PETER BERG’S FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS — A REVIEW BY NICK CLEMENT

Friday Night Lights

Peter Berg’s Friday Night Lights is the football picture as if it were a combat film. These high school gridiron warriors are like battle-ready troops, ready to sacrifice it all in the name of glory. This is one of the best sports movies ever made, totally riveting, just as well done in the small details as it is in the grand scope of the sport and the society that it’s reflecting. Billy Bob Thornton beautifully underplayed the role of Head Coach, letting the colorful characters that make up the Permian Panthers do the heavy lifting in terms of dramatic consequence, though he’s not without his moments of explosive fury or deep introspection. Berg’s semi-regular cinematographer Tobias Schliessler shot the hell out of this movie, opting for a washed out color palette to match his gritty yet slick aesthetic; the film also has some of the best choreographed football action ever put on film. And true to the real-life story that this film covers, in the end, it’s not about winning and losing, but about putting it all out there in everything that you do, and picking up the pieces if it doesn’t land your way, always ready for the next challenge. The musical score by Explosions in the Sky is transcendent, all of the young actors and actresses nail their roles on and off the field, and the dialogue by co-scripters Berg and David Aaron Cohen has a believable quality that rings true at every moment. Fantastic production design and engrossing editing round out the tech package. When it comes to sports films, I hold this one in extra-high regard. Berg’s cousin H.G. Bissinger wrote the best selling book that the film is based on. Friday Night Lights would become a respectable box office grosser, and would be followed by one of the most critically acclaimed and dramatically involving TV shows of all time.

 

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The Red Riding Trilogy: A Review by Nate Hill

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The Red Riding Trilogy is one of the most dense, absolutely impenetrable pieces of work I’ve ever seen, let alone attempted to dissect with my clunky writing skills. It’s also fairly horrifying, as it chronicles the tale of the Yorkshire Ripper, an elusive and mysterious serial child killer who terrorized this area of Britain through the late 70’s and early 80’s. Viler still are the strong implications that very powerful people, including the brass of the West Yorkshire police, made every disgusting attempt to cover up the crimes and protect the killer, who’s murders included that of children. It’s a brave move by UK’s Channel 4 to openly make such notions obvious within their story, and commendable the level of patience, skill and strong ambition in the undertaking is quite the payoff, whilst simultaneously taking a toll on you for sitting through it. The sheer scope of it must be noted; it’s separated into three feature length films, each vastly different in setting, character and tone, and each blessed with a different director. The filmmakers even went as far as to film the first, which is set in 1974, in 16mm, the second in 35mm being set in 1980 and the third makes a leap to high definition video and takes place in 1983. Such a progression of time is a dismal reflection of the sticky corruption which clings to societies, decaying them stealthily over years, and the few keen individuals who will not let the truth die as long as there is a glimmer of uncertainty. Now, if you asked me exactly what happens over the course of this trilogy, who is who, what has happened to which characters and who is guilty, I simply wouldn’t be able to tell you. It’s a deliberatly fractured narrative told through the prism of dishonest, corrupt psyches and has no use for chronology either. Characters who you saw die in the first film show up in the subsequent ones, actors replace each other in certain roles, and there’s just such a thick atmosphere of confusion and despair that in the 302 minute running time I was not able to make complete sense. I think this is a great tactic to help you realize that the film means to show the futile, cyclical nature of reality, as opposed to a traditionally structured story with a clear cut conclusion. Events spiral into each other with little rhyme or reason, until we feel somewhat lost, knowing full well that terrible events are unfolding in front of our eyes, events that are clouded and just out of our comprehensive grasp in a way that unsettles you and makes you feel as helpless as the few decent people trying to solve the case. One such person is an investigative reporter searching for the truth in the first film, played by Andrew Garfield. He stumbles dangerously close to answers which are promptly yanked away by the sinister forces of the Yorkshire police, brutalized and intimidated into submission. He comes close though, finding a lead in suspiciously sleazy real estate tycoon Sean Bean, who’s clearly got ties to whatever is really going on. The level of willful corruption demonstrated by the police is sickening. “To the North, where we do what we want” bellows a chief, toasting dark secrets to a roomful of cop comrades who are no doubt just as involved as him. The kind of blunt, uncaring dedication to evil is the only way to explain such behaviour, because in the end it’s their choice and they know what they’re doing. Were these officers as vile as the film depicts in the real life incidents? Someone seems to think so. Who’s to know? Probably no one ever at this point, a dreadful feeling which perpetuates the themes of hopelessness. The second film follows a nasty Police Chief (David Morrissey) who is bothered by old facts re emerging and seems to have a crisis of conscience. Or does he? The clichéd cinematic logline “no one is what they seem” has never been more pertinent than in these three films. It’s gets to a point where you actually are anticipating every single person onscreen to have some buried evil that will get upturned. A priest (Peter Mullan is superb) shows up in the second film only to be involved in dark turns of the third. Sean Bean’s character and his legacy hover over everything like a black cloud. A mentally challenged young man is held for years under suspicion of being the Ripper. A disturbed abuse survivor (wild eyed Robert Sheehan) seeks retribution. A Scotland Yard Detective (Paddy Considine) nobly reaches for truth. Many other characters have conundrums of roles to play in a titanic cast that includes Cara Seymour, Mark Addy, Sean Harris, James Fox, Eddie Marsan, Shaun Dooley, Joseph Mawle and more. The process in which the story unfolds is almost Fincher – esque in its meticulous assembly, each character and plot turn a cog in a vast machine whose purpouse and ultimate function are indeed hard to grasp. I need to sit down and watch it at least two more times through before the cogs turn in a way that begins to make sense to me, and a measurable story unfolds. It’s dark, dark stuff though, presenting humanity at its absolute worst, and in huge quantities too, nightmarish acts that go to huge levels of effort just to produce evil for.. well, it seems just for evil’s sake, really. The cast and filmmakers craft wonderful work though, and despite the blackness there is a macabre, almost poetic allure to it, beauty in terror so to speak. It’s rough, it’s long, it’s dense and it thoroughly bucks many a cinematic trend that let’s you reside in your perceptive comfort zone, beckoning you forth with extreme narrative challenge, an unflinching gaze into the abyss no promise of catharsis at the end of the tunnel. There’s nothing quite like it, I promise you.

PTS PRESENTS: 10 QUESTIONS WITH FILMMAKER JOHN CARNEY

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Podcasting Them Softly is excited to present our latest 10 QUESTIONS INTERVIEW with the fantastic filmmaker John Carney (Once, Begin Again, the upcoming Sing Street). He chatted with Nick about the importance of independent cinema, the current state of affairs in Ireland within their blossoming film community, and what inspires his creative process. Look for his new film, Sing Street, in theaters this spring! We hope you enjoy!

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HOW DID THE SUCCESS OF ONCE CHANGE YOUR CAREER?

It had a huge impact. I didn’t have a career before Sundance accepted Once. I had a camcorder, some filmmaking and actor friends, and a hunk of debt! I don’t see how an Irish filmmaker can have a “career” without endorsement from elsewhere, Europe or America.

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HOW DID ONCE PREPARE YOU FOR BEGIN AGAIN?

It didn’t at all! I just made Begin Again with the same attitude as I did Once. I just show up to set as late as I possibly can and hope the day offers up some surprises. This, I think, shocked some American crew members, not to mention some British actresses!

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CAN YOU DESCRIBE YOUR CREATIVE PROCESS?

I write the scripts and score, and develop the songs in all my films, so the preparation is in that. This happens months, sometimes years before. After that I just show up as late as I can to set and do as little as I can get away with. Preparation is in what you have for dinner the night before shooting, what you read, and what you watch.

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WHAT’S YOUR FAVORITE PART OF PUTTING A FILM TOGETHER?

The laughs you have while casting the actors. Any work comes ages before shooting. Shooting is fun. If it isn’t, I think the audience knows.

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HOW DID SING STREET COME ABOUT?

It happened on an underground train in London. I was looking at a schoolboy carrying a guitar and remembering that feeling of breaking out of school and heading to your friend’s house for band practice. The bully is after you, the teacher is on your case, your parents are being assholes, you’ve got no money, no girlfriend, and you’re never more alive. I thought, that would make a nice scene, and took it from there.

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WHAT ARE YOUR THOUGHTS ON THE CURRENT IRISH INDEPENDENT CINEMA SCENE?

I’m excited if it gives people jobs. Ireland is really more like a city. It’s tiny. And it’s hard to sustain an industry. Thankfully we have state subsidy, which hopefully this interest in Irish filmmakers will help to sustain. But we need to cast Irish actors! Actors are still really struggling in Ireland.

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WHICH FILMMAKERS HAVE YOU LOOKED TO FOR INSPIRATION?

John Ford was good.

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HOW EXCITED ARE YOU ABOUT ALL OF THE RECENT IRISH TALENT TO FIND TRACTION IN HOLLYWOOD?

I don’t see it any different as before. Some Irish directors are certainly doing very well. But I’m glad I got in there before this new “wave.”

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WHAT’S THE HARDEST PART OF THE CREATIVE PROCESS

Writing stories is the hardest part about making films. I mean creating new stories. Finding something new to tell, that’s what drives me.

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CREATIVELY, DO YOU FIND YOURSELF ATTRACTED TO “IRISH STORIES?”

Are there actually any “new” stories? I think bad filmmakers are always looking for new stories. But the fact might be that the world has been spinning for so long that everything has pretty much been written. I mean, how original was Once? Boy meets girl. Ships in the night. The end. The original part was the tone, the songs, the casting. And that can all have an “Irish” feel, but Irish stories? I’m not so sure. Good films, I think, stem from the minutiae of your detailing and the universality of your story.

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Joel Copling’s Top Ten Revisited: 2014 Edition–Films #9 and #10

Hindsight can shift one’s view of one’s favorite films from a given calendar year quite a lot. So the idea is pretty simple: How would my top ten of 2014 look right now? For the next five days, I will be pick two films per day that might make up my list of the best ten films I saw from that year (and will be doing this for each previous year in the coming month).

10.) THE LEGO MOVIE (directed by Phil Lord and Christopher Miller)

Creative potential is when our heroes venture to a land of brightly colored, delightful beings and structures called Cloud Cuckooland. Creative follow-through is when that trip becomes an excuse to see LEGO likenesses of Michelangelo the painter and Michelangelo the teenage mutant ninja turtle, Dumbledore and Gandalf, the members of the 2002 NBA All-Stars and the Sixteenth United States President on a rocket-engine version of his statue’s chair, and, of course, a pirate that boasts a shark for an arm. It’s clear that writing/directing duo Phil Lord and Christopher Miller’s modus operandi when it came to the The LEGO Movie was to approach the titular, block-shaped toys with a childlike innocence. That’s without reckoning the film’s surprising amount of heart and a genuinely innovative visual style that mimics stop-motion animation.

9.) IDA (directed by Pawel Pawlikowski)

Co-writer/director Pawel Pawlikowski’s quiet but highly effective study of the divide, sometimes blurry, between rigor and liberty personifies itself in our heroine’s story. She has moved from the strict patterns of a convent to the looser pleasures of her aunt’s apartment, along the way severing the ties of her former life for one that must grow accustomed to outside life. But that’s too simple for Pawlikowski and co-screenwriter Rebecca Lenkiewicz, whose characters (greatly aided by performances from Agata Kulesza and Agata Trzebuchowska) are complex and revealing in more than one way. Rarely before has the literal act of a young woman letting down her hair so subtly revealed truths about that woman. Reminding of a modern-day Bergman effort and sporting some truly striking, black-and-white photography, Ida is one that sneaks up on the viewer.

BATMAN V SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE–A REVIEW BY TIM FUGLEI

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Joss Whedon and Zack Snyder are endlessly different auteurs, but I feel like the pair should share a cup of coffee soon, perhaps a hug or two while they’re at it.  There aren’t many humans on the planet who have been charged with launching and maintaining massive cinematic empires based on well known comic book superheroes, and the pressure to not only land a billion dollar big fish in the studio boat but set sail for a five to ten year plan of interconnected blockbuster releases can be nothing short of isolating.  When Whedon stuck the critical, audience and box office landings with The Avengers, he was immediately drafted into the Marvel Studio army to oversee the next “phase” of their media empire (i.e. ghost write on three films and create a television pilot) and of course make a sequel that could best the success of his previous film, merely one of the Top 5 box office champions of all time.  Snyder, on the other hand, found much more mixed results with Man Of Steel, Time Warner/DC’s attempt to launch a parallel universe with their own well known and beloved characters.  It made money but didn’t garner the broad acceptance and confidence that the studio hoped it would, although to be fair, Warner Brothers has clumsily juggled two of the most popular characters in comic book history for several decades now.  Whedon went on to pour his heart and sensibility into Avengers:  Age Of Ultron, which made huge piles of cash but left the internet sourly arguing its merits or lack thereof, and now Snyder is faced with similar angry cybermobs as Batman V Superman:  Dawn Of Justice hits theaters this weekend.  The number of levels at which an audience can find fault with this kind of exercise is almost unlimited, but Snyder, much like Whedon, has poured his soul into the exercise and come up with an epic, challenging and entertaining film.

As if helming a film called Batman v Superman:  Dawn of Justice wasn’t daunting enough for the director, he and writers David Goyer and Chris Terrio get to retell the origin story of Bruce Wayne, one that has literally been told almost countless times on screens large and small.  Snyder wisely dives right in, crafting one of his signature slow motion montages filled with pristine imagery in a wordless opening credit sequence that properly sets the stage for the smoldering rage of Ben Affleck’s very Dark Knight, scored with devastating beauty by Hans Zimmer.  Then we’re transported to Metropolis as Superman and General Zod waged their destructive day long war, but we now see the events from the angle of Bruce Wayne, who finds himself almost completely helpless in trying to rescue his employees from one of many collapsing buildings.  As if the Batman wasn’t already a walking, breathing grudge, the anger he now feels for these godlike aliens is etched across his face in almost every shot of the film and echoed through his wholly uneasy dreams.  Affleck’s lantern jaw and frequently unsung acting chops have rarely been put to better use—he’s the first Batman we’ve seen who, in keeping with many iconic iterations of the character from the comic books, is a perpetual rage engine, always fighting the feeling of helplessness that was imprinted on his soul the night his parents died with an angry grimace and an eager fist.

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At this point, and certainly from some of the marketing, one would think this isn’t a true sequel to Man Of Steel; far from it, I’d argue that this is one of the finest Superman films to date.  The questions raised by his seemingly limitless abilities and complete lack of oversight from any authority flow from the first act of the movie through the finale, and the consequences of wielding such power are explored not only through his conflict with Batman but via the truly mad yet thorough schemes of Alexander Luthor, played with cunning charm and more than a hint of barely contained insanity by Jesse Eisenberg.  Henry Cavill, sporting an impressive jawline himself, continues to bring grace to a young, evolving Superman, starting the film as a bedrock of confidence bordering on cockiness but soon finding himself put through many degrading tests and sacrifices by the time the closing credits crawl.  Each new challenge to his invulnerable physique and seemingly unimpeachable mission chips away at the Man of Steel like no other film has ever dared to, and it’s something of a marvel to behold.

I’d be remiss to leave out mention of Wonder Woman, although her crowd pleasing action beats of the third act and a bit of cat and mouse with Bruce Wayne in the early going are fun but ultimately slight.  Back to the laundry list of world building Snyder was handed by the studio, we are also given quick introductions to several other iconic DC characters, which starts to make the whole endeavor feel a bit wobbly on its narrative axis but fortunately doesn’t tip it over.  It’s no secret that this director is divisive; I’ve found his career thus far to be a mixed bag, and despite a predilection towards enjoying anything featuring the guy who can leap tall buildings in a single bound, found Man of Steel to be uneven in many departments.  Fortunately Batman v Superman plays like a synthesis of all of the good things Snyder is capable of, with many of the bad ones left behind in his older films.  There’s gorgeous imagery, such as the sublime sight of one of our heroes gracefully landing with a rescued woman in Juarez or a young crime victim being buoyed upwards by a flock of bats; his partnership with DP Larry Fong has never been stronger.  Hans Zimmer continues his brilliant work in the series, bringing back some of his stellar themes from Man of Steel and adding fantastic new ones for Bruce Wayne, Batman and Luthor.  And while the film takes its time to let the characters interact through other means than violence, when it’s time for action Snyder’s muscular talents for that end of the story are on full, swaggering display.  Much like the successful comic book films over at that other studio often do, the filmmakers here reach back into a treasure trove of DC comic book stories to put together an epic romp of a tale, and even have the chutzpah to visually nod to multiple previous big screen iterations of these heroes.  And, as noted earlier, Snyder is continuing the story of Superman, allowing the character to grow, be challenged, suffer doubt and loss, and really become quite a bit more interesting to observe than this indestructible Dudley Do-Right often is.  Like many other fans of this growing franchise, I can hardly wait to see what direction they take the character in next.

 

JONATHAN DEMME’S RICKI AND THE FLASH — A REVIEW BY NICK CLEMENT

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There isn’t a role that Meryl Streep can’t absolutely knock out of the park. It’s kind of crazy. She’s just as believable as Margaret Thatcher or Julia Child as she is portraying a fading music star in Jonathan Demme’s charming dramedy Ricki and the Flash. Well observed and written with sass and sensitivity by Diablo Cody, the film is that rare medium budgeted studio picture that’s about family and people and human interaction and words and thoughts and feelings. Kevin Kline is around for some great supporting moments and comical pot smoking, but the entire picture is stolen by Mamie Gummer, playing Streep’s estranged daughter, who is emotionally devastated over the recent collapse of her marriage, and still hurting from years of motherly inactivity. If you want a film about characters and their emotions and how we’re all human beings who are capable of mistakes, this is the film for you; not a CGI image in sight.

The story focuses on the broken nature of families when divorce is involved, and how when one parent, in this case Streep, disappears into their own private world, the effects can be long lasting on their children. Demme is one of the most humanistic of filmmakers I can think of, and as usual, there’s an effortless sense of grace that accompanies every sequence in this intimate film. Music, as always, plays a large part to the narrative and general cinematic atmosphere; in another life, Demme was likely some sort of rock ‘n roll star. And the film confirms, yet again, as if we needed to be reminded, how versatile and engaging Streep is as a performer, taking a potentially totally unsympathetic character and filling the edges with moments of personal reflection that might not have existed on the page. A mild sleeper hit in the theaters, this is the sort of film that will find a long life on cable and on disc. Also – some nice Rick Springfield POWER.

Rapid Fire: A Review by Nate Hill

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Along with the classic The Crow, Brandon Lee made few other films before his heartbreaking accidental death. His natural charisma and likeability he brought to action hero roles, accenting the tough guy qualities with an angelic vulnerability, was tragically cut short by the incident. However, Rapid Fire is a gift to fans of both Lee and the action genre alike. It’s a little further away from the notoriety of The Crow, but packs a fuming punch of martial arts, gunplay and tough talking character actors strutting their stuff to a tune that any fan of the genre can hum along to. Lee plays Jake, a young college student with turmoil in his past, haunted by an incident involving a loved one in the Tienemen Square disaster. During a visit to Chicago, he inadvertently witnesses a brutal gangland murder perpetrated by drug kingpin Tony Serrano (Nick Mancuso). This immediately puts him in the hot seat and pretty much on his own after the federal agent assigned to him (Raymond J. Barry) betrays him. His only hope lies with grouchy, paternal Chicago Detective Mace Ryan (Powers Boothe) who is on his own rampaging crusade to bring down the drug trade. Jake merely wants to survive and get out of the mess he’s found himself in. Together they punch, kick, shoot and strategize their way out of getting offed by the mafia, and kick some serious scumbag ass along the way. Lee is ultimate protagonist material: his strong points arise out of the soft touch, never being brash or hogging the screen, always serving up a helping of humble that make the ass kicking resonate tenfold. Boothe is pricelessly grumpy as the haggard detective, showing brief but unmistakable glimpses of the bruised warrior’s heart beneath, rekindled by his bond with Jake. Mancuso is like a rabid pit bull let off the chain as Serrano, a truly untethered piece of geniune psychopathic anarchy. But that’s him, always the under sung wild card who lights up his scenes with wild eyed tenacity. Chinese acting legend Tzi Ma also clocks in as a heroin dealer with a short temper, looking very young which is even made into a meta joke itself. It’s pure uncut action, somehow feeling like more thanks to Lee’s incredible presence, as well as Boothe and Mancuso adding their own lively brand of spice to an already simmering stew. Essential viewing for any action disciple.

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