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Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film screenings-discussions – “Downsizing” next on tap, Saturday, May 5


Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film screenings-discussions

Downsizing” next on tap

Saturday, May 5

9:30 am-12:30 pm

MCC @ DoSpace

If you didn’t catch Alexander Payne’s new film “Downsizing” or you did but weren’t sure what to make it, well here’s an opportunity to see one of 2017’s most interesting releases for the first time or to give it a go again.

Join me this spring for my Metropolitan Community College Continuing Education non-credit film screenings-discussions class:

Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film

Saturday mornings @ DoSpace

Through May 12

Register at:

https://coned.mccneb.edu/wconnect/ace/CourseStatus.awp?&Course=18APCOMM303%20&DirectFrom=Schedule

Payne ventured into new territory with “Downsizing,” his first big visual effects film. For it, he collaborated with a-name-above-the-title star in Matt Damon, who heads a large international cast, and re-teamed with old writing partner Jim Taylor. The late 2017 release filmed in Los Angeles, Omaha, Toronto, Norway and other spots has an original take on looming world crisis. It is a stunning visual and deeply moving emotional experience with an unexpected love story rooted in diversity. The foibles and dreams of humanity are given full voice and reign here in what is Payne’s most ambitious film to date.

Must be 18 years old.

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Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film screenings-discussions – “Nebraska” next on tap, Saturday, April 28

April 22, 2018 Leave a comment

 

Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film screenings-discussions

“Nebraska” next on tap

Saturday, April 28

9:30 am-12:30 pm

MCC @ DoSpace

Every Nebraskan needs to see this film, not only because its title is the state’s name but because it captures on the big screen some essential truths about this place and its people that no other motion picture does.

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

Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film

Saturday mornings @ DoSpace

Through May 12

Register at:

http://coned.mccneb.edu/

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

Optional textbook available for purchase at class for $25.95. If you register for all three remaining classes, you can purchase the book at a discount for $20.

Must be 18.

Instructor:

Leo Adam Biga

Author of “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film”

Remaining classes

Alexander Payne: Nebraska

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

MCC at Do Space

Saturday, April 28

9:30am-12:30pm

Alexander Payne: Downsizing 

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

MCC at Do Space

Saturday, May 5

9:30am-12:30pm

Alexander Payne: Recap/Looking Ahead

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

MCC at Do Space

Saturday, May 12

9:30am-12:30pm

Life Itself III: Twenty-plus years of New Horizons stories about people, their passions and their magnificent obsessions

April 20, 2018 Leave a comment

Life Itself III: Twenty-plus years of New Horizons stories about people, their passions and their magnificent obsessions

©by Leo Adam Biga

Author-Journalist-Blogger

John Knicely

A Broadcast Journalism Career Five Decades Strong

https://leoadambiga.com/2018/02/26/john-knicely-a-l…e-decades-strong/

Charlene Butts Ligon

Her Mother’s Daughter

https://leoadambiga.com/2018/01/28/her-mothers-daug…lyn-thomas-butts

Dundee Theater

Cinema Revival for the Ages

https://leoadambiga.com/2017/10/28/dundee-theater-r…ent-for-the-ages/

Syed Mohiuddin

A Tri-Faith Pillar

https://leoadambiga.com/2017/09/01/syed-mohiuddin-a…tiative-in-omaha/

Brenda Council

A Public Servant’s Life

https://leoadambiga.com/2017/06/26/brenda-council-a…ic-servants-life

Bud Shaw

Voyager

https://leoadambiga.com/2017/04/20/voyager-bud-shaw…-scalpel-for-pen/

Tom Gouttierre

An American’s Afghanistan Odyssey

https://leoadambiga.com/2017/02/21/love-affair-with…-like-few-others/

Camille Metoyer Moten

Songstress

https://leoadambiga.com/2016/12/26/camille-metoyer-…ong-in-her-heart/

Tom Osborne

Still Going Strong

https://leoadambiga.com/2016/10/27/living-legend-to…me-of-life-at-79/ 

Ron Hansen

Literary Star Revisits the Old West

https://leoadambiga.com/2016/08/25/literary-star-ro…ew-novel-the-kid/

Paul Johnsgard

Birdman

https://leoadambiga.com/2016/06/24/paul-johnsgard-a…ad-less-traveled/

John Beasley

Living His Dream

https://leoadambiga.com/2016/04/22/john-beasley-living-his-dream/

Lew Hunter

Hollywood Success Story

https://leoadambiga.com/2016/02/25/lew-hunters-smal…story-is-a-doozy/

Bob and Connie Spittler

Creative Couple

https://leoadambiga.com/2015/12/23/bob-and-connie-s…rs-in-the-making/

Father Ken Vavrina

Crossing Bridges

https://leoadambiga.com/2015/10/29/father-ken-vavri…e-serving-others/

Carol Rogers

Singer’s Life Comes Full Circle

https://leoadambiga.com/2015/08/28/life-comes-full-…ger-carol-rogers

David Corbin and Josie Metal-Corbin

Moving Right Along

https://leoadambiga.com/2015/07/03/moving-right-alo…wn-in-retirement/

Paul Williams

Still Alive and Making Music

https://leoadambiga.com/2015/05/01/paul-williams-al…usic-again-at-74

Sam Walker

Social Justice Warrior

https://leoadambiga.com/2014/05/30/justice-champion…it-as-he-sees-it/

Tom Mangelsen

Natural Imagery

https://leoadambiga.com/2015/01/30/natural-imagery-…-comes-back-home/

Gene Hayes

North’s Star

https://leoadambiga.com/2014/12/02/norths-star-gene…orth-high-school/

Vic Gutman and Roberta Wilhelm

A Community-Engaged Couple

https://leoadambiga.com/2014/09/29/alone-or-togethe…to-the-community/

Linda Meigs

The Artist in the Mill

https://leoadambiga.com/2014/08/01/linda-meigs-brin…at-florence-mill/ 

Jim Trebbien

Culinary Artist

https://leoadambiga.com/2015/03/02/culinary-artist-…ommunity-college/

Michael Kelly

Decades of Deadlines

https://leoadambiga.com/2014/04/02/omaha-world-hera…-for-all-seasons/

John and Liz Backus

Upon this Rock, Husband and Wife Pastor Team Shepherds North Omaha Flock

https://leoadambiga.com/2014/02/02/upon-this-rock-h…trinity-lutheran/

Alexander Payne’s “Nebraska”

Movie Laden with Senior Themes and Cast

https://leoadambiga.com/2013/11/30/alexander-paynes…ith-many-viewers

Minne Lusa House

Coffee and Community

https://leoadambiga.com/2013/09/27/minne-lusa-house…on-and-community/

Terrence Crawford and Midge Minor

In Each Other’s Corner

https://leoadambiga.com/2013/07/30/in-his-corner-mi…nce-bud-crawford/

Brenda Allen

Country Western Saga – Nebraska to Vietnam to Vegas

https://leoadambiga.com/2013/06/01/brenda-allens-re…vietnam-to-vegas/ 

Eileen Wirth

Female Journalist Recounts Nebraska Women in Journalism

https://leoadambiga.com/2013/03/22/ex-reporter-eile…ge-to-front-page/

Shirley Jones

Star Recalls “Carousel”

https://leoadambiga.com/2013/05/01/shirley-jones-in…ning-of-carousel/

Susie Baer Collins and Carl Beck

Matched Set Exiting Stage Left

https://leoadambiga.com/2013/02/28/matched-set-susa…munity-playhouse/

Bob Hoig

Newsman, Publisher, Flyer

https://leoadambiga.com/2013/01/25/bob-hoigs-uninte…cades-strong-now/

Theresa Glass Union

Parenting the Second Time Around

https://leoadambiga.com/2012/11/25/parenting-the-se…uts-family-first/

Jose and Linda Garcia

Building Community Through Art

https://leoadambiga.com/2012/09/30/community-builde…-culture-history/

Ben and Freddie Gray

North Omaha Power Couple

https://leoadambiga.com/2012/07/13/gray-matters-ben…hways-to-success/

Bill Cosby

On His Own Terms

https://leoadambiga.com/2012/05/11/bill-cosby-on-his-own-terms/

Linda Lovgren

PR Pioneer

https://leoadambiga.com/2012/03/26/linda-lovgrens-s…f-fame-induction/

Mary Mitchell

Timeless Fashion

https://leoadambiga.com/2012/01/07/timeless-fashion…k-and-exhibition

Nancy Kirk

Fabric and Faith

https://leoadambiga.com/2011/10/21/nancy-kirk-arts-…erfaith-champion/

Howard Silber

Globe-trotter

https://leoadambiga.com/2011/10/06/retired-omaha-wo…nt-globe-trotter/

Mike Denney

Requiem for a Wrestling Dynasty

https://leoadambiga.com/2011/07/28/requiem-for-a-dy…ville-university/

Anne Marie Kenney

Life is a Cabaret

https://leoadambiga.com/2011/05/28/life-is-a-cabare…-omaha-with-love/

Harvey Perlman

University Leader

https://leoadambiga.com/2011/04/02/chancellor-harve…s-in-the-big-ten

Dean Blais

Coach has UNO Hockey Dreaming Big

https://leoadambiga.com/2011/01/29/dean-blais-has-u…key-dreaming-big

Lucile Schaaf

An Old Market Original

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/11/28/luciles-old-market/

Debbie Reynolds

Hollywood Legend Remembers “Singin’ in the Rain”

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/10/31/hollywood-legend…d-at-nov-5-event

Gary Kastrick

South Omaha History Man

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/10/03/gary-kastricks-p…es-its-home-base

Patrick Drickey

Golf Shots

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/08/05/golf-shots-pat-d…eat-golf-courses/

Dick Holland

Giving to those in Need

https://leoadambiga.com/2011/06/04/dick-holland-res…g-needs-in-omaha/

William Kloefkorn

Man of His Words

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/07/07/a-man-of-his-wor…illiam-kloefkorn/

Teela Mickles

Nurturing One Lost Soul at a Time

https://leoadambiga.com/2012/06/29/nurturing-one-lo…-back-to-society/

Jim Suttle

Omaha Mayor

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/08/04/jim-suttle-feels…as-omaha’s-mayor/

Click Westin 

Back in the Screenwriting Game

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/07/11/click-westin-bac…-again-at-age-83/

Bill Sprague and Marcia Hinkle

50 Years Making Music with the Omaha Symphony

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/08/03/marcia-hinkle-an…iversary-players/

John Sorensen

Rediscovering the Abbott Sisters

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/04/26/10/

Connie Spellman

Designing Woman

https://leoadambiga.com/2011/12/13/designing-woman-…-omaha-by-design

Mike Saklar

Whatsoever You Do to the Least of My Brothers

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/08/01/whatsoever-you-d…t-you-do-unto-me/

Lela Knox Shanks

Activist-Advocate

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/08/04/one-day-at-a-tim…alcoholics-story/

Isabella Threlkeld

Art for Life

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/08/04/isabella-threlke…an-uncommon-life

Jim Ramirez

South Omaha Champion

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/08/01/jim-ramirez-a-man-of-the-people/

Michael Voorhies

Bone Hunter

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/08/02/the-bone-hunter/

Catherine Ferguson

Artist Stretches Herself

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/08/01/artist-catherine…-aida-and-beyond/

Mike Green and Dick Davis

Lifetime Friends, Former Backfield Mates, Now Entrepreneurs

https://leoadambiga.com/2011/08/20/lifetime-friends…-black-citizenry/

Ron Hull

A Magical Journey in Public Television

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/07/11/ron-hull’s-magic…ublic-television/

Ron Stander

Still Fighting for Friends in Need

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/05/31/ron-stander-stil…-friends-in-need/ß

Ben Kuroki

Most Honorable Son

https://leoadambiga.com/2018/03/17/ben-kuroki-a-dis…st-honorable-man/

Jo Ann McDowell

Love of Theater Leads to Major Conference

https://leoadambiga.com/2011/05/24/jo-ann-mcdowells…ls-and-conferenc/

Dick Cavett

Homecoming is Sweet for Nebraska Legend

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/12/04/homecoming-is-al…ed-in-nebraska-2/

Black Women in Music

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/07/11/black-women-in-music/

George Pfeifer and Tom Krehbiel

A Good Deal at Boys Town

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/05/31/a-good-deal-geor…-boys-town-hoops/

Buck O’Neil

Negro Leagues Icon

https://leoadambiga.com/2011/08/27/buck-o’neil-and-…lack-perspective

Roger Welsch

Author-Folklorist Mines the American Soul

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/06/19/author-humorist-…he-american-soul/

Marguerita Washington

Guiding an Omaha Star that Never Sets

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/08/02/marguerita-washi…-that-never-sets/

Ted Kooser

Keeper of the Flame

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/06/19/keeper-of-the-fl…inner-ted-kooser/

Everett Reynolds

Civil Rights Champion

https://leoadambiga.com/2011/06/05/rev-everett-reyn…ctivist-preacher/

Edith Buis

A Life Immersed in Art

https://leoadambiga.com/2012/06/11/eddith-buis-a-life-immersed-in-art

Tuskegee Airmen of Omaha

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/06/18/the-tuskegee-airmen/

Nancy Bounds

Omaha Arbiter of Poise, Beauty, Grace

https://leoadambiga.com/2012/02/04/nancy-bounds-a-t…ty-glamour-poise

John and Pegge Hlavacek

A Couple’s Foreign Correspondent Adventures

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/06/02/john-and-pegge-h…n-correspondents/

Harley Cooper 

The Best Boxer You’ve Never Heard Of

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/08/05/harley-cooper-th…e-never-heard-of/

Dick Boyd

Scrooged

https://leoadambiga.com/2011/12/24/dick-boyd-found-…-christmas-carol/ 

Blacks of Distinction II

https://leoadambiga.com/2012/04/01/blacks-of-distinction-ii/

Elaine Jabenis

Theater-Fashion Maven

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/08/04/theater-fashion-…n-elaine-jabenis/

Senior Men of Medicine 

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/08/02/men-of-science/

Don Benning

Man of Steel

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/07/17/don-benning-man-…ots-of-greatness/

“West Side Story”

American Movie Musical Classic

https://leoadambiga.com/2012/08/15/west-side-story-…american-classic/

A Family’s Odyssey with Alzhemier’s 

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/07/11/ill-be-seeing-yo…alzheimers-story/ 

Evie Zysman

A Force of Nature

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/06/16/a-force-of-natur…e-advocate-at-99/

Carole Woods Harris

Breaking Barriers

https://leoadambiga.com/2012/04/17/carole-woods-har…ess-and-politics/

Mary Galligan-Cornett

One Helluva Broad

https://leoadambiga.com/2012/06/09/one-helluva-broa…galligan-cornett/

Peace Corps Veterans

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/06/18/a-peace-corps-retrospective/

Saturday Night Bingo Brigade

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/07/11/the-saturday-night-bingo-brigade/

Ritz Cab Company Remembered 

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/06/18/puttin-on-the-ritz/ 

Ballroom Dancing

https://leoadambiga.com/2011/12/10/gotta-dance-seni…of-staying-young/

Joan Micklin Silver

Filmmaker Paved Path for Women Directors

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/10/10/joan-micklin-sil…-women-directors

Blacks of Distinction I

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/07/11/blacks-of-distinction/

John H

Finding Recovery in AA

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/08/04/one-day-at-a-tim…alcoholics-story

Bill Ramsey

A Korean War Story

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/06/26/a-korean-war-story-2/

Nancy Duncan

Storyteller

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/08/02/nancy-duncan-storyteller/

Omaha Community Playhouse at 75

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/08/04/the-show-goes-on

Charles Bryant

Man on Fire, Soul on Ice

https://leoadambiga.com/2011/12/09/soul-on-ice-man-…ots-of-greatness/

Charles Jones

Looking Homeward

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/08/03/looking-homeward/

Contemplative Sisters of the Good Shepherd

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/07/11/contemplative-compassion/

Tom Lovgren

A Good Man to Have in Your Corner

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/08/03/tom-lovgren-a-go…e-in-your-corner/

Chuck Powell

A Berlin Airlift Story

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/06/18/a-berlin-airlift-story/

Florence Young

Enchanted Life of this Daughter of a Whirling Dervish

https://leoadambiga.com/2011/12/10/the-enchanted-li…whirling-dervish/

Warren Francke

Reporter-turned-educator

https://leoadambiga.com/2012/06/11/from-the-archive…eaching-and-life/  

Bea Karp

Holocaust Survivor

https://leoadambiga.com/2018/03/15/bea-karp-holocau…painful-memories/

Omaha Stockyards

Last Days and Halcyon Times Remembered

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/08/02/the-last-days-an…yards-remembered

Donovan Ketzler

Last of the Rough Riders

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/06/18/last-of-the-rough-riders/

Bob and Roberta Rogers

Art Missionaries at Gallery 72

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/06/19/art-missionaries/

Omaha’s Sweet 16

WWII Service in the All-Black Quarternaster Corps

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/04/30/omahas-sweet-six…master-battalion/

Magnificent Obsession of Art Storz

The Old Man and the Mansion

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/06/15/the-magnificent-…-and-the-mansion/

Bob Gibson

Master of the Mound

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/07/18/bob-gibson-the-m…from-the-diamond/

Preston Love Sr.

Bittersweet Jazz Stylings of Mr. Saturday Night

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/06/03/mr-saturday-night

Kenny Wingo and Dutch Gladfelter

Heart and Soul of the Downtown Boxing Club

https://leoadambiga.com/2011/06/24/heart-and-soul-k…town-boxing-club/

Patricia Neal

Unforgettable Actress

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/09/06/unforgettable-patricia-neal/

Bob Boozer

Basketball Immortal

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/08/14/bob-boozer-basketball-immortal/

Myers Family Funeral Home Legacy

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/07/11/the-myers-legacy…ng-and-community/

Maude Wangberg

Easter Sunday Tornado Survivor Performed in Vaudeville

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/08/02/in-her-101-years…hirl-of-splendor/

When Boys Town Became the Center of the Film World

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/05/31/when-boys-town-b…f-the-film-world/

Fight Doctor Jack Lewis

https://leoadambiga.com/2011/08/20/omahas-fight-doc…al-golden-gloves/

King Kong 

Bringing Back the Old Ballyhoo with Classic Film Revival

https://leoadambiga.com/2011/12/03/bringing-back-cl…carpet-treatment

Helen Jones Woods

Swinging with International Sweethearts of Rhythm: Now Wasn’t That a Time?

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/04/29/17

 

Life Itself II: Eight years of Reader stories about people, their passions and their magnificent obsessions

April 19, 2018 Leave a comment

Life Itself II: Eight years of Reader stories about people, their passions and their magnificent obsessions

©by Leo Adam Biga

Author-Journalist-Blogger

 

Dec 5, 2017
Dec 4, 2017
Nov 2, 2017
Oct 9, 2017 5:00 PM
Oct 10, 2017
Oct 9, 2017
Sep 13, 2017

Photo courtesy of OPS

Sep 11, 2017
Aug 8, 2017

Terry Sanders_Posing at the entrance of the Fair Deal Grocery_Photo by Kevin Lytle

Food insecurity in northeast Omaha is a question of access, education and poverty. more
Jul 7, 2017
Jul 5, 2017
“I’ve been in a hundred struggles in my life, lost almost all of ’em, but I was never afraid, and that’s what I want people to understand.” more
Jun 2, 2017
May 31, 2017
A new approach to addressing community needs is taking root as the public sector stumbles. more
May 16, 2017
May 10, 2017
Payne’s ‘Downsizing’ may be next big thing on world cinema landscape more
Apr 27, 2017
With the end of Obamacare at the top of the national conversation, The Reader talked to the major stakeholders about life before and potentially after the Affordable Care Act. more
Mar 14, 2017 1

Debra Kaplan

Some 700,000 young Americans, including 3,000-plus in Nebraska, enjoy protections under Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals or DACA, but under Trump the work permits and other benefits could end. A diverse coalition supports their retainment. more
Feb 7, 2017

Lectrr

America’s welcomed newcomers escaping dangers and threats for as long as it’s been a nation. Refugees and asylees continue coming and a broad array of community support coalesces to make their resettlement and ultimate self-sufficiency a reality. more
Feb 1, 2017
Dec 7, 2016
Breaking the cycle of poverty in Omaha more
Dec 7, 2016

Debra S Kaplan

Don Curry banks on his “healthy” version of soul food catching on at his niche Omaha Rockets Kanteen and Southern Pitch food truck. His niche concept is wed to a Negro Leagues baseball passion that permeates his brick and mortar and mobile eateries. more
Nov 2, 2016
Exploring interfaith realities isn’t always the provence of groups or unrelated individuals. Interfaith couples such as Sharif Liwaru, who is Muslim, and Gabrielle Gaines Liwari, who is a follower of Jeuss, must find ways to navigate their journey. more
Nov 2, 2016
A force of nature named Dick Holland died at 95 on August 9. The philanthropist’s passing triggered warm, appreciative tributes from leaders of organizations he supported as well as individuals who worked with him or just admired his frank… more
Aug 18, 2016
Borne from outrage over violent African-American deaths, the grassroots Black Lives Matter movement espouses a social action platform to end systemic violence against and mass incarceration of a people. BLM’s loose-knit activists advocate d… more
Aug 11, 2016
When family owners of the Bohemian Cafe announced in May the restaurant was for sale and would close September 24, it marked another casualty among classic eateries calling it quits. An eventual surge in customers wanting to indulge Czech-G… more
Aug 11, 2016
If there is an Omaha Cinema Culture, it cuts across consumer, exhibitor, artist and aspirational experiences. Being far from traditional film centers poses certain barriers, but rich offerings and showplaces exist. Natives pursue and some a… more
Jul 15, 2016
The private doodles Ciara Fortun used to make have evolved into working sketches for collections she now produces for Omaha Fashion Week shows. After debuting at OFW with a formal women’s wear show in March, she’s unveiling a new collectio… more
Jul 11, 2016 5:48 PM Leo Adam Biga Art
Summer Miller’s New Prairie Kitchen Finding Meaning at the Table by Leo A, Biga Omaha author Summer Miller came to write her Gourmand World Cookbook Awards finalist New Prairie Kitchen in the midst of a life reset.  More than a recipe b… more
Jun 22, 2016
A poor inner city North Omaha neighborhood recently gained a $15 million new investment in its at-risk youth. The Girls Inc. of Omaha center at 2811 North 45th Street long ago outgrew its digs in the former Clifton Hill Elementary School b… more
May 19, 2016
When Mondo we Langa died at age 68 in the Nebraska State Penitentiary last month, he’d served 45 years for a crime he always maintained he did not commit. The former David Rice, a poet and artist, was found guilty, along with fellow Black P… more
Apr 25, 2016
As North Omaha Neighborhood Tapestries returns for the Great Plains Theatre Conference’s free PlayFest bill, two community icons take center stage as subject and setting. En route to making her Omaha Star newspaper an institution in the Af… more
Apr 15, 2016
Omaha native Ann Schatz swears she never meant to be a pioneer. She became one as her hometown’s first female sportscaster in the late 1970s, repeating the feat in Portland, Oregon in 1989. From that Pacific Northwest base she’s traveled to… more
Mar 16, 2016
The high concept behind Alexander Payne’s soon to shoot new feature, Downsizing, unfolds in a near future world where humans can opt to be miniaturized. Everything about the story, from the title to the characters to the plot-lines, gives P… more
Mar 4, 2016
It used to be conversations about local filmmakers doing relevant work here began and ended with Alexander Payne and Nik Fackler. That’s changing now and the March 8-13 Omaha Film Festival (OFF) is evidence of it. The 11-year-old fest, bac… more
Mar 4, 2016
Omaha is the adopted home of veteran Hollywood screenwriter and literary novelist John Kaye, 74, whose memoirs are published by the Los Angeles Review of Books.  The mercurial Kaye came 17-months ago from northern California to work on a n… more
Jan 22, 2016
Last August Stuart Chittenden traversed Neb. to test drive the idea that interpersonal communication is intrinsic to building community.  He called the project “A Couple of 830 Mile Long Conversations.” With support from Humanities Nebrask… more
Jan 12, 2016
Omaha’s philanthropic community is known for its unusual generosity. Some attribute this largess to the small town feel of a city where relationships still matter and where it’s possible to rally people around a good idea or cause. Others … more
Nov 24, 2015
Omaha’s philanthropic heavyweights are generally male, old-monied Great White Fathers whose wealth and influence support health, human services, education and the arts. A veteran of this deep-pocketed fraternity is Richard D. Holland. The … more
Nov 24, 2015
The Omaha Star has given African-Americans a voice for 77 years. The newspaper is not only a vital mouthpiece for locals, but a valued hometown connection for natives living elsewhere.  It became an institution under the late Mildred D. Br… more
Nov 24, 2015
The Charles Dickens classic A Christmas Carol has long haunted actor-writer-director John Hardy. Though ghosts have yet to visit him ala Scrooge, the story’s held an enchanted place in Hardy’s heart ever since he got his Equity card acting … more
Nov 10, 2015
With America in the throes of the 1960s civil rights movement, few whites publicly conceded their own prejudice, much less tried seeing things from a black point of view. Lois Mark Stalvey was that exception as she shared her journey from n… more
Nov 9, 2015
You’ve got to be taught to be afraid   Of people whose eyes are oddly made,  … more
Nov 9, 2015
Muddying Omaha’s high quality of life rankings are pockets of chronic poverty and growing new poor populations. Identifiable impoverished sections, homeless communities and shelters exist, but most poverty here is insidious and invisible. … more
Oct 16, 2015
The 2015 downtown Omaha Lit Fest, whose theme is “Nervosa: Science, Psych & Story,” celebrates the reflective power of literature to explore human vulnerability. Worry over terrorism, the economy, climate change, the singularity, genet… more
Sep 19, 2015
Since Sam Meisels arrived in 2013 to head the Buffett Early Childhood Institute, he’s become the academic-based advocate ally to the socially conscious philanthropist who hired him, Susan A. Buffett. The dynastic wealth of the Buffetts has… more
Sep 19, 2015
Until now the Blue Barn Theatre has been like Omaha’s many other small stage companies by operating on a shoestring in makeshift spaces. This grassroots passion project was born of a band of New York drama school transplants afire with the … more
Sep 8, 2015
If you’re an Omaha foodie who believes as many do the local dining out experience has never been better, then you can thank an infusion of original chef-driven and chef-owned eateries for it.   Not coincidentally, many of these places are… more
Sep 4, 2015
Quality-of-life metrics assessing the state of African-American northeast Omaha paint a stark picture. Pockets experience some of America’s worst poverty and gun violence. Disparities contradict Omaha’s high best-place-to-live rankings. Ri… more
Jul 23, 2015
EDITOR’S NOTE:  Senior contributing writer Leo Adam Biga, winner of the 2015 Andy Award for international journalism from the University of Nebraska at Omaha, chronicles recent travels he made in Africa with two-time world boxing champion … more
Jun 27, 2015
Last month State Sen. Ernie Chambers finally got enough fellow legislators to support repealing the death penalty in Nebraska. Capital punishment foes welcome the news, among them Omaha filmmaker Patty Dillon. Her new documentary There Will… more
May 27, 2015
NorthStar Foundation nurtures the dreams of young inner city males. The area’s lone boys-only after school program and summer camp at 4242 North 49th Avenue doesn’t put limits on students, regardless of socio-economic, family or environmen… more
May 18, 2015
Perhaps more than any geographic quadrant of the city, South Omaha owns the richest legacy as a livestock-meatpacking industry hub and historic home to new arrivals fixated on the American Dream. Everyone with South O ties has a story. Whe… more
Apr 16, 2015
Social justice champion Tommie Wilson experienced the civil rights movement as it happened. For her, the good fight has never stopped. While president of the local NAACP she brought a lawsuit against then-Gov. Dave Heineman over redistrict… more
Apr 16, 2015
The 1959 gender-bending film farce Some Like It Hot came at an interesting juncture in the careers of writer-director Billy Wilder and stars Tony Curtis, Jack Lemmon and Marilyn Monroe.  For each legend it marked a career boost. It reaffir… more
Mar 20, 2015
R&B and soul singer-songwriter Dominique Morgan, 33, has emerged as an urban music force with multiple Omaha Entertainment and Arts Awards nominations for his Love Chronicles album. His tunes of love and loss come from personal experie… more
Mar 20, 2015
Three-time Omaha Entertainment and Arts Awards poet nominee Zedeka Poindexter envies the performing outlets high school-age poets have today. The March 17-April 20 Louder Than a Bomb is a case in point. There wasn’t anything like it when sh… more
Mar 10, 2015
The metro’s work-in-progress cinema culture has lately come of age due to a montage of things. Alexander Payne making movies and bringing world-class film artists here. A surge of indigenous indie filmmakers. The advent of Film Streams. The… more
Mar 10, 2015
Since launching hockey in 1997 to subsidize its non-revenue generating sports UNO’s netted a nice return on investment. Maverick hockey crowds rank among the best nationally, with annual ticket revenues of $2 million. When the school droppe… more
Feb 20, 2015
South Omaha native Frank Horejsi doesn’t care if he’s called caretaker, curator, historian, picker, salvager, architectural remnants archeologist or his favorite, urban miner.  Just don’t call him late to a salvage site.  For 30-some year… more
Feb 20, 2015
As an adoptee whose identity quest has shaped his life and as a research specialist investigating people’s family trees, Max Sparber perfectly embodies his “history detective” tagline. His Douglas Country Historical Society fact-finding du… more
Feb 15, 2015
America’s schizophrenic about sex. Images and hookups abound, yet in this information age many folks don’t know, follow or discuss safe practices. That incongruity explains why sexually transmitted diseases are at epidemic levels and why … more
Jan 22, 2015
My, how time flies. It seems only yesterday Omaha’s own Gabrielle Monique Union first caught our attention on the big screen with her scene-stealing turn as the diva rival to Kirsten Dunst in the wickedly funny high school cheerleader comed… more
Dec 5, 2014
Art often expresses culturally-specific stories but until the Omaha-based African Culture Connection surfaced in 2006 West African tales were rarely if ever explored here.  Led by Benin, West Africa native and veteran dancer-choreographer … more
Nov 20, 2014
Former Bellevue West hoops star and Creighton University point guard Josh Dotzler has lived through the saga of Abide, the northeast Omaha ministry his parents started in 1989. Twenty-five years ago Ron and Twany Dotzler stepped out on fai… more
Nov 19, 2014
Alexander Payne is in a position to ask any world class film figure to be his guest of honor at the Film Streams Feature event, the art cinema’s annual big fundraiser. Laura Dern, Debra Winger, Steven Soderbergh, Jane Fonda and the principa… more
Oct 31, 2014
At the end of the day, voters want a choice. If nothing else, the tight Nebraska 2nd Congressional District race pitting incumbent Lee Terry against challenger Brad Ashford gives voters a distinct option.  Pre-election surveys indicate a n… more
Oct 29, 2014
Leah McNary has been there for much of Creighton volleyball’s ascendancy from weak little sister program in the shadow of Big Red to all-grown-up competitor holding its own. “It’s exciting being a part of a process of building a program,” … more
Oct 16, 2014
In the Gloria Gaynor anthem “I Will Survive” a woman declares her personal autonomy. Not needing to find validation in another is a liberating thing worth celebrating in song.  Life imitates art whenever a poor single mother breaks free of… more
Oct 16, 2014
When Jill Anderson made Bram Stoker’s dark transmutation novel Dracula the theme for the 2014 Joslyn Castle Literary Festival she never imagined her own life would be marked by fear-inducing, life-altering transformation. In February the f… more
Oct 1, 2014
Experts say mental illness affects millions of lives each year and yet it often goes ignored and untreated. There’s no national mental health campaign urging people to be screened or to seek help. Accessing needed care can be hard due to a … more
Sep 25, 2014
Photographer Janette Beckman made a name for herself in the 1970s and 1980s capturing the punk scene in her native London and the hip-hop scene in her adopted New York City.  Dubbed “the queen of rock photographers,” her images appeared in… more
Sep 16, 2014
Award-winning filmmaker Maria Agui Carter has much to say about her new film Rebel, the story of a Latina who posed as a man to fight and spy in the American Civil War. Agui Carter will discuss the film, which recently aired as a PBS specia… more
Sep 15, 2014
The downtown Omaha Lit Fest this Friday and Saturday offers a compendium of writing topics and events around the theme Warped: Historical In/Accuracy, Navigating Fact and Fiction, Past and Present. Writing about the past is foremost on the… more
Sep 3, 2014
Omaha artist Watie White’s humanist public art projects reveal the narratives of transitional urban neighborhoods. The dynamics of locations and the people living there shape his site-specific works. Three 2014 projects, one completed and … more
Sep 3, 2014
Rabbi Aryeh Azriel of Omaha’s Temple Israel Synagogue builds bridges between people of different backgrounds and persuasions. Take for example his driving force work with the Tri-Faith Initiative, the project that intends creating a local c… more
Aug 27, 2014
Omaha North running back sensation and recent South Dakota verbal commit Calvin Strong put up sick numbers last season leading his school to its first state football title in the playoff era. His 3,008 rushing yards and 43 touchdowns set st… more
Aug 24, 2014
When the 2012 Sandy Hook tragedy happened Ferial Pearson searched for answers and hope. Her bullied young son provided both when he revealed being comforted by her felt better than staying mad.  That got Pearson, an award-winning local edu… more
Aug 20, 2014
Omaha Fashion Week, the Midwest couture festival that pops up twice a year in the most unexpected places, is one of those signifier events that confirms this isn’t your parents’ city anymore.  It has returned to the much ballyhooed but sil… more
Aug 13, 2014
When Mark Evans accepted the job of Omaha Public Schools superintendent in December 2012, he knew the mission would be immense in this sprawling urban district facing myriad challenges.  With 51,000 students spread out over 86 schools loca… more
Aug 8, 2014
With impresario Gordon Cantiello’s new tribute show The Ring of Fire: The Music of Johnny Cash at The Waiting Room, it’s only natural to consider what makes the singer-songwriter of the title so enduring. The king of hard-scrabble, honky-t… more
Aug 1, 2014
If redevelopment plans for northeast Omaha come to full fruition then that long depressed district will see progress at-scale after years of patchwork promises. Old and new leaders from largely African-American North Omaha will be the drivi… more
Jul 20, 2014
Before a Feb. 27 packed house at the Holland Performing Arts Center a woman strode on stage to introduce playwright-poet-performance artist Daniel Beaty. Schalisha Walker, 25, was unknown to all but a few in the audience. She was there to … more
Jul 14, 2014
Entrepreneurial African missionary Aisha Okudi, 37, laid the foundation for her thriving business and ambitious humanitarian work during a period when she and her children were sometimes homeless. She’d been through worse.  Regardless of h… more
Jul 6, 2014
When Terence “Bud” Crawford defends his WBO lightweight title June 28 at the CenturyLink Center, he’ll fight for himself, his tight-knit family and a boxing community that’s not seen anything like this since 1972. Forty-two years ago heavy… more
Jun 24, 2014
When Terence “Bud” Crawford defends his WBO lightweight title June 28 at the CenturyLink Center, he’ll fight for himself, his tight-knit family and a boxing community that’s not seen anything like this since 1972. Forty-two years ago heavy… more
Jun 23, 2014
Sunday, June 8 Douglas County Historical Society Second Sunday Talk Metropolitan Community College, Fort Omaha Campus, Bldg. 21 (Mule Barn) 2 p.m., Free for members; suggested $5 donation for nonmembers Reservations required at: members@dou… more
Jun 1, 2014
“We’re kindred spirits with respect to the creation of performance and the creation of events to share with an audience,” says Plourde, a New York director. “We create performance, we create live events, we work with groups of artists we co… more
May 21, 2014
The University of Nebraska at Omaha has a veritable folk-hero in its midst in hard-throwing senior softball ace Dana Elsasser, who’s overcame serious challenges to become a pitching phenom. With her near legendary career fast nearing its … more
Apr 28, 2014
In the hybrid realm of slam poetry, where free verse, theater, oral storytelling and forensics converge to make a verbal gumbo, personal expression rules. Impassioned teen anguish stirs the pot to create a heady brew during the Louder T… more
Apr 27, 2014
Credit Omaha writer-director Jason Levering for possessing the temerity to not only consider adapting Stephen King’s meta horror novel The Shining to the stage but to follow through and actually get the master’s approval. Now he’s only ho… more
Mar 14, 2014
Ella, the dramatic musical revue of the life of American songbook diva Ella Fitzgerald at the Omaha Community Playhouse, reveals the anguish behind the legendary performer’s sweet voice and carefree persona. Call it kismet or karma, but… more
Mar 4, 2014
The March 5-9 Omaha Film Festival has gone all digital with its move from Regal Omaha Stadium 16 to Marcus Village Pointe Cinema at 304 No. 174th Street. Besides the sharper projection offered, OFF Program director Marc Longbrake says t… more
Mar 1, 2014
  Omaha ex-pat James Marshall Crotty, co-creator of the underground Monk magazine and author of alternative city guides, gained a cult following for his irreverent dashboard reporting about America’s fringes. His arch leanings are on di… more
Mar 1, 2014
As Omaha glories in Creighton Bluejays hoops superstar Doug McDermott’s historic season, another local sports figure going for greatness flies under the radar. Top Rank boxer Terence “Bud” Crawford challenges for the WBO lightweight tit… more
Feb 21, 2014
Two bodies in the mirror:
one’s me, the other’s you,
 with two far different cultures
some say will bring just strife.
… more
Feb 9, 2014
Filmmaker, musician and psychedelia aficionado Nik Fackler is a millennial seeker. It’s no surprise then he followed his well-crafted made-in-Omaha feature debut Lovely, Still (2008) with documentaries exploring cultures half-a-world away… more
Jan 28, 2014
Art imitates life when siblings Camille Metoyer Moten and Lanette Metoyer Moore evoke the Delany sisters in the African-American oral-history show Having Our Say at the Omaha Community Playhouse. Just as the play’s real-life Sadie and B… more
Jan 27, 2014
The recently launched Omaha Culinary Tours looks to capture foodies and urban explorers alike. Owners Jim Trebbien, Jen Valandra and Suzanne Allen are banking this town’s rich culinary scene is destination worthy enough to support the… more
Jan 14, 2014
  Dreamers from Neb., as from everywhere else, have flocked to Hollywood since the motion picture industry’s start. Softening the harsh realities of making it in Tinsel Town’s dog-eat-dog world, where who you know is often more vital … more
Jan 4, 2014
Sam’s Leon Mexican Foods and Tortilleria is one of this word-of-mouth joints that doesn’t really advertise. This combination dine-in and take-out restaurant, catering service and tortilla factory at 5014 South 20th Street has churned ou… more
Dec 14, 2013
Whether preparing and preserving food or discussing neighborhood concerns, bountiful activity goes on at this clubhouse meets social settlement house at 2737 Mary Street in northeast Omaha. An endeavor at sustainability and community … more
Dec 10, 2013
Addressing the food insecurity problems that nag poverty-stricken northeast Omaha, where access to fresh, organic produce, dairy and bread products is limited, are an array of individuals, organizations, projects and initiatives. Many eff… more
Nov 27, 2013
Organizations serving at-risk kids come and go but few stay the course the way the CW Youth Resource Center, 1510 Cass Street, has since opening in 1978. Founder-director Carl Washington hosts a Nov. 29 open house at CW from 4 to 8 p.m…. more
Nov 18, 2013
Local color, of the achingly human variety, is where Alexander Payne’s new black and white film Nebraska most deeply comes to life. After fall festival premieres abroad and across the U.S., Payne’s coming home to show off the film named… more
Nov 13, 2013
  When the University of Nebraska at Omaha’s Office of Latino and Latin American Studies holds its Nov. 8-9 Cumbre event, it will mark 10 years for this center dedicated to community engagement, applied research and teaching inside and … more
Nov 5, 2013
Long before the Food Network or even television’s start, long before our cult of celebrity, a certain French chef attained such fame that he became a culinary star concocting meals for socialites and royals. Georges Auguste Escoffier li… more
Nov 4, 2013
With words like justice, security, healthy and sustainable increasingly attached to food in America, two Omaha filmmakers with an undisguised POV have plugged into the sustainable edibles culture with a new documentary. In Growing Citie… more
Oct 21, 2013
On a sweltering Sunday afternoon in early July Omaha music guru Nils Anders Erickson takes me for a ride in his PT Cruiser to opine about his magnificent obsession with old things. The singer-songwriter-musician owns Rainbow Music, a co… more
Oct 15, 2013
Writer predilections take precedence at the October 18-19 (downtown) Omaha Lit Fest, an annual orgy of the written word organized by acclaimed resident author Timothy Schaffert (The Coffins of Little Hope). Nine years running Schaffert’… more
Oct 14, 2013
Two years since the U.S. pulled troops out of Iraq Americans still slog it out in Afghanistan — a full 12 years since its start. The dual wars for which so many paid a heavy price will forever be analyzed by the likes of Omaha native Joh… more
Sep 29, 2013
One of Omaha’s oldest brands, Storz beer, is back after nearly a half-century absence and locals are lapping up the suds with gusto. Two Storz family relatives, cousins Tom and John Markel, are reviving the brand as a beer and as the … more
Sep 16, 2013
Sometimes a work of art so well captures the spirit of a people and time that it becomes an enduring cultural talking point. Such is the case with Rudolfo Anaya’s 1972 coming-of-age novel Bless Me, Ultima, widely considered a seminal piec… more
Sep 12, 2013
After wrapping Nebraska the end of 2012 Alexander Payne holed up with editor Kevin Tent in L.A. to edit the film starting Jan. 7 and finally put the project to bed in early August. When I caught up with Payne and a small post crew in mid-… more
Sep 3, 2013
Jim Trebbien has been knocking around the Omaha food scene awhile, the last 25-plus years as dean of culinary arts, hospitality and horticulture at Metropolitan Community College. During that time he’s seen the local food culture evolve f… more
Aug 20, 2013
More than 600 folks turned out Saturday for the 16th Annual Community Block Party hosted by Apostle Vanessa Ward and her husband Keith Ward. As usual this multi-generational celebration of community in a northeast Omaha neighborhood once … more
Aug 12, 2013

BRYCE BRIDGES

Special to The New York Times If you’re a devotee of public television then chances are you saw the work of the late nonfiction filmmaker Gail Levin. The Omaha native and longtime New York City resident died July 31 in a NYC hospice car… more
Aug 10, 2013
Addressing the food insecurity problems that nag poverty-stricken northeast Omaha, where access to fresh, organic produce, dairy and bread products is limited, are an array of individuals, organizations, projects and initiatives. Many eff… more
Aug 5, 2013
When Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s turn to speak came at the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, it was near the end of a long program on a hot August day featuring addresses by civil rights leaders and performances by musician… more
Aug 5, 2013
Pamela Jo Berry saw a need for more art offerings in the section of northeast Omaha where she resides and decided to do something about it. With the help of friends and venues the photographer and mixed media artist created North Omaha … more
Jul 29, 2013
Theater gypsy Gordon Cantiello is back in town again. The stage veteran and former full-time Omaha resident teaches speech and theater at a private school in San Diego, Calif. When he lived here he put on dozens of plays from the early … more
Jul 29, 2013
Father Roy Bourgeois is a troublemaker. The 74-year-old has been roiling the waters for four decades as a social justice activist. Having the courage of his convictions has cost him dearly, including prison and ostracism. During an Au… more
Jul 29, 2013
The July 31-August 5 Native Omaha Days will feature metro-wide black heritage celebrations that on the surface don’t seem to have much to do with the American South. But when local African American families gather for the biennial Days most… more
Jul 22, 2013
Once dubbed a “cheerful subversive” by The New York Times, indie filmmaker Dan Mirvish uses his skills as a provocateur and promoter to get his obscure work noticed by the very mainstream whose noses he sometimes tweaks.  He’s in rare c… more
Jul 19, 2013
Johnny Carson wasn’t called the King of Late Night for nothing. In the days when television ruled American mass media culture the Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson averaged 15 million nightly viewers. That’s three or four times the au… more
Jul 2, 2013
In a state with few destination attractions, Omaha’s Old Market arts-entertainment district packs them in. The draw is not any one or two venues, but a collective of shops, restaurants, bars, galleries and creative spaces, along with the … more
Jun 18, 2013
Compassion in Action’s move to the former Wesley House campus at 2001 North 35th Street is symbolic for CIA founder-executive director Teela Mickles. Her nonprofit serving men, women and children touched by the judicial and penal system… more
Jun 11, 2013
Identical twin brothers from Jewish suburbia, Ezra and Adeev Potash, are Omaha’s unlikely gift to the jazz world. Their soul and funk-infused horn playing has everyone from Big Sam Williams to Wynton Marsalis singing their praises. Ezra… more
Jun 3, 2013
The play’s still the thing with the Great Plains Theatre Conference but organizers are making a concerted effort to expand theater’s definition in order to connect more people to it. The May 26-29 PlayFest is the Metropolitan Community … more
May 11, 2013
The inaugural resident artists at the Carver Bank cultural center couldn’t be more unalike in some ways and more congruent in others.  Carver is the new Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts and Rebuild Foundation endeavor at 2416 Lake Str… more
May 1, 2013
Everything about one of Omaha’s bright new playwrights bespeaks exotica, starting with her name, Beaufield Berry. This biracial, bicoastal creative with model good looks has worked as an actor, a singer, a VIP dancer, a burlesque performe… more
Apr 19, 2013
Journalist and author Stew Magnuson’s new book Wounded Knee 1973: Still Bleeding finds virtually every survivor of that 71-day occupation on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in S.D. sullied in some way. The book by this Omaha native, w… more
Apr 19, 2013
State Sen. Brad Ashford’s poor showing in the April 2 Omaha mayoral primary isn’t deterring him from future elected office bids. The one-time Democrat and long-time Republican ignored advisors and ran as an independent against major par… more
Apr 15, 2013
As the Louder Than a Bomb Omaha Youth Poetry Festival draws to a close after weeks of preliminary bouts and last Sunday’s semi-finals, it appears slam poetry is a new outlet for that rite-of-passage known as adolescence. The 2013 team f… more
Apr 8, 2013
The woman behind the successful media enterprise of the Omaha Star helped inspire two of today’s leading women in media — Chicago Crusader publisher-editor Dorothy Leavell and Radio One chairperson and Omaha native Cathy Hughes. In thi… more
Apr 8, 2013
The civil rights and black power movements seem distant from Omaha until noting that Whitney Young Jr. cut his teeth as an advocate-organizer here and future activst Malcolm X was born here. While Malcolm X moved with his family from Om… more
Mar 17, 2013
You may not know the name but for more than a decade now Omaha native Yolonda Ross has been a stalwart actress in American independent cinema and quality television movies and episodic dramas. Before recently working with a pair of star… more
Mar 5, 2013
With gay marriage being assailed during an Iowa House Judiciary Committee public hearing in 2011 Zach Wahls offered counter testimony that not only charged the proceedings but the national dialogue about the issue. Raised by same sex partn… more
Mar 4, 2013
Four years ago Ruth Marimo sat in the Cass County Jail contemplating suicide. The mother of two and then-undocumented immigrant from Zimbabwe, Africa was there because her estranged husband, whom she says verbally and physically abused he… more
Feb 11, 2013
When writer-actor-composer Daniel Beaty conjures the 25-plus characters he portrays in his provocative one-man show, Emergency, it’s well to remember his riffs on the African-American experience are informed by his own life. His award-w… more
Feb 8, 2013
Soul sister poetesses Michelle Troxclair and Felicia “WithLove” Webster stir the pot to make the spicy mix of Verbal Gumbo, the spoken word series throwing down the third Thursday of every month at House of Loom. The artists launched th… more
Feb 8, 2013
Alberto “Beto” Gonzales believes working one-on-one with youths is the best way to reach them. His work as a mentor and gang prevention-intervention specialist has earned him much recognition, most recently the Martin Luther King Jr. Lega… more
Feb 6, 2013
On its face Watie White’s new public art project at an abandoned North Omaha house could be construed as a privileged white guy coming into the black community to impose his perceptions on that place and its people. But that’s not the c… more
Jan 28, 2013
The much-feted 2012 documentary The House I Live In provokes dialogue wherever it plays for its critique of America’s domestic War on Drugs. Following a January 22 Film Streams screening before a full house, a local panel discussed the fi… more
Jan 28, 2013
When she dreamed of rap stardom back in her hometown of San Antonio, Texas, Tunette Powell went by Short Stack. Today, Tunette will do. After years of search and struggle and a need for attention she fed with men, the 26-year-old Bellevue… more
Jan 23, 2013
It took the civil rights movement to bring segregation in the United States into sharp relief. The South was the epicenter of the racial equality battle but American-style apartheid as well as attempts to dismantle it were everywhere, inc… more
Jan 17, 2013
Signature Old Market spot M’s Pub celebrates 40 years in business this year. It’s a milestone for any independently owned restaurant. But reaching four decades takes on added meaning because when M’s opened in 1973 (a planned 1972 opening… more
Jan 15, 2013
Nebraska’s favorite film son has not shot a single frame here since About Schmidt in 2002. Alexander Payne’s decision to make Nebraska in his home state brought into sharp relief some realities with large implications for his own work a… more
Jan 9, 2013
The subtle twang in the voice of stringed instrument-maker and roots musician John Hargiss betrays his southern Missouri Ozarks origins. As a boy he learned acoustic guitar under his musician-craftsman-woodsman father’s instruction. As a … more
Dec 14, 2012
It’s fitting a new book taking the measure of Nebraska politico legend Ernie Chambers is out just as this old social justice warhorse has proven he still owns the people’s will. In the Nov. 6 general election the 75-year-old Chambers de… more
Dec 7, 2012
A once prominent but long vacant building in Omaha’s African-American hub is now reborn thanks to catalysts bridging the divide between need and opportunity. The former Carver Savings and Loan Association at 2416 Lake St. was Omaha’s fi… more
Nov 28, 2012
In 1968 Francis Ford Coppola led a small cinema caravan to Ogallala, Neb. for the final weeks shooting on his independent road picture The Rain People starring Shirley Knight. Joining them were future fellow film legends George Lucas, Bil… more
Oct 22, 2012
Among the first things you notice at Sage Student Bistro is the staff’s earnestness. Greeters, servers and cooks are all students in Metropolitan Community College’s respected Institute for Culinary Arts, whose sleek building is the face … more
Oct 6, 2012
Beth Seldin Dotan has shepherded the Institute for Holocaust Education in Omaha since its 2000 inception. Before she leaves this fall for a new position in Israel she’ll witness the organization she grew from nothing into the state’s prim… more
Oct 5, 2012
Don’t look now but Michael Beasley is carving out a film-television career rivaling that of his powerhouse father John Beasley (Rudy, The Apostle). The nearly 20 feature and made-for-TV pics he’s booked the last few years have him on th… more
Sep 28, 2012
It should be no surprise the author of languidly paced satirical novels (The Coffins of Little Hope) that delight in peculiar, piquant details should fashion a literary happening along the same lines. Novelist Timothy Schaffert has done… more
Sep 28, 2012
Public television was a dream when Ron Hull joined what became the Nebraska Educational Television network in Lincoln. It was 1955 and the broadcast school graduate arrived inflamed with the possibilities of the fledgling medium. Fifty-… more
Sep 28, 2012
Gabrielle Union has reached a point in her film and television career where she’s doing more meaningful projects. Not by accident either. The maturing actress known for her assertive persona and frank views has been ever more deliberate a… more
Sep 26, 2012
Year two of the Great Omaha Chocolate Festival at UNO celebrates one of popular culture’s great food indulgences. Organizers of the September 30 event, which benefits the Omaha Section of the National Council of Jewish Women, say choc… more
Sep 25, 2012
Freddie Gray knows being second-guessed and scrutinized comes with the job of Omaha Public School Board President. But when she came under fire over her handling of the Nancy Sebring scandal she got more than she bargained for, including … more
Aug 13, 2012
With his new novel True Believers (Random House) Kurt Andersen takes stock of the roiling 1960s through the eyes of a fictional woman whose coming-of-age then unfolded in predictable and inexplicable ways. Through his narrator, attorney… more
Aug 6, 2012
Just as Omaha’s come of age with performing arts venues, nightlife attractions, community events and public spaces, so it’s matured in cinema. This maturation first bloomed when Alexander Payne made features here. Then the local indie f… more
Jul 18, 2012
Omaha’s not always embraced diversity but the local Tri-Faith Initiative may be a history-making model of interfaith cooperation. It’s proceeding with an audacious plan to locate a church, a synagogue a mosque and an ecumenical center on … more
Jul 10, 2012
Participants in girls and women’s sports today should be forgiven if they take for granted the bounty of athletic scholarships, competitive opportunities, training facilities and playing venues afforded them. After all, they’ve never kn… more
Jun 19, 2012
In his notable screen acting career John Beasley has done his share of television both as a one-off guest star (Detroit 1-8-7, Boston Legal, CSI: Miami, NCIS) and recurring player (Everwood, Treme). But in the new TVLand series The Soul… more
Jun 7, 2012
One-liners and nonsequiturs will fly at the June 13-17 Viareo Great American Comedy Festival in Norfolk, Neb., where the late comic great Johnny Carson grew up. This annual celebration of the funny side is equal parts competition, works… more
May 23, 2012
Three traveling baseball exhibitions on view in the metro this spring chart a history with local overtones and signals a comeback for a local organization. The exhibits are courtesy of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum. Omaha’s own Great … more
May 16, 2012
By now America’s accustomed to King of Comedy Bill Cosby turning serious about topics he usually mines humor from. Expressing his celebrity opinions he sometimes touches a nerve, as when he asserted “parenting is not going on” in poor inn… more
May 16, 2012
Self-determination by any means necessary. The sentiment is by Malcolm X, whose incongruous beginnings were in this conservative, white-bread city. Not where you’d expect a revolutionary to originate. Then again, his narrative would be … more
May 3, 2012
Poetry slams pit individuals and teams in bouts of spoken word street soliloquies that bring performers and spectators to tears and cheers the way arts and sports events do. Omaha’s long been home to a thriving adult slam scene, thanks … more
Apr 9, 2012
The 20th century migration African-Americans made from the South to the North and West expanded black enclaves across the nation. While Omaha didn’t experience a huge influx like Chicago or Los Angeles, it was enough to alter the cultural… more
Mar 31, 2012
After weeks of public testimony and closed door meetings on the hotly contested equal employment ordinance giving legal protection to gay and transgender residents, the Omaha City Council decided the issue March 13. Three-term District … more
Mar 26, 2012
Indigenous themes take center stage for a March 24 Omaha Conservatory of Music concert that culminates the school’s “Nebraska Roots: Native American Music of the Omaha Indian Tribe” curriculum. Original Native music handed down through th… more
Mar 21, 2012
Hawk Ostby, one half of the scriptwriting team of Children of Men and Iron Man, will provide an insider’s take on the screenwriting trade at the Omaha Film Festival’s Filmmaking Conference. Speaking by phone from his Vermont home, Ostby… more
Mar 7, 2012
In the 1990s Omaha native Jaime King’s fresh face and lithe body graced the runway fantastic for the likes of Gucci and Alexander McQueen in New York and around the globe. She did provocative shoots for Vogue, Mademoiselle, Glamour, Cosmo… more
Mar 7, 2012
The obvious and not so obvious came into focus when native son Alexander Payne accepted his second Oscar in front of a live audience of his peers and a television viewing audience estimated at 1.2 billion during Sunday’s Academy Awards. … more
Feb 29, 2012
The unpretentious, homey American GI Forum restaurant at 2002 N Street is a Tex-Mex bargain whose popular specials make this a busy joint. But unless you’re a South Omahan or get tipped off to the place by someone, this best-kept-secret… more
Jan 25, 2012
When Alexander Payne’s turn came to speak in the glow of The Descendants winning best motion picture drama at the Golden Globes, he made sure to thank the people of Hawaii and author Kaui Hart Hemmings. He did something few directors do… more
Jan 25, 2012
Brigitte McQueen is hell-bent on revolution. The entrepreneurial arts maven first made a splash with Pulp in Benson. Then she revived the Bemis Underground in the Old Market. Now she’s about to shake up North Omaha via The Union for Con… more
Dec 8, 2011
The annual Renaissance Madrigal Christmas Feast at the Omaha Marriott is equal parts Tony and Tina’s Wedding, Shakespeare, Knights of the Round Table and Food Network theme show. That is if the theme is a Saxon bacchanal. A food orgy all … more
Nov 19, 2011
Singer-songwriter-turntable artist SA Martinez is a cog in the successful rock band 311 that started in Omaha 21 years ago and is still going strong today from its Southern Calif.-base. Recordings and national tours keep the group, whose … more
Nov 16, 2011
In his well-reviewed new film The Descendants Alexander Payne reframes the Hawaiian idyll as gritty American terrain where history and culture intersect with human aspirations and failings. The festival favorite follows an island clan s… more
Nov 11, 2011
South Omaha native son David Krajicek’s crime writing has branded him Mr. Murder, so it’s only apt he looks the heavy with his bearded mug, bouncer glare and imposing size. This tabloid poet and rebel, who hails from a long line of barkee… more
Oct 27, 2011
Brigitte McQueen is hell-bent on revolution. The entrepreneurial arts maven first made a splash with Pulp in Benson. Then she revived the Bemis Underground in the Old Market. Now she’s about to shake up North Omaha via the Union for Con… more
Oct 22, 2011
John Beasley got tired of being tired. You’ve likely learned the John Beasley Theater & Workshop’s urgent appeal for funds to relieve its financial distress has been answered, and the once-endangered 2011-2012 season saved. But yo… more
Oct 19, 2011
When Alexander Payne cast locals Nicholas D’Agosto and Chris Klein in Election, he opened doors for the two dreamy, boy-next-door types. Klein burned hot and bright before flaming out. D’Agosto’s gradual rise may reach new heights with … more
Oct 11, 2011
In his capsule of the 2011 (downtown) Omaha Lit Fest, founder-director and novelist Timothy Schaffert draws a parallel with The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Specifically, to the humbug Wizard’s endowing the Tin Woodman with a heart made of sil… more
Oct 11, 2011
Last month a New York City audience embraced the world premiere of the multimedia concert piece, Portals, and now the work’s come back to its other home, Omaha’s KANEKO, for performances October 5-6. As creative director, acclaimed viol… more
Oct 4, 2011
John Sorensen is like many Nebraska creatives who left to pursue a passion. The Grand Island native and longtime New York City resident worked with master filmmaker Alexander MacKendrick (The Sweet Smell of Success) and Broadway legends… more
Sep 30, 2011
The uneasy place which race inhabits in the collective American psyche leaves most discussions of the subject to academics, activists or attorneys. But its reality permeates much of the social-cultural fabric.  Rhetoric about race is co… more
Sep 29, 2011
However you feel about Alexander Payne’s work, the cinema landscape is richer now that he’s back with his first feature since Sideways. That’s certainly the consensus among reviewers who’ve seen his The Descendants. The September 10 pre… more
Sep 17, 2011

Jason McClaren

Early in his life as a brother in the Society of Jesus, his superiors asked Mike Willmot what kind of work he wanted to do. The former Marquette (Milwaukee, Wis.) University High School three-sport athlete said he wanted to coach. Perhaps… more
Sep 8, 2011
Ferial (Mohamed) Pearson’s work with GLBT and other high-risk youths at South High Magnet School earned her the 2010 Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network’s National Educator of the Year award and the 2011 National Education Associa… more
Aug 25, 2011
A small town Nebraska son who cut his teeth on the movies is living his cinema dream producing an independent feature starring Oscar-winner Ernest Borgnine in the title role of The Man Who Shook the Hand of Vicente Fernandez. The film, … more
Aug 15, 2011
Public radio’s popular Whad’Ya Know?, headlined by creator-producer-host Michael Feldman, comes to the Holland Performing Arts Center for a live, two-hour road show Aug. 13. Produced by Wisconsin Public Radio and distributed by Public Rad… more
Aug 12, 2011
Fresh off the warm reception given his debut feature, Lovely, Still, Omaha’s Film Dude, Nik Fackler, says his next two film projects will be documentaries. Following the path of cinema adventurer Werner Herzog, Fackler’s tramping off to… more
Aug 10, 2011
With Native Omaha Days over, another traditional African-American summer gathering, the Bryant-Fisher Family Reunion, begins. The biennial Native Omaha Days began in 1977. But it’s a newbie compared to the historic annual reunion that d… more
Aug 3, 2011
Through August 1 Native Omaha Days Various sites, venues Hours, prices vary www.nativeomahans.com Let’s get this out of the way right now: Native Omaha Days is not just for “black folk.” Yes, this biennial community reunion is a lar… more
Jul 23, 2011
Recent adoption of the North Omaha Village Revitalization Plan into the city master plan gives direction and impetus to energizing a stagnated, disinvested area never fully recovered from decades-ago civil disturbance and urban renewal. … more
Jul 22, 2011
Rev. Everett Reynolds was not from Nebraska but he’s remembered as someone who made a significant mark here.  The St. Louis, Mo. native passed earlier this week in Omaha at age 83.  As a United Methodist minister and community leader … more
Jul 21, 2011
Make no mistake about it, filmmaker Omowale Akintunde intends for his 2010 racially-charged Omaha-made feature, Wigger, to provoke a strong response. After premiering here last year, and in limited theatrical release around the country,… more
Jul 21, 2011
Omaha’s oldest social service agency closed earlier this year with a whimper, not a bang. The Wesley House Community Center, a United Methodist Church mission since 1872, has ended 139 years of service, confirmed Rev. Stephanie Ahlschwede, … more
May 20, 2011
Four years ago Daniel Mayorga-Alvarez and Treasure Anderson took the challenge of enrolling in a new high school with strict disciplinary codes, high academic standards and the requirement of working a paid internship. The teens signed on … more
May 12, 2011
Rumors about the impending demise of a north Omaha cultural institution began flying last fall when Loves Jazz & Arts Center, 2510 N. 24th St., took an extended break from normal operations. Even the hint of trouble alarmed the Africa… more
May 5, 2011
With all the fabulous things Alice Kim ‘s done in New York City and now her entrepreneurial foray in Omaha, she says what she’s proudest of is helping people. At InStyle she says she found great satisfaction “helping small designers get nat… more
May 5, 2011

BRYCE BRIDGES

Read More: Kim helps locals realize NYC dream Alice Kim’s story of leaving New York City for Omaha has gotten much play. In 2007, the then- InStyle magazine accessories editor acted on her admittedly “weird,” long-held preoccupation with … more
May 5, 2011

ADAM BRUBAKER

If you go to Sons of Italy expecting a “Jersey Shore” or Goodfellas scene, you’ll leave disappointed. If you anticipate a square meal and a fair deal, minus any drama, you’ll leave satisfied, and probably stuffed. The Nebraska chapter of t… more
Apr 28, 2011

PROVIDED BY RANDY BROWN

See also: Tax form led Sun to Boys Town’s ‘hidden’ assets When readers picked up their March 30, 1972 issue of the weekly Sun Newspaper , they could hardly believe their eyes. The small but enterprising paper with multiple neighborhood … more
Apr 27, 2011
Timothy Schaffert’s new novel The Coffins of Little Hope (Unbridled) takes its elegiac tone from Essie, the elderly obit writer and sage of a fading ag town. Her inquisitiveness and intuition make her the apt narrator for relating this rura… more
Apr 13, 2011
Storytellers drawn to boxing’s inherent drama invariably find redemption at its soul and conflict as its heart. Ring tales are on a roll thanks to Mark Wahlberg’s Oscar-winning film The Fighter and FX’s series, “Lights Out,” (the series fi… more
Mar 31, 2011
In the space of a few years Charles Fairbanks has gone from conventional prep and collegiate wrestler to one of the few gringo performers of Lucha Libre, Mexico’s equivalent of WWE (World Wrestling Entertainment). Amid a world of masked f… more
Mar 3, 2011
Film festivals are the brothels of cinema. High-end ones offer uniform quality. Low-rent ones are enter-at-your-own-risk propositions. In its sixth year, the Omaha Film Festival, showing now through March 6 at the Great Escape Theatre, is … more
Mar 2, 2011
Steven Soderbergh may not generate the snobby, effete buzz of some name directors, yet he’s arguably the most prolific and accomplished American filmmaker of the past 20 years. As special guest for the Feb. 20 Film Streams Feature Event III… more
Feb 10, 2011
Omaha Symphony Orchestra music director Thomas Wilkins was first inspired to be a conductor at age 8 during a Virginia Symphony Orchestra pops performance in his hometown of Norfolk, Virginia. From the opening rendition of “The Star Spangle… more
Jan 13, 2011
Omaha native and Emmy Award-winning documentarian Gail Levin profiles actor Jeff Bridges in a new film kicking off the 25th season of “American Masters,” a series produced for PBS by New York Public Media THIRTEEN in association with WNET. … more
Jan 11, 2011
Coming soon. The words on the hand-printed sign affixed to the glass doors of the rebuilt Bagel Bin, at 1215 S. 119th St., seem benign enough. But behind the hopeful words is the bittersweet story of a family-owned kosher bakery that went… more
Dec 2, 2010
Bill Maher gets real Acerbic television host and political comic Bill Maher views the 60-70 stand-up gigs he does each year as opportunities to connect with the American gestalt. His Oct. 24 Omaha Music Hall show will be among them. “W… more
Oct 21, 2010
Oct. 26 An Inaugural Ride to Freedom Film Streams’ Ruth Sokolof Theater 1340 Mike Fahey St. Screening and post-show Q & A w/ director Akintunde $9, $7 seniors/students/teachers/military 7 p.m., 933.0259, filmstreams.org Get on the bu… more
Oct 21, 2010
Lovely, Still enjoys wide release When Martin Landau spins anecdotes about icons he’s worked with during a celebrated acting career, it is a Who’s Who of Hollywood. James Dean, Cary Grant, Alfred Hitchcock, Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton,… more
Oct 1, 2010
Omaha’s desired brand as a progressive, livable, eco-friendly burg with enhanced mobility options took a step forward with city government’s recent hiring of Carlos Morales as the city’s first bicycle pedestrian coordinator. Morales start… more
Sep 24, 2010

 

Life Itself: Six years of Omaha Magazine stories about people. their passions and their magnificent obsessions

April 18, 2018 Leave a comment

Life Itself: Six years of Omaha Magazine stories about people. their passions and their magnificent obsessions

©by Leo Adam Biga

Author-Journalist-Blogger

 

Park Avenue Revitalization & Gentrification

February 16, 2018 · Posted In: MidtownOmaha HomePlaces
As revitalization has come to diverse and densely packed Park Avenue, a tale of two neighborhoods has emerged. The north end—near 30th and Leavenworth streets and Midtown Crossing—finds a millennial haven of developer-renovated historic properties […]

Alexander Payne’s Homecoming

February 13, 2018 · Posted In: FilmOmaha MagazinePeople
Alexander Payne’s new tragicomedy Downsizing imagines the fate of an overpopulated world hanging in the balance due to depleted natural resources. When scientists find a way to miniaturize humans, adventurous souls choose going small as an […]

The State of Volleyball

December 27, 2017 · Posted In: Omaha MagazineSports
For generations, football gave Nebraska a statewide identity. But with Husker gridiron fortunes flagging, volleyball is the new signature sport with booming participation and success. Here and nationally, more girls now play volleyball than basketball […]

Huskers’ Winning Tradition

December 18, 2017 · Posted In: Web Exclusive
The University of Nebraska-Lincoln volleyball team entered 2017 with tempered expectations after losing three All-Americans and two assistant coaches from the previous season. But what began as a rebuilding year became a 32-4 national championship […]

Downsizing Home Cameos

November 17, 2017 · Posted In: Omaha Home
When Oscar-winning filmmaker Alexander Payne prepares a film, he not only auditions actors but locations, too. The writer-director insists on actual locations whenever possible. When he films in his hometown of Omaha, he’s extra keen […]

A Fluid Life

November 10, 2017 · Posted In: ArtEncounterEntertainmentLifestyle
Fluid. That’s how digital graphic designer and fine art painter Dana Oltman describes her aesthetic. As art director for Identity Marketing Group (she was previously at Rebel Interactive) she fulfills client project wishes. She says […]

Francophile

October 9, 2017 · Posted In: 60 Plus in OmahaPeople
Half a century ago, while attending Mercy High School, Anne Marie Kenny cultivated a Francophile passion. At 21, she followed it to realize a dream of being a cabaret artist in France. She went from […]

An Omaha Hockey Legend in the Making

October 5, 2017 · Posted In: Omaha MagazineSports
Former UNO hockey star Jake Guentzel left school in 2016, after junior year, to pursue his dream of playing professionally. No one expected what happened next. The boyish newcomer with the impish smile went from […]

100 Years Strong

August 7, 2017 · Posted In: FamilyOmaha Home
The Bryant-Fisher family reunion celebrates an important milestone in 2017—its 100th anniversary. The three-day reunion event will conclude with a final day of festivities in Elmwood Park. The “Dozens of Cousins,” named for the 12 […]

Baseball and Soul Food

July 3, 2017 · Posted In: Food & DrinkOmaha MagazineRestaurants
When baseball still ruled as the national pastime, Omaha showcased the game’s still prevalent but loosening black-white divide. In 1947, the year Jackie Robinson broke Major League Baseball’s color barrier, the barnstorming Omaha Rockets began […]

Mural Man

June 2, 2017 · Posted In: ArtLifestyleOmaha MagazinePublications
Visual artist Mike Giron’s creative life spans studio practice, teaching, and working with A Midsummer’s Mural and South Omaha Mural Project teams. “In my studio work, I have no idea what’s going to happen—I just […]

In Their Own Words

May 25, 2017 · Posted In: 60 Plus in OmahaArt,Lifestyle
Members of the Greatest Generation tell their own stories in a locally produced documentary, 48 Stars. The in-progress film features personal testimonies from World War II veterans. War buff Shawn Schmidt conceived the project. His […]

The Tail-Gunner’s Grandson

May 1, 2017 · Posted In: 60 Plus in OmahaArt,History
Filmmaker Ben Drickey’s lifelong fascination with history turned personal in 2001. That’s when he documented his grandfather’s return to Germany, revisiting the sites where the U.S. Army Air Corps serviceman crashed and was captured during […]

Crazy Gringa Hot Sauce

April 26, 2017 · Posted In: B2B Magazine,BusinessOmaha Magazine
Mary Current and her son, Anderson Current, started making hot sauce three years ago. She never planned on being a commercial food producer despite working the front and back of the house at restaurants, studying […]

Kevin Simonson

April 25, 2017 · Posted In: Omaha Magazine,People
Kevin Simonson of Omaha realizes he occupies an unlikely position as a leading chronicler of that dark jester of American letters, the late Hunter S. Thompson. Thompson, a New Journalism exponent, gained a Grateful Dead-like […]

Austin Ortega

February 23, 2017 · Posted In: Omaha Magazine,PeopleSports
How did a smallish soccer-playing Hispanic kid from sun-drenched Escondido, California, end up an ice hockey star in Nebraska? Although his profile does not fit the stereotypical hockey player, UNO Mavericks forward Austin Ortega has […]

Omaha Small Business Network

February 7, 2017 · Posted In: B2B Magazine,BusinessBusiness ProfilesPublications
“What OSBN seeks to do is to initially bridge that gap between the bank and the consumer. But after receiving an OSBN loan, our desire is for you to become bankable. Each opportunity with OSBN […]

Marlin Briscoe

December 29, 2016 · Posted In: 60 Plus in Omaha,EntertainmentPublicationsSports
Omaha native Marlin Briscoe made history in 1968 as the NFL’s first black starting quarterback. His success as a signal-caller carried huge symbolic and practical weight by disproving the then-popular misconception that blacks lacked the […]

Gabrielle Union

December 21, 2016 · Posted In: Entertainment,Omaha MagazinePublicationsTheatre
Actress Gabrielle Union projects her natural intelligence and feistiness in whatever role she undertakes. The Omaha native is never at a loss for words or opinions. She decries Hollywood’s male-dominated, white-centric ways and lack of […]

Location Scout and Producer Jamie Vesay

October 11, 2016 · Posted In: ArtLifestyleOmaha MagazinePeoplePublications
When it comes to shooting video, Jamie Vesay of Omaha is a handler, facilitator, fixer, procurer, and—as his LinkedIn site puts it—“minutia wrangler” and “chaos killer.” He works on television commercials, music videos, and feature […]

Artist Erin Blayney

October 2, 2016 · Posted In: ArtDowntown,DowntownEncounterLifestyleNeighborhoods,Publications
For visual artist Erin Blayney, who grew up in the great outdoors, it’s all about light and space. She has plenty of both at her Old Market apartment that   doubles as her studio. Natural light […]

Coding & Community

February 2, 2016 · Posted In: B2B Magazine,BusinessLeadersPublications
Shonna Dorsey has merged an aptitude for technology with a desire to help others via Interface Web School, Omaha’s latest cyber-ed iteration. It’s not the first time she’s combined her entrepreneurial, networking, and community interests. […]

Talking It Out

January 25, 2016 · Posted In: LifestyleNonprofit,Omaha MagazinePublications
When Catholic Charities of Omaha looked for somebody to take over its open race and identity forum, Omaha Table Talk, it found the right host in Inclusive Communities. Formerly a chapter of the National Conference […]

The Nelson Mandela Way

January 20, 2016 · Posted In: EducationFamily,NeighborhoodsNorth OmahaOmaha Magazine,Publications
  North Omaha may be reversing five decades of capital resources leaving the community with little else but social services coming in. Emerging    business, housing, and community projects are spearheading a revitalization, and a new school[…]

Time Out

December 18, 2015 · Posted In: Food & Drink,Omaha MagazinePublicationsRestaurants
The official name of this long-lived north Omaha business is Time Out Foods. “But Time Out Chicken is what everybody tags us as,” says owner Steve Mercer. He’s even bought that Google domain. With a […]

His Little Corner of the Sky

December 9, 2015 · Posted In: LifestyleOmaha MagazinePeoplePublications
Omaha Police Department gang intervention specialist Alberto “Beto” Gonzales grew up in a South Omaha “monster barrio” as an outsider fresh from the Texas-Mexican border. Working out of the South Omaha Precinct and South Omaha […]

Year of the Startup

November 17, 2015 · Posted In: B2B Magazine,BusinessEntrepreneursPublications
The emerging startup accelerator scene supports creative-minded risk-takers looking for an edge to follow their passion and bring their ideas to fruition. Sebastian Hunt, 25, is passionate about giving entrepreneurs like himself a nurturing space […]

Touched by Tokyo

August 26, 2016 · Posted In: LifestyleOmaha MagazinePeoplePublications
If you don’t consider Omaha a beauty-style launching pad, think again. Homegrown talents Jaime King and Gabrielle Union tear it up on screen, in photo spreads, and for the red carpet. Designer Kate Walz has […]

The Silo Crusher

The story of athletics at the University of Nebraska at Omaha has fluctuated from wild success to heartbreak (and back). All-Americans, post-season runs, and national title traditions collided with mismanagement and sparse spectator attendance. Then […]

Stephanie Kurtzuba

August 8, 2016 · Posted In: ArtLifestyleOmaha MagazinePeoplePublications
Stage and screen actress Stephanie Kurtzuba has graced Hollywood red carpets and Broadway billboards, but she is most comfortable at her family’s West Lanes Bowling Center in her hometown of Omaha. The Central High School […]

Tim Christian

September 9, 2015 · Posted In: ArtLifestyleOmaha MagazinePublications
This article appears in the Sept./Oct. 2015 issue of Omaha Magazine. Nebraska lacks an infrastructure to support a film industry. Omaha Creighton Prep graduate Timothy Christian is trying to change that. After years away pursuing […]

Jocelyn and Deven Muhammad

August 26, 2015 · Posted In: LifestyleOmaha MagazinePeoplePublications
This article appears in July/August 2015 Omaha Magazine. Since coming out a few years ago, Jocelyn and Deven Muhammad have been known as “the gay siblings.” But as a LGBT Nebraskans profile put it: “That’s […]

When Hair, Makeup, and Style Become Art

June 10, 2015 · Posted In: LifestyleOmaha MagazinePeoplePublicationsStyleStylists
This article originally published in May/June 2015 edition of Omaha Magazine. In 2007, hair stylist and makeup artist Omar Rodriguez left his native Puerto Rico for love. He moved to Omaha to be with his then-partner, […]

Making the Cut

May 5, 2015 · Posted In: EntertainmentLifestyleMusicOmaha MagazinePeoplePublications
This article appears in May/June 2015 edition of Omaha Magazine. Film and video production is still a rather male-centric domain, but the realm of editing is much more gender-balanced. Omaha native Taylor Tracy, a music […]

Marc Longbrake

April 22, 2015 · Posted In: LifestyleOmaha MagazinePeoplePublications
Techie Marc Longbrake was in college when he lost it at the movies. Intrigued with doing something in cinema, he managed computer-aided drafting designers for his 9-to-5 but crewed on local independent film projects for […]

A Joyful Noise

April 21, 2015 · Posted In: 60 Plus in OmahaPublicationsReligion
Originally published in March/April 2015 edition of 60-Plus. Electric. Eclectic. Inspired. All of those descriptors apply to Sacred Heart Catholic Church’s Freedom Choir. Home for this contemporary gospel choir is a Late Gothic Revival-style house […]

Chef Jason Hughes

March 24, 2015 · Posted In: Central OmahaChefsFood & DrinkOmaha MagazinePublications
Since assuming the executive chef position at Happy Hollow Country Club in 2013 Jason Hughes has emerged as one of the city’s new culinary stars, introducing a strong farm-to-table regimen there. Not only has his […]

From the Heart

March 17, 2015 · Posted In: Omaha MagazinePeoplePublications
Upon moving to Omaha in 2010, little suggested Tunette Powell would take the city by storm. She was weighted down by a heavy past and an uncertain future in a new city. But then this […]

Matinee Marriage

March 16, 2015 · Posted In: EntertainmentOmaha MagazinePublications
The metro’s small but robust cinema community includes Film Streams and the Omaha Film Festival (see related story on page 42) along with several working industry professionals, among them Oscar-winning cinematographer Mauro Fiore (Avatar). He’s […]

Anne Thorne Weaver

February 18, 2015 · Posted In: LifestyleOmaha MagazinePeople
National Society of Colonial Dames diva Anne Thorne Weaver is at an age when she says and does what she wants. Fortunately for Omaha, this patron puts her money where her mouth is in supporting […]

Sparring For Omaha

January 9, 2015 · Posted In: EntertainmentOmaha MagazinePublicationsSports
Terence “Bud” Crawford grew up a multi-sport athlete in North Omaha, but street fighting most brought out his hyper-competitiveness, supreme confidence, fierce determination, and controlled fury. He long ago spoke of being a world champion. […]

Faith, Friends, and Facebook

January 7, 2015 · Posted In: 60 Plus in OmahaLifestyleOmaha HomePeoplePublications
Popular singer-actress Camille Metoyer Moten is a fun-loving, free-spirited soldier of faith. That faith got tested starting with an April 2012 breast cancer diagnosis. After treatments and surgeries over two years she gratefully proclaims, “I […]

Having it all

December 4, 2014 · Posted In: BusinessEntrepreneursLeadersLifestyleOmaha MagazinePeople
Even if Viv Ewing was not one half of a dynamic Omaha couple—she’s married to Douglas County Treasurer John Ewing Jr.—she’d still be among the metro’s more intriguing figures. Her “done it all” resume is […]

Bruce Crawford

December 2, 2014 · Posted In: EntertainmentLifestyleOmaha MagazinePeople
With the Nov. 7 screening of Alfred Hitchcock’s classic The Birds, featuring a guest appearance by star Tippi Hedren, impresario Bruce Crawford marks his 35th film event over 22 years. The screening is a Nebraska […]

Milton Kleinberg

November 5, 2014 · Posted In: 60 Plus in OmahaOmaha MagazinePeople
As a child in Poland, Milton Kleinberg got caught up in a little known chapter of the Holocaust when he and his family were among Jews exiled to Soviet labor camps. The forced journey took […]

Tanya Cook

October 20, 2014 · Posted In: LifestyleOmaha MagazinePeople
An abiding curiosity led Neb. State Sen. Tanya Cook to serve as an official observer during the presidential election in war-torn Ukraine earlier this year. Joining a Ukrainian Congress Committee of America delegation, she witnessed […]

Big Mama, Bigger Heart

Patricia Givens Barron, the woman behind Big Mama’s Kitchen in North Omaha, is known for her soul food. And for giving folks who’ve run afoul of the law a second chance. Her desire to give […]

Mary Carrick

July 12, 2014 · Posted In: EncounterLifestylePeople
If the late soul master James Brown was the hardest working man in show business, then singer Mary Carrick is Omaha’s hardest working woman in entertainment. When the Nebraska Arts Council touring artist isn’t performing […]

Omaha Code School

Entrepreneurial techie Sumeet Jain is poised to fill a gap in the metro’s dot-com scene through a for-profit startup he founded last fall with his cousin Rahul Gupta. The pair’s Omaha Code School aims to […]

Rabbi Azriel

May 14, 2014 · Posted In: LifestyleOmaha MagazinePeoplePublications
Rabbi Aryeh Azriel has led Omaha’s reform Jewish congregation, Temple Israel Synagogue, since 1988. Along the way he’s become known for his social justice advocacy and for his efforts building bridges to other faith communities. […]

Ariel Roblin

May 8, 2014 · Posted In: DowntownNeighborhoodsOmaha MagazinePublications
Almost as soon as Ariel Roblin became president and general manager of Omaha ratings leader KETV in 2011 she faced the momentous decision of finding a new site for the ABC network affiliate. This next […]

Drive-By Delight

April 1, 2014 · Posted In: At HomeDundeeHomeNeighborhoodsOmaha HomeOmaha MagazinePublications
Alexander Payne’s new Oscar-nominated film Nebraska is stirring the pot in his home state the way his last film made here, About Schmidt, did in 2002. That earlier project’s superstar lead, Jack Nicholson, naturally dominated […]

Patique Collins Finds the Right Fit

January 28, 2014 · Posted In: BusinessEntrepreneursFitnessOmaha MagazineSports
In 2011 Patique Collins left a two-decade corporate career to open a fitness business. Two-and-a-half years later her Right Fit gym on West Maple Road jumps with clients. This former model, who’s emceed events and […]

To Tanzania with Love

January 15, 2014 · Posted In: LifestyleOmaha MagazinePeople
Life-changing work by Alegent Creighton Health in Tanzania is the focus of a forthcoming documentary from a one-time Omaha television news personality. When former KMTV anchor-reporter Mary Williams and videographer Pete Soby travel to the […]

The Making of Nebraska

November 15, 2013 · Posted In: EntertainmentLifestyleOmaha MagazinePeople
When you watch Alexander Payne’s acclaimed new film Nebraska, keep in mind that each and every acting part was cast in a collaboration between the two-time Oscar-winning filmmaker and his casting director, John Jackson. Under […]

Potash Twins

October 26, 2013 · Posted In: EntertainmentMusicOmaha MagazinePeople
Omaha once reigned as a major live music hub where scores of legendary artists came to perform. Many resident musicians who got their chops here used Omaha as a springboard to forge fat careers on […]

Jim Flowers

August 27, 2013 · Posted In: EntertainmentLifestyleOmaha MagazinePeople
Dapper Jim Flowers, with his trademark moustache and buttonhole flower, is a fixture in people’s lives after 31 years as an Omaha television meteorologist. This husband and father of two has invested himself in the […]

MindMixer

August 26, 2013 · Posted In: B2B MagazineBusinessEntrepreneurs
Urban planners turned entrepreneurs Nick Bowden and Nathan Preheim never got used to the slim turnouts that town hall meetings drew for civic projects under review. It bothered them that so few people weighed in […]

Lessons in Transforming Lives

June 20, 2013 · Posted In: AutoGivingLifestyleNonprofitOmaha MagazinePeople
When a group of Omaha Home for Boys and Jacob’s Place residents helped put the finishing touches on a customized 1999 Harley Davidson motorcycle this May, they accomplished something bigger than themselves. As participants in […]

Iraq War Vet Jacob Hausman Battles PTSD and Finds Peace

Growing up in Beatrice, Neb., Jacob “Jake” Hausman harbored a childhood dream of serving in the U.S. military. Both his grandfathers and an uncle served. He volunteered for the Army in 2002 and upon completing […]

David Brown’s Omaha

May 25, 2013 · Posted In: B2B MagazineBusinessLeadersLifestylePeople
David Brown did his fair share of moving around before settling in Omaha in 2003 to become president of the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce. Before assuming that post, the Detroit native worked in his […]

Sam Mercer

April 25, 2013 · Posted In: BusinessDowntownEncounterLifestylePeople
Continental bon vivant Samuel Mercer, who passed away in early February, was not a typical Nebraskan. Though he grew up to become the Old Market’s undisputed godfather, he started life as the son of prominent […]

Gesu and Brother Mike

Jesuit brother Mike Wilmot prefers his actions to speak for him more than his words. Lately, those actions have helped put several first-time homebuyers in new houses. After years of coaching and teaching at Omaha […]

Great Plains Theatre Conference

Plays and playwrights remain the heart of the May 25-June 1 Great Plains Theatre Conference, which is now in its eighth year, says producing artistic director Kevin Lawler. But since assuming leadership over this Metropolitan […]

Mid-Century Modern

December 25, 2012 · Posted In: HomeOmaha HomePlaces
In post-World War II America, a contemporary design style borne of the modernist movement and emphasizing a balance of form and function came to the attention of visionary Omaha developers and architects. The resulting homes […]

Roger duRand

Omaha designer Roger duRand didn’t invent the Old Market, but he played a key role shaping the former wholesale produce and jobbing center into a lively arts-culture district. His imprint on this historic urban residential-commercial […]

The Troy Davis Story

Leading Omaha hairdresser Troy Davis long ago showed an educational and entrepreneurial knack for his craft and for building the Edgeworthy brand at Fringes Salon & Spa in the Old Market. Now that his mentor […]

Ervin & Smith

November 25, 2012 · Posted In: B2B MagazineBusinessWest Omaha
Executives at Omaha advertising-public relations firm Ervin & Smith say the company’s recent growth and recognition as a top place to work and prosper are by-products of its considered emphasis on staff development. 2012 has […]

The Budge Porter Story Comes Home

October 25, 2012 · Posted In: At HomeHomeHome ImprovementLifestyleOmaha Home
Budge Porter lost many physical capabilities when he broke his neck tackling a teammate in a 1976 Husker football practice. The catastrophic injury left him a quadriplegic confined to a wheelchair. What he’s never lost […]

Steve Gordon

August 20, 2012 · Posted In: DowntownEncounterEntrepreneursPeopleStyle
Designer Steve Gordon’s urbanized sense for what’s in-vogue permeates his lifestyle and RDQLUS Creative signature work. He indulges a love for hip hop, sneakers, and bikes. He provides brand development, identity design, and creative direction […]

In Memoriam: George Eisenberg

August 20, 2012 · Posted In: BusinessDowntownEncounterLifestylePeople
The late George Eisenberg, 88, appreciated the historic Old Market the way few people do because of his many relationships to it. His experience encompassed the Market’s life as a wholesale produce center and eventual […]

https://leoadambiga.com/2012/04/25/omahaspitchman-entrepreneur…

https://leoadambiga.com/2011/10/27/a-hospice-house-story-how-phil..

 

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

March 12, 2018 Leave a comment

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

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

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

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

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

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

“A Perfect Day” is available on Netflix.

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

 

Hot Movie Takes – “Black Panther”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Hot Movie Takes – “The Gift”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hot Movie Takes – “Mudbound”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Hot Movie Takes – “Up in the Air”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Hot Movie Takes – “Grace of Monaco”

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

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

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

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

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

Hot Movie Takes – “Where the Heart Is”

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

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

Point Blank

Hell in the Pacific

Deliverance

Zardoz

Exorcist II: The Heretic

Excalibur

The Emerald Forest

Hope and Glory

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Hot Movie Takes – “Rising Son”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hot Movie Takes – “The Hurt Locker”

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Hot Movie Takes – “Our Souls at Night”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hot Movie Takes – “Poolhall Junkies”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Hot Movie Takes – “In Bruges”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Hot Movie Takes – “The Godfather”

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

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

“The Friends of Eddie Coyle”

“Charley Varrick”

“Night Moves”

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

“Chinatown”

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

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

“Straight Time”

“The Long Good Friday”

“Thief”

“The Black Marble”

“True Confessions”

“Once Upon a Time in America”

“Goodfellas”

“One False Move”

“The Devil in a Blue Dress”

“A Simple Plan”

“Heat”

“The Departed”

The Limey”

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

“The Roaring Twenties”

“The Big Sleep”

“Ride the Pink Horse”

“The Asphalt Jungle”

“White Heat”

“The Big Combo”

“On the Waterfront”

“Touch of Evil”

“Murder Inc.”

“Bonnie and Clyde”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Hot Movie Takes – “Control” (2004)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2001: A Space Odyssey

Once Upon a Time in the West

Rosemary’s Baby

Pretty Poison

Will Penny

The Producers

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter

The Stalking Moon

Planet of the Apes

Bullitt

King of Hearts

Funny Girl

The Odd Couple

No Way to Treat a Lady

Coogan’s Bluff

Romeo and Juliet

Petulia

Isadora

Star!

Firecreek

The Devil’s Brigade

Hang ‘Em High

Hell in the Pacific

Charly

Targets

Barbarella

The Boston Strangler

The Shoes of the Fisherman

The Night of the Following Day

5 Card Stud

Where Eagles Dare

Night of the Living Dead

Ice Station Zebra

Hellfighters

The Shakiest Gun in the West

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

2001: A Space Odyssey

Rosemary’s Baby

Pretty Poison

Will Penny

The Producers

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter

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

These next four are very good, enduring classics:

The Stalking Moon

Planet of the Apes

Bullitt

King of Hearts

The Odd Couple

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

No Way to Treat a Lady

Coogan’s Bluff

Firecreek

The Devil’s Brigade

Night of the Living Dead

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

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

 

Hot Movie Takes – “Pete ‘n’ Tillie”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Hot Movie Takes – “Like Water for Chocolate”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Hot Movie Takes – “Lion”

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

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

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

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

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

Less is indeed more.

“Lion” is available on Netflix.

Hot Movie Takes – “Strictly Ballroom”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Hot Movie Takes – “The Iceman”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hot Movie Takes – “Tuesdays with Morrie”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hot Movie Takes – “Manhunt: Unabomber”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Hot Movie Takes – “Citizen Kane”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hot Movie Takes– “Where the Day Takes You”

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

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

Dermot Mulroney

Sean Astin

Balthazar Getty

James Le Gros

Will Smith

Peter Dobson

Kyle MacLachlan

Lara Flynn Boyle

Ricki Lake

Laura San Giacomo

Adam Baldwin

Alyssa Milano.

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

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

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

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

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

“Where the Day Takes You” is on Netflix.

 

Hot Movie Takes– “Wheelman”

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

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

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

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

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

“Wheelman” is now on Netflix.

Hot Movie Takes – “Long Shot”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Hot Movie Takes– “All Good Things”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“All Good Things” is now available on Netflix.

 

Hot Movie Takes– “The Interview”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The Interview” is available on Netflix.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Hot Movie Takes – The Dundee and “Downsizing”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was a celebration all the way around:

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

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

A homecoming for Payne

A coming-out party for Chau.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Hot Movie Takes– “August Rush”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“August Rush” is now available on Netflix.

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

Hot Movie Takes– “Ride Lonesome”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Seven Men from Now”

“The Tall T”

“Decision at Sundown”

“Buchanan Rides Alone”

“Westbound”

“Comanche Station”

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

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

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

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

 

Hot Movie Takes– “Carol”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Carol” is available on Netflix.

 

Hot Movie Takes– “Imperial Dreams”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Hot Movie Takes– “The Case for Christ”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The Case for Christ” is available on Netflix.

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

Hot Movie Takes– “The Place Beyond the Pines”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Hot Movie Takes– “Barry”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Both films are available on Netflix.

Hot Movie Takes– “The Flowers of War”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Hot Movie Takes– Marion Dougherty

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

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

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

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

 

Hot Movie Takes– Woody Allen and Alexander Payne

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mark Twain

Oscar Wilde

Charles Chaplin

Buster Keaton

Harold LLoyd

Laurel and Hardy

Groucho Marx

W.C. Fields

S.J. Perelman

Frank Capra

George Stevens

Howard Hawks

Preston Sturges

Burns and Allen

Jack Benny

Bob Hope

Billy Wilder

Red Skelton

Ruth Gordon and Garson Kanin

Steve Allen

Jacques Tati

Jerry Lewis

Nichols and May

Lenny Bruce

Mort Sahl

Woody Allen

Don Rickles

Richard Pryor

Mel Brooks

George Carlin

Johnny Carson

Dick Cavett

Robert Altman

Green Acres

All in the Family

Mad Magazine

Saturday Night Live

Second City

Spy Magazine

Soap

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

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

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

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

 

Hot Movie Takes– “The Shootist”

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

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

“The Shootist’ (1976) made a fitting elegy for that great screen icon Wayne. As a John Ford stock player he helped mythologize the West. In his last Western he played an old gunfighter dying of cancer reduced to being a dime novel legend and an unwanted anachronism in the dawning Industrial Age. In real life Wayne had beaten cancer once and there’s speculation that when he made “The Shootist” he knew his cancer had returned. He died of the disease three years later. That personal resonance with mortality adds a depth to his performance that can’t be acted – only felt. Then there’s the parallel between his character John Bernard Books supposedly being past his prime and out of place in the dying Old West and the arch conservative Wayne being seen as passe and out of touch with the post-Vietnam and post-Watergate era.

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

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

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

 

Hot Movie Takes– “Slums of Beverly Hills”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hot Movie Takes– “Five Came Back” II

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Hot Movie Takes– “Poodle Springs”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Hot Movie Takes Wednesday

“The Way”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Hot Movie Takes Monday:

“Deidra & Laney Rob a Train”

From Leo Adsm Biga, Author of “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hot Movie Takes– “The Wolfpack”

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Hot Movie Takes– “The Manhattan Project”

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

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

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

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

You can watch “The Manhattan Project’ on Netflix.

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

 

Hot Movie Takes – “Keep on Keepin’ On”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Hot Movie Takes – “The Insider”

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

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

“Thief”

“The Keep”

“Manhunter”

“The Last of the Mohicans”

“Heat”

“The Insider”

“Ali”

“Collateral”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Hot Movie Takes – “The Words”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Hot Movie Takes – “Night Train to Lisbon”

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

Exquisite.

Luminous.

Romantic

Idealistic.

Nostalgic.

Dramatic.

Multi-layered

Revealing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Hot Movie Takes – “The Homesman”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The Homesman” is available on Netflix.

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.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A1lzlLKNiyk

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.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r0KEe-hMsLg

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.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EHckVQm4cW0

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.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T0de66wOE4Y

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.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_s-eS3JR_fA

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

•Fitzcarraldo

•Brazil

•Rear Window

Vertigo

Rope

The Man Who Knew Too Much

The Trouble with Harry

•Housekeeping

Endangered Species

•Local Hero

Heathers

The Thin Blue Line

On Golden Pond

Who Framed Roger Rabbit?

•Koyaanisqatsi

The Fly

RoboCop

•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

Amadeus

Powaqqatsi

•Citizen Ruth

•King of Comedy

Blood Simple

•Raising Arizona

•Miller’s Crossing

Election

Point Break

•The Thin Red Line

Unforgiven

Fargo

Schindler’s List

Bad Lieutenant

Barton Fink

Bringing Out the Dead

•Goodfellas

Casino

Dead Ringers

•Jackie Brown

King of New York

•The Age of Innocence

The Piano

•Communion

Showgirls

•The Sweet Hereafter

Topsy Turvy

The Usual Suspects

•To Sleep with Anger

•Exotica

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.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G-dafG40eGU

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.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E6V_4bgDmwM

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.

THE GOOD

DOWNSIZING IS A CRAZY SCI-FI FABLE FOR OUR TIME (TIFF REVIEW)
POSTED BY NOAH GITTELL ON SEPTEMBER 11, 2017

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.

THE BAD

TIFF Movie Review: Downsizing
ALLYSON JOHNSON SEPTEMBER 10, 2017

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.

AND THE UGLY

TIFF 2017: “DOWNSIZING,” “BEAST,” “WHO WE ARE NOW”
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, S