TERRY GILLIAM’S FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS — A REVIEW BY NICK CLEMENT

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A landmark of cinematic excess and a monument to extreme personal waste. What begins as a festival of bad behavior rapidly becomes a volatile carnival of wild transgressions by its conclusion. An ode to the beast within. Chaotic, loud, obnoxious, and utterly unhinged, the film adaptation of the iconic novel Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas is Terry Gilliam on two bags of grass, 75 pellets of mescaline, five sheets of high-powered blotter acid, with a half a salt shaker of cocaine on the side, and some other goodies lined up and ready to pummel the senses. Aggressive doesn’t begin to cover this masterful piece of work – it forcefully shoves your face into a kaleidoscopic realm of drug-fueled hyper-insanity, all beautifully stitched together by Hunter Thompson’s indelible prose and the gonzo filmmaking energy of Gilliam and every single one of his collaborators. The obscenely gifted (and one-eyed) cinematographer Nicola Pecorini should have won every award back in the day for his work on this aesthetically ground-breaking piece of cinema. Scene after scene, shot after shot, one is left with a buzzing sensation in their eyes, as the restless camera never stops prowling, swerving, or gliding, producing waves of cinematic euphoria that have rarely been achieved. Few other narrative films have shown the LSD experience for what it truly can be (James Toback’s Harvard Man has an EXCEPTIONAL trip-out sequence as does Larry Clark’s Bully and Gaspar Noe’s Enter the Void – DMT in that one…) and you can tell that Gilliam was eager to explore how he could visually convey the monumental bingeing and drugging that Dr. Gonzo and his Lawyer would embark upon. Johnny Depp and Benicio Del Toro give career-topping performances, never once not feeling 110% committed to the maximum absurdity unfolding all around them. Depp studied Thompson’s mannerisms for months before shooting and the effect that their personal relationship had on his performance can be intrinsically felt at all times. Del Toro had to go off of stories and memories for his bit of methodically uncontrolled madness as Thompson’s animalistic partner in crime, and everything he brought to this film – the fat stomach, the out of control hair, the demonic glint in his eye – added up to creating a truly gluttonous monster of a man. I can remember buying a ticket for this film, back in high school, on the Sunday of its opening weekend, and the cashier remarking incredulously: “Are you sure?! We’ve had a lot of walkouts and angry people…” Seriously, only a fool would go into this movie blind; I hope that the people who bolted early were so shocked and appalled by what they’d seen that they’ll never forget it for the rest of their lives. This isn’t a movie for everyone; in fact, I’d say that there’s a limited audience for this film and other works like it — you need to WANT to be surrounded by drunk and high people for an extended period of time, so as a result, the asinine levels of drug and alcohol fueled debauchery that occur will be a turn off to many, many people. I’ve long been fascinated with Thompson and Gilliam as artists, and this project seemed like a natural fit for Gilliam to tackle considering his anarchic view on life, and how Thompson’s original text sought to challenge every single notion of what everyone felt was normal and acceptable. This is top 10 material of all time for me, a movie I could watch every single day of my life, and it’s something I’ll never grow tired of exploring, debating, and obsessing over.

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SEAN MULLIN’S AMIRA & SAM — A REVIEW BY NICK CLEMENT

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Sean Mullin’s sweet yet cuttingly cynical romantic dramedy Amira and Sam hits all the right notes. I love that this film went with its heart in the final act. Martin Starr kills it here – if you’re a fan of his deadpan comedy stylings from HBO’s Silicon Valley then you owe it to yourself to see him all cleaned up and looking crisp in this funny, touching, sad, and finally hopeful little gem that knows exactly what to do during its 85 minute run time. The story hinges on Sam (Starr), an Iraq war veteran who by chance meets Amira (Dina Shihabi), the beautiful niece of his wartime translator who has relocated to New York. Through a series of potentially life altering circumstances, Sam is asked to hide Amira after a run in with the NYPD, while an unexpected romance blossoms between the two lost souls. Their “meet-cute” is wonderful, the chemistry that Starr has with Shihabi is palpable, playful, and sexy, and I loved how Mullin threw in pointed jabs about the messed up immigration system that continually plagues America. Feeling like a cousin in some respects to Tom McCarthy’s The Visitor, this is a film that operates on a few levels, with comedy masking some rather upsetting notions of estrangement, and while what happens in the final moments might strike some as unlikely, I believed it because of how well defined the central relationship was and because Mullin clearly has an affinity for his characters (he also wrote the original screenplay, which seemingly feels based on some of his life experiences to go off the Wikipedia page). Paul Wesley (perfectly prickish), Laith Nakli (perfectly pensive) and David Rasche (perfectly to the point) all do strong supporting work. This is one of those small, under the radar gems that deserves to find an audience!

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Martin Scorsese’s GANGS OF NEW YORK – A Review by Frank Mengarelli

With Daniel Day-Lewis, Leonardo DiCaprio, Cameron Diaz, John C. Reilly, Henry Thomas, Gary Lewis with Jim Broadbent, Brendan Gleeson and Liam Neeson.

“You see this fucking knife? I’m going to teach you how to speak English with this fucking knife.”

Bill “the Butcher” Cutting (Daniel Day-Lewis).

I need to get this off my chest now. Cameron Diaz is not very good in this film, and I strongly feel Leonardo DiCaprio is miscast and I don’t know what Scorsese was thinking by casting Henry Thomas. Phew…I feel better now. That being said, GANGS OF NEW YORK is Martin Scorsese’s seminal masterpiece.

The film starts out bold snf fierce, blood is sprayed all over the streets. Priest Vallon (Liam Neeson) is preparing his men for an epic battle against the Confederation of American Natives which is led by Bill “the Butcher” Cutting (Daniel Day-Lewis) to see who controls the Five Points for good and all. Vallon and his men mount inside a rundown church, and meet outside in the Five Points (where all major roads meet to a town square). They stand outside in the dead of winter and stand idle – waiting for hell to unleash.

Men with top hats and blue sashes begin to slither out of buildings, and stand on the other side of the square. This is where we see Cutting, glass eye and all. What unleashes is a brutally violent battle. The battle sequence is one of the best filmed, being slowed down to 12 frames per second and queued up to Peter Gabriel’s ambient and eerie sounding SIGNAL TO NOISE.

Men are screaming, ripping each others cheeks apart, and stabbing each other with dull and rusty blades. It’s a chaotic scene but our focus begins to turn to Cutting who is weaving through the crowd, blood lust is in his eye and his sights are set on Vallon. Cutting takes no prisoners; killing his own men who stand in his way just to get to Vallon.

He gets to Vallon and stabs him in the side, then in the stomach. The Priest falls and the battle is over. All the men halt. A young Amsterdam Vallon (played as an adult by DiCaprio) is taken to an orphanage and is to be sure to get “a good education” scowls Cutting.

Time passes and Amsterdam is then let out as an adult. He returns to the Five Points with a mission of revenge. He is slowly taken under the wing of Cutting and Amsterdam gets as close to him as possible so he can avenge the death of his father.

This is an extremely flawed film; I’ll be the first to admit that. There are a lot of things very wrong with it. I have always said that Colin Farrell would have been absolutely PERFECT as Amsterdam. My belief is that since Scorsese had been trying to make this film for decades, the studio would only green light the film if he had star appeal. As much of a great actor Day-Lewis is – he’s not a box office draw (at that point in time for the masses), so DiCaprio and Diaz were forced into the film for their box office appeal. But to be positive, this film did start a wonderful collaboration between Scorsese and DiCaprio. I don’t think for a second the collaboration is anywhere near as good as Scorsese/De Niro or Scorsese/Keitel.

DiCaprio just doesn’t work for me.  But I can accept him in this film.  Every scene he shares with Day-Lewis he’s completely overshadowed. The character that Diaz plays is a thief that has a special relationship with Cutting – so she’s given free rein and doesn’t owe him “tribute” – just sex.

The character of Jenny should have been turned into an older “street woman” and played by Jodie Foster. She could still have that relationship with Cutting, and also allow Amsterdam’s fixation with her as well – creating the jealously trap that happens. I think it would have added more maturity and weight to the film.

This is Day-Lewis’ film hands down. He carries the entire film on his back with the help of Neeson, Gleeson and Reilly (hey – remember when he used to be a dramatic actor?). The attention he commands from you is unreal. I’ve never seen an actor be able to do this with every single film he’s in. The guy is a fucking titan of cinema.

This is the film that combines all of Scorsese’s passions, everything he’s built his career on. It’s a period piece epic, it’s an antiwar film (the Civil War draft directly reflecting Vietnam), the setting is New York City (which Scorsese loves more than anything) and it’s about the birth of organized crime – or the mob if you will. The film is an ensemble film, which Scorsese is wonderful at crafting. This is an extremely personal film for Scorsese – as personal as MEAN STREETS or THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST. The guy had tried making this film since the 1970’s!

The production value is absolutely INSANE in this film.  No CGI, all sets that feels lived in and worn down.  From the opening scene in the church, where there is nothing but chaos and dilapidation brewing in every corner of the frame, to the Five Points battle, to the unbelievable costume design.  This film misses zero marks when it comes to set/costume/production design.  Truly, a remarkable on every aspect of aesthetics.

This film is vintage Scorsese. I haven’t felt this in a Scorsese film since “Gangs”. His use of steady cam, tracking shots, and slow motion just reminds us that he is the greatest living director. When Diaz is introduced into the film, it’s in a slow motion sequence that’s queued up to music – much like Sharon Stone in “Casino” – Scorsese is a master of his craft and I will battle each and every one of you to the death over “Gangs of New York” being his masterpiece.

Daniel Day-Lewis’ performance is absolutely wonderful. My words can’t do his art justice. One of my dreams have always been to direct a film with Day-Lewis, but I can’t even imagine how intimidating such a thing would be. This is a guy who invests himself into his characters for the entire film. He’s not Daniel Day- Lewis, he’s Bill Cutting. He doesn’t speak with an English accent; he speaks with his thick New York-ish accent on and off the screen. Anyone who can’t admire his passion, admire his skill is a fool.

Review 10/10

MARTIN SCORSESE’S GANGS OF NEW YORK — A REVIEW BY NICK CLEMENT

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What else can possibly be said about Martin Scorsese’s towering masterpiece Gangs of New York that hasn’t been said already? Released as America was still healing and reeling from the events of 9/11, this was a forceful, absurdly large production that broke exciting new ground for Scorsese as an epic artist, and it marked the start of a fabulous run of films with Leo DiCaprio. Screw the naysayers or anyone who has a problem with Gangs of New York – the film is Scorsese’s ode to violence and to New York and it’s a staggering achievement from top to bottom. Should it be longer? Maybe. But always remember – Scorsese has said on record that no director’s cut will ever be released because the version that came out in theaters was his “director’s cut,” despite contentious battles with Harvey Scissorhands and the often rumored three plus hour work print cut that made the rounds to select journalists and Scorsese’s close friends. Is it messy in spots? You bet. But I like it messy. I like it chaotic and fucking insane and so filled with gory conflict that you never know where to turn. This is Maximalist Filmmaking from our Resident Master, and holy WOW I had forgotten how opulent and decadent everything was in this mostly unrivaled spectacle. The visceral force of every single scene is crushing, Daniel Day Lewis is on another stratosphere with his performance, and the rush of filmmaking energy that can be felt during those electric opening moments let you know that you’re going to be in for a helluva ride. Leo manned up here – I don’t want to hear it – he wasn’t miscast. He brought it all and left nothing out. The final sequence where he faces off against DDL is fierce and absurdly bloody (a literal river of red at one point) and so awesomely shot, cut, scored, and preformed you can’t help but giggle over all of it. Or maybe that’s just me. Dante Ferretti’s production design truly stands on its head; there’s rarely been a production built from the ground up that felt this real and lived-in and organically alive. The dense, incident packed screenplay from Steven Zaillian, Kenneth Lonnergan, and Jay Cocks is wonderfully dramatic, unexpectedly funny, and stuffed with so much detail both big and small that I’m finding that after at least five or six full viewings there’s stuff still to unlock. The last 30 minutes with the destruction of the Five Points is exhilarating – it’s smashingly violent cinematic spectacle for the ages. The scene with DDL draped in the American flag and telling Leo what life is all about – it’s the stuff of movie legend. The ballsy final shot of the NYC skyline with the Twin Towers standing triumphantly – that was Scorsese’s big “fuck you” to the scum that destroyed those monuments and it feels cut from the same artistic cloth as the closing moments of Steven Spielberg’s Munich. Everything about this movie just screams “I’m Better Than You” and I utterly love it. The cast is extraordinary, with Jim Broadbent owning every single scene he appears in as Boss Tweed, Liam Neeson having his bad-ass cameo, Henry Thomas as a sniveling little traitor, Brendan Gleeson as a man who at times can be a “touch indelicate,” and John C. Reilly as a morally corrupted police officer. Only Cameron Diaz feels out of place, though not as much as I’d previously remembered her being. Her Irish accent was bad, but as usual, she gave it her all, didn’t wimp out in any way, and brought a fierce sexuality that would remain mostly dormant until The Counselor. I’m a Diaz apologist as I’ve long been smitten, but I’ll agree that she’s the weak link in the cast overall. But it’s hardly anything that could sink the film, and it’s not like everyone wasn’t acted off the screen by Day Lewis either…he was the central force of the movie, the black heart and vile soul, and it’s a magnetic work of intensely modulated acting that relies on everything that an actor has at his or her disposal: Voice, eyes, body language, and the ability to convey emotion both through talking and through silence. Filmmaking rarely is this bold and exuberant when $100 million is at stake and it easily rests as one of Scorsese’s finest, most ambitious accomplishments. “That my friends, is the minority vote!”

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PTS Proudly Presents Special Guest MARK PELLINGTON

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We proudly present a podcast with special guest Mark Pellington.  Mark has an eclectic filmography spanning from the MTV music video generation where he directed Pearl Jam’s JEREMY, INXS BEAUTIFUL GIRL, and U2’s ONE among a few.  Mark’s feature film are startling reflective pieces of work including GOING ALL THE WAY,  ARLINGTON ROAD, THE MOTHMAN PROPHECIES, HENRY POOLE IS HERE and I MELT WITH YOU.   His latest work is a short musical film called LONE and NBC’s new show BLINDSPOT where Mark directed the pilot.

I MELT WITH YOU is available to stream on Netflix and Amazon Prime.

LONE is available to rent or purchase on iTunes, Amazon Instant Video, and Vudu.

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We would like to thank Mark for how gracious he was with his time, and it was an absolute pleasure to speak with him.  Please check out Mark’s personal website here.

 

MARK PELLINGTON’S ARLINGTON ROAD — A REVIEW BY NICK CLEMENT

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I’ve written about this brilliant film numerous times but that’s not going to stop me from doing it again. Simply put, Arlington Road is one of the most dynamic political thrillers ever made, a film that would never get produced and released in today’s current social landscape, and without question, it sits on the top shelf with other notable genre entries including Three Days of the Condor and The Parallax View. A true product of the late 90’s and partially born out of the Oklahoma City bombing which had occurred just four years prior, it’s one of the best films from the decade that really stuck to the devious twist ending (Fincher’s 90’s trio of Seven, The Game, and Fight Club all come to mind), and now that we all live in the ghost of 9/11, a film with as downbeat of an ending such as this one feels almost novel and antique, let alone remotely possible. The prevalence of the cinematic antihero took a backseat in the early 2000’s in the wake of the terrorist attack in NYC, but we’re starting to see a resurgence of that theme; Arlington Road feels like the work of prescient filmmakers who took real life events, looked at them for the root cause of their evil, and showcased a phenomenal two-hander between neighbors who are living on entirely separate ends of the political and mental spectrum. This is a film that still stings with a serious force, delivering an ending as diabolical, clever, and haunting as the final moments of Seven (yes…really!). Mark Pellington’s unnerving, nervy, visually arresting direction created a thriller that deserves serious reconsideration as a stellar example of a genre picture that transcends its root elements, especially given the last 15 years of worldwide social turmoil, violence, and unrest. Released in the summer of 1999, this was more of an October movie, and it was lost among the blockbusters of the season, despite some passionate critical notices and vocal support from ecstatic admirers. I can remember going to a test screening of this film, and sitting in the theater totally riveted, and then being positively blown away when the final scene unfolded and the credits began to run.

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Starring Jeff Bridges as a paranoid college professor who starts to suspect that his post-card-perfect neighbors are domestic terrorists (the chilling Tim Robbins and Joan Cusack as his ominous wife), Arlington Road has a zero-fat screenplay written with care and intelligence by Ehren Kruger, and was directed with pulse-quickening panache by Pellington, who also crafted the underrated chiller The Mothman Prophecies, the charming 50’s set drama Going All the Way, the quirky spiritual comedy Henry Poole Is Here, and the little seen but extraordinarily intense male weepie I Melt With You, which plays like a heightened version of the landmark 1970’s picture Husbands crossed with the early-80’s relic The Big Chill. He’s an eclectic filmmaker who stems from the music video world, someone who always has an interesting story to tell, and it’s a shame that he didn’t become more prolific after Arlington Road busted him out of the gate. And it’s just beyond shocking to think that Kruger, who exhibited so much promise with this amazingly calibrated screenplay which double backed on itself in the final reel (only inviting closer scrutiny), would then go on to churn out one piece of forgettable crap after another, with only a few exceptions (The Ring, The Skeleton Key). He’s been responsible for a literal roll-call of poorly structured movies with inane dialogue (The Transformers series, Reindeer Games, Impostor, The Ring 2, Blood & Chocolate, and The Brothers Grimm, which was barely salvaged from total train-wreck status by director Terry Gilliam and his usual brand of visual lunacy), ultimately becoming the ultimate paycheck whore. And while that’s good for him and his bank account, it’s robbed him of any sense of class or dignity. And it’s head-scratching because only an individual with clear talent could have devised a script as scary and as smart as Arlington Road.

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The explosive opening moments with Bridges trying to help an unknown child who has had their hand blown off in an unseen accident are the stuff of genuine nightmares, and the way that Kruger kept piling on the surprises and twisting the screws within the narrative all the way until the end literally makes this an edge of your seat thriller, especially for the uninitiated. The opening credits are very stylish, casually evoking the trendsetting title sequence of Seven (also designed by Kyle Cooper), but still being its own thing, with tomandandy and Angelo Badalamenti’s creepy score immediately setting the mood. Bobby Bukowski’s crisply composed and tightly coiled 2.35:1 widescreen cinematography makes great use of open space in some instances, and then gets up close and personal when the situation calls for it, and in tandem with Conrad Buff’s razor-sharp editing, Arlington Road hurtles through a series of increasingly sketchy events all the way up to a tragic and devastating conclusion. Cusack and Hope Davis share a now famous telephone booth scene that’s still creepy to this day, and the way that Pellington, Kruger, and everyone involved at the studio level didn’t wimp out during the final act when push came to shove still has to be applauded. And the idea that Jeff Bridges delivered this sweaty, unhinged, emotionally distressed performance directly after his legendary, stonerific work in The Big Lebowski is a further testament to his unending talent. And to think – he’d go on a year later to play the coolest President of the United States in Rod Lurie’s underrated and fantastic The Contender! He’s one of our great acting talents, capable of anything, always ready to surprise.

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Now – FULL SPOILER WARNING – it’s almost inconceivable to think that studios and audiences would be down for the finale that Arlington Road presents these days. In one of the greatest bits of pull-the-rug out-from-underneath-you madness, the film ends with Robbins’s domestic terror attack actually succeeding, and not only is it a triumph, but the otherwise heroic Bridges becomes named as the chief architect of the entire plan, showing how Robbins had been playing and courting Bridges the entire time, turning him into an unwilling and unwitting accomplice. Yes, a lot of stuff has to happen during the final act for all of the pieces of the puzzle to come together the way the filmmakers want them too, but who cares – this is a movie, a fiendishly constructed one, and something with this sort of audacity has to be complemented. I love movies like this and The Game and Stay and Running Scared and Unbreakable and Fight Club and The Prestige, films that have one final tick up their sleeve at the end that puts everything into fresh perspective (sometimes multiple perspectives) and leaves you with that special feeling of having your mind shattered in all the ways made possible by great cinema. And then, to add insult to injury, not only is Bridges a national disgrace in his death, but his son is shuttled off to “live with relatives,” without the knowledge of anything that his father tried to do to stop the explosion from happening. Throughout the years, the climax of Arlington Road has been the subject of endless debate, with some being positively infuriated over the idea of the bad guy winning (and thoroughly destroying his opponent!) while others have embraced the unsettling implications of the plot and the notion that sometimes, evil does find a way of succeeding. It feels unlikely that a big-star project like this one could get made in today’s hypersensitive climate, especially in light of the failure of something like the ultra-nihilistic The Counselor; only an independent production could pull this sort of thing off nowadays. Arlington Road has integrity and a confidence that backs up its twisty and twisted narrative, so that when all of the pieces to the complex puzzle arrive, not only does everything fit, you don’t feel cheated, but rather, exhilarated.

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