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


In case you missed it…

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

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

 

The Place Beyond the Pines Poster

Trailer

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

Hot Movie Takes  – “The Place Beyond the Pines”

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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 Hot Movie Takes  – “Barry”

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Both films are available on Netflix.

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The Flowers of War Poster

Hot Movie Takes  – “The Flowers of War”

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Casting By Poster

Casting By Official Trailer #1 2013 Documentary HD – YouTube

Hot Movie Takes  – Marion Dougherty

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

 

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

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

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

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Woody Allen Picture  Alexander Payne Picture

 

Hot Movie Takes  – Woody Allen and Alexander Payne

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mark Twain

Oscar Wilde

Charles Chaplin

Buster Keaton

Harold LLoyd

Laurel and Hardy

Groucho Marx

W.C. Fields

S.J. Perelman

Frank Capra

George Stevens

Howard Hawks

Preston Sturges

Burns and Allen

Jack Benny

Bob Hope

Billy Wilder

Red Skelton

Ruth Gordon and Garson Kanin

Steve Allen

Jacques Tati

Jerry Lewis 

Nichols and May

Lenny Bruce 

Mort Sahl

Woody Allen

Don Rickles

Richard Pryor

Mel Brooks

George Carlin

Johnny Carson

Dick Cavett

Robert Altman

Green Acres 

All in the Family

Mad Magazine

Saturday Night Live

Second City

Spy Magazine

Soap

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

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

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

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

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The Shootist Poster

The Shootist – Trailer – YouTube

Hot Movie Takes  – “The Shootist”

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Imperial Dreams Poster

Trailer

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

Hot Movie Takes  – “Imperial Dreams”

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Slums of Beverly Hills Poster

Slums of Beverly Hills Official Trailer! – YouTube

Hot Movie Takes  – “Slums of Beverly Hills”

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Five Came Back Poster

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


Hot Movie Takes  – “Five Came Back” II

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Poodle Springs Poster

Poodle Springs 1998 – YouTube

Hot Movie Takes  – “Poodle Springs”

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Way Poster

Hot Movie Takes Wednesday

“The Way”

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Deidra & Laney Rob a Train Poster

Hot Movie Takes Monday:

“Deidra & Laney Rob a Train”

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Coming Through the Rye Poster

Trailer

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

Hot Movie Takes – “Coming Through the Rye”

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

 

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

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