F. GARY GRAY’S STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON — A REVIEW BY NICK CLEMENT

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Straight Outta Compton is robust, vital entertainment, painting a vivid tapestry of one of the most turbulent periods of modern societal unrest, and telling an oversized, extremely engrossing tale that’s distinctly American and part of the greater cultural shift over the last 20 years. In a field of 10 potential nominees, even if I felt that there were better films, I am shocked that this movie didn’t have enough votes to get a Best Picture nomination with the Academy, especially considering the fact that it received a hat tip in the Original Screenplay category. It’s timely, it’s provocative, and it’s BIG. But whatever…Oscars or no Oscars…the movie was a massive critical and box office success, and for journeyman director F. Gary Gray, easily the best, most polished work of his career. The film has a dynamic visual style thanks to the slick yet gritty cinematography by Matthew Libatique, and it goes without saying, the movie moves to a SERIOUSLY awesome beat as a result of the near constant greatest hits that play over the soundtrack. Performances across the board are excellent and emotionally affecting, especially those by Jason Mitchell as Eazy-E, O’Shea Jackson, Jr. as Ice Cube (Cube’s son in real life, hence the uncanny physical resemblance), and Corey Hawkins as Dr. Dre. All three of these guys absolutely ripped into their roles with conviction and gusto, and are never unconvincing at any point. They have a great sense of chemistry with one another, and they all complimented each other’s performances by never allowing any one actor to overly dominate.

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And what Gray and his crew of screenwriters achieved extremely well in Straight Outta Compton was to present the viewer with a time capsule of a city, and a nation, in flux, with the topical discussion of racism and unnecessary brutality and harassment at the hands of the police still an important and incendiary top of discussion. Gangster rap is as American as apple pie and baseball, intrinsically linked to certain sections of this country, with seepage occurring at random and all over. To denounce gangster rap as sensationalistic or as a glamorization of violence and drugs and misogyny would require you to push back against years of TV shows and movies that have all done the same thing – exploit the exploitable elements with a certain degree of swagger. But the difference, if you’re paying attention, was that there were messages in the songs of NWA, songs that spoke to a distinct set of people first and foremost, but offered a glimpse into another world for many others. Yes, the film has a traditional arc, and you get the scenes you’d expect from the musical biopic genre, but even then there’s a zesty sense of professionalism occurring in every filmmaking department. Fans of NWA will love this film, and the uninitiated should walk out with a new understanding, and hopefully respect, for an art form that may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but one that speaks its mind loud and clear, with an understanding of the difficulties of life at the center of the action. Version screened was a Blu-ray of the 2 hour 50 minute unrated director’ cut; I think I know which bit of sexual shenanigans was cut by the prudish asses at the MPAA.

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PAOLO SORRENTINO’S YOUTH — A REVIEW BY NICK CLEMENT

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Youth, from director Paolo Sorrentino, is another visually lush and expressive mood piece from this extremely thoughtful filmmaker. Concentrating on the artistic process (both internally and externally), male camaraderie, long lost love, and above all else, the notion of vanity and one’s own life slowly slipping away, perhaps the film was too slow and melancholy for some, or too introspective for others. And while ultimately it might not shed any new light on its often explored themes, the entire package feels uniquely fresh and in awe of its own sense of cinematic richness. Similar to his previous effort, The Great Beauty, Youth has an almost ADD quality to the skipping narrative and to the intoxicating visuals, with Sorrentino adopting an almost Malickian sense of random intimacy, and his skilled cinematographer Luca Bigazzi capturing the exquisite Swiss Alps countryside in all its 2.35:1 widescreen glory. Anchored by a tender and soulful performance by Michael Caine and supported strongly by a wise Harvey Keitel, an emotionally frazzled Rachel Weisz, and a scene stealing, Kabuki-esque Jane Fonda, Youth explores a 50+ year friendship between a famed maestro (Caine) and a storied Hollywood filmmaker (Keitel), who take a vacation together at an ultra-luxury resort and come into contact with an interesting array of people, all of whom dredge up memories from the past, and help to set the course for the future.

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I never expected the big whammy moment that comes at the top of the third act, Caine really brings it during the home stretch, the various bouts of visual whimsy and fantasy were beyond stylish and well integrated into the main story, and Weisz cut a painful portrait of a scorned woman who is looking to overcome some serious personal sadness. I was reminded, yet again, how much I love her as an actress, as she possesses a striking combination of sexiness and vulnerability, not to mention having some of the best dramatic chops in the industry; one monologue in particular should have netted her more awards talk (if that sort of thing is to be taken seriously…). The eclectic musical score by David Lang sets a playful yet pensive tone right from the start, and it was definitely fun to see Paul Dano with a fake moustache, to say nothing of his late in the game, um, transformation. Youth premiered at the Cannes Film Festival and competed for the Palme d’Or, and received a miniscule theatrical release this past December; I saw the film courtesy of a Region B Italian Blu-ray. Youth was shot at the Waldhaus Flims resort, and from what I read, the entire cast and crew stayed there during filming. Tough life.

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ANTOINE FUQUA’S SOUTHPAW — A REVIEW BY NICK CLEMENT

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Southpaw is more square-jawed, darkly-lit, extremely predictable entertainment from director Antoine Fuqua (The Equalizer), who seems very content to embrace clichés and never look back. He’s always been a great shooter (The Replacement Killers POWER) with a terrific eye for detail and visual composition, but he’s never better than the script he’s given, and here, working with a bluntly effective if wholly routine narrative from Sons of Anarchy creator Kurt Sutter, Fuqua lets his ace star, Jake Gyllenhaal, do all the heavy lifting. And once again, Jake G. delivers — this guy is just crushing every single role of late, and he brings a buff and vigorous determination to the role of a broken down boxer trying to win his entire life back after suffering tragedy after tragedy. This movie is sort of odd in that it feels overstuffed but not unwieldy; it’s a boxing movie, a vigilante justice film for a spell, and a father-daughter drama that couldn’t be more on-the-nose if it tried. You’ve seen almost every single scene and set-up that Southpaw has to offer in countless other films, but never blended together quite like this, and while every moment is telegraphed from the get-go, Gyllenhaal’s brutish and extremely physical performance carries the film, keeping it watchable if never surprising.

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Rachel McAdams shows up in the first act looking all trashy-hot, Forest Whitaker does some reliably solid supporting work, and the boxing scenes are ferociously if unimaginatively shot by Fuqua’s cameraman of choice, Mauro Fiore, stressing tight angles, shutter retention tactics, and in a few instances, some incredible wide shots. The film features one of the final scores by James Horner and it’s one of those amp-up-the-big-moments crowd pleasers that fits for the story. Outside of Training Day (David Ayer’s screenplay is genius), Fuqua’s best film, for me, was his underrated period action drama King Arthur for producer Jerry Bruckheimer; if you’ve never see it, I suggest checking out the unrated director’s cut on Blu-ray. It has a rock solid script, beefy performances, and it looks absolutely fantastic thanks to the gritty and misty cinematography by Slawomir Idziak. I also enjoyed Tears of the Sun more than most, and have always wondered what that movie would have been like had the studio not tampered with the final cut; the editing process on that film, as I recall, was filled with complications. I’ve still not seen Olympus Has Fallen. But back to Southpaw – it’s the sort of movie that you can see coming a mile away, but that you can still engage with because of the performances and the familiarity of the material.

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PTS PRESENTS CINEMATOGRAPHER’S CORNER with PAUL CAMERON

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793c55ef-3227-46d8-82e3-3cb271a88e1fPodcasting Them Softly is extremely honored to present a chat with the fantastic cinematographer Paul Cameron. Paul has been responsible for shooting some of our absolute favorite modern action films, from his collaborations with the late Tony Scott including MAN ON FIRE, DEJA VU, and the BMW films entry BEAT THE DEVIL, to his groundbreaking work on Michael Mann’s COLLATERAL. Other efforts include the slick and gritty actioners GONE IN SIXTY SECONDS from director Dominic Sena and producer Jerry Bruckheimer, the crazy-fun cyber-terrorism thriller SWORDFISH with John Travolta and Hugh Jackman, the lens-flare gorgeous Total Recall remake, and the underrated thriller Dead Man Down. Paul has some massive projects coming up next year and beyond, with the HBO series WESTWORLD from Jonathan Nolan hitting TV screens in 2016, and he’s just wrapped principal photography on the latest PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN installment which is set for release in summer 2017. As most listeners of this podcast will know, we are both huge fans of Tony Scott and his artistically expressive aesthetic, so it was a real highlight to get a chance to speak with one of his key camera collaborators. We hope you enjoy!

DEREK CIANFRANCE’S BLUE VALENTINE — A REVIEW BY NICK CLEMENT

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In 2010, writer/director Derek Cianfrance dropped a hot-blooded cinematic bombshell on discerning audiences looking for a challenging, unquestionably mature look at a marriage coming apart at the seams. Clearly inspired by the freewheeling yet emotionally rigorous work of 60’s and 70’s era John Cassavettes, Cianfrance and his co-writers Joey Curtis and Cami Delavigne cooked up a stormy two-hander for stars Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams, both of whom deliver tragically believable performances that should have netted them every single acting award that year; only Williams would be recognized by the Academy with a nomination. Named after the Tom Waits album, Blue Valentine premiered as a competition item at the 26th Sundance Film Festival, and became an immediate sensation, and features an evocative and deeply moving musical score by the band Grizzly Bear. This is a sad and searing film that some people might find too honest and harsh for their comfort levels. Gosling and Williams were outstanding and wholly believable as husband and wife, and it’s downright shocking at times to see how intense the two of them got with each other on a physical level, to say nothing of a personal level. The bruising screenplay goes to some deep, tough places that might hit too close to home for people who have been in volatile relationships.

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The grittiness of just about everything in the film (the look, the sound, the textures) also helps to make the entire piece feel like a slice of life; at times you feel like you’re watching home video footage of a crumbling marriage. Blue Valentine shows you a marriage with all the highs and all the lows, and how two people who think they know each other are really just scratching the surface with one another. I dare not reveal any of the revelations or surprises that this film has in store as there are any number of moments while watching that you’ll feel the floor moving under your feet. When you have two incredible actors like Gosling and Williams crushing every scene and imbuing every moment with emotional honesty and openness, it’s almost impossible to not become totally consumed and engrossed as a viewer. And that’s what happens during Blue Valentine, or at least, that’s what has happened to me over the course of a few viewings. I forget that I’m watching a movie and I feel like I’m observing two real people and their very real problems. And even though the film ends on a note of slight discontent, there is an oddly uplifting undercurrent that can be felt as the final frames appear and the AMAZING closing song starts to play. It’s a totally sublime ending to an already extremely confident piece of filmmaking, one that carries a raw-nerve sexuality that few modern films ever dare to explore.

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JAMES GRAY’S TWO LOVERS — A REVIEW BY NICK CLEMENT

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All of the movies written and directed by James Gray look, feel, and sound alike. And while Two Lovers, which might be his richest and best yet (fine, The Immigrant is something special…), doesn’t revolve around the sordid world of crime, Russian-NY gangsters, and bloody shoot-outs (Little Odessa, The Yards, and We Own the Night are his other efforts), it’s no less of an accomplishment. Gray is a 70’s filmmaker at heart. His color palette consists of burnished browns, jet blacks, and gun-metal grey. His characters are ambiguous, morally conflicted, and quiet. Themes of family, loyalty, and violence run through all of his narratives, which jump from melodrama to genuine feeling with a peculiar grace. And this is what makes Two Lovers so excellent — it has a timeless quality, its characters seem real without ever falling into cliché, and Gray’s refusal to play anything safe imbues the film with a level of unpredictability that makes for great entertainment. And while Two Lovers may finally be too dour, possibly too portentous for some, the crafty decisions made by Gray and his co-scenarist Ric Menello should not go unnoticed, though they probably will, considering the ridiculously limited theatrical release that the film received. I hope that this movie has found an audience on DVD/Blu-ray/cable, because it deserves to win its share of fans.

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The film is essentially a love story, but one shot through with heartache and dysfunction. Leonard Kraditor (the phenomenal Joaquin Phoenix) is depressed, miserable, and more than likely bi-polar. Still reeling from being dumped by his fiancée, he’s moved back in with his loving parents (played wonderfully by Isabella Rossellini and Moni Moshonov). They’re a family of Jews from the Brighton Beach section of Brooklyn, and Gray gets all of the familial minutiae just right. Leonard’s parents want nothing but the best for their boy and are deeply concerned about his well-being. Fearing that he might be regressing back to his addict-days, they arrange a date for Leonard with the charming Sandra Cohen (the extremely natural and appealing Vinessa Shaw, who deserves a helluva lot more work than she’s been afforded), who happens to be the daughter of a business associate of Leonard’s father. If sparks were to fly between the two of them, it might make the merging of Leonard’s parent’s dry-cleaning business with Sandra’s parent’s business run even smoother. But a monkey wrench is thrown into potential domestic and professional bliss when Leonard meets the sexy and emotionally wounded Michelle, played with damaged-goods allure by Gwyneth Paltrow, in one of her absolute best performances. It’s the classic situation: Seemingly good-hearted Jewish man needs to choose between the sensible Jewish woman who is loved by his parents, and the blond shiksa goddess who Leonard craves in a seriously carnal way. Relationships are struck up with both of the women by Leonard, and as he twists and turns his way between the two of them, the audience twists and turns in their seat because of the realistically awkward situations that the characters find themselves in. Who will Leonard end up with? How will his parents react? And will Leonard ever be able to shake off the demons from his past?

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Two Lovers is the sort of adult-minded movie that people complain never gets made any more. Well, movies like this do exist — the problem is that distributors don’t have any faith in them. This is a shame because there are a lot of people out there who crave this sort of character and detail oriented work. The performances from Phoenix, Shaw, and Paltrow register as career highs for all of them, with Phoenix continuously providing varied and distinctive work all throughout his career. Leonard isn’t necessarily a likable guy, and many of the decisions that her makes seem foolish, but when you look at the story from a slight remove, you realize that the choices made are probably the ones that would be decided upon in the real world. Phoenix has a way with introverted, damaged souls, and it’s clear that repeatedly working with Gray has expanded his abilities as a dramatic artist. You like Leonard even though you probably shouldn’t. At least I did. Paltrow, who has an innate ability to convey sexiness and sympathy in the proper role, shines in a way that she rarely has on the big screen in Two Lovers — she’s totally hot, she’s total trouble, and she totally knows it. And the wildly undervalued Shaw exudes an effortless charm and a natural quality that so few major actresses’ possess. I had hoped that her terrific but subtle work in this film would have led to bigger parts down the road, or maybe a starring role on an HBO or Showtime or FX series, but alas, it’s not happened for whatever reason. And as always with Gray, the film has a stylish but unfussy visual style. Long takes are employed, static cameras are set in place, and the actors were given all the room they needed to carefully etch their layered characters. Films like Two Lovers are rare in that, typically, with a romantic drama, the audience has easy sentiment spoon-fed to them. Not here. Gray makes you work for a potential happy ending, and even when that ending comes, you can bet that there will be shades of uncertainty attached to it. Two Lovers may be small in scale, but it’s huge in heart and feeling.

Oren Moverman’s Time Out Of Mind: A review by Nate Hill

Oren Moverman’s Time Out Of Mind is a film that’s set so decidedly against the grain when it comes to how a story is presented to audience, it’s no wonder that it has been such a divisive experience. It’s almost like the anti-film. I understand it may be quite shocking the way it’s made, or lack thereof. But to hear that people walked out of screenings in droves at TIFF really saddens me. For someone to just not jive with the loose, dreamy aesthetic that serves the subject matter achingly well makes me wonder. But I suppose this is the type of film that really separates those with the power of abstract thought and the will to immerse themselves from those… without. The story in question concerns a homeless man in New York City played to absolute perfection by a haggard, boozed up and ultimately lost Richard Gere. This is the performance of his career, an outing of pure bravery and dedication that glues your eyes to the screen even in the most mundane of moments. You see, Gere himself had no idea when the cameras were periodically filming him, and was actually left stranded in the jungle of NYC, deep in the mindset of a lost soul, creating a minimilist performance that burns through the haze of a life scattered by tragedy. Little is given by the script in terms of back story for Gere, subtle hints given towards a broken life, death in the family and a mysterious injury which has left both body and soul scarred, as well as leaving him with obvious brain damage. If their was an award given out for best film title of the year, this one has earned it. ‘Time Out Of Mind’. Isn’t that the perfect description for a shattered psyche that has been set adrift by life’s cruel tides and left to wander the years, alone.. distraught.. damaged. Gere is a portrait of hurt, confusion and lonliness, wandering the overbearing maze of the city, desperately clinging to any semblance of dignity, as well as the scattered shards of his past that he yearns for. He’s got a daughter (Jena Malone in a conflicted career best) who wants nothing to do with him, making us wonder more about the past. He encounters several people over the course of the film. An energetic fellow vagrant (Ben Vereen) helps bring out a bit of Gere’s dormant coherence via his own nonsensical mania. A shrewd building inspector (Steve Buscemi) gives him the boot from a condemned building. He has a chance romantic encounter with a fellow homeless woman (an unrecognizable Kyra Sedgwick). The film is shot, edited and presented to the audience in a form completely void of structure or narrative beats. Gere wanders aimlessly, his foggy mental state reflected in the way his perceives his world, and in turn the way we perceive his story. It’s both ironic and fitting that we find ourselves so drawn in to a story that is presented as a set of events that are each and every one astray from any sort of cohesion. That’s where the title is so brilliant and touching.. Gere is one step removed from reality via time and injury. He himself mentions at one point that he has forgotten how long it’s been, and that he’s lost the thread of his life via many instances of ‘lost time’. Gere sells it and then some, inhabiting the streets with a worn out, ghostly presence that begs you to place yourself in the shoes and mind of someone who truly has lost their way in life, and to see that for them, such a fork in the road can truly change the concept of time. Seeing this successfully done with film in every aspect was truly an experience for me. Gere is the heart of it, as the camera peers out on him from trash strewn alleys, broken window frames and desolate, uncaring streets that leave him all but invisible, an individual manifestation of a sad fact of life which sometimes sits on the fringes of our awareness. Not with this film.

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