Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Short Cut Movie Review: Behind the Candelabra

Short Cut Movie Review is normally less than 400 words, but in some cases may go slightly over. This is my attempt to keep writing about as many films as I see without getting bogged down with trying to find more to say. They are meant to be brief snapshots of my reaction to a movie without too much depth.

I didn't know much of anything about Liberace except that he was a flamboyant pianist with grand spectacle performances and outlandish costumes. I can't say after seeing Steven Soderbergh's Behind the Candelabra that I know much more about the man and his life overall because it's a biopic that steers clear of the wide scope vision to focus on a several years period of his late life and the effect he had on one individual in particular.

In fact, it's more the story of Scott Thorson, Liberace's secret lover for about six years in the late 70s and early 80s. After all, Richard LaGravenese adapted Thorson's book for the screenplay so while it spends its early moments sort of enamored with Liberace's fashion sense, warm and generous personality, and lavish lifestyle, it eventually reveals him to be narcissistic, grandiose, fickle, and self-serving. But he still doesn't come off as a bad guy! Whether or not it's an accurate portrayal of the man or not is beside the point. It's a study of how a larger-than-life force of fame can have such a strong effect on others, especially a young and vulnerable man like Scott, although he is certainly not without his faults as he gradually falls into jealousy and despair (spurred on by Liberace's waning affections and fleeting attention) and drug abuse.

Soderbergh took a long time to bring this story to the screen and in the end it took HBO, not a Hollywood studio, to take a chance on a romantic film involving two men that was unflinching in its depiction of physical affection. It was well worth the wait. It is a stylish film with two fantastically entertaining performances from Matt Damon as Scott and Michael Douglas as Liberace. These are two actors who took big risks with this production and it pays off because the result is an honest portrayal of love and jealousy.

Before Midnight Movie Review

Roger Ebert talked about coming back to Fellini's 8 1/2 about every decade and having a very different reaction to and feelings about Guido each time. Obviously the character hadn't changed, but Roger had. So as he matured, so did his perception of the film. It's in a somewhat similar vein that I have found myself approaching what Richard Linklater (and also Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, who are equal collaborators in the story and screenplay process) has done with the Before Sunrise triolgy. That first film was a big deal for my high school friends when it came out, though I skipped it at the time. I caught up with it finally before its sequel Before Sunset was released. I admired Before Sunrise, but I was enamored with Before Sunset. Now that I've seen the most recent installment, Before Midnight, which is nine years after the last film and eighteen after Jesse and Celine first met on a Vienna train, I can say I love it even more. But then I wonder if my expanding admiration for this series has more to do with the way I've changed along with Jesse and Celine over the years.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Short Cut Movie Review: Oblivion

Short Cut Movie Review is normally less than 400 words, but in some cases may go slightly over. This is my attempt to keep writing about as many films as I see without getting bogged down with trying to find more to say. They are meant to be brief snapshots of my reaction to a movie without too much depth.

Oblivion is a movie that looks almost perfect in terms of production design and visual effect. It deftly recalls and references several science fiction classics, but then fails to live up to the standards set by those that came before.

Tom Cruise is Jack Harper, a technician working to repair battle drones on earth that are in place to defend some big energy-producing machines from attack by Scavs, an alien race that lost a war with humans several decades ago. He explains everything in a narration that precedes the title. If you miss anything, don’t fret because it is all repeated almost verbatim later in the film as dialogue between Jack and Beech (Morgan Freeman), the leader of a band of humans found to still be living on earth.

Short Cut Movie Review: Only God Forgives

Short Cut Movie Review is normally less than 400 words, but in some cases may go slightly over. This is my attempt to keep writing about as many films as I see without getting bogged down with trying to find more to say. They are meant to be brief snapshots of my reaction to a movie without too much depth.

After the stylish and rather brilliant Drive, I had high hopes and anticipation for Nicholas Winding Refn’s follow up Only God Forgives. The same great look is there with the seedy underworld of Bangkok replacing Los Angeles. The film is bathed in neon lights and deep reds, but it lacks any heart.

Drive worked because we cared about the characters. This time Refn doesn’t give us a hero. Sure, Julian (Ryan Gosling), a drug smuggler in Thailand, has some redemption when he prevents the murder of an innocent child, but apart from that one act I couldn’t find anything to get behind.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Gravity Movie Review

Gravity is a beautiful and poetic movie. It is a technical marvel and one of the tensest 90 minutes of movie viewing I can recall. And it is about one of the little talked about, but ever present, dangers of space travel and orbiting earth.

There are so many satellites floating around up there and every now and then something comes apart, leaving space junk out there. This space junk sometimes travels at mind-boggling speeds. If it comes into contact with a shuttle or another satellite or an astronaut on a spacewalk, it could have devastating consequences. The particular event in Gravity, directed and co-written by Alfonso Cuarón, along with his son Jonás, is the destruction by missile of a Russian satellite. All those little pieces of debris are orbiting at a speed of 20,000 kilometers per hour. They rip through the space shuttle where mission commander Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) and Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) are completing work on the Hubble. The two are left stranded in space, their only remaining hope being the escape pods on the International Space Station. And at the speed the debris is traveling, they have about 90 minutes before they’re in for another shit storm.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

The Fifth Estate Movie Review

We’ve set up our society in the midst of the digital information age in such a way that we want everything and we want it now and if you have the opportunity to provide something and make an impact, you’d better do it this instant before someone beats you to it. There’s no prize for the guy who sits on an idea and gets beaten to the punch by his competitor. There’s no recognition for having had the idea first. Action counts. News works this way. Because of the Internet and 24 hour cable news there is no longer as much emphasis placed on getting a breaking story right as there is on just getting it out. The result is new reporting that is often shoddy, under-sourced, and sometimes entirely inaccurate.

Don Jon Movie Review

Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s acting career has been loaded with good choices. He has starred in unique twists on familiar genres with director Rian Johnson, appeared in mammoth event films for Christopher Nolan, and even his populist choices like the romantic comedy (500) Days of Summer or the thriller Premium Rush have been pleasant exceptions to the rule. That’s why I had high hopes (perhaps a bit too lofty) for his writing and directing debut Don Jon. It looked like another great departure from the usual romantic film bullshit and that it might really have something to say, being about a man who can’t make an intimate connection with a woman because he’s far too enamored with Internet pornography.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Captain Phillips Movie Review

The difference between bad acting and good acting is fairly obvious to most people. It’s the difference between stiff mimicry and genuine imitation, or even expression, of emotion. But to distinguish between good and great acting is something else. There’s a much more subtle distinction. It comes down not only to how well the actor reads a line of dialogue or how convincingly he portrays an emotional moment, but to the choices he makes and the wholesale embodiment of the emotional dips and rises that the scene demands. I can understand how an actor depicts certain emotions. I can imagine working myself up to a frenzy for a manic scene or well up with anger to express rage. I can even imagine pushing myself to a dark place to show sadness or melancholy. But as Captain Richard Phillips, the cargo ship captain who was held hostage for several days by Somali pirates in 2009, Tom Hanks gives us one final scene that is so off-the-charts good, it mesmerizes and reveals exactly how brilliant his choices were for the first two hours.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

From My Collection: Leaving Las Vegas Movie Review

To understand a little about the kind of person I was in high school, I probably need only tell you that a movie I and my friends wanted to see was Leaving Las Vegas, Mike Figgis’s film about an alcoholic who decides to drink himself to death and strikes up an odd relationship with a prostitute. And believe me when I tell you it had nothing to do with seeing Elisabeth Shue’s (star of childhood favorite Adventures in Babysitting) breasts. A friend and I went to see it because it had challenging subject matter, because it was a reprieve from the usual populist fare. If I was like that at 17, then imagine how my taste runs today.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Enough Said Movie Review

I didn’t see any eulogies for James Gandolfini earlier this year that didn’t talk about how surprisingly good an actor he was and capable of real heart in spite of his tough-guy persona and sometime typecasting. Prior to “The Sopranos” he mostly portrayed heavies and after that he became indelibly linked to the role of Tony. But for a taste of just how incredible he could be even if you strip away the rough veneer and harsh language, take a look at the romantic comedy Enough Said, where he and co-star Julia Louis-Dreyfus are divorcees who start dating one another.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Elysium Movie Review

If Neill Blomkamp isn’t careful, he’s going to be forever remembered as a writer-director of allegorical science fiction. Not that that’s necessarily a bad thing, but remember M. Night Shyamalan survived for a handful of films being known for doing something very specific and then became so hamstrung by a sense of his own greatness that his films became, one after another, more absurd and awful than the last. If District 9 was Blomkamp’s take on apartheid South Africa and immigration, Elysium is not just about a guy trying to illegally enter a forbidden and exclusive paradise to cure himself of fatal radiation exposure. Working on a larger scale and with a bigger budget, Blomkamp hasn’t lost sight of what makes a good movie work: namely good characters and story. He’s also made another technically sound piece of entertainment that puts most of the other big releases to shame. A coherently edited and structured movie? Who greenlit this thing? I’m almost shocked this sort of thing is allowed to pass muster.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

25 Years Ago This Month: October 1988

The biggest movie of October 1988 was The Accused with Jodie Foster as a woman who is gang raped in a bar and Kelly McGillis as prosecuting attorney. This was the first big movie to deal directly with the issue of rape and really helped create a conversation about the role of the victim in rape. Foster won her first Oscar for the film.

Michael Myers returned to Haddonfield in Halloween 4, which I've already covered before.

Mary Gross, who got her start through 4 seasons of "Saturday Night Live", starred alongside Rebecca De Mornay in Feds, a not-so-funny comedy about two women struggling through the rigors of FBI training. Gross is the brainy one and De Mornay is physically capable, and they help each other through a male-dominated program.