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Buffalo's star turn

Buffalo's star turn

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Let us now praise James Caan.

Yes, James Caan.

He's not only one of the best things about "Henry's Crime" -- the latest Hollywood film to be made in part in Buffalo -- but he was the one who officially began "the Buffalo/Hollywood connection" when he decided to make "Hide in Plain Sight" here.

You have to forget all the films that have used Niagara Falls as a backdrop -- "Niagara," "The Last Embrace," "Superman II" among them. That's a different story. Niagara Falls is one of the wonders of the world. Of course, films will want to shoot there.

The City of Buffalo is another matter.

Caan directed and starred in "Hide in Plain Sight," based on the struggles of South Buffalonian Tom Leonhard to find his children after his ex-wife was whisked off with their kids by witness protection after her new husband testified against his mobster bosses.

The 1980 film was based in part on the reportage of Leonhard's quest written in The Buffalo News by then-News reporter Lee Coppola (the well-traveled journalist who has also been a prosecutor, a TV investigative reporter and, most recently, the longtime dean of St. Bonaventure University's Jandoli School of Journalism).

Leonhard's Buffalo residence, of course, didn't begin to mean that Caan had to make "Hide in Plain Sight" here. He could have made it in Cleveland, or Detroit, or Pittsburgh or Toronto or any other Rust Belt city or film capital that could double for Buffalo. But no. Caan filmed "Hide in Plain Sight" in Buffalo, which meant he could shoot luscious steaming shots of Bocce pizzas being carried up a flight of stairs.

Caan sent Buffalo Mayor James Griffin a telegram at the time that said, "I will be back," and that his film was "a tremendous effort produced in a great city."

And now the Buffalo Savings Bank is the indispensable location used in "Henry's Crime" -- as the bank the principal, played by Keanu Reeves, decides to rob when his life as husband and Thruway toll taker fails him. It's the place outside of which the hero is accidentally hit by a car driven by an actress, played by the exceptional Vera Farmiga.

Its exterior, I suppose, could possibly be duplicated by magicians in Los Angeles, but why bother? There aren't many buildings around that have gold domes like that, so why not shoot in Buffalo?

So they did. (Proximity to Niagara Falls didn't hurt, according to Reeves. Nor did proximity to photogenic Thruway toll booths.)

The film will finally be shown to special guests and those who appeared in it at 7 p.m. Thursday in the Market Arcade Film and Arts Centre, courtesy of the Buffalo and Niagara Film Commission. Co-producer Lemore Sylvan will introduce the film for the local audience. The event isn't open to the public, but calls to the film commission might spring loose tickets for those with persuasive cases. Its official Buffalo commercial opening date is April 29. (Look for the review in The Buffalo News on April 28.)

What Caan's film began in 1980, though, was a rather amazing run of films made in and around Buffalo.

Here is a select history of how Buffalo looked in major star films after Caan decided to film his blue-collar tale here.

1981: "Tuck Everlasting." By then local filmmaker Frederick King Keller, before he was directing major Hollywood actors -- or, for that matter, had become a directing staple of episodic television (he is currently a director and supervising producer of CBS' Friday night drama "Blue Bloods").

1982: "Best Friends." Even more surprising than having Caan and Co. were Buffalo visitors Burt Reynolds and Goldie Hawn at the height of their careers. Reported Buffalo News reporter Michael Beebe, the film "needed an older Northeastern city with established ethnic neighborhoods and snow. Weather charts for the last 20 years helped Buffalo win out over Detroit, Cleveland, Albany, Utica, Syracuse and Rochester." No small factor, no doubt, was that the director was Norman Jewison, the superb Toronto-based director who probably still remembers the era in which Toronto's blue laws made Buffalo a sophisticated nightlife destination for Torontonians.

Buffalo looks and feels quite beautiful at times in the film, especially in the scenes filmed in the Central Park area. The film was written by the then husband and wife team of Valerie Curtin and Barry Levinson. Remember those names.

1983: "The Natural." By far, the best film ever made in Buffalo comes to town to film. It's Barry Levinson's adaptation of Bernard Malamud's classic American baseball novel with a mind-boggling cast led by Robert Redford (Glenn Close, Robert Duvall, Kim Basinger, Robert Prosky, Darren McGavin, Joe Don Baker, Wilford Brimley, etc. etc.). Because of its baseball setting, the movie gets the significant cooperation of Buffalo Bisons owner Robert E. Rich Jr., which no doubt made local accommodations very comfortable for Redford and Co. in the vacant summer homes of Rich family friends.

As spare as Buffalo looks, there are times when, courtesy of cinematographer Caleb Deschanel (father of actresses Zoe and Emily), the locations look quite beautiful.

1984: "Vamping." Made at almost the same time as "The Natural" was Frederick K. Keller's film from a script by Michael Healy, then arts editor of the Buffalo Courier Express and now a major movie executive for the Disney cable network. Keller's star was Patrick Duffy of TV's "Dallas" who, at the time, had the same agent as Keller. Because of his native status, Buffalo looks splendid, whatever else you can say about the film.

1995: "Canadian Bacon." Local locations figure only incidentally in Michael Moore's film about a war between the United States and Canada.

1998: "Buffalo '66." Buffalo's bad luck begins. Vincent Gallo's film about family dysfunction stars Christina Ricci, Angelica Huston and Ben Gazzara and is a funny, if vaguely megalomaniacal, comedy. Unfortunately its title doesn't merely locate the film's time and place, it virtually taints an entire city with the decidedly unpleasant dysfunctions of its Bills-loving family. And, as the old joke might have it, it makes the city look ugly too. There are good reasons why native Buffalonian Gallo isn't exactly considered a local hero.

2002: "Manna From Heaven." Written by longtime Buffalo resident Gabrielle Burton and directed by and starring her daughters, the film also stars Shirley Jones, Cloris Leachman, Louise Fletcher and Frank Gorshin. The film about what happens to a family that's suddenly "in the money" may not be the most successful of film comedies but it's the only film made in Buffalo by people with the avowed purpose of making the city look as good as possible in every scene. (It's no match, sadly, for Caleb Deschanel's wizardry in parts of "The Natural.")

2007: "The Savages." Philip Seymour Hoffman and Laura Linney in Tamara Jenkins' film about a grown brother and sister who come home to take care of a terminally failing father. Parts of it make the city look cozy in a kind of "Best Friends" way. Unfortunately, they're offset by an ugly line about Buffalo delivered by Linney that doesn't exactly make the film a joyous experience for the city that moved heaven and earth to help its makers.

2011: "Henry's Crime," in which Keanu Reeves serves time for robbing a bank he never robbed and, on his release, fights middle-aged ineffectuality by actually doing the crime he was once convicted for. In the process, he gets his old cellmate -- played by James Caan -- out of prison and hooks up with a local actress who appears in TV lottery commercials but is happier performing in Chekhov's "The Cherry Orchard."

If nothing else, it may be the only film ever made about Buffalo which shows an audience watching -- and enjoying -- Chekhov.

It might have been nice if the theater had been the gorgeous Shea's, but hey.

You have to have a soft spot for a film that allows a major Hollywood actor -- Caan -- to come back in a film 30 years after he made one in the heart of a city that no one, but him, had ever made a major Hollywood film before.

In an interview during the making of the film, Reeves said that he lived in Toronto between the ages of 7 and 20 and, among other things, availed himself of that classic border experience for Canadians, watching Irv Weinstein on Ch. 7's Eyewitness News.

Whereupon, his voice dropped a couple of octaves and he hummed its theme song in a perfect imitation of its enduring bombast.

A couple more weeks and parents will know where a lot of their children are -- seeing the latest apparition of their hometown in a Hollywood film.

jsimon@bufffnews.com

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PREVIEW

"Henry's Crime"

Keanu Reeves, Vera Farmiga and James Caan in the caper comedy filmed in part in Buffalo. Screening for invited cast and crew members will be held at 7 p.m. Thursday in the Market Arcade Theater. The film opens at area theaters April 29.

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