It’s crazy to think that later this month, Casino will be turning 20 years old. I’ve seen this film roughly 5,380 times and I’ll likely see it another 5,380 times more. It’s a fabulously engrossing saga of Las Vegas sin and sleaze from the very first masterful frame all the way until the last. Some have called it Goodfellas Gone West, and that’s not far off, but stylistically, the two films are very different, while of course sharing some similar traits. Casino is epic, where Goodfellas stressed the intimate, and it’s the smart way that Scorsese and his writers pulled all of the small and big pieces together that they were able to concoct a packed narrative that still remained coherent. Cinematographer Robert Richardson was in full-on flamboyant mode here, with massive crane shots, huge camera-arm movements, with as dynamic of a sense of how to shoot in widescreen that can possibly be referenced. The film is truly massive in both visual scope and story structure, with one element complimenting the other, as Scorsese ladled on the blood, profanity, and gangster tropes that everyone would expect from the master of this particular milieu.
There’s a journalistic sweep that encompasses much of Casino, with Richardson’s always-searching camera gliding over the action, covering the various back-room deals and violent confrontations with extreme, flashy style. Scorsese was obsessive in the details both large and small during Casino, which allowed Richardson the chance to gaze his camera upon the glitz and glamour that Las Vegas exudes. There’s a mind-boggling amount of three to five minute long stedicam shots in this film, which gives off an observational quality from moment to moment. It’s sort of ridiculous to be honest. Richardson lit Sharon Stone like a goddess in this film, always showing off her eclectic wardrobe and sexy make-up to maximum effect; do you think she had 10,000 costume changes? Everyone in the cast was just perfect, with De Niro and Pesci doing their best “one-two” with each other, while Richardson and Scorsese caught all of the sly moments from these two supreme actors which helps make this film what it is – an obsessive study of excess and greed and power. There’s even a Smothers Brother in this film!
There’s a level of verisimilitude that Richardson and his crew brought to this film, from the practical locations to the fully decked out sets to all of the character actors and “faces around the tables” that help to produce a tableaux effect – it’s a perfect distillation of a bygone era. And then there’s also the freewheeling sense of visual flamboyance (this is Vegas after all!) that Casino possesses, which separates it from other genre entries, and it felt like the next logical step for Scorsese in terms of his fascination with this subject matter. This was one of those movies that blew the doors off my cinema-mind 20 years ago, an example of what I’d like to call bravura filmmaking. Casino is akin to an out of control but still somehow in control locomotive that just never wants to stop moving. “An equal amount of blueberries in each muffin” POWER.
I’m not huge on horror movies. But The Exorcist is brilliant, and easily one of my all-time favorite films in any genre. This movie actually kind of scares me, every time I watch any portion of it, no matter the time of day. It certainly gets under my skin; it’s relentlessly thrilling and so ruthless in its force and skill that it’s become one of those films that I study in terms of the nuts and bolts of its construction. I’m not a believer in the idea of real-world demonic possession, but, the scenario certainly has made for more than a few memorable cinematic experiences, but William Friedkin’s beyond intense vision is truly the stuff of nightmares. Owen Roizman’s carefully measured cinematography puts you on edge immediately, as the nearly wordless opening 20 minutes plunges the viewer into an exotic world with very little context, as Max von Sydow’s priest character unearths something terrible out in the desert. Ellen Burstyn was sensational as the actress/mother struggling with almost every facet of her life, with her biggest problem being that her young daughter Regan, the show-stopping Linda Blair, has caught the eye of the Pazuzu, an ancient demon. Jason Miller’s tortured performance as Father Karras is some of the most emotionally affecting work in this genre that I’ve come across; admittedly I’m no aficionado of the horror world, but Miller’s acting in this film has always resonated with me, and has always seemed to be a cut above for this sort of fare, which can tend to be overplayed for big, obvious moments. There’s a reason this movie has endured as long as it has – it’s truly horrific in all the right ways, vulgar and nasty, never afraid to go to some truly dark and disturbing places, while still paying respect to classic genre tropes. The Exorcist feels perfect from scene to scene, with each performance totally nailed by the incredible ensemble, and all of the craft elements aligning to create one of the most visceral and truly horrifying visions of cinematic terror that’s ever been presented.
Podcasting Them Softly is extremely proud to present our latest addition to Cinematographer’s Corner — Tim Orr! Tim is one of the busiest guys behind a camera currently working in Hollywood, having amassed 40 credits over the last 15 years. He’s the cinematographer of choice for filmmaker David Gordon Green, having shot all of the versatile director’s films, along with pairing up with a diverse field of directing talent on a wide variety of other projects. Tim has worked on some of our favorite comedies from the last few years, with credits including the instant classic Pineapple Express, Jody Hill’s brilliant Observe and Report, the underrated Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, and Mike White’s charming black comedy The Year of the Dog. He’s also no stranger to dramas, having shot the gritty Nicolas Cage film Joe, the dreamy Zooey Deschanel romance All the Real Girls, the Terrence Malick produced southern thriller Undertow, and film festival favorite George Washington. TV Credits include HBO’s hilarious Eastbound and Down and he shot the pilot for the upcoming Amazon original comedy Red Oaks, which was executive produced by Steven Soderbergh. In late October, his newest feature film hits the big screen — the highly anticipated Sandra Bullock political comedy Our Brand is Crisis, which was produced by George Clooney and Grant Heslov. One of his most recent efforts is something we’re super excited to see — Pee Wee’s Big Holiday– which marks the return of Pee Wee Herman — and was produced through Netflix and is set for release in March of 2016. We hope you enjoy this fantastic chat!
I love the mood and rhythms of George Clooney’s magnificent Good Night, And Good Luck. This film has so much classy style and verbal sophistication that it’s always a pleasure to revisit, and it’s loaded with an utterly obscene cast that included David Strathairn, Jeff Daniels, Robert Downey Jr., Patricia Clarkson, Tate Donovan, Matt Ross, Tom McCarthy, Grant Heslov (who also co-wrote the tack-sharp script with Clooney), Robert John Burke, Ray Wise, Robert Knepper, the always awesome Reed Diamond, and Frank Langella. Cinematographers must jump at the chance to shoot in black and white (or have their images digitally converted to the format), and Robert Elswit’s gloriously beautiful work in the monochromatic style is beyond shimmery and old-school-wonderful to take in. The film recounts the period in which Senator Joseph McCarthy began his absurd quest to expose Communists in America, while CBS News icon Edward R. Murrow (the elegant Strathairn in the performance of a lifetime) dedicated himself to highlighting the indecencies being perpetrated by McCarthy’s crooked Senate “investigation.” Clooney’s film discussed morals and ethics, both on the journalistic and human side of life, and by shooting in black and white, Elswit was able to convey simple truths of good vs. evil, and correct vs. wrong. The smoky atmosphere made up of the constant sight of lit cigarettes added ambience and texture to the old-fashioned yet still slightly heightened pictorial quality. There’s an intimacy to the images in this film, with the 1.85:1 aspect ratio used smartly and efficiently; Elswit always understands the importance of utilizing the space within the frame regardless of how wide he shoots any given film. The agile and varied aesthetics in Good Night, And Good Luck perfectly mixed with the smoky and shadowy black-and-white lensing, and when combined with the vintage 16mm news material which showcased McCarthy and other real life members from this exciting chapter of American History, a sense of almost surreal verisimilitude is achieved. And as usual, when a production looks and feels as realistic as this one did (the TV-set detail and period appropriate studio/camera equipment is remarkable) it’s that much easier for the filmmakers to create a distinct and believable visual atmosphere. It’s no surprise that Elswit was nominated for an Oscar for this evocative piece of work, while the film in general was bestowed with six Academy Award Nominations, including nods for Best Picture (Heslov), Best Director (Clooney), Best Actor (Strathairn), Best Screenplay (Clooney and Heslov), and Best Art Direction (James D. Bissell and Jan Pascale). Top to bottom, from first frame to final shot, this is a terrific piece of storytelling and moviemaking.
Incisive writing. Sharp performances. Astute direction. Todd Field REALLY needs to work more, because between Little Children and In the Bedroom, the guy has demonstrated serious filmmaking and storytelling chops. He also gets MASSIVE POINTS for portraying the mysterious piano player in Eyes Wide Shut. Patrick Wilson is one of the most underrated actors out there and he’s dynamite in this movie. Kate Winslet, as always, is terrific, and Jennifer Connelly is her typically moody and gorgeous and dramatic self, all furrowed brows and emotionally fragile beyond belief. But it’s Jackie Earle Haley who completely steals the show. His heartbreaking portrayal of a man struggling with intense inner demons was a rich characterization that hit lots of multilayered notes of sadness, and the way he used his expressive eyes to convey his mental anguish was nothing shot of extraordinary. The scene at the pool is an all-time classic of suburban satire, shot and acted as if it were the set-piece of a horror film, but saying so much about society that the moment becomes two-fold in its meaning. Noah Emmerich has yet another memorable supporting role; how many times has this guy spiced up a movie?! The cinematography by Antonio Calvache is slick and precise and designed with an almost Kurbickian level of attention to detail, and there’s an Incredibly effective score from Thomas Newman. This is yet another filmed adaptation based on the novelistic work of Tom Perotta (Election, The Leftovers), and here, Perotta received an Oscar nomination along with Field for their writing duties. And the dryly humorous voice-over that narrates the film was an added bonus; this aspect of the film, while contentious with some, is what separates it from others in this well-traveled milieu of white picket-fence satire. Little Children fits snugly in the realm of “diseased suburbia Connecticut movies,” where the seemingly all-American and successful family unit is placed under an intense microscope, resulting in all manner of scrutiny. Husbands and wives are having affairs, there’s a potentially reformed pederast living down the street, and the façade of the perfect life is shattered via the daily rituals that all of the characters pretend to be living up too. Field is an incredibly literate filmmaker, mixing dark comedy with biting social commentary, resulting in a work that feels like a poison-pen letter to the ideas and notions of perfect domestic bliss and harmony.
Lethal, cold, smart, and totally gripping, Sydney Pollack’s classic spy film Three Days of the Condor is a top-class genre entry, benefitting from its post-Watergate, paranoia induced atmosphere, with a charismatic star turn by Robert Redford as CIA codebreaker Joe Turner, an unassuming worker-bee who comes to the office one morning and finds all of his co-workers executed. Totally alarmed by the situation, Turner flees the scene, and reports the incident to his duplicitous bosses, who then set a menacing hitman, played by the legendary Max von Sydow in a silently ruthless bit of acting, to dispatch of him. Who, if anyone, can Turner trust, and will it be possible to escape the nefarious clutches of crooked government agents? Lorenzo Semple Jr. and David Rayfiel’s lean and graceful screenplay cut away any sense of narrative fat in favor of forward moving plotting with credible dialogue and exciting bursts of violent action. The supporting cast, including a gorgeous Faye Dunaway, Cliff Robertson, Addison Powell, and John Houseman, all provided excellent counterpoints to Redford’s leading-man heroics, which never end up going over the top, which keeps the film relatively grounded for the genre. Dave Grusin’s moody score provided an ominous tone right from the start, and as usual, Owen Roizman’s crisp and clean cinematography exerted a clarity and visceral force that kept everything in the moment and tension-filled, while Don Guidice’s expert editing made terrific use of jump-cutting, while also demonstrating a clear understanding of how long to keep any given scene going; this film feels needle-point precise. This is a film that has aged like a fine wine, and one that’s always worth a revisit.
Unnerving. Unforeseeable. Unforgettable. Writer/director Dan Gilroy’s thrillingly caustic media satire Nightcrawler shows some seriously vicious teeth, taking you on a dark and twisted trip through nocturnal Los Angeles, all shot in 2.35:1 Mann/Refn-vision by the obscenely talented Robert Elswit, with James Newton Howard’s moody synth-dominated score pounding away in the background. Jake Gyllenhaal is utterly brilliant as Lou Bloom, a diseased creature of the night, appearing in virtually every scene, totally live-wire, spewing rapid fire dialogue with sociopathic glee. Shades of Travis Bickle abound in his portrayal of a freelance videographer hustling from crime scene to crime scene trying to sell his gruesome and exploitive footage to the highest buyer. This is the best performance of Gyllenhaal’s career so far, and over the past few years, he seems incapable of not being thoroughly excellent in whatever he appears in (Brothers, Source Code, End of Watch, Prisoners, Enemy, Everest; still need to see Southpaw). It’s great to see Renee Russo in a substantial role again, as she brings sass and class to her role as a beleaguered news producer. She gets to cut a nasty portrait of what it might be like to run a struggling local news station in the big-city that’s fighting for a piece of the ever-competitive ratings pie. Original movies from a single voice seem less and less common these days, and as Nightcrawler races through its propulsive and lurid narrative, you begin to realize that you’re watching something that’s playing by its own sick and cynical set of rules, unafraid to peek at the nastiness that’s running through our cities, news outlets, and members of society. This is an instant classic that defies expectations, and a film that’s gotten richer and richer on repeated viewings. Hopefully Gilroy has a new project on the horizon sooner than later…