Talking Movies

June 8, 2013

Behind the Candelabra

Steven Soderbergh’s final ‘final’ film as a movie director is a fitting send-off for one of the most interesting talents of the past quarter century.

Behind-the-candelabra

Young Hollywood animal-handler Scott Thorson (Matt Damon) picks up Bob Black (Scott Bakula) in a gay bar in 1977 to the strains of Donna Summer, but soon finds himself in another world entirely – a Las Vegas Liberace concert, where he’s invited backstage to meet Bob’s former lover; whose friends call him ‘Lee’ (Michael Douglas). His concern for Liberace’s ailing poodle leads to a job offer, and soon Scott’s dreams of becoming a vet have been replaced by the reality of living privately as Lee’s boyfriend and publicly as his PA. But as power-tripping plastic surgery and mountains of cocaine warp their relationship in the 1980s Scott is in danger of being replaced by a younger model, just as an increasingly libidinous Liberace needs his guidance more than ever if he’s not to commit career suicide falling out of the closet.

Soderbergh combines here the intimacy of his early work, with the tinted stylishness of his middle period, and the long takes of his latter days. This is in service to the best script that Richard LaGravanese has penned in decades, which drips caustic putdowns; including a spectacular phone insult by Liberace’s domineering manager Seymour Heller (Dan Aykroyd). Michael Douglas had some great scenes in Wall Street 2, but this is best sustained performance he’s given in 13 years. Damon is inescapably too old for the role and so distorts the historical reality of the relationship’s beginning, but he is remarkably without vanity in donning his fake nose from Ocean’s 13 again as Scott is literally moulded by Lee. Damon’s character arc though loses momentum as it descends into cliché and a padded finale that sacrifices momentum to a completist instinct.

Soderbergh is commendably nasty in showing the ‘vanity gone mad to unconvincing effect’ horrors of plastic surgery in practice on both of the lead characters. And that’s before we get to Rob Lowe’s hysterically funny plastic surgeon Dr Starz whose eyes don’t seem to quite fully open anymore after a facelift, and who seems barely conscious at times as he pushes the pills of his ‘California diet’ to his equally blissed-out patients. The make-up effects for Lee, Scott and Starz are jaw-droppingly good, especially a stunning reveal at the close, and complement the dazzling costumes and interior bling of Liberace’s Vegas decadence. But at times Soderbergh’s film resembles such superficial glitter without any explicated substance, especially in Lee’s apparently devoted relationship to his Polish mother Frances (Debbie Reynolds) who passed on her devout Catholicism to him; which he somehow retains.

Did Liberace’s showmanship obscure and eventually destroy his musicianship, like Eugene O’Neill Senior sacrificing his talent for money, so that Soderbergh’s swansong is an allegorical warning for contemporary Hollywood?

4/5

February 24, 2012

Margaret

Writer/director Kenneth Lonergan’s second film was shot in 2005 and delayed ever since by squabbling over its running time, but it’s only intermittently worth the wait…

Anna Paquin stars as Lisa Cohen, a deeply unpleasant privileged NYC teenager whose selfish actions cause Mark Ruffalo’s bus driver to run over a pedestrian. This leads to one of the most traumatic scenes you’ll ever see as Paquin comforts the dying Monica (Allison Janney), whose horrific injury remains just about off-screen. Lonergan wanders off on a Kieran Culkin-heavy tangent about drug-taking and teenage sex, before showcasing Matthew Broderick fighting a student over the correct interpretation of a couplet in King Lear (perilously similar to a scene in The Corrections), and multiple politics classes ending in shouting matches over Israel/Palestine and Iraq. Meanwhile Lisa’s actress mother Joan is nervous about her play transferring to Broadway, and is pursuing a bizarrely scripted romance with Jean Reno. Endless montages of NYC throughout perhaps cue this as a study of post-9/11 hysterical anger.

Lonergan’s celebrated play This Is Our Youth (staged at the Project in 2009 with Charlie Murphy) was an acute portrayal of emotionally abusive male friendships, while his directorial debut You Can Count On Me (2000) was a warm study of sibling camaraderie in the face of diverging lives. Margaret, by contrast, achieves his usual unpredictability only thru utter aimlessness. Focus belatedly arrives when Lisa decides to atone for her own guilt by starting a legal crusade to punish the bus driver for killing Monica. The film becomes draining as Lisa’s increasingly obnoxious/deranged behaviour leads to so many abrasive (and always needlessly escalating) shouting matches that you wish Olivia Thirlby would drop a heavy book on her classmate. If Kenneth Lonergan wanted to write for Curb Your Enthusiasm so bad back in 2005 why didn’t he just ring Larry David and ask?

There is much to admire in Margaret. Lonergan’s theatrical dialogue is as potently witty and expressive as ever and produces many crackling sequences, not least some stunningly astringent scenes between despairing mother and monstrous daughter. It’s great fun spotting pre-fame Rosemarie DeWitt as Ruffalo’s wife and pre-Juno Thirlby as the voice of reason in the strident politics class. Lonergan even gives himself a droll supporting role as Lisa’s absent father. The title comes from a Hopkins couplet, “It is the blight man was born for/It is Margaret you mourn for”, but if Lonergan was attempting to make some Donnean point about how the senseless death of one person affects us all, he just leaves the audience as confused as cameoing Matt Damon’s consistently perplexed looking teacher.

Margaret runs for 2 hours and 30 minutes. I have no idea what point Lonergan is trying to make in that time. And I think the studio, which insisted Margaret be cut from 3 hours, didn’t believe he’d any idea either…

3/5

January 9, 2012

2012: Fears

W.E.
Madonna (!!!) directs Andrea Riseborough as Wallis Simpson in a farcically sympathetic portrayal of the American who eventually became King Edward VIII’s wife. Edward is Master & Commander star James D’Arcy, who’s probably immensely relieved to have escaped from the ghetto of movies like Rise: Blood Hunter, but for us another trot around the bloody Abdication Crisis is a truly appalling vista. Edward VIII wanted all the wealth and privilege of being a King without the responsibility, and failed to challenge the absurdity of being forbidden to marry a divorced woman when the Church of England only existed because Henry VIII wanted to divorce a woman and remarry. Screw him…

Incredibly Loud and Extremely Close
Stephen Daldry tries to win yet more bloody Oscar nominations with an adaptation of Jonathan Safran Foer’s novel about a boy searching for the secrets left behind by the father he lost on 9/11. Daldry directs, Tom Hanks plays the father and Sandra Bullock the mother, the screenplay is by Forrest Gump and Benjamin Button scribe Eric Roth, it’s about a weighty subject, and is released within the three month attention span the Academy’s members have long since proven they possess – what’s not to hate about such a naked attempt not to make a good film but to make the sort of film that wins Oscars?

Battleship
Somewhere in Hollywood a studio executive called Delaney is about to crash his sports-car as he drives past a huge billboard poster for this movie. Delaney will stagger out of the wreckage, lurch into the traffic to stare at the promise of an incredibly fake-looking CGI alien invasion limited to the radius of an inexplicable force-field in the ocean being foiled by US Navy ships led by an equally inexplicable Liam Neeson, slumming it alongside Rihanna and shouting orders to Too Tall Skarsgaard while rattling thru an inane arc about responsibility with Taylor Kitsch, and Delaney will incoherently rave “Holy God Jesus! I thought I’d killed this movie in development!!”

Total Recall
Director Len Wiseman proved with Die Hard 4.0 that he has talent, but that does not mean remaking Total Recall is a good idea. 22 years after Arnie’s original our hero is now Colin Farrell, Kate Beckinsale (of course) is the dame, and there will be no mucking about on Mars because that’s not in the original story. But justifying your over-hasty remake by your fidelity to the source text is deeply suspect. Philip K Dick’s short story is clever, hilarious, and wonderful, but it’s a short story. It would barely sustain an episode of The Outer Limits. Wiseman’s foray may actually justify itself by being less ludicrously violent…

The Avengers
Joss Whedon co-writes and directs Marvel’s huge gamble to tie together the fate of all their various franchise characters in one huge blockbuster. I’ve voiced my doubts about this enterprise repeatedly and at some length. Whedon has experience writing the X-Men characters to superb effect, and he will draw great performances from his cast, probably insert a large number of good lines and hilarious moments, and may even pull off the truly great action sequence that has thus far eluded nearly all the in-house Marvel movies, but, this appears in Fears because of its lack of commercial and interior logic, and the artistic pitfalls of its choice of villains.

Snow White and the Huntsman
Kristen Stewart was once a very capable young actress. Then she became a global star almost overnight, and a horrible stiltedness overtook her. The question is now that the end of Twilight is nigh, can she manage to overcome the brittleness it inspired? Well, if she can she probably won’t start the acting comeback with this overblown nonsensical ‘version’ which sees Snow White as Warrior Princess teaming up with Thor Chris Hemsworth to take down Charlize Theron’s evil Queen with the help of a coterie of British actors of a certain age as the dwarves. Warwick Davis won’t be happy about that because Ricky Gervais will.

Men in Black 3
Will Smith seems to make a Men in Black film whenever he’s panicked about his career. I didn’t think Hancock and Seven Pounds not being well received constituted that big a crisis but apparently he did, and so here we are – once again with Smith travelling thru time in 3-D to fight aliens who are pursuing Josh Brolin aka Tommy Lee Jones in the 1960s. Four capable writers have fiddled with this script, and Barry Sonenfeld hasn’t directed a hit in a long time, so this one comes with ‘Approach with Caution’ stickers plastered all over it despite Jemaine Clement and Bill Hader’s presence in the cast.

The Dark Knight Rises
If this film isn’t a disaster I’ll be very pleasantly surprised. Anne Hathaway as Catwoman seems vindicated as a casting choice from the trailer, and there are pleasing hints from the chants being translated for Bruce Wayne as ‘Rise’ that perhaps Ras Al’Ghul’s methods really are supernatural, but, the Bat-wing seen hovering above the Bat-mobile at the end of the trailer looks like something out of Rocobop (by which I mean 1987 special effects in a 2012 movie), and the destruction of the football pitch by Bane is embarrassingly fake-looking. Perhaps Nolan has crammed in so damn much to this final instalment that he couldn’t find time to pull it off more practically, but such obnoxiously obvious CGI is the polar opposite of the legion of compositing shots he used in The Dark Knight. Would it really have been so hard to film the football player running in the stadium in Pittsburgh, then build a replica grass pitch set and blow it up in Hollywood, and composite the two together so that it looked real because what you were seeing was real – just from two different places at two different times cunningly yoked together by digital trickery. I think this is a film that no one will like, but that some people might admire; because Batman dies at the end. Bane can’t kill Batman and get away with it, audiences would rebel. But, I’m convinced that Nolan’s watched Sherlock and the end of the movie will see Batman sacrifice himself in order to rid Gotham of the intolerable evil of Bane. Batman and Bane will topple off Gotham’s Reichenbach Falls locked in eternal combat. But I think along the way to this unforgettable and traumatic finale the sense of fun that must be part of what keeps Bruce Wayne being Batman will be entirely absent, the level of grotesquery from the brutal villain will be unbearable, and everyone will start muttering about how it ruins the first two movies.

The Bourne Legacy
The Bourne franchise is really starting to really resemble the world of Robert Ludlum now, in the sense that the great man has passed on and yet still work emerges bearing his name. Jeremy Renner plays an agent who is not Jason Bourne, but has a tenuous enough link to Bourne’s world to justify the attention grabbing title. Renner is a fine actor, and it’s nice to see him headline a big summer blockbuster, but this has pointless cash-in written all over it. Tony Gilroy, writer on all previous three films, now directs this one as well in the knowledge that Damon will only return for Greengrass directing…

Django Unchained
Leonardo DiCaprio, Jamie Foxx and Christoph Waltz star in Quentin Tarantino’s movie about escaped slaves, underground railroaders, and bounty-hunters battling for freedom and money. Sounds good! So why is a Leonesque adventure in a nonsensical 19th Century in the Fears side of the ledger rather than the Hopes? Because just once I’d like Tarantino to make a film where you didn’t have to wince at the prospect of the unspeakable violence that was undoubtedly about to come your way along with the great dialogue, cut-up structure, and bravura directing. Is it too much to ask that he rein in his sadism for a PG-13 story one of these days?

Lincoln
Spielberg had been making this movie for a decade with Liam Neeson before he finally actually started making it and abruptly went with Daniel Day-Lewis as the 16th POTUS. No longer based on 2008’s immensely long book of the moment Team of Rivals, this is now a details biopic of a working President, as Lincoln in his final months tries to legislatively copper-fasten the victory against slavery. Day-Lewis will powerhouse his way thru proceedings, leading a strong cast including the peerless Joseph Gordon-Levitt, but what worries is Tony Kushner’s script. Munich obsessively shied away from discussion of the causes and conduct of the Israel/Palestine conflict. Can Kushner really do ‘details’?

300: The Battle of Artemisia
Zack Snyder has co-written with his original 300 compadres this sequel for another director to helm while he’s busy trying to make Superman soar again at the box-office. The fact that all of the 300 Spartan warriors died in the first movie bar the narrator, who went on to lead the hilarious charge in the next battle that closed the original film, doesn’t stop Snyder & Co making a sequel – about different characters, at a different battle, before Thermopylae. Apparently sequel has some new and strange meaning that Snyder will instruct us in thru an epic, unintentionally hilarious, battle between freedom-loving Americans Athenians and tyrannical Persians.

The Great Gatsby
I venerate F Scott Fitzgerald’s masterpiece, but that is why I can’t think Baz Lurhmann’s film of it can be anything but a disaster. Leonardo DiCaprio is a good choice to play the enigmatic titular old sport, as is Joel Edgerton as his nemesis, but the blanker-than-thou Tobey Maguire as Nick Carraway may narrate us all into a coma, and Carey Mulligan for all her strengths will struggle with the eternally thankless role of Daisy. My great fear is Lurhmann’s inability to handle subtlety. Gatsby is all about Fitzgerald’s prose, which flows like sparkling champagne, not swooping thru raucous parties and zeroing in on high camp comedy scenes…

Breaking Dawn: Part II
The decision to split Breaking Dawn into two films would hopefully be unwise after the awfulness of the padded Part I, but the need to see how things end will defeat any desire to punish such commercial crassness. What now for the rapidly ageing Renesme and her creepily smitten werewolf protector Jacob? How will Bella adjust to being a very, very thirsty newborn vampire? Can Michael Sheen Fassbender this film to campy heights as the Volturi travel en masse to Forks to abduct her? Or will director Bill Condon’s bizarrely perfunctory approach produce another bloated, inert, embarrassing disaster and end the series on a very low note?

Top 10 Films of 2011

(10) The Adjustment Bureau
George Nolfi’s Philip K Dick adaptation had a too neat resolution, but against that one flaw must be set a brace of wonderfully nuanced and contrasting villains, a truly dazzling romance that craftily worked on two different levels, superb comedy from Emily Blunt and Matt Damon, and a delightful temporally skipping structure that organically built to an unexpected and thrilling action chase finale. Nolfi took an idea from Dick and built something warm and great around it.
 
(9) Never Let Me Go
Mark Romanek’s direction was ridiculously self-effacing, but he coaxed the performances to match Alex Garland’s subtle screen imagining of Kazuo Ishiguro’s offbeat sci-fi novel, while the casting of child actors to match their adult equivalents was very impressive. Keira Knightley as the villainous Ruth outshone Carey Mulligan and Andrew Garfield as she invested the smallest role of the trio with great cruelty and then complexity. This was a heartbreaking slow-burner.

(8) Submarine
Richard Ayoade made his directorial debut from his own adaptation of the Welsh novel and impressed mightily. The comedy was superb, as you’d expect, whether it was the offbeat character moments, deflating jump cuts and preposterous slow-mos, or priceless cinematic in-jokes. What surprised was his assurance in handling drama, from depression to mortal illness and infidelity to suicide, with growing overtones of menace and a refreshing lack of predictability.

(7) Little White Lies
An incredibly Americanised French film, whether it was fun on a yacht being sound-tracked by Creedence or grand romantic gestures being accompanied by Antony and the Johnsons. Marion Cotillard & Co leave a comatose friend’s bedside for their annual holiday and comic madness involving weasels and crushes and endless dramas over love ensue. It’s over-long but mostly the Flaubertian lack of plot made time cease to matter for both the characters and the audience.

(5) The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
David Fincher’s version surpassed the Swedish original by reinstating more of the texture of Stieg Larsson’s book, creating a mystery rather than a thriller, in which the characters dominate the plot and are allowed to have complex emotional lives outside of cracking the cold case. The villain is marvellously drawn, and Fincher not only draws out maximum suspense from the story, but betters the Swedish version by both keeping the nastiest sequences and then also refusing to soften Lisbeth Salander. Rooney Mara and Daniel Craig are both pitch-perfect in the lead roles.

(5) Midnight in Paris
Woody Allen amazed by somehow delivering a fantastical romantic comedy with screamingly funny lines and a great high concept brilliantly developed. Allen granted Owen Wilson and Rachel MacAdams’ bickering engaged couple numerous hysterical scenes of utterly failing to connect, not least with her hilariously snooty parents. The recreation of the roaring Twenties Paris of America’s Lost Generation writers was positively inspired, most notably in its Hemingway who monologues in an abrupt monotone, and the film itself equally warm and wise.

(4) Take Shelter
This stunning film is both a Donnie Darko inflected tale of approaching apocalypse that only our hero has foreknowledge of but which sets his sanity on edge, and a terrifyingly realistic story of a man’s descent into a mental illness so subtle yet devastating that he can bankrupt his family by being plausible enough at the bank to secure loans to carry out construction to safeguard against an imaginary threat. Taut, terrifically ambiguous, and nightmarishly scary on several levels, this achieves such intensity that at its climax the simple act of Michael Shannon opening a storm shelter door becomes a moment of unbearable suspense and incredible emotional consequence.

(3) The Guard
John Michael McDonagh’s directorial debut was an impressively inventive profane farce which could be best described as Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call – Connemara. Brendan Gleeson seized with both Fassbendering hands the chance to play the world’s most demented Guard while Don Cheadle was an effective foil as the exasperated FBI Agent teaming up with him to bring down the preposterously philosophical drug-smugglers Liam Cunningham, David Wilmot and Mark Strong. Endlessly quotable and showcasing wonderful running gags, an unlikely action finale, and an ambiguous ending that poked fun at Hollywood resolutions this was the comedy of 2011.

(2) X-Men: First Class
Matthew Vaughn finally got to direct an X-Men movie and, with his co-writers, at last gave some substance to the friendship and enmity of Magneto and Professor X. Michael Fassbender’s rightly vengeful Nazi-hunter Erik complicated comic-book morality as much as Kick-Ass and added real weight to the tragedy of Mystique turning to his philosophy over the compassion personified by her mentor Xavier. Vaughn balanced this trauma with very funny montages of Erik and Xavier recruiting and training mutants for the CIA, but it was the casual tossing in of an enormous shock in the finale which exemplifed the supreme assuredness of this fine blockbuster.

(1) Incendies
This French-Canadian film unnerves from its opening shot, is always enthralling, and by the end has become quite simply devastating. A couple of Montreal siblings discover that their mother had unbeknownst to them lived a life of startling savagery in Lebanon’s 1980s civil war before emigrating. This is a merciless depiction of a vicious war where each side torches the other’s orphanages, burns women and children alive in buses, and recruits the other’s young boys as soldiers when not just shooting them in the head. The siblings uncover and come to terms with an extraordinary journey in search of vengeance, leading to the ultimate crime, and forgiveness…

July 12, 2011

MovieExtras 1000

Have you always wanted to stand around in the background behind Eva Green murmuring “mumble, mumble, Excalibur”? Well, here’s your chance!

MovieExtras‘ 1,000th production is impending and the company is holding an Open Casting Weekend, Friday 15th – Sunday 17th July, in Dublin’s Westbury Hotel on Grafton Street. The open casting hours are Friday 15th & Saturday 16th July: 10am-6pm and Sunday 17th July: 12noon-6pm. All members of the public are invited to sign up for membership, have their make-up done by MakeupFablicious.com, and have a photo-shoot with an award-winning photographer.

MovieExtras, based in Ardmore Studios was founded in December 2002 by Derek Quinn and Kevin Gill. It has since become Ireland’s leading agency for providing extras and background artists to the film, television and advertising industries, and is now working with its 1000th production. Previous productions include Camelot, The Tudors and currently the film Shadow Dancer with Aidan Gillen, Clive Owen and Gillian Anderson. Co-founder Derek Quinn points out enticingly that “Many famous stars began their career as an extra including Matt Damon, Brad Pitt and Ben Affleck – so you never know, this could be the start of something big!”

Over 550 companies and casting directors have access to MovieExtras.ie members’ profiles and can contact them for work as an extra, model and actor or for promotional work. Recent Irish productions who have worked with MovieExtras.ie include The Apprentice, Podge & Rodge, 24 Hours to Kill and a documentary on 1916. MovieExtras.ie members have also starred in adverts for Bank of Ireland, An Post, Budweiser, the Lynx Fallen Angel promotion and TV3’s UEFA Final spot. Currently MovieExtras.ie are working with RTÉ’s Crimecall and the teenage drama series My Phone Genie, being shot in the West of Ireland.

Co-founder Quinn notes that over 40 production companies view members’ CVs every month through the website’s directory service, and “are looking for all kinds of people of all ages, looks, shapes and sizes – people who the general public can identify with. So our weekend is open to anyone who might be interested!” Members have received over €8m in fees over the last 9 years and have been involved in films, movies, documentaries, adverts (TV, billboard & print), theatre, soap operas, idents, photocalls and reconstructions.

All are welcome to attend the open casting weekend. The cost for an individual one year membership is €99 and for a special family package is €299 (for up to 6 members) and includes 2 professional photographs. Those who are unable to attend the Open Casting Weekend can register online at www.MovieExtras.ie.

May 10, 2011

‘Matt Damon is Not Jason Bourne’

Matt Damon is Not Jason Bourne. An obvious truth I know, but one which seems to need re-stating of late…

I’ve been bemused by more than a few posters for movies of late because of two problems, the second of which concerns Matt Damon. The first problem is ho-hum films with unmemorable titles which make matters worse for themselves by blowing up their equally generic taglines to the same size so that looking at the poster on a bus stop you can find yourself looking at the top and bottom of the poster, and wondering if that new rom-com with Vince Vaughn is actually called The Truth Hurts or The Dilemma, or if Russell Brand is voicing a CGI character in something called Hop or Candy, Chicks, and Rocky and Roll. Now it’s undoubtedly true that good films make their titles memorable even if those titles aren’t particularly great objectively, but that’s no excuse for mediocre films settling for utterly banal titles. Similarly with taglines; how far we have fallen from when taglines like ‘In space no one can hear you scream’ became as famous as any lines of dialogue from the film they advertised.

This seems to display a lack of effort by all concerned that ties into my second problem – incredibly lazy journalism being utilised for incredibly lazy marketing. Green Zone displayed on its poster a quote stating ‘Bourne Goes Epic’. The Adjustment Bureau displayed on its poster a quote stating ‘Bourne meets Inception’. It’s got to the stage now that if Paul Thomas Anderson was to make a companion piece to Boogie Nights starring Matt Damon instead of his lookalike Mark Wahlberg, you would put serious money that some idiot somewhere would obligingly write ‘Bourne goes Porn’ as a handy pull-quote for the poster. Matt Damon is Not Jason Bourne: not every film he makes will be a gritty hand-held action thriller, nor will he be taciturn and amnesiac in every role he plays. Could Hereafter be accurately described as ‘Bourne meets Medium’? This trend is as idiotic as plastering the sentence ‘Indiana Jones meets Perry Mason’ on a poster for Presumed Innocent would have been, and it desperately needs to stop now.

The death of film was loudly declared some weeks ago in an article I may parse in the near future, but, while I don’t subscribe to the idea that Hollywood doesn’t tell stories anymore, I do think it may be accurate to suggest that a malaise of sorts has indeed descended over Burbank. Possibly it’s related to the decline in DVD sales, and a consequent feeling that if everything will just be pirated and watched online for free anyway, then what’s the point of wasting your time designing a Saul Bass class poster with a tagline that will become a catchphrase to entice people to see a film in theatres, when you could just plaster a barely adequate tagline and an inane quote from a pressed for time journalist over a cast photo?

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