September 29, 2013

Behind the Candelabra

Steven Soderburgh, 2013

Soderburgh creates a glittery performance-driven picture, one that not only showcases the talent of Liberace the beloved American performer but also a figure who was very human - at times flawed and tempestuous. When the stage lights were on, the applause was loud. But when the curtains were closed, you see that the Liberace world was not all glamour. The qualities you see in Liberace's romantic life are qualities seen in any flawed relationship. Jealousy, manipulation, ego getting in the way. Unfortunately he lived in a place and time where he was bound to secrecy, fearing that if his sexuality was exposed it would be the end of his career. This of course would have elements that would spill into his relationships. His relationships would appear to be quite cyclical, when he's introduced to the new boy you can certainly see his past standing on the other side of the room.

Scott Thorson (Matt Damon) clearly comes off as a sympathetic figure in the film. Having to endure a turbulent upbringing, he's introduced to Lee and basically forced into a relationship with him. He's promised wealth and security. He later finds that those benefits will come at a high price. He finds he's also living in a world where he's not alone with Lee. There are many people the periphery - from managers, to assistants, to house staff. Soderburgh does a good job in pacing the genesis and the inevitable decay of the relationship. The arch of Scott's character feels quite authentic from the innocent eager-to-please young boy to the paranoid cocaine addict. 

Douglas gives one of the best performances of his career. Hopefully this does not overshadow Damon's performance because that was probably AS good. The editing is quite impressive, given that you assume Michael Douglas cannot play piano that well. Luckily there were not any distracting close shots of a pair of hands clearly not his. At first it almost looked as if Douglas' head was unevenly placed on the actual piano player, but it soon dissolved. There are also some great performances by Rob Lowe (probably the funniest character he's played), Dan Akroyd and Bob Black. It's disappointing that Soderburgh could not get funding for the film from the major studios (they said it was "too gay"). HBO came to the rescue, but the struggle seemed to have pushed him into his much publicized film sabbatical with a bad taste in his mouth. It should ultimately prove once again that we are now in a world where big-budget theatrical distribution is not the only release channel and there are now many avenues where a film can still be seen by many.

September 28, 2013

The Bling Ring

Sofia Coppola, 2013

Based on a true story that was profiled in a Vanity Fair article, a group of L.A. teens decide to burglarize the homes of the celebrities they are obsessed with in an effort to live the lavish lifestyles that they lead.

Coppola has always been held to a high standard given the impact that her father has had on the world of cinema. But she's clearly carved out a niche, and separated herself from the long dramatic pieces that Francis has created. Her films tend to be more stylistic and poppy, distinct and energetic. Bling Ring certainly fits into her typical style. Coppola, clearly fascinated by the Vanity Fair piece, wanted to paint the picture of the TMZ-culture and the shallow kids looking for thrills. The kids themselves appear quite numb in the film. When they have the valuable jewelry in their hands or the scarves around their necks, there is still a very obvious sense of emptiness. Without a doubt there is a void they are all trying to fill. It's not a story of the haves and have nots, but more of the haves and have enoughs. These kids are not destitute, as shown early on with Chloe (Claire Julien) driving up the Pacific Coast highway in her Lexus SUV. There is a sense of entitlement that they have. But there is also a sense of delusion. They scroll the pages of TMZ and Perez Hilton and see a mirror image of themselves. They want to live the life without putting in the work. It doesn't help that the parents are not present, and even if they are, they are filling their heads with Hollywood pseudo-spirituality that preaches positive thinking but doesn't lay out the framework for actually putting in an honest days work. Emma Watson delivers the stand-out performance as Nicki. Nicki gets what she wants not when she fills her pockets but when the cameras are in front of her. Almost as if she's laid out the entire thing (which you realize is impossible coming from her), she wants that fifteen minutes of fame where the paparazzi is in front her with the cameras snapping away.

The film gets running immediately with the punchy Noise-Pop and the showcase of material objects that would later become evidence. The lack of work ethic that the teens have combined with the sense of entitlement is reminiscent to the girls in Spring Breakers. But the film ultimately lacks depth. Perhaps it's the subject matter that doesn't give Coppola enough to work with? Could she have gotten into their minds a bit more? Maybe she squeezed everything she could have out of them. In the end, it's not going to be a Oscar-piece, but she was able to get a great performance out of very talented Emma Watson and examine the obsession of celebrity culture by today's youth.

September 22, 2013

Seven Up

Michael Apted, 1964

Apted films a group of 7 year old's in Britain, who will ultimately be the subjects of his continued "Seven Up" series where he films the same group of people every seven years.

The grainy picture loads, and it immediately gets into gear. What's immediately evident is the intelligence of the group of seven year old Brits. Okay, so what's the difference with their parenting over there? Clearly there are differences. So we realize that the children of the 1950's and the 1960's were different, but there is a noticeable sense of respect for their elders and a strict discipline in place. They also seem so sophisticated with their pea-coats and scarves. They talk about the wishes of their parents and the future that they have laid out for them. Apted utilizes some film-making techniques that feel innovative for the time, such as the erratic point of view shot with the camera rushing through the play yard. The low budget feel of the film gives it a sense of raw infancy. It's nice to see Apted getting creative behind the camera, but one must wonder if it's even necessary. If you set the camera down motionless the film is still going to come alive. There is so much personality in front of it, so distinct, that Apted himself must have been surprised with the immediate result. The children seem so comfortable on camera. They also act naturally when the camera is set back from them, observing the play yard and the scene with the same-aged drill sergeant kicking their legs that may be out of line. The short-length film certainly leaves you wanting more, wanting to see which seven of the children are selected for the future films. What will they look like in seven years? Will they retain some of the personality they had when they were seven years old?

September 20, 2013


Gabriela Cowperthwaite, 2013

Seaworld continues to operate, even after trainers have been killed by killer whale Tilikum. This documentary interviews past trainers, past employees, and family and friends of the victims who detail their experience of their lives involved with working with the Orcas.

An interesting yet disturbing look at some of the most beautiful creatures on earth. Killer Whales that have been confined, exploited, and basically tortured for most of their lives in captivity. The film is quite deliberate, clearly trying to stir the pot of the Seaworld culture, hoping to draw attention to years of abuse to these intelligent creatures and to attempt to clear the air on some past incidents. There is clearly no positive effect to keeping these animals in captivity other than profiting from their elementary stunts that they are quite obviously underemployed to do. They are creatures that we hardly understand. The Seaworld corporation demonstrates one of the worst sides of the human race, throwing compassion out of the window for a buck. Their business ideals seem to match that of Monsantos, trying to drive profits and pay legal teams to cover their asses. And the Orcas are not the only ones to garner sympathy in the film. The trainers are also victimized by the Seaworld machine. Seaworld takes advantage of the trainers urge to work with animals and brainwashes them to believe the animals are enjoying their stay, and tries to sweep past incidents under the carpet.

Seaworld is not going to close their doors unless they start hating money, and that isn't going to happen anytime soon. Therefore, the market must dictate what happens. As long as people are sitting in the seats waiting for the obligatory splash from the tortured Orca, it wont end. At the very least, this film should at least make people think twice before visiting the park with their children. One of the subjects of the film mentions at one point: "In fifty years, we're probably going to look back on this chapter and see how barbaric we were". While the film succeeds in delivering its message, the resistance by Seaworld to be interviewed limits the perspective. Seeing the old school Seaworld commercials certainly provides a creepy tone. Listening to the ex-trainers recount is compelling. But overall it doesn't make a lasting impact, and feels like it could easily be more of a 60 Minutes special than a full documentary.

September 19, 2013

This is the End

Seth Rogen & Evan Goldberg, 2013

James Franco (playing himself) is hosting a housewarming party at his new palatial contemporary home when the party is inconveniently interrupted by the apocalypse. Terrified of the impending doom, they decide they are better off sticking together trying to survive.

Rogen and Goldberg and company pull off an impressive feat in this much-used premise of the apocalyptic doom and gloom epic. The final result is sort of like if Seth Rogen put pot brownies on the craft services table during the filming of The Day After Tomorrow. Powered by a strong cast that includes many of the usual Apatow suspects, the reactionary humor never runs dry. Several cameos (Michael Cera, Rihanna, Emma Watson) show that many were willing to take a pay cut to have some fun with the $32M budget. The $32M budget went impressively far, with special effects that should impress most with a big-budget feel. With the cast playing caricatures of themselves, they show that they are capable of making fun of themselves. Giving Rogen and Goldberg free reign with putting their writing at the screen is a good decision, already proven with Pineapple Express. With a flawless screenplay, soundtrack and editing, the colossal demise of our world has never been so funny. The earth opens up wide to swallow the coke-riddled narcissists of Tinseltown. Jonah Hill has one stand-out scene in the film where he's acting very Jonah Hilly that should have you laughing days later.

And so continues Seth Rogen's interesting career. He has some serious comedy gems under his belt at this point (Knocked Up, The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Pineapple Express) and of course some duds. His comedy is the most effective when you feel as if you're next in the weed circle. He's clearly his strongest in roles that are well within his comfort zone, and there's no shame in that. And while the amount of weed hasn't diminished, neither has the comedy. You get a sense watching that the boys have all grown up a bit, but haven't lost a step.

September 17, 2013

The Kings of Summer

Jordan Vogt-Roberts, 2013

In an effort to escape the constraints of their overbearing parents, buddies Joe (Nick Robinson) and Patrick (Gabriel Basso) decide to build a house in the middle of the woods with the help of oddball friend Biaggo (Moises Arias). When they complete their project they realize they have created something that will have a long lasting impact on them.

It's a coming-of-age tale that is really nice looking, but also possesses an inviting quality that is both endearing and comedic that generates memories of Stand By Me. It examines the ever constant painful embarrassment of growing up in your parents house and not having the means to escape. The cast is full of personality, with Nick Offerman perfectly cast as the bitter father who is still grieving over the loss of his wife and taking it out on everyone around him. His sister Heather (Alison Brie) is at an age that she was able to escape to freedom but left Joe to endure the angst. Patrick has his overbearing parents (played by the very talented Megan Mullally and Marc Evan Jackson), who have a difficult time letting Patrick leave their sight. When they do have him in their grasp, they spend the entire time picking apart every facet of his existence. The addition of Biaggio to the group adds a lot of levity. Certainly (and hopefully) not the last we'll see of Moises Arias.

The kids are just looking for some air to breathe, and they find it in their Thoreauian fortress. The sound of their parents voice is enough to annoy them, and the young boys likely see their elders as reflections of their future selves - and that's a scary thing to them. They want their niche. They also want a sense of purpose. They establish principles, and try to stick to them. A very present soundtrack really amplifies the film with a repetitive melody scored by Ryan Miller combined with several other Indie staples. The punched up script delivers the laughs and feels fresh. The film does get a bit overindulgent with the slow-motion shots, some of the awkward humor feels a bit forced at times, and the building of their house feels quite painless... but that's okay. It succeeds in its message. It's a very relatable film to anyone who grew up looking for some independence, and we all attempted to construct shacks that were likely far less detailed than the house in Kings.

September 7, 2013

The New Year

Brett Haley, 2010

Sunny (Trieste Kelly Dunn) drops out of college to return home to Pensacola to take care of her sick father. She gets a job a the local bowling alley and dates Tai Kwon Do instructor Neal (Kevin Wheatley). After reuniting with high school friend Isaac (Ryan Hunter), she becomes eager for a change in scenery.

There are a lot of Indie pictures that have a similar construct. High school buddies reuniting, underemployed at the embarrassing job, stale relationships. It's just a matter of its done well. Here it is done well. That's largely due to Trieste Kelly Dunn's performance as Sunny. Kelly Dunn possesses the physical qualities of Rebecca Gayheart combined with the quirky demeanor of Aubrey Plaza. Sunny is a complicated person. Shes interesting, because while she keeps a lot of her emotions locked away she is still quite expressive to those around her. Spontaneously eccentric like Ellen Page's character in Juno, but with more unpredictability. She returns to Florida, not exactly thrilled, to take her of her father after he is diagnosed with cancer. Her mother nowhere to be found, all that remains is photographs on the refrigerator door. Her father, who appears defeated by the disease, also bears a sense of guilt over keeping Sunny around but is clearly appreciative. There is no manipulation or guilt trips. You get a sense of good parenting on his part, because Sunny takes care of him on her own accord. She feels the weight of being his live-in nurse, but obviously doesn't want to waste whatever time she has left with him. Clearly someone who puts others first, she finally gets a taste of the outside world when she runs into Isaac. Isaac, amateur stand-up comedian, did what she wasn't able to do. He was able to take a risk and just leave Pensacola to see what was out there. Not really confident that his stand-up career will pan out, he can at least pat himself on the back for giving it a shot. Sunny feels the clock is ticking, and she can almost feel the roots growing.

The film is quite character-driven and they all have some colorful and comedic qualities. Sunny's best friend Amy (Linda Lee McBride) is a good example of the friend who settled into her hometown and grew roots. She's sort of the opposite of Sunny's character in the sense that she's very extroverted and attention-seeking. She's married to wannabe-G Bobby (David McElfresh), who barely speaks himself and lets her do all of the talking. There's something really funny about his character, still stuck in his high school thug persona. You have her boyfriend Neal who takes great pride in his martial arts school. He's a nice guy, and is good to her but doesn't have the same urge to leave Pensacola. She can see him doing the same thing ten years later and she doesn't want to look that far ahead. It's an accessible piece because it feels real, and that's all you really need. If you can get invested in Sunny's character, it's going to work for you.

The Snow Walker

Charles Martin Smith, 2003

Veteran pilot Charlie Halliday (Barry Pepper) agrees to transport a sick Inuk girl named Kanaalaq (Annabella Piugattuk) along in his bush plane to bring her to a hospital after he makes a delivery to a small tribe. Soon after takeoff the plane crashes and he is left in the frozen wilderness to survive. His friends lose hope of finding him in the tundra, but he is fortunate to have taken the ailing passenger along with him.

Based on the short story "Walk Well My Brother", this drama contains some familiar themes. The American man teamed up with the capable native woman is similar to Dances with Wolves. The plane crashing in the wilderness, forcing the characters to utilize their survival skills is similar to The Edge. But this film certainly has some unique qualities, and it is certainly one of the better Survival dramas made. A few minutes into the film you get a feel for Charlie's character, as he boozes it up while playing pool in the bar. He's full of himself, and everyone knows it. Some of the men around him are bothered by it, while some women are attracted to it. It's similar to his character Frank in Spike Lee's 25th Hour. A man with a clear Inuit descent accidentally bumps into him and is clearly apologetic about it, but Charlie pushes him away with dismissive aggression ("I am NOT your brother..."). This shows the divide between his people and the natives, the natives who he would later come to appreciate for helping him survive. Kanaalaq is at first just a coughing girl wrapped in animal furs, but she soon becomes a rather critical key to his survival. Without her help, he without a doubt would not have made it. Her instincts had a relaxing quality, because she never appears to be out of her element. The plane crashes, she immediately throws a line into the water to catch a fish - knowing that they need to be worrying about their next meal. Her lack of English makes it difficult to communicate at first, but she slowly picks up on some words. Piugattuk was very effective at showing someone who was trying to use the English language but was still getting caught up in some of her native tongue. While the barren landscape at times feels a bit too forgiving and lacking natural predators, it was aesthetically pleasing. There were some really beautiful moments in the film such as one scene where you see a purple sunset combined with an Inuit song playing in the background. In the end Charlie is humbled by his circumstances, while watching you imagine that if he ever makes it home - he's going to be a changed man.

September 6, 2013

The Intouchables

Olivier Nakache & Eric Toledano, 2011

Philippe (Francois Cluzet) is a quadriplegic seeking in-house nursing care. When Driss (Omar Sy) comes in, straight from the rough streets, he surprises everyone by taking a chance on him. That choice would become life changing for him.

It's a heartwarming fish out of water French Drama. The story could be minimized to a "rich guy hires poor guy", almost in the same vein as Pretty Woman (minus the romance of course), but it's more than that. Philippe clearly wants someone sitting at his bedside who is DIFFERENT, not the generic nurse who robotically fulfills his daily duties. Of course he finds that element of unpredictability in young Driss, who isn't even serious about pursuing the job and who is more focused on stealing one of the Faberge eggs nestled on top of the hand-carved bureau. They are both looking for something that they inevitably find in each other, even though they aren't really sure what that is. Change? Culture, Humor, Surprise? It's all of that, and more. They bring out the best in each other. Philippe appreciates the fact that Driss doesn't pity him, look down on him. Philippe encourages Driss to show his talents, or at least explore them. It's quite evident that Philippe could serve as sort of a father figure to Driss, who had a turbulent upbringing. The progression is authentic, and is played out beautifully. Philippe, who almost looks like a French Dustin Hoffman, can't move a limb but he doesn't need to. The emotions are easy to read on his face. When he smiles, you see the years of loneliness wiped away. There are many touching moments in the film, sure to pull on the heartstrings. You can certainly predict how the story will play out, and that's fine. It's a wonderfully predictable journey.

September 3, 2013

Open Water

Chris Kentis, 2003


Romantic couple Susan (Blanchard Ryan) and Daniel (Daniel Travis) go scuba diving while on vacation in the Caribbean. After their boat miscounts the passengers it leaves without them, leaving them stranded in the shark infested waters.

It's probably a very familiar nightmare in many peoples eyes. Stuck in the ocean, not knowing whats below you in the infinite depth or not knowing when or if a safety vessel is coming for you. Do they even know that you are gone? It's an interesting idea, but this limited storytelling piece is limited in a lot of other areas. The immediate jump start of the film feels like you are getting pushed into cold water without warning. Soon you see zoom shots that are downright confusing, almost as if the button was broken on the camera and can activate at a moments notice. Why zoom in on the clamshell phone? It's amateurish. You soon feel alone (before you even leave for vacation), because the lack of character development leaves you relying on the performances of to pull you in. But they don't offer much. Ryan and Travis certainly don't deliver electrifying performances. You know their characters are busy, business-types. They never get a vacation, and they finally get one. But there's not much more there. Danny Boyle taught the world that you can paint a colorful picture with limited story as he did in 127 Hours. James Franco really delivered a complex performance and you were caught up in his dilemma. You were rooting for him. When you have a bland landscape of rippling ocean currents and the mostly periodic shark fin protruding through the surface, you really need the acting to carry the film. There are no ebbs and flows to Open Water. It has the excitement of observing a fish tank with the charm of watching a buoy float. There is so much room for improvement. In fact, similar-themed The Reef played on shark fears, and did it much better. And who cares if the shark was very obviously CGI'd. Nobody is looking for perfection there. The animatronic Jaws shark stills haunts us forty years later. But comparing Kentis to Spielberg would be like comparing Joel Schumacher to Stanley Kubrick.