SPECTRE – A Review by Frank Mengarelli

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SPECTRE is the James Bond film that a lot of us have been waiting for: the Daniel Craig film that is his own. I have very much enjoyed the Craig series, but the films have been muddled in each of their own respects. CASINO ROYAL was the unnecessary franchise reboot, QUANTOM OF SOLACE was the adrenaline fueled action film, and SKYFALL was the epic blanket film that absolutely everyone could love. SPECTRE did a brilliant job of building off all the archetypal elements of the previous three Craig films, and made this film as seminal as YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE or ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE.

It doesn’t come as a surprise that this will be a divisive film, especially coming off of SKYFALL. This is a film that a lot of the more recent Daniel Craig Bond fans won’t fully understand. But for those of us who have been waiting for this film, this film excels with everything. The gun barrel sequence opens the film, the cheeky humor, Dave Bautista as the classicly eccentric henchmen, the macho alpha respect Bond has with M, the flirty tension with Miss Moneypenny, Q and his gadget room, a fantastic opening credit sequence, an excellent title sequence, and above all: a be-all-end-all Bond villain.

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The ambiguous timeline of the Bond films as a whole is an interesting beast. The plot points and ending of SKYFALL certainly meshes with the Connery films. Why Bond respects M, why Bond has a flirty affinity for Miss Moneypenny, and now in SPECTRE, we’re given the wonderful homage to the main villain’s secret volcanic base, the inevitable scar over his eye, and why the villain hates Bond so very much.

Director Sam Mendes and screenwriter John Logan walked a fine line with with SPECTRE. They delicately and retroactively connected the previous three Bond films into the heart of SPECTRE, yet they kept true to Bond form by making a contemporary film about global chaos and digital espionage. SPECTRE has made the previous Bond films better, by connecting them in the way the Connery Bond films (including Lazenby’s singular film) were all connected by one thing: a shadow conspiracy.

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There is no doubt, regardless of all the tabloid games that have been played recently, that Daniel Craig will return for at least one more film. I wouldn’t be surprised if Sam Mendes returned for the next film as well. Sam Mendes, John Logan and Daniel Craig knew exactly what they were doing and have struck gold with SPECTRE.

Full disclosure: I have owned every Bond film, sans NEVER SAY NEVER AGAIN, from VHS to Blu Ray, and I will quadruple dip on the 4K Blu Rays next year.

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EPISODE 19: ROAR with SPECIAL GUEST JOHN MARSHALL

EPISODE 19

Podcasting Them Softly is extremely excited to present a chat with John Marshall, one of the stars and crew members of the 1981 cult classic ROAR, which was written/produced/directed by his father, Noel Marshall, and which also starred Tippi Hedren, Melanie Griffith, and John‘s brother Jerry. ROAR was a passion project for Noel Marshall and Hedren, who had filmed some movies in Africa during the early 70’s, and had fallen in love with lions and tigers and assorted big cats. Upon their return to their Los Angeles home, they decided to turn their living space into a sanctuary for rescue animals, ending up with over 100 exotic animals on their property. Noel then had a stroke of mad genius — film a movie at his house utilizing his family members and a daredevil crew that would highlight these magnificent creatures in all of their dangerous glory. ROAR is a film that just has to be seen to be truly believed, and thanks to the people at Olive Films, a special edition Blu-Ray was released this week! We hope you enjoy!

MICHAEL MANN’S COLLATERAL — A REVIEW BY NICK CLEMENT

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Collateral is a laser-precise action thriller, that as per usual for macho auteur Michael Mann, also stops to pause for the introspective moment from time to time, certainly more than your average studio shoot ‘em up. This was a theatrical five-timer for me, and it’s a movie I’ve revisited numerous times on DVD and Blu-ray; Mann knows this rough, urban terrain better than anyone else at the moment. Breathlessly written by Stuart Beattie (with uncredited rewrite work by Mann and Frank Darabont), this was one of the key films to bust down the gate for big-budget studio actioners to get the digitally-shot treatment. Cinematographers Paul Cameron and Dion Beebe collaborated with Mann on the intensely stylish visuals, with nocturnal Los Angeles giving off a totally unique vibe that’s dangerous and exotic and alive with endless possibility; I love how digital cinematography allows the viewer to see far off into the distance. Tom Cruise gave one of his most magnetic performances as Vincent, a hitman made of steely discipline and possessing seemingly air-tight internal logic. Jamie Foxx, as Max the cabbie, made for an unexpectedly great co-star, with his initial timidity turning into reluctant bravado by the final act, in an arc that felt honest considering the circumstances. The dynamite supporting cast has showy turns from a greasy Mark Ruffalo, the always commanding Bruce McGill, a priceless Javier Bardem doing some excellent storytelling, a sharp Jada Pinkett Smith, edgy Peter Berg, the soulful Barry Shabaka Henley, and the sagacious Irma P. Hall, with awesome cameos by resident ass-kicker Jason Statham and the spunky Debi Mazar.

The Statham bit at the airport, in particular, is a real hoot; Mann isn’t known for being a “fun” filmmaker, and in this one wink-wink moment, you get the sense that he was enjoying himself in a way he normally doesn’t. James Newtown Howard’s moody score pulsates with electronic-synth-sexiness, with all of the physical locations choicely selected for maximum atmospheric effect. And honestly, enough can’t be said about the downright hypnotic cinematography in this film; shot after shot is absolutely striking in ways that are hard to describe. Memorable moments include a roaming coyote shambling across a lonely Los Angeles city street, a phenomenally staged and extra-lethal Korea town night-club shootout, and that fantastic encounter between Cruise and Henley at the jazz-club, which culminates in both verbal and visual poetry which highlights the chiaroscuro quality of the dimly lit interior. The back and forth dialogue between Cruise and Foxx during the various cab rides sting with acidic bite, with both actors getting more than one moment of serious emoting amidst all of the violent showdowns and confrontations. This was an extremely disciplined effort for Mann, and however minor some people may find it amongst the rest of his sensational filmography, it’s one of those endlessly re-watchable films that paid attention to all of the aspects of the medium, resulting in a rock-solid genre entry that feels a cut above from the norm.

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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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