’t brook Karl or anyone else saying anything bad about the Zavalas, It turns out they are his family by marriage. Long ago, he married Josefina, the daughter of the Zavala clan’s head, Don Braulio, played by Gilbert Roland. The source of the bad blood feud between the two men stems from Barbarosa’s wedding night reception, when during the drunken revelry Barbarosa accidentally killed one of Don Braulio’s sons. When Don Braulio exacted a nasty revenge that disfigured his son in law for life, Barbarosa repaid his father in law in kind. Their bond severed and Josefina forbidden to see her husband, Barbarosa is branded as the family’s sworn enemy. Year after year, Don Braulio has sent sons, grandsons and nephews from the family hacienda after Barbarosa and they’ve either come back disgraced – having failed to kill Barbarosa – or they’ve been killed themselves.  The scourge of Barbarosa, who refuses to leave the area and secretly sees his Josefina at the hacienda, has reached legendary, even mythical proportions. Songs recount his feats. The legend continues to grow, especially when Barbarosa and Karl escape the clutches of a Mexican bandit who shoots and apparently kills Barbarosa. When Barbarosa appears to have risen from the grave, the legend takes on added dimensions.

At one juncture, Barbarosa makes one of his brazen visits to see Josefina, who clearly still loves him, Karl follows him into the compound. To avoid being discovered, Karl takes refuge in a room that just happens to be the sleeping quarters of Barbarosa and Josefina’s very eligible daughter, Juanita, and the two  become very friendly. Juanita’s already heard the tales of Barbarosa’s “Gringo Child” sidekick.

I should note here that though the film upload is visually and sonically flawless, this print is a widely distributed version missing a key exchange near the very end that reveals Don Braulio has exploited the Barbarosa feud to retain control over the clan. He’s conflated the conflict into a holy mission, thereby demonizing Barbarosa, as a way to keep his family intact and him as unquestioned leader. He’s done this even though it’s meant wantonly sacrificing his own people for something that’s really only a personal vendetta for which he himself has as much to answer to as Barbarosa. Absent that information, the ending loses some of its clarity and punch.

But the ending still works because Karl’s had to face the same kind of blood oath mania and endured loss for his own indiscretion and he and Barbarosa have forged a deep friendship and love. By the time Barbarosa finally meets his match, Karl’s more than willing to take up the mantle of the legend. Besides, he still has Juanita to see.

Busey is perfect as Karl, who starts out a sweet, wide-eyed oaf and ends up a still just but much wizened and toughened rebel. Nelson pulls off the difficult task of being charismatic and enigmatic yet fully human. Roland brings just the right dignified bearing to his part.

The engaging script by Wittliff does a masterful job of balancing all these elements and keeping the story moving forward without ever getting bogged down. Schepisi’s fluid direction also maintains a good balance between the story’s fable-like qualities and gritty realism.

This kind of story that plays with notions of identity and reputation obviously appeals to Schepisi, who’s covered similar ground in films as seemingly disparate as “The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith,” “Iceman,” “Roxanne” and “Six Degrees of Separation.” The cinematography by Ian Baker, with whom Schepisi has often worked, is striking. The music by Bruce Smeaton, another frequent collaborator of Schepisi’s, is haunting. The film’s theme of truth versus legend in the West and which should prevail is famously dealt with in some other fine Westerns, such as “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,” “The Shootist” and “Unforgiven.”

Some of my favorite Westerns are non-traditional ones and “Barbarosa” sure fills the bill. Others include “The Ballad of Cable Hogue” and “Bad Company.”

BTW, Busey’s always been one of my favorite actors and I’ve always particularly admired the work he did in the 1970s and 1980s, when he worked with some great filmmakers and held his own with some of Hollywood’s best actors. I consider his Best Actor Oscar-nominated performed performance in “The Buddy Holly Story” as one of the all-time great film portrayals, right up there with Sissy Spacek in “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” because  like her he not only gave a great dramatic performance, he also did his own singing (and playing). I would love to see again two of his better films from the ’70s: “Straight Time” starring Dustin Hoffman and “Big Wednesday” written and directed by John Milius. He also starred in an obscure screwball comedy that I really liked called “Foolin’ Around” and in an obscure and fascinating art film titled “Insignificance” directed by Nicolas Roeg.

On a personal note, I screened “Barbarosa” as part of one and perhaps two Western film festivals I organized way back in the 1980s that were presented as part of River City Roundup.

NOTE: Make sure to select the upload of “Barbarosa” with the following descriptor because it’s far superior to another out there:

Barbarosa – Movies 1982 – Fred Schepisi – Action Western Movies [ Fʟʟ H ]

Josefina Powers

5 months ago 3,440 views

There’s no telling how long it will last, so be quick about it and watch it while you can.

Hot Movie Takes: “Welcome to Me”

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

Kristen Wiig shines in the 2014 dark comedy “Welcome to Me” now available on Netflix. The same uncanny ability to create fully realized characters on the fringes of reality and sanity she displayed on “Saturday Night Live” is evident here. She so thoroughly inhabits “Welcome to Me” protagonist Alice, who suffers from borderline personality disorder and delusions of grandeur, that we are totally pulled into Alice’s wonderland of surreal circumstance and imagination. Alice lives alone and is unable to work because of her. her condition and so she receives a monthly disability payment. Her life is manageable when she’s on her meds but she’s a danger to herself and impossible to deal with when she’s not. She sees a therapist, played by Tim Robbins, but she treats their sessions more like social outings than treatment,

Obsessed with television, particularly Oprah, Alice has memorized entire shows and speaks out the lines while in the trance-like state she enters when watching. Her closest relationship may be with her TV set, which she embraces with tenderness and desire. Her longtime best friend, Gina, played by Linda Cardellini, is a well-adjusted young woman her own age who’s never abandoned Alice despite Alice’s many mood swings, irrational behavior and self-centered focus. Alice’s remaining small support network includes Ted, her gay ex-husband, played by Alan Tudyk, and her elderly parents who’ve been through hell and back with her mental illness. Alice lives in a bubble in which she intersects with a world of her own creation, which is to say she lives almost entirely in her head.

Then, having gone off her meds, a funny thing happens on the way to likely involuntary confinement: she wins the lottery. Eighty-six million dollars worth. Suddenly, she has the means to actually realize the fantasy in her mind. She finds the outlet for her manic depressive compulsions and flights of fancy in a low rent public access TV station where she literally buys her way on air as producer, writer, host of her own show, aptly named “Welcome to Me.” Her chaotic inner life is the theme of the show. She lays bare things and does segments that are variously awkward, wrong, profane, slanderous, offensive, profound, sublime and surreal.

She writes checks for millions of dollars to secure 100 episodes, all the while showing clear signs of emotional disturbance. But the Ruskin brothers who own the station are more than willing to accept her money and put her dysfunction on display and call it entertainment. Even when his own staff and brother express serious misgivings about it all, the calculating Rich Ruskin, played by James Marsden, gives Alice everything she wants, regardless of how crazy it is. Until she goes too far. But he’s complicit in her pushing the limits. The sweet Gabe Ruskin, played by Wes Bentley, is morally conflicted by the arrangement but then becomes an enabler when he develops feelings for Alice. Joan Cusack plays a control room director who hates doing the show but sort of makes peace with it over time. Jennifer Jason Leigh plays a station staffer who quits in disgust over what she considers to be this travesty that crosses moral and ethical lines.

All together, it is a comically and dramatically rich landscape that writer Eliot Laurene and director Shira Pevin play with and for the most part they hit the mark. I really like the idea that a for-real mentally ill person winds up having their own show and even develops a following, In light of Donald Trump’s success with “The Apprentice” and his rise to the U.S. presidency largely through his media presence, we know that this isn’t an absurd or impossible scenario. We’re living through it right now. The film’s also a reminder that money doesn’t cure anything,  though it does afford Alice the opportunity to change Gina’s life with a surprise gift.

This inmates have taken over the asylum work won’t be for everyone because it follows the peculiar rhythms and actions of its eccentric, enigmatic protagonist, who sometimes makes us as uncomfortable as the characters around her. Just when the story threatens to get too dark or weird, there’s a funny or warm moment to add needed balance. Wiig may not be a great actress, but she’s sort of perfect for off-kilter personalities like this because she has that spacey, loopy quality and she’s brave enough to take her characterizations to the limit without any vanity considerations.

Hot Movie Takes: “Michael Clayton”

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

Netflix now has available one of the best American film dramas from the past half-century – “Michael Clayton.” This 2007 picture starring George Clooney is an intricately written and directed masterwork from Tony Gilroy (who wrote the first few Bourne movies starring Matt Damon) about characters caught up in a world of corporate greed, politics and legal shenanigans. It lays bare how far some people are prepared to go to conceal the truth and how far others are prepared to go to reveal it. Clooney’s never been better and his is only one of several great performances. He plays the title character – a fixer for a large law firm – with a bit of that world-weary cynicism we associate with film noir. He’s called into fix cases where clients have got themselves in a legal bind that his extra-legal connections and payoffs can mitigate or make go away. The former prosecutor is very good at his job but hates his dirty work. He’s divorced with a young son, recovering from a gambling problem and in hock to gangsters for a failed restaurant he started on borrowed money and for his drug addict brother’s various debts. Tom Wilkinson plays Arthur, a legal eagle star and friend whose manic depression is set off by a case he’s been working for years involving a ConAgra-like company (the Omaha skyline and name is shown) facing a multi-billion dollar settlement with plaintiffs alleging human harm from a weed-killer product. When Arthur discovers incontrovertible evidence the company knew of the product’s lethal effects and kept silent and then fixates on one of its victims, he turns rouge and begins sabotaging the case by compiling evidence against his own client. Tilda Swinton plays the general counsel for the multinational ag company who goes down a dark path to protect its interests when she realizes that Arthur is putting the firm’s profitability and reputation at risk and possesses the smoking gun that could also bring serious criminal charges against her, the CEO and others complicit in covering up the facts. When Arthur threatens going public with a damning internal memorandum in which the company’s own research division confirms the poisonous product, she contracts to have him killed. Sydney Pollock is the head of the firm that employs Clayton and retains Arthur and though he suspects something stinks about the ag client, he either doesn’t know or doesn’t want to know what it’s capable of doing to suppress the threat that Arthur poses. Caught in the middle of this Machiavellian plot is Clayton, whose moral scales weigh heavily from learning too late just how in danger Arthur was and then finds himself a target as well.

Gilroy opens the film with an extended montage that establishes the basic conflicts each major character faces without revealing how they’e connected. All we see is that these are desperate people. Then the film goes back in time to depict how each character’s dilemma is related to the others and the story catches up to where it opened. The just-desserts ending is one of the most delicious, satisfying denouements I’ve ever seen because it redeems Clayton, who puts himself on the line to see that justice is done, and brings the bad apples down without any cloying sentimentality.

The themes and tones of the film remind me a great deal of another superb drama from about a decade earlier – “The Insider” (1999). Like that earlier film, “Michael Clayton” is an uncompromising, nonjudgmental look at the complex motivations and behaviors people exhibit under duress.

The stark, tight, in-close cinematography by Robert Elswit, who often works with Paul Thomas Anderson and George Clooney, and the taut editing by John Gilroy (director Tony Gilroy’s brother) heighten the sense of tension and suspense without sacrificing nuance. The music by James Newton Howard captures the dark moodiness of the story.

There are several great scenes but the one I’m always most struck by is of a disillusioned Clayton driving on a country road and pulling over, stopping and getting out of his car to watch what’s caught his eye. He slowly makes his way up a small hill to gaze upon some beautiful horses. He stands there and admires them. It’s the first clean, pure, free, simple moment he’s had to himself in a long while. And then something violent happens to his car and it’s clear that for not stopping to see those horses, he would be dead.

Hot Movie Takes: “Project X”

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

Last night, I took a flyer on a 1980s movie available on Netflix that my snobbishness ordinarily would have led me to bypass. I’m referring to the 1987 light drama “Project X” starring Matthew Broderick and Helen Hunt and I must say I was pleasantly surprised by this movie about two people who take a stand against animal cruelty. Broderick plays Jimmy Garrett, a screw-up U.S. Air Force pilot trainee. He gets demoted to animal handler in a top secret military program using chimpanzees to test pilot limitations under extreme, even deadly conditions, because of their similar genetic, bio-chemical makeup as humans. Garrett and others train chimps on flight simulators and when deemed ready  the primates “graduate” to a special, secure chamber where they’re bombarded with radiation during flight simulation runs.

When Garrett, who was oblivious to this phase in the program, discovers the fate of the chimps he’s grown attached to, he’s conflicted carrying out is duties. There’s one particularly bright and affectionate chimp. Virgil, he’s fond of and that he can’t bring himself to allow being sacrificed.

Virgil was raised and taught sign language by researcher Teri MacDonald (Hunt) long before he wound up a lab specimen at the air base under shady circumstances. Her work with Virgil progressed to the point he signed when he wanted an apple, when he wanted to play and when he saw birds flying in the air. The work abruptly ended when funding for her research got pulled. Her protests to keep Virgil for herself fell on deaf ears and their separation from each other was traumatic. Assurances given her that he would be well cared for and loved at a public zoo turned out to be false because Virgil became a commodity in a black market that provides chimps for research activities that put them at high risk and make them expendable.

Three years since having to part with Virgil, she’s contacted by the guilt-ridden Garrett, who informs her he’s now working with Virgil in this black ops program whose very existence he’s honor-bound not to reveal.

This sets off the suspenseful, hard to believe and yet thoroughly entertaining efforts by Garrett and MacDonald to sabotage the program and also free Virgil and as many other chimps as possible. Of course, there are many obstacles in their way but what no one expects is that the chimps stage a break of their own and ultimately Virgil and his mates escape by putting their flight simulator training to practical use. It’s a mashup of serious and silly that actually works.

I was surprised to learn that Jonathan Kaplan directed the movie because he usually does edgier material than this. Kaplan, who came out of the Roger Corman school of low budget genre movies, made this right around the time he was on quite a roll as a feature director (“Over the Edge,” “Heart Like a Wheel,” “The Accused,” “Unlawful Entry,” “Immediate Family,” “Brokedown Palace”) and before he started directing for television. The screenplay by Stanley Weiser from a story that Weiser and Lawrence Lasker wrote is not as smart or deep as you’d like and the direction and photograhjy (Dean Cundey) don’t always provide the payoffs you need, but these are minor quibbles. At first, I didn’t buy Broderick as Garrett but my objections soon faded as his good-hearted rebel character got more established. The earnest Hunt carries the first quarter of the film and then we don’t see her again until the last quarter, when she’s not given much to do except for a big emotional scene with Broderick. Otherwise, she becomes mere decoration and sidekick and I think more should have been made of her presence. Jean Smart is good in a small role at the start as the sympathetic research supervisor over MacDonald. Stephen Lang is interesting as a prickly primate handler. And William Sadler is fine as the single-minded flight testing head at odds with Garrett over the chimps.

BTW, I was intrigued by how the film portrayed the self-aware chimps in ways that anticipated how they’re depicted in the new series of “Planet of the Apes” movies. Interestingly, the film’s DP, Dean Cundey, worked a lot with John Carpenter and he, along with production designer Lawrence G. Paull and set decorator Rick Simpson do bring a sci-fi/horror look and feel to many of the goings-on and I kind of wish they had taken this a bit farther.

Hot Movie Takes:

“Runnin’ Down a Dream”

Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers documentary

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

I was oblivious to rocker Tom Petty’s October 2nd death when I recently watched on Netflix Peter Bogdanovich’s 2007 documentary about him, “Runnin’ Down a Dream.” I don’t follow music that closely and I’ve never been one to collect works or to identify favorite artists, but what I had heard of Petty’s music over the years I greatly admired. And so when over the weekend I was searching Netflix for something new to watch and my samples proved disappointing, I decided to give this doc a try. I probably opted to view it as much for the fact that Bogdanovich directed it as for its subject, though had I known going it it was a four-hour film, I might not have committed myself. I am glad I did. It’s not a great film, not even in this category of rockumentary, but it is very good, mostly because of the music and the man, by whom I mean Tom Petty.

Bogdanovich got great access to Petty and those around him, plus important archival footage and stills, to create a pretty full portrait of this deeply introspective rocker whose seemingly languid, laid-back personality off-stage belied a ferocious heart that brooked no injustice, real or perceived. Thus, his by turns fierce and whimsical stage persona. Heavily influenced by ’60s rock, Petty hit upon a style in his singing, songwriting and guitar playing that valued soulful delivery of multi-layered lyrics backed by driving rhythms. His enduring music is all about storytelling, setting moods and giving us sonic, narrative experiences with beginnings, middles and ends. A Petty song takes you on a journey and makes you feel like you started one place and arrived somewhere else. That’s as good as it gets in the realm of rock.

Thanks to the film I learned a lot about Petty and his own journey but most importantly that he was a poet-provocateur whose artistry both mined and transcended his deep Southern roots, his affinity for ’60s culture and his burning anger. This was one driven dude and the only way to explain why he lasted so long as a vital artist is that he never took it for granted, never grew complacent and, even after achieving Rock and Roll Hall of Fame status and mega-millions, he never believed that he had it all figured out or that he and his music were all played out, He was still searching, still discovering, still communing with inspiration and still creating new music till the very end. He was always striving to get the words, the melody, the harmony, the licks, the tracks, et cetera, just right.

The doc reminded me that Petty was a music video pioneer and big thing. That he and the Heartbreakers toured with and backed Bob Dylan, That he he and Dylan were part of the Travelling Wilburys with George Harrison, Roy Orbison and Jeff Lynne. That Tom Petty  and the Heartbreakers played with Johnny Cash in some of that icon’s final sessions, And that Petty collaborated with a whole host of other musicians, ranging from Stevie Nicks to Dave Stewart.

I loved finding out the story of how guitarist Mike Campbell and bassist Ron Blair went all the way back with Petty to Gainesville, Florida and the group’s first forays in Los Angeles. They and keyboardist Benmont Tench and drummer Stan Lynch, both also from Gainesville, were there for the founding of the Heartbreakers in 1976. It was great to know that long after Blair left the band on amicable terms following the Heartbreakers first big wave of success and craziness, he was invited to rejoin the band a generation later when his replacement, Howie Epstein, died. He accepted and the core group was back together with the exception of Lynch, who’d left and was replaced by Steve Ferrone.

The movie does a good job of detailing the epic path Petty and his mates took from obscurity to stardom, from Mudcrutch to the Heartbreakers, and from riding the last wave of old rock and helping revitalize the genre.

This was a tight family and that’s the only way the Heartbreakers survived for as long as they did. That, and Petty allowing his bandmates the freedom to speak their mind and contribute ideas. Plus, Petty and the others at various times went off and did their own things and projects separate from the band. It was a constantly evolving pool of stimulation.

There are the inevitable stories of those accouterments that attend rock stardom and touring. The women, the drugs, the disputes, ego trips. But perhaps the most interesting thing I learned was that Petty took on the music industry at least twice when he stood up for what he felt was right and faced enormous pressure to give in. But in each case it was the corporate giants that backed down, not him, and hence the inspiration of his hits song, “I Won’t Back Down.”

See the music video for that song that features Petty performing with Mike Campbell, Jeff Lynne, George Harrison and Ringo Starr at this link–

After seeing the film, it’s abundantly clear why at least two of the remaining Beatles at the time felt a kinship with Petty and his music. The same with Roger McGuinn of The Byrds and for that matter such disparate artists as Nicks, Orbison, Lynne and Cash. They recognized in him the best of the counterculture spirit that is rock’s emblem and fire. Tom Petty was rock ‘n’ roll personified.

Hot Movie Takes – “Sideways”

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

The final session this fall in my “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film” class at Do Space will study and screen the filmmaker’s fourth feature, “Sideways” (2004). This was the Payne film that perhaps resonated more with general audiences than any of his previous works and following the box office success of “About Schmidt” its own strong financial performance firmly established Payne in the front ranks of not only American but world cinema commercial film artists.

We’ll be digging down on “Sideways” and other Payne things from 5:45 to 8:45 p.m. on Tuesday, Oct. 24.

For this five-week Metro Community College non-credit Continuing Ed class we’re looking at a different Payne film each session. We meet on the second floor of Do Space at 72nd and Dodge.

If there’s enough interest, we’ll resume the class with five new sessions in the spring of 2018,

Alexander Payne came right out of the feature film gate with four black comedies he wrote and directed that successively showed his growth as a filmmaker. The last of those four, “Sideways,” marked several firsts for him and once again proved his ability to both revel in and rise above genre conventions and constraints. It marked the first time as a feature filmmaker he shot primarily outside Omaha after lensing his first three films mostly in his hometown. The screenplay that Payne and co-writer Jim Taylor adapted from Rex Pickett’s novel became the first love story the writer-director gave us. And that love story is artfully embedded within this nominal road and buddy picture.

Payne began opening up his cinema canvas with About Schmidt and took things farther in “Sideways.” The earlier film follows its protagonist on a dispiriting road trip from mid-point on. Seemingly, nothing happens but the journey’s actually filled with cathartic experiences that finally allow Warren Schmidt to feel human and connected again. Where Schmidt is mostly going in search of something, the double protagonists in “Sideways” – Miles and Jack – go to escape certain things. Miles is escaping his own sense of failure and inadequacy in his work and in relationships. Jack is running away from responsibility and fidelity to his impending marriage and betrothed. Miles uses the trip and the hard things that happen as excuses to get drunk. Jack uses it as a cover to get laid.

The men’s misadventures start right from the opening and go through to the very end. Much of what befalls the pair is of their own making and while it may seem like it’s all about drunkenness and debauchery, immaturity and stupidity, it’s really about love. There’s the kind of love between two men that Miles and Jack have, only by the end Miles has outgrown Jack. Then there’s the rekindling of love in Miles, who didn’t think it could happen to him again but then it does with Maya. Miles and Maya also share a love of wine, particularly Pinot Noir, and in that great nighttime scene on the back-porch at Stephanie’s place each describes what it is they love about that wine. They are, of course, describing characteristics in themselves and why they are made for each other.

Finally, there’s Jack’s inability to be a monogamous or faithful lover.

The relationship between Miles and Jack is not unlike an R-rated update on Laurel and Hardy. These two bumbling friends are always getting in trouble because of their bad choices. They bring out the best and worst in each other. At various times, you almost expect one or the other to say something like the famous Laurel and Hardy line, ‘Well, here’s another fine mess you’ve gotten me into.'” Disgust, leavened by love and pity.

Payne’s uncanny facility for casting found the right two actors to play off each other in Paul Giamatti as Miles and Thomas Haden Church as Jack. Their chemistry really works. And Payne cast equally well the two main female parts that are absolutely crucial to the story: Virgjnia Madsen as Maya and Sandra Oh as Stephanie.

Giamatti brings just the right passive-aggressive angst to his neurotic character. He’s a good man who could be much happier if he’d only stop wallowing in his own despair and learn to trust and surrender rather than try to control everything. He is a difficult, fragile creature, much like his beloved Pinot Noir, who needs the careful cultivation of a nurturing heart, who is Maya personified. Madsen brings the Earth Mother quality that is key to Maya, who knows that under the right conditions, Miles can bloom and prosper.

Church has just the right rascality for Jack, a basically good guy who’s never grown up. The wild side of Stephanie meshes well with Jack, only she doesn’t take being two-timed lightly. He’s an egoist and a sensualist. She’s a free spirit and hedonist. But where he doesn’t much let his conscience bother him, she won’t stand for lying and cheating. It’s interesting that the two women are far more mature emotionally than the two men, which is pretty accurate in my experience of life.

This was the first time Payne worked with cinematographer Phedon Papamichael and the two did a stunning job playing off the Santa Barbara wine country beauty within the context of the characters’ travels and travails. Papamichel has remained Payne’s director of photography even since.

The rest of the Payne stock company was intact for this project. including co-writer Jim Taylor, editor Kevin Tent, production designer Jane Ann Stewart, custom designer Wendy Chuck and composer Rolfe Kent. This would be the last time that all of them worked together on a Payne film.

“Sideways” was not expected to be the big hit it turned out to be, Not only did it fare well as a popular, mainstream comedy, but it won Payne his first Oscar (shared with Jim Taylor) for Best Adapted Screenplay and scored nominations in four more major categories: Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor (Church), Best Supporting Actress (Madesn) and Best Directing for Payne. It’s inconceivable that Giamatti wasn’t nominated for Best Actor, but perhaps Academy voters felt they’d seen him play similar parts before.

This followup success to the success of “About Schmidt” made Payne one of the hottest commodities in Hollywood. Rather than consolidate that position right away, he took the next several years to catch his breath, find his next feature project, produce other filmmakers’ work, contribute to the scripts of some big-budget movies, make a short film and direct an HBO pilot. Even though seven years elapsed between the release of “Sideways” and the release of his next film, “The Descendants,” he was a buy man. He also got divorced and had surgery in that interim period.

On a personal note:

By the time “Sideways’ shot, I had been covering Payne for going on six years. Even though he filmed his first three features in Omaha, the entirely made in California “Sideways” was the first extensive visit I made to one of his sets. Indeed, I was on set a full work week of “Sideways.” As the only journalist there, I got full access to Payne, cast and crew. It was better than having a ringside seat at the circus because I literally stood next to Payne as he set up shots, conferred with cast and crew, and I generally went where I wanted and talked with whom I wanted. I even had a driver assigned to get me to and from set every day. The production shot at a handful of locations during my stay. It remains my most unfettered access to his actual working process and it greatly enhanced my understanding of him and how he accomplishes what he captures on film. I got a real appreciation for the rhythm and flow of a major motion picture set. I also learned a good deal about the complex and serendipitous journey that projects, including that one, take along the way to getting made. That experience, combined with some very deep interviews I did with Payne before during and after “About Schmidt” and with everything I did related to “Sideways,” gave me the insights I needed when Payne went seven years without a new feature. Some of the best work I did about him happened in that time frame.

Hot Movie Takes – “Election”

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

The next session in my “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film” class at Do Space will study and screen the filmmaker’s second feature, “Election” (1999), which the writer-director mostly shot in Omaha.

We’ll be digging down on “Election” and other Payne things from 5:45 to 8:45 p.m. on Tuesday, Oct. 10.

For this five-week Metro Community College non-credit Continuing Ed class we’re looking at a different Payne film each session. The class continues on Tuesdays through Oct. 24 on the second floor of Do Space at 72nd and Dodge.

Oct. 10 we look at “Election”

Oct. 17 we look at “About Schmidt”

Oct. 24 we look at “Sideways”

If there’s enough interest, we’ll resume the class with five new sessions in the spring of 2018,

High school movies constitute their own genre. They range from dramas to comedies to horror pictures to musicals to parodies of themselves. Alexander Payne certainly knew the territory well. In brilliant fashion he and co-writer Jim Taylor adapted Tom Perrotta’s novel “Election” to create a cinema satire that tweak’s the genre’s soap opera angst conventions while remaining true to its own edgy point of view. The film contrasts the ordinariness of Midwest suburbia and public school life with dark, obsessional undertones that cover some of the same psycho-emotional terrain as “Splendor in the Grass” and “Twin Peaks” with flourishes of “The Chocolate War” and “Rushmore” thrown in. But far from being an imitator or pastiche, Payne’s “Election” (1999) stands on its own as a provocative comedy about the war of wills between a bitter male teacher, Jim McAllister. doing bad things in the midst of a mid-life crisis and a driven, opportunistic female student, Tracy Flick, using her obsessive industriousness, along with sexual blackmail, to advance her social status and college-professional aspirations. McAllister, played by Matthew Broderick, is just insecure and idealistic enough to find Tracy’s bald ambitions offensive and threatening. To him, she represents all that’s wrong with getting ahead at any cost. When he realizes the mess he’s made of his personal life and sees Tracy seemingly getting away with it all, he lashes out by manipulating the results of the school’s student government election to try and make his school jock candidate, not her, the winner. But in Tracy Flick, played by Reese Witherspoon, McAllister takes on an adversary even more determined than he to do what it takes to win. She’s going to get what she wants by her wiles and wits and, as he discovers to his dismay, there’s nothing he can do about it.

Payne takes the high school archetypes we’re all familiar with and makes them at once universal and singular. He and Taylor do this by creating characters who both confirm and subvert our expectations. McAllister is a good teacher who really cares about his work and his students’ learning, but at the end of the day he’s an immature brat who cheats on his wife and rigs a student election. Flick is the model student who goes beyond the norm with her academics and extracurricular activities, which unfortunately include having an affair with a teacher and vandalizing her chief competitor’s campaign materials. The script and direction are so sharp and the acting so good that we totally believe this soap opera. The shenanigans never seem overripe because it’s all played with such dead straight earnestness and the characters are behaving true to who we see them to be. Thus, when this exceptional student and teacher lose their bearing to become mortal enemies. It’s funny, painful, surreal, awkward and real.

Similarly, Payne dishes up fresh conceptions of the popular school jock (Paul Metzler), the outsider girl discovering her attraction to other girls (Tammy Metzler), the never-grew-up male teacher (Dave Novotny) who crosses the line with Tracy, the incredulous principal (Walt Hendricks) dealing with teacher indiscretions and the ignored custodian (Loren Nelson) whose injured sense of right and wrong brings McAllister down.

Typical of Payne’s work, the movie sometimes plays as a light-hearted frolic and other times as a despairing drama but most of the time it lands in that counterpoint realm of satire where people flaying away at life make mistakes that variously make us laugh and cry. Just like in real life, the good stuff and the shit happen side by side or at least in close proximity.

The casting is dead-on. Broderick has never been better than he is as McAllister. Withersppon emerged a star after this picture. Payne and casting director John Jackson discovered two Omahans, Chris Klein as jock Paul Metzler and Nicholas D’Agosto as Larry Fouch, right from the local high school ranks and both went on to film-TV careers. And just as locals are seen all over Payne’s first feature, “Citizen Ruth,” Omahans populate this film, notably Delaney Driscoll as Linda Novotny. Then there are really good turns by professional actors Mark Harelik as Dave Novotny, Phil Reeves as beleaguered principal Walt and Jessica Campbell as Tammy Metzler.

“Election” was filmed entirely in Omaha with the exception of the ending, which was a redo from the ending Payne originally shot here and later rejected at the insistence of the studio. You can find that original ending, which was never seen in theaters, on YouTube. I remember reading that ending on the page and really liking it but as you can see for yourself in the clip, it simply didn’t work with the tone of the rest of the film.

The late James Glennon was the director of photography on Payne’s first three features, including “Election.” Glennon was one of several collaborators Payne used time and again during his first decade and a half as an Indiewood writer-director. Others included production designer Jane Ann Stewart, costume designer Wendy Chuck, editor Kevin Tent, composer Rolfe Kent, casting director John Jackson and producers Albert Berger, Ron Yerxa and Jim Burke. Some of these people are still with Payne today.

Just as Payne’s first film “Citizen Ruth” garnered strong reviews yet never found its audience because Miramax either didn’t believe in it or didn’t know how to handle it, “Election” scored well with critics and the general public who had the opportunity to see it but it was not the breakout box office hit it should have been because MTV Films and Paramount Pictures failed to give the film proper exposure and a wide release. However, both films soon became cult hits, particularly “Election,” which for many cineastes remains their favorite Payne picture.

With his very next feature, “About Schmidt,” also primarily shot in Omaha as well as in some rural spots across Nebraska, Payne went from working with minuscule budgets and moderate stars to working with a good-sized budget and a pair of mega stars in Oscar-winners Jack Nicholson and Kathy Bates. It proved to be the filmmaker’s first box office hit. That film, just like “Election” and “Citizen Ruth” before it, depicts a drab, ordinary, sometimes dreary and outright ugly Omaha because Payne sought real locations here that most accurately represent the characters’ desperate lives. That’s always been his M.O. as a filmmaker and even though his films don’t showcase the city the way some wish they did, they do indelibly establish their protagonists with a strong sense of place that is obviously real, not faked. For example, in “Election” you have no trouble believing that Jim McAllister and Tracy Flick are creatures of their respective environments – which are opposite ends of the suburban spectrum. He’s seemingly content in his middle class married life and job even though a part of him resents settling for things and not being more of an adventurer. She refuses to be defined by her poor, single-parent household background and goes to over-achieving extremes in order to put her life on a different trajectory. The real reason he hates her is that he knows she’s going to escape her small horizons while he’s afraid to leave his comfort zone. After the shit hits the fan, the movie flash forwards to the nation’s capital at the end to show the two antagonists, who’ve been separated by years and miles, and we see that Mr.M is still stuck and Tracy is still working her charms to get ahead. Some things never change.

Hot Movie Takes – I Lost it at the Dundee Theatre 

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

Growing up in Omaha, I didn’t get around to being a regular moviegoer until my 20s and by the time the 1980s rolled around, my cinema of choice became the Dundee Theatre. At the time, I was an ardent  programmer and publicist for the UNO Student Programming Film Series. We screened upwards of 75 to 95 titles per year at various venues on the Dodge Street campus but mostly in the Eppley Auditorium. We didn’t have the best facilities or equipment. This was decades before the digital revolution and the arrival of Film Streams. Plus, the series was funded entirely by student fee appropriations. We made do with Bell & Howell 16 millimeter projectors and screens that ranged from professional grade to not much more than white painted walls. And as student and graduate volunteers, we had to work within the confines of what was provided in terms of those meager resources. I got involved with the film series in 1979 and stayed with it through my graduation in 1982. I was so into film at the time that I remained active with the program for almost a decade after graduating. I called myself a consultant and still made the majority of film selections and handled the bulk of publicity.

Our series evolved with the times, not technologically but programmatically. For the first half dozen or so years I was a part of it, we showed an eclectic schedule of American and foreign films that were in their second or third release run or that were bona fide classics from the 1960s clear on back through the 1920s. We often did theme weekends curated by genre or subject or director or star. We also did festivals. By the time the series petered out, in the early ’90s, we had made it a mostly first-run art house, often premiering indie films ahead of anyone else, including commercial theaters, in Omaha. One of my proudest moments was opening Spike Lee’s “She’s Gotta Have It’ the same weekend as the Dundee and still experiencing standing-room only crowds. We’d actually booked the film ahead of the Dundee but when it became an art house sensation it made sense for that theater to exhibit it and since we were officially a non-theatrical exhibitor, we didn’t own any exclusivity in showing it. Of course, I never treated the series as non-theatrical. The rules laid down by distributors technically prohibited us from promoting our series to the general public, but we ignored that stipulation and aggressively marketed our programming via TV, radio, newspapers and magazines and consequently, the majority of our audience usually came from the community. This was a full decade or more before the Internet became a ubiquitous communications medium.

This was also before the VHS became a household staple and way before DVDs came along. It was also before cable TV was a real thing. There was no TCM or AMC. The only avenue to see old movies or foreign movies besides the occasional revival screening was at an art cinema –  and the Dundee was the only full-service theater in town that even approximated that role – or at a non-profit revival or first or second-run art repertory series.

Since we competed with the nearby Dundee for audiences, I naturally viewed the theater as a competitor, Because we never showed the same film more than two days, I suppose if the Dundee thought of us at all it was as a minor nuisance. Besides the Dundee, our more serious competitors were the other university-based film series (Creighton had one) in town and the occasional film series presented by the Joslyn Art Museum. There were also art cinema operations in the Old Market for a period of time and several different venues and events did film festivals. The programming of these other operations mirrored ours. But I considered our biggest competitor of all to be the closest thing to Film Streams back then in Omaha – the New Cinema Cooperative. I didn’t view the predecessor of the Mary Riepma Ross Arts Center, the Sheldon Film Theatre, as a competitor since it was in Lincoln. Ironically, I ended up involved with both the Joslyn and New Cinema series while still active in the UNO series.

There was also an attempt at an art cinema in Bellevue several years ago. It started promisingly before fading away. Then Film Streams came along and changed the whole cinema culture. It and the Dundee coexisted amicably, each feeding its own segment of the film pie. About the time the Dundee closed, Alamo Drafthouse Cinema filled the niche the Dundee had come to serve.

It was my film exhibitor-publicist work that led me to introduce myself to one-time Dundee owner David Frank, who sold the theater to Denny Moran, whom I got to know a little bit over the years. Denny always seemed an odd figure to be running an art cinema. He really wasn’t a film guy. But something about being an exhibitor thrilled him. The theater also seemed to be both a blessing and a curse for him. He loved its history and the warm feeling people had for it. He also felt burdened by the whole thing – the constant upkeep, the turnover of staff, the competing for titles, the box office receipts never being enough to pay the bills. the reliance on concessions to make up the difference. Then there were the various physical challenges that small theater posed: form its precarious Dodge Street entrance to its ridiculously small lobby to its limited restrooms to its often shabby auditorium to its less than convenient and ample parking. He poured lots of money into it, particularly for state of the art sound systems, but it always seemed like a losing battle.

Then there was the fact that Denny seemed distracted by his other theater and business interests, including the discount Westwood 8/Moran Cinemas.

The Dundee was an art house in different stages of its life but never a full-fledged art cinema center. At least in my memory it never played a repertory series around a single filmmaker, it never ran a festival, it never offered educational programming or film notes that I recall and it very rarely ever had a guest filmmaker or film artist. That’s not a criticism by the way, it’s just stating the facts. The only filmmaker I remember coming to any kind of public screening and talk there was Todd Solondz for a showing of his “Palindromes.”

I saw a lot of movies at the Dundee in the 1980s and 1990s and far fewer beginning in the 2000s. Outside the Dundee, my main theater stops were the Admiral, the Westroads, the Indian Hills and the Cinema Center, with occasional forays to the Q Cinema, before each, one by one, closed. My go-to cineplex then became the Oakview Plaza and what’s now known as the Marcus Majestic. More recently yet, the Regal 16 is my fall back theater. Not including Film Streams, of course.

The New Cinema Coop was actually much more of an art cinema than the Dundee in that it did bring in filmmakers and did festivals and the like. It also produced film notes. But the Coop didn’t operate year-round and it also moved around a bit during its lifespan, making it a bit of a sporadic thing and a moving target. After nearly a 20-year run, it ceased operations in the the early ’90s. That left the Dundee as the sole art house type facility. Until Film Streams arrived. And though Film Streams is a kind of neighborhood theater, it’s not anything like the Dundee because north downtown is a very different place with a very different feel than the Dundee district.

Growing up in northeast Omaha, there actually was a neighborhood theater less than a mile from my home, the Military, but I don’t think I ever saw a film there. Later, the Dundee became, by proxy, my neighborhood theater and eventually a lot of people’s neighborhood theater because it ended up being the last one standing and operating. Now that the Dundee will be under the Film Streams brand and umbrella, it will once again serve as urban Omaha’s neighborhood theater because there just isn’t anything else like it around by virtue of it being historic, quaint and nestled right in the heart of a residential-commercial neighborhood that is itself historic and charming. For many of us, the theater was the signifying landmark for the Dundee neighborhood. Though it’s actually about four blocks south of the main Dundee business district, the theater represented the beating heart of the Dundee neighborhood.

I know some folks are worried that the theater will lose the gritty character of the grindhouse it had morphed into through both neglect of its infrastructure and through its niche midnight movie programming. Gentrification is unavoidable when a building is renovated, updated and added onto but the programming will remain far outside the mainstream and I wouldn’t be surprised if Film Streams does do some midnight shows as an ode to the Dundee’s recent past and identity. It may also be where Film Streams plays more fringe and provocative titles.

While the Dundee Theatre story plays out, one old neighborhood theater has been resurrected in the 40th Street Theatre near 40th and Hamilton and another old movie house, the Benson Theatre, is awaiting restoration once enough funding’s been secured.

The buildings that housed Omaha’s old theaters mostly don’t survive and the few that do have been repurposed: the Orpheum is the home to Broadway touring shows; the Rose is home to the Omaha Theater Company for Young People, the Military is a pentecostal church and the Center is now an auction house (but it’s where the New Cinema Coop had its longest stay at any one site).

The Dundee fed my film hunger for many years. It opened me to new voices (Atom Agoyan), new visions (“Koyaanisqatsi”), new ideas (“Brazil”). It gave me a chance to see movies long denied me and others (the set of Hitchcock films that were unavailable for decades) and the chance to see old favorites (“Touch of Evil,” “The Manchurian Candidate”) I only knew from teleivision finally projected on a big screen. My memory is not getting any better, but here’s a very rough, definitely incomplete and possibly inaccurate list of films I saw at the Dundee during that two decade span when I was most active as a filmgoer (the titles with asterisks by them denote personal favorites):

•The Elephant Man

Das Boot



•Rear Window



The Man Who Knew Too Much

The Trouble with Harry


Endangered Species

•Local Hero


The Thin Blue Line

On Golden Pond

Who Framed Roger Rabbit?


The Fly


•Blade Runner

•Full Metal Jacket

Hope and Glory

•Crimes and Misdemeanors

•Radio Days

The Purple Rose of Cairo

•Broadway Danny Rose

Gregory’s Girl

•Field of Dreams

•Do the Right Thing

Tender Mercies

Angelo My Love



•Citizen Ruth

•King of Comedy

Blood Simple

•Raising Arizona

•Miller’s Crossing


Point Break

•The Thin Red Line



Schindler’s List

Bad Lieutenant

Barton Fink

Bringing Out the Dead



Dead Ringers

•Jackie Brown

King of New York

•The Age of Innocence

The Piano



•The Sweet Hereafter

Topsy Turvy

The Usual Suspects

•To Sleep with Anger


Hot Movie Takes – “About Schmidt”

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

The next to last session in my “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film” class at Do Space will study and screen the filmmaker’s third feature, “About Schmidt” (2002), which the writer-director mostly shot in Omaha.

We’ll be digging down on “About Schmidt” and other Payne things from 5:45 to 8:45 p.m. tonight – Tuesday, Oct. 17.

For this five-week Metro Community College non-credit Continuing Ed class we’re looking at a different Payne film each session. The class continues on Tuesdays through Oct. 24 on the second floor of Do Space at 72nd and Dodge.

Oct. 24 we look at “Sideways”

If there’s enough interest, we’ll resume the class with five new sessions in the spring of 2018,

After his quirky first two films, “Citizen Ruth” and “Election,” Alexander Payne still needed to prove himself a Player in Hollywood. By industry standards, neither film was a financial success despite their small budgets. On the other hand, both were well reviewed and almost instantly became cult favorites, especially “Election,” and soon enough made back most of their money. Payne and co-writer Jim Taylor also got Oscar nominated for best screenplay adaptation. But when Payne secured Jack Nicholson to sign on to star in his third feature, “About Schmidt.” the filmmaker answered one question: Could he attract a major box office name to act in one of his films? By recruiting living legend Jack, he answered that with a resounding yes. But that only raised a new set of questions. With the much larger budget that getting Nicholson netted the project, which also had a longer shooting schedule and more locations than his first two films, how would Payne handle working with not one but two mega stars and Oscar winners (the other being Kathy Bates)? With more riding on the line, could he bring the picture in on time and budget? Could he make a film that would finally reach a large audience and become an unqualified hit? He also set himself an interesting challenge with its story of a repressed man in the throes of a late life crisis. Could Payne make us care about an older. embittered man cut off from himself and others?

That Payne succeeded on all counts is a large part of why he’s been able to continue doing the projects he wants to do. With this film and all the major studio and indie imprint projects that have followed, Payne has delivered. “About Schmidt” did several times the business his first two features did combined. He extracted one of Nicholson’s most acclaimed performances. Jack was nominated for Best Actor. They enjoyed a great working relationship. Payne elicited outstanding performances, too, from June Squibb, Kathy Bates, Hope Davis, Dermot Mulroney, Howard Hesseman, Len Carious and others. He made budget and schedule for New Line Cinema. And the film’s strong reception showed that his facility for storytelling, character development and dramedy extended from the darkly comic extremes of “Citizen Ruth” and “Election,” whose protagonists are young people, to the moody depths of mid-life and old age.

“About Schmidt” also revealed Payne’s mastery of more formal or classical narrative devices and approaches than we’d seen before from him. Where “Citizen Ruth” and “Election” are more fragmentary set-piece works, “Schmidt” has more of an even flow and rhythm to it. It’s also the first film in which Payne opened up the physical dimensions of the story by having his protagonist take a road trip, something that Payne’s used in all of his subsequent works, with the exception of his latest film. “Downsizing, though Matt Damon’s character of Paul most definitely takes a journey. The idea of a journey or quest is crucial in all of his films.

Just as the filmmaker used his hometown of Omaha as the principal shooting location for his first two pictures, he returned home for “Schmidt” and naturally Nicholson’s presence caused quite a stir here. The Dundee neighborhood that figures prominently in most of his Omaha-made films shows up again in “Schmidt.”

From his first feature on through “Schmidt” and beyond, Payne’s surrounded himself with a regular working company of crew that have become a close-knit team and family. However, not long after the “Schmidt’ project wrapped shooting, his cinematographer, James Glennon, died. For his next picture, “Sideways,” and every one since, Payne’s DP (director of photography) has been Phedon Papamichael. It’s been a happy creative marriage and a critical one, too, because from “Sideways” on Payne has increasingly opened up his visual tool box and storytelling boundaries to place characters in ever larger open spaces and evocative locations, and Papamichael has greatly served this more cinematic approach. That expanding vision began with “Schmidt,” when Nicholson’s character goes off in search of himself and the meaning of life on a cross-country road trip via motor home. Some of the landscape images from his travels across the state resonate with the wind-swept prairie visuals in “Nebraska.” In “Sideways” and in “The Descendants,” Payne and Papamichael make great use of California wine country and Hawaiian islands beach and seascapes, respectively. He takes things to a whole other level in “Downsizing” with its Small World, Norway fjord and inner-earth locations.

Years elapsed from my first and second viewings of “About Schmidt,” and though I responded very positively and strongly to it upon that initial screening, I found it even more arresting and moving the second time. That may be a function of my being closer to Warren Schmidt’s age when I saw it again since it is a film about aging, about regrets, about mortality. But I think it’s also a function of how, like with any great work of art, we find ever richer, deeper things to stir us upon repeated exposure to it. I believe all of Payne’s films released to date will stand the test of time, but that this one and the ones following it will most endure. For me, “Schmidt” is when he became a complete filmmaker and he’s continued growing in his art ever since then.

Hot Movie Takes – “Rounders”

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

John Dahl’s 1998 dramatic film “Rounders” about the underground world of high stakes poker has all the trappings of an instant classic but it falls short because it lacks the oppressive fatalism, moody grit and, well, down and dirty style. of the neo-noir it wants to be. Don’t get me wrong – it’s entertaining and engaging enough for me to recommend it, just don’t expect too much despite a strong cast of Matt Damon, Edward Norton, John Turturro, John Malkovich, Martin Landau, Michael Rispoli and Famke Janssen. As Mike and Lester, Damon and Norton are fine as brash friends with very different motivations for playing this winner take all brand of poker that pivots from the rush of danger and euphoria to the depth of being cleaned out. Mike (Damon), an aspiring lawyer attending college, wants to test his skill against the best in the world and be recognized as a master player. Lester, a low life grifter, wants to use his wiles to get over on people in order to make a fast buck. Trouble is, neither knows when to quit, though Mike is by far the more stable, practical of the two.

As the older, wiser Joey Knish, Turturro is the veteran player who understands what Mike is after and warns him to steer clear of Lester, who’s nothing but trouble, and to consolidate his losses. As Teddy KGB, Malkovich is the Russian mob-tied gambling den proprietor and crafty player in whose debt you don’t want to be. Landau plays a judge and law professor who admires Mike’s talent but worries about his self-destructive side. Rispoli plays Grama, a former partner of Lester’s who’s gone in business for himself as a debt collector and soon becomes Mike and Lester’s worst nightmare. Janssen is Petra, an alluring gambling hostess with eyes for Mike, only he’s in a relationship. Unfortunately, the actress (Gretchen Mol) who plays Mike’s nicey-nice girlfriend, Jo, is not very good here and she’s not helped much by the lightweight character she’s asked to portray. She throws off the whole balance of the film. It would have been far more interesting if Jo were a femme fatale type who instead of being repulsed by Mike’s gambling would have been fatally attracted to it. After all, this is a film about obsession and compulsion. It’s about how these people enable each other in what is a sick cycle of risk, adrenalin rush, riches and losses.

The screenplay by David Levien and Brian Koppelman is good. But I feel like director Dahl and cinematographer Jean-Yves Escoffier didn’t take full dramatic or visual advantage of the contrasts the script offered between the two worlds Mike inhabits. I also think the film could have done more with the Joey Kinish character. I felt short-changed because every time I began to get a deeper glimpse into the subterranean world of high stakes poker the movie pulled back, stopped short or changed direction.

I prefer some of Dahl’s other features to this: “Red Rock West,” “The Last Seduction” and “Joy Ride.” He’s almost exclusively directed for television since 2008.

I also felt like Norton’s character, who by the way is irritating, should have either been more well developed or deemphasized. He’s inexplicably dropped at the end despite the fact the filmmakers went to great lengths to establish him as the dark extreme Mike doesn’t want to end up like. But, it works in the end because these rounders are by nature and necessity loners and so when Mike is alone after having faced down his devil, it makes sense.

“Rounders” is available on Netflix.

Hot Movie Takes – “Citizen Ruth”

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

The next session in my “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film” class at Do Space will study and screen the filmmaker’s first feature, “Citizen Ruth” (1996), which the then-unknown writer-director made in and around Omaha.

We’ll be digging down on “Citizen Ruth” and other Payne things from 5:45 to 8:45 p.m. on Tuesday, Oct. 3.

For this five-week Metro Community College non-credit Continuing Ed class we’re looking at a different Payne film each session. The class continues on Tuesdays through Oct. 24 on the second floor of Do Space at 72nd and Dodge.

Oct. 10 we look at “Election”

Oct. 17 we look at “About Schmidt”

Oct. 24 we look at “Sideways”

If there’s enough interest, we’ll resume the class with five new sessions in the spring of 2018,

Though Payne had already come to the attention of the Hollywood industry through his student thesis short, “The Passion of Martin,” several years had passed from the buzz it generated in 1990-1991 and Payne was no longer the hot young prospect he had been before. He was, in fact, on the verge of obscurity and failed promise before he and co-writer Jim Taylor finally found the story for their first feature together, “Citizen Ruth,” which began as “The Devil Inside,” and oh what a story they devised. The inspiration for the plot came from a newspaper article they stumbled upon in which a pregnant woman became a pawn of the opposing abortion camps. The issue is always a hot topic and it was probably even more heated then, as America was coming out of Republican George H.W. Bush’s conservative pro-life reign and coming into Bill Clinton’s liberal pro-choice tenure. Payne and Taylor created a character in Ruth Stoops who’s essentially a blank slate that both sides of the issue project their ideology onto.

It was very brave and smart of this writing team to make the protagonist an amoral person amidst this most moralistic of issues. As the two sides wage battle and engage in a tug of war that pulls her back and forth, the by turns clueless and incredulous Ruth is willing to go in whatever direction gives her the better deal. Payne and Taylor made sure no one comes out looking very good in this hot house of hysteria and exploitation. Seen in today’s ever more social media-fueled partisan and divisive climate, the high-pitched tenor of “Citizen Ruth” is even more familiar and relevant today than it was when it came out.  Payne’s brand of snarky satire was years ahead of “The Daily Show” and what separates his work from most even very good comedy on television or film is its authentic humanism.

There’s almost nothing to like about Ruth and yet we find ourselves sort of rooting for her because, at the end of the day, she doesn’t stand for any cause or belief other than herself and finding her next fix. This anti-heroine is a wild card and independent operator who is going to go her own way and do her own thing no matter what the consequences. She’s not the most appealing personality and her character is certainly in question, but at least she’s honest about who she is. That’s more than you can say for most of the other characters.

An indicator of what a strong script Payne and Taylor wrote is that it attracted such a stellar cast. Indeed, it’s still the best cast, in terms of depth, of any Payne project with the possible exception of “Downsizing,” though that’s just speculation on the latter film since I haven’t seen it yet. Fearless Laura Dern never once tried to falsely soften her character so that she’d be more likable. She’s absolutely convincing in the part. The rest of the cast is filled with fine character actors at their best – Kurtwood Smith, Swoosie Kurtz, Mary Kay Place, Kenneth Marrs – and two yesteryear Hollywood stars – Burt Reynolds and Tippi Hedren – lending their weird charisma. The smallest of parts are exceedingly well-cast and always with fidelity to truth. Payne was working with the late cinematographer James Glennon on this film and his subsequent two features and he gave the filmmaker the look he was after – flat, tired, ordinary, lived-in, closed-off but with occasional glimpses of sunnier, more expansive horizons.

Right from the start, Payne went beneath the placid, everything-is-fine veneer of this Rockwellesque Midwestern setting to show dark undercurrents within society and families. Characteristic of the tragicomic nature of his work, where dramatic and comedic elements live side by side, he could have made “Citizen Ruth” a straight drama with almost the same script. Or, he could have gone much broader with the comedy and made it a Farrelly Bothers farce. He chose, as he always does, a more interesting and arresting middle ground where everything is in play – the revulsion and the ludicrousness, the pettiness and the compassion, the conflict and the common ground. Everyone brings baggage to the party. No one gets a free pass.

“Citizen Ruth” was well reviewed but Miramax didn’t do it any favors. Payne felt the company buried it, probably in part because they didn’t’ know what to do with it, which was a function of them not understanding the gem they had in this intense, funny, disturbing and never less than provocative work. If properly released today, it would likely find its audience and do very well compared to its small budget. Even though the film didn’t get widely seen, and the same thing happened with the even better received “Election,” Payne well-established himself as a brash new comic voice and as a writer-director to be reckoned with. He would soon live up to that promise with “About Schmidt.”

The fact that Payne made his first three features here not only gave new life to the local cinema culture and a model for other aspiring filmmakers here to follow, it made him closely identified with a place in much the same way that Sidney Lumet, Woody Allen and Martin Scorsese are with New York City, Barry Levinson s with Baltimore and Quentin Tarantino is with Los Angeles.

Hot Movie Takes – “Downsizing” splits Toronto
©by Leo Adam Biga, Author of “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film”

Alexander Payne has given the world something unexpected from him with his new film “Downsizing.” So far, after playing three of the world’s most prestigious festivals, the cinema community is decidedly split about this epic sci-fi dramedy from a writer-director heretofore known for his small human satires. After being almost uniformly hailed in Venice, the film elicited divided responses in Telluride and now in Toronto, and it seems most reviewers who’ve seen it fall into either love it or hate it camps. Some reviewers are practically ecstatic about the film and praising Payne for his brave ambition in departing from what we’ve come to expect. Others are going out of their way to damn the film and take Payne to task for biting off more than he could chew. If you read enough of the negative reviews, and there are plenty of them, the critics are on the one hand admiring the fact that he dared to upset expectations and chastising him for the temerity to thing big and visionary.

All I know having only read the script and interviewed Payne and a good chunk of his creative team is that the screenplay I saw was brilliant. I can’t speak to the final shooting script and how it was executed until I see the film. I suspect I’ll like what I see but then again, who knows. It’s just an opinion and so much of that is influenced by attitudes, tastes and, there we go again, expectations. People will disagree, but “Downsizing” finds itself in a precarious position now having gone from Paramounts darling project with glowing praise, awards predictions and big box office written all over it to very much an unsure thing that just might flop.

What all this means, if anything, for how Paramount might market and release the picture differently now and how general audiences might perceive and therefore respond to it differently now is anybody’s guess. What this presages as far as awards season is also hard to predict. But it does appear that the studio and the filmmaker have been taken aback by this sharply divided reception to “Downsizing.” I haven’t had a chance yet to speak with Payne about it, but I hope to do so soon. Stay tuned.

Here are three reviews that reflect the good, the bad and the ugly response to the film.



There is a moment in a certain type of great film when you realize you have no idea what is going to happen next, and you cannot wait to find out. Most films written by Charlie Kaufman have a moment like this. So does Downsizing, the wise and wondrous new film from director Alexander Payne, a somewhat unlikely suspect for such unpredictability. His movies (Election, Nebraska) do often have surprising flights of creative fancy in their third act (think the wallet-stealing sequence in Sideways), but none is as persistently inventive and creatively liberated as Downsizing, which starts out as sci-fi comedy, ends as a heartwarming social fable, and squarely hits a handful of different genres in between.

Downsizing is set in a near-future in which miniaturization technology has become cost-effective and popular. There are myriad reasons to “get small,” we are told. Some people are doing it to improve their lives, others see it as a way to help the environment by reducing their carbon footprint, and some people are just trying to save money. It’s the latter reason that inspires Paul (Matt Damon, effective here in “everyman” mode) and Audrey Safranek (Kristen Wiig) to give up their small life in Omaha for an even tinier one. The painfully average couple are an embodiment of the shrinking middle class. Paul wanted to be a doctor, but he quit medical school when his mother fell ill. Now, he’s an occupational therapist at Omaha Steaks, where he earns a meager income, and he and his wife live in the modest home he grew up in.

Their money will go farther in Leisure Land, one of many “micro-communities” popping up all over the world. In fact, their modest $150,000 in assets will make them multi-millionaires, and the loneliness of life without their old friends and family seems like a small price to pay for living in a utopia. After a quick tour, Paul and Audrey decide to take the tiny plunge before they can talk themselves out of it.

From this set-up, there is a clear and obvious path forward – their perfect life turns dystopian, and Leisure Land reveals a dark underbelly – but Payne and his co-writer refuse the easy way out. It’s almost as if it never occurred to them. Downsizing is a film of many surprises, from celebrity cameos and abrupt departures for seemingly important characters to the probing, philosophical soul that informs each of the film’s radical plot developments  True, the film’s heroes find their new life to be not all that was promised, but where it goes from there will surprise even the most accomplished twist-guesser.

The film’s stream-of-consciousness plotting would be bad medicine if Downsizing weren’t also hilariously funny. There are plenty of sight gags, involving large (that is, normal-sized) items that have made their way into Paul and Audrey’s miniature world, including enormous flowers, giant jewelry, and a pack of Saltines that could feed a family for a week. Payne also packs his film full of extraordinarily funny people, from Christoph Waltz and Udo Kier as Eurotrash neighbors to Hong Chau, a former Vietnamese freedom fighter who, in one gut-busting scene, enumerates the eight different ways Americans have sex. If there is any justice, the phrase “love f**k” will enter our lexicon.

So if you want to simply laugh at Downsizing, you can. In fact, the film changes lanes so many times that just sitting back and enjoying the wild ride is a perfectly reasonable strategy. Eventually, however, it will ask more of you. The through line that runs beneath the gags and wild plot is a soul-searching character hyper-attuned to our apocalyptic times. The miniaturization process is originally discovered in the search for a solution to the world’s unsustainable population growth, and Downsizing follows this idea down its natural path, shifting into a journey of exploration of how best to live in an age when of human self-destruction and spiritual indifference. There are echoes of I Heart Huckabees and the recent Beatriz at Dinner in its ethical questions and earnest probings. At its simplest, Downsizing is simply an exploration of what it means to be good in trying times, a worthy endeavor even if the final product is not your tiny cup of tea.


TIFF Movie Review: Downsizing

Downsizing has a tonal problem in that the film we’re watching in the first act is drastically different than the one we watch in the second, which is drastically different than that of the third. At the very least, we can never fault director Alexander Payne on the scope of his vision, as he attempts to tackle a grab bag of topics and themes that all boil down to the idea of the cyclical destructive nature of humankind and the beauty and connection that is to be found amid it all. Even when the world is ending due to man-made disasters, there’s still room to be kind and decent and maybe even fall in love while finding out who you are.

In the not so distant future of Payne’s latest film Downsizing, the world is beginning to visualize the threats to the environment that up till now had benn blissfully ignored. In order to counteract this, a scientist creates a magical solution where people can chose to be shrunken to help cut down on consumption and natural resources. What began as a novel concept soon turns into a phenomenon as more and more people are lining up be to become small, transporting themselves to different portions of the world where small communities have been set up. Paul Safranek (Matt Damon) and his wife Audrey (Kristin Wiig) think that they too are ready to leave the normal world behind and embark on this great new adventure together. Granted the opportunity to live in luxury opposed to barely being able to keep up with the house they have now, it sounds alluring to the couple. However, cold feet kicks in for Audrey and Paul is left to embark on this journey more alone than he’s even been before.

It’s a mouthful of a movie to explain but one that, if you’re able to get over the hiccups along the way, are well worth it for the ultimate payoff. Beginning (in easily the most dragged out portion of the film) as mid-life crisis film, transitioning into something more stylish and science-fiction geared and then melting away into something romantic, globe trotting and meditative on the meaning of life and our need to contextualize everything and prove that there’s a reason for why our lives take the dips and turns that they do, the film never lands on just what it’s trying to accomplish. Astoundingly, it’s through that indecisiveness that we’re given some of the films most cherished aspects.

The single greatest joy of the movie is the introduction and inclusion of Hong Chau’s Ngoc Lan Tran, a humanitarian who was shrunk against her will and who stowed away in a TV box to the U.S. to escape persecution. She also lost her leg and it’s through her faulty prosthetic that she and Paul strike up a temperamental bond. Up until her joining the narrative the film had been funny, if a touch icy, happy to tell a story that shouts from the rafters that our environment is doomed while also making us laugh with visual sight gags such as a miniaturized Laura Dern in a bubble bath. With Chau’s utterly winsome and earnest portrayal the film gains the heart it had previously been devoid of, proving to be the missing link in a film that so desperately needed some warmth to be greater than a film that’s applauded on concept alone.

As mentioned, the film does drag in moments with the first act taking the longest due to all of the set up and the third taking what feels like a prolonged detour but for the most part Payne and co., have created a film that feels both uniquely timely while simultaneously feeling out the past with an atmosphere that hints to both Pleasantville and Being John Malkovich. Surreal, initially a little off putting, but determined in telling a story that’s both intriguing and significant, Downsizing divisively marches to it’s own beat.

Matt Damon proves he’s at his best when he’s playing decent, albeit, ordinary men while Christoph Waltz is an utter joy as Paul’s worldly neighbor Dusan. Of the performances though, again it’s Chau as Ngoc’s that really wins the day and the chemistry between the entire cast is delightful entertaining as their difference temperaments bounce off of one another with ease. Wiig is the only one who the script truly disservices, which is a sham, considering how well she and Damon’s comedic timing played against each other.

There are, admittedly, moments when the CGI is a little out of it’s depth, but the set design makes up for it by making sure to keep a sense of artificiality even when they’re only surrounded by people who’ve also gone through the procedure. Similarly, the cinematography by Phedon Papamichael is gorgeously rendered, particularly at the end as the film drives home just how wonderfully beautiful and vast our planet is.

Written by Payne and Jim Taylor, the two make sure to shine a light on the discrepancy of being offered to live in a world worry free where money isn’t an issue and you can have anything your heart desires. Like most things in life, this is focused on the privileged, with anyone else who doesn’t fit into the demo (minority groups and the disenfranchised) are still pushed to the outskirts of their community. The only thing that’s changed about their lives is they’ve gotten smaller. The films tackling of climate change is perhaps a touch on the nose but it makes sense within the context of the film where humans rush to find away to preserve life on a planet they’ve helped destroy.

A film that thinks big while keying in on the smaller but grander moments in life, Downsizing is messy, inconsistent and noisy in its many messages, but there’s something so refreshingly heartfelt about it all. A reminder that humans are always evolving, even when they don’t reflect, and that that evolution can happen both on the micro and macro scale.


by Brian Tallerico
September 10, 2017

Alexander Payne’s latest finishes its fall festival trifecta after premiering at Venice and Telluride while a pair of “smaller” films actually feel like more complete, well-considered efforts, despite their own flaws. “Downsizing” has already become one of the most divisive films at the Toronto International Film Festival this year, producing responses all across the board. I know a few critics who consider it one of Payne’s best, but more seem to fall into the “ambitious disappointment” camp, and I may be even a step below that group. It’s easily Payne’s worst film, a work that’s woefully misguided, casually racist, thematically incomplete, and tries to ride on a high concept until a ham-fisted message arrives in the final act to really drive the hypocrisy home.

The concept of “Downsizing” is the kind of thing with which someone like Charlie Kaufman could have worked wonders. As human consumption has essentially destroyed our planet, a group of scientists determines that the only way to reverse the trajectory of time is to minimize not only the waste of our species but our actual size. Think about how much less damage we would do to the planet if we were only a fraction of the size we are now. Imagine how far your dollar could go when 1,000 square foot house looks much, much bigger. Everyone could have a mansion, and produce a negligible amount of planet-damaging waste.

For Paul (Matt Damon) and his wife Audrey (Kristen Wiig), the allure of what has been just outside of their reach becoming available to them through downsizing is too much to ignore. What could possibly go wrong? Of course, the journey to the small life doesn’t go exactly as planned, while Christoph Waltz, Jason Sudeikis, Hong Chau, and cameos from Neil Patrick Harris and Laura Dern fill out an undeniably talented cast. Once again, Payne wants to examine the current state of America through a satirical, exaggerated lens.
The problem this time is that I don’t think he knows what he’s looking at. There are plenty of questions in “Downsizing.” How do we literally simplify our lives? What should we value? How can one person make a minor difference against major problems? However, none of these are interestingly examined beyond the superficial. Instead, Payne meanders through a surprisingly unfunny narrative about a wanderer, amplified by Damon’s least interesting performance in a very long time. The problem is that Paul needs to be either a Chauncey Billups-esque observer or something more exaggerated than the blank slate Damon presents. There’s no character here, and not even in an interesting, non-character way. The idea that this guy just bounces from decision to decision, never making long-term ones, feels underdeveloped thematically, and just leaves us with a film that’s as unfocused as its protagonist.

Part of the tonal dilemma presented by “Downsizing” is the bad taste left in the mouth by Payne’s willingness not only to present a remarkable degree of White Savior Complex but then dive headfirst into casual racism in the portrayal of a Vietnamese dissident whose broken English is clearly being played for laughs. Payne has been accused of condescension to his “less refined,” Midwestern characters before but I never felt it as strongly as I did here. It feels like there was a version of “Downsizing” that was broader, in which everyone felt satirical, but then certain characters were softened, leaving only a few stereotypes to stand out and offend, along with an overriding sense of superiority from the filmmaker. Throughout “Downsizing,” I kept asking myself what the point of all of this was, never engaged by its hodgepodge of themes. I wish the filmmakers had asked that question too.<d

Hot Movie Takes: Three generations of Omaha film directors – Joan Micklin Silver, Alexander Payne, Nik Fackler

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

Three filmmakers from Omaha who’ve made impressive marks in cinema as writer-directors represent three distinct generations but their work shares a strong humanistic and comedic bent:

Joan Micklin Silver

Alexander Payne

Nik Fackler

You may not know her name or her films, but Joan Micklin Silver is arguably the most important filmmaker to ever come out of Nebraska. Her feature debut “Hester Street” (1975) was something of a phenomenon in its time and it still resonates today because of how it established her in the film industry and helped open doors for other women directors in Hollywood.

Dorothy Arzner was a studio director in the early talkies era and then years went by before another woman filmmaker got the chance to direct. Actress Ida Lupino directed a small but telling batch of features from 1949 through the mid-1950s and became a busy television director. Lupino helmed the original “Twilight Zone’s” classic episode, “The Masks.” The last feature she directed “The Trouble with Angels” was a hit. Her subsequent directing was back in television for a large variety of episodic shows. But it was years before other women followed Lupino as studio directors and Elaine May and Joan Micklin Silver led that fledgling movement. They ushered in an era when more women directors began working in the mainstream: Lee Grant, Penelope Spheeris, Amy Heckerling, Barbra Streisand, Kathryn Bigelow. Hundreds more have followed.

Silver first came to the industry’s attention with her original story about the stateside struggles of wives of American POWs in Vietnam. No studio would let her direct and the story ended up in the hands of old Hollywood hand Mark Robson, who’d made some very successful pictures, and he brought in future director James Bridges to work on the script with her. Silver was not happy with the changes made to the story and though the screenplay bears her and Bridges’ names, she largely disowns the resulting shooting script and the movie Robson made from it, which was released under the title “Limbo” in 1972. However, Robson knew how much she wanted to direct and did something unheard of then: he invited her to be on set to observe the entire shoot and be privy to his interactions with cast, crew, producers, et cetera. She may have also had access to pre- and post-production elements. This experience allowed her an intimate study of how a major feature film production gets made. This, along with the films she’d been keenly watching since falling in love with cinema at the Dundee Theatre in Omaha, was her film school. Only a couple years after “Limbo” Silver was shopping around another script she penned, this one an adaptation of a novella about the Jewish immigrant experience in early 20th century America that was part of her own family’s heritage. The focus was on New York City’s Lower East Side and the travails of a young woman trying to reconcile the ways of the Old Country with the new ways of America. Jake has come ahead to America and sends for his wife, Gitl, and their son. Gitl is little more than chattel to Jake and she finds herself stifled by social, cultural, economic pressures. Much to Jake’s surprise, she rebels. Silver titled the story “Hester Street” and again no studio wanted her to direct and she was not interested in giving control of her script to another filmmaker. To be fair to the studios, on the surface the project did have a lot going against it. For starters, it was a heavily ethnic period piece that Silver saw as a black and white film. Indefensibly though, while Hollywood by that time was giving all sorts of untested new directors opportunities to direct, it wasn’t affording the same opportunities to women.

Silver and her late husband Raphael Silver, who was in real estate then, raised the money themselves and made the film independently. Her beautifully evocative, detailed work looked like it cost ten times her minuscule budget. She and Raphael shopped the finished film around and, you guessed it, still no takers. That’s when the couple released it themselves by road showing the film at individual theaters with whom they directly negotiated terms. And then a funny thing happened. “Hester Street” started catching on and as word of mouth grew, bookings picked up, not just in Eastern art cinemas but coast to coast in both art and select commercial theaters. Before they knew it, the Silvers had a not so minor hit on their hands considering the less than half a million dollars it took to make it. National critics warmly reviewed the picture. The story’s feminist themes in combination with the film having been written and directed by a woman made it and Silver darlings of the Women’s Liberation Movement. The film even got the attention of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, as the film’s then unknown female lead, Carol Kane, earned a Best Actress nomination.

Years later “Hester Street” was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry by the United States Library of Congress as a “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant” work. In designating the film for inclusion, the Library of Congress noted historians have praised the film’s “accuracy of detail and sensitivity to the challenges immigrants faced during their acculturation process in its portrait of Eastern European Jewish life in America.”

Silver is now writing a book about the making of “Hester Street,” which is also being adapted into a stage musical the adapters hope to bring to Broadway. A biography of Silver is also in the works.

The success of “Hester Street” allowed Silver to make a number of feature films over the next decade and a half, some with studios and some independently, including “Between the Lines,” “Chilly Scenes of Winter,” “Crossing Delancey” and “Loverboy” as well as some notable made for TV movies such as “Bernice Bobs Her Hair” and “Finnegan Begin Again.” These films show her deft touch with romantic comedies. I’ve always thought of her work as on par with that of the great Ernest Lubitsch in its sophisticated handling of male-female relationships and entanglements.

I recently saw “Finnegan Begin Again” for the first time and now I see what all the fuss was about for this 1985 HBO movie starring Mary Tyler Moore, Robert Preston, Sam Waterston and Silvia Sydney. It’s a thoroughly delightful, mature and surprising dramedy that features perhaps the two best screen performances by Moore and Preston, which is saying a lot. Waterston goes against type here and is outstanding. Sidney never lost her acting chops and even here, in her mid-70s, she’s very full in her performance. A very young Giancarlo Espositio has a small but showy part. Watch for my separate Hot Movie Takes post about the movie.

During the 1990s and on through 2003, Silver directed several more feature and television movies, “Big Girls Don’t Cry, They Get Even,” “A Private Matter” and “In the Presence of Mine Enemies” among them. The tlater two made for cable movies are straight dramas, which she also handled with a sure touch. I just saw “A Private Matter” for the first time and it is a searing true-life tale about a young American married couple with kids who become the center of the thalidomide scandal and tragedy. Sissy Spacek and Aidan Quinn portray Sherri and Bob Finkbine, who discover that the fetus Sherri is carrying will likely be born severely deformed due to the effects of the then widely prescribed drug thalidomide. When their intent to terminate the pregnancy goes public, it sets off a firestorm of controversy that nearly destroys them. In the midst of the medical deliberations, legal wrangling and media stalkings, the couple learn how widespread abortions are and how secret they’re kept. Silver brilliantly contrasts sunny, placid 1960s suburban family life with the dark underside of hypocrisy, greed, fear and hate that surface when issues of morality get inflamed. In this case and cases like it, what should be a private matter becomes a public controversy and the people involved are persecuted for following their own conscience. Spacek delivers a great performance as Sherri and I don’t think Quinn has ever been better as Bob. Estelle Parsons is excellent as Sherri’s mother. William H. Macy has a small but effective turn as a psychiatrist.

More recently, Silver had been working on some documentary projects that never came to fruition. And then her longtime life and professional partner, Raphael, died. Now in her early 80s, she’s seemingly more focused on archiving her work and sharing her experiences as a woman trying to shatter the American film industry’s glass ceiling.

Her maverick ways and superb films are highly regarded and yet she remains almost unknown in her own hometown, which both saddens and baffles me. The lack of recognition for her here is a real shame, too, because she’s one of the great creatives this place has ever produced and her exquisite films stand the test of time. I believe Alexander Payne, who is her junior by some 26 years, is one of the great American filmmakers to have emerged in the last half-century and I regard the best of Silver’s films on a par with his. And yet her name and work are not nearly as well known, which reminds us that even after all this time women filmmakers are still not accorded the same respect as their male counterparts. Even in their shared hometown, Payne is celebrated but not Silver. I’d like to do something to change that.

When Silver was eying a career in film starting in the late 1960s-early 1970s, the old studio contract system was dismantled and the New Hollywood hot shots from television and film schools were all the rage. Even guys who’d never directed anything were getting their shot at studio features. Women were still left out of the equation but for the rare exception like Silver, and even then it took her battering on the walls before she was reluctantly let in to that privileged Old Boys Network. Her path to breaking in was to learn her writing and directing chops in theater and television. It was her ability to write that got her a seat at the table if not at the head of the table. She had to make her own way the hard way. She’s lived long enough to see progress, if not enough yet, for women directors to now be almost commonplace.

Alexander Payne’s cinephile development came right in the middle of the New Hollywood revolution and his entrance into the industry happened right on the wave of the indie film explosion. But like Silver before him, there was no visible Hollywood presence around him when he was coming of age here as a cineaste. No one was making anything like grade A feature films locally. The industry was remote and disconnected from places like Nebraska. His entry into the industry was his student thesis film. But it wasn’t until he wrote “Citizen Ruth” and got financing for it that he arrived.

Dan Mirvish is another Omahan from the same generation as Payne whose directorial efforts bear discussion. He’s actually been the most ingenious in pulling projects together and getting them seen. None of his films have yet crossed over in the way that Silver’s, Payne’s and Fackler’s have, but he and his work are never less than interesting. He, too, is a writer-director.

A generation later, Nik Fackler came of age when the new crop of filmmakers were coming from film schools as well as the worlds of commercials and music videos. But just as Silver and Payne used their writing talents to get their feet in the door and their first films made, so did Fackler. His script for “Lovely, Still” was good enough to attract a pair of Oscar-winning legends in Martin Landau and Ellen Burstyn. He directed those Actors Studio stalwarts when he was in his early 20s. He was much younger than Payne and Silver were when they directed their first films but he had the advantage of having directed several short films and music videos as his film education. He also had the advantage of having seen a fellow Omaha native in Payne enjoy breakout success. But where Payne and Silver followed up their debut feature films with more projects that further propelled their careers, Fackler did not, It’s been nearly a decade since “Lovely, Still” and many of us are eager to see if Fackler can recapture the magic he found so early.

I find it interesting that Fackler, Payne and Silver all tackled tough subjects for their first features:

Alzheimer’s in Fackler’s “Lovely, Still”

Abortion in Payne’s “Citizen Ruth”

Jewish immigrant experience in “Hester Street”

Whereas Payne and Fackler have made most of their films in Nebraska, Silver, despite a desire to do so, has never shot here. There’s still time.

These three are not the only Nebraskans who’ve done meritorious work as directors, but they are in many ways the most emblematic of their times.

Wouldn’t it be fun to get Silver, Payne and Fackler on the same panel to discuss their adventures in filmmaking? I think so.

Meanwhile. a special screening of “Lovely, Still” in memory of Martin Landau is happening at Film Streams on Thursday, Oct. 12. Payne’s “Downsizing” is playing festivals in advance of its Dec. 22 national release. And Silver’s films can be found via different platforms, though a retrospective of her work here is long overdue.

Hot Movie Takes – “Rob the Mob”

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

If you like comedies that have some balls, then “Rob the Mob” (2014) is for you. As mob comedies go, and I admit I haven’t seen that many of them, this is, for my tastes, better than “Married to the Mob,” not as good as “The Freshman” and not as sophisticated as “Prizzi’s Honor.” That means it’s a solid if not stellar flick. But if you’re in the mood for some laugh-out-loud action that’s inspired by a true story too crazy to have been made up, then you should check this one out on Netflix.

At the very time the mafia began being dismantled in the 1980s John Gotti trial in New York City, a 20-something couple from Queens saw an opportunity to rob mob social clubs, where there was a no guns allowed policy.

Tommy and Rosie are a small time, low life, made for each other pair. His father had to pay the mob to keep his flower shop and Tommy blames his dad’s death on the mafia. His own criminal life has estranged him from his mother and brother, who struggle keeping the shop afloat. Soon after we meet Tommy, he lands in prison for an attempted robbery gone bad in which Rosie is his get-away driver. He no sooner gets out of stir than his half-hearted try at going straight ends and he hits upon his get rich scheme to rip off he mob by strong-arming its social clubs. Rosie won’t go along with it, at first, but gives in. With her driving a wreck and Tommy sticking up the clubs with an Uzi he can’t always control – the couple become a media sensation and a mob embarrassment. Michael Pitt and Nina Arianda are great as Tommy and Rosie. They’re like a Queens version of Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungeon or Bonnie and Clyde. Cathy Moriarty is fine as Tommy’s embittered and disappointed mother. Griffin Dunne is hilarious as a loopy ex-con running a debt collection firm that only employes ex-offenders like himself. Burt Young has a brief but telling part as an old soldier who’s the keeper of the mafia hierarchy list. Frank Whaley plays a cynical federal agent monitoring the mob. Ray Romano has an excellent turn as a popular newspaper columnist who gets Tommy and Rosie’s first-person, as-told-to story in the midst of the spree and makes them instant front page celebrities. That’s when the couple’s actions become too much of an affront for mob boss Big Al, wonderfully played by Andy Garcia, to let slide any longer. Thus, the couple’s days are numbered.

Director Raymond De Felitta had a good screenplay by Jonathan Fernandez to work with and made excellent use of familiar situations and locations to create a film with real energy and some originality. He also had the great advantage of an entertaining story that has real charm and tragedy in it. He cast the two misfit leads and supporting parts with charismatic actors who all help to ground the sometimes hard to believe goings on in reality – reminding us that as bizarre as it gets, this all really happened. This really is one of those truth is stranger than fiction tales.

Even the best dramatic mob movies are only a twist or turn from being comedies. This one is mostly played for laughs but it has just enough real menace in it that just when you think our anti-hero robbers are on a lark and are going to get away with it, something happens to put things in perspective. It’s a chilling thing when you realize these two nuts really are playing with fire and they’re going to get burned. If the filmmakers wanted to, they could have made this a straight drama and it might have worked even better. As it is, it works just fine and stands as an engaging mob cinema entree all its own.

Hot Movie Takes – “Inside Man”

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

“Do the Right Thing” is probably my favorite Spike Lee film but not far behind is the deftly written and directed bank heist drama, “Inside Man,” which in some respects is quite a departure for him and in other respects is right in his wheelhouse. The 2006 film is a subversive take on a well-worn genre. It offers up an audacious plot featuring a panoply of real SOBs among not only its perpetrators but victims, investigators and interested parties, too, which is to say the characters come off as real people with attitudes and issues. The film really captures some slices of New York City. But it is the execution of the fictional perfect heist, the reason behind it and the manner in which its architect, Dalton Russell, escapes without being detected that ultimately sets this film apart. Through intimidation, precision and show of force a small group of masked and arme individuals assumes control of the bank in broad daylight during business hours and takes the employees and customers as hostages  Almost no one is harmed and the gang takes their sweet time to pull off whatever they have in mind. But what exactly is it? They have complete access to the well-stocked vaults but they seem more interested in breaking through a floor to a sewer line and in the layout and proximity of a supply room. As someone observes, it’s like they broke into the bank and don’t plan leaving until they’re good and ready. It’s only in bits and pieces we learn what they’re really up to in this story of personal and professional agendas, secrets and back room deals where things aren’t quite what they appear to be on the surface. We learn, for instance, that some of the hostages are confederates. The reason the gang has the hostages strip down to their underwear and don the same work jump suits as they wear is so the police won’t know who’s-who. The gang is definitely after something of value in that bank but it’s not what anyone expects. And as Russell repeats more than once, he’s going to walk out the front of the bank a free man at a time of his own choosing and no one’s going to do anything about it.

From the opening image of Clive Owen as the implacable, sardonic Russell speaking directly to the camera, we know we’re in for a different ride. Speaking to us from what appears to be a cell, it is with an air of insouciance that only those in the know possess that he tells us what he’s going to do, why he’s going to do it and then leaves the how to be revealed by the rest of the story. He makes very clear that there is a world of difference between being in a cell and being in prison. The movie largely lives up to the cheeky challenge and promise it sets right at the start.

The other major character is detective Keith Frazier, played by Denzel Washington, a negotiator tasked with making contact with the lead perp and establishing a relationship with him. It soon dawns on Frazier that everything about this heist and hostage scenario is different. That he and his colleagues are the ones being played, not the other way around. The bank’s founder and owner Arthur Case, played by Christopher Plummer, is hiding a deep dark secret. At one point he shows up and tries making it all go away the way he does with all problems and favors – by buying it or throwing money at it. He enlists a fixer, Madeleine White, played by Jodie Foster, to give whatever the gang leader wants in exchange for ending the siege and not absconding with certain items from a certain safety deposit box. She’s an insider with a powerful ally in the mayor. Frazier and his partner Bill Mitchell, played by Chiwetel Ejiofor, know this is all way above their pay grade and they’re constantly reminded of it.

The film tries very hard to create this dynamic tension and bond of begrudging respect between the Russell and Frazier characters, who do meet a few times, but I think this is where the film falters a bit. I would have liked it better had they never met. That would have been more realistic as well. Another irritating thing about the film is the contempt characters have for each other and the nasty way that even our two detective heroes treat the hostages. Now I know the detectives find themselves in a frustrating dilemma of not being able to identify a single perp and therefore all the hostages are potential suspects until cleared, but Frazier and Mitchell seem to take perverse pleasure in giving people the business. I do acknowledge though that the cops, including a SWAT team commander played by Willem DeFoe, are portrayed fairly and accurately as flawed men and women doing the best they can in an impossible situation.

Owen is perfect as the cool, methodical Russell who’s always several steps ahead of the cops. Washington is charming with his swag and his I-know-this-stinks and I’m-going-to-get-mine-out-of-this attitude. Plummer is chilling as the billionaire willing to do anything to keep the truth from coming out. Foster nearly steals the show as the calculating fixer who has the dirt on powerful people and then finds out what it’s like when someone gets dirt on her.

Kudos to Russell Gewirtz for his intricate and layered original screenplay. The film has a great look to it thanks to Lee and cinematographer Matthew Libatique, who has a knack for finding visual cues in lighting, framing and movement that heighten stories of intense emotions and actions like this one.

On a personal note, I actually think Lee’s little-seen “Clockers” is a superior crime film. I also think Washington did better work as an anti-hero in another crime film I prefer to this – “Devil in a Blue Dress,” which Carl Franklin directed. But “Inside Man” is grand entertainment in its own right.

“Inside Man” is available on Netflix.

Hot Movie Takes – “Nat King Cole: Afraid of the Dark”

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

Imagine my surprise when during the course of a new documentary about the late great jazz-pop musical artist Nat King Cole, there appears a clip of the artist on his own network television show describing how the genesis of one of his most iconic tunes, “Straighten Up and Fly Right,” coincided with his engagement at “a little club in Omaha, Nebraska.” Interest sufficiently piqued, I waited until the end of this very fine documentary to check online for any reference to what Cole said and I did find a post by music buff and retired recording industry executive Peter Tibbles that repeated the Omaha part of the song’s provenance and expanded on it to say that Cole wrote it “when he had nothing much to do during his off-hours but write music.” That led me to find mentions of Cole having played the Dreamland Ballroom here, which didn’t surprise me. Was that the “little club” Cole alluded to in his remarks? Or might he have been referring to another? I found a post by Richard Havers on the Discover Music site that may provide an answer, Havers wrote that’d Cole and his trio played many club dates around the country in the late 1930s through the early 1940s, including an appearance in our fair city at a club I’ve never heard of before:

“At this time, the King Cole Trio was very much a club act playing places like the Onyx Club in Los Angeles and the Beachcomber in Omaha, Nebraska, where it was reported the band were earning $1,000 a week.”

The Beachcomber? $1,000 w week?

My good friend Martha Melton, whose late husband Billy Melton compiled a huge music collection and was a great resource for Omaha African-American history, said that she and Billy saw Cole play in Omaha at McGill’s Blue Room, She personally remembered Cole playing at least three different venues in Omaha: the Dreamland, the Carnation Ballroom and the Blue Room. The Beachcomber would make four. She believes she and Billy saw him play in the ’50s, which would be many years after his writing that hit song in Omaha in 1943, She offered some credence to the Tibbles allusion that Cole perhaps once had an extended stay in Omaha when she recalled that the entertainer once “got stranded here” for lack of funds. Martha went on to say that it wasn’t unusual for black artists then to get stuck somewhere due to scant resources or problems with their touring bus or automobile traveling between gigs. Omaha, as the late Preston Love Sr. impressed upon me, was a regular layover for black artists traveling between Chicago and Kansas City, the two large Midwest black centers. So, it’s not hard to imagine that something may have held Cole back here for a few days, thus giving him time to kill and maybe some of that time was spent writing songs.

Cole was a bridge figure who brought the worlds of jazz and popular music closer together. He carved out a place for himself as a great song stylist and interpreter on par with Frank Sinatra. But where Sinatra was strictly a vocalist, Cole was also a brilliant jazz pianist and a composer. His popularity was such that NBC gave him his own prime time variety show that fared well with critics and audiences but never achieved high enough ratings due to prevailing racist attitudes that kept too many folks from tuning in and too many major sponsors from buying ads. The “Nat King Cole Show” did last more than a year though, which was actually a really good run considering the times, and its showcase of black stars did eventually open minds and pocketbooks for the later successes of Diahann Carroll, Bill Cosby and Flip Wilson.

In an Ebony magazine piece that Cole wrote, the performer termed his pioneering TV role this way:

“For 13 months, I was the Jackie Robinson of television.”

As Classic TV Info’s Jim Davidson reports, black hosts had been tried before:

“Hazel Scott (in 1950) and Billy Daniels (in 1952) had each starred in a short-lived and quickly forgotten variety show. But Cole’s program was the first hosted by a star of his magnitude, and expectations were high. Cole was the trail blazer.”

Cole said it best himself when he wrote:

“I was the pioneer, the test case, the Negro first. I didn’t plan it that way, but it was obvious to anyone with eyes to see that I was the only Negro on network television with his own show. On my show rode the hopes and fears and dreams of millions of people.”

Davidson said it was a dream deferred, but one that eventually came true.

Davidson wrote:

“When the show folded, Cole and NBC expressed some optimism about reviving it if a national sponsor could be found, but that never happened. The next African American to try hosting a program was Sammy Davis Jr. in 1966, but low ratings forced him off the air after less than four months. It wasn’t until The Flip Wilson Show came along in 1970 that a variety show hosted by a black entertainer became an unqualified success.”

But the doc makes clear that Cole was deeply hurt by the fact sponsors cow-towed to Southern objections and fears and pulled or withheld support of the show. The film takes its title from something Cole said about the moral cowardice of the powers that be at that time: “Madison Avenue is afraid of the dark.”

My admiration for Cole’s talents and contributions has been enhanced by the Jim Brewer documentary. The film provides helpful context for why its subject was such an important figure, not just musically but culturally and socially as well. Helping with that context are the insights if several artists (Tony Bennett, Nancy Wilson, Harry Belafonte and Johnny Mathis among them), producers, associates, friends and family members. Cole’s wife Maria, who, passed away before the film was completed, comes across as a very strong woman who took charge of her husband’s image. She was a very fine jazz vocalist in her own right. Their daughters also provide important insights. That includes the late Natalie Cole, who followed in her father’s footsteps to become a performing-recording giant. She reignited her career with her multi-Grammy Award-winning duets album featuring her harmonizations with his original tracks.

The most lingering thing about Cole’s story is that he advanced the cause for civil rights not by protest or diatribe but by projecting his keen intelligence, musical genius and dignified manner into his artistry. His well received work and unqualified success permeated the homes of millions of Americans, who saw in him an African-American image that ran counter to the national narrative and perception. It’s sad that Cole had to make concessions on his TV show so as not to offend viewer and advertiser sensibilities, but the mere fact that he was a household name and face must have made some impact upon the consciousness of white America.

He did a of world traveling at the peak of his fame and on overseas tours he made a great ambassador for the United States, even though conditions for his fellow African-Americans made them second class citizens back home. Despite him being a top money maker who drew sold out crowds, he and his fellow black performers were subject to racial restrictions in their own country at hotels, restaurants and other public accommodations. When he and Maria moved their family into an exclusive white neighborhood in Los Angeles, some neighbors made them feel very unwelcome. But Cole kept pushing on, satisfied in the knowledge that no matter where he went, he took his blackness with him, and if you took issue with that, well then that was your problem because, baby, he made black cool, suave, sophisticated and beautiful.

“Nat King Cole: Afraid of the Dark” is showing on Netflix.

Hot Movie Takes – “The Gunfighter”

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

I love that Gregory Peck and many of his fellow Hollywood Golden Age actors took on a great diversity of roles, from B genre pictures to prestige projects from historical costume pics to contemporary dramas, from comedies to suspensors, and so on.

Of course, Westerns were deriguour assignments in those days and Peck made more than a few at the start of his career and later toward the end. Though his arch, somewhat stagey voice sometimes worked against him in Westerns, he actually appeared in some very good ones, including one of my all-time favorites, “The Stalking Moon.” His best early Western was “The Gunfighter” (1950), one of a half-dozen or so films he made with the director Henry King. This is a great looking picture with superb black and white photography by Arthur C. Miller, an above average script by Nunnally Johnson and a strong cast headed by Peck as the gunslinger character of the title, Johnny Ringo. When we meet him he’s a weary man with little or nothing to show for his exploits. He’s tired of being a hunted man who, wherever he goes. gets challenged by some wannabe wanting to make a name for himself or by someone avenging the death of a loved one. He comes to Cayenne to see his wife, who left him and doesn’t use his name, and their son, whom he hasn’t seen since his birth. Wanting only a quiet meeting with his family, he instead is besieged by a town gone crazy over his visit and, sure enough, trouble follows. Besides the townies wanting to try him, three brothers gunning for him are on their way, which is why Ringo’s in a hurry to leave town before things force his hand.

Millard Mitchell anchors the whole works as the steely but kind sheriff Mark Strett who used to ride with Ringo. Residents don’t know of their marshall’s outlaw past. Karl Malden provides comic relief as the hero worshiping bartender Mac. Richard Jaeckel and Skip Homeier play upstart challengers to Ringo’s six-shooter supremacy. Alan Hale Jr. is one of three revenge-seeking brothers. Helen Westcott is living as a single mother school teacher in Cayenne, where only Srrett knows sh’se Ringo’s estranged wife and the mother of his boy. Jean Parker is a veteran saloon gal with a heart of gold. Ellen Corby (you may know her as Grandma Walton) is a busybody town lady who organizes a committee to try and pressure Strett to throw Ringo out of town.

This movie made a year before “High Noon” often cuts to a clock to emphasize that Ringo’s running out of time as the threat of men with evil intent approach. Fred Zinneman and Carl Foreman used the same motif, only more extensively, in “High Noon.” For me, the suspense is not so much what makes the movie work but the sense of fatalism about it. In that respect, it plays a bit like a film noir. Peck’s natural dignity and integrity are well-suited for the character of Ringo, who operates by a code of honor and a strong sense of right and wrong. But because his reputation proceeds him, he’s always a marked man and the target of anyone wanting to take him down. Then there’s the circus that happens whenever he comes into a town as people gawk and gossip at the living legend. It’s why Ringo wants to retire his guns and live a quiet life with his wife and boy. But life won’t cooperate. I like how the movie deflates our expectations that he might just be able to slip away into domesticity and obscurity. But the very best thing about the film is that great black and white, full depth of field focus photography that beautifully composes the frame to greatly aid the storytelling points and enhance the moods of this darkly sardonic and atmospheric Western.

‘The Gunfighter” is available in full and for free in an excellent upload on YouTube. See it while it lasts.

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 animosity. 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?

Hot Movie Takes – “The Passion of Martin” I

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

Tonight, I start teaching my non-credit Metro Continuing Ed course on the work of Alexander Payne. Through Oct. 24, we will be viewing-studying-discussing his films, starting with his student thesis short, “The Passion of Martin,” tonight. We’ll be considering each of his major works as a writer-director, class by class. You can check out the entire course offerings and register at–

From the very first film he made that received some kind of public exposure, Alexander Payne announced his acerbic vision to the world. I am referring to his 1990/1991 UCLA student thesis short “The Passion of Martin” – a ruminative satire about the extremes some people go to in pursuit of perfect romantic union and the short leap it is from appropriate desire to dangerous obsession.

Much of what we’ve come to expect from Payne is contained in this very polished work that impresses with its writing, direction, editing and acting. The protagonist, Martin, is a by now familiar figure in the Payne universe: a neurotic, insular male who gets fixated on something or someone to his own distraction, even ruination. In the case of Martin, a photographer, he becomes stuck on a woman, Rebecca, that he demands be his soulmate, only she doesn’t think of him that way. Voice-over narration is used as a key storytelling and comic setup device. For example, there are what we now recognize as Paynsian sharp turns from serious to farcical, as when an intense Martin reflects back on the traumatic way he entered the world. We cut from an extreme closeup of him as an introspective adult to having just been born in the delivery room and one of the attending nurses losing her grip, leaving him dangling in space from the umbilical cord. After establishing that his father was a monster, Payne cuts to Martin as an angelic boy taking his father’s ashes and dumping them in the toilet, where he flushes him/them away.

Payne shows his penchant for counterpoint by having Martin’s even-keeled narration contradicted by his own irrational, erratic behavior, as when he rises from a filled bathtub fully clothed and drenching wet, with a look of complete indifference on his face. Or, at the end, when we realize Martin’s finally manipulated events to make Rebecca his and his alone – even though it meant causing the car accident that landed her in a coma and therefore under his complete control. Her involuntary auto response to him at her bedside saying, “Blink, if you love me, darling” is all the confirmation the deluded Martin needs for his imaginary heart-felt communion with Rebecca to remain real in his mind.

Charley Hayward and Lisa Zane are very well cast as Martin and Rebecca, and casting has proven to be one of Payne’s greatest gifts.

This black comedy about the dark side of unrequited love shows how insecure men can be incredibly immature in how they deal with romantic relationships or entanglements, especially when their expectations run way out of proportion to reality. Payne adapted a book by Argentinian novelist Ernesto Sabato for his screenplay.

After the short got seen by Hollywood insiders, it became much talked about within the industry. The attention and buzz was so great for the then-29 year-old – he was being courted by agents and studios – that the L.A. Times did a feature on him and “The Passion of Martin” as his calling card to Hollywood (copied-linked below). The inevitable happened: Payne landed an agent and a production deal with Universal. The film played festivals around the world. Things didn’t work out for him at Universal, where he tried to get “The Coward” made. Years later he drew heavily from that script for his “About Schmidt.” Payne ended up doing some erotica shorts for Playboy before he and writing partner Jim Taylor finally hit upon the story for what became Payne’s first feature, “Citizen Ruth.”

A Reel Hit : Filmmaking: After a screening of his student movie, ‘The Passion of Martin,’ Alexander Payne was the talk of the town. Now the UCLA graduate is learning to direct deals with agents.


Alexander Payne has caused a buzz.

Last month, “The Passion of Martin,” a 50-minute film Payne made as a student at the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television, was one of dozens of student films shown to industry personnel. Ever since, the recent graduate’s answering machine has been smoking, recording requests from dozens of agents and development people to, please, call them back.

Although the process isn’t as formal as it is in professional sports, the motion picture industry also has its draft. Industry executives keep an eye on the top film schools, including UCLA and USC, ready to recruit the young men and women who could be the Spielbergs of tomorrow. Payne, 29, is one of this year’s hot prospects. With luck, he could be directing his own Hollywood movie in a year or two, one of a small but growing number of filmmakers who have leaped directly from the classroom to the big time.

“There is a lot of talk about him around town,” said David Min, a creative executive with Imagine Films. Min first heard about Payne when an agent friend said, “You have to see this tape.” Min did.

“It’s a brilliant film,” he said. “We’d like to see anything he has.”

Payne says the fuss began overnight, after “The Passion of Martin” was shown at an industry screening arranged by UCLA film school alumni, who include director Francis Ford Coppola, super-agent Michael Ovitz and screenwriter Shane Black. “The next day, I got calls from people who were there,” Payne said. “And the next day, I got calls from people who weren’t there but had heard from people who were.”

All of sudden, Payne was confronted with the one aspect of filmmaking he really hadn’t thought much about.

“Three weeks ago, I didn’t know anything about the industry,” he said recently, taking a break from interviewing prospective agents and meeting studio personnel. “At UCLA, we’re in this wonderful film school environment where we can just concentrate on the work without outside considerations.”

Payne, who just received his master’s degree, already speaks of film school with a certain nostalgic affection.

He and his fellow students were too caught up in learning their craft and making their films to think much about the movie business. “There are a thousand compromises working in the film industry,” he said. “Film school is the time never to compromise.” Payne often slept on a cot in his campus editing room during the year and a half it took to make “The Passion of Martin.” And when he wasn’t making his movie or talking film with his peers, he sometimes spent 12 hours a day watching films, including such favorites as the work of Japanese master Akira Kurosawa and Spanish filmmaker Luis Bunuel.

“We want to get attention from the industry,” he said. “That means we can continue to make films. But that’s not why we make films.”

Occasionally, he said, he would prepare himself for real life after graduation by sitting in on one of the lectures on “Power in Hollywood” that Columbia head Peter Guber gives as part of the UCLA film school’s producers program. “But the best preparation for this is craft,” Payne said of the process of breaking into the business. “Studying editing, studying directing is more important than thinking about this.”

According to Ruth Schwartz, who heads the UCLA Department of Film and Television, the major film schools have been important sources of industry talent since the 1960s. Of the 20 or so students who graduate from the UCLA production program each year, about three-quarters find work as professional filmmakers. Far fewer generate intense interest, perhaps two or three a year, she said.

Film school can be a crucial break for people like Payne, who don’t start out with friends or family already in the business. Payne, who grew up in Nebraska in a family of Greek restaurateurs, majored in history and Spanish literature at Stanford. He was without industry contacts until 1985, when he came to UCLA, “where you go to school with your future connections.”

Payne said he is surprised by the response to “The Passion of Martin.”

“It’s a little bleak in outlook,” he said. Payne’s movie, which even his parents found a bit grim, concerns a photographer who falls in love with a woman who admires his work, becoming more and more obsessed with her. Some viewers describe it as a black comedy. Payne says it is “a funny tragedy.”

An agent at ICM, who asked not to be identified, said it was the best student film he had ever seen. The agent’s capsule description: “David Lynch meets Albert Brooks.”

Hot Movie Takes – “The Passion of Martin” II

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

While it’s still available on YouTube, be sure to watch the short film that launched Alexander Payne’s film career: “The Passion of Martin.” As student films go, the story of this one became legendary in its own time and has only gained in intrigue since the movie first got seen by industry audiences in 1990 and toured festivals in 1991. The 50 minute dark comedy was instantly recognized as the work of an exceptional new talent. Payne was 29 when he completed the film as his UCLA graduate thesis project. He made the film over the course of a year and a half and all that effort shows because it is a remarkably composed and consummate piece of filmmaking, Besides being a really good film, another reason to see it is that it contains so many of the characteristics we’ve come to identify with Payne, that great American cinema satirist, including:

•voice-over narration

•a tragicomic story

•an ironical sensibility

•obsessional characters

•a protagonist disconnected from others

•an identity crisis

•a journey undertaken

•romantic ideals undone

Visual and thematic leitmotifs we now associate with Payne’s work abound in the very first film of his that gained wide notice. All the things that make him an auteur were present in him and in his work from the very start. I screened the movie last night in the “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film” class I’m teaching for Metro at Do Space. We’re considering each of his major works per class, so naturally we began with Payne’s first film in the first class. If you’re interested in attending the class, go to Metro’s Continuing Ed registration page onliine. “Passion” is such an accomplished work that it became much talked about in Hollywood. So much so that the L.A. Times did a 1990 feature on Payne and the buzz that the film was generating. The article describes how he was being besieged by agents and studios and sure enough he got an agent and a development deal with Universal. Things didn’t pan out there for him as anticipated and it would be a half dozen more years before he made his first feature, “Citizen Ruth,” but the delay had nothing to do with the fact that he wasn’t ready. “The Passion of Martin” proves without question he was more than capable of making a really good feature as early as age 29. Indeed, had he not delayed his entrance into film school by first getting his bachelor’s degree at Stanford and traveling the world, he would have likely been one of those 20-somethings let into the Hollywood fortress. As it turned out, he was in his mid-30s, but to my way of thinking his feature debut coming when it did was to his advantage and to our benefit because when he did make “Citizen Ruth” it more than fulfilled the promise he displayed with “The Passion of Martin.” That was my thinking after I first saw both films. I was an Omaha film programmer-exhibitor when I booked and screened “Passion” in 1991 at the New Cinema Coop’s short-lived north downtown theater.  The film by this young Omaha native impressed the hell out of me and I made a mental note to look out for future works by him. Five or six years passed before his “Citizen Ruth” premiered at the Dundee Theatre and I was blown away by the courage and intelligence of that very fine black comedy and I distinctly remember thinking that the great potential Payne had show in his student work was realized and then some in his first feature. From that point on, I made it my business to interview and profile him, and I did for the first time when he came back to Omaha to set-up the production of “Election.”

So, if you’re a cineaste who appreciates Payne’s filmmaking, then it’s essential you discover where it all began. The rich well-spring of Payne’s vision and voice is on display in “Passion.” Catch it while it lasts on YouTube by clicking the image or title below or by going to the following link:

And here’s the link to that L.A. Times article:

Hot Movie Takes – “Burnt”

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

What Jack Nicholson was to the 1970s, Bradley Cooper has become in the second decade of the 2000s. He’s that rare leading man with an edge to him who can go from high drama to low comedy and play all the colors in between. Last night on Netflix I saw him in “Burnt” (2005). in which he plays recovering addict chef Adam Jones. The back story is that Jones made a meteoric rise to the top of his profession only to crash and burn when his unchecked ego and drug habit brought him and others around him down. When we meet him, he’s already bottomed out emotionally, physically and professionally. His many indiscretions in Paris exiled hi. He ended up in New Orleans, where he got himself clean and sober in part by a self-imposed purgatory of no drink, no drugs, no sex. His punishment involved shucking oysters for three years. When he reaches his one millionth shell, a tally of which he’s assiduously kept in a notebook, he sets out to start his comeback in the field he loves but that’s also fueled his self-destructive behavior. He chooses London as his new launching pad and startover but as he soon discovers the weight of his Paris past is inescapable.

Cooper has the right kind of persona to play both the arrogance and vulnerability of this character, who can be a real prick. In pursuit of redeeming himself he’s willing to go to any lengths and in his self-absorption he loses sight of the people around him he depends on to turn out great plates, memorable bites and lovely dining experiences. It takes Jones going through some real hell to understand he can’t do it all alone.

I love the way this film really commits to a protagonist who’s not a pleasant person but is single minded and driven in his passion for food and cooking. It’s the kind of rogue lead character Nicholson made a habit of playing in the ’70s and beyond and in these more PC times these kinds of anti-heroes are less common. Cooper is very effective in this part and in other parts like it because he’s not afraid to be unlikable. He may not have the enigmatic charisma or irony of Nicholson, but he does have the fearlessness to go for it and to risk alienating the audience. That may be what happened with this film because it did very little business at the box office and elicited mixed reviews. Cooper generally got praised for his work in the film but it seems that an ego-centric chef trying to piece his life and career back together didn’t resonate for a lot of reviewers. I’m not sure why because it’s an extremely well acted, written and directed film that rewards you for toughing out its more challenging sections. There are a number of times when Jones loses it and explodes into rants and it does get very intense and dark and perhaps a bit repetitive. But there is a very real, muted payoff to all the turmoil of his recovery and comeback, to all the setbacks he suffers, to all the rude awakenings he gets, when he finally realizes he can and must trust other people and that the crew he’s assembled around him is his family.

This is the first film I’ve seen by the director John Wells (“August, Osage County,” “The Company Men”) and I was impressed enough that I will be seeking out more of his work. Sienna Miller is plucky and sweet as Helene, who softens Adam’s hardened heart. Omar Sky is aptly hard to read as Michel, Adam’s old sous chef with a score to settle. Daniel Bruhl deftly handles the complex role of Tony, a maitre d who was there in Paris when Adam, with whom he’s in unrequited love, suffered his fall. Matthew Rhys is excellent as Adam’s chef rival Montgomery Reece. Emma Thompson is cheeky as the therapist who tries not to let Jones get away with bullshit. Alicia Vikander is captivating as Anne Marie, a former love interest and the daughter of the legendary chef Jones trained under and sabotaged in Paris.

This is definitely not the feel good experience of Jon Favreau’s very fine film “Chef,” but it’s edgier and perhaps ultimately more truthful and satisfying. The two films would make a good double feature for foodies.

Hot Movie Takes – Mike Nichols and Alexander Payne

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

Comparing artists, in this case film directors, is a hazardous business, but that isn’t stopping me from doing it. As someone who thinks and writes a lot about writer-director Alexander Payne, I sometimes search for resonance between his work and that of other filmmakers. When first exposed to his satirical cinema I was immediately reminded of Billy Wilder. Later, I saw parallels between Payne’s mis en scene and that of James L. Brooks, Joan Micklin Silver and Paul Thomas Anderson. More recently, I found continuity in the mordant, highly composed worlds of Payne and Stanley Kubrick. My newest reference point connects the work of Payne with that of the late Mike Nichols. The difficulty with this particular comparison is that Payne is a writer and director and Nichols was a director who, while I’m sure he had a great hand in the scripts he helmed, practically owned no writing credits. On the other hand, Nichols consistently worked with and interpreted great writers and the spirit of his satirical sensibilities is evident in his oeuvre. The term auteur is overused and misapplied to many filmmakers but it certainly fits both Nichols and Payne. Their work shares in common strong humanistic and satirical strains that reveal character in states of extremis. The comedy and tragedy in the stories they tell co-exist side by side and thus it’s hard to describe their movies as just one thing or another. Their movies are like life in that they are a mix of things. Nichols comes from an improvisational comedy, Actors Studio and Broadway stage background that gives his films a distinctive look, feel and sound that is at once realistic and poetic. Payne is most heavily influenced by classic world cinema and his films correspondingly have a formal narrative structure and compositional quality that also retain a sense of freedom and anarchy in line with their sharp tragic-comic turns.

These filmmakers are also both identified with producing thought provoking, highly literate work, I believe that is a reflection of how well read and rounded  Nichols was and how-well read and rounded Payne is. Just as Nichols was steeped in literature, music fine art, theater and film, so is Payne. Bandying words and references with Nichols was a game played at your own risk because he seemingly had read everything. Payne is much the same.

But it’s one thing to have a great mind and it’s another thing to have a great heart, or vice versa, and here’s where these two separated themselves from many other directors of comedy. Their films show an intuitiveness and empathy that serve to leaven their sharp insights and harsh satire and to make their characters and situations, no matter how chaotic and desperate, more human and therefore more relatable. This is the same gift that their fellow comedy director masters shared and I’m referring here to:

Charles Chaplin

Buster Keaton

Frank Capra

George Stevens

Howard Hawks

Ernest Lubitsch

Preston Sturges

George Cukor

Billy Wilder

Woody Allen

James L. Brooks

I don’t know of Payne and Nichols ever met, but I have to think that if they did they would have hit it off and found they shared similar sensibilities and interests. At the very least, they would have made each other laugh.

My favorite Nichols films are “The Graduate,” “Catch 22,” “Silkwood,” “Working Girl,” “Postcards from the Edge,” and “Charlie Wilson’s War.” I don’t think there’s a great film among them, though those are all really good movies, and the rest of his career was pretty hit and miss. As for some of his other films, I admire “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf?” and “Carnal Knowledge,” for example, but they’re not films I feel compelled to see again. His “Heartburn,” “Wolf” and “The Birdcage” are interesting but minor works. Full disclosure: I haven’t seen his “Angels in America.” But I’ve seen enough of his output to know that while he almost never made a flat out bad film, several of his works are flawed and inconsistent.

By contrast, Payne hasn’t missed yet. I have yet to see Payne’s new film “Downsizing,” but based on his six previous features and other work he’s done, I am very comfortable saying that Payne is a consistently better filmmaker than Nichols was even at the peak of Nichols’ career. Now, some may argue that Nichols directed  touchstone pictures for different eras in “The Graduate” and “Working Girl” and may go on to question whether Payne has done the same. I would assert that “Sideways” is that equivalent picture in the Payne canon. I would also suggest that Payne has made at least five films that are timeless: “Election,” “About Schmidt,” “Sideways,” “The Descendants” and “Nebraska” and that it’s hard to find even a single Nichols film that could be so described with the possible exception of “The Graduate.” Some may further argue, and I can see the point, that Nichols was a more adventurous filmmaker than Payne in trying sometimes wildly different subjects and approaches from film to film, whereas Payne, to date anyway, has perhaps played it safe by staying within certain parameters and comfort levels that he likes revisiting. His new film “Downsizing” is definitely a departure for Payne in terms of scope – both physical and thematic – and we’ll soon know how well he handled that. Nichols made everything from social satires to farces to straight out dramas. I would counter that the few times Nichols departed from his own comfort zones resulted in some mis-steps – “The Fortune,” “The Day of the Dolphin,” “Wolf” and “What Planet Are You From?” – though Nichols does deserve an A for effort. Most observers count “Catch-22” as a mis-fire but I like its mordant tone and, unusual for Nichols, brilliant visuals. I actually think the best work he did that I’ve seen was the intense drama “Silkwood” and not the ironic, satiric pieces he’s best known for.

Granted, Payne may be taking fewer chances than Nichols did in terms of stretching himself, but I contend that even within the familiar confines of Payne’s work, he consistently goes deeper than Nichols usually did. For me, Nichols was more of a surface director, and Payne is more of an interior director, which is to say that in Nichols’ films the exterior lives of his characters predominate while in Payne’s films the interior lives of his characters speak to us, Now, to be sure, there are exceptions to these artificial boundaries, but I feel that on the whole Nichols tended to fall in love with his characters a little too much and therefore .

Certainly, the films of Nichols and Payne both show great respect for the written word and strong performances by actors. On this score, I think we can all agree.

Of course, all this is totally subjective and in the long run doesn’t really mean a hill of beans because they’re both among the best directors of comedy and of dramedies that have ever worked in Hollywood and they each have stand the test of time films to their credit.

Hot Movie Takes – “The Painted Veil”

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

“The Painted Veil” is a very old-fashioned film for 2006 and that is both its strength and weakness. Having never read the W. Somerset Maugham novel upon which it’s based, I suspect that this adaptation by Ron Nyswaner directed by John Curran is extremely faithful to the source. But I also suspect that what’s lost in translation to the screen is too much of the rich detail that the film needed in order to more fully immerse me in its early 20th century rendering of upper class British society clashing with feudal China. The ironic thing about this is that the film was shot on location in China, and yet I felt its depiction of that land was overly picaresque, rather then informative or even metaphoric. The production values of the picture are superb in terms of the photography, production design and so forth. The writing is good. The direction sufficient. As for the casting and acting, the project’s two stars, Edward Norton and Naomi Watts, who co-produced the film, are certainly up to the task of playing the story’s star-crossed lovers, Walter and Kitty, but they don’t have much chemistry together. Now, I realize the whole arc of the plot is how these two initially make a bad match as a married couple and only find true union after going through crucibles, and so it follow for them not to click or spark, except for right when they meet and near the very end. Yet the story and the film needed for these characters to have more of a current passing between them because too often their scenes together are dead and tiresome. The only time the film really comes alive is when their passions are aroused, whether love or hate, desire or lust. Too many opportunities for richer emotional exposition are lost in the two-thirds of the film that dwell on Walter’s punishing Kitty for her marital indiscretion. He’s lost in his work as a bacteriologist fighting a cholera outbreak. It’s where he loses his pain. She’s lost in her selfishness and loneliness. They’re both mired in self-pity, regret and resentment. A lot less of this wallowing would have actually been more effective. When I say the film is old-fashioned I mean that it spends too much time on the surface melodrama and not enough on the characters’ inner lives. And despite its location shooting, I could have done with fewer establishing shots of rivers, valleys and such in exchange for more images and sounds of the daily life rhythms and rituals of the Chinese and for that matter the British colonialist and home fires burning sets. Otherwise, as it is, the film could just have well been made on sound stages and not lost much in the process.

The Maugham book has been adapted to film at least three times and I get the appeal of it because even with all the period trappings, the story’s theme of forgiveness and love carrying the day is timeless and universal. We all want to believe in that. The tragedy and redemption at the core the story is classical. As are its depictions of nobility and self-sacrifice. These “old” virtues play well in any era. I just don’t think that Walter and Kitty needed to be quite as stiff and daft in their affairs of the heart. Then again, Maugham knew how to make his characters suffer for their indiscretions and as audiences we’re suckers for dark, fatalistic, even moralistic love stories. His work is a reminder that we’re not as cool and sophisticated as we like to think we are because we fall for the same old love story conventions time and again. The filmmakers expressed almost too much fidelity to Maugham’s principled universe where sin and virtue vie coexist side by side, but I can’t fault them for being so rigorously true to the spirit of the author’s work. Interestingly, there is also something quite modern about the sexual liberation of his main female characters. His stories, including this one, abound with conflicts between sexual freedom and repression. Watts is one of the more sexually-charged actresses of her generation and I think even more could have been done with this in the picture.

Her restless, dissatisfied Kitty cheats with a dashing married man, Charles, who’s the opposite of Walter. Liev Schreiber, always reliable as a heel, is well cast as Charles. Toby Jones is very good as a British civil servant gone to seed in China. And Diana Rigg has a nice turn as a crusty nun who runs the orphanage and hospital where Walter works. Watts and Norton don’t have much to do except for her to be frustrated and him to be grieved and it just seems more could have done to flesh out their characters and their scenes together. But the movie is worth the long run time and slow progress towards its denouement. The payoff isn’t great but it is believable, satisfying and inevitable given the hard and ultimately rewarding path Walter and Kitty travel and the understanding they reach before death comes knocking. A flash forward postscript in England reinforces how far Kitty’s come as a woman when she encounters Charles again and doesn’t flinch in her new found strength.

The movie is available in full and for free in a very good upload on YouTube.

Hot Movie Takes – “Cousin Bette”

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

Good period pieces remind us that beneath the different dress, speech and ritual of an earlier era people then were just like people today. The passions that drive us are instinctually hard-wired across time and culture and in “Cousin Bette” the basic instincts of lust, desire, greed and revenge get wondrously sent up as played out in 19th century Paris just before and after the revolution. This 1997 film has been unjustly marginalized as a pale imitation of “Dangerous Liaisons” but “Cousin Bette” more than stands on its own as a very funny, intelligent, sometimes tragic and always entertaining work. The fodder for the story is an intersection of family riffs, class distinctions, old wounds and obsessive fantasies. At the center of it all is Bette, who as played by Jessica Lange is a strong-willed commoner resentful at the way a gilded branch of her family mistreats her. When a cousin steals away the love of her life, she enacts an elaborate scheme to win him back and to ruin her family in the process. Lange has an uncanny ability to play tender and tough and here she really makes you believe she is both a scorned woman hurting in the heart and a cold, even evil Machiavellian plotter whose dark intent knows no bounds.

The theme of the story is laid out at the very start. On her deathbed the family matriarch Adeline (Geraldine Chaplin) asks her long-suffering cousin Bette to look over her family. Adeline’s philandering husband, the baron (Hugh Laurie), has squandered his fortune and his eligible daughter Hortense (Kelly Macdonald) is in desperate need of a well-positioned suitor. As young women, Adeline was favored by the family and put forward in society in order to marry well while Bette was left to fend for herself. A spinster, Bette earns money as a seamstress and as a costumer for a local burlesque show whose ambitious star, Jenny Cadine (Elizabeth Shue) is dismissive of her until Bette demonstrates she won’t be made a fool. Jenny and Betty come from peasant backgrounds and share a conceit of exploiting the upper classes for what they feel they deserve. They become confederates in Bette’s plan to humble the rich and get what they feel they have coming to them. Bette later realizes Jenny doesn’t really share her revolutionary fervor.

When the widowed baron announces that Bette will be given a position worthy of her devotion to the family, she clearly expects he will ask her to marry him, but instead she’s retained as the housekeeper. When Bette befriends a young starving artist, Wenceslas (Aden Young), she enlists his undying loyalty and fully expects him to be her lover. Instead, the cavalier sculptor and Hortense take up together and eventually marry and have a child together. With nothing working out the way she wanted it, Bette proceeds to put a series of events in motion that play on the family’s various weaknesses and indiscretions. When the envious and resentful Bette makes up her mind that she won’t be anyone’s foot stool again, she proves far more cunning than any of her supposed betters. Bob Hoskins plays a wealthy old lech, Casar Crevel, who for a tidy sum wants the pleasure of Hostense. He and the baron are also among many men of position vying for the affections of Jenny, the stage siren of their dreams. Bette uses the men’s rivalry to incite a duel of honor between them and to get money from Chevel. Sure that Wenceslas will find Jenny irresistible, Bette introduces the two but doesn’t anticipate Jenny falling for him. Bette later arranges for the baron to witness Jenny and Wenceslaus making love. The shock induces a stroke. Bette also encourages Hortense to exact revenge on Jenny for stealing away her man, which results in a murder. At the end, Bette’s still alone after having brought down an entire family – but she’s left to care for one member she intends to groom as her own. If it all weren’t so funny it would be a chilling portrait of avarice run amok.

Acclaimed stage director Des McAnuff made a dynamic feature film from this material adapted from a Balzac novel. It’s alive and vital. The photography by Andrzej Sekula and the production design by Hugo Luczyc-Wyhowski and the art direction by Richard Bridland, Bertrand Clercq-Roques and Didier Naert create a fully realized world of plenty and squalor that you can practically feel.

Hot Movie Takes Monday:

“Deidra & Laney Rob a Train”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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 Alexander 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 here’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 Estavez film “The Way” starring his father Martin Sheen.

Hot Movie Takes – “The Long Good Friday”

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

The late Bob Hoskins could own the screen with his magnetic, menacing and sometimes buffoninish presence and if you’ve never seen him in one of his greatest film roles, as Cockney gangster Harold Shand in “The Long Good Friday” (1980), then you’re really missing something. Hoskins gives a tour de force as a crime lord who aspires to respectability but is brought down by the weight of his own headstrong, violent, vengeful nature. Helen Mirren co-stars as his girlfriend and the one person who can potentially keep him from acting rashly, but in the end even she cannot prevent the inevitable from happening. A very young Pierce Brosnan has a non-speaking but key part near the beginning and at the very end. This is a really good film, and certainly one of the best crime films ever made. It’s sort of British cinema’s cross between “Scarface” and “The Godfather.” It just so happens there’s a pristine upload of the picture on YouTube, but experience suggests it won’t be there long, so catch it while you can.

The British crime world isn’t so different than the American iteration. But this story is set in a very particular time in London when the old-line underworld was trying to find legal fronts for its illicit operations, social woes beset the empire, police-civic corruption ran rampant and the IRA terrorized England.  The very weekend Shand hosts an American mob investor (played by Eddie Constantine) for a dream development project that will legitimize him as an entrepreneur, all hell breaks loose when two of Shand’s most trusted men are killed and attempts on his own life fail. Shand stops at nothing to get to the bottom of the mayhem and not understanding or accepting the more powerful forces he’s up against, he goes too far and seals his own fate.

Hoskins delivers a performance on par with the great mob boss portrayals by Muni, Cagney, Steiger, Robards, Brando, De Niro. But if there’s another American actor associated with mob movies he most reminds me of and that’s Joe Pesci. They shared the same short stature, heavy build and ability to be comic one moment and murderous the next. Director John Mackenzie lends great energy to the very smart Barry Keeffe screenplay. If you fancy yourself a crime movie enthusiast, then this is a must see not only for Hoskins’ iconic work but for this complex story of a man whose pride and ego destroy him. Viewers beware that the violence is extreme. It’s also necessary in order to illustrate just what a monster Shand can be beneath his veneer of respectability.

Hot Movie Takes – “A Private Matter”

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

True-life made-for-TV movies are a staple of the small screen. whether ripped from the headlines of the day or revisiting historical incidents. It’s the rare such movie that plays at the level of a Grade A feature but one that does is the HBO drama “A Private Matter” from 1992. Omaha’s own Joan Micklin Silver directed this taut piece starring Sissy Spacek and Aidan Quinn as Sherri and Bob Finkbine, a married couple with children who found themselves in the center of the storm that broke in the early 1960s involving the drug thalidomide. It was a widely prescribed drug for pregnant women before a direct link was found between it and infants born with severe deformities. The pregnant Sherri, who was the Emmy Award-winning host for the children’s television show “Romper Room” out of Phoenix, Arizona, took the drug before its dangers were made public. When she just happened to see a newspaper headline reporting the horrific effects, she consulted her physician, who informed her and her school teacher husband there was a high likelihood her child would be born deformed. The doctor advised her to terminate and let her know that he could safely do the abortion at a hospital but that it had to be done in secret because the procedure was technically illegal if the mother’s life was not in danger. A devastated Sherri is unsure what to do and while still very much  undecided, a sympathetic psychiatrist friend (played by Williuam H. Macy) of her doctor’s makes a sham diagnosis that she’s suicidal in order to provide some legal protection to the doctor and hospital for the termination they consider to be a fait accomplice. Only it’s really not. The agonizing choice becomes even more traumatic when Sherri and Bob’s story goes public and they are the object of scrutiny and hostility. They both lose their jobs and the strain of the media attention and social condemnation test them and their marriage.

The movie rises above its melodramatic true life trappings because of an intelligent script by William Nicholson, careful direction by Silver and stellar performances by Spacek and Quinn. But this is really Spacek’s movie and she’s never been better than she is in this intense drama whose rhythms and feelings are modulated by her character’s implosion. Sherrie’s been programmed to be the perfect daughter, mother and wife and the harsh reality of her damaged fetus tears away at everything she’s built her life around. Suddenly, she’s adrift in a world of pain, anger, shame, guilt and fear as all that she’s known comes undone. Long suppressed self-identity issues and parental conflicts surface when her mother, played by Estelle Parsons, pitches in to help with the kids while Sherrie and Bob deal with the mounting hysteria of prying media and societal condemnation.

The Finkbines were besieged by reporters decades before the era of tabloid pack journalism and social media trolls. It’s a reminder that mass media has always had an appetite for the sensational and little compunction with how its reporting affects people’s lives. The irony of this story is that Sherrie unwittingly opened the door to the media flood when, before anyone else knew about what she and her husband were facing except for their doctor, she spoke to a reporter friend acquaintance about the dilemma. She was promised anonymity and apparently the reporter abided by that agreement, but when a court hearing was held to determine the legality of the abortion, the hospital’s files had the Finkbines names listed in documents that became part of the public record and thus the couple became fair game for the media. Sherrie only wanted other couples and pregnant women to be aware of the risks. She and Bob paid a high personal price for getting the word out, but their story brought what should have been a private matter into the light, helping bring an end to the drug’s production, distribution and use.

Besides Spacek’s impassioned performance, what I like best about the film is the sharp way it undercuts the plastic, pristine veneer of Everything is Fine ’50s America to reveal some of the roiling problems beneath the surface.

Hot Movie Takes – “Mulholland Drive”

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

The great American cinema surrealist of our time, David Lynch, creates worlds that conform to the energy, imagery and imagination and of inner lives rather than to objective reality. I am a huge Lynch fan. His “Eraserhead” is still one of the most memorable, if disturbing, film experiences of my life. “Elephant Man” is a much more conventional narrative work by comparison but what makes it rise above even very good and so-called classic period pieces are the surrealistic visual and aural flourishes that invite us into dream states full of wonder, mystery, menace and phantasmagoria. The same with “Dune,” “Blue Velvet.” “Wild at Heart” and “Twin Peaks.” Starting with “Blue Velvet,” Lynch moved away from the overtly surrealistic (Eraserhead”), post-gothic (“Elephant Man”) and science fiction (“Dune”) realms of his first three films, to give us his take on noir and mystery. The exception being his most accessible and conventional film to date, “The Straight Story,” which is mystical in its own way. It might be his best, most life-affirming and humanistic work though there is a kind of darkness in it as well. Perhaps his most discussed feature, “Mulholland Drive” (2001), which I saw for the first time only last night on Netflix, may be his most riveting neo-noir with its hallucinatory, open-to-interpretation story. It gives you all the contours of a standard noir and mystery – this one set in the desperate world of Hollywood – but it challenges you to supply the connections and meanings. Symbols and metaphors replace straight expositional elements and while Lynch leads you part of the way to making sense of things, you’re ultimately on your own. Because his films operate as private cinema dreams, there simply aren’t the standard cues and guides to rely on. That’s why many of his films, especially that one, elicit sharply divided responses.

“Mulholland Drive” is replete with the signature Lynchian look, feel and sound that keep you on edge and ever expectant. In this film as in all his films he achieves a strange, hypnotic, intoxicating combination of sumptuousness and grittiness through lighting, color schemes, camera angles and movements, scoring, editing and, of course, a cryptic, erotic storyline, enigmatic characters and often eccentric performances. Naomi Watts is brilliant as the central figure Betty/Diane. She’s asked to play a staggering range of emotions and delivers them all without a single false note. Laura Harring is very good as Rita/Camilla, who embodies the intrigue at the heart of the story.  As for that story, it is so ambiguous that all we can be sure of is that it is a fever-like meditation on the cost that Hollywood dreams can extract, Whether it’s meant to be cautionary tale or not is anybody’s guess. But there’s little doubt that Lynch is commenting here on the way that Hollywood can steal your identity and soul. In this dark underside of the Tinsel Town ideal there is violence, deceit, perversion and madness. But it is the unrelenting desperateness and desire that most come through.

Many directors have given us their spin on the heightened world of movies:

Buster Keaton:

“The Cameraman” and “Sherlock Jr.”

William Wellman:

“A Star is Born”

Tay Garnett: “Stand-In”

Preston Sturges:

“Sullivan’s Travels”

Billy Wilder:

“Sunset Boulevard”

Vincente Minnelli:

“The Bad and the Beautiful”

“Two Weeks in Another Town”

Stanley Donen/Gene Kelly:

“Singin’ in the Rain”

George Cukor:

“A Star is Born”

Robert Aldrich:

“The Big Knife”

“The Legend of Lylah Clare”

Jerry Lewis

“The Errand Boy”

Federico Fellini:

“8 1/2”

Jean Luc Godard:


Robert Mulligan:

“Inside Daisy Clover”

Mark Robson:

“Valley of the Dolls”

Richard Rush:

“The Stunt Man”

John Schlesinger:

“The Day of the Locust”

Francois Truffaut:

“Day for Night”

Elia Kazan

“The Last Tycoon”

Woody Allen:

“Stardust Memories”

Blake Edwards:


Christopher Guest

“The Big Picture”

Robert Altman:

“The Player”

Coen Bros.:

“Barton Fink”

Alan Alda

“Sweet Liberty”

Joe Dante:


Barry Primus:


Clint Eastwood:

“White Hunter, Black Heart”

Tim Burton:

“Ed Wood”

Mike Nichols”

“Postcards from the Edge”

James L. Brooks

“I’ll Do Anything”

Frank Oz:


Barry Sonnenfield:

“Get Shorty”

Paul Thomas Anderson:

“Boogie Nights”

E. Elias Merhige:

“Shadow of the Vampire”

Bill Condon:

“Gods and Monsters”

Spike Jonze:


Martin Scorsese:

“The Aviator”

Michel Gondry:

“Be Kind Rewind”

Simon Curtis:

“My Week with Marilyn”

Michel Hazanavicius:

“The Artist”

Damien Chazelle:

“La La Land”

The movies about the movies that preceded “Mulholland Drive” range from romantic to tragic and from realistic to surrealistic. Lynch’s film naturally contains aspects of these since they do share at least the moviemaking culture as a baseline but in the final analysis “Mulholland Drive” doesn’t remind me of any of them because it operates in a macabre and whimsical universe purely of its own making. It is a closed loop system beyond the rationale and logic and outside pat explanations. Thematically and stylistically, it’s remindful of “Alfred Hitchcock Presents,” “The Twilight Zone” and “The Outer Limits” with touches of Welles, Wilder, Bunuel and Kubrick thrown in. I actually find some of those other movies about the movies more entertaining and satisfying than “Mulholland Drive” but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re better. Aesthetically, Lynch goes after much more than most of them and while his abstractions and digressions sometimes fall flat or misfire into camp, he never ceases challenging you. The rewards may not be as immediate or as clear as they are in, say, “Get Shorty” or “Mistress” or “The Stunt Man,” but you do go on a richer journey, even if it’s one you don’t aways understand. That’s okay though when you’re in the hands of a master whose work mesmerizes in much the same way a great magician does. You don’t know whether to believe what your eyes just saw and you certainly don’t know how the effects were achieved, but you fall under the spell of that seduction just the same.

Hot Movie Takes – “Half Nelson”

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

In “Half Nelson” (2006) Ryan Gosling is a drug addict middle school history teacher who befriends a student played by Shareeka Epps. He’s white and she’s black. He not only has her in his class but on the basketball team he coaches as well. He sees that she could either be another casualty of the inner city or really make something of herself. When she discovers he’s a junkie, their already too familiar relationship enters a very real and weird space where she ultimately becomes the only friend he can count on. Writer-director Ryan Fleck accurately depicts the mindset of Gosling’s character Dan Dunne, who like all addicts, when using, is a self-absorbed emotional midget capable of great empathy or insight one moment and complete disconnection or disengagement the next. He really cares about teaching and making a difference with these kids and he goes way beyond the norm to advocate for Dray, but his personal life is a wreck because he’s so cut off from himself and his feelings. He’s in no position to help someone else when he can’t help himself. That doesn’t stop him from trying. Meanwhile, Dray is largely left on her own in a single parent household. Her brother is incarcerated. Her mother works lots of overtime. Her father is never around. That leaves a family friend, Frank (Anthony Mackie, )who’s a drug dealer, and “Teach,” a drug user, as the available male role models in her life. When Teach begins spiraling down and pulling away, Frank begins grooming her in the business.

Gosling is quite effective as the nowhere man who wants to believe he can control his addiction. He’s a good person but in denial about the extent of his problem. Epps is even better as Gray, the street tough girl who’s exposed to things that no child should have to confront. She’s the stronger, more mature of the two in this fascinating pairing of alienation, loneliness, desperation and friendship that brings a man and a girl together to try and navigate life’s hazards. I like how the film treats both characters as equals, each with his-her own challenges, while never letting us forget that he’s a teacher overstepping his bounds with this girl and that she’s a student getting inappropriately emotionally intimate with her teacher. Things don’t get sexual between them but these two know things about each other’s personal lives that go far beyond the surface or facade that teachers and students usually never get past. The film doesn’t make a judgment about any of this by the way. It just shows it happening. They both need someone and they just happen to be there for each other. There is a real affection and love between them akin to a big brother and little sister or to even a father and a daughter. It’s not the norm or ideal, it’s not the way it’s supposed to go, but they’re all they have and we’re left with the feeling that come what may they’re going to make the best of it and be there for each other from here on out.

Monique Gabriela Curnen is very real as a fellow needy teacher who has an on-again, off-again thing with Dan but won’t let herself be trapped in a codependent relationship. Tina Holmes is poignant as Rachel, the stable woman Dan used to be involved with who reenters his life and reminds him of how much he’s lost. Deborah Rush and Jay O. Sanders are good as Dan’s sad, burned-out, alcoholic parents. Nicole Vicius strikes just the right notes as the wide-eyed girl dating Dan’s brother. And Denis O’Hare is superb as Dan”s teaching colleague whose indifferent observation and insincere concern as his friend crashes and burns is an indictment of an educational system that doesn’t care for its own.

The spare, raw photography by Andrij Parekh is apt for the mean streets settings and harsh goings on. The angst-ridden music hits the right moods for this pretty bleak story of inner turmoil being acted out and two not so disparate people after all trying to work things out in lives that have more in commons than you’d think.

“Half Nelson” is available on Netflix.

Hot Movie Takes – “White Dog”

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

Samuel Fuller was an independent maverick among American film directors from the 1940s through the 1980s. (he even worked in television into the 1990s. His often blunt cinema was also more kinetic and poetic than any U.S. director of his era with the possible exception of Orson Welles. His work is revered by the likes of Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino an Richard Linklater. Before he ever made a film, Fuller worked as a New York City tabloid journalist, wrote exploitation novels and saw extensive combat in World War II as a member of the Big Red One that fought on D-Day, then pushed deep into German territory and in the waning days of the conflict liberated a death camp. He used those WWII experiences as the basis for his great 1980 film “The Big Red One” starring Lee Marvin, Mark Hamill and Robert Carradine. All of Fuller’s films are characterized by their combination of lurid sensationalism, romantic idealism, graphic violence and philosophical, bordering on spiritual, reflection. He often tackled controversial themes and hung his stories on protagonists of dubious morals. The main character in “Pickup on South Street” is an unrepentant pickpocket who resists being enlisted by his government to help break up an international espionage ring. The sexual innuendo is super-charged in the Western “Forty Guns” between Barbara Stanwyck’s black leather clad, whip-wielding rancher with 40 male riders to do her bidding and Barry Sullivan’s gunslinging reformer who tames her. The dramatic lead in “House of Bamboo” infiltrates a ruthless American criminal gang operating in postwar Japan and faces his own anti-Asian prejudices. The hero of “Shock Corridor” is an overly ambitious reporter who gets himself admitted to a psychiatric hospital to get the inside scoop, only he loses his mind before filing his story. In “The Naked Kiss” the female lead is the subject of male objectification, exploitation and abuse,

All of that pales in comparison to his third to last feature, “White Dog,” a 1982 film unjustly suppressed by Paramount Pictures when the studio got nervous that it would spark racial protests and boycotts. The story is about a very harsh but real phenomenon going back to slave times in which racists methodically program dogs to attack black people. The film is a strong anti-racist indictment that uses dogs as a metaphor for how the fear and hatred behind human racism is a conditioned way of thinking and behaving that, once instilled, is difficult, perhaps impossible, to eradicate without some drastic countervailing measures or experiences. Fuller and Curtis Hanson adapted their screenplay from a Romain Gary novel from which they made significant departures. The three main human characters in the film each has his/her blind spots. Kristy McNichol plays an actress who finds and boards the dog as her own not knowing that it’s an attack animal. She becomes so attached to the dog that even after she discovers its dangerous, deadly potential, she denies it and then does everything possible to have it de-programmed. Paul Winfield plays an animal trainer with a personal and professional obsession with turning so called “white dogs” into normal dogs and he takes hers on as his next mission. He continues the experiment despite the dog having killed. Burl Ives plays his partner in the animal training complex they own and he, too, turns a blind eye to the awful things the dog does. All three are sickened by what this white dog represents and at various times each wants to kill it but almost until the very end they’re complicit in keeping silent and doing nothing about what’s happened. The delirious ending is pure Fuller melodrama tinged with tragedy and irony.

The way Fuller handled the domed animal ring scenes is very Hitchcockian in terms of camera movement, closeups and musical scoring. It’s bravura filmmaking from an old master who could still provoke reactions and stimulate thoughts with the best of them. This story of a black man working to undo the psychosis of a white dog was right up Fuller’s alley. Having the dog attack one of McNichol’s friends is a hard to watch but ballsy directorial decision because it illustrates that the animal is a threat to any black person. There’s a great scene near the end when McNichol meets the man who trained it to be a white dog and he’s at first nothing like you’d expect until she confronts him and his rabid racism comes out. The final irony is that once an attack dog of this order has been habitualized, it always remains an attack dog. If you somehow get it to stop terrorizing one group of people, it will target another. It will even turn on those it loves.

Having said all that, some people of color will undoubtedly find the film disturbing, even offensive. But It’s clearly not condoning racism, it’s condemning it. Most disturbing of all are the scenes in which black people are attacked and in at least one instance, killed, and the conspiracy of silence the three lead characters keep rather than inform the authorities.

McNichol is quite good as the actress who comes to the painful realization she’s harboring a vicious animal. Winfield and Ives are excellent as the two older men she enlists to help reverse this nightmarish wrong.

In the end, despite their intentions, they are just as complicit in the terror, injury and death perpetrated by the white dog as the man who trained it to be that way. There’s a parallel here with the Frankenstein story of reanimation. Just as Dr. Frankenstein’s hubris to create a superman from a corpse ends in tragedy, so do the attempts by our three protagonists to reprogram this dog end in tragedy. Frankenstein’s monster was an abomination that should have never lived. The dog that was made to be a monster should have been killed once its aberrant nature was revealed to McNichol’s character. Playing God is a zero sum loss game.

Hot Movie Takes – “The Chase” (1966)

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

In the tradition of Southern Gothic White Trash Cinema, “The Chase” (1966) is a curious case of – What the hell were they thinking? By they, I refer to the film’s director, Arthur Penn, and writer, Lillian Hellman, who adapted high pedigree material in the form of a Horton Foote novel and play and made a potboiler soap opera out of it. The only really good things about the movie are the performances of Marlon Brando, Angie Dickinson, Jane Fonda and E.G. Marshall. They do some very good work in spite of a bad script, questionable direction and a slew of supporting performances that give Method acting a bad name.

The overripe story plays out in one night in a morally corrupt town that loses its collective head over an escaped convict, Bubber Reaves (Robert Redford), whom most of the citizenry have a history with and assume is headed back home for revenge for being set up. Brando plays Sheriff Calder, an appointee to the job by the martinet of a man who runs the town and the county, Val Rogers (Marshall). As Reeves makes his way home, word of his approach leaks out and Calder becomes the only cool head and real protection for the convict against the drunken, armed mob that forms amid the hysteria and debauchery. The toxic effects of fear and alcohol bring tawdry secrets and old hatreds out into the open. Before the night is through, the town becomes a cauldron of racism. misogyny, violence and hedonism.

This Sodom and Gomorra act wears thin very fast. About the only thing counterbalancing it is the measured, sardonic Calder, who isn’t on screen nearly enough. Brando makes the character real and vital. He’s a man of virtue caught in a hell hole of deceit. It should be Calder’s story, not Bubber’s) Redford is woefully miscast in the role). Instead, Penn and Hellman chose to make the side characters’ illicit affairs and buffoonish behaviors the primary focus. It’s inconceivable to me that Penn didn’t give Brando more to do because the movie only really lives when he’s front and center. A few years earlier, Penn reprised his acclaimed direction of the Broadway stage hit, “The Miracle Worker,” on screen in a masterfully made film. Just a year after “The Chase,” he directed a true cinema landmark In “Bonnie and Clyde” that dealt with some white trash themes of its own but the difference there was a markedly better script than “The Chase” that never gets sidetracked and therefore doesn’t sabotage the essential story. “The Chase” can only really be enjoyed on the level of kitsch and campy exploitation, which is a shame because it wastes a great Brando performance. There’s also some fun of seeing so many name actors and familiar faces, some of whom became icons in their own right. In addition to Brando, another Omaha native, Paul Williams, shows up in several scenes and even has a few lines and sings a song.

So much talent and such a disappointing result. It will always remain a curiosity for being a prestige project with an A list director and writer, a legendary producer (Sam Spiegel), two great cinematographers (Joseph LaShelle and Robert Surtees), a top composer (John Berry) and a stellar cast that somehow turned out to be a grind-house B movie just asking to be parodied. Honestly, besides Brando’s superb work, the best thing about the movie may be its opening title sequence, which has all the subtly of a hothouse whore in heat. From those opening moments, the movie plays like a half-hearted graphic novel, only that wasn’t the intent at all. It just shows that you can’t take anything for granted.

Hot Movie Takes – “Downsizing” trailer goes viral

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

It’s been less than 72 hours since the official trailer for “Downsizing” hit the Web and the Paramount YouTube link for it is already nearing three million views. For what it’s worth, there’s a roughly 40 to 1 ratio of people clicking thumbs up versus thumbs down. How those view numbers and Likes might translate into actual box office once the film releases in time for the Christmas crush is open for debate, but at the very least Downsizing” is generating the all-important buzz factor because people are indeed talking about it. The trailer in theaters should have the same effect. There’s no denying it’s an engaging, commercial trailer that should peak the interest of the overwhelming percentage of moviegoers who see it. It just has the look and feel and sound of something very different, which is “Downsizing” through and through. Where the trailer does the storyline justice is its whimsical takes on going small, its verbal and visual puns and its suggestion that the downsizing experience is a journey beyond just the physical into the very nature of what it means to be human. What the trailer doesn’t give you is just how deep and dense the story is in terms of ideas, issues, relationships, environments and adventures. It takes something as drastic as the downsizing process to move Matt Damon’s character of Paul beyond the limited horizons of his normal sized life and to intersect with diverse cultures and experiences he never knew before. Indeed. Downsizing makes him, for the first time, a citizen of the world and a pioneer in not only this process and its answer to overpopulation and depleted natural resources but in the future of our very species. Those who seek or impose or interpret messages in works of art will have a field day with “Downsizing” because it touches on so many pertinent aspects of where we’ve arrived at as a species and a planet and where we may be heading. Payne went out of his way not to make a message movie, but the subject matter is by its very nature socially-culturally-politically-environmentally-philisophically-spiritually-charged, and I think that accounts for some of the critical backlash aimed at the film. But the more this has played out – from Venice to Telluride to Toronto to now – it’s becoming obvious that the trailer and the reviews are sparking chatter. The movie’s premise and themes are obviously touching nerves and sparking conversations, and it’s all free publicity for Paramount to leverage in its marketing campaign for the film. This could all work to the benefit of “Downsizing” having a mega opening weekend and catapulting the film into uncharted territory for an Alexander Payne movie. I’m talking 250 to 500 million dollars territory. Wouldn’t that be surreal? It could very well happen though.

Hot Movie Takes – “Finnegan Begin Again”

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

I remember my astonishment at the dramatic brilliance Mary Tyler Moore brought to her role as the resentful, cold, brittle mother in Robert Redford’s “Ordinary People.” Like many folks, I had come of age watching her on the “Dick Van Dyke” and “Mary Tyler Moore” shows, where her gift for light comedy was on display, and I had no idea she was capable of much more. I know a serious dramatic acting career flowered after “Ordinary People” but I somehow managed to miss any of that subsequent work. Well, I finally caught up to one of those post-“Ordinary People” performances – in the 1985 HBO movie “Finnegan Begin Again” starring Robert Preston – and I was delighted to see her combine both her comedic charm and dramatic depth in the same part. She was in good hands with this Joan Micklin Silver-directed movie that’s anchored in a superb script by Walter Lockwood. Moore and Preston created a real chemistry together. She plays Liz, a single, middle-aged art teacher embroiled in an affair with a married man played by Sam Waterston, whose character Paul is a mortician. Slowly, but surely she falls under the spell of Preston’s character Michael Finnegan, a charismatic optimist and newspaper columnist hiding a sad personal life. Liz and Michael meet on the city bus they often ride and then he keeps showing up in her life. We soon learn that his wife of many years, Margaret, is an older woman suffering from dementia. Golden Age Hollywood star Silvia Sydney is superb as Margaret. The couple’s only child drowned years before and Margaret’s slipped ever more into her own world as her escape from the traumatic loss. Years ago she caught Finnegan cheating on her and he would never betray her again. Even though he develops feelings for Liz, he doesn’t act on them. Consciously or not, he becomes a wedge between Liz and Paul, whom he regards as a real loser. When events transpire that finally expose Paul for the selfish ass he is and that allow Finnegan to make his feelings and intentions for Liz known, the attraction is too much to deny. But before we ever get to that point, the story very realistically, often whimsically and sometimes tragically follows Finnegan’s journey as a man who finds himself having grown old in age but not in body, mind or spirit. He has much to give, but no one to share all that energy with.

Preston is perfect as the cheery yet sad Finnegan who never has a bad day and never meets a stranger. But he is only human. His penchant for telling people like it is makes him an irritant at times though his eccentric sunny side up exterior is contagious. No matter what brings him down, he’s ready to start over again. Moore is every bit his match as Liz – e woman who should know better than to be involved with a married man. As she finally learns to value herself, she begins questioning her relationship with Paul. Waterston plays against the intellectual, moral pillar we’ve come to associate him with and is great as the callous philanderer who exploits Liz’s insecurities. When Finnegan’s world comes crashing down around him, he thinks he has Liz to count on but she’s still not seeing clearly in Paul’s clutches. It takes drastic action by Finnegan before he can shake her loose from Paul and put things right between himself and Liz, who is the one to finally initiate and consummate their love. It all plays out in the messy, unpredictable ways in which romances happen in real life. These are grown ups in search of affection and love who sometimes behave like children. And even though Finnegan and Liz are long past spring chickens, their desires are full and ripe, indeed maybe even more so now because they’ve matured like a good wine.

Silver’s direction is sure and strong in this sweet movie that never feels maudlin or sentimental – only real. She depicts romantic relationships as complicated dances that often trip us up because the partners can’t seem to settle on who leads and who follows or they can’t get the steps right. Though we never quite master romantic relationships, we keep trying. if we’re lucky, we find someone we move in rhythm with. It won’t be a perfect dance, but it will be oh, so, satisfying and well worth the effort and wait. And as this movie reminds us, it’s never too late to start.

Hot Movie Takes – Coen Brothers latest in short list of famous filmmakers to shoot here

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

I am just catching up with the news that the Coen Brothers will be filming part of their new Western-themed television series, “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs,” in the Panhandle of Nebraska in September. An open casting call for authentic Western types is happening today at the Midwest Theatre in Scottsbluff.

Prominent filmmakers coming to shoot in our neck of the woods is a rarity.

It’s a little known fact that Francis Ford Coppola shot in Nebraska’s Panhandle, primarily in and around Ogallala, for the final few weeks on his film “The Rain People” in 1968. By the way, a very young George Lucas was on hand as an assistant to Coppola, who was his mentor, and to film the doc “The Making of The Rain People.” The feature that Coppola directed here starred Shirley Knight, James Caan and Robert Duvall. During the shoot, Caan and Duvall got friendly with a local ranch-rodeo family, the Petersons, and with the more famous ranch family, the Haythorns. Those relationships would result in films down the road. Duvall became so taken with the Petersons and their lifestyle that he returned to make a documentary about them called “We’re Not the Jet Set.” It’s a superb film. Duvall has gone on to direct a handful of dramatic features, including the acclaimed “The Apostle” co-starring Omaha’s own John Beasley. Stories of settling the Nebraska Territory inspired a TV mini-series Duvall produced and starred in called “Broken Trail.”

James L. Brooks shot parts of “Terms of Endearment” in and around Lincoln.

Sean Penn mostly shot his feature directorial debut “The Indian Runner” in Plattsmouth. The project brought back native Nebraskan Sandy Dennis, who co-starred in the drama alongside Charles Bronson and a host of character actors, including Dennis Hopper. The Cain and Able brother protagonists were played by Viggo Mortensen and David Morse, respectively.

Alexander Payne began filming in his home state in the early to mid-1990s. His first feature, “Citizen Ruth,” included another native Nebraskan, Swoosie Kurtz. The rich cast brought such screen legends as Burt Reynolds and Tippi Hedren here along with star Laura Dern, Kurtwood Smith, Mary Kay Place, Kelly Preston and Kenneth Mars. Virtually all of Payne’s first three films, from “Ruth” through “Election” and “About Schmidt,” were shot in and around Omaha. “Election” brought Matthew Broderick and Reese Witherspoon here and discovered two local kids, Chris Klein and Nicholas D’Agosto, who’ve gone on to nice screen careers. Through the early 2000s, the biggest production stir in these parts on a Payne project was for Jack Nicholson in “Schmidt.” Payne first used some rural Nebraska iconography on the road trip that Nicholson’s lead character of Warren Schmidt takes in the film. Then after a long hiatus of filming here, Payne came back in 2012 to shoot “Nebraska,” starring Bruce Dern, Will Forte. Bob Odenkirk, June Squibb and Stacy Keach, and with much of the shoot happening around the Norfolk area. His new film “Downsizing” only did about a week’s worth of shooting in and around Omaha but because he had star Matt Damon in tow, the production caused a sensation.

In between Payne’s early Nebraska-made projects, David Lynch shot “The Straight Story” in Iowa.

Jason Reitman did a few days work with George Clooney for “Up in the Air” in Omaha’s Old Market and Eppley Airfield.

Now the Coens are cultivating some of the same kinds of landscapes that Payne gave us in “Schmidt” and “Nebraska.”

Not to be forgotten is that two living legend Oscar-winning actors in the late Martin Landau and Ellen Burstyn came to Omaha to star in home boy Nik Fackler’s feature film debut, “Lovely, Still.” No, the actors were not filmmakers, but they were A-list acting talents of the type rarely seen here.

I’m sure I’m missing some projects, including mini-series, but I don’t think any of those other productions were made by important filmmakers. It’s unfortunate that other than Payne, none of the heavyweight screen professionals from Nebraska, going back to people like Darryl Zanuck, Fred Astaire, Henry Fonda, Dorothy McGuire, Montgomery Clift and Marlon Bando and on up through folks like James Coburn, Paul Williams, Joan Micklin Silver, Marg Helgenberger, Mike Hill, Nick Nolte and Gabrielle Union, have brought projects back here. A few locals with some major screen credits, and I’m talking about John Beasley, Mauro Fiore, Stephanie Kurtzuba and Timothy Christian, are developing projects that would shoot here. That would be an exciting evolution.

Hot Movie Takes – “Fury”

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



Sometimes brilliant.

Ultimately derivative.

That’s my take on the 2014 David Ayer World War II tank drama “Fury” starring Brad Pitt. About the first half of this movie stands with the best war movies ever made and then, well, Ayer tries too hard to intellectualize and allegorize and from that point on the story tends to get lots its own sophistry, though on the whole it is well above average entertainment. Note that the violence is graphic, the language extreme and the portrayal of American GIs behaving badly, even committing atrocities, unflinching. It unequivocally depicts the worst of war on both sides and the spark of humanity that still exists even among all that inhumanity. These are not bad men acting out their basic desires. These are average men forced to do awful things because of the circumstances they find themselves in. The story takes place during the waning days of the war in Europe. The tank crew at the center of the plot have been together from North Africa to France to Belgium to deep inside Germany, well behind enemy lines, where they are encountering fierce resistance from desperate Nazi forces making their last stand. The story inescapably reminds me of some famous WWII pictures. For example, it is “Das Boot” transferred from a German U-boat to an American tank in terms of the claustrophobic tension the men face inside a metal target. In another sense, it is awfully close to “Saving Private Ryan” for having its second lead character, Norman (Logan Lerman), be a green clerk-typist assigned to the combat-hardened unit led by Don (Pitt), where the newbie undergoes a crucible coming of age in a series of horrific fire fights. There are cruel lessons learned outside combat, too, and here the film is remindful of “Platoon” and “Casualties of War.” But Ayer tries to have it both ways by portraying the tank crew the film follows as both anti-heroes and heroes at the same time. The ambivalence is necessary and appropriate but delivered in a heavy-handed and predictable way. The climactic battle is also over-the-top and though there were real life instances of single tanks fighting off insurmountable odds, the way it’s staged looks too much like the good guys fending off wave after wave of zombie apocalypse doom hordes. Subtly is not this filmmaker’s strong suit. I will give it to Ayer though that he’s created the best tank combat scenes ever committed to the screen and assembled a fine cast who work well together as an ensemble. Ayer reportedly went to extremes to get the actors physically and emotionally prepared to play hardened, traumatized men who are walking time bombs. When I hear things like this from directors and actors, I have to laugh because it’s a silly conceit to think that that really makes a difference in the final result  I mean, you can either act and direct what’s on the page or you can’t, and no amount of boot, camp, survival test experiences is going to change that.

Pitt and Lerman are very good as the two leads. Shia LaBeouf,  Michael Pena, Jon Bernthal, Scott Eastwood and Jason Isaacs are fine as secondary but integral characters who very much operate as an ensemble.

This is the first Ayer picture I’ve seen but he’s a big deal in Hollywood for his high-octane crime dramas (“End of Watch,” “Harsh Times,” “Sabotage,” “Street Kings”) and action-packed fantasy pics (“Gotham City Sirens,” “Suicide Kings”). The forthcoming “Bright” is right smack dab in his crime-action wheelhouse. After watching “Fury” and clips of his other work there’s no doubt he has an eye for visuals that have a decidedly graphic novel look and for staging action shots and scenes that maintain great intensity. Where he may be lacking are the finer points of character development and narrative storytelling but that doesn’t seem to impinge on his films drawing audiences and holding them spellbound. I just wish he’d work more from the inside out then from the outside in because then he might move from pictorial surface entertainments to something deeper, richer, more lasting. That said, I’m eager too see more of his films in their entirety because he is a definite talent.

Hot Movie Takes – “Downsizing” world premiere nears

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

The first reviews of Alexander Payne’s “Downsizing” should be hitting social media by mid to late afternoon on Wednesday, August 30. Those reviews will follow close on the heels of the movie making its world premiere as the opening night selection at the Venice International Film Festival – the oldest and still one of the most prestigious film showcases in the world. The Matt Damon-starring film is showing in competition for the fest’s top prize, The Golden Lion. Only a few American films have won The Golden Lion during the event’s seven-decade history. I have to think “Downsizing” will be in strong contention for the honor. To date, only a 10-minute chunk of the film has been seen by anything resembling a public audience. That was at the national theater owners convention CinemaCon and the clip made quite an impression on an exhibit audience that sees everything. The screening in Venice will expose the film to an international gathering of industry players and journalists. Tastemakers. How the film is received by a world audience intrigues me because this is the first Payne film that has any great global scope to it – cinematically, geographically, socially, culturally. politically – and if it is to become the major hit that Paramount needs it to be, then it will have to resonate beyond America and find its place in regions like Europe and Asia. Both my head and my heart tell me that the film will do just that and blow-up to be a resounding moneymaker here and everywhere.

Should that happen in Venice and then again at the Telluride Film Festival and the Toronto International Film Festival, its next two screening stops, then “Downsizing” will be well positioned to score well at the Golden Globes and Academy Awards. I’m predicting that Payne and co-writer Jim Taylor will win an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay (I have read the script, so I have something to go on here besides second-hand reports) and that Payne will either finally win the Best Director Oscar or that this will be the first of his films to win the Best Picture Oscar (and here I’m operating purely on gut guesswork, since I haven’t seen the film yet or any of its likely competitors). All I know is that from the instant I read the “Downsizing” script I was overwhelmed by not only its high concept but how well articulated and imagined it was on the page. Based on everything I’ve learned since then about the project from Payne and creative collaborators, I am confident the execution of that vision will be done at a very high level in keeping  his mastery of the medium. And should this film be received by critics and audiences and industry peers the way I anticipate it will be, then Payne will occupy an even loftier place in the top echelon of world cinema than he already owns. He will be in an even stronger position than he is now in terms of calling his own shots and doing exactly what he wants to do. He will also be the first American feature director that I know of to have an unbroken chain of successes through his/her first seven completed works. It’s an unparalleled string of accomplishment in Hollywood that none of his peers can claim. It’s something that none of his native Nebraska predecessors who found great success in Hollywood could claim either – whether in front of the screen or behind it.

Payne is in uncharted territory and if “Downsizing” truly does continue that uninterrupted streak of winning films, then how appropriate that a film production that took him to places he’d never been before (Norway) and that required special effects, extensive soundstage work, international casting), would be the one to further burnish his reputation as a consummate filmmaker who never misses the mark.

By the way, Payne has had his films show in other major festivals, including Cannes, Toronto, Telluride, New York. He’s even had one of his films be an opening night selection and another be a closing night selection at the New York Film Festival. He’s served on juries for major festivals. But he’s never before attended, much less had one of his own films screen at Venice, and so this is a significant opportunity for him both personally and professionally. Payne, who is of Greek ancestry, and has traveled extensively through western Europe, is now truly an international filmmaker because principal photography for “Downsizing” included a couple weeks shooting in Norway as well as second unit work in various other spots around the world and its cast includes actors from several nations. The story’s world-in-peril and shared human survival themes also give it a global reach like none of his previous work.

All of this points to something very special about to happen for Payne, who is arguably the most important film artist from Nebraska since Marlon Brando or at least since Nick Nolte arrived on the scene. Among filmmakers from Nebraska, only three before him had a significant impact on the industry, Harold Lloyd as a producer-writer-director, Darryl F. Zanuck as a producer-studio head and Joan Micklin Silver as a writer-director, and by now Payne’s body of work is more than comparable to theirs. He’s now at the head of the class and there’s no telling how much more he can give, but there’s every indication that his growth as a storyteller and visualist shows no signs of stopping or regressing. We are all the beneficiaries of his talent and evolution.

Hot Movie Takes – “Captain Newman, M.D.”

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

How delighted I was to discover last night that one of my favorite films growing up, which I hadn’t seen in many years, is every bit as good now as what I remember it being. The movie is “Captain Newman, M.D.” starring Gregory Peck, Tony Curtis, Eddie Albert, Bobby Darin, Robert Duvall and Angie Dickinson. For some reason or other, this Wold War II stateside dramedy set in a military psychiatric hospital has been overlooked, even in its own time, as one of the best Hollywood features of the 1960s. It’s reminiscent of “The Best Years of Our Lives” and “12 O’Clock High” and it anticipates both “MASH” and “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” There’s a pristine print and upload of it available now on YouTube, so if it’s a favorite of yours, too, or if you’ve never seen it, then don’t delay, because there’s no telling how much longer it will be up. Though not a great film, it is wildly entertaining and it mostly manages that delicate balance of drama and comedy with a deft touch.

This was director David Miller’s next film after the superb “Lonely Are the Brace,” which is another of my all-time favorite films and also still stands the test of time. He worked from a script by Richard Breen and Henry and Phoebe Ephron (parents of Nora Ephron), who in turn adapted the novel by Leo Rosten. The script is the real strength of this film, followed by the acting, the direction and the cinematography (Russell Metty). Three performances really stand out: Eddie Albert as a martinet colonel gone stark raving mad after ordering so many men on missions from which they never returned; Bobby Darin as a bomber waist gunner persecuting himself for not saving his buddy following their plane crashing; and Robert Duvall as an officer unable to cope with what he deems his own cowardice for going down with his plane behind enemy lines and finding refuge in a cellar over 13 months without ever trying to escape.

Albert was never better than he is here. If you only know him from “Roman Holiday” or “Oklahoma” or “Green Acres,” than you’ll be struck by how powerful his  straight dramatic acting is in this film. Darin earned an Oscar nomination and won a prize at the Cannes Film Festival for his emotionally charged performance. Duvall was coming off his haunting role as Boo Radley in the instant classic “To Kill a Mockingbird” and when we first meet his character in “Captain Newman” it appears he’s doing a kind of variation on that earlier role, but near the end he gets a very telling scene with Peck in which he finally opens up about what’s at the root of his neurosis.

Beautifully anchoring the film is Peck’s subtle, ironic performance as the chief of the psyche ward. Tony Curtis displays his considerable comedic chops as a new but street-savvy orderly and procurer who livens up the place with his not-by-the-book tactics. Those two have several effective scenes together where the arch Peck plays straight man to his neurotic, mischievous subordinate. Larry Storch is very good as a more experienced orderly who’s exasperated by the newcomer’s brash ways. James Gregory goes a little too big for my tastes as the bombastic commanding officer disapproving of Peck’s methodologies and trying to undermine his work. But this part is crucial for the film’s subplot of the military brass being very resistant to the notion that men in combat are subject to exhibiting symptoms of real mental illness that can only get better with treatment. Perhaps even more could have been done with the tension between Peck’s character and his superiors but what’s there is plenty strong enough.

I only wish that Miller had kept the comedy to a minimum. Even though the comedy works, I feel that there’s too much of it and that it detracts from what could have been a great drama with some lighter moments rather than what it ended up being – a very good film that often shifts from drama to comedy and vice versa, sometimes to the determent of the overall picture. Miller did the same thing in “Lonely Are the Brave,’ a very good film that falls just short of great because of a silly running bit between two tertiary characters during the otherwise very intense climactic chase sequence.

Both “Lonely Are the Brave” and “Captain Newman, M.D.” succeed in being intelligent, literate movies that are also unafraid to touch the heart.

Hot Movie Takes – “Lonely Are the Brave”

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

Kirk Douglas followed his friend Burt Lancaster in becoming one of the first big stars in the waning days of Hollywood’s old studio system to take creative control by having his own film production company. His Byrna Productions was responsible for some of his best work in the 1950s and 1960s:

Paths of Glory

The Vikings

Last Train from Gun Hill

Strangers When We Meet


The Last Sunset

Lonely Are the Brave

The List of Adrian Messenger

Seven Days in May

I consider three of those projects (“Paths of Glory,” “Spartacus” and “Seven Days in May”) to be great films that stack up with the best work of that or any era. A fourth film is a personal favorite of Kirk’s and mine, “Lonely Are the Brave,” and while in my humble estimation it falls just short of greatness, it is a very good movie whose timeless themes are ever more relevant today and it just may feature the best performance of Douglas’s magnificent career. The well-written script by Dalton Trumbo (from the novel “The Brave Cowboy), who earlier wrote the screenplay for “Spartacus,” tells the story of a modern-day cowhand’s struggle to remain free and true to himself in a world of fences, laws, constraints and compromises.

David Miller directed only a couple really good films in his career and they came back to back: “Lonely Are the Brave” (1962( followed by “Captain Newman, M.D.” (1963). See my recent Hot Movie Take about the latter on my social media. Miller and cinematographer Philip Lathrop achieved a great monochromatic black and white scheme that perfectly captures the rough hewn, yet poetic dimensions of this story that pits a natural man against the pressures of development and civilization that encroach on his free roaming, no-one-to-answer-to ways. As John W. Burns, Douglas fully realizes the wild, independent Western figure whose very lifestyle is a threat to a system bound up in personal identification documents, material possessions permanent addresses and verifiable gainful employment. He is his own man and will not or cannot bend to being hemmed in by borders and accountable to others. He’s a throwback to when open ranges were plentiful and individual codes of conduct carried the day.  When we meet him he’s increasingly lost in the new world that’s sprung up around him and when he tries bucking the system he finds his freedom and very life in danger.

Hot Movie Takes  – “The Man Who Watched Trains Go By” aka “The Paris Express”) 

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

Discovering unjustly forgotten or ignored movies is one of the great pleasures in my life. Just when I think I’ve seen all the classic films there are to see, another one is brought to my attention. The best thing about this pastime is that there are so many discoveries like this to make. Take last night’s find, for instance. Following a hunch, I took a flyer on a 1952 British film I’d never heard of before called “The Man Who Watched Trains Go By” (released in the U.S. as “The Paris Express”), and it turned out to be a crackerjack thriller that kept surprising me from beginning to end.

I was unfamiliar with everyone associated with the picture except for the star Claude Raines, the male co-stars Herbert Lom and Marius Goring and the co-screenwriter Paul Jerrico. Director Harold French, who co-wrote the script, had a very solid career helming films across the pond but this is the first time I’ve seen his work, and I must say I am impressed. He collaborated on this project with cinematographer Otto Hessler, who worked on many of the UK’s best films of the 1950s and 1960s. The color photography and fluid camera movements here are really something to behold. The editing by Vera Campbell and Arthur Nadel is quite kinetic. The locations in The Netherlands and Paris along with Paul Sheriff’s art direction are visceral and visually arresting – taking us through a rouge’s tour that ranges from picture postcard neighborhood districts to industrial-waterfront areas to sleek trains to junkyards to train yards that reflect our protagonist’s desperate state of mind and predicament.

As obsession stories go, this is one of the best I’ve ever seen. And in its own way and in his own style, the film is remindful of Martin Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver” and “The King of Comedy” and Claude Raines’ performance is remindful of Robert De Niro’s work in those two pictures.

The real revelation though is seeing Claude Raines throw himself into playing the man of the title. He starts off as a meek, mild-mannered, career clerk in a small Netherlands town. He has a wife and two children and they live comfortably in their own home. He’s devoted to his work and to the company that employs him. And he loves to watch and hear the trains go whistling by to exotic places like Paris, where he’s never been and dreams of one day going. But then a Parisian police detective (Marius Goring) shows up in the course of an investigation. It all seems innocuous enough at first but it soon sets in motion acts of desperation and betrayal.  The firm’s owner (Herbert Lom) has been embezzling the company’s money to support an affair with a young woman of questionable character in Paris. When Raines catches him in the process of literally burring the books and absconding with what funds are left, he’s devastated and enraged and during a confrontation the suspect is killed.

Our hero suffers a kind of mental break. As he sees it, all his life keeping books and being a loyal servant has been a sham that has left him jobless and penniless. Besides, he now has a murder on his hands, or so he thinks. He recklessly runs away from his conformist, middle-class life, with the money in tow, to have an adventure. He’s no sooner on the train than the detective joins him and in a delicious scene referencing an earlier one, the two men play a game of chess in which their moves, bluffs and checks all have double meanings. The Raines character shakes off the detective and, once in Paris, grows increasingly paranoid and mad. The detective knows he has the money and wants him to confess, knowing that he’s likely going to get mixed up with the woman and her disreputable bunch.The cop really wants to protect and save him from ruining his own life. But what he doesn’t realize, until it’s too late, is that this once staid, harmless little man he’s now searching for is capable of great harm. Sure enough, our hero uses a streetwalker to find an out of the way hotel and he falls under the charms of the woman his boss was involved with. She, of course only wants his money, and when he finally understands she’s betrayed him, too, he exacts his vengeance.

This was a remarkable part for Raines, especially at this time in his career. He was in his early 60s when he made the picture and it required him to do a lot of physical things, including jumping off a moving train, climbing in and out of windows and up and down drainpipes, running, dancing and, oh by the way, viciously attacking people. This had to have been a very pleasing departure for him from the rather stiff, sedentary roles he had from the early 1940s on.

Goring is dashing, devilish and charismatic as the detective. The two bad women our hero gets mixed up with are well played by the French acts Anouk Aimee as the whore and Swedish actress Marta Toren, who reminded me a lot of Valli, as the extortionist.

Though not quite a great film, this is a real gem and could be properly classified as a classic. It certainly deserves to be much better known.

“The Man Who Watched Trains Go By” is available in full and for free on YouTube.

Hot Movie Takes  – “The Night of the Hunter” 

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

If you’re only going to direct one movie in your life, you might as well make it a masterpiece, and that’s just what the late great British actor Charles Laughton did in “The Night of the Hunter” (1955). Laughton, screenwriter James Agee, cinematographer Stanley Cortez, art director  Hilyard Brow, set decorator Albert Spencer,  composer Walter Schumann and a casted headed by Robert Mitchum, Lillian Gish, Shelley Winters, James Gleason, Peter Graves, plus two remarkable child actors in Billy Chapin and Sally Jane Bruce, created a work uncompromising in its cinematic poetry. “Night of the Hunter” doesn’t look or play like any American film before or after it. Based on the novel by David Grubb, this screen tone poem takes the elements of a melodrama and thriller and cloaks them in the heightened, delirious world of expressionism and fairy tales. The only other English language directors of that era who did work along these lines were Joseph Von Sternberg, Fritz Lang, Orson Welles, Sam Fuller, Carol Reed and Michael Powell-Emeric Pressburger. The film anticipates by decades the work of later American surrealists David Lynch and Tim Burton, though I’m not sure any of their films quite rise to the level of this, with the possible exceptions of Lynch’s “The Elephant Man” and Burton’s “Ed Wood.” The Laughton film also has stylistic flourishes that would show up in works by such contemporary masters as Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese.

Mitchum, in an inspired performance that is a companion piece to his villainous role in “Cape Fear,”, plays homicidal preacher Harry Powell, who while doing a stretch in prison learns about a stash of ill-gotten money his cellmate, Ben Harper (Peter Graves), entrusted to his family. Harper is executed for his crimes and, once out, Powell, dressed all in black and with the letters L-o-v-e and H-a-t-e tattooed on his fingers, sets his sights on getting that loot by any means necessary. He shows up at the rural Harper place and proceeds to woo the widow Willa (Shelley Winters) and ingratiate himself with the two young children, John and Pearl. He also goes to great lengths to charm the locals. But the wary, worldly-wise John sees this big bad wolf for who he is and is careful to not let on where the treasure is hidden. The settings and its inhabitants are archetypal small town-white trash places and figures. When Powell eliminates what he thinks is the last barrier between him and the money, he terrorizes the kids and they flee for the river in a small boat with their dark menace in hot pursuit. The extended chase is captured in a brilliant sequence full of allegorical visuals, sounds and references that variously draw on Bible parables, Hans Christian Andersen fairy tales, Aesop’s fables, folk tales, soap operas and crime fiction. That’s why everything is played a bit broadly.

Throughout the film there are many memorable, visually and sonically stunning scenes and shots that display great imagination and technique. None are merely for show, instead they all further deepen the drama and comedy, set the mood or advance the narrative. This is an art film that should be accessible to almost anyone who watches it but I think its stylized aspects and dark comic, almost Southern Gothic roots might make it a hard read for some. But if you want to get an appreciation for the best that American cinema produced six decades ago, and which I feel has yet to be surpassed, then this is a must-see in your film education.

By the way, Winters and Graves were never better than they are in this picture and Lillian Gish nearly steals the movie with her full-blooded performance as feisty Rachel Cooper, the protector of orphaned and wayward children. The final confrontation between Rachel and Harry Powell is one for the ages.

Why Laughton never directed another movie is beyond me, but it probably did have a lot to do with the fact this film was not well received upon its initial release. Indeed, it only gained real critical and popular acceptance, and in the estimation of some, like me, reverence, after he was gone. Sad but true.

Don’t even bother to try watching the “full movie” upload of it on YouTube, because it’s totally out of whack. Wait for when it’s next on TCM or find another platform to see it because this movie has to be viewed on its own terms, in all its untampered with glory.

Hot Movie Takes  – “The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre” 

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

1967 saw the release of two period American gangster films that could not be more different from each other. The Roger Corman directed “The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre” is a solid, standard depiction of the events around the infamous Chicago Mob-land mass execution. It’s an entertaining if unimaginative documentary-style dramatization that pays hidebound allegiance to the old Hollywood gangster pics of the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s. It’s not as good or daring as the best of those earlier movies (“Pubic Enemy,” “White Heat”) and no where near as ambitious or visionary as the great gangster pictures to follow, most notably “The Godfather.” But it still does have much to recommend it, particularly the performance of Jason Robards as Al Capone. Physically, he’s all wrong for the part but he makes it work anyway by the sheer, ferocious force of his personality and talent. There are some good supporting performances as well in a film that actually has a very good and deep cast (Ralph Meeker as a rival gang leader, George Segal as an enforcer, Joe Turkel as an assassin, Bruce Dern as a mechanic, Frank Silvera as a supplier). The action scenes are well staged and the period atmosphere well-evoked. “St. Valentine’s Day Massacre” came and went without causing much of a stir one way or the other. But in that same year another gangster film set in the same era, though in rural rather than urban America, came out – “Bonnie and Clyde” – and became a sensation with audiences and critics alike. Arthur Penn directed the film and its star Warren Beatty produced it.

The reason “Bonnie and Clyde” was a game-changing film for its time and an instant classic is that it displayed such a rich artistic and entertaining mix of energy, intelligence, poetry, realism, comedy and violence. It beautifully evoked the look and mood of Depression-era America yet it managed to make its criminal protagonists potent symbols of the 1960s counter-culture revolution at the same time.

The uncompromising script by Robert Benton and David Newman makes Clyde Barrow a brash man who can only get it up when he’s robbing banks and portrays Bonnie Parker as the ambitious woman he rescues from a dull life to experience the thrills of his profession. Clyde grows more ambitious with Bonnie at his side. Bonnie gets less than she bargained for in the impotent Clyde and more than she imagined in the chases and shootouts. When he’s finally able to consummate the relationship, their fever dream spree soon comes to an end in a much analyzed slow motion ballet of bullets.

The film is alive and immediate in ways that “St. Valentine’s Day Massacre” is not. Everything about the Penn film is electric – the look, the sound, the action – because it’s constantly inventive and in the moment even as it recounts the couple’s well known exploits and works within the familiar conventions of crime films. Just as Joseph H. Lewis made a similar tale new and dynamic with “Gun Crazy” some two decades earlier, Penn reinvigorated the genre by pushing limits and breaking rules.

Roger Corman knew how to make movies and this rare hired gun big studio project gig he did proved he had the chops to work at that level, though he felt far more comfortable in the land of indie B movies with small budgets, tight schedules and no extravagances. I’ve seen a few films that Corman directed and it’s clear he had a good eye and feel that gave his work an interesting look and pleasing rhythm. The scripts, sets and actors weren’t always the best but good enough.  He was all about making do on a shoestring. But his real contribution to cinema was as a producer and poverty row mogul who gave many young talents their start in the industry and gave them free artistic rein within severe constraints. Everyone from Jack Nicholson to Martin Scorsese to the late Jonathan Demme to the king of the movie-movie world, James Cameron, got great opportunities to hone their craft and secure Hollywood credits thanks to him.

The Corman and Penn films both dealt with a certain mythology that grew up around gangsters during the Prohibition era. Only a few years later after those director’s gangland pics appeared, Francis Ford Coppola took a much darker and deeper look into organized crime, specifically the mafia, in his two “Godfather” films that created a whole new fixation with the Mob. Though other filmmakers before him had equated the Mob with American Capitalism and immigrant aspirations to assimilate and acquire self-determination and power, Coppola took that concept much farther. What really set his twin masterpieces apart were there stellar scripts, production values and brilliant casts. “St. Valentine’s Day Massacre” pales in comparison, though “Bonnie and Clyde” stands up well as long as you understand that it is an ironic, even darkly comic take-off on modern American folk tales and pop culture idolatry.  The Godfather I and II” found the right balance between epic and intimate that so many film aspire to but fail to achieve.

“The St. Valentine’s Massacre” is available in full and for free on YouTube.

In Case You Missed It – Hot Movie Takes from July-August 2017

November 16, 2017 Leave a comment

Hot Movie Takes  – “The Crooked Way” 

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

If you’re a fan of great black and white photography and specifically the work of master of light John Alton, who helped establish the look of film noir, then “The Crooked Way” (1949) is a must-see. This is not a great film, but it is a good one. If only the script, direction and acting were at the same level of artistry as the lighting and cinematography, it would be remembered as a classic. But it’s well worth a watch if you’re in the mood for a solid crime, mystery, suspense story whose shadow world is gorgeous to behold in the hands of Alton. The hook behind this film is quite compelling. A mild-mannered World War II U.S. Army combat vet has suffered a head wound that’s left him with a total amnesia break  The military is only able to tell him he had some connection to Los Angeles. Otherwise, he has no family or history to go on to tell him who he is and what he did in life before the war. John Payne plays the poor sap who goes to L.A, in search of answers and almost immediately two cops pick him up and take him to headquarters, where he discovers he was a notorious criminal that LAPD ran out of town and warned never to return. From there, Payne’s character begins piecing together his unsavory profile and it leads him into ever murkier, more dangerous territory, until he has both the underworld and law enforcement gunning for him. It’s all very Jason Bourne-like but the creators of this film didn’t have the imagination or instincts or good sense to show us that Payne’s character is a lethal weapon. Instead, he’s always taking his lumps and never dishing them out. Until the very end. And even then he’s a bit of a weak sister. The story needed him to be much tougher. Payne had the build and looks to pull it off, but that’s not how the filmmakers saw his character, and it hurts the piece. Bourne is a great character because he’s active, never passive, whereas this character is far too prone to take a beating rather than to dish one out.

Payne was a rather stiff, emotionally stunted actor whose limited range imposed limits on what he could bring to a part. He was always better when he played with good people and here he’s not helped much by actors playing, his rival, Sonny Tufts, and his love interest, Ellen Drew. Rhys Williams adds some life and blarney to the cop after all of them. Percy Helton added his usual eccentric presence to the proceedings.

The location for the showdown at the end offered a visual playground for Alton and director Robert Florey to work with and they made the most of it. This may be the only film of Florey’s I’ve seen and from what I read he was a second-feature director working in crime and horror genres and later a prolific TV director. Some of his B films are held in high regard and so I have to assume he was responsible for some of the arresting visual flourishes here as well as for the very good pace the film maintains. It would have been interesting to see what he could do with a better script and cast. I already know he made the most of Alton’s talents and the visual palette of this film is still the primary reason to see it, though you won’t feel shortchanged in the entertainment department either.

“The Crooked Way” is available in full and for free on YouTube.

Hot Movie Takes  –  Jerry Lewis, RIP

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

Few popular entertainers have been as polarizing in their own lifetime as comic, filmmaker and humanitarian Jerry Lewis managed to be. In the years immediately after World War II he became one-half of perhaps the biggest live entertainment act in show biz history – Martin and Lewis. He played the silly clown that entertainers like Tim Conway, Robin Williams, Jim Carrey and Adam Sandler would take up after him. Martin and Lewis also teamed up for a large number of hit feature films. After Lewis and Martin split to pursue very successful solo careers, Lewis headlined some films but soon got the itch to creatively control his own starring vehicles, and so he made himself a do-everything comedy writer, director, actor in the tradition of Chaplin and Keaton. He was a very talented man but he wasn’t in their league. Mel Brooks and Woody Allen would follow Lewis. While Brooks’ best films were about on par with those of Lewis, Allen proved to be a far superior filmmaker than them. Lewis did enjoy a solid decade or so of success with the comedy films he made, even developing a hard to explain critical and popular following in France, where he was revered as an auteur and genius of comic cinema. Go figure. My personal take on this is that Lewis was unafraid to play the fool who was often a weak failure and the French liked that he punctured the American facade of superiority, strength and success. Lewis was an innovator in film production by becoming one of the first if not the first directors to use video playback technology on the set. Some of his comic bits were quite inspired. He was also capable of moving us with empathy, bordering on pity. Too often, however, his material was awkward, tone deaf, even amateurish. When he was on, his silliness worked, but when he was off, his work read just plain stupid, and that’s a kiss of death.

His films began to fall increasingly out of favor with audiences and out of touch with the times. For a long time he became better known as the Muscular Dystrophy Telethon host than for his screen and stage work. But, like the survivor he was, he then reinvented himself as a fine dramatic actor in film and television. If you’ve never seen Martin Scorsese’s “The King of Comedy” starring Robert De Niro, make a point to, because its a great dark comedy in which De Niro’s never been better and Lewis gives a superb straight dramatic performance that nearly steals the picture out from under De Niro. Lewis also received raves for his work in TV’s “Wiseguy” and in some later features. As the telethon turned into an ever harder to watch spectacle and his political incorrectness made him a fringe figure, a never completed Holocaust feature he made in Europe and tried to suppress – “The Day the Clown Cried” – came to light. When snippets from the never released picture began leaking on the Web, this bold, some say misguided attempt to stretch himself became an object of great speculation and scrutiny. What little there is to see is quite provocative. I believe Lewis made a stipulation in his will that the film not be shown publicly until years after his death.

Here’s a link to my Hot Movie Take on “King of Comedy”:…/king-of-comedy-a-dark-reflection-of-our-times/

Hot Movie Takes – “The Seven-Ups”

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

Philip D’Antoni produced two of the best police-crime pictures of their era in “Bullit” and “The French Connection” and, depending on how you look at it, he paid homage to or ripped off those earlier films by producing and directing “The Seven-Ups.” I always avoided seeing “The Seven-Ups” because I remember reading that it was a pale imitation of “The French Connection” but now that I’ve seen it for myself I have to report that while it owes a huge amount to that great film and to “Bullit” it is a very strong work in its own right. “The Seven-Ups” may not be quite as good as those two, but it’s well worth your time. This is the only feature film D’Antoni directed and he proved more than adequate to the task. Indeed, working with some of the very creatives and consultants behind “French Connection,” including editor Gerald B. Greenberg,  technical advisor Sonny Grasso, composer Don Ellis , star Roy Scheider and co-star Tony Lo Bianco, he captures the same gritty reality and intense energy that William Friedken so indelibly committed to the screen. Scheider’s detective character of Buddy is based on Grasso’s own exploits just as they were in “French Connection.” Here, Scheider is basically playing the same character of Buddy, only this time leading a secret New York City mob investigative unit that goes by the name “The Seven-Ups” and uses extra-legal methods to make its cases. Unlike “French Connection,” Buddy and his colleagues are strictly working a domestic angle in “The Seven-Ups” that has them breaking up protection rackets. Buddy’s chief informant Vito (Tony Lo Bianco), a wise guy connected pal from the neighborhood they grew up in, turns out to be playing Buddy and the mob in a dangerous business of kidnappings for cash. When one score goes awry and one of Buddy’s men is killed, the film turns from investigation to revenge story.

The portrayals of the cops and mobsters are very believable and it’s clear each side uses unsavory tactics to get what they want. In this way, it’s very much a shades of gray story the way “Bullit” and “french Connection” are. D’Antoni makes great use of actual New York locations and stages an outstanding car chase midway through and an excellent manhunt climax .Scheider is superb as the grizzled detective who will practically go to any means in order to make a case or to get even. Scheider has that world-weary, existential thing about him that makes him a good fit for this kind of material. This was perhaps his first starring role and he makes the most of it. He’s just about as impressive as Gene Hackman was as Popeye Doyle in “French Connection.” The actors portraying his fellow investigators aren’t given much to work with in terms of dialogue but they also didn’t bring much to their parts except for a sense of working stiff commitment, solidarity and camaraderie.

The whole film rests on the uneasy relationship between old friends on opposite sides of the law and the eventual betrayal and rupture that occurs. Scheider and Lo Bianco are electric together. Less effective is the inside look at the mob. It’s not bad, but just not up to the deep, convincing takes you find in the films of Coppola or Scorsese, for example. But that’s a minor quibble since this story is mainly told from the police POV and it gets that insular world down pat. The bad guys we do spend the most time with are mob associates and rogues looking to get over The Man and they are the rank opportunists they appear to be.

Hot Movie Takes  – 1967: A Memorable Year in Movies 

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

Some of my recent Hot Movie Takes have focused on films celebrating 50 year anniversaries this year. In reviewing what I wrote, it occurred to me that an unusual number of very good English-language films were originally released in 1967. More than I previously thought. My previous posts about films from that banner year covered “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” “In the Heat of the Night,” “Bonnie and Clyde,” “Point Blank” and “The Graduate,” respectively. In doing some online checking, I found several more notable films from ’67, including some I hold in very high regard, Thus, I feel compelled to write about some of them, too. In this new post I reflect on this overlooked year in movies and give some capsule analyses about the pictures I’ve seen and feel most strongly about. I may eventually develop separate posts on ’67 movies of special merit or with special meaning to me.

Let me start by listing the movies I consider to be the best from that year of those I’ve seen. In descending order, my ’67 picks are:

Will Penny

Bonnie and Clyde

In Cold Blood

The Producers

The Graduate

In the Heat of the Night

Cool Hand Luke

Reflections in a Golden Eye

Point Blank

The Fearless Vampire Killers

Who’s that Knocking at My Door?

Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner

El Dorado

You Only Live Twice

The Dirty Dozen

To Sir, with Love

Barefoot in the Park

The War Wagon


Beach Red

Wait Until Dark

Throughly Modern Millie

That list includes a crazy range of cinema representing the crossroads the medium found itself at in that bridge year between Old and New Hollywood. A couple venerable but still vibrant filmmakers contributed to the year’s output: John Huston with his then-unappreciated and misunderstood “Reflections in a Golden Eye” and Howard Hawks with the middle film, “El Dorado,” of his Western trilogy that began with “Rio Bravo” and ended with “Rio Lobo.”

Richard Brooks, who rose to prominence as a screenwriter before becoming a highly successful writer-director, had the best movie of his career released in ’67, “In Cold Blood,” which is still as riveting, disturbing and urgent today as it was a half century ago. It captures the essence of the masterful; Truman Capote book it’s adapted from. The semi-documentary feel and the atmospheric black and white look are incredibly evocative. Though neither was exactly a newcomer, Robert Blake and Scott Wilson were strokes of genius casting decisions and they thoroughly, indelibly own their parts. I believe “In Cold Blood” features one of the best opening credit sequences in movie history. Even though the film doesn’t actually show overt violence, the intimate, voyeuristic way the Clutter killings are handled actually make the horror of what happened even more disturbing. Those scenes took what Hitchcock did in “Psycho” and pushed them further and really set the stage for what followed in the crime and horror genres.

Distinguished producer turned director Stanley Kramer chose that year to give us the most pregnant message picture of his career – “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.” Burt Kennedy, who owns a special place in movie history for his writing and producing that great string of Westerns directed by Budd Boetticher starring Randolph Scott, gave us an entertaining as hell if less than classic Western he wrote and directed – “The War Wagon” – starring John Wayne and Kirk Douglas.

More random cinema stirrings from that list:

Warren Beatty asserted himself a Player with the success of “Bonnie and Clyde,” which he produced and starred in. Its director, Arthur Penn, had made a splash with his second feature, “The Miracle Worker,” only to recede into the shadows until “Bonnie and Clyde” made gave him instant cachet again. The film also helped make Faye Dunaway a star. And it was the launching pad for its writing team, Robert Benton and David Newman, to become in-demand talents, both together and individually. Finally. that film, along with “The Wild Bunch,” took American cinema violence to a new place and stylistically introduced European New Wave elements into the mainstream.

“The Graduate” similarly ignited the New Hollywood with its inventive visual style, contemporary soundtrack and cool irony. Beneath that cool exterior are red hot emotions that finally burst forth in the latter part of the picture.

“Will Penny,” the film I have as the best from that decade among the pictures I’ve seen, may not be familiar to many of you. It should be. The Tom Gries written and directed Western contains the best performance of Charlton Heston’s career. The stiff, arrogant, larger-than-life weightiness that made him a star but that also trapped him is no where to be seen here. He is the very epitome of the low-key laconic cowhand he’s asked to play and he’s absolutely brilliant in the minimalistic realism he brings to the role. The supporting players are really good, too, including a great performance by Joan Hackett as the love interest, strong interpretations by Lee Majors and Anthony Zerbe as his riding companions, and superb character turns by Clifton James, G.D. Spradlin, Ben Johnson and William Schallert. The villains are well played by Donald Pleasance as the evening angel patriarch of a mercenary family and Bruce Dern as one of his evil sons. Schallert, as a prairie outpost doc, beautifully delivers one of my favorite lines in movie history when put upon by Will (Heston) and Blue (Majors) to fix their ailing companion Dutchy (Zerbe) and, smelling their rankness and shaking his head at their daftness, sends Will and Blue away so he can get to work with: “Children, dangerous children.”

The story of “Will Penny” is exquisitely modulated and even if the climax is a little frenetic and over the top, it absolutely works for the drama and then the story ends on its more characteristic underplayed realism. The satire of the piece is really rather stunning, especially for a Western. This was an era of American filmmaking when certain genre films, especially Westerns and film noirs, were generally not deemed worthy material for Oscar nominations. If “Will Penny” came out years later or even today it would be hailed as a great film and be showered with awards the way Clint Eastwood’s “Unforgiven” was (“Will Penny’s” better in my book).

The crime story that is the backdrop of “In the Heat of the Night” is pretty pedestrian and mundane but what makes the picture sing is the core dramatic conflict between black Northern cop Virgil Tibbs and white Southern cop Bill Gillespie in the angst of 1960s Mississippi. That’s where this film really lives and gets  its cultural significance. Sidney Poitier and Rod Steiger are crazy good working off each other.

“Cool Hand Luke” was the latest vehicle for the series of rebel figures Paul Newman played that made him a star (“Somebody Up There Likes Me,” “The Long Hot Summer,”  “Hud,” “The Hustler,” “Harper”) and he took this one to the hilt. It’s not really a great movie, though it’s very engaging, but Newman is a treat to watch as he repeatedly tests authority. The film includes an amazing number of then obscure but soon to be well-known character actors.

For my tastes, “The Producers” is the best comedy ever made. It is an inspired work of looniness that decades later transferred into a successful Broadway musical. No offense to Nathan Lane, but he’s no Zero Mostel in the role of Max Bialystock. Everything hinges on Max, the brash, boorish, desperate, impossible has-been of a producer reduced to seducing wealthy old women to get some of their cash to live on. When he hires nebbish accountant Leo Bloom to examine his books and hears Leo muse to himself that a play could make more as a failure than as a success by raising, in advance, far more money than the play will ever cost to put on, Max instantly seizes on the wild-hair idea as a scheme to get rich. After terrorizing and seducing sweet, dissatisfied Leo to participate in this larceny, the two embark on a grand guignol adventure to find and mount the worst play they can find. They’re sure they’ve found it in “Springtime for Hitler,” a demented musical homage to the fuhrer penned by a certifiable lunatic who believes what he’s written is a serious work of art. Not taking any chances, Max hires a raving drag queen director and encourages him to go over the top with Busby Berkeley numbers and a dim-witted lead playing Hitler as a drug-crazed hippy. Despite their best efforts and complete confidence the play will open and close in one night to disastrous reviews and the audience walking out in disgust, Max and Leo discover to their despair that they have a hit on their hands. “Where did we go right”” a desolate Max asks rhetorically. Mel Brooks wrote a greet screenplay and perfectly cast Mostel and Wilder as the fraudsters. They were never better on screen than here. We care about them, too, because the heart of the comedy is a love story between these two men, who are opposites in every way except in their mutual affection for each other. You might say each completes the other.

Kenneth Mars and Dick Shawn deliver truly inspired performances as the stark raving mad playwright and as the flower child Hitler, respectively.

That same year, 1967, introduced the world to a future cinema giant in Martin Scorsese. His little seen debut feature “Who’s that Knocking at My Door?” – starring a very young Harvey Keitel – contains themes that we have come to identify with the filmmaker’s work. Sure, it’s raw, but it’s easy to see the characteristic visual and sound flourishes, urban settings and dark-spiritual obsessions that would infuse his “Mean Streets,” “Taxi Driver,” “Raging Bull,” “King of Comedy” and “Goodfellas.”

It was also the year that Roman Polanski released his first American film, “The Fearless Vampire Killers,” a sumptuous feast for the eyes send-up of the vampire genre.

I know “The Dirty Dozen” is a popular flick with an eclectic and even iconic cast in a wartime adventure that’s pure entertainment hokum but I find it too much of it canned and over-produced. Lee Marvin holds the whole thing together but outside of his performance and some routine training and combat scenes, there’s not a whole lot there. It pales in comparison to other anti-war films of that era, such as “Paths of Glory,” “Dr. Strangelove” and “MASH.”

“Barefoot in the Park” is a contrived but endearing romantic comedy that showcases Robert Redford and Jane Fonda in two of their more liable if less than taxing parts. They’re both good light comedians when they want to be and early in their careers there was little to suggest in their screen work they would be fine dramatic actors as well. Charles Boyer and Mildred Natwick basically steal the show with their overripe but delicious performances as the parallel older couple to the young couple engaged in navigating the hazards of love.

The conceits of “Wait Until Dark” were barely acceptable when I was a kid, but not so much anymore  We’re asked to believe that a blind woman, Susy, (Audrey Hepburn) alone in her apartment can summon the courage and presence of ming to ward off a gang of thieves, one of whom is a cold-blooded killer. The henchmen, played by Alan Arkin, Richard Crenna and Jack Weston, concoct elaborate games of deception to try and get what they want, which is a drug stash she unknowingly possesses. The whole con setup is way too implausible as is the way Susy prevails against all odds. I mean, it’s one of those movies where we know the protagonist is going to survive but we’re asked to put aside our intelligence and common sense. I don’t what the picture looks like on a big screen, as I’ve only seen it on television, but on the small screen at least it badly suffers from the apartment supposedly being in total blackness, and thus blinding the last bad guy, when Susy’s clearly visible.

Here are several more films of note from ’67. It’s also quite a hodgepodge. I’ve seen portions of many of them but not enough of any one film to comment on it.


Two for the Road


How I Won the War

The President’s Analyst

The Night of the Generals


Far from the Madding Crowd

The Way West

In Like Flint

Casino Royale


Valley of the Dolls

Hour of the Gun

The Taming of the Shrew

Five Million Years to Earth

Poor Cow

A Guide for the Married Man

How to Succeed in Business Wothout Really Trying

The Trip

Hells Angels on Wheels

The Honey Pot

The Happiest Millionaire

The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre

Rough Night in Jericho

Tony Rome

The Flim-Flam Man


Up the Down Staircase

The Whisperers

A Matter of Innocence

The Incident

The Comedians

Woman Times Seven


Divorce American Style

Hot Movie Takes  – “Bonnie and Clyde” 

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

Fifty years have not aged “Bonnie and Clyde” in the least. This seminal American film from 1967 plays just as fresh and vital today as it did half a century ago. In their script David Newman and Robert Benton treated the story of the Depression-era bank robbing couple of the title in such a way as to make their criminal escapades resonant with the social-cultural rebellion of the Sixties. Director Arthur Penn, in turn, found just the right approach – visually, rhythmically and musically speaking – to make Bonnie Parker, Clyde Barrow and their gang romantic, tragic and pathetic all at once. The casting is superb. Warren Beatty has never topped his performance as the enigmatic Clyde. Faye Dunaway makes what could have been a one-dimensional part complex with her multi-layered portrayal of Bonnie. Gene Hackman is a life force as Buck Barrow. Estelle Parsons almost goes too far as Blanche but keeps it together just enough to add an hysterical tone. And Michael J. Pollard brings his characteristic weirdness as CW Moss. Gene Wilder adds manic glee in a brief but memorable interlude as Eugene Grizzard. There are some great turns by nonactors, including Mabel Cavitt as Bonnie’s mother, that add authenticity. There is a free, open, rollicking, bordering on cartoonish levity to the gangster proceedings artfully counterpointed by fatalistic grimness. The story unfolds in the Dust Bowl, Bible Belt ruins of poverty, farm foreclosures, bank runs, desperation, conservatism and fundamentalism and all that comes through in various scenes and sets. It’s also the story of two star-crossed lovers who can never quite consummate their attraction for each other, perhaps because they negate rather than fulfill each other.

More than most films, “Bonnie and Clyde” captures the parallel strains of American naivety, idealism and dream-making alongside its penchant for venality, corruption and violence.

Penn made some very good films, but this was his best, with the possible exception of “Night Moves.” I believe “Bonnie and Clyde” works so well because the script is so good at describing a very specific world and Penn and Co. are so good at realizing that on screen. It’s said the Robert Towne also contributed to the script. Like with any great film, you can feel the all-out commitment its makers had in capturing something truly original. Yes, the film is in a very long line of gangster pics, but rarely before or after has one so effectively balanced comedy and drama, myth and history, romanticism and reality. Editor Dede Allen’s work in creating the frenetic yet highly controlled pace of the film is outstanding. Burnett Guffey’s cinematography is a splendid blend of Hollywood gloss meet documentary meets French New Wave. The different tones of the film made old-line Warner Brothers studio execs nervous because they didn’t know what to make of it or do with it. Some veteran critics didn’t get it upon their first look. Most notably, New York Times critic Bosley Crowther, was practically shamed into giving the film a second watch when his initial negative review was so out of step with the critical mainstream who saw it as a bold, exciting and entertaining take on an old Hollywood genre.

Sure, the film may seem somewhat tepid or tame in the wake of Quentin Tarantino’s and Christopher Nolan’s darkly comic visions of gangster worlds. But there had to a “Bonnie and Clyde” before there could be a “Reservoir Dogs” or “Pulp Fiction” and a “Memento” or “The Dark Night.”

“Bonnie and Clyde” is credited with jumpstarting the American New Wave or New Hollywood that we associate with the late ’60s through the late ’70s. If that’s true, then several other films from around that same decade, some of them made years before “Bonnie and Clyde,” also greatly contributed to that movement, including:

Splendor in the Grass

The Manchurian Candidate

Wild River

David and Lisa

Nothing But a Man

A Thousand Clowns


Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

The Graduate

Point Blank

In the Heat of the Night

The Producers


The Wild Bunch

East Rider

Midnight Cowboy

Take the Money and Run



Five Easy Pieces

The Landlord

Harold and Maude

Dirty Harry

Beatty produced “Bonnie and Clyde” and it was THE project that made him a real Player in Hollywood. He’s gone on to act in and produce and direct some very good films but I’m not sure he’s ever done anything that worked so well as this. He did make one other great film as an actor in Robert Altman’s “McCabe and Mrs. Miller.” I am a big fan of two films Beatty acted in, wrote and directed: “Heaven Can Wait” and “Reds,” which are rather safe and conventional compared to “Bonnie and Clyde” but no less entertaining. But for my tastes anyway Beatty’s never made a better film than the very first one he appeared in: “Splendor in the Grass.” On that project he had the very good fortune to work with a master at the peak of his powers in director Elia Kazan and to inherit a great script by William Inge. Beatty learned from the outset how important it is to align himself with the best talent and aside from a few notable exceptions, he did that during the ’60s and ’70s.

Hot Movie Takes  – “Diplomatic Courier” 

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

The Cold War became a topic of many 1950s and 1960s Hollywood films and one of the early ones to deal with the subject was 1952’s “Diplomatic Courier” directed by Henry Hathaway from a script by Casey Robinson and Liam O’Brien. The screenplay was an adaptation of a novel by Peter Cheyney. Pretty much any Hathaway film is a safe bet for being engaging, solidly produced entertainment and this picture is no different. But he was a director of limitations and here working with a script that’s good but not great, the result is an espionage tale that just isn’t smart enough to be anything more than a slightly better than average routine thriller. The best things about it are its lead players Tyrone Power as the title character, Patricia Neal as a mysterious American woman he gets entangled with and Hildegard Knef as the Romanian woman of intrigue who throws his world in disarray. Then there is the excellent use of actual Eastern European locations and visceral exterior and interior photography by Lucien Ballard. The story also gets great mileage out of its premise that a U.S. State Department courier with no special training or ability gets caught up in dangerous, deadly spy games that become very personal for him.

Power makes a believable and sympathetic ordinary man thrust into extraordinary circumstances figure when his old U.S. Navy veteran pal doesn’t hand off the diplomatic pouch as expected behind the Iron Curtain. A complicated sequence on a train and in train stations ensues that ensnares Power deep into a brewing international incident. I kept thinking that Power would have made a very good leading man in a Hitchcock film. I am very impressed by Knef, whom I’d never heard of before. She practically steals the picture out from everyone else with her portrayal of a refugee playing different sides against each other. Neal never looked more beautiful than she does in this pic and her ability to play both hard and soft comes in handily here as a widow who is and is not what she appears to be. Stephen McNally gives his typical no-nonsense, hard as nails performance as a U.S. Army officer who enlists Power for more hazard duty. Karl Malden brings some color to his part as a good-old-boy sergeant who keeps coming to Power’s rescue. As a by-the book and eager-beaver M.P. Lee Marvin, in one of his first speaking parts, gets to banter a few words with Power. Despite only being on screen for a minute. the dynamic Marvin makes his presence felt. Michael Ansara is appropriately dour and menacing as a Soviet bad guy. And Charles Bronson looks aptly Slavic and tough as another Soviet goon, though he doesn’t get to speak any lines.

On the down side, there are some gaping logic and credibility holes, the clumsily.staged action scenes land flat and the stock Soviet agents lack the verve of three dimensional characters. I mean, one part of me knew that Power would somehow negotiate the duplicity and survive the ordeal, but another part of me would have liked for things to get a bit more harrier than they do, though by the end the stakes are for keeps. But the whole thing is played a bit too much by the numbers safe and antiseptic where it could have used more down and dirty grit. On the whole though, it’s probably a better movie than it needed to be in terms of sheer production value and performance. Not quite a classic, but a worthy addition to anyone’s curated spy and mystery cinema collection.

“Diplomatic Courier” is available for free and in full on YouTube.

Hot Movie Takes  – “Nightmare Alley” 

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

Ever encounter a movie you heard about your whole life that you build up certain expectations around only to finally see it and have it leave you wanting? Well, that’s my experience with “Nightmare Alley,” a 1947 drama starring Tyrone Power, Joan Blondell, Colleen Gray, Helen Walker, Taylor Holmes, Mike Mazurki and Ian Keith. The hothouse script is by Jules Furthman (from a William Lindsay Gresham novel) and the taut direction is by Edmund Goulding. The brooding photography is by Lee Garmes. I think the film suffers a bit from false advertising because today it’s billed as a film noir and I just don’t see it neatly fitting that genre. I consider it more akin to the Todd Browning horror show “Freaks” than any of the classic noirs from that period, with the possible exception of Edgar Ullmer’s “Detour.” Sure, “Nightmare Alley” reeks with darkness – from its theme to its look – but that alone does not make a noir. Its plot of a man reaching too far and then suffering a terrible fall is more a classical narrative than a noir narrative. Tyrone Power plays the ill-fated protagonist – an overambitious carny willing to do anything to get ahead. Many consider this to be Power’s best film performance. He is quite good in it. He fought hard for the movie to be made and for him to go against type and I admire him for it.

Indeed, I feel Power was a very underrated actor. I think his extreme good looks worked against him in terms of the kinds of parts he was forced to settle for in the old studio system. While he didn’t have the talent of another incredibly handsome actor, Montgomery Clift, he did have a grit and depth, besides his considerable charm and charismam that often times wasn’t acknowledged. The part in “Nightmare Alley” demanded a lot and he was up to it. I think he could have had the same kind of postwar career another pretty boy, William Holden, enjoyed had he been given the same caliber parts. Whenever Power did get a superior script and director, he rose to the occasion, as in “Witness for the Prosecution” for Billy Wilder, “Rawhide” for Henry Hathaway and “The Long Gray Line” for John Ford.

“Nightmare Alley” is in the spirit of the pre-Code exploitation movies that depicted the depravity of desperate in zealous pursuit of money, power, fame. Its harsh, unsparing stuff. Joan Blondell is just okay as the spiritualist but the movie would have been much better with a stronger actress in the part. Barbara Stanwyck would have been perfect. Blondell’s character and her alcoholic husband, in a superb performance by Ian Keith, have a low rent act together in a small-time carnival. The couple used to be headliners in vaudeville and in posh clubs. They devised a code that became the key to their act but ever since the bottle brought him down they’ve been reduced to traveling side show performers. In the carnival, Power is a part of the act, and behind Keith’s back he and Blondell carry on an affair and eventually scheme to leave him behind and reconstitute the act using the code. When Keith dies by accidentally drinking poison he thought was liquor, Power is taught the code by Blondell and by a young performed played by Colleen Gray who adores him. Power isn’t above playing the field with her and when the two are forced to marry he convinces her they should leave the carnival and strike out on their own. The pair soon make it big with their mentalist act. But Power isn’t satisfied and his relentless coveting after more gets him mixed up with a hustler even more cunning and dangerous than him. He crosses many ethical. moral lines to get what he wants. His inevitable and even foretold epic fall is eerily parallel to what happened to Keith and other former headliners who suffered similar fates. There’s a moralistic salve at the end that lessens the impact but it’s still a powerful conclusion to a nightmarish tale.

I have to think this movie would have been a classic in the hands of Fritz Lang, Billy Wilder or Orson Wells, whose baroque visual styles and cynical tones would have been tailor made for the material. Edmund Goulding was a journeyman pro who lacked their dark visions and sensibilities. I got the impression he tried to sanitize the film and raise it from its B origins when in fact he should have reveled in its perversity and celebrated its exploitation roots. That may have been a studio-imposed thing, too.


Hot Movie Takes  – “The Longshot” 

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

I admit it, I something of a film snob, but the other night I put away my elitism long enough to watch a quirky, sometimes hilarious, even inventive, but more often just plain silly and ultimately too dumb 1986 Tim Conway scripted and starring comedy vehicle called “The Longshot.” It’s an odd little number for several reasons, not the least of which is that it was directed by Paul Bartel of “Eating Raoul” fame and executive produced by Tony and Oscar-winning director Mike Nichols. Conway is the ringleader of a dimwitted group of friends hopelessly addicted to playing the ponies and hoping they will finally score big even though they always find ways to lose, even when they have a sure thing. His loser cohorts are played by Harvey Korman, Jack Weston and Ted Wass. Each character is actually more fully developed than you would expect from a B film like this and that is one of its saving graces. These are good actors given a chance to play with some rich comic parts and they have a field day with it. There are some nice character turns by actors playing the various archetypes found at any race track – in this case Hollywood Race track.

The boys believe they’ve stumbled onto an inside fix that will make them big winners. They need to play large in order to bet large but they are good as broke. So in typical nitwit fashion they borrow money from the mob. Along the way Conway’s character barely escapes becoming a gelding at the hands of a deranged woman played by Stella Stevens. When the sure thing at the track ends up being a ruse, it looks like curtains for our four stooges until Conway remembers what their horse’s former trainer told him about getting the nag to run like the wind.

Much of the film plays like a Jerry Lewis comedy, which is to say that when it’s works it’s surprisingly good but when it falters it really stinks and in between it’s just okay. The first third of “The Longshot” is quite strong and had me thinking it just might be a worthy companion piece to one of my all-time comedy favorites, “Let It Ride,” which is about a horse player, but “The Longshot” is unable to sustain things. Like most films that show some real promise and then let you down, this one settles for things that in better hands would never be acceptable and, when all is said and done, it’s just not smart enough. Yes, even a film about four dummies needs to be really smart in order for the gags to come off (witness the Farrelly brothers comedies).

On the positive side, Conway, Korman, Weston and Wass work very well off each other and each has some shining individual moments. Some of the physical comedy bits are pretty inspired. And there are some very good lines and scenes, though not nearly enough. Conway and Bartel also tend to let many comic bits go on too long and to beat some tired old gags to death.

Hot Movie Takes  – “The Mountain Road” 

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

Daniel Mann’s feature film directorial career got off to rousing start in the 1950s with “Come Back, Little Sheba,” “About Mrs. Leslie,” “The Rose Tattoo,” “I’ll Cry Tomorrow,” “Hot Spell,” “The Last Angry Man” and “Butterfield 8,” all prestige pictures based on plays or novels. Mann knew his way around a drama and there are some fine things that stand the test of time in those films, though they all pale against the best films of that or any era.

One of his lesser known efforts, “The Mountain Road” (1960), may be his most enduring big screen work. Mann very ably directed an Alfred Hayes script based on a Theodore White novel to create a mature, unvarnished look at racism and cultural dissonance in the American military campaign aiding China’s resistance of invading Japanese forces in World War II. This movie has much in common with John Ford’s “The Searchers” in that they both deal head-on with a racist protagonist hell-bent on revenge against indigenous peoples. In the Ford film, it’s  John Wayne’s Ethan Edwards who hates Native Americans and will stop at nothing, even killing his own niece, to exact his brand of justice. Like all racists, Edwards dehumanizes the Native to justify his attitudes and actions. He’s a returning Civil War veteran who lost his way and his connection to civilized society in the years after the war. When Indians attack and kill family members, kidnapping his niece, he sets out on an epic, blood-thirsty manhunt. In “The Mountain Road’ James Stewart’s Major Baldwin is a civilian engineer turned Army demolition officer assigned to blow up an airfield and bridge in the face of advancing Japanese troops. Baldwin is a good man but he can’t hide his antipathy for the Chinese. All the men in his unit harbor the same ill feelings, with the notable exception of Collins (Glenn Corbett), who admires Chinese culture and tries hard respecting Chinese ways.

In addition to Corbett, there are some very fine supporting performances by actors playing the other men comprising the demo team: Harry Morgan, Rudy Bond, Mike Kellin, James Best, Eddie Firestone, Alan Baxter. Frank Silvera plays a Chinese colonel attached to the unit.

Baldwin commits his men to extra duty when he agrees to have them block a key mountain pass and to blow a major ammunition dump. The small convoy is repeatedly delayed by the refugee-choked roads. The assignment develops a further complication when the outfit is obliged to transport an indigenous woman whose Chinese officer husband was executed by the Japanese. Lisa Lu plays the educated, high principled Madame Su-Mei Hung who acts as a buffer between the Americans and the Chinese. En route to where the Americans are taking her, Baldwin and Hung develop romantic feelings for each other. But even their warm regard cannot survive the enmity he exhibits when one of his men is trampled to death by starving refugees and the rage he goes into when two more of his men are killed and their bodies desecrated by irregular Chinese soldiers. Baldwin systematically, brutally seeks retribution against the renegades and leads his men in committing a war crime to exact payback. Madame Su-Mei Hung is horrified by their actions but is particularly sickened that he would not only condone but actively participate in such behavior.

Dealing so frankly with American G.I. xenophobia and atrocity in a Hollywood film was pretty much unheard of at the time. I mean, this goes far beyond “South Pacific” and “Sayonara” and is closer to “Bad Day at Black Rock” in terms of its malevolent tone and social critique.


Hot Movie Takes  – “Jackie Brown” 

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

Quentin Tarantino dug Hollywood exploitation movies of the 1970s and ’80s and he cast two veteran actors from those movies, Pam Grier and Robert Forster, to play the leads in his superb “Jackie Brown” (1997). The film’s a faithful adaptation of the Elmore Leonard Novel “Run Punch.” This is my personal favorite among the Tarantino movies I’ve seen (the others being “Reservoir Dogs,” “Pulp Fiction,” “Kill Bill,” “Inglorious Basterds”) because it has the clearest exposition lines and the tightest control over his often florid verbal and visual language. Tarantino knew he wanted Grier for the role and so he changed the character from a Caucasian in the book to African-American and changed her name, too, I knew something of Grier before the film but I’d never seen any of her movies in their entirety and so her performance as the title character was a revelation to me. She brings total conviction and believability to playing a strong, street-smart, together woman trying to get by the best way she knows how as a stewardess for a crap airline. But the job doesn’t pay squat and so she has a little action going on the side – running illegal arms money from L.A. to Mexico and back for Ordell Robbie (Samuel L. Jackson). Jackie knows the risks and how the system works and so when she’s caught she begins working the system against itself and against her criminal employer.

Forster is equally convincing as bail bondsman Max Cherry, a real pro at what he does but at a point in life where he’s looking for an opportunity to get make a chance. Max is street wise, too, and he knows that in Jackie Brown he’s met someone who is at least his match. He’s older than her but she appreciates his integrity and keeping it real with her, He admires her beauty, her savvy and how she carries herself and her business with a real calm in the midst of chaos. He does the same in his own way and it’s why Jackie comes to trust him with her scheme.

Perhaps the best thing Tarantino does as a writer-director is to create rich, multi-dimensional characters and then to cast the right actors in those roles so that we feel they really inhabit the worlds they traverse. His characters seem so real because they carry – through the words they speak, the situations they appear in and the behaviors they exhibit – a history and context that is palpable, even if not seen. It’s right there in the dialogue and the actions, the gestures and the expressions, the body language and the settings.

Jackson has never been better as the charismatic gun runner Ordell, who stands in the way of Jackie and Max steering his stash, which is exactly what they conspire to do. Early on, we see how Ordell is ruthless in protecting his interests when he kills an associate he only thinks may inform on him. Later, when he suspects Jackie is turning state’s evidence against him, he plots eliminating her, too, but he finds she is not so easily intimidated or disposed of. Robert De Niro is wonderfully low key as fresh out of prison life criminal Louis Gara, an old associate of Ordell’s, Gara is more than a little lost in the outside world and becomes the next loose cannon threatening to bring down Ordell’s world. Bridget Fonda is very good as the irritating Melanie, a white surfer girl Ordell keeps as a front for his illicit activities. And Michael Keaton shines as overly eager federal agent Ray Nicolette.

While the film has all the treachery and duplicity we’ve come to expect from a Tarantino flick,, there’s a subtle romance story at the heart of this one that separates it from all the rest. Grier and Forster generate real sparks together even though they only fertilely act on the mutual attraction that binds them.

As a film, the whole works runs like a finely-tuned mechanism, without a false start or note or measure. The two-hours go by in a flash. Tarantino’s penchant for bending time and revisiting moments from different perspectives can be off-putting and jarring, but not here. This technique adds layers of meaning and depth to the mosaic.

It’s a great looking and sounding film, too, with gritty cinematography by Guillermo Navarro and a pitch-perfect music soundtrack of black power soul and R&B songs that help set the mood and tell the story.

I love the fact that Jackie, a middle-aged black woman,  is the mastermind heroine who uses all her wiles to beat both the law and Ordell. She’s not a femme fatale because she’s totally straight with Max from the start. He knowingly and willingly goes along with her plan and when they pull it off she clearly wants him to go away with her to enjoy the score they made as a team. The ambiguous ending leaves to our imagination if Max and Jackie will end up together. That’s only right since these two mature, independent-minded people only found each other by coincidence and then used each other to get what they wanted. Even though they have feelings for each other, this story is not about finding love – but freedom and getting out from under The Man.

“Jackie Brown” is available on Netflix.

Hot Movie Takes  – “Human Desire” 

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

Part of my sick at home triple feature yesterday was the 1954 Fritz Lang film noir “Human Desire,” which I’d only seen a few minutes of before, and I must say this is a very good film. Lang makes great use of actual settings for this story of a railroad engineer who gets sucked into a whirlpool of deceit and murder that threatens to bring him down. Glenn Ford plays the engineer, a recently returned single war veteran looking to make s fresh start in his hometown. His uncomplicated life turns nightmare when he begins an affair with a manipulative married woman (Gloria Grahame) who is embroiled in a sick relationship with her abusive husband (Broderick Crawford). When the controlling Crawford character goes too far in a jealous rage, he holds this act over Grahame and it binds her to him despite their mutual loathing for each other. When she begins reeling in Ford to do her dirty work for her and eliminate her husband from the equation, he finds himself going down an ever darker path with no good end in sight.

This picture pretty much has it all in terms of film noir:

a brazen femme fatale; a fatalistic plotline; a conflicted protagonist; a brutish villain; and dream-like, expressionistic black and white photography by Burnett Guffey that captures both the harsh and romantic aspects of rail life and the sweet and confining aspects of small town America. Lang makes the trains, their whistles and schedules both a practical and symbolic part of the narrative. Ford’s character represents the wide open freedom of the rails. He’s his own man – until he’s not, For Grahame’s character, the sound of a train is a wistful reminder of how close yet distant her own freedom is from the trap she’s made of her life. And for Crawford, the harsh, hard, unbending rails are a prison of his own making.

The inspiration for this movie is the Emile Zola novel “La Bete humaine,” which Jean Renoir made into a classic film. I’m not sure the Lang version is a classic but it’s certainly a better than average noir. I think a stronger cast would have made the film better, and here I’m referring to Ford and Grahame. Neither was a great actor. They both do an adequate job here but I would have preferred, say, William Holden and Elizabeth Taylor. As the heavy, Crawford is fine, though again I would have preferred, say, Rod Steiger or Ernest Borgnine or Robert Ryan.

I also found ridiculous that the daughter of Ford’s best friend, played by Edgar Buchanan, has supposedly grown from awkward teen to mature young woman in the space of the three years Ford was gone to war. The actress playing her has got to be around 30. And she’s a real dish and it’s hard to conceive that Ford would jeopardize everything for Grahame’s neurotic and married character and ignore this real catch, who by the way adores him, under his own roof (he’s boarding with her family). I guess it’s an instance of the guy going for the bad girl over the good girl just the way some women do for guys.

The film reminds of Hitchcock’s “Shadow of a Doubt” and of the James M. Cain classic “The Postman Always Rings Twice,” but in the end it is a singular, stand-alone American cinema work.

Hot Movie Takes  – “The Lineup” 

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

Got another old crime film fix in last night watching “The Lineup” on YouTube. This 1958 Don Siegel directed and Stirling Silliphant scripted police procedural is a tale of two movies about police investigating an illicit drug smuggling ring in San Francisco. When the movie is focused on the two detectives and their colleagues trying to crack the case, it’s pretty routine, nothing special to write home about fare. But when focused on the crooks and their accomplices, it’s quite engaging for giving us two out of the ordinary villains in killer Dancer played by Eli Wallach and his Svengali-like associate, Julian. played by Robert Keith (father of Brian Keith). Dancer is a from the streets tough being groomed in the finer things by the erudite Julian. Their unusual, philosophical, literate, irreverent, sarcastic repartee is something akin to what the Samuel L. Jackson and John Travolta characters exhibit in “Pulp Fiction.” The  exchanges between Dancer and Julian almost make you forget they’re cold blooded sociopaths – until their malice and menace leak through.

The violence in the movie is also harsher and more jarring than what you’re used to from the cinema of that era. There’s an extended car chase at the end that ranks among the best in screen history. The callous tone of the film was certainly influenced by the Cold War.

Siegel and cinematographer Hal Mohr make great use of Frisco locations and Siegel and Bruce Surtees would do the same years later in “Dirty Harry.” Indeed, one of the distinguishing marks of Siegel’s work was his obvious interest in and flair for shooting on location and using actual places. It’s visible in virtually all his best movies and gives them a vital realism. Siegel also knew how to cut his films for maximum pace and urgency, though the older he got the slower the rhythms he employed, and not always to the work’s advantage.

If the detectives, played by stiff Warner Anderson and ambivalent Emile Meyer, had been made half as interesting as the bad guys, this could have been a minor masterpiece. But as it is, the dull, strictly by the numbers police stuff bogs down the film and is out of balance with the far more dynamic criminal goings-on and characterizations. Even so, it’s a better than average crime picture. Better than the last Siegel film I posted about – “Private Hell 36,” which he made a few years earlier. Siegel was already a good director by the ’50s but he got better as his career went on. He would go on to make some superior genres pics starting in the late ’50s trough the late ’70s:

Edge of Eternity

Hell is for Heroes

The Killers

Coogan’s Bluff

Two Mules for Sister Sara

The Beguiled

Dirty Harry

Charley Varrick

The Shootist

Escape from Alcatraz

I consider “Hell is for Heroes,” “Dirty Harry,” “Charley Varrick” and “The Shootist” as genuine classics and I greatly admire the rest of those films as well,

A couple more of his films from this period have very good reputations, including “Madigan,” but I’ve only seen a few minutes of it and so I need to make an effort to watch the whole thing before making a call on it.

Of course, before “The Lineup,” Siegel made some very good films as well, most notably “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” and “The Big Steal.” There are a few others from that earlier period that are well thought of that I need to see, including “Riot in Cell Block 11.”

By the way, the Wallach and Keith characters are not the only charismatic villains in “The Lineup.” Richard Jaeckel is good as the getaway driver Sandy McLain and Vaughn Taylor is superb as the enigmatic The Man, Larry Warner, a Mr. Big figure who’s reference throughout the whole picture and only seen near the very end. Taylor only has a couple minutes to make an impression and he does.

“The Lineup” was inspired by a radio and TV series of the same name and theme.

Hot Movie Takes  – “The Producers” 

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

Mel Brooks has had a hand in a few comedy film classics as both writer and director, One of them, “Young Frankenstein,” he co-wrote with its star Gene Wilder. But it was Brooks and Brooks alone who wrote his very first feature, “The Producers.” It’s a farce in the same spirit of Billy Wilder’s 1960 “Some Like It Hot,” though with a very different plot. Like that earlier film, “The Producers” (1967/1968) is so damn good because the writing is truly inspired and the pitch perfect cast throw themselves into their roles with such aplomb. The central idea behind both films is cute and in lesser hands would not have been able to hold up for 90 or 100 minutes. But Brooks, whose writing can be plain bad and whose comedic can be wildly uneven, structured a very strong, cohesive script that only has a few lapses in judgment and taste in it. I believe the real strength of the piece is in the very inventive plot. Two desperate losers, Max and Leo, scheme to make a fortune by getting investors to put up far more capital than the actual budget and then doing everything possible to ensure the play is a one-night only flop, thus leaving the producers off the hook to pay back their financiers. Max and Leo endeavor to find the worst possible material and are sure they’ve done so with “Springtime for Hitler,” a staggeringly bad, offensive tribute to the fuhrer and Nazism. They take further precautions by hiring a director whose tasteless vision for the story is beyond belief. And as final insurance, they cast an actor in the lead role of Hitler who makes the evil dictator a misunderstood hippie.

Convinced their production is a dreadful abomination sure to turn off any audience and thus destined to bomb on opening night, the producers are shocked when their play is warmly received as a novelty comedy. As a devastated Max says to Leo, “Where did we go right?” Because the play’s a hit, it’s only a matter of time before the fraud the producers committed is found out and they can’t possibly satisfy all their investors. But what really makes the story sing is the humanity of Max and Leo, who are total opposites, and their love for each other. Max is loud, crude, abrasive and afraid to show his vulnerable side, whereas Leo is a meek, gentle soul afraid to risk anything outside the box. Both are lonely, unfilled men looking for a reason to live. Each finds in the other what’s missing in himself. Of course, having two actors perfect for those parts brought the characters to full, vivid life. We really care about them.

The other thing that makes “The Producers” work so well is how Brooks isn’t timid at all in tackling outlandish, sensitive, controversial subject matter. He manages to do this without being tacky and where he is tacky it works for the story. With plot-lines that include a mad playwright obsessed with celebrating Hitler, a drag queen director turning the play into a Busy Berkley-“Hair” hybrid and a producer (Max) not above seducing little old ladies out of their money, this farce plays like a dark comedy. That’s just how it is with “Some Like It Hot” with its gender-bending plot and Jack Lemmon’s character seemingly changing sexual preference by movie’s end. And just as Lemmon and Curtis were totally committed to their parts, so are Wilder and Mostel. The sheer, unadulterated, ballsy freedom of the material and its interpretation is what captured me when I first saw “The Producers” and it’s still what captures me today.

When I first heard that Brooks had adapted “The Producers” into a musical, I was taken aback, until I realized its over-the-top quality, combined with it already being about staging a musical, provided a ready-made canvas for such a treatment. I mean, Max and Leo are practically comic opera characters as originally written anyway and even watching the film now it’s not hard to imagine them bursting into song amidst such emotionally-keyed, histrionic and campy goings-on.

I’ve never seen the Broadway version or the new movie made from it, both with Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick in the parts that Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder so memorably played, and I don’t care to. The original is just too dear to me and I’m afraid I would be most unkind to any updating. For me and for a lot of other fans, the original is an untouchable cinema classic.

The Producers (1968) trailer – YouTube

Hot Movie Takes  – “The Heroes of Telemark” 

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

Kirk Douglas enjoyed a brilliant career from the late 1940s through the mid-1960s before an inexplicable drought in quality films that’s now lasted half a century. No actor in Hollywood made more good films than he did from about 1947 through about 1967. But from that point forward, it’s hard to find even a single good film he made with the possible exceptions of “Posse,” which he also directed, “The Fury” and “The Man from Snowy River.” Last night on YouTube I rewatched a film from the latter part of his quality years – the 1965 war thriller “The Heroes of Telemark” directed by Anthony Mann. It’s a good film based on true life events but it doesn’t compare with another World War Ii movie he appeared in that same year, Otto Preminger’s “In Harm’s Way.” The point is, Douglas was still a major star in important projects. No one could know it at the time but his real peak occurred at the end of the ’40s through the early ’60s, and he would never again regain relevance or stature, not even as a character actor and supporting player. It’s hard to explain.

At the peak of his powers he worked with great directors on excellent films:

William Wyler, “Detective Story”

Billy Wilder, “Ace in the Hole”

Howard Hawks, “The Big Sky”

Vincente Minnelli, “Lust for Life”

Stanley Kubrick, “Paths of Glory”

Alexander Mackedrick, “The Devil’s Disciple”

John Sturges, “Last Train from Gun Hill”

John Frankenheimer, “Seven Days in May”

And let’s not forget “Champion,” “The Bad and the Beautiful,” “Gunfight at the OK Corral,” “Lonely are the Brave” and the aforementioned “The Vikings” and “In Harm’s Way.”

Some point to Douglas’ scenery-chewing propensities for why he fell out of favor with filmmakers and audiences but this is an actor capable of great subtly too. Indeed, his best performance may be in the very understated role of a modern day cowboy in “Lonely are the Brave,” which was the favorite of his films by the way. And if overacting, very much a subjective, in-the-eye-of-the-beholder thing, is such a mortal sin, then how do you explain the sustained excellent careers of Jack Lemmon, Jack Nicholson Al Pacino, Samuel L. Jackson or even Johnny Depp?

“The Heroes of Telemark” is one of those well-mounted big physical productions in which the characters tend to get lost amidst all the outdoor locations and the action. Much of it was shot in and around the very mountainous sites in Norway where the actual events the movie depicts took place. Even with its fidelity to place, and we’re talking gorgeous snow covered slopes and cliffs turned treacherous by marauding Nazi troops, the characters become more props than human beings. That’s not the actors’ fault. It’s the fault of a script by Ben Barzman and Ivan Moffat and of the direction by Mann that leave some gaping exposition and character development holes that no amount of local color or scenery or derring-do can cover up. This is ironic, too, because Mann was a director known for staging high drama in rugged outdoor locales (see his series of Westerns with James Stewart) and expertly having the settings and the characters communicate with each other. For whatever reason, he wasn’t able to pull that off with this war movie.

Still, the film mostly works and takes you on a satisfying ride filled with suspense, adventure, heroism. It’s just that there’s something missing. It doesn’t help that Douglas and co-star Richard Harris don’t seem to have much of chemistry. I mean,I know they start as antagonists and only eventually become friends, but there’s no there-there when the pair are on screen together. The part of Kirk’s love interest and ex-wife played by Ulla Jacobsson is okay but nothing special. Her father is played by Michael Redgrave, and in many ways he delivers the most interesting performance in the film but unfortunately he’s only on screen for a few minutes.

The actors playing the various German officers are appropriately sinister.

The upload of this film online is pretty darn good but the clarity, especially in the night scenes, is somewhat muddy,

Hot Movie Takes  – “The Vikings” 

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

Richard Fleischer was a journeyman Hollywood director from the mid-1940s through the late 1980s who moved  indiscriminately from one genre to another and from projects of certifiable to dubious quality. Because his work was all over the place and he wasn’t a writer per se himself, it’s hard to assign a particular style to him except to say his better films consistently showed visual flair and his stories crackled with real verve. His father was the great animator Max Fleischer and if anything the son Richard Fleischer displayed an almost graphic novel sensibility to the way his movies looked, sounded and played. That was brought home to me last night watching one of his biggest hits, “The Vikings,” a sumptuous 1958 epic starring Kirk Douglas, Tony Curtis, Ernest Borgnine, Janet Leigh, James Donald and Alexander Knox. It’s grand entertainment served up with stunning Nordic locations and rich, if stereotypical, portrayals,, of Viking life. The film demonstrates Fleischer’s ability to handle epics, and he made several of them, but this was probably his most successful alongside “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” and “Barrabas.”

Helming the Disney adaptation of the Jules Verne classic about the fictional Captain Nemo, he got a reputation as a special effects director and went on to make many films that relied on heavy effects work, such as “Fantastic Voyage,” “Doctor Doolittle,” “Tora, Tora, Tora,” “Amityville 3D” and “Conan the Destroyer.” But there was another side of Fleischer that he should have cultivated even more and that was his real gift for making taut crime thrillers. As good as “The Vikings” is and it actually holds up very well (it would make a great revival pic on the big screen), Fleischer’s best work came on pictures like “The Narrow Margin,” “Violent Saturday,””Compulsion,” “The Boston Strangler,” “The Last Run,” “10 Rillington Place,” “The New Centurions” and “Mr. Majestyk.” But he kept returning to period costume pics that were more about exploitation (“Mandigo,” “Red Sonja”) than evocation.

“The Vikings” is a happy hybrid of exploitation and history, resulting in an always gorgeous to look at spectacle that falls short of great because of a mediocre script. Cinematographer Jack Cardiff, who went on to direct his own Viking feature in “The Long Ships,” helped Fleischer create a visually beautiful film. Fleischer and his team of craftsmen worked with real ships on real fjords and with genuine castles in authentic locations to execute many of the film’s dynamic set pieces and action sequences.

The stirring score by Mario Nascimbene hits just the right notes of legendaric saga, vigor and adventure.

Ernest Borgnine and Kirk Douglas deliver full-blooded performances as a high-spirited Viking father and son duo bedeviled by a scheming English slave, played by a sullen Tony Curtis. Early in the film, Douglas and Curtis have a confrontation that results in Douglas sustaining a terrible injury. Curtis is bound to rocks off shore to drown but is saved by the Gods and claimed by an English spy (James Donald) employed by the Vikings to make maps that guide their raids on the English countryside. The spy recognizes a talisman around the slave’s neck that has great implications. It turns out the Curtis character, who was taken as a child in a Viking raid, is the heir to both Viking and English kingdoms. His blood father is the Borgnine character (who impregnated an English princess during a raid) and his blood brother is the Douglas character. Only Donald doesn’t tell him who his father is. When the Vikings kidnap an English princess (Janet Leigh) for ransom, Curtis vies for her affections with Douglas. The two men are sworn enemies and a deadly conflict to the end is ensured when Curtis escapes with Leigh. In the aftermath of the pursuit, Borgnine meets a spectacular death. The climactic fight between Curtis and Douglas lives up to the expectation.

Something’s that’s always bothered me about the film and still does after watching it again last night is that the Curtis and Leigh characters are not well developed and they both come across as cold, rather cruel individuals. They’re cardboard cutouts compared to Douglas and Borgnine, who are full of life. But, given Hollywood mores of the time, the Vikings are cast as barbarian villains who rape and pillage, and the English are cast as cultured victims. Things were a little more complex than that. I think the movie would be more satisfying if everybody got what they wanted rather than killing off the supposed bad guys. I mean, they’re way more interesting than the heroes here. And it’s not like the English characters don’t have all kinds of guilt, manipulation and blood on their hands. I guess it’s all in how you look at it.

This was one of several films that Curtis and Leigh made together when they were married.

Douglas followed this epic by producing and starring in one of the greatest epics ever made, “Spartacus,” directed by Stanley Kubrick.

By the way, until recently there were only awful uploads of “The Vikings” on YouTube, but someone has put up a superb upload of the film. Better watch it while it lasts. The same for another Douglas flick, “The Heroes of Telemark.” I’m watching it tonight.

Hot Movie Takes  – “Fruitvale Station” 

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

I saw and greatly admired writer-director Ryan Coogler’s “Creed” (2016) before I watched the film that first put him on the map, the 2013 drama “Fruitvale Station.” Now that I’ve absorbed the earlier film and found it an impressive work as well, it’s abundantly clear that Coogler’s one of the bright new American filmmakers to have arrived on the scene. He’s also part of a New Wave of African-American filmmakers making their marks (Barry Jenkins, Malik Vitthal, Dee Rees, Jordan Peele).

“Fruitvale” is a bio-pic that dramatizes the last day in the life of Oscar Grant III, who in 2009 was wrongfully killed by an Oakland rapid transit police officer. Before the shooting, Grant and his male friends were brutalized by officers. There was no cause for the officers’ actions. The young African-American men got into a brief undeventful altercation with some race baiting white supremacist gang bangers on the train New Year’s night. No one was hurt. The black men were clearly profiled by the white officers because they were the only ones detained. None of this is conjuncture, Virtually the entire encounter was captured on video by several onlookers. The cops, not the young men, were the problem here. Coogler sets up the final tragic moments of Grant’s life through an unvarnished, semi-documentary approach that portrays the 22-year-old, warts and all, as someone trying to better himself and the lives of his girlfriend and daughter. Like too many young black males from inner cities, Grant faced a lot of challenges. As the movie plays out, we learn about  his criminal and incarceration history, his anger issues, his problems holding a job and the street life pressures and threats he confronts that can turn violent in an instant. We also learn he’s a sweet, silly kid with a lot of growing up to do who deeply cares for his family and is desperate to make a new start. He just doesn’t know how and society doesn’t do well by individuals like him.

Outrage over his unnecessary death at the rail system’s Fruitvale Station, among a series of officer involved wrongful death scenarios around the nation, was a flash-poins for the Black Lives Matter movement.

Coogler drew on his own experience as a young black man in America and his work counseling youth on a San Francisco correctional facility to humanize the story and keep it real. Michael B. Jordan, who went on to star in Coogler’s “Creed,” brings a very authentic balance of harshness and gentleness, street smarts and naivete to his interpretation of Grant. Melonie Diaz and Ariana Neal are believable as his girlfriend and daughter, respectively. They, along with his mother, played beautifully by Octavia Spencer, all worry about Oscar because they know that trouble follows him and that danger lurks in the streets. Sadly, ironically, his death comes not at the hands of a gang banger or a stereotypical bad guy, but at the hands of rouge cops overreacting to a situation and doing the exact opposite of what they’re called to do: protect and serve.

Coogler favors an intimacy and immediacy to the way his films look and feel, and he was well served in this regard on “Fruitvale” by cinematographer Rachel Morrison. When Coogler and Morrison do go wide or long or slow, it has a greater effect than it would otherwise because of the intimacy and fluidity of what precedes and follows it. Coogler and cinematographer Maryse Alberti found the same balance on “Creed.”

Both of Coogler’s first two features have musical scores by Ludwig Göransson.

The emergence of African-American filmmakers en mass the last several years is a healthy development in U.S. cinema as fresh, dynamic new voices and perspectives are added to the cultural stew. The days when Gordon Parks, Melvin Van Peebles, Michael Schultz, Sidney Poitier, Stan Lathan, Bill Duke, Charles Burnett, Charles Lane and Spike Lee were pretty much the only black American filmmakers are long gone. Individuals such as Carl Franklin, Kasi Lemmons, John Singleton, Julie Dash, Tim Reid, Cheryl Dunye, Kenny Leon, Antoine Fuqua, Regiald Hudlin, the Hughes Bros., F. Gary Gray, Tyler Perry began asserting themselves. And now a whole new wave has appeared after them, led by Ryan Coogler, Barry Jenkins, Mailk Vitthal, Dee Rees, and Jordan Peele, and more yet.

“Fruitvale Station” is showing on Netflix.

Hot Movie Takes  – “Private Hell 36” 

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

Besides Netflix, my other regular source for discovering films these days is YouTube. I am always a sucker for a good film noir and so I decided to give “Private Hell 36” a look. Before seeing it, I was excited because the 1954 film had several things going for it. Director Don Siegel always showed a real flair for crime dramas. Co-writers Collier Young and Ida Lupino were true-crime screen veterans. Stars Howard Duff, Steve Cochran, Dean Jagger, Dorothy Malone, plus Lupino doing triple duty as supporting co-star and co-producer through her and Collier’s own Filmways company, all brought some acting chops. Cinematographer Burnett Guffey lit many classic crime films.

In terms of execution, the black and white picture does feature appropriately moody photography and music for its tale of one bad cop (Cochran) coercing his partner (Duff) into absconding with a large stash of counterfeit money tied to a murder suspect they’ve been investigating. Cochran’s character of Cal Bruner is a rogue and loose cannon who sees an opportunity to cash in quick and goes for it. He’s single and involved with a key witness in the case, a nightclub singer played by Lupino  Duff’s character of Jack Farnham is a stable, honest cop and a married man (his wife’s played by Malone) with a kid. He’s a straight-shooter and though at first tempted to take the money himself he wants nothing to do with the hot loot. Meanwhile. Bruner doesn’t hesitate to pocket it, Farnham tries talking him out of it and then reluctantly goes along to get along with his partner. But Farnham is increasingly tormented by this criminal act he’s a party to. The secrets and lies to cover up the deed make him hate himself and the world. With Farnham ready to crack and spill the beans, Bruner’s liable to do anything to stop him.

It’s a good plot-line but getting to that moral conflict takes way too long and the writing and acting just  don’t go deep enough to make this a classic, which I think it had the potential to be in more talented hands. I believe the film strayed too far from the core dramatic tension and spent too much time on the budding relationship between the bad cop and the singer-witness. There are also several dull scenes with the cops and witness scouting a race track to try and spot the suspect, who’s known to play the ponies. These scenes nearly stop the movie in its tracks – no pun intended. One telling scene there would have sufficed. And the wise police captain played by Jagger is a totally routine stock character who adds very little to the story except for the contrivances involving him at the end.

Much more could have been done with the stash site for the ill-gotten gains that is the inspiration for the film’s title.

All in all, it’s a fair to good movie that should keep you watching, but this is B movie fare all the way., which is to say that this potboiler didn’t have aspirations to anything more, and if it did, it failed to realize them.

Look for my Hot Movie Take on another. better crime film from that same era, “The Hitch-Hiker,” which Lupino directed, produced and co-wrote. She was a maverick woman filmmaker in Hollywood when there was no one else of her gender directing features or episodic television shows.

Hot Movie Takes  – “The Hitch-Hiker” (1953)

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

After hemming and hawing about watching one of the six features that Ida Lupino directed (she did not receive credit for two more features she had a hand in directing), I finally sat down to see what’s considered to be one of her best efforts. the 1953 film noir “The Hitch-Hiker.” By the way, I don’t really consider this to be a noir work, not because it mostly takes place in daylight outdoors, but because it lands for me more for me as a crime picture with a homicidal maniac at the center of it than it does as some fatalistic black mood piece. Besides, there’s no femme fatale in it. The film plays a lot like the Cagney classic “White Heat,” although this is not up to that level. Part of the reason why this film doesn’t rise to that quality is that William Talman, though quite good as the hitchhiking fiend escaped convict, is no Cagney, and Lupino is no Raoul Walsh (the director of “White Heat”). It doesn’t help that the actors, Frank Lovejoy and Edmund O’Brien, playing the two buddies taken hostage by the killer, have their own limitations. Lovejoy lacks personality or charisma, O’Brien tends to overact. Together, the two have zero chemistry. But the real problem here is the script by Lupino and Collier Young. It’s just not smart enough. The dialogue is lacking. And to my thinking anyway the film has far too many cutaways from the central conflict around the two hostages being forced to drive the killer to his intended getaway and their presumed deaths. The action and tension keep getting interrupted by these cutaways to the progress of the police manhunt. This really dilutes the power of the suspense of the men being trapped in an impossible situation. It would have been better to stay with their peril and to only monitor the manhunt and roadblocks via the car radio.

Also, I question the film’s interpretation of the killer as a bully who uses his gun to intimidate and control people. A bully is one thing. A sociopath is another.

I also don’t like the film’s ending, I mean, you know that our two heroes are somehow going to get out of this dilemma, so there’s no real sense of relief when they do. But the way that the killer, when it comes right down to it, is so easily overpowered and apprehended is a real letdown. A crime film is only as good as the menace of the villain and here the villain is ultimately made out to be a coward and a pushover. That works against the basic premise of good crime movies, which is that the villain is a deadly threat who can only be defeated by overwhelming force or by extraordinary bravery or extreme cunning. But that’s not at all what happens. Instead, the movie chooses a moralistic position that this killer and by implication all killers really are nothing more than cowards hiding behind their gun or knife. In other words. that they’re bullies. Take their weapon away from them, it suggests, and they’re nothing.

Still, the movie has many things that do work. The men in danger scenes are strong. The rough-hewn settings are interesting. Even with those annoying cutaways, the film has a well-paced, urgent rhythm. The photography by Nicholas Musuraca makes good dramatic use of the claustrophobic interior car scenes and of the exterior desert and waterfront scenes. But I felt more could have been made of the isolated locales the protagonists traverse and of the treacherous interactions the three men have with people during the several stops along the way they make for repairs and supplies.

Much like the other ’50s noir I posted about today, “Private Hell 36,” this film is definitely no classic, not even of its genre, but it does work. Just not as well as it might have with a better script and cast. And it certainly proved that a woman, in this case Lupino, could direct an effective male-driven action picture.

Hot Movie Takes  – “The Numbers Station”

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

No sooner did I get off the heavy subject movie bandwagon, then I jumped right back on, and this time it was the 2013 thriller “The Numbers Station” starring John Cusack. He plays an American assassin named Emerson whose pangs of conscience on a job get him sent from active field duty to a desk job at a secure rural England site where ciphers are broadcast to agents in the field. He was on the receiving end of those broadcasts and now he’s charged with protecting their very existence and dissemination. His colleague at the station, which is an old U.S. military base, is a female civilian named Katherine played by Malin Akerman. The two work in a reinforced bunker and his task is to ensure that she arrives at work every day and executes her broadcasting duties. If she doesn’t show up or perform her duties, the implication is that she will be killed. She doesn’t know at first that the ciphers she sends out activate hits and bombings outside the bounds of normal governmental-military operations. When the site is compromised by a team of terrorists who force another broadcaster to release execution orders against higher ups in “the company,” protocol calls for Emerson to kill Katherine because she knows too much about these black-op, extra-legal goings-on. Emerson, of course, has developed some feelings for Katherine and can’t bring himself to follow those orders. Meanwhile, the station is still under siege and Emerson is pressured by both the company he works for and by the rouge trespassers left to eliminate her if he has any expectation of walking away from the situation. At a certain point, she discovers who he really is and what he’s not only capable of doing but is bound to do. Thus, he finds himself in a fight for his life and with his conscience to do the right thing before confronting one or the other of the threats outside the station. He must also try to convince her that he means her no harm and that they are in this predicament together.

Cusack is very good as the programmed killer struggling with feelings of empathy and ideas of morality in a secretive, by the numbers world where emotions and values s are seen as liabilities. But Cusack’s intelligent, ironical nature is better suited to other kinds of films and his talents are, frankly, wasted here in a part that, as written, doesn’t have much depth to it. He does what he can to deepen the material, but there’s just not much there to work with. It doesn’t help that Akerman lacks charisma and she and Cusack have very little chemistry with one another. The whole broadcast station scenario is fairly original but the story devolves along very routine lines we’ve seen a hundred times before and you just know that the two lead characters are going to become each other’s allies and survive no matter how steep the odds. The routine, formulaic thriller and action sequences to get there don’t really make the investment of 90 minutes worth it. Indeed, the movie seems longer than it actually is because the screenplay by F. Scott Frazier and the direction by Kasper Barfoed just isn’t good enough to engage you moment by moment. At a certain point I even found myself wondering, When is this thing going to be over? It’s just good enough that I stuck with it through the end, but if I never see it again, I won’t mind.

Hot Movie Takes  – “Mistress” 

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

One of my favorite movies about Hollywood is 1992’s “Mistress” starring Robert Wuhl and a great cast of supporting players led by the late Martin Landau and Eli Wallach as well as Robert De Niro, Danny Aiello, Sheryl Lee Ralph, Tuesday Knight, Jean Smart, Laurie Metcalf, Jace Alexander, Christopher Walken and Stefan Gierasch. Enest Borgnine has a brief cameo as himself. Barry Primus, best known as an actor, co-wrote the film with J..F. Lawton (“Pretty Woman,” “Under Siege”) and directed it. This dark comedy capture,s better than most movies about Hollywood, the ruthless, dog-eat-dog world of the industry, especially for those on the wrong side of the tracks or who have seen better days.

The tone is every bit as caustic as “Sunset Boulevard” and the comparisons to Hollywood types with gangsters are every bit as inspired as “Get Shorty’s.” Its depiction of the delirium that affects people in the industry and those wanting in is remindful of “The Player.”

Wuhl plays Marvin, a once hot writer-director reduced to directing public access television shows. Landau plays Jack, a one-time major studio producer now scrounging amidst the scrap heap of losers and  failures. Each has-been was brought down by traumatic career events and have no leverage to get back in the game. Marvin believes he’s left behind the naked hunger to have his work produced until Jack stumbles upon an old script of his and expresses interest in producing it. Jack comes off sunny and light but theres’s a desperate street sensibility in him that leaks through and it becomes increasingly obvious he’s willing to do almost anything to regain the status he once owned. Marvin, at first indignant and defiant at even the suggestion he change anything in his script, almost immediately, imperceptibly begins compromising his principles at the mere chance of getting his script made. By the end, he’s so desperate to get it made that he’s willing to discard everything and everyone dear to him in order feed that ambition.

Jack forces a young wannabe writer named Stuart on Marvin to freshen up the script and make it more marketable. The three backers Jack finds for the picture are earthy monied men who make hard bargains. As a condition for putting up the financing, each requires that his mistress appear in the movie. Each mistress is a head trip all her own. The allure of making movies or being associated with the picture business is a mistress in itself. The whole story is about the seductive appeal of the industry and how people lose perspective when they project things onto the moviemaking process. The idealized excitement and glamour of it all distorts people’s thinking. A veteran screenwriter character in the piece remarks how there’s a weird respect for people who get movies made, no matter how awful they are.

Marvin initially resists the intrusions and compromises Jack throws his way, but he eventually capitulates to all of them the closer it gets him to saying “action” on the set of his bona fide film. The whole house of cards is doomed to collapse when the three backers and their mistresses end up in the same space and all their jealousies, insecurities, hangups, egos and interpersonal dramas spill out.

Even though Jack’s backstreet wheeling and dealing has drawn Marvin into a no-win scenario, Jack really cares about his profession and won’t go down or give in without a fight. Marvin is left dazed and disillusioned by the whole ordeal. But when the phone rings again and the siren call of a meeting with a backer is broached, he’s once again pulled into that intense dream state.

If you’ve never heard of the pic, it may be because this one came and went without much fanfare or box-office. it could have been a classic and maybe even a hit with someone else in the lead part, maybe Richard Dreyfuss or Jeff Bridges in place of Wuhl. It’s not that Wuhl is bad, it’s just that he has limited charisma and depth. Otherwise, the casting is spot on. Landau was never better than as the mass of contradictions he portrays in Jack – at once a dreamer and schemer, a mensch and son-of-a-bitch, an age-less optimist and a bitter, defeated old man. As the three backers, De Niro, Wallach and Aiello find distinctive colors for their greedy, cheating characters. As the mistresses, Tuesday Knight and Jean Smart are good and Sheryl Lee Ralph is great, nearly stealing the entire show.

Laurie Metcalf does an effective job as Marvin’s wife. Christopher Walken gives his usual enigmatic performance – this time as a disturbed actor whose rash decision on the set of a movie many years earlier sent Marvin’s life and career on the skids.

Another director might have also sharpened everything and made the work stronger, but Primus did a serviceable job of bringing to life a very good but not quite great script.

You can find the full movie for free on YouTube.

Hot Movie Takes  – “Harry and the Hendersons” 

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

After watching so many heavy movies on Netflix these past six months, it was time to lighten things up and so Pam and I gave “Harry and the Hendersons” a watch. She’d never seen it. I had, but it was at least 25 years since that viewing, so my memory of it was a bit hazy. I did recall being surprised by how much I liked this comedy about a family that adopts a Big Foot after accidentally hitting it with their car on a forest road. Re-engaging with the movie after all this time, I found myself still enjoying the silly but well executed premise of Big Foot turning out to be a very endearing, not-so-distant human cousin. Harry, as this Big Foot is dubbed, grows extremely attached to the family and they to Harry. I knew Pam would find this a laugh riot and she did. We both agree it’s mindless entertainment but the actor who plays Harry in combination with the puppeteering and the visual effects creates such a vivid reality around Harry, especially its expressive eyes and mouth, that we couldn’t help but being emotionally involved, The whole movie depends on this and it largely succeeds in getting its hooks in you and keeping them there. The other reason for the film’s success is John Lithgow. I’m not a huge fan of his, but he’s really good as the husband-father whose entire life and way of thinking is changed by having Harry around and developing a bond that won’t be broken. Melinda Dillon is wasted as his wife. The actors who play their kids are serviceable but none too memorable. David Suchet is fine as the villainous Big Foot hunter but his character and the whole sub-plot of him tracking Harry down is an annoying contrivance. Don Ameche is also a bright spot as a Big Foot researcher who has his world shaken when he comes face to face with the creature he’d begun to despair really was a myth after all.

I honestly never noticed the name of the film’s director, William Dear, the first time I saw the picture and I’ve not seen anything else from his long list of feature credits, but he does have a knack for comedy. If you’re looking for a good throwback family-run movie, you could do worse, or you could do better, but this movie will satisfy most audiences.

Hot Movie Takes  – “Shadow Dancer” 

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

The 2012 film “Shadow Dancer” portrays the Irish Republican Army’s domestic terrorism and the MI5 or British security service’s extra-legal responses as equally morally bankrupt and provocative opposing sides of an untenable conflict.

Andrea Riseborough is mesmerizing as the protagonist Colette McVeigh, a young woman following her family’s legacy hatred of the British by committing acts of terror in the service of the IRA. We are introduced to her as a young girl, when she loses a brother at the hands of occupying British forces in her native Belfast. When we next meet her, she’s a young mother of one whose conscience or anxiety or both prevent her from fully carrying out a terroristic act in London. Detained and recruited by MI5 agents who’ve been monitoring her, she’s presented a choice by agent Mac, played by Clive Owen. Because they have her cold, it’s a foregone conclusion she will be convicted and go to prison. Perhaps for a very long time. Her boy may very well end up in state care. Or she can turn informant and help bring down operations involving her own brothers. Should she not live up to her end of the bargain, the deal is off and her freedom and life as she knew it is essentially over, The impossibility of her personal dilemma becomes the metaphor for the entire, larger conflict. Whatever she decides to do – and she does agree to be a snitch – she will betray herself, her family and the cause, which for her seems more about avenging the death of her brother than it is about any social-political ideology. Her loyalties are to her family first, the cause second.

As the plot unfolds and we see just how deeply and treacherously the hooks of the IRA are in her and in her family, not unlike underlings having to do the bidding of the Mob, it becomes obvious that she’s having to play the middle against two devils. This no-win predicament of facing threats and doubts from both law enforcement and her own gang is brought home when the scene near the start in which Mac enlists her into informing is paralleled by a later scene in which an IRA officer interrogates her, clearly distrusting her veracity and loyalty. Mac also questions her commitment. The pressure on her is unbearable. Then, with no one else to turn to, she and Mac make things even more complicated when they develop an emotional dependency on one another. Getting involved is against all protocol he’s supposed to follow and he further compromises the whole set-up when he allows his feelings for her to openly question how his superiors are cavalierly using her and then demands she be placed in the equivalent of the witness protection program. He pushes things more with his direct supervisor, played by Gillian Anderson, who recognizes he’s fallen for Colette.

Making matters worse, the local IRA chief, Kevin, is pressing hard to find a mole in the works after an operation’s botched. He suspects that Colette or one of her brothers leaked information and it’s clear he will stop at nothing, including interrogation, torture or murder, until he’s satisfied. With danger all about her, Colette and Mac plan to drop out together and run away. Then he finds case files that explain for the first time who the state is really interested in protecting in this situation and when he tries warning the family, it’s either too late or the information’s been passed onto the IRA. Betrayed once more, Colette and one of her brothers do what they’ve steeled themselves to do since childhood. For them, the war is never over and Mac ends up being just another symbol of what they hate.

Riseborough is well-matched with Owen, who gives his usual authentic angst-ridden performance. He’s one of those actors naturally adept at projecting intelligence and expressing the inner conflict of wrestling with difficult choices.

Tom Bradby adapted his own novel into the screenplay and James Marsh directed. The gritty cinematography by Rob Hardy combined with the severe locations amplify the gray, morally ambiguous and empty no-man’s-land these characters navigate at their own and others’ peril.

“Shadow Dancer” is available on Netflix.

Hot Movie Takes  – “Nightcrawler” 

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

The best film I’ve seen in 2017 is one from 2014, “Nightcrawler,” now showing on Netflix. Jake Gyllenhaal  gives a performance as sociopath Louis Bloom that is on par with Robert De Niro’s similarly disturbed Travis Bickle in “Taxi Driver.” Indeed, “Nightcrawler” reminds me a lot of that classic 1976 Martin Scorsese film written by Paul Schrader. It also reminds me, in terms of certain tones and story-lines, of “Network,” “The Public Eye,” the two films titled “Crash,” “American Psycho” and “Christine” (2016), which I recently reviewed here.

But the rhythms and themes are most reminiscent of “Taxi Driver.” There, the underbelly world traversed by its sociopath is New York City, where Travis Bickle uneasily straddles the mainstream and underworld of that metropolis. From his taxi, he sees a venal world in need of cleansing. As Travis grows more and more alienated and unhinged, he’s unable to interact with the mainstream in a healthy way and turns his obsession into a self-styled vigil ante mission in the underworld, In “Nightcrawler,” the subterranean world that Lou Bloom negotiates is Los Angeles. In his work as a freelance news photographer he sees the random violence and death that is his canvass as fodder for the masses.

When Bickle’s violent,  blood-soaked catharsis is finished, he is made out to be a hero. Similarly, in “Nightcrawler,” Lou finds a hungry market for his own obsession and becomes a successful entrepreneur and legitimized news photographer despite operating outside any approved code of conduct.

Writer-director Dan Gilroy does a masterful job of making you believe that a Lou Bloom can not only survive but thrive in society as a predator and voyeur in service of television news. Bloom exists on the fringes, stealing, manipulating, killing to get whatever he fixes on that he wants. When he happens upon a freelance stringer videographer, Joe Loder (Bill Paxton), at the scene of a bloody accident, he quickly finds himself drawn to the cold calculation of the work. His ability to dissociate from feelings in order  to capture breaking news, no matter how private or gruesome, makes him ideal in some respects for the job. His dark intentions to gain a competitive advantage and his willingness to enact what others might only fantasize, makes him a very scary and dangerous figure. Because he has no boundaries, he crosses all moral, ethical, legal lines in obtaining footage that is pornographic because of its graphic, exploitative nature.

In the character of Nina Romina (Rene Russo), the news director for a ratings poor TV station, he finds a morally-ethically flexible peer so desperate to boost shares that she buys his material and in so doing encourages and becomes complicit in his outside the lines actions. But their bizarre relationship goes much deeper that. He compromises and blackmails her by finding where she’s most vulnerable and thus she not only pays exorbitant prices for his increasingly exclusive and questionable footage but she agrees to tout his work and to give him sexual favors. The filmmaker seems to be commenting on how far people are prepared to go to feed the insatiable appetites of people for the sensational, the gory, the tabloid.

I can’t say enough about Gyllenhaal’s performance. It is  brilliant in its veracity and detail, depth and subtlety, intensity and modulation. This is great work. Because his characterization is mainly interior, I enjoyed it far more than I did his characterization in “Southpaw,” which was much more exterior focused. In “Nightcrawler” Gyllenhaal really climbs into the belly of the beast and draws us into the vortex of his madness with a weird charisma that makes it impossible to take your eyes off him. Russo is very good as his accomplice. Paxton is strong in his brief but telling role. And Riz Ahmed is very good as the assistant Lou hires and pulls deeper and deeper into his demented dark universe. It is a creepy, never less than riveting experience and the very fact that we can’t stop watching it despite the repulsive things it shows or suggests only goes to prove the point the story makes that we are all participants, willing or not, in this voyeuristic media-age.

Hot Movie Takes  – “The Andersonville Trial” 

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

After years of hearing about a legendary television production of the anti-war play “The Andersonville Trial,” I finally saw it on YouTube. While it didn’t quite live up to my expectations, this adaptation of the Sol Levitt play is compelling enough for me to recommend it. There’s really nothing wrong with the physical and aesthetic aspects of the production itself. The content on the other hand is sometimes stilted by the didactic nature of Levitt’s dialogue, which is two hours worth of philosophizing, moralizing and arguing, with long stretches of calm, reasoned reflection broken up by intense rants.

George C. Scott, who starred in the piece on Broadway, directed the TV version for broadcast in 1970. He assembled a great cast to perform what is essentially a filmed play. The trial is a dramatization of the war crimes trial brought against the man in charge of the infamous, open-air Confederate prisoner of war stockade, Camp Sumter, near Andersonville, Georgia, where as many as 40,000 men were confined without shelter, sanitation, provisions. Some 14,000 died there. Swiss native Henry Wirz ran the camp under orders from higher command. After the war he was charged with “combining, confederating and conspiring, together with others to injure the health and destroy the lives of soldiers in the military service of the United States.” The charges carried the penalty of death by hanging. Through the course of the trial, the play explores what the personal culpability of Wirz was and really what that of anyone is in wartime for acts that result in the loss of human life. Does merely following orders excuse one from moral responsibility? While his superiors denied access to better care and more provisions for the prisoners, couldn’t Wirz have contravened those orders and done the right thing anyway, regardless of the disciplinary consequences to himself? Couldn’t he have refused the command? Wirz argues in the trial that in the event he did he would have faced court martial proceedings and that in time of war he may have been found guilty of treason and thus faced death just as he did in this trial.

Wirz was accused of personally injuring and killing some of the prisoners but the evidence for this was flimsy and largely discredited. However, there is no doubt of the horrible conditions he presided over and allowed to not only continue but to worsen, until eventually a hundred men died per day on average.

But the evidence also seems to show he found himself in an untenable human criss often referred to in the play as “hell” over which he had little control and that he became the scapegoat for the atrocities there. The fact he was an unrepentant Confederate autocrat who spoke with a thick accent likely made it easier for the tribunal to cast him as the evil monster deserving of death.

William Shattner stars as the U.S. Army’s prosecuting attorney Col. Chipman. Jack Cassidy is the defense attorney Otis Baker. Cameron Mitchell is the tribunal’s lead judge General Wallace. Richard Basehart is Wirz. They’re all very good. As you would expect, Shattner sometimes overacts in his impassioned pleas. Cassidy delivers the most intelligent performance. Mitchell is very good as the conflicted Wallace. And Basehart well captures the complexity of the desperate Wirz. These principal actors are joined by an astounding array of familiar faces and names in small but affecting roles, including Buddy Ebsen, Albert Salmi, Whit Bissell, John Anderson and Martin Sheen. Even the tribunal’s ranks feature some heavyweight actors, including Charles McGraw and Kenneth Tobey in nonspeaking but nonetheless weighty roles as men bearing witness to proceedings that anticipated the war crime trials and arguments following World War Ii.

I earlier saw this summer on YouTube John Frankenheimer’s 1996 TNT movie “Andersonville” and I recommend it as an excellent companion piece to “The Andersonville Trial” for its depiction of the horrors only talked about in the latter movie.

Hot Movie Takes  – “In Cold Blood” 

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

Seldom has a film so thoroughly imparted a sense of dread, looming physical violence and dark, broken spirits as “in Cold Blood,” the 1967 semi-documentary style adaptation of the Truman Capote classic book. Writer-director Richard Brooks, cinematographer Conrad Hall and composer Quincy Jones create a chilling black and white world in which sociopaths Dick Hickcock and Perry Smith prey with cold calculation upon a world that on the surface they appear to be a part of but they’re really estranged from. They can lie, cheat, steal and kill without compunction because they’re cut off from their own humanity and thus dehumanize the people they encounter. Separate from each other, they’re petty life criminals, but together they form a two-headed monster capable of the atrocity they commit against the Clutter family.

Brooks found just the right balance of a dispassionate yet expressionistic point of view that offers up the pair as curious case studies who blew in like some evil aberration or fairy tale menace on the stark Plains. The naturalism imparted to the film was a marked departure for Brooks, who came out of the old studio system, and it worked quite effectively in bringing to believable life the characters and incidents at the heart of the story.

Scott Wilson as Hickcock and Robert Blake as Smith are extraordinary alone and together in this picture. They endow these characters with details that, along with the writing and settings, reveal shades of their complex personalities and the possible origins of their dysfunction and disturbance.

There are some very good character turns in the movie as well, particularly by Jeff Corey (as Hickcock’s father) and Charles McGraw (as Smith’s father.

For my tastes, I considered this the best true life crime movie I’d seen until “The Executioner’s Song.” The two stories and films share much in common with the exception of the romance angle in the latter. Indeed, the only romantic theme in the earlier film is the thinly veiled reference to a possible attraction or more between the two men.

Brooks did some very strong work in his career, which saw him go from writer to writer-director but this is probably his best film, followed by “Elmer Gantry,” which appears a bit stiff and artificial by comparison.

The unconventional (for him). perhaps New Wave-influenced approach he took “In Cold Blood” gives the film a visceral look and feel that stands the test of time.

Please note that the trailer for the film linked below is oddly old-fashioned in style and doesn’t capture the vitality or verisimilitude of the actual film experience. So, if you’ve never seen the picture, don’t discount it by that trailer.  Find the film and watch it.

Hot Movie Takes  – “The Two Faces of January” 

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

Another really good film from 2014 captured my imagination and tickled my fancy last night: “The Two Faces of January,” which is now available on Netflix. It is writer-director Hossein Amini’s adaptation of a Patricia Highsmith (“Strangers on a Train”) novel about three Americans in 1962 Greece brought together by deceit and desire into a moral quagmire that has fatal consequences for two of them. The dark, acerbic material is loaded with human treachery and Hossein’s calculating treatment of it plays a lot like a Roman Polanski film. Viggo Mortensen and Kirsten Dunst play a seemingly well to do and happily married couple, Chester and Colette, vacationing on the island, where they meet a fellow American, Rydal, played by Oscar Issac, working as a tour guide. Very quickly into things we learn that the couple’s leisurely idyll is really their escape from dire troubles at home and that Rydal, who proves a hustler, is running from something, too.

There’s a strange mutual attraction-repulsion dynamic among the three characters. Rydal sees aspects of his recently departed father, from whom he was estranged, in Chester. The young man still seeking to find himself admires the older, self-made man in his midst. Rydal is also attracted to Colette, who is much closer to his age than she is to the middle-aged Chester. She, in turn, is obviously attracted by Rydal’s natural charm and charisma. The confident but scared Chester knows a con man when he meets one and so even though he likes Rydal, he’s wary of him as a possible romantic threat and criminal complication.

When the trouble Chester and Colette have fled from violently catches up to them, Rydal stumbles onto its aftermath and helps clean up the mess, making the two men accomplices and wanted suspects. The rest of the story revolves around the increasing tension among these three desperate people, each of whom has something on the other. Mortensen, Dunst and Issac are superb. The interplay between Mortensen and Issac is particularly impressive because they convincingly play two men filled with self-hate who recognize much of themselves in each other and therefore both love and despise what they see. Chester is a lifelong criminal capable of extreme violence and yet he has a good heart. Rydal is a sweet man whose petty larceny is more about survival and sport than a way of being. They’re both cunning and adept at adapting quickly in the face of scuttled plans and looming threats.

Chester has money, violence and street smart instincts as his aces in the hole but the handicap of Rydal knowing his secrets. Rydal has the advantage of knowing the language and the burden of the truth.

The film reminded me of “A Simple Plan” in its cascade of ever more dangerous deceptions committed out of fear, lust, greed, jealousy, love and hate.

I personally feel that “The Two Faces of January” loses the considerable head of steam it builds in the first quarter of the picture. The rest of the story works well enough as the machinations turn ever more malicious. But even without knowing exactly where the drama is heading because I’ve never read its source material nor any reviews of the picture, I was also not surprised by what happens. The climax is effective but it didn’t move me as perhaps it might have had the characters’ intentions not been telegraphed so bluntly.

The anxious music. cinematography and editing all heighten the sense of people outside their comfort zones relying on guile and guts to live another day. The exotic locations serve to further the feeling that these  people are out of their elements, though here, too, Rydal has the edge on his friend turned adversary.

There are also some nice allusions to the cruel tricks the gods play on mere mortal humans who are subject to the failings and weaknesses of red hot emotions and desires.

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. › watch?v=spOWFb7zfOo

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

In case you missed it…

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

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


The Place Beyond the Pines Poster


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

Hot Movie Takes  – “The Place Beyond the Pines”

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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 Hot Movie Takes  – “Barry”

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Both films are available on Netflix.

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The Flowers of War Poster

Hot Movie Takes  – “The Flowers of War”

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Casting By Poster

Casting By Official Trailer #1 2013 Documentary HD – YouTube

Hot Movie Takes  – Marion Dougherty

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


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

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

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

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Woody Allen Picture  Alexander Payne Picture


Hot Movie Takes  – Woody Allen and Alexander Payne

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mark Twain

Oscar Wilde

Charles Chaplin

Buster Keaton

Harold LLoyd

Laurel and Hardy

Groucho Marx

W.C. Fields

S.J. Perelman

Frank Capra

George Stevens

Howard Hawks

Preston Sturges

Burns and Allen

Jack Benny

Bob Hope

Billy Wilder

Red Skelton

Ruth Gordon and Garson Kanin

Steve Allen

Jacques Tati

Jerry Lewis 

Nichols and May

Lenny Bruce 

Mort Sahl

Woody Allen

Don Rickles

Richard Pryor

Mel Brooks

George Carlin

Johnny Carson

Dick Cavett

Robert Altman

Green Acres 

All in the Family

Mad Magazine

Saturday Night Live

Second City

Spy Magazine


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

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

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

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

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The Shootist Poster

The Shootist – Trailer – YouTube

Hot Movie Takes  – “The Shootist”

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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Imperial Dreams Poster


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

Hot Movie Takes  – “Imperial Dreams”

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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Slums of Beverly Hills Poster

Slums of Beverly Hills Official Trailer! – YouTube

Hot Movie Takes  – “Slums of Beverly Hills”

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Five Came Back Poster

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

Hot Movie Takes  – “Five Came Back” II

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Poodle Springs Poster

Poodle Springs 1998 – YouTube

Hot Movie Takes  – “Poodle Springs”

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Way Poster

Hot Movie Takes Wednesday

“The Way”

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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Deidra & Laney Rob a Train Poster

Hot Movie Takes Monday:

“Deidra & Laney Rob a Train”

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Coming Through the Rye Poster


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

Hot Movie Takes – “Coming Through the Rye”

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


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

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