JOHN PATRICK SHANLEY’S DOUBT — A REVIEW BY NICK CLEMENT

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Doubt is an impeccable piece of filmmaking. From the Oscar-nominated writing to the air-tight direction to the spellbinding performances, it’s a precision-tooled work from a master storyteller who has an amazing grasp on what he wants to say. Adapted from his Pulitzer winning play of the same name, writer-director John Patrick Shanley crafted one of the most thought-provoking films from 2008 with Doubt, a piece of work that scorches the nerves because of how vital and possible all of it feels. Set in the 1960’s at a NYC Catholic school, Doubt tells the story of a priest who is accused of improper behavior with one of his altar boys. Philip Seymour Hoffman, forceful as ever, is Father Flynn, a seemingly good and decent man who takes a liking to the only black student/altar boy in the school. The scarily intense Meryl Streep is Sister Beauvier, the main accuser, who teams up with another nun, the fragile Sister James, played by Amy Adams, in order to try to bring Flynn down. Sister James is the one who thinks that something improper has occurred; she doesn’t have definitive proof but she merely thinks that something bad has happened. Shanley asks his viewers to make a decision at the end of the film as to who was right, who was wrong, who was lying, and who was telling the truth. This is a hard film to review without spoiling because there’s little to no fat on the bones of the story, with each scene feeding into the one previous and the one following. Every piercing line of dialogue is important to the overall narrative and every moment in each of the three central performances are so integral to the film’s outcome that it becomes a tricky movie to discuss without giving everything away.

And then you have an emotionally shattering Viola Davis, who stole some heartbreaking scenes as the altar boy’s deeply concerned mother; there’s not a false note played by any of these superlative performers, all of whom were bestowed with Oscar nominations for their riveting portrayals. With Doubt, what I think Shanley was trying to get his audience to ask themselves is: How do we really know what goes on behind a closed-door? Is it enough to simply think that someone has done something wrong before you attack their character? What is a person’s moral compass made up of, and how do we truly know the people we work and live with? How do we decide who is right and who is wrong when all of the facts aren’t made clear? Working with the legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins, Shanley brought an appropriately chilly visual aesthetic to the film, with Deakins stressing grays and browns and darkly lit interiors with tons of Dutch angles and long takes that maximize the dramatic potency of every face-off between the verbally sparring actors. Every line of dialogue crackles with authority, especially when spoken by Hoffman and Streep, and Adams, in the film’s most layered role, did excellent work, painting a portrait of a confused woman who may or may not have started something she has no way of ever controlling. And most importantly, Shanley knew exactly how to wrap up his story, and during the film’s final, stinging moments, you’ll be left with a lot of fodder for discussion after the final credits have rolled.

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YOUTH – A Review by Frank Mengarelli

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YOUTH achieves and exceeds what most pieces of art attempt to do.  This film is brought to us by the genius mind of Paolo Sorrentino, as well as career high performances from Michael Caine, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, Paul Dano and Jane Fonda.  This film is a testament that is timeless, introspective, existential, and a beautifully painful kaleidoscope of emotions that is life.

Michael Caine is Fred Ballinger, a retied and apathetic conductor who is on holiday at a tranquil and off beat hotel in the Swiss Alps, where he’s been vacationing for the past sixty years with his best friend Mickey a writer/director, perfectly played with gravitas and emotion by the magnificent Harvey Keitel.  Rachel Weisz is brilliant in her duel role as Fred’s assistant and daughter.  Paul Dano yet again holds his own, and is not overshadowed by the acting giants he is put up against, as Jimmy, the resentful and bitter method actor doing research for his next role.

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The pairing up of Caine and Keitel is awe inspiring.  They are two of the very best actors not only from their respective generations, but in cinema itself.  Keitel has always been a personal favorite actor of mine who has been under appreciated and for a majority of his career stuck in the “tough guy” role.  At the age of 76 Keitel is fantastic as the tortured optimist that is a hybrid between Charles Bukowski and John Cassavetes .  As odd of a couple Caine and Keitel are, there are not two actors alive that would be as suited as them for these two roles.

This film is difficult to navigate.  The music, visual style and design soften the coarse and heavy subject matter.  Its structure is purposely off beat, yet Sorrentino masterfully guides us through this journey where conventional plot points do not matter.  We feel what’s happening, and that’s the purpose of this film, channeling raw and perhaps at times, unrecognizable emotion into ourselves.

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Not since THE TREE OF LIFE, has a film taken us on a journey inside the human psyche that is set somewhere between reality and a fever dream.  Paolo Sorrentino masterfully delivers the beautiful showboat that is YOUTH, that rare and elusive film that is as charming, poignant, inspiring, and at times devastating as life itself.

NORMAN JEWISON’S MOONSTRUCK — A REVIEW BY NICK CLEMENT

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Nobody makes effortless romantic comedies like Moonstruck anymore. Beautifully written by John Patrick Shanley (who won the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay) and wisely directed by Norman Jewison, this film is funny, heartfelt, genuine, and so perceptive of Italian culture it almost hurts. Cher was fantastic in a role that netted her a Best Actress Oscar (that hair!), Nicolas Cage was at his wild-eyed and passionate best, and the entire supporting cast just nailed every single opportunity that they were given, especially Olympia Dukakis (who took home the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress), Vincent Gardenia, Danny Aiello, and John Mahoney. Jewison was one of those steady and sturdy filmmakers who never seemed to get the credit he deserved, despite winning awards and almost always garnering critical acclaim; was it that he wasn’t a “Hollywood” guy that kept him off to the side a bit? He always seemed interested in tackling important social and/or political issues within the narratives of his films (he was also a prolific producer), and he was seen as a filmmaker who was able to turn the potentially inaccessible into something commercial.

Moonstruck was one of his more classically structured films, an effort that played to the conventions of its genre but one that enjoyed poking fun at the tropes. Shanley’s rich and frequently hysterical screenplay touched upon ideas of love, chance, and the importance of family, and at no time did the writing ever get overly sentimental or cloying, a trap that befalls many films of this ilk. Moonstruck opened on December 18, 1987, and immediately became a massive theatrical hit, spending 20 weeks in the top 10 of the box office, and grossing close to $100 million. And it’s remained a popular favorite for years due to the simple fact that it just flat-out works on every level. It’s romantic without being sappy, sexy without being puerile, and intelligent without being pretentious. Nothing was forced, the film was never vulgar just to be vulgar, there was a terrific sense of New York City running all throughout, while the low-key manner in which the plot unfolded should be held as an example for this variety of storytelling, which tends to get overstuffed and too complicated for its own good at times. I also hope that the people who created My Big Fat Greek Wedding are sending weekly royalty checks to Shanley and Jewison. “Snap out of it!”

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GUS VAN SANT’S MILK — A REVIEW BY NICK CLEMENT

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In 2008, eclectic filmmaker Gus Van Sant released two films: Paranoid Park, a challenging and formally adventurous indie, and the more classically structured but no less emotionally stirring biopic Milk. I’ve long been fascinated by Van Sant’s interesting and unpredictable career, and his film about San Francisco politician Harvey Milk, who was the first openly gay politician in the U.S., remains as powerful now as it did when I first viewed it almost 10 years ago. Sean Penn delivered a splendid performance as Milk, and everyone around him, including James Franco, Josh Brolin, Emile Hirsch, and Diego Luna all offered fantastic supporting turns. Dustin Lance Black’s sharp screenplay was heavily researched, the dialogue intelligently written, and the film carried a sense of the tragic almost from the beginning. Shot by the incomparable cinematographer Harris Savides, the film had a vibrant and period-authentic aesthetic, which helped to solidify the time and place of the socially combustible narrative. Harvey Milk stood up for the entire gay community in the United States when nobody else dared to speak up for what they knew was right. This made him both loved and hated; wherever he went and whatever he did, his actions provoked passionate responses from everyone who crossed paths with him. The level of conviction that Penn brought to the role of Milk was remarkable, as he fully jettisoned any lingering elements from previous performances, totally embodying the man in both body and spirit. Here was a man who decided that enough was enough – it was time to set things right for himself and everyone like him. Penn breezed through the film with likable ease, and because death hangs over the proceedings so ominously, there was genuine sadness when he met his ultimate fate.

The other actors were all up to the task as well. Franco, playing Milk’s lover and first campaign strategist Scott Smith, gave one of the best performances of his career; combined with his hilarious turn in Pineapple Express, 2008 was a banner year for Franco. Penn and Franco, from the first scene, generated real on-screen chemistry, making their relationship all the more special and affecting. Brolin was absolutely gripping as the confused and desperate Dan White, a man who may or may not have been gay himself, giving a chilling performance as a person unable to understand the potential differences in other people; it’s a role that could have been oppressively one-note, but Brolin brought layers of emotion and mental complexity to the role. Hirsch registered strongly as Cleve Jones, one of Milk’s political strategists, and Luna, playing Milk’s emotionally troubled boyfriend Jack Lira, brought skittish, nervous energy to every scene he appeared in; you never quite know what will happen when he appears on screen. Van Sant has led an extremely idiosyncratic career as a filmmaker, and after embarking on some seriously avant-garde works (Elephant, Gerry, Last Days, and the previously mentioned Paranoid Park unofficially form a rather brilliant quartet of minimalistic storytelling), it appeared as if he wanted to prove that he could still deliver a more traditional and commercially friendly piece of filmmaking, and that he did with this engaging, wholly engrossing time capsule. And in working with Savides for the fifth time on Milk, Van Sant seamlessly blended archival footage with vivid re-creations of San Francisco in the late 1970’s; the atmosphere that this film possesses feels tangible. It’s sort of like a visually thematic cousin to the work that Savides did on David Fincher’s masterful serial killer/journalism thriller Zodiac. Danny Elfman’s score was never intrusive yet offered wonderful moments of musical inspiration while Elliot Graham’s fluid editing kept the two-hour run time moving along at a swift but unhurried pace. As far as biopics go, this one is at the top of the pile.

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PTS Presents DIRECTOR’S CHAIR with REED MORANO

MORANO POWERCAST

unnamed (1)Podcasting Them Softly is extremely excited to present our conversation with critically acclaimed filmmaker Reed Morano. Reed got her start as a cinematographer, having lensed the acclaimed indies Frozen River, Kill Your Darlings, The Skeleton Twins, and Little Birds, as well as shooting a number of episodes of the edgy and groundbreaking HBO series Looking. Currently, her emotionally powerful and visually stunning feature directorial debut, Meadowland, which stars Olivia Wilde, Luke Wilson, Elizabeth Moss, Kevin Corrigan, and John Leguizamo, can be seen in theaters in select cities and on various streaming platforms including ITunes. In January 2016, her director of photography skills will be seen yet again on the small screen, with the explosive looking new HBO series Vinyl, from executive producers Martin Scorsese, Terrence Winter, and Mick Jagger. And in the spring of 2016, Reed will begin production on her next feature, the contemporary war drama Lioness, with star Ellen Page. Reed‘s work is always stylish, personal, and incredibly cinematic, and we were honored to get a chance to speak with her! We hope you enjoy this terrific chat!

LUCIEN CASTAING-TAYLOR & ILISA BARBASH’S SWEETGRASS — A REVIEW BY NICK CLEMENT

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Sweetgrass is one of the most beguiling documentaries I’ve ever encountered, a piece of visual anthropology that I can’t compare to anything else. It’s a piece of work that will likely alienate most viewers, but for those with patience and an interest in spare, direct storytelling, this exploration of sheep herders in the Montana wilderness will leave a major impression. While capturing the rituals of the shepherds as they herded their livestock through the Beartooth Mountains, the filmmakers covered stunning landscapes, and braved dangerous weather and the threat of various wild animals, including bears and wolves. As the shepherds make their journey, the film depicts the hardships that they face in their age-old occupation, which seems largely outdated in 21st century America. The film is from the husband and wife filmmaking team of Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Ilisa Barbash, who also created the strangely haunting fishing trawler documentary Leviathan, so if you’ve seen that film, you’ll know what to expect from Sweetgrass. No dialogue, no pandering, no overt messages or speechifying; what you see is what you get.

My thing with cinema is this: TAKE ME SOMEWHERE I’VE NEVER BEEN. Well…I’ve never herded thousands of sheep through rocky and treacherous terrain, and I likely never will. But this film gives you an astonishing sense of how difficult this job is. Honestly…this documentary is a masterpiece of execution, showcasing simplicity at its finest, and offering up stark majesty on a genuinely grand scale. It’s also, intended or not, a deeply hysterical portrait of potential madness, and while the film takes a harshly unsentimental gaze at the shepherds and their animals, it’s never depressing or degrading. Werner Herzog and Terrence Malick would lose their minds over this piece of work, and I’m sort of shocked that Herzog didn’t get to this material first. Sweetgrass is an amazing deconstruction of the demands of the American cowboy and a stunning revelation into the bonds between human and animal. At various points, the camera literally stares into the souls of some of these animals, and it’s in these quiet moments that the viewer might have a religious experience, especially if they’re an animal lover; I was personally left agog by the entire effort. Sweetgrass is definitely up there with Winged Migration as one of the most fascinating animal documentaries that I’ve come across.

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A chat with actor Debra Christofferson 

I recently had the opportunity to speak with actor Debra Christofferson, a super talented performer who has done work in films including Wild Wild West, Mouse Hunt, Anjelina Jolie’s The Changeling, White Oleander, My Favorite Martian, and more. She also has television appearance in shows like Grey’s Anatomy, Ally Mcbeal, American Horror Story, Crime Story, The X Files, NYPD Blue, CSI, Weeds, Bones, The Mentalist, NCIS, Southland and a legendary arc in HBO’s Carnivale as Lila. She was an absolute pleasure to speak with. Enjoy!

Nate: Since I don’t see much about your background or training on imdb, would you care to speak about that? Did you come from an artistic background, how did you know you wanted to pursue acting, where did you train etc?
Debra: I honestly don’t remember a time when I didn’t want to be an actor. There’s a video of me at about a year and a half old where I come tearing around a corner and look up at my dad, who is holding the camera. I glance down at the floor like I’m looking for my mark, adjust my position, then look back up at the camera and smile like, “Okay, I’m ready for my close up!” It’s pretty funny, and kind of prescient. I was always dressing up as a kid, making up scenarios and entertaining myself, or anyone who would listen. We didn’t have a theatre department in school, but I sang solos and did plays at church, and also performed for years, as did many townspeople, as an extra in the Black Hills Passion Play, a three hour pageant about the last week of Christ’s life. The professional actors in the production were always very kind and encouraging, and made a lasting impression on me.
I attended college on a vocal scholarship, and double majored in music and theatre. I moved to Minneapolis after graduation, and took acting classes and did several plays before moving to Los Angeles to pursue tv and film.
I’ve studied with several acting coaches over the years, but the biggest influence in my process has really been studying metaphysics. The basic idea of being in present moment at all times keeps one honest as a character, and influences the choices I make as an actor.

Nate: Upon first entering the industry and auditioning, where did you expect to go, character wise? Did you have any certain genre or character style you wanted to explore? Did you get to go down the avenues you hoped for? Did it surprise you the characters you did end up portraying?
Debra: Oh, I was so very naive! Training in theatre gave me no preparation whatsoever for working in the television and film industry. I had no idea of how to put together a resume, no clue what it was like to be on a set, no concept of the enormity of it all. I started doing student films to get some footage of myself on camera, so I had something to show prospective agents; I did some extra work to find out what it was like to be on the set of a big production; and I continued to do theatre to keep myself feeling productive. Ultimately, I got an agent, joined the unions, started getting auditions, and was on my way. Very, very slowly, but on my way, nevertheless.
As for a genre, I’ve said in previous interviews how influential the movie “Star Wars” was to me. I had always thought I’d end up in New York and on Broadway, but after seeing “Star Wars,” I just wanted to make magic like that. And now that JJ Abrams is restarting the franchise, I guess there’s still hope! A new hope. LOL!
Besides making scifi movie magic, I wanted to have a variety show like Carol Burnett. I love the idea of being part of a fabulously talented ensemble, playing a myriad of characters, singing and dancing, having wonderful guest stars, etc. That genre has been out of style for awhile, but one never knows when it might make a resurgence!
I am extremely pleased, and I guess somewhat surprised, at some of the characters I’ve been privileged to play. I’ve run the gamet from a normal blue collar worker (“T.J. Hooker,” among others) to a demon (“Good vs. Evil”), to a sexy bearded lady (“Carnivale”). I’ve worked with some of the nicest and most talented people in the Industry, and have had amazing opportunities.

Nate: What would be your dream role in film? Existing or an imaginary, yet to be written character.
Debra: As a kid I wanted to play Scarlett O’Hara. Or maybe it was to just be Vivian Leigh playing Scarlett O’Hara. Dream role – are you listening, JJ Abrams? I want to be a recurring character in “Star Wars!”

Nate:  Carnivale- Lila makes such a huge impression on the show, and is somewhat underestimated by others, she’s kind of a cunning, wily girl. Did you enjoy working on that, and playing her? Are you a fan of the show as a whole? It’s such a tragedy it got cancelled so early.. Did you ever have any idea where it might have gone post season 2?
I adored playing Lila! The 1930’s is my favorite time period for music, architecture, clothing, etc., and it was wonderful being able to inhabit that world. I thought the show was amazing – stunning production values, beautifully shot, brilliantly written and performed. It was before its time, and it broke my heart when we were cancelled after only two seasons. Dan Knauf, the creator of “Carnivale,” had the entire series planned out, so there was lots more to see and experience. I recall that the third season was set a few years after season two, and involved Samson gathering the carnies back together as they had all gone their separate ways.

Nate: Mousehunt- pure, delightful physical comedy. The auction scene is like the peak of the tumultuous, chaotic events throughout the film. There was a lot going on, a lot of actors present, and a wonderful screwball comic vibe. How was your experience filming that sequence?
Debra: I made life-long friends on that shoot. We started out near Yosemite, shooting the flooding sequence. The first week there were several minor mishaps on the dangerously muddy terrain, but we all made it through and production held a “whew!” party for us at a local bowling alley. And I fractured my wrist bowling. Yeah, slipped in very slippery bowling shoes and fell throwing a ball down the alley. I had to be flown back to L.A. to get it set, and then we managed to cover the cast adequately for it not to show in the mud and water sequences. It worked out kind of miraculously, and by the time the auction scene was shot, my wrist had healed.
I remember having a blast shooting that sequence. It took several days, and between the mice and the fire, we were kept on our toes. And when you’re working with really fun, talented friends, it’s a joy!
The hardest thing to shoot was a scene involving the main actors floating and swimming through the floodwater. Production built a huge water tank on the Universal backlot near the “Psycho” house, and we were drilled on safety measures with the divers who were under water with air tanks if we needed them. Camilla Soeberg, who played my sister, and I got into the water and tried to dive under to get to the proper depth for the camera, but we kept floating to the top. Our wigs had been built on styrofoam bases, which wouldn’t let us stay under the water. It was hilarious, but an expensive mistake. Ultimately, the whole scene ended up on the cutting room floor.
Nate: Wild Wild West- The scene with you and Will Smith. One of the funniest bits. Were you two given lots of room for playing and improvisation, or was it mostly to script? Did you have fun with that project?
Debra: I loved working on “Wild Wild West.” I had originally read for the role of the bartender early in the movie when Kevin Kline was dressed in drag. They cast someone else, but liked me enough at the audition to still want me in the film, so asked me to dance with Will. That evolved into a couple of other scenes as well. My first day on set involved the dance. We rehearsed it twice and the timing just wasn’t working. I knew musically how to fix it, but was hesitant to say anything to this rapper guy, because I figured he knew rhythm, and I didn’t want to overstep. But when the third try didn’t work, I spoke up. Will nodded and said to Barry Sonnenfeld, the director, “Debra has an idea I think might work.” We tried it and it worked perfectly. After that, I was “in.” I was invited to sit with Barry, Will and the other leads in “video village,” which was surrounded by Will’s bodyguards (there were hundreds of extras on the set), and I kept getting more bits to do. One of my fondest memories is of when the set was cleared for rehearsal and I found myself alone with Barry, Will, Kevin Kline, Ted Levine, and one of my all-time favorites, Kenneth Branaugh. We spent a good 15 minutes working on a scene, and I suggested a line about being “back in the saddle” which ended up in the film. The best part of all, however, was every morning when I got to sit next to Ken in the make-up trailer and chat. It was heaven!

Nate: You made an appearance in the video game L.A. Noire. How was your experience with recording in a sound studio? I ask because in my work I absolutely love doing VO stuff, it’s such a rush, and so wildly different from on camera acting. Did you find this as well?
Debra: When I first moved to L.A. I did a lot of voiceover work for cartoons and dubbed several foreign films. L.A. Noire was a unique experience however, unlike anything I’d done before. The dressing up in the neoprine suit with little ping pong balls all over, working in a black box with yellow gridlines and imagining everything, sitting in a round white room being photographed by hundreds of cameras – crazy! The motion capture included the vocal performance, so there wasn’t separate voiceover work for that. However, when I went in to have my face photographed from a gazillion angles, they asked me to do a bunch of additional lines as various characters, so I got to use different voices and accents to play as many parts as possible.

Nate: Do you haven my upcoming projects, film or otherwise, that you are excited for and would like to speak about?
Debra: Yes, I do. I’m thrilled to be working on an exciting new project, but can’t talk about it! It seems to be de rigueur anymore that one is required to sign a non-disclosure agreement so nothing leaks out about high-profile projects. Thanks, Internet! LOL!
 I can say that the powers that be and the lead actors on this particular project were at ComiCon last summer promoting it and that it will be out sometime in early 2016. So maybe check back with me next year!
Nate: I look forward to this mystery project! Keep up the awesome work Debra and thanks for chatting!

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