Archive for the ‘Film Reviews’ Category

‘Smoke’ — a surrealistic madness

Thursday, August 2nd, 2012


 ‘Smoke’ — the story of the person who became the captive of surrealistic madness



By Allan R. Ellenberger


If you’re interested in something different, check out Smoke, a 2007 short film by Polish filmmaker, Grzegorz Cisiecki. Its seven-plus minutes unfold with no dialogue using images to tell an indefinable tale about a young man remembering—but remembering what, we are not sure.





Told in a surrealistic dream-like approach, the influence of David Lynch and Kubrick are evident throughout. Cisiecki’s moody and symbolic direction, enhanced by the exceptional cinematography of Dawid Rymar,  makes Smoke a must-see for any discerning film enthusiast. Looking forward to the future work of this writer-director.





Review of ‘Hollywood Story’

Saturday, May 14th, 2011


The true ‘Hollywood Story’ is solved 

 Hollywood Story poster


By Allan R. Ellenberger

Recently I had the pleasure to watch the rare film, Hollywood Story (1951), starring Richard Conte, Richard Egan, Henry HullFred Clark and in one of her early film appearances, Julie Adams (billed as Julia Adams).


The film was obviously inspired by the unsolved William Desmond Taylor murder that occurred barely 30 years earlier — a famous Hollywood director (named Franklin Ferrara in the film) is found shot and dead in his bungalow. The case goes unsolved and ruins several Hollywood careers including one of the directors leading ladies, an actor who is rumored to have murdered him and a screen writer who becomes a destitute beachcomber.  


Helen Gibson, William Farnum and Francis X. Bushman being greeted by the studio guard at the entrance of the former Chaplin Studios


Besides the cast mentioned earlier, there are cameos by former silent film favorites, Francis X. Bushman, William Farnum and Helen Gibson and an appearance by Joel McCrea who plays himself. But the real star of the film, in my opinion, are the scenes of old Hollywood. The film opens with a shot of Hollywood Boulevard looking west from Vine Street with the Broadway Department Store entrance and the Warner Theater clearly visible.


Other scenes include the NBC Studios (now demolished) on Sunset and Vine and shots of the Hollywood Christmas Parade as it passes Grauman’s Chinese Theater. The swimming pool of the Roosevelt Hotel makes an appearance as does portions of the famed Sunset Strip.


Richard Conte and Julie Adams near poolside at the Roosevelt Hotel in The Hollywood Story


The plot of the film revolves around Larry O’Brien (Richard Conte) a Broadway producer who arrives in Hollywood to try his hand at filmmaking. Based on facts presented to him, he decides to make a film about the Franklin Ferrara murder. His friend and now-agent (played by Jim Backus), finds him an old abandoned studio that just happens to be where Ferrara was found murdered. This begins the chain of events for his plans to make a movie about Ferrara — investigating the facts himself and getting in trouble in the process.


While the film is produced by Universal (the old entrance to the studio also has a cameo), they rented the Charlie Chaplin Studios on La Brea just south of Sunset as the stand-in for the studio where Ferrara was murdered and where O’Brien will now make his film. A long shot of the bungalow clearly shows the neon sign atop the Roosevelt Hotel (and is still visible today) in the background and the distinctive brick gate entrance to the studio can be seen from inside the lot. It is at this front gate that Conte greets silent film stars, Bushman, Farnum and Gibson. In another scene Conte runs outside the gate onto the sidewalk just as he sees Julie Adams and Paul Cavanaugh make an escape up La Brea and around the corner at Sunset.


I don’t believe Hollywood Story was ever released on video or DVD, but it should be. If you ever have the opportunity to see this film and old Hollywood is one of your interests, I highly recommend it.



 The studio guard, Richard Conte and Jim Backus walking onto the Chaplin lot. Notice the ornate tower in the background which is the entrance to the studio. That same tower is below.




 The studio guard greeting Francis X. Bushman at the entrance of the former Chaplin Studios in The Hollywood Story. Below is the same spot as it looks today.




 Richard Conte stands on the sidewalk outside the entrance to the former Chaplin Studios looking north toward Sunset. Below is the same spot as it looks today.





Review of “The Loss of a Teardrop Diamond”

Sunday, December 20th, 2009


A rediscovered Tennessee Williams screenplay opens at theaters


The Loss of a Teardrop Diamond


“The Loss of a Teardrop Diamond” has the Williams touch and the feel of the south in the 20s


 By Allan R. Ellenberger


The Glass Menagerie, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and Suddenly Last Summer – all are classic plays written by the prolific playwright, Tennessee Williams. All and several others were translated to the screen with judicious success.


This new film, The Loss of a Teardrop Diamond, is an original script that Williams wrote expressly for the screen decades ago. Williams affection for memorable, unstable, sometimes southern women such as Blanche DuBois and Maggie the Cat, now includes Teardrop’s  Fisher Willow, played in the film by Bryce Dallas Howard.


Fisher is a headstrong young debutante who rises against being a proper southern belle. At a Halloween party she loses her aunt’s teardrop diamond earring and suspicion falls on her escort and possible love interest, Jimmy Dobyne (Chris Evans). Fisher is forced to face her own demons which are putting her relationship with Dobyne in peril.


When Williams was writing the script in 1957, he expressed his desire to have Julie Harris play Fisher and Elia Kazan, with whom he worked before on Broadway and in films, to direct it. “That’s premature, of course,” Williams said at the time, “but they’ll get the first chance at the completed script.”


Unfortunately that chance never came and the screenplay was not produced. It stayed in Williams catalogue of works for fifty years until first-time director, Jodie Markell decided to direct it. Markell first read the script while studying acting years earlier and was struck by the character of Fisher Willow, a young woman trying to find herself.


Filmed in Louisiana, the look of the film is authentic; the locations, cinematography, and costumes all confer the feel of the 1920s south. The acting accolades go to Howard and veteran actress, Ellen Burstyn who plays Miss Addie, a free spirit, not unlike Fisher, who is now trapped in her stroke-ridden body and asks for the girls help. Burstyn is amazing and the scenes where Addie recalls her scandalous past and how she came to be bedridden, are some of the films highlights.


Recently I had the opportunity to interview the film’s director, Jodie Markell, on the making of The Loss of a Teardrop Diamond.



Jodie Markell

Jodie Markell, director of “The Loss of a Teardrop Diamond” in limited release on December 30, 2009 


Q&A with Jodie Markell:


The “Loss of a Teardrop Diamond” was made in 2007; what were the obstacles in getting the film released?


JM: Yes the film was shot in the fall of 2007, played at Toronto in the fall of 2008, but the final adjustments were made in 2009.  Of course we all remember that the economy crashed last fall, which sent the independent distribution market into a tail spin that it is still recovering from.  We received offers from different companies, but we were waiting for the right distributor and we found him in Mark Urman of Paladin.  He has such an understanding of the film. He also knows how to market it to the right audience, not just in New York and LA but in additional markets across the country. When looking for a distributor, you have to be discerning and not desperate. I feel so grateful to be working with Mark Urman.


What’s the story behind the “rediscovered” Tennessee Williams screenplay? How did it come to your attention and what attracted you enough to want to film it?


JM: When I was fifteen, growing up in Memphis, Tennessee, I was cast as Laura Wingfield in a high school production of The Glass Menagerie. From that moment on, I was hooked. By the time I was seventeen, I had read everything I could find by Tennessee Williams and had been inspired by Elia Kazan’s classic films of A Streetcar Named Desire and my favorite, Baby Doll. As a teenager with artistic tendencies, who often felt a bit different, I had a real affinity for Williams’ sensitive characters who are searching for something authentic in a harsh world.  A few years later, when I was studying to be an actress in New York City, a teacher showed me the un-produced screenplay of Williams’ The Loss of a Teardrop Diamond written in 1957. The script was the only film Williams said he had written “directly for the films.” It was re-discovered amongst his papers many years later. I was immediately struck by the lead character, Fisher Willow, a young woman struggling to find her voice. I related to Fisher’s call for understanding. When a story touches me, I tend to carry it in my heart until the time is right to see it realized. A few years after I read the screenplay, I brought it to producer Brad Michael Gilbert who has a knack not only for getting what he wants, but also for supporting an artist’s vision. Gilbert knew I had an interest in finding lost American classics that have been overlooked. He had produced my first short film, Eudora Welty’s Why I Live at the P.O. which played the festivals and won several awards. Over the course of a few years, Gilbert made several attempts to acquire Teardrop Diamond, but it wasn’t until the estate changed hands that he was able to secure the rights.


Do you have a favorite Tennessee Williams character and why?


JM: Well,aside from Fisher Willow in our film, I have always liked the character of Carol Cutrere in Orpheus Descending and in the film The Fugitive Kind.  She is a rich, rebellious girl, who has a bad reputation in a small southern town.  A bit older than Fisher, she is almost like what Fisher would have become if she didn’t find her Jimmy.  Carol goes “juke-ing”: she drives her speedster to juke joints on old country roads, picks up men, and takes them to the local graveyard in the middle of the night. She is a wild one, but she speaks so poetically about it –in one scene she talks about how the dead have one message to us and it is “Live, just live.” She is so desperate, but she is brutally honest and she breaks our hearts. I always wanted to play that role.


This is an impressive directorial debut. What did you love about directing and what areas were not that enjoyable for you?


JM: What I love about directing most is working with the actors and the designers. I also love working with the camera and playing with color and light. And I love being on location.  As a director,  you have an opportunity to use your whole brain- it really wakes up areas of your mind that you don’t always use- and you need to keep so many thoughts going at once – like multi-tracking. You need to be present not only for the actors but also for everyone on the crew. Ready to answer any questions or concerns. You need to be ready to put out fires but at the same time to ignite the creative energy in your actors and designers. You need to be inspired so you can inspire others. It is quite an enlivening experience.


I had some frustrations shooting the levee sequence at the end of the film. We selected a levee in the middle of nowhere or so we thought.  We soon discovered that even though we were shooting in the middle of the night we were bombarded with interfering sound issues. It was like we were suddenly at the hub of all forms of modern transportation! Not great for a period film. We heard cars on an unforeseen highway nearby, planes, trains, and worst of all the barges and tugboats that slowly went by on the river, ruining the scene we were shooting. We had to wait sometimes half an hour for a boat to go by. That was frustrating because the actors were really in a great place emotionally and we kept having to cut for sound. I hated having to say CUT when the actors were so connected. But that comes with the territory.


The look of the film is amazing. The costumes, sets and cinematography, and even the poster, recreate the 1920s. Can you briefly tell how you accomplished this?


JM: From the beginning, I wanted an authentic look set in the period. The designers and I immersed ourselves in imagery of the period from books of photographs and from early films. Our production and costume designers also have theatrical experience so they were used to making magic out of an independent film budget. We also spoke about how we did not want to create a faded old timey look, but we wanted to push the painterly use of color and light to create a dream-like atmosphere. We did not want to create an old fashioned movie, we wanted to create a film in a classic style. Cinematographer Giles Nuttgens and I selected to shoot scope (anamorphic), to not only give the film a larger than life canvas, but also to heighten the intimacy of the subtle emotional shifts that take place in the characters’ faces. The widescreen enabled the actors to move within the frame, even at times to share a close up. Shooting in cinemascope also allowed us to recall the style of the great films of the fifties (like Kazan’s East of Eden) when the screenplay was written.


Bryce Dallas Howard

Bryce Dallas Howard (above) stars as Fisher Willow in “The Loss of A Teardrop Diamond” 


The entire cast is incredible and Bryce Dallas Howard’s performance is, of course, central to the film. How did you decide on casting her and is the story about Lindsay Lohan originally being cast — or wanting the role — true?


JM: Bryce was always my first choice. I first saw her in Shamalyan’s The Village.  She is so grounded and earthy as an actor.  She is very present, honest and direct. And she has paid her dues in the theater. I knew the film called for actors with theater background because the language can be so elusive, almost as challenging as Shakespeare requiring a certain musicality. And many actresses make the mistake of playing Williams’ heroines in a very artificial mannered way that tends to keep the audience at a distance. I knew that Bryce would never fall into that trap.  She prepares her work with great focus and detail and yet her work always feels fresh.  But she was not available when we first offered her the role because she was pregnant. As our start date kept changing I met with several other talented actors, but had not quite found our Fisher.  About 6 months later, I received a call from Bryce’s agent suggesting that we could re-approach Bryce. I was ecstatic and we were able to delay our start date until she was ready to work again after her son was born. 


Academy Award winning actress, Ellen Burstyn, is memorable as Addie. What was it like to work with her?


JM: Working with Ellen was a dream come true – exactly what I wanted to experience when I became a director: to work with great actors, providing them a supportive environment where they can feel free to make discoveries.  Those discoveries are what ignite the screen and make their characters come alive.  Ellen arrived on location having already done a great deal of research. She even went to a hospital and met stroke victims who had been paralyzed like Miss Addie.  Ellen’s emotional well is very deep and she takes us on an inner journey without moving her body. Her character is on the brink of death and only an actress with great spiritual strength like Ellen could even approach this role. She is so honest and in the moment. Her work throughout her illustrious career has been such an inspiration and it was a real honor to work with her.


What project are you working on now?


JM: I have several scripts that I have developed and am reading others…I’ve got them all on the fire – we’ll see which one lights up first.




The film’s cast also includes Chris Evans as Fisher’s love interest, Jimmy Dobyne, Ann-Margaret as Aunt Cornelia and Will Patton as Old Man Dobyne. The Loss of a Teardrop Diamond opens in limited markets on December 30, 2009 and later in wide release.




Review: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

Thursday, May 29th, 2008

Indiana Jones

and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008)


Shia LaBeouf and Harrison Ford in the latest Indiana Jones epic


Direction: Steven Spielberg. Screenplay: David Koepp; story by George Lucas and Jeff Nathanson. Cast: Harrison Ford, Cate Blanchett, Shia LaBeouf, Karen Allen, Ray Winstone, John Hurt, Jim Broadbent, Igor Jijikine, Alan Dale



by Allan R. Ellenberger


After reading the Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull reviews coming out of Cannes, my expectations for Steven Spielberg’s latest effort were considerably lowered. But I shouldn’t have worried. Overall, the fourth installment in the Indiana Jones saga delivers the goods.


The film’s late-1950s time period is identified in the opening sequence as a teenage hot-rod drag race takes place on screen while Elvis Presley’s “Hound Dog” plays over the soundtrack. From then on, true to the original, the action is nonstop.



At first, our hero is kidnapped by communists headed by Cate Blanchett donning a black pageboy and doing what sounds like a bizarre “Natasha” impersonation. In the following twenty minutes, Spielberg and screenwriter David Koepp (George Lucas and Jeff Nathanson received “story” credit) put Indy through shoot-outs, car crashes, and an atom bomb in the Nevada desert. And that’s only for starters.


Harrison Ford, of course, is Indiana Jones. What else can be said? Age was never an issue while watching him on the screen, though references — mostly by Shia LaBeouf — are made about it. A Spielberg favorite of late, LaBeouf plays well the role of a knife-wielding, motorcycle-riding Marlon Brando clone.


As a plus, it was good to see the return of Karen Allen as Marion Ravenwood, the role she originated in Raiders of the Lost Ark back in 1981. (Marion has a secret for Indy that you can see coming from a mile away.) John Hurt, as a loony archeologist; Ray Winstone, as a spy who you are never sure on whose side he is; and Jim Broadbent, in what amounts to a cameo, round out the cast.


Kingdom of the Crystal Skull also offers brief homages to characters played in previous installments by Denholm Elliott and by Sean Connery — who reportedly turned down appearing in this sequel.


Indiana Jones billboard on Times Square 


Much has been written about the film’s special effects, which indeed are outstanding despite a swordfight during a jungle chase that failed to impress. Nearly everything else, however, is top-notch, including water falls, giant fire ants, attacking monkeys, and aliens in Peru, just to name a few. That said, in regard to the Crystal Skull of the title, one patron was overheard complaining in the lobby that said object looked like a “piece of plastic filled with Saran Wrap.”


Notwithstanding its shortcomings, this latest episode is loyal to the spirit of the franchise and will likely please most fans. And be sure not to miss the reference to the series’ first film. Like everything else in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, it goes by very quickly.


NOTE: My review for Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull originally appeared on the Alternative Film Guide site on Monday, May 19. See it HERE.