Posts Tagged ‘Movie Essays’

In case you missed it – Hot Movie Takes from May-June 2017

A montage of film reviews and rumblings by Leo Adam Biga, Author of “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film.”

Hot Movie Takes– Ten for Ten, A Film Streams series celebrating ten years of the Ruth Sokolof Theater
Author of “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film”

Here is the Film Streams presser on the series:
Film Streams proudly announces Ten for Ten (July 15 – August 17), a retrospective selected by the nonprofit’s staff and board members to celebrate the tenth anniversary of their North Downtown location, the Ruth Sokolof Theater.

The process of determining the series began by creating individual top tens, which involved sifting through more than 1,600 films that illuminated the screens of the Ruth Sokolof Theater during its first decade. Though the lists varied wildly, when tallied what emerged was a series that champions some of the finest independent and foreign films released in the past ten years, and one indelible classic.

Selections include some of the biggest hits ever screened at the Ruth Sokolof Theater (SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE, MOONRISE KINGDOM, BIRDMAN) and the granddaddy of them all (NEBRASKA). It also includes smaller films that loom large in memory (LET THE RIGHT ONE IN, WINTER’S BONE, BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD, AMOUR). A recent pick (2016’s MOONLIGHT) and a repertory selection (1996’s FARGO) testify to the ongoing magic of film.

The tenth anniversary of the Ruth Sokolof Theater comes in the midst of a momentous year. Work is under way on Film Streams’ renovation of the 92-year-old Dundee Theater. When reopened, the historic theater will become the nonprofit’s second location.

Unless otherwise noted, tickets for all showings in the series are $9 general, $7 for seniors, students, teachers, military, and those arriving by bicycle, and $4.50 for Film Streams Members. For more information, questions or requests, please contact Patrick Kinney at (402) 933-0259 x 11 or

For details, visit

I am thrilled Film Streams is bringing back some films I didn’t see during their original release and have not had a chance to catch up with – unti now. Thank you, Film Streams.

Can’t wait to finally see:

And being the Alexander Payne book guy that I am, you know I’m excited that Payne’s NEBRASKA is a part of the series. Of course, I’ve seen that one a number of times, but I will definitely be back to see it again. If for some strange reason you’ve never seen NEBRASKA, this would be the time and place to see it. I’ve also seen FARGO and MOONLIGHT and I highly recommend them as well.

Finally, a hearty congratulations to the staff, board and members of Film Streams for gifting Omaha with this remarkable cultural asset and resource. Since its inception, and I’ve been reporting on it from the start, this organization has elevated the cinema culture here in countless ways. With the soon to re-open Dundee Theatre under its umbrella, the Film Streams cultural, educational impact will only grow.

Hot Movie Takes – “Brace for Impact” aka “Final Destiny”
©By Leo Adam Biga, Author of “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film”

I don’t know if the 2016 made-for-TV “Brace for Impact,” which also goes by “Final Destiny,” was made with the intention of being a pilot for a television series based on the protagonist, federal aviation crash investigator Sofia Gilchrist. But her character would make a compelling series lead. Kerry Condon does a fine job bringing the complex Sofia to life on screen in this Canadian-American co-production. Sofia is a brilliant but compulsive investigator who alienates everyone around her with her Sherlock Holmesesque obsessiveness, arrogance and defiance. She has all the requisite traits of a classic neurotic mind: intensely focused, analytical to a fault, socially awkward, afflicted with a fear of flying and prone to seeing criminal conspiracies in every case. Cursed with an ego that won’t be silenced, she feels she’s always right and she rankles at anything smacking of sexist, patronizing Old Boys Network behavior in her male-dominated field. She often feels her bosses and peers are trying to quiet or discredit her. She’s also paranoid and suffers from a persecution complex, so it’s hard to know what’s real and what’s not. Making matters worse, her temper sometimes gets the better of her and she says and does things, even getting physical, that get her in trouble and could be actionable in terms of losing her job and freedom. Indeed, when we first meet her she’s on suspension for an altercation with her supervisor, whom she detests.

She’s attending a fear of flying support group in preparation for a trip she’s promised to make with her brother. She’s no sooner buckled in her seat while the plane’s being readied for take-off than her intuition and anxiety kick in and her overwhelming sense of dread finds her unapologetically bolting off the aircraft – her exasperated but not altogether surprised brother going on without her. Minutes later, she learns the plane went down sometime after a fire was reported on board and crashed in a fireball with no survivors. She’s devastated by grief and guilt. Her very next reaction is pure Sofia: she heads right for the crash site to try and find out what happened. When her boss orders her to leave because she’s off-duty and emotionally comprised, she reacts violently before finally, reluctantly going. The rest of the story details her tenacious, often outside the bounds of protocol attempts to investigate the case with the help of confederates on the inside. Her suspicions of foul play go into overdrive when it’s confirmed the plane incurred a mid-air explosion of unknown origin. She stops at nothing to get answers and to run down leads for her theory, which appears flimsy at first. that a domestic terrorist act or plot was behind the explosion that brought down the plane. Her actions to try and prove her theory grow increasingly extreme. She’s caught breaking and entering and is forcibly arrested, she begins distrusting her only friend and she eventually risks not only her career but her life in pursuit of evidence.

Driving her is her own hyper-dedication to the work, her unshakeable hunch that mischief was involved and the haunting spirit of her brother demanding that she discover the truth.

The character of Sofia is alternately fascinating and irritating and there are times when you wonder, regardless of how good she is at her job, why anyone would tolerate her insufferable manner. But I found myself admiring her anyway, idiosyncrasies, quirks and all, because she’s a relatable flawed human being who cares so damn much that it nearly drives her mad. Sofia is a lot like the character Holly Hunter played in “Broadcast News.” Anal and impossible but so damn talented. I suspect some of the negative reviews I’ve found of the film have to do with some people being put-off by a strong female lead who does not take no for an answer and does not play by the rules. Somehow I think if her character was a man then all this Type-A personality stuff would have been more accepted by viewers.

There are some good supporting performances in the piece but everyone takes a back seat to Sofia, which is consistent with the force of nature she is. Director Michel Poulette and screenwriter Ian Carpenter do a good job pacing the story and always keeping Sofia’s neuroses center stage while never letting the core plot-line of her desperate search for clues stray.

The movie is available on Netflix.

Hot Movie Takes – “Unthinkable”
©By Leo Adam Biga, Author of “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film”

In the disturbing 2010 film “Unthinkable” Samuel L. Jackson plays “H” a CIA-military contracted torturer tasked with making a captured terrorist reveal the whereabouts of three nuclear bombs he’s placed in major urban American population centers and timed to detonate in a few days. The national security stakes are deemed so high that H’s brutal methodology, though abhorrent to most, is sanctioned in a black op, off the grid operation that has built in deniability written all over it, Michael Sheen plays Steven Arthur Younger, the radicalized American Muslim terrorist who purposely gets caught knowing his demands will not be met and he will be tortured and thus martyr himself to the cause . Carrie-Anne Moss plays FBI Special Agent Helen Brody, who’s asked to assist in the case and objects to the leeway given H. The film is graphic in its depiction of the torture tactics employed by H and the suffering endured by Younger/Mohammed. I assume the makers want us to be drawn in by the moral gray area the action straddles. For the greater good, H is allowed unchecked latitude to inflict pain and fear in the captive. In order to save millions of lives, the state is willing and able to condone the torture of the terrorist and even his family. H is pragmatic about it. Brody represents the conscience of the story. But she too finds herself willing to go beyond her own limits as time begins running out.
If the writer and director wanted me to intellectually-morally wrestle with the situation, I did not because I found the horror show of the torture scenes, which dominate the picture, outweighed any values calculus. By going so extreme, the story loses its power to stimulate that kind of refined examination and instead plays as a grind house, grade B exploitation flick. On that level and that level alone, the film works. As for any political-polemical-philosophical imperative, it fails rather miserably.

The best thing about it is the performance by Sheen as the terrorist willing to give up his life for his beliefs. The interplay and tension between Jackson and Moss is okay, but she’s pretty much overwhelmed by his larger than life presence, even in the part of a torturer who swear he’s not a sadist but whose actions say otherwise. The film tries to make Jackson’s character a complicated, conflicted soul, but i didn’t buy it. The film does a better job portraying the hypocrisy of our nation. We decry terrorism and torture but routinely engage in it ourselves. We rationalize it away or else deny it ever happened. And the film makes the point that we depend on people like H to do our dirty work for us. We turn him loose and then want nothing to with him or with the consequences of his actions. We wash our hands of it. This kind of behavior is as old as recorded history.

The drama is intense and engaging, up to a point, and then it just becomes a matter of how far H will go and what those around him are prepared to accept. The same goes for us in the audience. It would have been far better showing less and implying more. This movie is not terrible, just miscalculated and unmodulated, which muddles any thought-provoking intentions about the murky borderlines of what constitute moral imperatives and war crimes. I can see why it went straight to video.

You can watch it on Netflix. Just don’t expect too much.

Hot Movie Takes – “Promised Land”
©By Leo Adam Biga, Author of “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film”

The more movies I see, the more obvious it is that filmmakers trying to be ironical and satirical fall well short of the mark set by the contemporary master of that style of comedy, Alexander Payne. The latest example I’ve seen of a well-intended but not quite right effort in this regard is 2012’s “Promised Land.” The Matt Damon-John Krasinski project was co-written by Damon and Krasinski and directed by Gus Van Sant. Damon and Krasinski co-star along with Frances McDormand, Rosemarie DeWitt, Terry Kinney and Hal Holbrook, Despite all that talent, the film plods and meanders for long stretches that kind of go nowhere and really don’t serve to move the story forward or even to enlighten us more. In my opinion the makers got so caught up in trying to capture local color and to be authentic that they lost the core story in the process. To my eyes and ears, the earnest, slightly acerbic naturalism seems forced. Too much of the dialogue sounds like it was written and read, rather than just flowing spontaneously in the moment. Don’t get me wrong, there are some very good things in this movie, including good performances by all the principals and some of the supporting players. Amidst all the unnecessary layers of narrative, there is a good story that holds our interest and even has a message in the process. Damon and McDormand play salespeople who go to rural towns to buy leases on people’s land where natural gas has been found and will be extracted via fracking. They work for a powerful company that is prepared to do almost anything to get people to sign over their land. Damon’s character, Steve Butler, is a true believer in what he’s doing, until he comes face to face with his own familial past and the dirty business he is a part of and was oblivous to before. His nemesis is an environmentalist played by Krasinski who turns out to be the image in the mirror of himself that Steve increasingly doesn’t like seeing. Steve’s journey in self-awareness is interesing if predictaable and it is a bit of an endurance test to get there. There is a dramatic big twist and a satsifying final payoff at the end. both of which are contrived, but they do work for the story.

The film is available on Netflix.

Hot Movie Takes – 1967: A Memorable Year in Movies
©By Leo Adam Biga, Author of “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film”

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

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

Will Penny
Bonnie and Clyde
In Cold Blood
The Producers
The Graduate
In the Heat of the Night
Cool Hand Luke
Reflections in a Golden Eye
Point Blank
The Fearless Vampire Killers
Who’s that Knocking at My Door?
Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner
El Dorado
You Only Live Twice
The Dirty Dozen
To Sir, with Love
Barefoot in the Park
The War Wagon
Beach Red
Wait Until Dark
Throughly Modern Millie

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Two for the Road
How I Won the War
The President’s Analyst
The Night of the Generals
Far from the Madding Crowd
The Way West
In Like Flint
Casino Royale
Valley of the Dolls
Hour of the Gun
The Taming of the Shrew
Five Million Years to Earth
Poor Cow
A Guide for the Married Man
How to Succeed in Business Wothout Really Trying
The Trip
Hells Angels on Wheels
The Honey Pot
The Happiest Millionaire
The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre
Rough Night in Jericho
Tony Rome
The Flim-Flam Man
Up the Down Staircase
The Whisperers
A Matter of Innocence
The Incident
The Comedians
Woman Times Seven
Divorce American Style

Hot Movie Takes – “Masterminds”
©By Leo Adam Biga, Author of “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film”

The flat-out funniest comedy I’ve seen in a long time is “Masterminds” (2016), a rollicking, laugh-out-loud riff on a true life caper that went very right and very wrong. My partner Pam had the same reaction. Zach Galifianakis is hilarious and touching as earnest armored car driver David Scott Ghantt, the pawn in the 1997 Loomis Fargo & Company heist in North Carolina that netted its dim-witted gang more than $17 million, though Ghantt, the inside man on the job, saw very little of the loot himself. Aside from many embellishments, the gist of the story told on screen jibes fairly closely with actual events. Disenchanted with his life, Ghantt allows himself to be snookered into the crime by Kelly (Kristen Wiig), a former co-worker with whom he’s smitten. She acts as the reluctant middle woman between David and the callous ringleader, Steve Eugene Chambers (Owen Wilson). David has the keys to the facility and to the vault and when it comes time to pull off the robbery he goes in alone, when the place is empty. The fact that his confederates wait outside and don’t put themselves on the line should tell David something about their unreliable intentions. The job is way too big for one man and so it takes a ridiculous amount of time. But it does go off without a hitch, at least until David gets stuck in the back of the van that he’s stowed the cash in and seems to lock himself in. What happens next is one of many brilliant sight gags throughout the picture.

There are some very good supporting bits by Jason Sudeikis as The Killer, aka Mike McKinney, Kate McKinnon as David’s strange fiance Jandice, Leslie Jones as FBI agent Scanlon and Devin Ratray as Runny. The film’s portraits of rural types is strikingly similar to Alexander Payne’s “Nebraska” and it’s interesting to note that one actor in that 2013 film, Ratray. is also in “Masterminds.” Two actors with prominent roles in “Masterminds” – Wiig and Sudeikis – are in Payne’s new film “Downsizing.” “Masterminds” isn’t nearly as good as “Nebraska” but it’s better than it could have been in other hands.

Director Jared Hess and screenwriters Chris Bowman, Hubbel Palmer and Emily Spivey have concocted a delirious, fast-paced romp that smartly never stays with a gag too long yet has the nerve and the balls to keep upping the ante with crazy characterizations and slapstick action bits. There’s one chase scene that’s an obvious homage to silent film comedy chases and the new take on it is hold-onto-the-seat-of-your-pants thrilling and funny. And the film doesn’t really telegraph much of where it’s going other than making it obvious that even though he’s screwed, nothing really bad, as in physical harm, is going to come to our protagonist. I knew nothing of the real life events the film drew from but I felt what the filmmakers intended – empathy for David and hope that he would come out alright, even if he did have to do time behind bars. Comedy is. no pun intended, funny business when it comes to taste. This film may or not tickle your funny bone but we were definitely captured by its anarchic spirit and we gladly went along for the ride.

“Masterminds” is available on Netflix.

Hot Movie Takes – “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner”
©By Leo Adam Biga, Author of “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film”

Thirty-five years passed from the time this movie came out in 1967 and my actually bringing home the core dilemma dramatized by the fictional story. In the movie, the white daughter of an older white patrician couple introduces them to her fiance, an African-American physician, Dr. John Prentice Jr., played by an unflappable Sidney Poitier. The daughter, Joanna (Joey), feebly played by Katharine Houghton, fully expects her folks to grant their unequivocal blessing for the marriage. The mother, played by the fierce Katharine Hepburn, does almost immediately. The father, played by the stubborn Spencer Tracey, goes through a real struggle before he approves. In real life, I am the white son of a working class white couple. I was in my early 40s when I introduced them to the first serious girlfriend in my life – a black woman named Joslen. Unlike the daughter in the movie, I expected my parents would object to the interracial relationship and I was right, they did, only more so than I imagined. They both came around in time to the idea of an interracial union and to her as a potential daughter-in-law but it was tense there for awhile. All of which is to say that that chestnut of a movie so in synch with and out of touch with its times has a deeper resonance for me now than when I first saw it in the late 1960s-early 1970s.

Its liberal filmmaker was Stanley Kramer. His most enduring screen work was when was strictly a producer, not a director, too. His directorial efforts include several good films, this one included, that deal with potent social justice, intellectual and moral issues but the emotional and contextual life of the characters and situations rarely rise to the complexity of the subjects explored on screen. “Guess” is a glaring case in point because it was such a sensation in its time. The screenplay by William Rose plays it safe within the interracial setup by having the young lovers so appealingly perfect. About the only negative thing that can be said about the two of them is that they are naive, especially Joanna. Then there’s the fact that her man, John, is practically a saint. Joanna’s parents are not only liberal but educated. John’s parents, played by Beah Richards and Roy Glenn, are educated as well. The two mothers are the most sympathetic to the situation. The two fathers struggle with it the most. But the whole damn thing is so polite and antiseptic that it all rings a little less than true. On the other hand, the agonizing that goes on does feel real because race makes you confront things in yourself and others that you didn’t know were there or that you suppressed.

The scrutiny and litmus test that parents, siblings, friends and society put interracial couples through is a damn uncomfortable experience. Maybe the dynamics are not like that for all such relationships, maybe things have changed, but it’s still A Thing that carries lots of baggage for lots of people. Denying otherwise would be as naive as some of the movie’s characters. Black and white is still a potent mix in America that some people still have a problem with or are threatened by – on both sides of the racial divide. That’s just reality and common sense. So how far have we come in the whole interracial thing since the famous Loving case and since this movie? Well, interracial unions are legal and much more socially acceptable. There are certainly way more of these relationships out in the open. What is in people’s hearts and heads, however, can’t be legislated or mandated and I think there’s still a good deal of fear and resentment over race mixing or at least more than we’d care to acknowledge. But the more blended relationships and babies that happen, any remaining opposition will be a moot point by the end of the next century or so, when most Americans will be a blend of skin tones. Will that make color a neutral factor? Of course not. As long as there are different skin colors or hues, and as long as there are attitudes and judgments that attend them, people will use these factors as excuses for discrimination and hate. It’s part of the human condition.

The best part of “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” is watching two great actors who were longtime companions off-screen and who enjoyed a rare chemistry on-screen, Hepburn and Tracy, throwing egos aside and exposing themselves emotionally in ways rarely seen before from them. Tracy had been ill for several years and died only weeks after the shoot wrapped.

The worst parts of the film are its treacly moments, particularly involving the daughter, who seems far too girlish, frivolous and unsubstantial a person for a man of John’s maturity. Then there’s the whole conceit of the to-be-married couple needing the consent of the daughter’s parents. John will only marry Joanna if they grant their blessing. And there’s a ridiculous deadline imposed on the proceedings that is supposed to add dramatic tension to the whole works having to do with a trip to Europe he has to make. He demands an answer before he departs. Oh, and there’s the black maid (played by Isabel Sanford) who’s opposed to the whole affair and let’s everyone know it. In these and other ways the film feels like it was made in the mid-1950s, along the lines of a Douglas Sirk melodrama like “Imitation of Life” (except it doesn’t have the bite of that picture) rather than of its own time, the late 1960s. I mean, it’s painfully obvious that Kramer and Rose were generationally and culturally out of touch with their own time despite their progressive leanings.

The 2005 feature take-off of this movie, “Guess Who” is lightweight, comedic entertainment that actually comes closer to some truths than the original though it also comes up short in digging down in the weeds of race and relationships. The more recent movie reverses the situation so that it’s a black women taking home her white fiance to meet her parents.

“Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” is available on Netflix and YouTube.

Hot Movie Takes – “In the Heat of the Night”
©By Leo Adam Biga, Author of “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film”

Another classic movie enjoying its 50th anniversary this year is 1967’s hot-house race and crime drama “In the Heat of the Night.” Set in Sparta, Mississippi and current to the time it was made, this not too subtle film goes right for the juggler in pitting a black Philadelphia homicide detective against a white southern police chief in the investigation of a recent murder. Virgil Tibbs gets caught up in the case when he’s at first taken in as a potential suspect while waiting for the midnight train to take him back home after visiting family down south. Tibbs, played by Sidney Poitier, is a fit man outfitted in a suit. He’s well-spoken and educated and despite the aggravation of the situation he’s the consummate professional. In town, he meets his counterpart in the person of police chief Bill Gillespie, played by Rod Steiger, who by contrast is overweight and slovenly in uniform, rather lax when it comes to protocol and professional courtesy and no match for Tibbs intellectually, though he does have good instincts.

Gillespie, of course, is a racist but he’s also smart and big enough to know that he must swallow his pride if he has any chance of solving the murder of one of Sparta’s leading citizens. The pressure is on to find the culprit and Gillespie weighs this rare opportunity to have a real specialist on the case against the ire of that expert being an authoritative black man in the heart of the Jim Crow and Ku Klux Klan South. He finds out early on that Tibbs won’t be cowed or insulted without a response but he doesn’t realize how far he’s prepared to go until he sees a white man slap Tibbs and Tibbs slap him back harder. That raises the stakes for this powder-keg scenario that is one part potboiler and one part social justice treatise.

The film won the Best Picture Academy Award. Stirling Silliphant won the Oscar for his adaptation of John Ball’s novel. It’s a very good script but he had Poitier, Steiger and a strong supporting cast (Warren Oates, Lee Grant, Scott Wilson, Harry Dean Stanton) to thank for interpreting it so fully and with such humanity. Steiger won Best Actor and his is a great performance but it’s a crime that Poitier wasn’t even nominated because Steiger’s performance was totally keyed to what Poitier gave him and he gave him a lot. Norman Jewison did an efficient job pacing the narrative and his liberal leanings infuse the proceedings. Hal Ashby’s editing keeps things moving. Haskell Wexler’s cinematography gives an urgency and immediacy to the action. The score by Quincy Jones captures and intensifies the potent drama.

But the whole film rests on Poitier and Steiger and they deliver staggeringly great performances. They play two very different men coming from two very different places but they need each other and after enmity bordering on hate they grow to respect one another. You might say they even have a kind of love for each other that can only come from going through trauma and catharsis. The two actors’ conflicting acting styles and personalities also work wonderfully well for the characters.

Taking on what this film took on in a major Hollywood production was pretty revolutionary at the time. It’s dated in places but it’s still a powerful work. The same can be said for its 1967 race drama companion piece, “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” also starring Sidney Poitier. Where “Heat” is raw and visceral, “Guess” is staid and cerebral. But the two films actually touch many of the same nerve endings. They just do it in different ways. The writing is weaker in “Guess” but the genius of Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy more than make up for it.

Hot Movie Takes – “Burn After Reading”
©By Leo Adam Biga, Author of “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film”

The Coen Brothers should stick to traditional American comedies and leave the British-inspired comedies to, well, the British. I refer to the brothers’ 2008 film “Burn After Reading,” which isn’t British at all, of course, except the spirit of it is, It’s very much in the tradition of the Ealing Studio satires the Coens admire, so much so that they remade one, “The Ladykillers,” and none too successfully I might add. “Burn After Reading” was their first original screenplay since “The Man Who Wasn’t There.”

I personally long for the Coens’ to return to the darkly poetic work they did in”Miller’s Crossing” and to stop futzing around with farce.

For “Burn After Reading” the Coens assembled a stellar cast, including four Oscar-winners, but not even their individual and collective talents could save this from mediocrity. I mean, it’s not bad, and sometimes it really works, but more often than not it just plods along without anything really compelling you to care about the cartoonish characters. The most interesting of the bunch, Osbourne Cox (John Malkovich), is given short shrift in the end and the whole convoluted spy story that never was is dispatched at the end as if it never happened. Similar brush offs are given the characters played by Brad Pitt, Frances McDormand, George Clooney, Tilda Swinton and Richard Jenkins. That cavalier, it-doesn’t-really-matter attitude is precisely why the movie never fully engages because there’s nothing truly at stake or on the line. There has to be, even in a comedy. Yes, even in a comedy like this one about the folly of idiocy and greed turning a benign event into an orgy of deceit, blackmail and killings. But every time we invest in these characters and the peril, real or imagined, of their circumstances, we get the rug pulled out from under us or they are summarily killed off or otherwise handled. This is a farce, like the Coens’ “Fargo,” but what’s missing here is the menace.

The whole thing revolves around the machinations of people caught up in a spy ring that doesn’t even exist. An ex-CIA analyst (Malkovich) begins writing a memoir based on non-classified documents. His cheating wife (Swinton) who is divorcing him copies the material onto a disc that she provides to her attorney’s office. The attorney’s secretary has the disc in a bag when she goes to a gym and it somehow ends up on the locker room floor. Two employees (Pitt and McDormand) view the contents of the disc on a computer and conclude they’ve stumbled upon valuable government secrets and proceed to try and extort money from Cox for the disc’s return. Jenkins is the gym manager who wants nothing to do with the disc but is willing to do anything for McDormand, whom he adores. Meanwhile, Clooney is a Treasury agent sleeping with Swinton and eventually McDormand, too. Bad things happen when Pitt and McDormand keep pushing the players into compromising, even dangerous situations created by their own imagination, paranoia, greed and guilt.

As things spiral out of control, the CIA monitors the activities of these clowns and eventually must intervene.
J.K. Simmons has a cameo near the end as an exasperated CIA superior who’s given a rundown of the mayhem and carnage that’s ensued and is eager to make it all go away. It’s a performance he’s given in countless films and even though he was fairly recent on the cinema scene when the movie came out, less than a decade later his part seems canned.

“Burn After Reading” is available on Netflix.

Hot Movie Takes – “Meadowland”
©By Leo Adam Biga, Author of “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film”

Reed Morano is an Omaha-born cinematographer-turned-director who has worked on several highly regarded independent films, including “Frozen River.” She made her feature directorial debut with 2015’s “Meadowland,” a stark, honest look at the unraveling that happens to parents who lose children. Her very good work on that project has made her a hot property as a director. She directed one episode each for the television series “Halt and Catch Fire” and “Billions” and then directed three episodes of “The Handmaid’s Tale” and now she’s in post-production on her latest effort as a feature director, “I Think We’re Alone Now,” and in pre-production on another, as-yet-untitled, feature project. I finally saw “Meadowland” the other night – it’s available on Netflix – and found it to be one of the most effective films I’ve ever seen about emotional disturbance. It takes you to the very dark inner places and recesses of mourning and the compulsive, ritualized behaviors that often accompany it.

I don’t have children and so I don’t know what it is like to lose a child, but I have suffered loss. Both parents and my former life partner all died within five years of each other. I was already dealing with compulsive behaviors when Joslen died and her passing only triggered more compulsive acting out. The story revolves around a couple played by Luke Wilson and Olivia Wilde who are undone by the unthinkable that happens: their little boy goes missing during a brief bathroom stop at a roadside gas station during a family drive in the country. The film opens with the incident and the couple’s frantic, desperate, shocked discovery that he’s gone and no where to be found. The film then jumps to a year later and the stuck place that both the husband and wife are still in. They’re professionals. Phil’s a cop and Sarah’s a public school elementary teacher. He’s the realist who presumes their son is dead. He keeps most of his feelings inside. He secretly visits the site where his boy went missing. He attends support group meetings. He tries connecting to people. She lives in complete repression and denial, behaving as though her son is alive and well somewhere. Her fantasy is that he’s happy with another family. Her obsession with keeping him or a facsimile of him alive leads her to increasingly dark behavior that makes her a risk to herself and others.

Even though Phil’s more in touch with reality than his wife, the husband’s own behavior has all the earmarks of someone in great pain flailing about for relief. Phil gets angry at a friend when he finds out his buddy’s wife is pregnant and didn’t share the news with him first. in his upset state, Phil interprets this as a betrayal by the friend. Pete, a fellow grieving dad from the support group, shares with Phil a recurring dream he has of meeting the man whose reckless hit and run driving killed his daughter. Again, in his altered stated, which is to say not in his right mind, Phil manages to get the culprit’s address and gives it to Pete with a “do what you have to do” absolution, which Pete is horrified by, even saying, “This is not helping.”

As skewed as the husband is, the wife is free-falling and he knows it. But the pain and isolation are so much for these two that they’ve lost the ability to connect and communicate. When police investigators suspect the couple’s missing boy is likely among the victims of a known child sex offender, Phil cooperates by looking at photos but Sarah refuses to. Instead, she fixes on a foster care boy named Adam at school that she begins grooming to be her substitute son. She insinuates herself into his life and concocts a crazy plan for them to be together. Meanwhile, the police make positive identifications and the dark, trance-like spell she’s been in finally breaks.

The ending doesn’t give the characters some magical sudden fix, only the possibility of moving on for having finally confronted the elephant in the room, or in this case, the elephant in the field. You’ll understand when you get there.

Giovanni Ribisi is very good as Phil’s addict brother, a lost man living with the couple until his life gets back in order. John Leguizamo is affecting as Pete, the support group friend whom Phil creeps out. Omaha’s own Yolonda Ross, who previously appeared in a short that Morano photographed, has a small part as the principal of the the school Sarah teaches at. There are also good turns by Juno Temple, Ty Simpkins (as Adam), Kevin Corrigan, Eden Duncan-Smith and others. The actors well serve the script by Chris Rossi.

Morano, who did her own cinematography, finds many effective ways to intimately frame the despair and dislocation of the protagonists without resorting to pandering. Yes, what Sarah does is extreme, but it’s well within the realm of possibility.

Hot Movie Takes – “Being Flynn”
©By Leo Adam Biga, Author of “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film”

Robert De Niro seemed to be coasting in his older age until a couple films he co-stars in were released in 2012 – “Silver Linings Playbook” and “Being Flynn.” I haven’t seen the former, but I understand he’s quite good in it, and I just watched the latter last night on Netflix and it confirmed for me that De Niro still has the capacity for greatness. I’d go so far to say that his portrayal of John Flynn in “Being Flynn” is equal the commitment and intensity he brought to “Taxi Driver,””The Deer Hunter,” “Raging Bull” and “King of Comedy” more than three decades earlier. Like the on-the-edge characters of Travis Bickle, Michael, Jake LaMotta and Rupert Pupkin, he invests his all in Flynn, an intelligent man suffering from some undiagnosed mental illness. “Being Flynn” belongs just as much to Paul Dano as Flynn’s son Nick, who has demons of his own to deal with. Dano is one of my favorite millennial actors and he’s well-matched here with De Niro.

This is a based on real life father-son story unlike any other. When Nick was a child his alcoholic, wannabe-writer dad got into serious trouble with the law and went away to prison. His mom Jody, played by Julianne Moore, divorced John and raised Nick alone. Even when Nick’s dad got out of prison, he was never in his son’s life. John never visited but he did write a series of letters in which he rambled on about his own genius and the masterpiece of a book he was writing. After years of not seeing each other, John reaches out to a now young adult Nick for help. Nick comes face to face with the man he only knew from the disparaging things his mother said about him and they largely turn out to be true. He’s a hopeless drunk, he has delusions of grandeur and he goes off on vile, vulgar rants. He may be paranoid schizophrenic. He may just be an alcoholic asshole. But this once shadow in his life suddenly reappears in the flesh and his profane presence weighs heavily on Nick, who find him impossible to deny or ignore anymore.

Nick, too, is a struggling writer and when he finally meets the man who was only a phantom in his life and discovers him to be a wreck of a human being and a failed writer, it messes with Nick’s own idea of himself as a writer. Nick shares with his father his fear and guilt that words he wrote in a notebook discovered by his mother precipitated her committing suicide. John dissuades him of this notion, asserting that no words ever killed anyone and that his mother undoubtedly killed herself because she hated herself and her life.

Things go to a whole other place when John winds up homeless and becomes a guest at the homeless shelter where Nick works. Confronted daily with his father’s sickness, it becomes too much for Nick, who descends into drug addiction. He’s very much afraid he’s becoming his father. But John, who has his lucid moments, tells Nick in no uncertain terms that while they share writing talent by virtue of sharing the same DNA, Nick is not him and therefore is not fated to end up like him. Madness or not, John always encourages Nick in his writing. Ad he reminds him that the shit and the beauty and everything in between that is our life is all the material we ever have and need as writers. It’s all subject matter. So, listen and watch, and write.

From start to finish the film has dueling narrators in Nick and John. The question is who’s authorial voice do we trust and which will win out. The answer comes at the very end. The movie flash forwards to a time when Nick has eventually found healing and his way into a life of writing and teaching. He has a family of his own. He invites his father to a poetry reading and there the final bequeathment of writing legacy is passed from one generation to the next. Nick comes to realize his father once had promise but his problems overwhelmed whatever talent he had and that it’s now up to him to tell the stories to tell the stories of his father and mother, the family, and his own journey of discovery.

This is a raw, real and yet poetic film that puts us right there on the borderline of human existence. At various points, both Flynns straddle the lines of stability and instability, permanent shelter and homelessness, self-hatred and self-love. When the son expresses concern over his father being out there on the streets, the father reassures him that he is a survivor. He lets Nick know he’s a survivor, too. They both loved Jody but she didn’t possess their strength. It’s up to them to go on and to fulfill their destinies.

Writer-director Paul Weitz deserves major props for adapting Nick Flynn’s memoir “Another Bullshit Night in Suck City” to the screen. Flynn was a creative consultant on the project and I have to think he helped keep things real without ever allowing them to become sensationalized or maudlin.

Hot Movie Takes – “Full Metal Jacket”
©By Leo Adam Biga, Author of “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film”

Stanley Kubrick’s harsh war satire is not everybody’s cup of tea and though I am a great admirer of his body of film work, there are times the cold, cruel calculations of his observations leave me wanting or wondering. His acerbic 1987 take on the Vietnam War, “Full Metal Jacket,” aided and abetted by co-writers Michael Herr and Gustav Hasford, is perhaps the most disturbing of the four great Hollywood movies made about that conflict. “The Deer Hunter” is more about the war at home and within then it is the experience of the war itself. “Apocalypse Now” is about the journey into darkness that all wars are but especially that one. “Platoon” is about the intense, intimate horror of combat. “Full Metal Jacket” is about the killing cultures and mindsets that militaries engaged in war create – from training through combat – and the impossible moral dilemmas they present to soldiers in the field.

Of the four films, all of which are powerful in their own right, “Full Metal Jacket” may be the most ambitious in terms of what it has to say but it may be the least successful it saying it. It’s also not as satisfying as his two earlier anti-war films, “Paths of Glory,” and “Dr. Strangelove.” I’m posting about “Full Metal Jacket” because I watched it last night on Netflix. It’s the first time I’ve seen the pic since its release 30 years ago and my response on this occasion was almost identical to what I remember feeling and thinking all that time ago. Like many viewers, I find the first third set in Marine boot camp to be outrageously funny and horrifying, often at the same time. Lee Ermey is incredible as the drill instructor. He was a DI and he famously contributed most of his own profanity and insult-laden dialogue. Matthew Modine is very good as the smart-aleck narrator and protagonist, “Private “Joker.” Vincent D’Onoforio is fabulous as the disturbed, put-upon draftee, Private “Gomer Pyle,” who finally snaps. And Arliss Howard is fine as Private “Cowboy.” That first section ends on a violent, disoriented note reminiscent of how Kubrick handled Jack Nicholson’s mad rampages in “The Shining.” The film then abruptly cuts to Vietnam, where Joker’s a sergeant and a war correspondent with Stars and Stripes newspaper. There he’s reunited with Cowboy, also now a sergeant, who introduces him to the rest of the squad Joker finds himself attached to, including Sergeant “Animal” (Adam Baldwin) and Corporal “Eightball” (Dorian Harewood). Where the opening section of the film depicts the process by which individuals are broken down to become unthinking killing machines, the middle section establishes Vietnam as a location and the squad as a kind of living organism drawn to death and destruction. It’s this middle section where the film drags and loses its way a bit. The film finds its intensity again once the story focuses on urban warfare in the third and final section. It’s particularly in the last extended battle sequence and aftermath that ends the film that “Full Metal Jacket” regains the power of the first section. The remaining squad members go into the still burning wreckage of a city to eliminate a sniper who’s killed three of their comrades. It becomes all about revenge at that point. When the sniper is found and mortally wounded, it becomes about something else again and the Marines come face to face with the stark truth that what they’re doing there is violating humanity, inclding their own. The final tracking shots of fully armed U.S. Marines moving on foot through a haze of smoke and fire while singing the Mickey Mouse Club song is a murky, muddled but not altogether ineffective way to end things on. The effect is something like that of Sam Peckinpah’s “The Wild Bunch,” which he meant to be a denouncement of violence but which can be interpreted as sending the opposite message. “Full Metal Jacket” is clearly anti-war in places and in its overall approach, but it also suggests in other places that war is a game. “The Wild Bunch” by the way is a better film than this because its main characters are more fully fleshed out than those of “Full Metal Jacket,” where intentionally or not the characters never rise much above surface types and symbols. Kubrick sometimes became so caught up in the techniques of visualization that his narrative, character-based storytelling could suffer. When the writing’s great, and here it’s less than great, it doesn’t matter, but here it does.

Speaking of visuals, “Full Metal Jacket” has to be one of the best production designed (Anton Furst) and art directed (Keith Pain) cinema achievements in movie history. The whole bloody thing was filmed in England and yet it places you in a facsimile of wartime Vietnam that viscerally captures the out of mind, out of body experience of that time and place and of those events that call on human beings to do inhuman things. The urban battle scenes do have a strange, surreal or dreamlike quality to them that’s consistent with the theme of war being a very dangerous and deadly game played by child-men operating in a state of suspended animation or detachment or denial. Until the reality of kill or be killed hits home.

The “shit,” as combat is referred to by grunts in the middle of it, has no frame of reference for the participants. It is its own universe with its own morale dimensions. No one escapes unscathed. More than anything, that’s what “Full Metal Jacket” captures and portrays.

Hot Movie Takes – “Fort Defiance”
©By Leo Adam Biga, Author of “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film”

“Fort Defiance” is a delirious 1951 B Western that adds its own peculiar stamp to the psychotic cinema West with its particularly bloodthirsty, revenge-bound themes. In line with many theatrical and television Westerns of the time, it exploits racist myths to move its plot along. Interestingly, it also subverts the genre’s own conventions with a gun-slinger whose acrobatic firing escapades anticipate “The Matrix” by fifty years. And while many of its characters and scenes are unimaginatively derivative and much of the dialogue forgettable, there are just enough variations and distinctive takes on things, such as the occasionally sumptuous cinematography, evocative locations, artful framing, jump cuts and sardonic lines, to make an otherwise forgettable film worth taking a look at.

Outside more discerning viewers, Westerns like this give the form a bad name because they perpetrate nonsensical historical inaccuracies in their depiction of Native Americans as soulless, mindless aggressors forever on the warpath yet also easily dispatched threats routinely gunned down by any white man wielding a rifle or six-shooter.

The story is a strange take on the prodigal son proverb that has a blind man, Ned (Peter Graves) pining for the return of his thought-to-be hero brother Johnny (Dane Clark) from the Civil War. Ned and his uncle Charlie work a small desolate spread in Indian territory. When a stranger, Ben (Ben Johnson), rides into their lives looking for Johnny, it’s clear he has unfinished business with him. It turns out he’s been searching for Johnny ever since the war’s end and has even sacrificed rejoining his wife in order to stay on his tracks and exact revenge. Johnny betrayed the trapped men in his regiment to the enemy and Ben’s younger brother was killed in the action. Ben was the only survivor. Ben has sworn to himself he won’t rest until he kills Johnny, and therefore, he remains on and strangely becomes like a brother to Ned. When Charlie informs Ned and Ben that Johnny is believed to be dead, Ned expresses a desire for he, his uncle and Ben and his wife to go in partnership together. But a sullen Ben has lost his chance at revenge and sets out to rejoin his wife. However, Ben returns, smitten with the idea of Ned’s dream and writes for his wife to join them. Then we learn that Ben wasn’t the only one wanting Johnny dead. Parker, a local powerbroker, lost a son in the war to the same dirty deed Johnny pulled. Parker, backed by a posse, rides onto Ned’s place looking to kill both Johnny and Ned. While Charlie fends off the mod with a rifle, Ben and Ned escape into Indian territory.
Badgered by Ned for the truth about his brother, Ben tells him the story of how Johnny became a turncoat during the war. When Johnny appears, Ned learns from him first-hand that he’s unremorseful for what he did in the war and makes no bones about also being a robber and killer. He’s robbing banks and stages to get money for an operation to return Ned’s sight.

Ben still wants his revenge on Johnny and the rest of the story is a tense, sometimes violent dance between these two, both of whom love Ned, and fending off Indian attacks and a final confrontation with Parker and his gang. The melodrama pot often gets to over-boiling. At one point, even Ned wants to kill Johnny. Ned’s sweet character is nearly undone when the script and direction call for him to say and do ridiculous things. Graves does a commendable job trying to keep his portrayal within realistic bounds, but it’s a lost cause. Johnson is as always very solid in his part. He does more with less better than most actors of his or any generation. Clark, an animated imitation of John Garfield, is not an actor I particularly like but he does bring a wild, glinting charisma and machismo and then there are those gun wielding acrobatics of his that remind me of martial arts gun and sword play. He’s also given several wiseass one-liners to speak that are both in keeping with his character and unbelievable given the life and death stakes involved. George Cleveland is very good as Uncle Charlie. But most of the rest of the character players give stiff, one-note, cliched performances.

Iron Eyes Cody leads the renegade Navajo warriors and served as technical director on the shoot. I don’t know whether to hold him or the director or producers he worked for responsible for the insulting portrayals of Native Americans, but it’s a sad commentary on those times – when Hollywood generally didn’t care to even make an attempt to get things right in this way.

Director John Rawlins was a busy B editor turned director who definitely showed an eye for composition and an ear for exposition but refinement was not his style. He also had an odd habit, at least in this movie, of showing things in medium or long range that you expect to see in closeup and I’m not sure if this was intentional or a result of not getting enough coverage on set. Whatever the explanation for this pattern, it does offer an interesting viewing perspective that makes us more dispassionate observers than engaged participants. I’m not sure that’s what he intended, but that’s the net effect.

The movie is available in full and for free on YouTube.

Hot Movie Takes – “Zulu”
©By Leo Adam Biga, Author of “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film”

My first two experiences at the movies made a great impression on me and they could not have been more different in theme and content though each were decidedly British: “Zulu” and “Mary Poppins.” They were both released in 1964. I’m not sure if I saw them upon their initial theatrical run or sometime rather soon after. I would have been 6 years old in ’64. Whatever the case, I remember being thoroughly mesmerized by these super spectacle color pictures. I mean, they rocked my world with their bigger than life images, scenes and musical scores. This post deals with “Zulu” and a separate post will deal with “Mary Poppins.”

Dynamic is the first word that occurs to me in describing “Zulu,” a beautifully made derring-do film shot on location in Africa that contains some of the most impressive, epic outdoor action set pieces in modern cinema history. There’s a bit of the adventurist “Gunga Din” spirit to it, though “Zulu” is more historically rooted and realistically grounded. Yes, it glorifies and mythologizes an historical late 19 century colonial British battle victory over indigenous people in Southern Africa, when a greatly outnumbered British detachment held its ground against Zulu attackers, But the film also pays a good deal of respect to the Zulu nation and its warrior culture. The film even goes to great lengths to document an earlier Zulu victory over British forces. If anything, the British come off worse than the Zulus with their silly class distinctions, false pride, arrogant attitudes and foolish decorum. Even when the Zulus are finally beaten back, they pay homage to the beleaguered British, whose courage they admire, by chanting a song. I can’t imagine the British doing the same in return. By the way, this didn’t really happen at the conclusion of the conflict. It was a dramatic invention to show the British in a heroic light, though it also serves to show the Zulu people in a dignified light.

The genius of the film is in keeping the vast majority of the action centered on the isolated British Army station and its defense against overwhelming odds. American director Cy Endfield, who co-wrote the script, does a masterful job setting up the geography of the action by first establishing the Zulu stronghold and then the British outpost in relation to it and the surrounding hills. It’s impossible to not get the sense that the British are out of their element and simply don’t belong there and that the Zulus are, in fact, fighting to keep their own land and autonomy. Given when the film was made and who made it, and that it was intended as an entertainment celebrating the “heroic” British stand, it’s also unavoidably jingoistic and racist. That doesn’t or shouldn’t detract from the quality of the physical filmmaking. Where there is a weakness though is in the hand to hand battle scenes, but that’s purely a function of how such scenes were handled then, which is to say unrealistically. Those pathetically staged scenes with half-hearted, almost polite thrusts of spear and bayonet definitely mar the picture if for no other reason than there are so bloody many of them. Also hurting the picture is an unnecessarily long sequence in which a pacifist father-daughter missionary team repeatedly interfere with the troops’ and officers’ assigned duties to hold the station at any cost. Far better had these irritating characters been sent packing early on. The stiff upper lip British thing wears thin, too. Yet the story remains gripping because Endfield finds many interesting ways to present the warfare – from different angles, perspectives – and to break it up with interludes or moments of quiet, reverie, exhaustion, despair and comic relief. He even shows things from the Zulus’ POV a few times.

Besides the pitched battles, stirring visuals and stunning locations, one of the strongest elemenst is the tension between the two senior officers played by Stanley Baker, who co-produced the film, and Michael Caine, whose first co-starring role this was. Their characters come from different classes. Baker is the Everyman engineer thrust into command and Cain the foppish legacy officer forced by seniority to defer to the commoner. They must work past their differences in order to lead the men under their command in the most trying of circumstances. Interspersed are a number of personal side stories concerning certain of the men and the sacrifices they make and the risks they take with their lives on the line.

The best performances in the film, however, belong to Gert van den Bergh as Adendorff, a native white paramilitary figure, and Nigel Green as Colour Sergeant Bourne. The opening and closing narration is read by Richard Burton.

The single strongest aspects of the film are the portentous musical score by John Barry, the eerie sound of the Zulu warriors beating their shields and the arresting warlike chants of the tribesmen in concert with the electric photography of Stephen Dade and the sharp editing of John Jympson. But that rousing Barry score makes even more powerful the ominous presence of the Zulus, as if they are a force of nature sweeping across the savannah, the unrelenting attacks they wage on the outpost and the steadfast defense put up by the British.

The Paramount release was executive produced by American Joseph E. Levine, who specialized in handling international co-productions, foreign films and American films with exploitation, B elements.

“Zulu” is available on Netflix and YouTube.

Hot Movie Takes – “The Gunman”
©By Leo Adam Biga, Author of “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film”

This is one of those movies (released in 2015) when less than a third of the way in you ask yourself why the stars agreed to make this claptrap. In this case, the stars are Sean Penn and Javier Bardem. But there are other heavyweight actors, too, including Mark Rylance, Idris Elna and Ray Winstone. I won’t bother you with the plot details other than to say that when we meet Penn, who plays Jim, he is part of a Black Ops assassination team posing as security workers in the war-torn Democratic Republic of Congo. Their clients are for-profit companies exploiting the chaos for their own gains. Javiar Bardem is Felix – a civilian secretly cooperating with the team. Both men love the same woman, Annie, played by Jasmine Trinca, only she is Jim’s woman and Felix resents that he can’t have her for himself. The team is given an assignment that calls for Jim to kill a high ranking government official that will then necessitate him immediately evacuating the continent. Before he executes the hit, he asks Felix to take care of Annie. The assassination throws the country into even more turmoil and Jim inexplicably doesn’t go back for her. The story flash forwards eight years and Jim’s back in the Congo doing humanitarian aid work by drilling fresh water wells. When mercenaries come for him and he miraculously kills them all despite having retired from the field years before, it sets off a crazy series of events. It turns out the clients who gave him the assassination job years earlier are under investigation by Interpol and one by one members of Jim’s team have been eliminated. Jim, with the help of an old colleague played by Ray Winstone, sets off on a blood-soaked journey to find Felix, which means finding Annie, and the whole rest of the over-worked story is Jim behaving like Jason Bourne and overcoming hordes of bad guys sent after him. Little by little, layers of treachery and deceit are unraveled and he learns that one of his own, a character played by Mark Rylance, is on the wrong side. Eventually, Jim and Annie are both running for their lives. Even when the bad guys seem to have the upper hand, Jim always finds a way out. Eventually, he cooperates with Interpol (this is where the Idris Elba character comes into the story) and has as leverage documentary evidence of what went down in Congo and who the players were. That doesn’t stop a gory climax in which both Jim and Annie are in peril.

All I can say is, if this is meant to be a Bourne-like or “Taken” film (the director made “Taken”), it doesn’t rise to that level. If it’s meant to be something more, it utterly fails. It is a tired retread of a thousand other movies just like it, some better and some worse, but the point is there’s nothing original here. And I don’t find actors Penn’s age getting all buff for a role that requires extreme action convincing. He’s way too old for this kind of part. I mean, what does having a cut physique have to do with being an unstoppable killing machine? A hard body will not stop bullets or blades and certainly won’t help much in fighting hand to hand against equally trained opponents. Oh, I forgot, the conceit of movies like this is that the protagonist is the best of the best and therefore unbeatable. Right. That might work in something like Bourne or Bond or in Batman or Superman where it’s all set up and part and parcel of the well-established character, but here we’re asked to buy it sight unseen with no plausible explanation given for his superhero abilities.

Bardem has the good sense and taste to have his character killed off midway through. Penn, unfortunately, hangs around to the bitter end. Bardem at least brings some manic, maniacal spark to his hideous character. Penn, meanwhile, seems to think that affecting a brooding demeanor and feigning guilt, desire and noble intentions are enough and that we won’t care he’s not really investing himself in the role. I mean, I just didn’t give a damn after a certain point. The fault there, too, lies with the screenplay writers and the director. If they’d given half as much attention to the emotions and motivations of Penn’s central character as they did to building his physique and staging the elaborate violence scenes, then we might have had a real movie. As it is, we’re left with a dark adult cartoon that aspires to be a serious movie but becomes a parody of other movies.

Judge for yourself by watching it on Netflix, though I can’t bring myself to recommending this waste of time other than as a mindless diversion while you eat a snack.

Hot Movie Takes – “Point Blank”
©By Leo Adam Biga, Author of “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film”

John Boorman was reportedly given carte-blanche on his first American feature “Point Blank” (1967) because star Lee Marvin believed in him enough to defer his own final script and cut approval to the then-young, brash upstart from Great Britain. The resulting film is unlike anything we’d come to expect from the formulaic gangster pic for its ambiguity, its use of memory and time, its nonlinear structure and its metaphorical references to organized crime as just another iteration of big business. Marvin stars as career criminal Walker, a walking anachronism or ghost who was left for dead on a job and is back to claim the money owed him – by any means necessary. He’s been out of circulation for an indeterminate number of years and seemingly reenters the scene like a tough guy from an earlier era to find everything changed. The music and the mores, the bag men and trigger men, they’re all a different breed from him. Colder, more calculating. Soulless. He soon learns that getting the money owed him involves a convoluted syndicate of middle and upper managers who keep passing the buck to somebody higher up the chain of command. One by one, Walker confronts these pencil pushers in suits to get what’s his and when they balk or defer he either dispatches them himself or lets somebody else do it for him. Every time he thinks he’s about to collect, things are undone by some new deceit. By the end, Walker is a disoriented phantom who has no one he can trust. He doesn’t even believe what he sees with his own eyes.

The film plays like a nightmare and in fact many viewers speculate that Walker is dreaming the story or is actually dead. In the end, the surreal qualities of the story become part of its fabric or texture and you just go along with it because this is, at its root, a revenge picture and as such it’s driven by the intense feelings of rage and retribution that Walker embodies. It’s evident in the way he walks, talks, sulks, broods, drives, fights, makes love and kills. He’s already a dead man, literally or figuratively, and so he has nothing to lose. It’s that precise nether realm of emotion and detachment that the film resides in. In this way it’s similar to the original “Get Carter” and to “The Limey,” two of the better crime films ever made. The dissipation of its protagonist reminds me of the original “The Gambler” and “The Friends of Eddie Coyle,” two more masterworks in the crime genre.

Marvin’s supporting players in “Point Blank” include John Vernon, Keenan Wynn, Lloyd Bochner, Michael Strong, Carol O’Connor and Angie Dickinson. The cinematography by Philip Lathrop, the editing by Henry Berman and the art direction by Albert Brenner and George Davis is very strong and of the best of its time in terms of pushing past convention. The film is very much inspired by and a response to the then-trendy French, Czech and Polish New Wave in cinema.

Boorman has gone on to be a filmmaker who often works at the extreme ends of mainstream cinema (“Hell in the Pacific,” “Deliverance,” “Zardoz,” “Excalibur,” “The Emerald Forest”). The results are sometimes uneven but never uninteresting or not engaging. “Point Blank” is about as subtle as a punch to the gut but it’s also strangely poetic in its post-noir nihilism.

Marvin was a great character actor who went on to be a big star and when he really cared about the projects he was in he did memorable work, and “Point Blank” is right up there with his best performances and best films. His screen presence has rarely been matched and he uses it to great effect in this movie. He’s a thinking man’s criminal who can turn violent at any moment. His character in “Point Blank” bears some similarities to the villainous roles he played in “The Killers” and in “Gorky Park,” two more very good crime films in which Marvin finds complex colorings to his characters.

Hot Movie Takes – “Bonnie and Clyde”
©By Leo Adam Biga, Author of “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film”

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

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

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

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

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

Splendor in the Grass
The Manchurian Candidate
Wild River
David and Lisa
Nothing But a Man
A Thousand Clowns
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
The Graduate
Point Blank
In the Heat of the Night
The Producers
The Wild Bunch
East Rider
Midnight Cowboy
Take the Money and Run
Five Easy Pieces
The Landlord
Harold and Maude
Dirty Harry

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

Hot Movie Takes – “Colors of Heaven”
©By Leo Adam Biga, Author of “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film”

I find the award-winning South African film “Colors of Heaven” a difficult film to review because watching it I often felt two movies were streaming at the same time: a very good and a very bad one. There is so much to admire about this inspired-by-true-events story. Action-filled drama punctuated by romance, violence, revolution, racism and historic events. High production values. And a whole lot of heart. To its detriment is a melodramatic script that settles for caricature and cliche over nuance, some shaky acting and a tendency for the director Peter Bishai, who co-wrote it with Andre Pieterse, to want to emulate Quentin Tarantino and not having the chops to do it. Indeed, it seems as if the makers of this film couldn’t decide what primary tone they wanted for it. It’s variously satiric, ironic, over-the-top and soberly dramatic and often all of those things in the same sequence, which makes for a confusing stew if not handled very carefully and artfully. The film’s uneasy balancing act also reminded me of Richard Rush’s “The Stunt Man,” and even in his very capable hands that film nearly careens out of control at several points and its multiple shorelines and tones don’t always mesh well. Then there’s the protagonist of “Colors of Heaven,” Muntu, who’s portrayed as a confounding, irritating fellow drawn to trouble and danger. He’s seem so cavalier, reckless and random about the decisions he makes that at several key junctures I just didn’t care what happened even though the events depicted should have made me care. The whole works threaten to unravel near the end but just enough narrative discipline kicks in to make the payoff worth the sometimes erratic quality. It’s definitely a film that is greater than the sum of its many imperfect parts.

Watch it on Netflix and judge for yourself.

The near mythic story of Muntu that the movie tells takes place in the 1970s and 1980s. leading up to, during and after the Soweto uprising and the rise of Nelson Mandela. When we meet Muntu he is a young man on the run. He is a former national icon for the child acting role he had in a wildly popular South African film that paired him with a white child actor, Norman Knox, who became his best friend. What happens to Muntu and his friend in their adulthood is inextricably linked to that nation’s brutal apartheid state and the growing resistance to it. The deep psychosis and terrible cost of apartheid is well delineated in the dramatic exposition. It’s just that, for me anyway, the filmmakers crammed in way too many incidents than they knew how to manage and they didn’t give me a multi-dimensional protagonist so much as an enigmatic and convenient avatar whose path intersects with a great deal of chaos. He must navigate equally treacherous elements of traditional tribal culture, white society, the rebellion movement and the underground-underbelly world. The story is replete with personal loss and sacrifice. But I suspect it would be even more powerful if the makers focused on a few incidents rather than the dozen of more they try juggling, which tends to only muddle things. Less would have been more in this case.

Hot Movie Takes – “Packed in a Trunk: The Lost Art of Edith Lake Wilkinson”
©By Leo Adam Biga, Author of “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film”

Most of us have a desire to leave something behind that serves to commemorate our life. For some, it’s children and grandchildren. For others, a company, organization or foundation. And for still others, it’s the creative things we produce or make, whether the work of our hands or heads. Late 19th-early 20th century American artist Edith Lake Wilkinson never married and bore no children but she created an astounding body of work. Yet her contributions were nearly lost to the world when tragically, perhaps even criminally, she was committed to an insane asylum despite being a remarkably productive artist fully engaged in her work and in the world around her. It appears the openly gay feminist artist Wilkinson may have been the victim of a malicious attorney and a disgruntled ex-lover who used her lifestyle choices and possible bouts of anxiety and mania against her. It’s only thanks to fate and family that her long forgotten work, much of it packed away in a trunk and unseen for years, has been rediscovered and is now being shared with new generations. The story of this artist’s once obscure legacy seeing the light of day 60 years after her 1957 death is told in the 2015 HBO documentary “Packed in a Trunk.”

The story is equally that of Wilkinson’s great niece, Jane Anderson, a writer-artist-filmmaker whose personal connection to her ancestor drove her to try and make right the wrongs done all those years ago. Anderson grew up around some of her aunt’s work and she uncannily inherited Edith’s visual vocabulary. Their sketching and painting bear close resemblances to each other. Anderson feels another bond because just as her great-aunt was, she, too, is a gay feminist. The film chronicles Anderson’s decades-long attempts to try and restore some of what was stolen from Edith and what was denied the world, namely the sketches, paintings and wood blocks Edith made during a fruitful time in her life from the early 1900s through the early 1920s.

Restoring Edith to her rightful place becomes a mission for Jane and her partner Tess. When they discover that Edith had lived the best years of her life as a working member of the historic Provincetown art league, they are determined to reunite her work with that village on the northern tip of Cade Cod, Massachusetts. The film shows Jane meeting with artists and art gallery directors to try and interest them in her great aunt’s work, and they are all taken with it. Interestingly, years before the making of the film Jane tried eliciting interest but found none. It seems the documentary production carried the imprimatur that Jane alone didn’t have before. We learn as Jane learns that her great aunt was highly aspirational. She left her home in West Virginia to study art in New York Cit. She made her way as an artist and produced a great volume of work. She planned going to Paris to take in that city’s international art scene.

We also learn about the difficult time women artists had in that post-Victorian era of being taken seriously. Male artists always got preferential treatment and were given credit for things that sometimes women were denied. Most sadly, we learn that Edith had no one to look out for her best interests. She lost both her parents to a tragic accident and had no siblings, leaving her at the mercy of a callous attorney and a jealous ex-lover. Her institutionalization robbed her of the last three decades of her life, during which time she produced no work after such a prolific output in her 20s, 30s, 40s and 50s. She desperately needed a protector and advocate, but no one was there for her.

Poignantly, Jane is there for her today, preserving a legacy that would otherwise remain lost. Though Edith is gone, she lives on in her work and it’s through that work getting seen in exhibitions and online that Jane’s made Edith a relevant, appreciated and admired artist.

Some of my favorite parts of the doc are people seeing her work for the first time and being blown away by its quality. One can only wonder what Edith would make of her work finding new life and creating such a fuss all these years later, especially after she was locked away, discarded, forgotten – reduced to a shadow figure.

How may other bright talents have been silenced and lost through unjust asylum commitments based more on fear or ignorance or spite than on any sound diagnosis?

“Packed in a Trunk” is now showing on Netflix.

Hot Movie Takes – “Southpaw”
©By Leo Adam Biga, Author of “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film”

Antoine Fuqua’s “Southpaw” (2015) is a mess of a movie that ultimately works despite setting for spectacle over subtlety the first half and retreading tired cliches throughout. It’s only saved by the committed performance of star Jake Gyllenhaall as professional boxer Billy Hope.

But I have a bone to pick with him and other actors who feel they have to radically transform their bodies in order to play characters whose physicality is a part of their life. There’s no way an actor should have to go through some extreme training or regimen to get all ripped in order to play, as in this case, a boxer. I mean, even boxers and boxing trainers will tell you that the sport is far more about what’s between the ears than it is about throwing punches or strength or any of that stuff. Indeed, Titus “Tick” Wills, the trainer character Forest Whittaker plays in the film says that very thing to Billy Hope. Similarly, actors and acting teachers will tell you it’s the internal, not the external that matters in creating truthful characters. Ironically, when we first meet Billy, he’s a reigning light-heavyweight champion who’s in incredible condition, who can punch and who can take a punch but has no defensive skills whatsoever, The movie wants us to buy-into Gyllenhaall looking like a real fighter yet the early fight scenes are ridiculously over the top and unrealistic. There’s no way Billy could have gotten that far as a prizefighter, with a 43-0 record no less, with such atrocious or nonexistent defense, So, why did Gyllenhaall and director Antoine Fuqua believe it was so important for the actor to get so buff when very few fighters ever look like that and when his character is a pure slugger for whom that kind of ripped body is even rarer and really beside the point yet, and when they failed to capture the realism of ring action that other movies have made the standard for the genre? Look, I know one of the most iconic performances in screen history is by Robert De Niro as boxer Jake LaMotta in “Raging Bull,” in which he transformed his body twice, getting incredibly ripped and then getting grossly obese, but that’s Bobby f___ing De Niro were talking about. He’s a great actor. Jake Gyllenhall, though a good actor, is something less than great. And I know the boxing scenes in “Raging Bull “range from gritty to poetic, even surreal, but director Martin Scorsese was going for something far different than what Fuqua went after.

More telling and integral to Gyllenhaal’s characterization in “Southpaw” than the physical appearance he crafted is the way he transformed the way he speaks and behaves. Billy was an orphaned street kid and grew up in the rough and tumble state child welfare system and Gyllenhaal make me believe he’s from that world. He’s an angry person unable to deal with life outside the ring without his life partner, Maureen (Rachel McAdams).

The movie takes us down a predictable path in which Billy loses his wife to a bullet in a fracas he played a part in escalating and after he goes off the deep end he suffers another loss when his kid, Leila (Ooa Laurence in a pretty fair performance) is taken away from him and put in the child welfare system. Adding insult to injury, his manager Jordan (50 Cent in a lousy performance) drops him and then Billy loses his title in a dramatically contrived way that practically has him undergo a breakdown in the ring. Having lost everything, he sets about reinventing himself in order to pick up the pieces of his shattered life. Billy’s motivated to reclaim his title and redeem himself in order to get back his little girl. Aiding him on his comeback is Tick Wills, a gruff, good-hearted man who reluctantly takes on the ex-champ. There’s not one iota of originality in this movie but the writing, lead performance, direction and Mauro Fiore’s cinematography are just good enough to make it all work in the end, though I also found some of the supporting and peripheral performances weak and unconvincing. There’s also a notable lack of attention to detail in several scenes that made me feel the makers were more concerned with the melodrama of the piece than any true attempt at realism, even poetic realism. The second half is decidedly better and more grounded in reality than the first half and the later fight scenes are much better done as well.

I seem to recall this movie getting all sorts of love from critics but I can’t see why. It doesn’t hold up to the best boxing movies and even looked at as purely a drama, apart from its boxing theme, it’s mediocre at best. I found the last “Rocky” movie much better, much more realistic, much more moving than this picture.

A side note: I was amused to find Fuqua’s name appeared at least five times in the credits between his production company and his producing and directing roles on the picture, and all I can say is if I were him I wouldn’t want my name so prominently and frequently displayed on such a pedestrian work as this. The best thing Fuqua did was to cast Gyllenhaal and to get out of the way. Whenever he did get in the way, the pic suffered.

“Southpaw” is now showing on Netflix.

Hot Movie Takes – “Christine”
©By Leo Adam Biga, Author of “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film”

The sad, true-life story of Christine Chubbuck is told in the emotionally wrenching 2016 film “Christine” now playing on Netflix. Rebecca Hall plays Christine, a young, ambitious, emotionally disturbed television news reporter in the early 1970s trying unsuccessfully to hide her illness from co-workers and determined not to use medication to treat her condition. We find out pretty early on she’d previously suffered severe depression while living and working in Boston and that whatever happened there precipitated her moving to Sarasota, Florida, where she feels her talents are wasted at a struggling small market station. She works in a very intimate setting there but she cannot bring herself to connect with her colleagues, with the exception of Jean (Maria Dizzia). This jill-of-all-trades pulls camera, edits film, produces segments and aspires to be a field reporter like Christine, whom she admires. Jean worries about Christine because her workmate is always intensely fraught with angst and tension without ever admitting to it or letting on why. She’s the first to suspect something’s wrong but like most of us in similar circumstances, she’s in a quandary what to do about it.

Off her meeds, Christine is portrayed as a high functioning sick person subject to mood swings indicative of manic depression. Her high ideals to do serious thought pieces on real issues and her sense of perfectionism set her up for expectations that are bound to be frustrated.

Complicating things, Christine has a crush on vain anchorman George (Michael C. Hall) but is too unsure of herself to do anything about it., let alone clue him in on her interest. Christine resents that George flirts with the cute female sports reporter Andrea (Kim Shaw) and with a pretty receptionist-floor manager. Her self-esteem is so bad that she doesn’t think she has a chance with George anyway.

But Christine’s main conflict at the station is with the manager-news director, Mike Nelson (Tracy Letts), a gruff news hound who respects her ability but resents her condescending. combative attitude. He knows that Christine feels she’s too good for the station and she knows he knows. Nelson also increasingly feels he has an unstable person on staff and he, too, has no idea how to handle the situation.

To boost sagging ratings he demands that his reporters bring him “juicy” stories. After resisting this, because it goes against everything she believes in as a journalist, Christine finally gives in. In her increasingly manic, desperate states she gives him what she thinks he wants but her work becomes ever edgier, even disturbing. Her isolation only grows. Her desire to get out of the station increases when she learns the owner is eying to pluck someone from the staff for his new station in big market Baltimore. At one point, seemingly unable to do anything right, she has a blow out with Nelson that should have got her fired but she stays on. George tries to help by introducing her to a form of therapy but his attempts backfire when she learns he and the sports reporter are going to Baltimore.

The backdrop to all of this is Christine’s dysfunctional relationship with her mother Peg (J. Smith-Cameron), with whom she lives. Christine has an uneasy, unhealthy reliance on her mother for emotional support. When Peg tries to live her own life. Christine sees it as a threat to her own security and fears of abandonment.

Rebecca Hall is superb as Christine. She portrays the neuroses of the character in every aspect of behavior – from the way she walks and talks to the way she sits and stands to the way she responds to other people. It’s in her voice, in her inflections, in her posture, in her gestures. Everything about her is pinched, awkward and wound up tight like a spring. In Christine’s mind, the world she navigates is filled with treachery and stupidity. She sees people as conspiring against her. She survives life, she doesn’t live it. We also glimpse those episodes when she’s seemingly fine, though always wary. Smith-Cameron is quite good as her loving mother who is out of her depth dealing with her daughter’s manic-depressive condition. Michael C. Hall is effective as George, the well-meaning colleague who can see Christine is floundering, though neither he nor anyone around her realizes just how far she’s unraveling. Dizzia is impressive as Jean, the faithful friend whom Christine believes has betrayed her.

But the film’s best performance belongs to Letts as Mike Nelson. The respected stage-screen actor, playwright and screenwriter gives great dimension to a part that could have been played as a stereotype.

Kudos go to screenwriter Craig Schlowich and director Antonio Campos for never flinching from going to dark places but also never being exploitative with the material. Through it all, even after Christine ends her misery in a most bizarre and shocking way that certainly must have influenced “Network,” the story remains a deeply empathic and humanistic portrait of a woman in crisis. If we’re honest, all of us know someone like Christine or have aspects of her in ourselves.

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 violations and 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.”

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