ROMAN POLANSKI’S ROSEMARY’S BABY — A REVIEW BY NICK CLEMENT

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Genuinely creepy. Never truly “scary” but unnerving and happily cruel. This was Polanski twisting the emotional and psychological screws for a mainstream audience, and doing it with dark humor, visual panache, with his always incredible sense of pacing firmly on display. Mia Farrow in the role of a lifetime, and John Cassavetes perfectly cast as the shady husband who makes the wrong bargain. Based on Ira Levin’s novel, this is a truly messed up film, with all sorts of nasty implications, with Polanski’s obsession over sex and violence intrinsically linked, except this time, it’s the internal turmoil and toll that’s really stressed. Released in the summer of 1968, and shot for a reported $3 million, the film would become a massive critical and box office hit. Produced by genre master William Castle, with expert cinematography from William Fraker, who was easily one of the most prolific and steady cameraman of his era. Taylor Hackford’s exceedingly entertaining The Devil’s Advocate borrowed many thematic elements from Rosemary’s Baby, with Polanski’s iconic effort serving as inspiration for a variety of cheap imitations in the years that followed the success of Rosemary’s Baby. Ruth Gordon would win the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress, and what a performance she delivered. And let’s not forget a young Charles Grodin as Dr. Hill!

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PTS Presents ACTOR’S SPOTLIGHT with PAUL CALDERON

Calderon POWERCAST

Paul Sh #2Podcasting Them Softly is honored to present a chat with veteran actor Paul Calderon, who has appeared in a wide range of some of our favorite films and TV shows for close to the last 40 years. Paul has worked with filmmakers such as Quentin Tarantino, Abel Ferrara, James Mangold, Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu, Steven Soderbergh, Spike Lee, Sydney Pollack, Harold Becker, Sydney Lumet, and Arthur Penn, to name only a few, with credits including Pulp Fiction, King of NY, Bad Lieutenant (which he co-wrote with Ferrara), Welcome to New York, Q&A, Sea of Love, Copland, 21 Grams, Out of Sight, Clockers, and The Firm. His massive list of television credits include Boardwalk Empire, Hostages, Law and Order: Criminal Intent, How to Make It In America, Miami Vice, and an epic run on the daytime soap One Life to Live. He’s also no stranger to the theater, having appeared with Robert De Niro in Cuba and His Teddy Bear. He also runs his own acting school, which you can find out more about at his website www.paulcalderon.net. Paul is a founding member of the Touchstone Theater, The American Folk Theater, and The LAByrinth Theater Company, as well as being a member of the Actors Studio since 1984. A consummate NY character actor all throughout his career, Paul brings energy and edge to every performance in every project, and we’re extremely excited present this interview! We hope you enjoy!

ZOOLANDER 2: A Review by Joel Copling

Rating in Stars: *½ (out of ****)
Cast: Ben Stiller, Owen Wilson, Penélope Cruz, Will Ferrell, Kristen Wiig
Director: Ben Stiller
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for crude and sexual content, a scene of exaggerated violence, and brief strong language)
Running Time: 1:42
Release Date: 02/12/16

The appeal of 2001’s Zoolander was that its titular protagonist was so adorably daft that one couldn’t help but to like the guy. Zoolander 2, then, seriously tests that theory. Everything about the first film is exacerbated here, including the ever-present potential of going so far over the top that, as the late Roger Ebert (whose infamous hatred of the first film only nurtures curiosity about what the film critic would have thought of this clearly inferior sequel) once put it, it circumnavigates the globe. The jokes come at a faster pace as the targets for the film’s attempted satire have been updated by 15 years. The cameos are more numerous by three times, to a point far short of amusement when one begins to realize that’s the only novel trick up its sleeve. The ratio of the film’s successes to its failures is about one inspired minute to 15 subsequent ones of uninspired lunacy.

Indeed, the best stretch is right at the beginning. After “a scene of exaggerated violence” (clever, MPAA) in which Justin Bieber is murdered rather excessively right outside Sting’s villa in Rome, we become reacquainted with Derek Zoolander’s (co-writer/director Ben Stiller) and old friend Hansel’s (Owen Wilson) fates following the finale of the first film (which, if one remembers, was positively, absurdly optimistic about the possibility of a model’s facial expression stopping a Chinese throwing dart in mid-flight). Derek’s wife Matilda (Christine Taylor) died after the educational institution she and Derek built (the one with the elaborate name) collapsed. Derek’s parenting skills were gravely affected by the tragedy, and Derek Jr. (Cyrus Arnold) was transferred through the system to an orphanage. Derek sought refuge in northern New Jersey (an arctic wasteland).

For his part, Hansel, whose face was, um, disfigured by the collapse, has fled to Malibu (an arid wasteland) and into the arms of an orgy, all of whom, he learns, have been impregnated. He isn’t ready to be the father of 11 children, though, so in spite of Kiefer Sutherland’s tearful protests and when Billy Zane comes calling upon his (and Derek’s) talent as a male model, he travels to Rome to try and find work with new fashion moguls Don Atari (Kyle Mooney) and Alexanya Atoz (an unrecognizable, mostly incoherent Kristen Wiig) in order to find Derek Jr. and be reunited. Soon, though, he is drawn into an investigation led by Valentina Valencia (Penélope Cruz), an agent with the fashion division of Interpol (what?), that has uncovered a startling conspiracy.

Apparently, there is a conspiracy dating back to the very beginning of the human race wherein Steve (the third wheel to Adam and Eve, here played in cameos by Alexander Skarsgård and Karlie Kloss), the first male model, will be the ancestor of the male model to end all others. Bieber’s death was the latest in a series of celebrity murders that all ended with an attempt at one of Derek’s most signature expressions, which when unlocked leads our incredibly stupid models right into the clutches of old foe Mugatu (Will Ferrell) and an ancient tribunal of all the great fashion minds.

This all sounds far cleverer than it is. The screenplay by Stiller, Justin Theroux (who also appears opposite Milla Jovovich in their old roles as Mugatu’s henchmen), Nicholas Stoller, and John Hamburg barely follows any detectable structure until the controlled chaos of the climax. The celebrity cameos, which number far greater than any I have mentioned, lose their luster by the time stars like Olivia Munn, Joe Jonas, Susan Sarandon, and far too many more simply exist in the background (the less said about Benedict Cumberbatch as an androgynous model and Fred Armisen as a ten-year-old child laborer via disturbing digital effects the better off we would be). Zoolander 2 is, frankly, bizarre in a tired way.

BENNETT MILLER’S MONEYBALL – A REIVEW BY NICK CLEMENT

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The great American movie Moneyball centers on our great American sport, but is less about the sport itself and more about the people behind the scenes, those who constantly grapple with one recurring feeling: Disappointment. Baseball, after all, is a sport based on winning and losing, and Moneyball’s lead character, Billy Beane (the wonderful Brad Pitt in full movie-star mode), the general manager of the Oakland A’s, will stop and nothing in order to come out on top. But because baseball is a game, only one team can say that they’ve won the final game of the season. This is what Beane has been striving for his entire career, and the endless quest to win that final game will likely forever drive him as a competitor. In terms of bucking the standard conventions of your typical sports movie, the brilliance of Moneyball lies in how it doesn’t take a rote approach to telling a story focused on a sport that we’re all familiar with. Much like The Social Network (the two films share the invaluable Aaron Sorkin as writer and Scott Rudin as producer) this is an “inside-the-machine” movie, looking at the sport of baseball from an analytical and statistical point of view. But rather than bogging down the narrative with numbers and esoteric jargon to the point of confusion and/or boredom, Sorkin, and his estimable co-screenwriter Steven Zaillian (Schindler’s List, Searching for Bobby Fisher) have shaped Michael Lewis’s book into an emotional journey for Beane, as a coach, father, and friend.

Choosing to center your film on the notion of “sabremetrics” was a bold and unique decision. And considering the numerous starts and stops for Moneyball throughout its development, it’s remarkable that director Bennett Miller (Capote, Foxcatcher) was able to deliver such a clear cut vision (Steven Soderbergh was set to direct before the movie collapsed over “creative differences.”) Taking a niche subject and a somewhat unfilmable book and turning it into a quietly powerful film is no easy task, so much credit needs to be given to Sorkin and Zaillian. If you know their work, you’ll hear Sorkin’s witty, satiric voice in the rapid-fire dialogue, while the fluid structure, which deftly mixes flashbacks of Billy Beane’s subpar minor and major league career as a way of making correlations to what Beane as a manager was going through with his team, can be traced to Zaillian’s confidently guiding hand in the organization department. And instead of giving you a saintly approach to the head coach role, as written, Beane is a man of steadfast, stubborn convictions, willing to ruffle feathers, and more than happy to berate and fire people who aren’t valuing his new found philosophy. Many of the film’s best scenes take place within the team’s closed-door strategy meetings with the scouts, all of whom were either phenomenally well cast or the real deal. What Sorkin and Zaillian have done so well is that you don’t need to be a baseball expert to understand the sometimes arcane, economics-based approach to the sport that’s on display. Moneyball is an “inside-baseball” movie, something that really hasn’t been done before, and it sits right next to Field of Dreams, Eight Men Out, and Bull Durham as one of the best films to spotlight our national pastime.

But the key to Moneyball’s success is the rapport between Pitt and Jonah Hill, who both delivered engaging, funny, and totally inviting performances. Pitt hasn’t been this out-right-likable and charming in years, and it’s a treat watching him literally transforming into his generation’s Robert Redford right before our eyes. There’s an animal magnetism to Pitt as actor, and as he’s gotten older, the lines in his face and around his eyes have begun to express a vulnerability that was absent in his earlier work. Pitt plays Beane as a man trying to be a better father to a daughter that he doesn’t get to spend enough time with, and as such, no matter how much of a thorn-in-the-side he is to his teammates (he makes many selfish decisions in an effort to preserve his vision), you’re always on his side. Look at this performance and then contrast it to the tough-love-S.O.B. dad in The Tree of Life or the low-lives he so brilliantly essayed in Killing them Softly and The Counselor – Pitt loves to quietly stretch his range, and his not afraid of taking chances as an actor.

And Hill, playing the awkward comic relief to Pitt in the role of a stats-obsessed advisor who helps Beane develop and implement the sabermetrics system of player evaluation, was perfectly and smartly cast against Pitt, and the two of them immediately demonstrate a chemistry that’s hysterical to see unfold. Hill, who got his start as an Apatow class-clown and who has been killing it in every raunchy comedy made over the last 10 years or so, was a perfect partner for Pitt, and his career stretching work in this film would serve as a warm-up to his brilliant turn in The Wolf of Wall Street. He was also fantastic in the underseen black comedy Cyrus. Pitt and Hill couldn’t be any more different when it comes to performance style, personality, appearance, and expectation. Hill, playing a fictionalized version of real-life-stats-guru Paul De Podesta named Peter Brand, gets the lion’s share of the movie’s laughs, but also registers strongly as a dramatic presence. Without their bond, Moneyball wouldn’t be as powerful as it ultimately becomes, as the two men teach each other about themselves and about the sport that they love. It should also be mentioned that Philip Seymour Hoffman is effortlessly good as Art Howe, the put-upon manager who has to deal with Beane’s unconventional methods.

Moneyball doesn’t end with the last play of the game on the final pitch in the bottom of the ninth. It’s not that sort of movie and doesn’t want to be; it couldn’t be less interested in final-pitch heroics and dramatics if it tried. Wally Pfister’s intimate cinematography captures the sport in all of its glory when that sort of thing is called for, but instead takes a measured approach to the action, following Beane around relentlessly as he tries to figure out what his next move will be. Mychael Danna’s amazingly subtle yet highly effective musical score helps underline the big emotional beats without ever grandstanding or calling attention to itself. But what’s truly exceptional about the film is that it definitely does deliver a rousing, totally satisfying emotional release upon its conclusion, despite not bowing to the “final game” or “impassioned coach’s speech” cliché that we’ve seen a hundred times already. And when thought about at length, one realizes how the message of the film (echoed by Pitt’s daughter singing the lyric “You’re such a loser, Dad” during the end credits) is that losing is part of our culture, and at the end of the day, it’s more about how you conduct yourself as a person than it is about how many games you’ve won. In that sense, it’s very similar to Peter Berg’s fantastic high school football movie Friday Night Lights, and joins the ranks as one o the finest contemporary sports films ever made. It’s not about winning or losing, but about how the game has been played.

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Joe Wright’s Hanna: A review by Nate Hill

Joe Wright’s Hanna started as a Vancouver Film School script, funded through grants that would make it the catalyst for the positively unique, incendiary action fairy tale that it is today. It’s crowd pleasing without any superficiality, straight to the point without being over serious, and is made with a slick, vibrant aesthetic that will have your pulse dancing a jig in time with the thumping score by The Chemical Brothers. I held off on seeing this one for years after its initial release, jaded by the prospect of another ‘killer genetically altered female assassin’ flick. One night I finally caved and took a peek on Netflix. I then kicked myself hard for not taking notice sooner, purely on the notion that I wouldn’t dig it based on its formula. I suppose I learnt a little ‘book by its cover’ lesson there, as I was completely enamoured with the film and have seen it at least ten times since then. The tired ingredients of any old formula can be whipped up into a tantalizing new recipe, providing all those involved have the commitment and passion. The filmmakers of Hanna go for broke with one of the best thrillers in years. Saoirse Ronan is an explosive, feral waif as the titular hero, raised in isolation by her badass ex CIA father Erik Heller (underrated Aussie Eric Bana nails the German accent to a T). They reside in the frozen tundras of Lapland, where Erik trains her in the ways of a warrior, instilling survivalism in both physical and intellectual measures, preparing her for their inevitable separation. An enemy from Erik’s past surfaces in the form of evil CIA witch Marissa Wiegler (Cate Blanchett practically breathes fire with a naughty southern accent and a red hairdo that looks acidic to the touch), and both Hanna and him are forced to run, separated from each other. She escapes from a remote facility and begins her journey across Europe, befriended by a lovable squabbling family of travellers, igniting a yearning for companionship in her that Ronan expertly shows the camera. Wiegler enlists the slimy help of a euro trash club owner who moonlights as some sort of freelance über villain (Tom Hollander almost walks away with the movie as the psychopathic, bleached blonde pervo Deutsch-bag) who relentlessly pursues Hanna along with his neo nazi skinhead henchman. The thing about this film is that it’s all been done before, but they find a way to make it fresh, exciting and strike chords which simply haven’t been hit in this sub genre before, providing a film experience that really sticks. Ronan has never been more virile and effective, also proving a mastery of the German accent and embodying Hanna with intense physicality that’s achingly punctuated by a gradual awakening as a person as well. Impressive balance is shown in her character arc, through writing and stunt work alike. This is the first movie to be scored by The Chemical Brothers, and damn I hope we get more. They belt out a technicolor rhapsody of electric music that flows beautifully with the story, hitting every beat, ramping up suspense when needed, being surprisingly weird at times and kicking around your head long after the credits roll. The actors are all easy listening with the dialogue, never feeling forced or making us doubt for a minute that these aren’t real people engaged in genuine interaction. The film neither drags nor rushes, arriving at its often grisly, sometimes touching and always entertaining conclusions exactly when it needs to. It shows uncanny intuition with its pacing, an absence of the need to show off with unnecessary fights or effects which don’t serve the story, and above all a keen desire to entertain us. Terrific stuff. 

MATTHEW VAUGHN’S KINGSMAN — A REVIEW BY NICK CLEMENT

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Kingsman is absurd, outlandish, totally over the top, and cheeky as all hell. It’s a movie that is in love with the fact that it’s a movie, and as such, the film can never be taken seriously, and poses no real threat or menace – you just sit there and laugh at the audaciousness and the verve and the craft. This is a hyper-violent and extremely knowing send up of Bond and spy movies in general, a gleefully sadistic and sometimes cruel R-rated cartoon that’s been directed with the same smack-you-in-the-face style that don’t-give-a-shit British director Matthew Vaughn brought to his similarly ribald and cheerfully vulgar superhero riff Kick-Ass. There’s an anger that runs throughout Kingsman which is interesting to note; I detected some of the subversive shades of Fight Club and Falling Down running through its veins, while the more obvious touchstones of Bond, Bourne, Bauer, and Kill Bill are up front and center.

Given that this is a big-budget offering from a major studio – 20th Century Fox – I was shocked and pleased to see the level of out-right craziness on display here. This is an action film first and a comedy second, and it’s yet another indication of the Gareth Evans factor; it’s as if all Hollywood action guys got a chance to see The Raid and The Raid 2 and they now feel they have to up the ante. I also noticed some stylistic nods to Running Scared during the numerous shoot-outs. Vaughn brings a mean streak to much of his work (Layer Cake, his debut, is still my favorite of his) and while it’s clear he loves the trappings of the Bond universe and spy movies, he’s really set out to make a wink-wink, tongue-firmly-in-cheek effort that pokes fun at the ludicrousness of everything.

Because of this, the intense violence, while entertainingly stylish in the moment and bracing to witness as a result of the somewhat recent PG-13’ing of Hollywood, holds no lasting impact – this is a film that is comprised of a series of money shots, all the way from the opening frames, up until the final bits, concerned with being “cool” at all times, and as a result, nothing carried any weight or honest heft. Which is fine. It’s an R-rated comic book, and Vaughn really seems to excel with this tone. Some of it looks absolutely great (the stylish cinematographer is George Richmond), some of it looks like overly-CGI’d junk, but all of it is made with a certain bloody zest and boldness and the sheer delirium of the action set-pieces can’t be denied. Henry Jackman and Matthew Margeson deliver a truly fantastic musical score that sounds like outtakes from a Bond flick in many areas, and which helps drive the film home in every manner.

Colin Firth appears to have had the time of his life playing the suave and lethal member of the Kingsman, a secret group of British spies who help to keep the world in balance, while newcomer Taron Egerton appealingly underplays his fish-out-of-water character, the young recruit who has to step up to the plate. Samuel L. Jackson camps it up with a lisp as the megalomaniacal villain with a hilariously convoluted scheme to rid the world of most of the population in an effort to reverse global warming. Or something like that. Just wait until you see the method to his madness – it’s hysterical and nasty and I was sort of shocked to see it played out to the degree that it was. All of Kingsman is purposefully asinine, and as previously mentioned, it’s never realistically menacing or truly suspenseful. This is an over-stuffed, frenetic, sometimes witty, mostly predictable piece of escapism that blows heads up with a smile. And listen – any movie that finds the time to slaughter at least 100 ultra-conservative, right-wing, hate-spewing, super-Christians from Kentucky and ends its narrative with the promise of kinky sex is A-OK with me. This a’int your father’s 007.

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PETER HYAMS’ BUSTING — A REVIEW BY NICK CLEMENT

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Busting is early buddy movie brilliance from the master of mid-budget studio actioners Peter Hyams (The Relic, 2010, Capricorn One, Timecop, The Star Chamber, End of Days, Sudden Death). This was the filmmaker’s debut feature film after two made-for-TV efforts, and while the project has a low-tech quality all around the edges, it still stands as one of the director’s best films. Starring an amazingly mustached Elliot Gould and future Robert Blake as a pair of pimp-slapping Vice squad detectives, Busting takes on an episodic structure, throwing the viewer into various cases and assignments, all of which lead to an overarching bad guy who is controlling the city’s vast pimping and whoring racket. At 95 minutes, there’s not a wasted scene, and despite the various converging plot lines, everything stays streamlined and easy to follow. I love how the two cop characters are idealistic and interested in cleaning up the streets, but that they slowly realize that their efforts may be all for not. Cynical, formally exciting in surprising ways, casually sexist and homophobic (those were the times!) and totally trading off of ugly, common stereotypes of the era, this was 1974’s “other” precursor to the popular 80’s buddy-cop film, with Freebie and the Bean beating Busting to theaters that year, and earning more box office and respect from critics and audiences. While the two films share some common traits, they are vastly different genre exercises, with Richard Rush’s Freebie placing an emphasis on madcap comedy and hilarious antics, and Busting being the more serious of the two films, mixing violence and sex into a gritty, decidedly more adult package, with Hyams clearly loving the chance to show off a down and dirty visual aesthetic. But there were two BIG things that stood out in Busting for me as a viewer. First — I can’t remember another film that ends on a freeze frame that then goes on to include a flash-forward voiceover narration which wraps up the narrative and the main character’s personal arc. I’d never seen this before, and I totally loved the nerve of it, as it fit perfectly with the film’s hopeless and dark denouement, which could only have been pulled off in a low budget 70’s item such as this one (with a few modern exceptions). The other technical aspect that I was constantly marveling over was the camerawork, and in particular, the numerous tracking shots that appeared to have been accomplished without the use of a dolly, and this being a film that predates the use of the stedicam (no?), I’m left only to guess how these fantastic scenes of action were accomplished. During the film’s various chase scenes and shoot-outs, the action is captured in long, unbroken takes, with actors running straight for the camera and then right past it as it continues to move and turn and swivel, all of which suggests the use of some sort of motion stabilizer device for the camera, as everything is ultra-smooth, especially considering the obvious budget limitations. It’s awesome, energizing stuff. Gould clearly had fun with his role, and the short-statured Blake made for a solid partner when contrasted with Gould’s lankiness. I found very little to quibble over with Busting. This is an example of a filmmaker crafting a tight, entertaining, hard-nosed actioner that now has the benefit of serving as a societal time capsule of a bygone era.

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