PTS Presents CINEMATOGRAPHER’S CORNER with RUSS ALSOBROOK

ALSOBROOK POWERCAST

L14A1406Podcasting Them Softly is extremely proud to present a chat with director of photography Russ Alsobrook.  Russ is one of the go-to-guys for studio comedies, having shot such films as last summer’s box office hit Tammy, David Wain’s Role Models, and Superbad and Forgetting Sarah Marshall for producer Judd Apatow. He’s also forged a close partnership with writer/director/actor Mike Binder, collaborating with him on the Hollywood satire Man About Town, the fantastic and deeply underrated post 9/11 drama Reign Over Me, and last year’s thoughtful and provocative Kevin Costner drama Black or White. He’s also a force on the small screen, having shot 98 episodes of the smash hit comedy The New Girl starring Zooey Deschanel, as well as directing some episodes of that charming program. Other TV credits include work on Big Love, The Mind of the Married Man, Freaks and Geeks, Undeclared, and The Ben Stiller Show. He’s a unique talent in the sense that he’s shot some really big, comedy centered narratives but can also respond to dramatic material just as strongly, always with sharp, stylish instincts. We hope you enjoy our exciting chat!

LEE TOLAND KRIEGER’S THE AGE OF ADALINE — A REVIEW BY NICK CLEMENT

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Lee Toland Krieger’s The Age of Adaline is gorgeous looking nonsense, a sentimental and effective sci-fi romance that is entertaining in the moment, and gone the next. Shot in Fincher-vision with lots of piss-yellows and varying shades of brown and black, the film is eye-candy to the extreme, with beautiful and evocative production design by Claude Paré, and a terrific sense of how to fully utilize the 2.35:1 frame by cinematographer David Lanzenberg, who also photographed the exceedingly stylish thriller The Signal. The kooky story, which is narrated by Hugh Ross(!), involves a car accident and lightning strike that somehow prevents the well-dressed and extremely attractive Blake Lively from ever aging. So she spends the decades mostly alone, births a daughter, and never allows herself to fall in love (well, only a couple of times…). Throughout the years, she’s forced to repeatedly move in an effort to keep her strange secret hidden from anyone who she comes into contact with, only allowing the information to pass to her only child, played as a grown up by Ellen Burstyn. Harrison Ford has some strong scenes as one of her old romantic entanglements as he crosses paths with her 40 years later in a wonderful bit of contrived scripting. But to complain about the artificiality of this movie is pointless; it’s built on a massive suspension of disbelief that you have to accept right from the start. It’s a nice film, nothing spectacular by any means, but surprising in its level of artistic elegance and attention to visual detail.

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RAMIN BAHRANI’S GOODBYE SOLO — A REVIEW BY NICK CLEMENT

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Ramin Bahrani’s Goodbye Solo is a quietly powerful film with two absolutely astonishing performances from its leads. Bahrani, who also directed the excellent Chop Shop, Man Push Cart, and the underrated At Any Price, currently has a new film out in limited release called 99 Homes, which centers on the financial crisis and home mortgage disaster of 2008. He’s interested in social commentary and human-scaled dramas which can thematically speak to anyone, a naturalist filmmaker with a style similar to Kelly Reichardt (Old Joy, Meek’s Cutoff, Wendy and Lucy, Night Moves), utilizing a deliberately slow pace, simple but effective camera set ups, limited artificial musical score, a noticeable lack of showy lighting techniques, all in an effort to achieve slow-burn and honest to the core dramatics. Goodbye Solo is about a North Carolina cab driver named Solo (the amazing Souleymane Sy Savane), a Senegalese immigrant, whose girlfriend is about to have a baby. One day, an old, sad looking man named William (Red West, incredible) gets in his cab and makes him an ominous offer: In one week, for $1000 cash, Solo will drive William to the highest point at a nearby mountain range, drop him off, and never look back. What develops over that week is an unlikely but exceptionally moving friendship between the two vastly different men. Bahrani’s emotionally taxing screenplay gives West and Savane some powerful scenes to play off of each other, with a finale that is perfectly understated but deeply felt. I was taken back by the honest and natural performances of both West and Savane, and probably because I wasn’t familiar with them before seeing the film, I was able to become invested in a way that might not have occurred had more baggage-laden talent been given the two roles. West is a guy who has been doing bit parts in movies for years (his personal story is fascinating…do a google search…) and he’s got one of those made-for-the-cinema faces that dispenses with back-story without the necessity for words. It’s a face that’s seen too much throughout the years, and because of West’s grizzled look and feel, he brings a level of intensity to William that remains present throughout the entire picture. Savane is the perfect antidote to West’s hardness; Solo could give Happy-Go-Lucky’s Poppy Montgomery a run for her money in the eternally optimistic sweepstakes. Always trying to help, always thinking with his heart (when sometimes he should be thinking more with his head), Solo is determined not to let William do himself in, even if it means sacrificing things that he holds dear. Bahrani was hailed by the late Roger Ebert as “America’s next great filmmaker” and it’s not hard to see why. He’s been making important, under the radar work for years now, and it’s time that he gets the full-on attention he deserves. If you’re not familiar with his work, I urge you to get acquainted. Goodbye Solo is a great film, one that will make you think long after you’ve finished watching.

BALTASAR KORMAKUR’S EVEREST — A REVIEW BY NICK CLEMENT

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Other than the various physical locations on display during Baltasar Kormákur’s matter-of-fact mountain climbing film Everest, the star of the show is ace cinematographer Salvatore Totino, who clearly went to huge lengths to accurately portray the harrowing conditions that the various individuals faced during that infamous summit of the world’s tallest mountain. Every single shot in this film feels authentic, if there was any CGI used its seamless, and there are some sequences that defy understanding, as it truly seemed that people’s lives were in jeopardy. You also get some vistas of overwhelming beauty, with Everest’s sense of scale never lost on the viewer; this film feels epic in scope yet intimate in the fine details. We’ve seen over the top action films set on a mountain (Vertical Limit) and there have been some great docudramas (K2 and Touching the Void come to mind), but in Everest, the verisimilitude becomes one of the key selling points, with the audience never taken out of the picture due to hokey staging or poorly constructed moments of adventure. Totino’s visceral camerawork covers the action with a great sense of danger and exhaustion, never betraying spatial geography in order to get “a money shot,” always allowing for the natural beauty of the images to take center stage over camera tricks or a generally over-stylized aesthetic. The helicopter rescue sequence towards the end is riveting, with more than one instance of “how is this being done” running through my head while watching, and the last shot of the film has a poetically haunting quality that feels very resonant in light of all that has come before it. Totino’s work is Oscar-caliber, and my hope is that his smart and incredibly composed work gets the attention it deserves.

It’s a miracle that anyone survived at all, and the film certainly reinforces the notion that the will to live is buried deep within all of us, and when put to the test, we’ll do just about as much as we can in order to keep breathing for another day. But hey, when you reach the roof of the earth, you’re bound to face some challenges, if not stare death itself directly in the face. The fact that many climbers lost their life during this particular ascent is no surprise; the details of this story were first outlined in Jon Krakauer’s bestselling novel Into Thin Air. Kormákur and his screenwriters, William Nicholson and Simon Beaufoy, effectively set the stage during the brisk first act in a very traditional fashion, as we get to know the various people who have decided to pay a small fortune to risk their lives. The cast is led by an excellent Jason Clarke, one of the various group leaders who made it their job to bring people all the way to the top of whatever mountain they were scaling, but who prided himself in always bringing people safely back down. Death hangs over this film, as it does in so many man vs. nature survival dramas, and its inescapability can sometimes feel suffocating and overly sentimental. Not here. Kormákur doesn’t over-play the sudden moments where people meet their fate; they’re simply here one minute and gone the next. Yes, you get scenes were loved ones make their final phone calls, but from what I’ve read, all of this occurred in real life, making these sequences all the more emotionally accessible and relatable. Keira Knightley destroys her one “big” scene, eliciting tears because of how honest the entire moment feels, and because you know that she’s trying her hardest to be strong in the face of all but certain tragedy. Jake Gyllenhaal, Josh Brolin, John Hawkes, Emily Watson, and Robin Wright are all terrific in their supporting roles, but it’s Sam Worthington who really surprises during the final act, becoming the film’s heart and soul, handling his scenes with a direct emotional intensity that keeps the film from ever becoming maudlin. Everest gets the job done with class and respect.

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Episode 17: Quentin Tarantino’s JACKIE BROWN with guest PAUL RAI

EPISODE 17

We were joined with Facebook friend Paul Rai to discuss Quentin Taratino’s masterpiece JACKIE BROWN and Tarantino’s work in general.  It’s been a while since we’ve done a a regular podcast!  Enjoy!

NOEL MARSHALL’S ROAR — A REVIEW BY NICK CLEMENT

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For me, the primary job of any movie is to show me something I’ve never seen and to take me to a place that I’ve never been. Well, I’ve never been to Africa, and I’ve never been surrounded by 150 lions, tigers, cheetahs, jaguars, panthers, and elephants. So you’ll have to excuse me when I say that Noel Marshall’s berserk, perverse, masochistic, fascinating, totally nuts wildlife “film” Roar is unbelievable. And I should also mention that I’m a life-long cat lover; big, small, wild, domesticated – it’s a species of animal that I’ve been intrigued with ever since childhood, and there isn’t a day that goes by where I’m not thankful to have my own little buddy, Gus, who is now looked upon differently after my obsession with this film started earlier this year. You literally feel like an outlaw while watching Roar, which has got to be the single most irresponsible piece of filmmaking that I’ve ever seen. Upon first viewing, you essentially hold your breath for 90 minutes, waiting the other paw to drop. Outside of Grizzly Man, I’m not sure that I’ve ever seen mental lunacy of this nature before captured on film. It’s a miracle that nobody was killed, but cinematographer Jan De Bont was scalped, and numerous members of the cast and crew suffered injuries, so there’s that I guess. And let me just say something about the camerawork in this movie – it’s wholly ASTOUNDING. I don’t understand how this movie was achieved. One bit. It makes no realistic sense. How De Bont was able to gather the shots he did I’ll never understand. Why anyone showed up on day #2 I’ll never understand. All I know is that you feel like a criminal while viewing this wild piece of work.

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The entire thing is truly staggering in retrospect. If you’re not familiar with the premise of this movie, it seems that actress Tippi Hedren and her late husband Noel Marshall became big-cat enthusiasts after an African safari vacation back in the late 70’s. Upon returning to their Sherman Oaks estate, they started introducing lions and tigers and other exotic cats into their home life, allowing daughter Melanie Griffith to sleep with the animals, while their sons, John and Jerry, also became “friendly” with the beasts. It was customary to see a maid stepping over a fully grown male lion in the kitchen. PURE MADNESS. Marshall then had a genius if potentially deadly idea – why not make a movie that aims to highlight the plight of the wild cat, but also make a “monster” movie at the same time. So, he gathered an unhinged crew of daredevils, stuck Hedren, Griffith, his sons, and a few others into the scenery, and concocted an asinine narrative that centers on a wildlife preservationist (Marshall) bringing his wife and children (Hedren and the gang) into the jungle to visit him, only to have them terrorized by a gang of lions and tigers who proceed to trash and destroy the wooden house that they all “live” in. If what I’m describing sounds fairly psychotic, well, it is. And I don’t want to ruin any of the numerous surprises that this film has, but I will say that the sight of Hedren’s face covered in honey as a young jaguar licks it clean is something I’ll not soon forget. You can smell the fear on all of the “actors” in this film – the honest look of terror in their eyes is palpable, and despite everyone going on the record as saying that they “knew” these animals and that they were “comfortable” with them in the grand scheme of things, suggests an insane amount of hubris or a genuine, bonded relationship between human and animal that is simply extraordinary to ponder.

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At the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter though. This movie got made (over the course of 11 years!), people went on to have prosperous careers (look at De Bont’s credits as both cinematographer and director!), and now the film is finding a second life as an oddball cult curiosity, with Special Edition Blu-ray dropping in November. I can guarantee you this – you’ve never seen anything like this movie, unless of course you were there to witness it being created in real time, or if you’ve tracked down a bootleg or the non-anamorphic DVD that’s floating around. It’s sensationally scary and almost too impractical to make sense of. Roar makes you feel like you’ve dropped acid when you absolutely know you haven’t been dosed. It’s a strangely personal piece of filmmaking that while shoddily directed (at times), is still somehow oddly coherent, a $17 million home movie that became a clear point of obsession for its makers. The unintended comedy of the mostly looped spoken dialogue only adds to the bizarre hilarity of the entire piece. Also of note: included on the straight-from-the-source-DVD that can be purchased on line is a vintage “making-of” featurette which includes some talking-head footage from “friend of the family” Richard Rush, sitting in this absurdly ostentatious living room, looking like Jack Horner’s older brother. It’s gold.

JAMES MARSH’S MAN ON WIRE — A REVIEW BY NICK CLEMENT

 

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James Marsh’s spellbinding documentary Man on Wire is the sort of film that leaves you feeling queasy, enthralled, and alive. Queasy because of the physical insanity demonstrated by Philippe Petit. Enthralled because of how daring Petit was to do what he did. Alive because the film acts as a celebration of life. Petit, for those of you not in the know, pulled off what some people consider to be the “artistic crime of the century.” In 1974, along with a group of friends, he attached a wire from one World Trade Center building to the other, and tight-rope walked back and forth between the two buildings. Eight times. Over the course of 45 minutes. In this staggering documentary, which was expertly constructed by Marsh like a first-rate Hollywood thriller, the viewer is treated to video footage of Petit doing numerous other tight-rope walks (in Paris, London, Sydney) and practicing for his endeavor in NYC. Some may think that Petit is ill, a man with a certain death wish. Some may think he’s simply eccentric, a guy in love with life, unafraid of the fatal consequences that his obsession carries. And who knows, all of those scenarios could be true. It’s sort of baffling to me that Werner Herzog, the wild-man filmmaker that he is, didn’t get the rights to this story, as Petit feels as Herzogian of a character as there could ever be. In its own quietly moving way, Man on Wire becomes something extremely special: A testament to the power of one’s faith in themselves and the people around them, and how the most challenging of ideas can be realized if you have the drive and passion to accomplish it. Petit, who is considered to be one the first widely-known and publicly accepted modern street performers in Paris (he juggled, danced, tight-rope walked), is such a distinct character, that everyone else around him, no matter how interesting they are in their own respects, pales in comparison. During the course of the film, we’re introduced to all of his friends and accomplices, who divulge information about their scheme and about Petit in general. Jaw-dropping footage of his other tight-rope walks are shown throughout the film, with footage from a high-wire walk in Sydney being the most insane.

Petit didn’t just walk on the wire – he would lay down on it, bounce on it, even dance on it. When he devised his plan for walking in between the World Trade Center buildings, he knew it’d be the crowning achievement of his career. The way that Marsh amps up the tension using his framing device for the film is extremely clever, very stylish, and eerily subversive, as the film takes the form of a terrorist thriller. You see Petit and his men infiltrate the World Trade Center, wearing fake disguises and showing phony paperwork to gain access to the roof. Of course, after the world altering events of 9/11, this story takes on even greater significance, and there is a mournful quality to much of the footage we see of the World Trade Center being built. It will be impossible for us to look at photos and footage of the World Trade Center without thinking of 9/11, something that Marsh knew full well before setting out to craft this engrossing documentary. And because none of it is ever exploitive, Marsh brings out a soulful quality of New York that’s hard to describe in words. However, I wish Marsh had asked Petit about how 9/11 affected him, because it’s clear from the film that Petit was in love with NYC and the World Trade Center, and not to mention having a profound and lasting impact on his life. Maybe some questions are best left unasked? My only complaint is that nobody, for whatever reason, decided to film Petit’s walk across the World Trade Center. They snapped lots of still photos, but why weren’t they filming it like they filmed his other death-defying acts? In the end, what I loved so much about this film, and about Petit in general, is that this was a project that Marsh felt compelled to make, much in the same way that Petit just HAD to attempt what he did in NYC. He thought that the World Trade Center had been built so that he could walk in between them.

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