Lurid, improbable, and highly entertaining, Phoenix, from director Christian Petzold, plays like a rarefied version of Face/Off. Set against the backdrop of Nazi-infested Berlin during WWII, the story centers on a female Holocaust survivor and former cabaret singer, who becomes horribly disfigured after being shot in the face. After reconstructive facial surgery leaves her looking nothing like her previous self, she sets off on a course to track down her husband, who may have been responsible for selling her out to the Gestapo. Nina Hoss gives a very effective and sympathetic lead performance, inviting the viewer into this crazy story and keeping you invested despite the inherently contrived nature of the piece; it’s all VERY cinematic, and extremely confident, so as a result, you just go with it. The movie, at times, felt like Paul Verhoeven’s Black Book, and while I liked that film a tad more than Phoenix, there’s much to admire with this fancy looking and exceedingly engrossing thriller. There’s a slight element of light Cronenberg-esque body horror during the first act, with a more restrained sensibility of course, while also mixing traditional historical touches and the war-time setting. The cinematography by Hans Fromm is lush and very stylish, with a complimentary musical score from Stefan Will. The script is as tight as the editing, with zero wasted scenes and all 100 minutes used very well in an effort to tell a zippy, crafty story. The film’s final scene might be one of the single best movie moments of the year in general, as so much is said with zero back and forth dialogue.
Director Alan Pakula and cinematographer Gordon Willis reteamed for the revisionist Western Comes a Horseman, which on the face of it, seems like a project a bit out of their comfort zone on initial inspection. But upon actual viewing, Comes a Horseman is a fascinating piece of work that set out to demystify the genre, joining a group of gritty westerns that traded off of iconic imagery while skewering the very conventions that they stridently presented. Certainly not a traditional Western but set in the American West of the 1940’s, the narrative pivots on two ranchers (James Caan and Jane Fonda, both steadfast and excellent) who operate a small farm and who become threatened by economic hardships and the greedy plans of a local land baron (Jason Robards, commanding and menacing). Fonda was at her career peak when she signed on for this post-modern genre item, having just won an Oscar for Hal Ashby’s masterpiece Coming Home, and the film reunited her with Pakula, who had directed her in Klute, which was the film she won her first Oscar for. It also reteamed her with Robards, as the two had co-starred in Fred Zinnemann’s 1977 box office hit Julia. Pakula and Willis brought a more simple visual style to Comes a Horseman than one might expect, and while the two talents certainly paid respect to the milieu that they were working in, they opted for a more reserved aesthetic, stressing striking yet unadorned widescreen compositions as opposed to anything fancy or overtly ostentatious. There’s visual sweep to the imagery but at the same time one gets the sense that Willis was interested in subverting expectations, even while the filmmakers tipped their hat to classic staples like Red River. A film ripe for rediscovery, it’s available on DVD, but a Blu-ray would really make this underrated effort pop and sing.
Intimate on a narrative level and epic in visual scope, the 1976 film Bound for Glory is a supreme piece of American filmmaking, centering on one of the country’s most despairing time periods, filled with all of the small but vital humanistic touches that defined the work of director Hal Ashby. David Carradine delivered nothing less than a tour de force performance as folk singer Woody Guthrie, who traveled the country looking for fortune and fame during the Great Depression. With a colorful supporting cast including Ronny Cox, Melinda Dillon, Gail Strickland, Randy Quaid, and John Lehne, there’s never a dull moment, even if the film moves at a purposefully languid clip. But because Ashby took his time with this story, you get all the more invested in Guthrie’s plight and his desire to get a leg up in the world; the sequence where he gets to show his family their new house is nothing short of misty-eyed touching without veering into the overly sentimental. This was the first movie to employ the use of the Steadicam, with inventor Garrett Brown handling the operation, and the legendary Haskell Wexler calling the shots as cinematographer (he’d win the Oscar for his bronzed and beautiful work on this film). This film also features a few bar fights and train brawls that are some of the best staged sequences of cinematic beat-downs that I’ve ever seen; punches fly with vigor in this movie! There’s also a fascinating hobo component to the movie, with a majority of the picture highlighting the hardscrabble life of desperate men living in one of the most desperate of times in America; while beautiful looking, there’s an emotional harshness that permeates most of the scenes. Bound for Glory would be nominated for Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Costume Design, and Best Editing, but would only take the statues for Wexler’s groundbreaking photography and an Oscar for Best Original Score. The DVD that Netflix shipped was, sadly, presented in non-anamorphic widescreen, but never fear — Twilight Time is releasing the film on Blu-ray this year, along with another classic Ashby title, The Last Detail. Time may have forgotten about Bound for Glory, but viewers shouldn’t; it makes for an excellent companion piece to The Grapes of Wrath and is a further reminder of the genius that was Hal Ashby.
The absurdist and thought provoking black comedy A Pigeon Sat On A Branch Reflecting On Existence is going to prove to be an endurance test for some viewers. I’m not gonna lie – people are gonna either turn this off within a matter of 10 minutes, or, fall totally under its beguiling spell. And my guess is that the filmmaker’s would be beyond happy with this fact. It’s literally 100 minutes of wide static shots, no real plot to speak of, highly artistic in a very private manner, eschewing any sense of the traditional, all in an effort to communicate an existential and experiential study of human beings and the banalities of life. I found it to be hysterical, cynical and progressive at the same time, endlessly interesting on a formal level, and all together bewildering by the conclusion. Swedish director Roy Andersson crafted a thematically linked trilogy of movies about the simplicity (both ugly and beautiful) of life, with Pigeon acting as the concluding chapter (the previous two efforts, Songs from the Second Floor and You, The Living, are unseen by me), and I can honestly say that there’s nothing else I can think of that truly feels like this movie.
There are elements of it that reminded me a tad of the French curiosity Lil ‘Quinquin, but Pigeon is truly its own thing, offering a series of vignettes featuring a rotating cast of characters in increasingly bizarre and surreal situations, learning hard but true lessons about life, while the beyond patient camera stares unflinchingly (and with zero judgement) at its subjects with almost cruel and unnerving intensity. The stuff involving the world’s most humorless salesmen selling joke and novelty items is a stroke of genius, and the last act involves some highly arresting (both visually and narratively) sequences that sort of just need to be seen to be believed (the human cauldron is something I’ll not soon forget). This isn’t a thriller or anything salacious, but because of the fixed compositions, lack of mickey-mousing with the music, and the unfamiliar actors, one gets the sense that anything is possible within the world of this strange film. I’m doing a poor job of explaining the content of this movie; watch the trailer and you’ll know rather quickly if this movie will be up your cinematic alley. It’s available as a streaming option via Netflix, and I would presume that there are other ways of finding this offbeat and totally original piece of work.
There are so many reasons why Manhattan is considered one of Woody Allen’s greatest films. The pitch perfect performances, the astute direction, the funny and self-reflexive screenplay, and maybe most of all, the dreamy photography, Manhattan is a cinefile’s dream. One of the silkiest black and white films ever committed to celluloid, the widescreen cinematography by Gordon Willis is some of the most impressive and shimmery work that the master craftsman ever produced. This is one of Allen’s most romantic films (albeit bittersweet), as the script that he co-wrote with Marshall Brickman covered the usual neurotic behaviors that came to dominate his oeuvre. Directed with a sense of grace by Allen, the film became an immediate classic, and through the high contrast photography that casts New York City as its own special character, Manhattan possesses a formidable sense of style that feels incredibly particular and nuanced. The unforgettable image of Allen and Diane Keaton sitting near the 59th Street Bridge is one of those iconic moments in film history, with Willis demonstrating an innate understanding of how to frame his actors within the anamorphic 2.35:1 compositional space, and it’s key to note how he favored spatial geography as a way of representing distance and comfort for the characters within the emotionally fragile narrative. It’s interesting to observe that Allen demanded that all home video copies of this film be released in letterboxed format only, thus preserving the original aspect ratio. Take that, philistines!
Podcasting Them Softly is honored to be joined by visual effects master, ED KRAMER. Ed spent twelve years working for INDUSTRIAL LIGHT AND MAGIC, and is now currently an instructor at THE ART INSTITUTE OF COLORADO. Ed was the Senior Technical Director and Sequence Supervisor on TWISTER, THE LOST WORLD: JURASSIC PARK, THE MUMMY, THE MUMMY RETURNS, THE PERFECT STORM, GALAXY QUEST, THE ISLAND, HARRY POTTER: THE CHAMBER OF SECRETS, and was a part of the Academy Award winning team on PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: DEAD MAN’S CHEST. Ed was apart of the team that created the Columbia Pictures “Lady with a Torch” logo. Ed worked with the groundbreaking visual effects team that changed cinema forever with the use of digital effects and filming digitally with the three STAR WARS prequels, EPISODE 1 THE PHANTOM MENACE, EPISODE II ATTACK OF THE CLONES and EPISODE III REVENGE OF THE SITH.
Joy is a good, inspiring movie, filled with lots of heart and genuine emotion, about something honest and real and tangible, featuring the radiant Jennifer Lawrence in a sensational movie-star performance that easily cements her as THE hottest (both in terms of looks and acting ability) actress of the moment. Seriously…name me one other actress her age who can command the screen in the same exact fashion as she does – you can’t because there is nobody else doing this sort of thing. She’s the total package, and it’s abundantly clear that writer/director David O. Russell has found his muse. I’ve been a huge fan of Russell’s work since the beginning of his career; Three Kings, Flirting with Disaster, I Heart Huckabees, and Silver Linings Playbook are all great pieces of cinema. And if Joy feels relatively small or slight in comparison, it’s only because the narrative feels a bit more traditional in its scope, but when looked at up close, there’s plenty to chew on. Reteaming yet again with Bradley Cooper and Robert De Niro, Russell has assembled a sterling supporting cast which also includes Isabella Rossellini, Diane Ladd, Edgar Ramirez, and Virginia Madsen, all of whom get a chance for some major scene stealing.
Russell again demonstrates his affinity and inherent understanding of the complexities of the dysfunctional home front and fractured family unit, with his cinematography (this time handled by Linus Sandgren) and editing (Jay Cassidy, Tim Cross, Alan Baumgarten, and Christopher Tellefsen were the cutters) neatly complimenting each other; the images have a simple and effective beauty to them while the editing is traditionally frantic yet coherent per Russell’s manic standards. Sandgren’s use of the close-up, especially with Lawrence, was very smart, as it helped to get into the character’s psyche, while offering the viewer a glimpse into her soul, not to mention her face, which the camera lovingly surveys and studies. Lawrence is a force of nature here, in almost every scene, serious one moment and funny the next, always sexy, always confident yet still somewhat vulnerable; it’s a big and juicy part that any actress would kill to get and she just owns this movie from top to bottom. De Niro gets some hearty laughs, and it was a treat to see the odd yet important relationship between Lawrence and Ramirez take shape. And here I haven’t said anything about the plot! Nominally a sort-of-biopic about the woman responsible for the Miracle Mop and the rise of QVC, Joy is above all else a story about perseverance and believing in yourself no matter the odds. Some people just don’t quit, and in Joy, Lawrence gets one of her most unique and thoughtful roles to date, portraying a strong and independent woman who isn’t interested in hearing the word no unless she’s the one saying it.