JEAN-JACQUES ANNAUD’S THE BEAR — 25TH ANNIVERSAY REVIEW BY NICK CLEMENT

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The Bear = the very definition of uncompromised, masterpiece-level filmmaking and storytelling. This is one of the most stunning achievements that I’ve ever seen. Of this I am certain. As a child, I was fascinated and consumed by this gorgeous piece of work, and as I’ve gotten older, my love for it has expanded in ways I can’t possibly describe. Guided by the elegant, extremely confident directorial hand of the eclectic French filmmaker Jean-Jacques Annaud, this is an “animal movie” that transcends that simple description; there’s nothing else remotely like it, in both original aim and final execution. The patience – oh the glorious patience(!) – that this film required in order for it to get made gives me a mini-migraine to contemplate. The magisterial cinematography from all-time great Philippe Rousselot produces one flabbergasting image after another. No CGI. No camera tricks. Just raw, primal beauty with an intrinsic understanding of how to use the 2.35:1 frame. American audiences were also introduced to the amazing character actor Tcheky Karyo as a result of this multi-national production, and while most of this film is silent, the few actors who do appear, Karyo most especially, cut convincing portraits of men doing what they know how to do, having been carved by the environment, but who still have the capacity to empathize with their prey.

The Bear is an almost incomparable work of naturalistic beauty, and for a long time, the only way to see this film on the Blu-ray format was via a German import. It’s now been released all over the world as a 25th Anniversary Special edition by Shout!, and the film should become essential viewing for anyone not already familiar. This is a powerful story of humans, animals, the bonds between both, and how the inherent feeling of struggle and survival is within us all. It’s also a universal story about the importance of friendship, stretching from species to species in equal, observant fashion. This film is so undervalued it almost makes me sick. Every child should be subjected to The Bear, and yes, while the harrowing and painful opening moments depicting the random cruelty of the natural world still sting to this day, it’s a piece of work that young minds should engage with because the overall message is so vital and forever-lasting. Included on this newly released Blu-ray is a 55 minute long, and totally vintage, making-of documentary, that’s almost as good as the film itself. You’re treated to an amazing amount of behind the scenes filming, and you get a chance to observe the intense training that the animals were put through. Seriously amazing stuff. And let’s not forget: Bear Cub Tripping on Mushrooms POWER. Bear Cub VIVIDLY DREAMING POWER. As I said in my first sentence: Masterpiece.

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GABE POLSKY’S RED ARMY — A REVIEW BY NICK CLEMENT

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Fascinating on a historical level, riveting when it comes to the sport being discussed, and compelling in a deeply humanistic fashion, Gabe Polsky’s terrific documentary Red Army examines the intense Cold War relationship between Russia and America, and the various hockey players that were caught up in an international saga of greed, hubris, and outright dictatorship. Literally kept as slaves by their country, Russian hockey players back in that time period were revered by all and had to adhere to an intense training schedule that kept them away from their families for long periods of time. All of their insane treatment is detailed in this sad and scary film that highlights just how difficult it would have been to be playing under the Russian coaching regime back in the 80’s. Red Army primarily focuses on legendary defenseman Slava Fetisov and how he and his various teammates navigated the politically charged waters of worldwide sport during a time of immense uncertainty and volatility. Fetisov is quite the character, and while he provides tons of amazing information and anecdotes, on more than one occasion someone should have reminded him that he was there to make a documentary, not just to have his ass kissed; there are NO off limits questions when you’re the front and center focus of someone’s film. That being said, the exciting hockey footage that Polsky intercuts with his intelligent question and answer sessions with some of the era’s biggest stars commands the audience’s attention, and this is easily one of those movies where if you’re not a fan of the milieu, you’ll still enjoy the film because of how well-crafted it is on a formal level, and how interesting it is as a history lesson. And for any hockey fan or past or current player (I was lucky enough to lace up for 15 years), this will be a fabulous way to spend 80 minutes. And if you’re of a certain age, the names and faces on display will bring back waves of emotion and nostalgia. I know it did for me. Mike Vernon POWER in there, too.

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DAVID FINCHER’S ZODIAC — A REVIEW BY NICK CLEMENT

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David Fincher’s quest to become the new Alan Pakula hit new heights with his riveting serial killer/investigative journalism thriller Zodiac, which might possibly be his greatest accomplishment yet as a filmmaker. I’m never sure, to be honest, what Fincher’s “best” film is — you could make the case for nearly all of them in one way or another. But with Zodiac, he tapped into our worst fears (that of a killer on the loose) and mixed the expected genre elements with an amazing sense of time and place, vividly recreating San Francisco during the late 60’s and early 70’s, as well as demonstrating a perfectionist’s eye in terms of both small and large narrative and visual details. The trio of Jake Gyllenhaal, Mark Ruffalo, and Robert Downey Jr. all did sterling work in this film, each of them carving out a unique portrait of obsessive behavior that would consume their characters at all times. The dense, phenomenally well-researched screenplay by James Vanderbilt (writer/director of the upcoming Dan Rather drama Truth) requires more than one viewing to accurately parse out all of the pieces of information, while Fincher’s steady, engrossing directorial aesthetic grips the viewer with paranoia and subtle style.

The late, great cinematographer Harris Savides (Birth, The Game, Elephant) gave Zodiac an amazing visual texture, with the digital photography augmenting all of the nighttime sequences with a realistic sense of light quality, while capturing the grisly murders with stark and brutal effectiveness on 35 mm film. The supporting cast hammered home all of their work with rigorous perfection, with standout peformances on display by John Carroll Lynch, Anthony Edwards, Brian Cox, Philip Baker Hall, John Getz, Dermott Mulroney, John Terry, Donal Logue, Elias Koteas, Chloë Sevigny, and Adam Goldberg. David Shire’s creepy musical score smartly used period-authentic pop songs with an unnerving ambient soundtrack to maximum effect, while Angus Wall’s fleet, razor-sharp editing kept the two hour and 40 minute film feeling light on its feet; rarely do “long” movies feel this quick. Despite excellent critical support, the film didn’t catch on with the Academy (maybe it was the March release date or the middling box office returns), and while 2007 was a landmark year for cinema in general, Zodiac being left out of the big dance feels incredibly short-sighted. This is one of Fincher’s most absorbing films, filled with three dimensional and vulnerable characters that you root for, while showcasing a mystery that literally has no ending.

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PETER MEDAK’S ROMEO IS BLEEDING — A REVIEW BY NICK CLEMENT

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Peter Medak’s mean and nasty neo-noir Romeo is Bleeding is stylish, trashy, pulpy, B-movie bliss, overheated and wildly implausible, but always wickedly entertaining, and featuring a combustible Gary Oldman as a corrupt cop who gets in way over his head with one of the ultimate cinematic femme fatales, played with diseased relish by a lethally hot Lena Olin. She’s beyond dangerous, beyond sexy, and Oldman doesn’t stand a chance, while the lurid script by Hilary Henkin (Wag the God, Roadhouse) piles on a ton of violent action mixed with kinky sex and twisted humor, adding up to a unique package that never wimps out at any moment. Oldman had just wrapped Tony Scott’s mid-career classic True Romance before diving into his sweaty and feverish role in Romeo is Bleeding, and his work in this film feels like a logical warm-up to his iconic work in Luc Besson’s Leon (aka The Professional), which he’d shoot immediately after. Morally repugnant and totally out of bounds when compared to most thrillers these days, Romeo is Bleeding was beaten up by most critics at the time of its brief theatrical release, but I would have to imagine it has picked up a cult following in subsequent years. This is the sort of film that feels tailor-made for Twilight Time to do a Special Edition Blu-ray. Dariusz Wolski’s slick and gritty cinematography plays with genre conventions in a respectfully modern fashion, while Mark Isham’s trumpet-dominated score amps up the sleaze quotient to a high degree; music and image are in perfect tandem during this juicy little film. The fantastic supporting cast includes Annabella Sciorra, David Proval, Will Patton, Juliette Lewis, Tony Sirico, Dennis Farina, Ron Perlman, James Cromwell, Michael Wincott, and Roy Scheider as a leathered crime boss. Rome is Bleeding makes a perfect double-bill with Dominic Sena’s underrated thriller Kalifornia, another forgotten-about gem from the early 90’s that’s due for reappraisal.

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A chat with writer and director Howard Goldberg

I am proud to present my recent interview with the incredibly talented writer and director Howard Goldberg, the man behind one of my favourite indie films of recent years, Jake Squared. He’s a great guy with a lot to speak about. Enjoy! 
Nate: Did you experiment with film when you were younger, make any shorts etc? What led you to writing and directing.

 

Howard: I was always a film buff. Whenever the subject of film came up people would always say, “Ask Howard. He knows everything about film.” I remember always thinking, “Man, they’re nut! Little do they realize, I don’t really know that much.” I thought I had a bit of a phony reputation. But, then one day, I was looking through this long list of the greatest films ever made and I realized I’d seen them all! I thought, “Wow!! I really do know a lot about film.”

 

 I started officially making films when I became a Film major at The University of the Arts in Philadelphia. I spent three glorious years there and made many short films – all pretty experimental in nature. Nice to see that after all those weird films, many years later I’m making really straight narrative films that are quite conventional in nature. Like “Jake Squared!” Oh wait, that’s right… “Jake Squared” is weird as all get out!

 

Nate: Care to talk a little bit about your writing process, envisioning characters on film, where your ideas come from, how your creative process works?

 

Howard: As Dorothy Parker said – “I hate writing. I love having written.” My writing process basically follows the time-honored tradition of sitting at the keyboard until my forehead bleeds. There are many writers who just spew it out, page after page after page. I am not, unfortunately, one of them. Hard work. Endless procrastination. Things percolating and stewing in my brain. Endless drafts. Great fun! But, “I love having written.” The end product is almost always worth the long process of getting there. At least to me!

 

Nate: I know how you feel, I procrastinate in my work as well. Interests, hobbies besides writing and filmmaking? I read that you have done sculpture as well, is that still something you are involved in?

 

Howard: For a long time, I was the only struggling filmmaker in New York who supported himself by sculpting. I know that sounds ridiculous, but it was true. I was working on screenplays and constantly trying to raise money and, at the same time, I had fallen into a lucrative career as a sculptor. I did many fine arts piece and (financially) more importantly, many commercial pieces, like for The Basketball Hall of Fame, the Clio Awards, etc., etc.

 

I have two hobbies – My kids (which is not really a hobby, but a calling) and collecting old watches.

 

Nate: Jake Squared: How did that idea come about, how was the process of making it for you, did the final project resemble what you envisioned when writing it? (I ask because I write as well, and having gone to film school have seen how vastly different ideas on paper can become when put through the wringer of filmmaking) Also, I must ask, is the film in any way autobiographical?

 

Howard: “Jake Squared” just evolved. It came out of many hundreds of pages of writing all kinds of thoughts about all kinds of things. Somehow, out of all these unconnected scribblings, a character started to emerge and take form. Writing such a seemingly freeform piece became like juggling 7 balls at one time. When it was finally done, I was very happy and very satisfied.

 

Making the film itself was a dream. It came together the most quickly of any project I’ve ever done. Once Elias Koteas had signed on the rest of the cast started falling into place. From the time he said yes to the time we started shooting was only about 4 months. Unheard of.

 

I am completely and totally thrilled with the film. In terms of the script I wrote and how I originally envisioned the film, I think it turned out even better than I could have hoped. There is nothing I look at in it and say, “Wow, I wish I had done this or that or this differently. To me it’s the best incarnation of the film I wanted to make that I could have made. That being said, some people adore it and some absolutely despise it. That’s a different issue entirely. Me? I’m perfectly happy with everything about it.

 

Is it autobiographical? Well, yes and very much no. Many of the characters and situations have some small part of me in them, but they also have thousands of parts of other people, their lives and their situations as well. All of the characters and situations are really fictionalized and dramatized composites of many people and places.

 

Nate: In an interview I heard you say you made Jake Squared free from the pressures and permissions of powers that be- essentially on your own. What resources did you use, casting, equipment etc to pull that off? Because it looks so polished, the editing is out of this world and it seems like every aspect just really came together (Get used to me gushing about the film lol I’ve seen in 4 times already since June :P)

 

Howard: Since I produced the film and put together all of the financing privately with no pre-conditions, I was able to do exactly what I wanted to do. I love to collaborate, so I had a remarkable team, from actors, to makeup and hair, set design, cinematography, editing, etc. and that’s what makes the film great. But, I got to choose them all, listen to their advice, and rebel in their help in bringing about and even making better my original vision But, the bottom line was always me and that’s what I liked. The film is 100% my own artistic vision – so if one were to love the film or hate it, the buck stops here.

 

That being said, I couldn’t have made it look like I did without my incredible team.

 

Nate: Do you have any films you are trying to get made now? Scripts, stories, anything in the works you want to speak about?

 

Howard: I’m trying to get a new film off the ground right now called “Once in Blue Moon.” I wrote it with my friend, Broadway composer and librettist Paul Gordon. It’s a modern day “Midsummer Nights Dream” that take place all in one night, a night of a Blue Moon, at a restaurant/bar/indie-alt music club. It’s about love and regret and angels and music.

 

I also am just finishing a new screenplay, tentatively called “Clear.” That one I couldn’t possibly describe yet as I’m still trying to figure it all out. But, it makes “Jake Squared” look like a straight narrative!

 

Nate: What are some of your favorite Directors, films, stories, anything that has inspired your own work?

 

Howard: Jean Cocteau, John Huston, Martin Scorsese, Preston Sturges and about 500 more!
Nate: Awesome, Howard, thanks for sharing! 

PTS Presents CINEMATOGRAPHER’S CORNER with RUSS ALSOBROOK

ALSOBROOK POWERCAST

L14A1406Podcasting Them Softly is extremely proud to present a chat with director of photography Russ Alsobrook.  Russ is one of the go-to-guys for studio comedies, having shot such films as last summer’s box office hit Tammy, David Wain’s Role Models, and Superbad and Forgetting Sarah Marshall for producer Judd Apatow. He’s also forged a close partnership with writer/director/actor Mike Binder, collaborating with him on the Hollywood satire Man About Town, the fantastic and deeply underrated post 9/11 drama Reign Over Me, and last year’s thoughtful and provocative Kevin Costner drama Black or White. He’s also a force on the small screen, having shot 98 episodes of the smash hit comedy The New Girl starring Zooey Deschanel, as well as directing some episodes of that charming program. Other TV credits include work on Big Love, The Mind of the Married Man, Freaks and Geeks, Undeclared, and The Ben Stiller Show. He’s a unique talent in the sense that he’s shot some really big, comedy centered narratives but can also respond to dramatic material just as strongly, always with sharp, stylish instincts. We hope you enjoy our exciting chat!

LEE TOLAND KRIEGER’S THE AGE OF ADALINE — A REVIEW BY NICK CLEMENT

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Lee Toland Krieger’s The Age of Adaline is gorgeous looking nonsense, a sentimental and effective sci-fi romance that is entertaining in the moment, and gone the next. Shot in Fincher-vision with lots of piss-yellows and varying shades of brown and black, the film is eye-candy to the extreme, with beautiful and evocative production design by Claude Paré, and a terrific sense of how to fully utilize the 2.35:1 frame by cinematographer David Lanzenberg, who also photographed the exceedingly stylish thriller The Signal. The kooky story, which is narrated by Hugh Ross(!), involves a car accident and lightning strike that somehow prevents the well-dressed and extremely attractive Blake Lively from ever aging. So she spends the decades mostly alone, births a daughter, and never allows herself to fall in love (well, only a couple of times…). Throughout the years, she’s forced to repeatedly move in an effort to keep her strange secret hidden from anyone who she comes into contact with, only allowing the information to pass to her only child, played as a grown up by Ellen Burstyn. Harrison Ford has some strong scenes as one of her old romantic entanglements as he crosses paths with her 40 years later in a wonderful bit of contrived scripting. But to complain about the artificiality of this movie is pointless; it’s built on a massive suspension of disbelief that you have to accept right from the start. It’s a nice film, nothing spectacular by any means, but surprising in its level of artistic elegance and attention to visual detail.

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