June 30, 2013

Wife's Choice: Never Watch ALWAYS

"Keep the sideburns."
Say what you want about 1941 or A.I., but for all their flaws at least they're not boring.

I can not say the same about Always.

I guess that fact on its own is actually somewhat impressive, considering it's a movie about Richard Dreyfuss as a ghost pilot who guides aerial firefighters.  That description is kind of astounding, but sadly the film never really delivers on the insanity of its premise.  I knew pretty much nothing about this movie going into it and the only part that really engaged me was when Dreyfuss's plane exploded 45 minutes into the movie (this thing seriously takes forever to get started) and I suddenly realized, "Holy shit, this is a movie ABOUT A GHOST!"  That revelation is quickly followed up by the arrival of a 60 year old Audrey Hepburn as Ghost Dreyfuss's adorable spirit guide/barber.  It's Hepburn's last film role and she's just as majestic and wonderful as always in her two brief scenes.

Unfortunately it's all downhill from there.  John Goodman is pretty good as Ghost Dreyfuss's best friend and Holly Hunter is cute as hell as his girlfriend, but they're mostly stranded acting against human plank of wood Brad Johnson as the pilot Ghost Dreyfuss is supposed to mentor/inspire.  It's easy to draw comparisons to the Patrick Swayze/Demi Moore classic Ghost, (which was released the following year) but at least that movie had the good sense to include Whoopi Goldberg as "the lady who can see Patrick Swayze."  Ghost Dreyfuss talks to people and his words creep into their subconscious but he doesn't get to have an actual conversation once he's dead.  And since his goals are fairly nebulous and the consequences of his actions are ominously warned but never explored, the whole story feels like a giant hamster wheel spinning in place.

Always is overly long, it spends too much time on a half-baked relationship between actors with negative chemistry and it can't even manage to make raging forest fires exciting.

But I totally want elder Audrey Hepburn as my spirit guide.

Title: Always
Director: Steven Spielberg
Starring: Richard Dreyfuss, Holly Hunter, John Goodman, Brad Johnson, Audrey Hepburn, Keith David, Marg Helgenberger, Dale Dye
Year Of Release: 1989
Viewing Method: DVD

June 28, 2013

Michael B. Jordan Leaves Me Slack-Jawed In FRUITVALE STATION

"Dark butter."
Films have the power to inspire us, to frighten us, to make us laugh and to make us cry.  But perhaps the loftiest, most noble goal of any film should be to start real conversations.  If the Director's Q&A I sat through is any indication, Fruitvale Station is the kind if movie that's going to get a lot of people talking.

At approximately 2:15 AM on New Year's Eve 2009, an unarmed 22 year old black man named Oscar Grant was fatally shot in the back while being restrained face down by police officers (plural) on a San Francisco train platform.  The shooter, white officer Johannes Mehserle, said that he accidentally mistook his gun for his taser.   The incident was captured on cellphone video by multiple witnesses and immediately went viral, sparking nationwide outrage and mourning, particularly in the black community.  This is the kind of thing that happens all too often in an America which continues to treat African Americans as somehow less deserving of our attention and protection under the law.  And if you think that's an exaggeration, you need only look at Tuesday's implosion of the Voting Rights Act by the Supreme Court and the laws enacted by the state of Texas a mere two hours later.

Fruitvale Station, named for the BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) station where Oscar was killed, is a haunting film by freshman writer/director Ryan Coogler that is anchored by a career-making performance by Michael B. Jordan, best known for his work on TV's Friday Night Lights and The Wire as well as Josh Trank's found footage superhero film Chronicle.  Coogler, a Bay Area native himself, starts the film with the actual cell phone video of Oscar Grant's tragic death, and then immediately rewinds approximately 24 hours, taking us through the events of Oscar's last day on Earth.  Oscar spends the majority of his time with the three women in his life: his mother Wanda, his girlfriend Sophina and his daughter Tatiana who, in the words of Coogler, "each represent a different part of Oscar...his past, his present and his future."  Oscar is a good son and a loving father, someone who's trying to lift himself up and do right by the people who love and support him, but it's a real struggle.  He wants to stop dealing but there aren't a lot of opportunities out there for a young black man with a prison record and a quick temper.  But Oscar comes from a strong family and he's got a beautiful and precocious daughter, so there's plenty of positive influences in his life to keep him upbeat.  Coogler wisely injects plenty of love and humor throughout the film, so that the audience quickly invests in Oscar emotionally even though we know there's a guillotine hanging over his head the whole time.  Coogler also utilizes a really clever method of text messaging, with a translucent blue display appearing in the corner of the frame that almost feels like a reflection of an actual phone screen, showing each name in Oscar's contacts scroll by and words being spelled out one letter at a time.  (Oscar uses a flip phone without a qwerty keyboard, which makes these text interactions feel quaintly dated.)  It's much more creative than just cutting away to the actual phone, but there's something wonderfully tangible about it that feels authentic to the environment.  As much as I love the slicker methods adopted by shows like BBC's Sherlock, it would feel incredibly out of place here.

You can tell that Coogler has an deep empathy for Oscar's final journey.  There's a heartbreaking scene early on in the film where Oscar encounters a stray pit bull at a gas station and then watches as it's run down in the street by a driver who doesn't even bother to stop.  The dog dies there in his arms, blood pouring out of its mouth onto the concrete; the image is upsetting on its own but when viewed through the lens of the film's climax it's downright horrific.  It's one of few scenes in the movie that's completely fictionalized, (actually based on something that happened to Coogler's brother) but the real Oscar was a big dog lover so it felt true to the character even if it never really took place.  More importantly, it serves as a chilling metaphor for the experience of a young black man in San Francisco.  The pit bull is a popular breed in the area and one that's often associated with the imagery of gangsters and rappers.  But while pit bulls are widely regarded as violent, dangerous animals they are in fact extremely friendly and lovable creatures who will fight back when provoked.  The same could be said about Oscar Grant.

It would be easy to portray Oscar as a complete innocent, but instead Michael B. Jordan gives us an incredibly complex, multi-layered individual, the kind of performance that quite simply demands your attention.  His Oscar is constantly pulled in multiple directions and seems to instantly morph into a completely different person depending on the situation.  He's equal parts charm and menace, with both a kind heart and steely reserve.  He's a guy who will call his grandmother to help a middle-class white girl at the grocery store prepare for a fish fry and two minutes later is threatening his former boss when he refuses to hire Oscar back.  Jordan underscores these dramatic mood shifts with subtle physical work - you can see his entire body tense when faced with a confrontation and then immediately shrug it off when the threat has passed.  And for all his tough guy bravado, Oscar is also truly kind and thoughtful, willing to give up his last $10 so a store owner will let his girlfriend use his bathroom after closing and then instantly flagging the owner down again when a pregnant stranger wanders by.  Jordan's characters from FNL and Chronicle certainly echo the different sides of Oscar Grant, but it's the way he effortlessly slips from one persona to the other that is so riveting.  This is the kind of performance that will rightfully put Jordan at the top of every casting list in town and I expect that the Weinsteins will make a pretty strong push for him come awards season.  It's easy to see why Josh Trank would want to work with him again on The Fantastic Four and despite the quasi-racist fears of short-sighted fanboys and moronic internet commenters, we should all be so lucky if the stars align and Jordan ends up as the next Johnny Storm.

The film ends with a title card saying that officer Mehserle (played here by an unrecognizable Chad Michael Murray) was eventually convicted of involuntary manslaughter and later released after serving 11 months of a two year sentence.  This prompted an audible and visceral reaction from the audience, a scenario I expect will be often repeated when the film is released nationwide on July 26th.  But while the film will rightly inspire a lot of righteous anger and frustration, I hope it will also inspire compassion.  Because no matter what convenient storylines and broad characterizations the media rushes to latch onto in these situations, it's important to remember that at the heart of every incident like this are real people.  Oscar Grant was equal parts saint and sinner, as was the officer who shot him.  (Coogler smartly chooses to reinforce Mehserle's claim that he reached for the wrong weapon, as signaled by the look of instant horror on Murray's face when the gun goes off.)  We are all wonderfully flawed human beings and we all encounter tragedy at some point in our lives.  It's how we deal with the consequences that matters most.  We can either become calcified and cynical, giving in to our worst selves, or we can learn to accept our differences and work together to build the world we wish to see.

Or, as Ryan Coogler said, "It's about humanity...how we treat the people who we love the most and the people who we don't know."

Title: Fruitvale Station
Director: Ryan Coogler
Starring: Michael B. Jordan, Melonie Diaz, Octavia Spencer, Kevin Durand, Chad Michael Murray
Year Of Release: 2013
Viewing Method: Theatrical - Coolidge Corner Theater (IFFB Advanced Screening)

June 26, 2013

KNUCKLEBALL Chases Away My Stanley Cup Blues

"You've gotta have the fingertips of a safe cracker and the mind of a Zen Buddhist."

I am terrible at sports, but it's practically impossible to live in Boston and not be a diehard fan of at least one team.  The Red Sox, Patriots, Bruins and Celtics have won a staggering seven championships in the last twelve years, which is pretty much unheard of these days.  When I was living in L.A. I could only watch my teams by either A) shelling out big money for all the different league packages (and you couldn't even get baseball unless you had satellite) or B) finding a local bar that would show more than just local games.  And since there are an overwhelming number of ex-pat New Englanders living in Los Angeles, there are a couple of fantastic Boston bars scattered around town, including Little Bar in Hollywood, 4 F's in Hermosa Beach and the infamous Sonny MacLean's in Santa Monica.  I've mentioned this before, but there was nothing more comforting when living on the other side of the country than being able to go to a place full of people with a common ancestry of sorts, and the easiest way to bond with strangers or make new friends is to drink beers and cheer for a team that most of the town ignores and/or disdains.

In that light, Monday night was pretty rough.  The Boston Bruins have had an incredible post-season run, overcoming a daunting late-game deficit in Game 7 against the Toronto Maple Leafs, beating back the New York Rangers and then utterly slaying the Eastern Conference's #1 seed, the Pittsburgh Penguins.  The Stanley Cup final against the Chicago Blackhawks proved just as exciting, starting off with an epic triple overtime battle royale in Game 1.  The series lead shifted back and forth each game, and with less than two minutes left to go in Game 6, it looked as if the B's would hold on to send the series back to Chicago for one final showdown.  It was a hot, humid evening in Boston and the ice was a mess, so the puck had been bouncing around the rink in an ugly fashion all night, but the black and gold put forth a gutsy effort all night long.  Then, all of a sudden, Chicago managed to sneak the puck past goaltender Tukka Rask.  Then the unthinkable: seventeen seconds later, they did it again.  And like that, our Stanley Cup dreams were dashed.  It's never fun to see your team get so close and lose, but after the Boston Marathing bombing it seemed as if the entire city had rallied behind the Bruins, hoping for a bit of emotional catharsis in the form of hockey glory.  This loss was therefore particularly painful.

As soon as the game ended, I immediately turned off the television and walked out onto my deck.  I took a deep breath, looked out into the darkened sky, listened to the Blue Line train rumble along the tracks behind my house and the airplanes taking off from nearby Logan Airport, and thought to myself, "Okay.  It's officially baseball season."

After all, the Red Sox are leading the A.L. East by 2.5 games.

And so, to banish my hockey demons I came home from trivia on Tuesday night and put on Knuckleball!, the documentary about the small brotherhood of major league pitchers who specialize in one of the most peculiar pitches in the game.  There have only been a handful of professionals who have ever used this pitch and the film was shot during the 2011 season, following the last season of longtime Red Sox knuckler Tim Wakefield as well as the rise of the Mets' unlikely star R.A. Dickey, currently the only active knuckleballer in Major League Baseball.

Wakefield played for the Red Sox for more than half my life, so I've grown up watching his pitches dance through the air of Fenway Park.  I love the guy, and that last season was dominated by his quest to reach 200 career wins.  (He was also in spitting distance of tying the Red Sox franchise record of 192 wins.)  As it just so happens, I was actually working in the Red Sox IT department during that 2011 season, so I remember it very well.  Since then I've also become familiar with Dickey, a pitcher who bounced from team to team for years and was facing the end of a lackluster pitching career when he made a dramatic shift and became a full-time knuckleball pitcher.  (Wakefield has a similar backstory: he started as a first baseman with the Pirates but moved to the mound when he had trouble hitting with a wooden bat.*)

The methodology and the history of the knuckleball is pretty fascinating.  Pitchers grasp the ball with their fingernails and attempt to throw it with reduced speed and absolutely no spin.  When it works, the ball will drift and dance through the air, leaving batters utterly bewildered and swinging at empty space.  When it doesn't work, the pitch turns into a floating meatball that batters will typically crush into the upperdecks.  After surviving the Bruins' heartbreaking loss, I was none too pleased to see the film linger on Wakefield's 11th inning pitch to Aaron Boone in Game 7 of the 2003 ALCS that ended Boston's campaign for a World Series victory.  But I loved watching Wakefield and Dickey spending time with former knucklers Charlie Hough and Phil Nierko, playing golf and swapping war stories. Despite playing on different teams and in different eras, they really do see themselves as a fraternity of sorts. When Dickey first started to develop his knuckleball, he reached out to Hough, Nierko and even to Wakefield, who was still an active starter at the time, and they all offered advice and guidance. While they were technically competitors, Wake knew his career was nearing its end and he wanted to ensure that there was someone there to pick up the slow-moving torch when he was gone. The sense of camaraderie and legacy is strong among these men. Over this past off-season they even recruited a couple of former quarterbacks to learn the pitch and get a shot at attending the Arizona Diamondbacks training camp on a reality show for MLB Network. Despite my disdain for reality television, I watched the whole thing because Wake was the judge, one time Red Sox goofball Kevin Millar was the host and former BC and Patriots quarterback Doug Flutie was a contestant. If he had won, I would have instantly scoured the internet in search of a Flutie Diamondbacks jersey.

If you're a fan of Wakefield or Dickey, or even if you're just curious about this crazy, rarely thrown pitch then Knuckleball! is a very endearing 93 minutes full of familiar baseball faces and all the love and drama inherent in America's pastime. And for everyone else still coming to grips with Monday night's hockey game, this movie is a great way to get primed for baseball season. 

Bruins, thanks for an amazing season. 

Go Sox.

*In college ball they use aluminum bats, which are lighter and generally give the batter more power.

Title: Knuckleball!
Director: Ricki Stern, Anne Sundberg
Starring: Tim Wakefield, R.A. Dickey, Charlie Hough, Phil Nierko, Tom Candiotti
Year Of Release: 2012
Viewing Method: Netflix Instant (TV)

WORLD WAR Z Circles The Globe But Goes Nowhere (Spoilers)

"Movement is life."

You know that something has gone wrong when you walk out of a movie asking yourself, "What was the point of all that?" 

When it comes to World War Z, I guess the point was to give Brad Pitt a new franchise.

The book by Max Brooks is an oral history of a zombie apocalypse that has already happened, documenting past events and how different people and countries dealt with the crisis, some more successfully than others.  I started the book ages ago but never finished, although my understanding from those who have read it is that Marc Forster's film bears almost no resemblance to its supposed source material. Here we see a global zombie outbreak occur in real time, with Brad Pitt's UN investigator Gerry Lane immediately sent on a globetrotting mission to find "Patient Zero" in order to discover the source and perhaps even a cure for this worldwide calamity.

He doesn't.

Pitt certainly does travel to a number of exotic locales, following a trail of breadcrumbs that takes him from Philadelphia to South Korea to Jerusalem to Wales all in a few days.  Each of these set pieces is individually entertaining but only on a surface level.  David Morse tells us that North Korea's solution was to extract the teeth of everyone in the country, thus stopping the viral spread by preventing bites.  That sounds awesome!  Too bad we don't get to actually see it.  Israel intercepted some early intelligence reports describing zombies in India and, thanks to a completely absurd decision making process, ended up constructing a giant wall around the capital city.  And rather than turn people away, they've decided to turn the city into a haven for survivors, asserting that, "Every human we save is one we don't have to fight."  That got me curious: what kind of society would that become?  Surely they're bringing in people of different faiths and nationalities that weren't exactly getting along before the zombies showed up.  Will they all suddenly play nice and band together against the larger threat?  And what about scarcity of resources like food and clean water?  They are in the middle of the fucking desert after all.  That sound like a city with all sorts of interesting opportunities for drama, both large and small.  Too bad as soon as Brad Pitt shows up, a horde of zombies scales the wall and overruns the city.  Look, I understand the reason for shifting the time frame from the past to the present - theoretically it gives the proceedings a sense of immediacy.  But World War Z seems more interested in teasing us with provocative zombie scenarios than actually showing those scenarios play out on the screen.  Instead Forster seems content to mention something cool in passing before dropping us into another hectic zombie swarm. 

By now, everyone has an opinion about fast vs. slow zombies, and while my tastes tend to run more towards the slower side I will admit that the concept of zombies as a massive swarm actually feels pretty novel. But the cinematic zombie landscape is not what it once was.  In a world where one of the most popular shows on television is chock full of some of the goriest, most violent zombie attacks I've ever seen, audiences should demand more from their big screen tales of the undead. With a final budget hovering somewhere in the vicinity of $200 million, World War Z is without question the most ambitious and expensive zombie film ever made, but rather than try and compete with the likes of The Walking Dead, the film opts for a startlingly bloodless approach.  The zombies quickly overtake people but they never really chow down on human flesh.  Instead they just bite down and move on to the next sucker, thus eschewing gruesome death scenes and replacing the familiar rotting corpses covered in festering wounds with a grey-faced collection of contorted limbs.  After a while, the (mostly digital) creatures all sort of run together and become boring, which is pretty much the cardinal sin of zombie design.  

But there are also some serious narrative problems plaguing World War Z.  First and foremost, Brad Pitt is the only fully formed character in the whole movie, which means that whenever he gets tangled up in a zombie attack it's obvious that Pitt will survive and everyone else will die around him.  And poor Matthew Fox strangely shows up for literally 27 seconds of screen time as a faceless helicopter pilot with one line of dialogue. What a waste!  He's got a wife and daughters, but he shepherds them out of harm's way fairly quickly and then they're just sitting safe on a boat waiting for him to come home from his mission.  But therein lies the other narrative problem: about 3/4 of the way through the film, Pitt drops his search for Patient Zero when he develops a theory for a way to biologically camouflage people from the zombies.  After surviving a zombie attack on a commercial plane, he staggers off to a W.H.O. facility in Wales to test his hypothesis.  The film then slows down as Pitt stops jetting around the planet and spends the rest of the movie working his way through the Zeke-infested lab to get all the materials he needs.  It's some of the best stuff in the whole movie but it also feels terrifically disjointed from everything that's come before.  That's not surprising, considering that the studio ordered not just extensive reshooting, but also a complete rewrite of the film's third act by Lost writer Damon Lindelof and Cabin In The Woods writer/director Drew Goddard.*  

Taken on its own, the Welsh segment is top notch stuff, well conceived and smartly staged, but it feels like a completely different movie from the previous ninety minutes. What's more, the film's final montage makes it clear that Pitt's camouflage method is only a temporary stop-gap measure.  It's not a cure or a vaccine, its just a tool for survival.  And in case you're unclear whether Paramount was hoping for a sequel, (it's already in development) I'm pretty sure the last line of the movie is, "Our war is just beginning."  While this film is a jumbled mess of action and fractured storytelling, I actually feel as if there's some incredible franchise potential here if you hand over the reigns to someone totally nuts and really start exploring the weirder corners of this new world, like a whole country full of people with NO FUCKING TEETH.  

Hell, they might even be able to use something from the actual book.

*Apparently most of Matthew Fox's scenes were in the 40-odd minutes of footage excised from the end of the movie.

Title: World War Z
Director: Marc Forster
Starring: Brad Pitt, Mireille Enos, Daniella Kertesz, James Badge Dale, Fana Mokoena
Year Of Release: 2013
Viewing Method: Theatrical - Showcase Revere

June 24, 2013

So Let's Talk About MAN OF STEEL (Spoilers, Indeed)

"They will race behind you.  They will stumble, they will fall.  But in time, they will join you in the sun.  In time, you will help them accomplish wonders."
Before Bryan Singer's X-Men ushered in the modern comic book movie bonanza, there were two gold standards when it came to big screen superheroes in my lifetime: Tim Burton's Batman and Richard Donner's Superman.  I saw both when I was very young and each left very different yet equally indelible marks on my cinematic tastes.  Over time, the popular sentiment has seemed to favor Gotham's Dark Knight, especially after the overwhelming success of Nolan's trilogy, but I've always had a tremendous soft spot for the Last Son Of Krypton.  Meanwhile, my wife Jamie has always had trouble with the character because she finds his invulnerability to be dramatically dull, whereas plenty of others have told me that he's "too corny" or "kind of silly."  While Jamie makes a valid point, I would submit that those who have a problem with the tone of the character are really basing that stance on their remembrance of the four films starring Christopher Reeve, which spent a lot of time focusing on Clark as a bumbling fool and eventually got bogged down by absurd side characters like Richard Pryor's computer hacker or John Cryer's Lenny Luthor.  And while I maintain that Singer's Superman Returns is a gorgeous film that gets a lot of things very right, tying itself so closely to Donner's version of the character was ultimately a mistake.  The character has been long overdue for a completely fresh take, something that feels current but maintains the optimism that Donner and Reeve made so endearing.  Zack Snyder's Man Of Steel is a fairly radical departure from everything that's come before, and while not every change to the character and his familiar origin completely works, at the very least they're all interesting choices that add up to a compelling hero who is sure to dominate movie theaters for many years to come.

Let's talk about what works.  First and foremost is the film's cast, of which there is really no weak link.  Every one of the leads absolutely knocks it out of the park, and I love that the supporting cast is full of familiar faces like Christopher Meloni, Harry Lennix, and two cast members from both Battlestar Galactica and Smallville.*  And the very concept of Richard Schiff channeling Toby Ziegler in the midst of a Superman movie is endlessly entertaining to me.  (I kept waiting for him to pull a pink rubber ball out of his pocket.)  The first fifteen minutes of the film take place on Krypton and it's absolutely breathtaking stuff, full of ornate headpieces, floating robots and harnessed flying dragon beasts.  You really feel the withered age of their civilization, which is a pretty important part of Kryptonian society and why it's about to be destroyed.  Russell Crowe is superb as the stately warrior-scientist Jor-El, even when saddled with unfortunate dialogue like, "We've had a child.  A boy-child."  Kudos also to Ayelet Zurer as his wife Lara, who manages to convey a deep and palpable love for her infant son and an empathy for his future struggles with only a few scenes.

Amy Adams is wonderful as probably the best version of Lois Lane that's ever been committed to film.  While there was something rather adorable about Margot Kidder's brash and spelling-challenged take on the Daily Planet's intrepid reporter, when I first showed the movies to Jamie she had a real problem with Lois.  Specifically, Kidder's Lois was head over heels in love with Superman and completely ignored the bumbling Clark Kent, which made her feel totally superficial and seriously undermined her relationship with the character as a whole.  She wasn't in love with the actual person so much as the heroic ideal.  But this new Lois feels much more well rounded.  While she's always right in the thick of the action, the only time she's seriously in need of saving is when some sort of aircraft malfunctions and/or explodes and sends her falling through the sky.  She's almost never the damsel-in-distress, she's always an active participant in the action.  And Lois is not just a good reporter, she's a great reporter.  How do we know this?  Well aside from watching her toss back whiskeys and go toe-to-toe with the military, when she gets saved in the arctic by a mysterious stranger with superhuman abilities, she manages to track him all the way back to Smallville despite the fact that he'd been hiding his identity and traveling under assumed names for years.  Lois literally uncovers his secret before he ever puts on a cape.  That's some investigative fucking journalism.  But moreover, it fundamentally changes her relationship with Clark.  In bypassing all the secret identity nonsense up front, the connection between Lois and Clark becomes inherently stronger, especially since she managed to figure out his origins and track him down but then chose not to expose him to the public.  I think the romance angle is a little underwritten here, but this is a version of Lois and Clark that I can't wait to spend time with, one in which she's a true partner and confidant, as opposed to someone whom he's constantly lying to and manipulating.  The comics figured this out back in the 90's and I'm glad to see Snyder pick that thread up right from the outset.

A big part of the reason for Christopher Reeve's success in the role was his ability to not only embody the forthright heroics of Superman, but to be so thoroughly entertaining as the klutzy Clark Kent.  Most people tend to think of the character as split in two, but I've always considered him split in three, with Kal-El as the real, grounded, and conflicted person caught between two extreme public personas in Clark Kent and Superman.  Snyder and screenwriter David Goyer make an extremely smart choice here, forgoing all of that to give us one guy, Kal-El, searching for his place on an adopted homeworld.  He's still got an inner conflict between his human upbringing and his Kryptonian roots, but it doesn't manifest itself in silly disguises and split personalities.  Henry Cavill is utterly fantastic in the role, bringing a deep humanity that many would argue the character has lacked over the years.  Young Clark has often been portrayed as a typical all-American kid, but this Clark had a fairly terrifying childhood courtesy of the incredible powers that he couldn't always control.  He therefore turns into an outcast who's literally uncomfortable in his own skin.  It's little wonder that the adult Clark ends up wandering from job to job in isolated places, compelled to help people but unwilling to reveal himself to humanity because Pa Kent instilled in him such a fear of how mankind would react to the news of an all-powerful alien living among them.

The idea of humanity's reaction really drives a lot of the story here, but it's largely dictated by one somewhat maddening storytelling decision.  Even though the Jor-El hologram explicitly tells Clark that he's meant to serve as an example of inspiration and leadership to the people of Earth, he's so paralyzed by Jonathan Kent's protective paranoia that he's still nervous about showing humanity what he can do.  The audience is thus robbed of one of my favorite bits of any Superman movie: the montage of Superman zipping around Metropolis and engaging in some old-fashioned do-gooding.  I love the bits where Superman foils a bank robbery, or prevents a plane crash, or rescues a kitten from a tree.  It's a little old fashioned I guess, but it's also an essential part of who he is as a character.  Clark chooses to be a force for good and therefore takes it upon himself to suit up and help people from tragedies both large and small, and by revealing himself to mankind as a beacon of hope and justice he wins over humanity and becomes the people's champion.  But in Man Of Steel he only reveals himself when Zod holds the world at gunpoint, hacking into anything with a screen and broadcasting a threat to destroy the planet unless Kal-El surrenders.  Clark is so concerned with revealing himself at the right time and making the right impression on people, but the choice is essentially taken away from him here.  When a giant starship shows up and demands the planet turn him over or be destroyed, I'm sure most of humanity is thinking, "I don't know what you're talking about, but if there is a secret alien hiding out somewhere you're welcome to him.  What do we care?  Also, please don't blow us up."  Since Kal-El is still essentially a hidden refugee, I'm sure that plenty of people (i.e. Fox News talking heads) would have been incredibly distrustful of Superman when he did finally make his presence known.  It instantly colors the relationship between Superman and humanity in a weird light and I'm curious to see how Snyder intends to handle it going forward.

That potential distrust will most likely be fueled by the astounding devastation wrought at the end of the film.  I've simply never seen destruction on this kind of scale before.  Superman gets into a brawl with a few of Zod's henchmen that practically wipes Smallville off the map, but that's nothing compared to what goes down in Metropolis.  Zod sets up a terraforming device in the middle of the city that fucks with gravity, a device that is eventually brought down by creating a goddamn black hole that sucks the Kryptonians and their ship back into the Phantom Zone and, in the process, levels half the city.  As in, flattens many square miles to dust.  In the midst of all this chaos we have Laurence Fishburne as Perry White along with Intern Jenny (Olsen?) and Other Daily Planet Reporter scurrying between falling buildings and getting trapped in the wreckage.  But since they're not actually tied to the action going on in the skies overhead and we've only had a cursory interaction with the characters up to that point, it's a bit of a narrative dead end.  Clearly the only reason they're included is because A) they're canon characters that need to be established so they can have more to do in future movies and B) Zack Snyder wants us to focus on these three civilians who survive Zod's attack to distract us from the fact that tens of thousands of people are clearly dying all around them.  What's more, Superman seems unconcerned that he's causing mass casualties every time he punches Zod through a building.  At one point the two fly toward each other and collide full speed and the ensuing force collapses an entire building facade.  Sure it's awesome to watch, but it's also more than a little disturbing to contemplate the obvious toll it's taking on Metropolis.  When he fights in Smallville (a town SURROUNDED BY EMPTY FARMLAND) Superman offhandedly tells some bystanders to get inside the surrounding buildings, and within ten minutes every building has been knocked over or had a train thrown at it.  While I unabashedly tip my cap at Snyder for delivering the biggest superhero battle of all time, (Jamie remarked, "It's as if he watched The Avengers and said, 'I can totally blow up more stuff than that.'") it's also extremely frustrating to see Superman act with so little regard for the safety of those he's trying to protect.  I expect the sequel will feature Lex Luthor leading the charge to blame Superman for the unfathomable loss of life that resulted from Zod's last stand.

And speaking of loss of life, there are two deaths that I had a real problem with.  First is Jonathan Kent.  The death of Pa Kent is a crucial moment in the development of the character.  He's traditionally died of a heart attack, which is a formative experience for Clark and teaches him that even with all of his powers that there are some people that just can't be saved.  Instead, this Pa Kent runs out in a tornado to save the family dog while Clark stands by and watches as his father is swept away.  I'm sorry, but that's just stupid.  Maybe Clark couldn't have run out into the whirlwind and saved his father without giving away his powers to the crowd of onlookers,** but he certainly could have told his father, "No, you go wait under the overpass with Mom and I'll go save the dog because I CAN'T BE KILLED."  While it's still a powerful dramatic moment because Kevin Costner is so great in the role, the underlying moral is totally lost because his death was 100% preventable.  Instead it just becomes one more reason for Clark to resent his powers and his place in the world, and it makes me resent this version of Pa Kent as written.  He basically comes off like some kind of self-hating xenophobe and while that might feel like a more realistic depiction of a Midwestern farmer, it's a really bizarre choice for Superman's father.  Perhaps he should have imbued young Clark with a little more optimism and a little less distrust of humanity.  At least then Clark wouldn't have had to go see that priest and we could have been spared that subtle-as-a-brick-to-the-face shot of Clark with a stained glass Jesus over his shoulder.

Finally there's Zod.  Michael Shannon is nothing short of brilliant in the role of the mad general who will stop at nothing to protect Krypton's legacy and ensure the survival of his people.  It's infinitely more interesting than Terrance Stamp's "I will conquer whoever happens to be standing nearby" iteration of the character, as much as I love all that "Kneel before Zod" stuff.  No matter what this new Zod does, he always believes that it is right and necessary for the good of the Kryptonian race and Shannon fills the character with such righteous fury that you simply cannot look away whenever he's on screen.  The only thing disappointing about his character was his eventual resolution.  First of all, between this and Star Trek Into Darkness, I'm really sick of the good guys finally retrieving whatever Macguffin they've been searching for or destroying the enemy's doomsday device, only to then cram in one more superfluous set of fisticuffs after the fact.  I'm all for Supes and Zod slugging it out one-on-one in the skies of Metropolis and it's a fantastically staged fight, with a lot of great little touches like Superman floating in place when the floor falls out from under him, or using his heat vision to melt away the steel beam that Zod is swinging at his head.  Every punch sounds like a sonic boom and is accompanied by bright impact waves in the air.  It's a stupendous brawl.  But if there's one thing Superman has always held sacred above all else it's the sanctity of life.  It's why he always goes out of his way to protect civilians during a battle and it's why he doesn't kill his enemies.  And, much like his newly minted cavalier attitude towards collateral damage, here Superman is forced to snap Zod's neck before the villain can occularly roast a trapped family of four in Metropolis's Grand Central surrogate.  That decision might hold more dramatic water if they hadn't just inadvertently massacred a quarter of the city's population.

And aside from any logistical issues I might have with the method of execution***, it feels like an unnecessarily dark choice.  In this version, it's not enough that Superman doesn't kill people because it's morally wrong, instead he has to be tortured by the emotional scars of the one time he actually killed someone with his bare hands.  The moment is played dramatically, (before being abruptly dropped for some jokey shit in the desert) with Superman dropping to his knees and releasing a cry of anguish before clutching the nearby Lois Lane.  This feels like Batman's territory and it's precisely the reason that Superman and the Caped Crusader make such a potent pairing: Batman is cold and pragmatic with a deep inner turmoil, while Superman is warm and idealistic, an icon of hope in an uncertain world.  Cavill's Superman is meant to serve as the cornerstone for Warner's eventual Justice League movie and one of the keys to that film's success will be how they differentiate all the different characters.  They can't all be so dour.  I'm okay with scuffing up Superman's image a bit, but I hope that in the already-greenlit sequel we'll see a Supes who is not only a little more comfortable in his role as Earth's protector, but also properly earns the nickname "The Big Blue Boy Scout."

Zack Snyder became an easy target after the double whammy of Sucker Punch and that animated owl movie, but you simply cannot deny that the guy is a master of the visual medium.  He can compose the hell out of a shot and for all the kinetic insanity of Man Of Steel's finale, it's the little stuff that I've found has stayed with me, like the butterfly flapping its wings while stuck in the chains of a swingset, young Clark playing outside with a red cape pinned to his shoulders, or Jonathan Kent silently waving off Clark's help and accepting his fate.  Donner's scenes set in the fields of Kansas are some of the most memorable of the whole film and Snyder proves a worthy successor in that regard.  He doesn't shy away from the emotional side of Clark's journey but he also manages to keep the story from feeling truly overwrought or mopey.  And while he's abandoned his usual affinity for speed ramping, he seems to have developed the same obsession with dust motes floating through beams of light that J.J. Abrams has with lens flares.  But it's just a minor textural thing and I actually kind of dig it.  (Just like I secretly dig those lens flares.)  Oh yeah, and I simply cannot say enough good things about Hans Zimmer's incredible score.  I got obsessed with it after seeing the third trailer (embedded below) and immediately downloaded the entire deluxe double album.  In many ways it reminds me of his score for Nolan's Dark Knight movies, where there isn't exactly a catchy single melody like John Williams' Superman theme or Danny Elfman's Batman theme, but there are instead a series of variations strung throughout the film that add up to a complete musical landscape which defines the character and his world.  Zimmer's work here is absolutely soaring and propulsive and goes a long way towards setting the overall tone of the film and keeping things uptempo and inspirational whenever possible.  You might not walk out of the theater humming a specific tune, but when you hear this music you'll instantly recognize it as belonging to Superman.

The final scene is brief but perfect, with Clark showing up for his first day of work at the Daily Planet, lending further credence to the feeling that we've essentially been watching Superman Begins.  It's easy to connect the dots from Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy to Man Of Steel, especially considering that Nolan and Goyer shepherded both characters into theaters.  And while I wouldn't describe Man Of Steel as "grim and gritty," it's certainly taking itself extremely seriously.  The moments of levity are few and far between, and while Cavill's Clark Kent remains upbeat, some of the character's trademark altruistic hope and unbridled optimism still feels missing.  It's as if DC decided, "Well, Marvel has cornered the market on flat-out fun, popcorn-munching hero yarns, so instead we'll be prestigious and classy and IMPORTANT."

If I sound overly critical, it's only because I love Superman so damn much and I want him to always be awesome.  I really did enjoy Man Of Steel thoroughly and in a lot of ways, this is the Superman movie I've long been waiting for.   While the Reeve era certainly had its share of super-powered fights, the effects really have not aged well and I've always wanted to see Superman face off against a real physical threat.  Lucky for me, Snyder delivers enough bone-rattling combat and destruction here to make Roland Emmerich blush.  Perhaps next time we'll get an intellectual challenge as well?  A puzzle for Superman to solve?  The ancient Kryptonian scout ship featured an open, empty pod, so perhaps there's another Kryptonian roaming around after all.  Folks seem to want it to be Kara/Supergirl but I'm hoping for Braniac.  Much like Abrams' Star Trek reboot or Marc Webb's The Amazing Spider-Man, I think DC has assembled the exact right collection of talent and they've established characters and a world that I want to see more of, so I'm willing to forgive them for a few choices that seem interesting and well intentioned but ultimately don't play out as well as they'd like.  All the moving pieces are in place to deliver something truly spectacular next time out.

But in the meantime, Man Of Steel is thrilling, emotional, ambitious and just plain entertaining.

Welcome back, Superman. 

We've missed you.

*Well, three Smallville cast members if you count Amy Adams, who appeared in a fat suit as an overweight girl who gets slim and crazy courtesy of some kryptonite-laced veggie shakes.

**He totally could have.

***Doesn't that imply that, with the proper amount of force and leverage that Superman's neck could be snapped just as easily?  That seems pretty fucking vulnerable to me.

Title: Man Of Steel
Director: Zack Snyder
Starring: Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Michael Shannon, Russell Crowe, Kevin Costner, Diane Lane, Laurence Fishburne
Year Of Release: 2013
Viewing Method: Theatrical - IMAX 2D

June 21, 2013

Jaden Smith Is The Albatross Around The Neck Of AFTER EARTH

"I like it, but I think it's something bad."
I'd really love it if Will Smith would stop trying to get me to like his kids.

To be fair, I have no real feelings about his daughter Willow one way or the other.  She had that one pop song about her hair that I barely remember and then they tried to package a remake of Annie around her that she thankfully outgrew before it could happen.*  And I actually enjoyed Jaden Smith in The Pursuit Of Happyness, but he was so young at the time that it was less about what Jaden was doing and more about the kind of attitude he brought out in his father.  I fully believed that Will's interactions with Jaden were reflective of their actual relationship at home - they weren't two actors in a scene, it was a father talking to his son.  The remake of The Karate Kid was probably a better judge of Jaden's talents as an actor and he's decent enough, but he's also being propped up to a certain degree by a Jackie Chan who was gracefully beginning to acknowledge his own age.

But make no mistake, no matter what Sony's marketing may want you to believe this is 100% Jaden's movie.  The two Smiths play a father-son duo from a human colony far in the future, 1000 years after mankind has fled to the stars in order to escape the world which we ravaged with pollution and mass destruction.  En route to another planet, the elder Smith detects a "one in a million" meteor shower based on an almost imperceptible vibration in the ship's hull (the plotting is that brand of dumb) and their transport ship is ripped in two and crashes on Earth.  In order to be rescued they must retrieve an emergency beacon from the tail section, which landed kilometers away.  Unfortunately Will Smith, who's character is named CIPHER RAIGE (I shit you not) breaks both legs and severs an artery, leaving him confined to the ship while his son Kitai must set out across the hostile environment in search of salvation.  That means that the whole movie lives and dies with Jaden Smith, as he's the one has to fight off irate monkeys and weird lion creatures while his father watches via automated camera drones.  Unfortunately, Will Smith sitting in a chair trying to hack a makeshift arterial shunt is exponentially more compelling than Jaden Smith battling a jungle full of pissed off animals.

The film is directed by M. Night Shyamalan, his first in the three years since the double death blows of The Happening and The Last Airbender.  He's clearly trying to claw his way out of director jail here, ditching his trademark twist endings completely and essentially hitching his wagon to Will Smith, one of the most bankable international stars working today.  Where once people would flock to theaters simply because of Shyamalan's involvement in a movie, those days are long since past.  Now he's nothing more than a hired gun, helming a movie that is one step short of a vanity project for Smith family brand.

It's obvious that Shyamalan was not the driving force behind After Earth.  (Everyone's weird accents feel like the one creative touch that he brought to the picture.)  If nothing else, his movies have always had a strong theme and a clear message, even if those messages became increasingly heavy handed over time.  This movie starts with a obvious set-up for a story about our short-sighted environmental attitudes and the long term consequences of humanity's actions, but that's quickly dropped in favor of weird plants and bizarrely evolved predators.  Instead the movie is about conquering one's fear.  You see, after taking up residence on a new world, humanity has had to fight against an alien enemy that breeds creatures that can detect certain human pheromones - they can literally smell fear.  CIPHER RAIGE** is considered to be mankind's greatest hero because he can suppress his fear to the point that he becomes invisible to these creatures, a method they call "ghosting."  And of course the ship they were on was transporting one such beast, so it naturally breaks out of its cage and stalks Kitai, who's still haunted by the memory of watching one of the monsters kill his older sister.  But he doesn't really have any kind of emotional breakthrough in order to conquer his fear.  When he does finally ghost it's an accident, much the same way his father first discovered the skill for himself.  (Smith's telling of that story is easily the best single moment in the film, another example of him inadvertently making his son look bad.  Smith recalling that memory out loud to an empty room is far more riveting than all of Jaden's acrobatics and one-note resentment combined.)  And even after Kitai has conquered his fears and proven himself to be the kind of soldier his father can be proud of, a.k.a. his singular motivation for everything he does in the entire movie, the moment is immediately undermined by a hackey joke about giving up the military life to go work with his mom.  Ugh.

I've spent the two weeks since seeing this movie trying to figure out exactly what kind of film Shyamalan was trying to make, and something tells me that even he would be hard-pressed to give you an answer that isn't, "the kind of movie that makes Jaden Smith look like a fucking badass."

So in this summer's battle of the "lone man on a post-apocalyptic Earth" movies, I guess Oblivion wins.  But really, we all lose.

*It's recently resurfaced with Quvenzhane Wallis, Jamie Foxx and Sandra Bullock Cameron Diaz.  Daddy Warbucks has been renamed Benjamin Stacks.  Whatever.

**I just can't type that name without using all caps

Title: After Earth
Director: M. Night Shyamalan
Starring: Jaden Smith, Will Smith, Sophie Okonedo, Zoe Kravitz, Glenn Morshower
Year Of Release: 2013
Viewing Method: Theatrical - Showcase Revere

June 20, 2013

NOW YOU SEE ME Is A Bit Of Forgettable Fun

"Cheap and meaningless, yes.  But not time consuming."
This is one of my favorite magician stories ever:  In April of 2006, David Copperfield and two of his assistants were walking to their tour bus when some teenagers held them up at gunpoint and demanded that they hand over their valuables.  The assistants turned over their cash and cellphones, but Copperfield claimed he didn't have anything to give, turning out his pockets to prove they were empty.  In reality the magician was carrying his wallet, passport and cellphone, but he was able to deceive the gunmen using his considerable sleight of hand skills.

That's right, David Copperfield used magic to thwart crime.

It's seven years later and now Copperfield is on the flip side of the coin, using his talents as a stage magician to design the onscreen tricks for a quartet of larcenous illusionists in Now You See Me.  That certainly lends the movie a little bit of magic street cred and the love and respect for the days of marquee magic acts is apparent throughout.  (Early on there's a Vegas magic show with probably two thousand people in attendance, none of whom are your grandmother.)  Unforunately, the film is the perfect example of what I call a "teflon movie."  It's entertaining enough while you're watching it but makes almost no emotional impact and immediately upon conclusion it slides right off your brain.  No muss, no fuss.

There are a lot of things working against Louis Leterrier's latest.  First of all, the reason that movies about heists or magic always enthrall audiences is that they implicitly goad the viewer into solving the puzzle before the film explains it all in the end.  How will the theives get away with money?  What is the magician doing behind all the smoke and mirrors?  When your movie is about a heist being pulled by magicians, that challenge is instantly amplified, which means that you better have one hell of a twist and/or reveal when it's all said and done.  Unfortunately, each and every turn here is obviously set up way in advance (except for the Paris bank vault bit, which is silly and convoluted beyond measure) so that when the physics-defying CGI curtain* is eventually pulled back, it feels perfunctory.  This isn't a magic eye poster where the audience makes a clever discovery hiding in plain sight.  This is a connect-the-dots picture meant for children under seven, where the picture is obvious even before you draw the lines.

The film also never really delivers on the premise they've been marketing - a team of magicians team up and use their various skills in order to pull off daring and righteous acts of thievery.  Part of the problem is that, while the Four Horsemen (the name of their stage act) are acting according to a complex master plan, they didn't actually come up with it.  They're all summoned together by a mysterious figure in a hoodie and given all the materials and blueprints they'll need to accomplish their mission, and then they follow their instructions to the letter with no interest in who's pulling their strings or why.  In fact, the movie skips from the moment they're handed the plan to a year later when they finally start to execute it over the course of three large scale magic shows.  I think there's a better movie to be had set in that missing year, with four strangers struggling to get along and perhaps rooting out their mysterious benefactor, all while using magic skills to one up each other and secure themselves a big payday.  Instead, the four all play nice and they obediently follow their instruction manuals, and with no real conflict the magicians become almost incidental characters. Each gets a cool introduction and their big stage shows are theatrical and entertaining but otherwise they are barely present in the rest of the movie. Jesse Eisenberg and Woody Harrelson each get entertaining interrogation scenes when the team is taken into FBI custody and Dave Franco actually gets the best scene in the movie, using flash paper, throwing cards, sleight of hand and misdirection to beat the tar out of some FBI agents. And what does Isla Fisher do?  Well, to paraphrase my wife, "She looks hot and giggles."  But all four work very well together and manage to keep the audience entertained despite their dramatically inert story, further convincing me that in some parallel universe there's a much better version of this movie.

Without any tension between the magicians or a puzzle for them to actively solve they become dull, static characters.  Therefore, the majority of screentime is devoted to Mark Ruffalo and Melanie Laurent as the respective agents of the FBI and Interpol who are hot on the Horsemen's trail and intent on preventing their next heist.  These two are barely present in any of the ads and trailers, yet they are the actual protagonists of the movie. They've got mysteries to solve and bad guys to catch, all with healthy doses of both romance and distrust between them. While the chemistry between Ruffalo and Laurent certainly leaves something to be desired, their story works well enough on its own.  But it's still a bit of a letdown if, like me, you walk into the theater expecting a movie about clever magicians using their deception skills to outsmart the cops and pull off righteous crimes and instead you get a movie about a harried FBI agent who's constantly one step behind a group of smarmy thieves with a penchant for theatricality and card tricks.  The marketing feels like a total bait and switch - like when Sony convinced everyone that Looper was a cat & mouse chase film where a young hitman hunts his older self, only to get a smart and emotional film about fate, perspective and sacrifice.  (Obviously that one turned out for the better.)

Michael Caine is also on hand to pick up a paycheck while wearing expensive suits and Skyping with Conan O'Brien, while Morgan Freeman actually looks to be having fun as a scarf and ascot wearing professional magic debunker.  There's an obvious sequel set up at the end (Now You Don't!) and if such a film does miraculously come to pass, I'd expect to see Freeman back as the villain.  (That may sound like a spoiler, but it's really not.)  Letterier's over-reliance on digital effects is more than a little maddening, making the whole thing come off just a little bit too slick.  It's hard to get invested in a magic movie where the tricks are presented in ways that simply couldn't exist in reality.

I suspect Now You See Me will disappear from theaters soon enough, but if you've been meaning to go see it, don't worry.  Some Saturday afternoon two years from now, you'll stumble upon it playing on FX and you'll think to yourself, "Oh yeah, I remember this movie.  What the hell, I've got time to kill."  And you'll eat a sandwich and enjoy Woody Harrelson's silly mentalist routine and Dave Franco's playing card-jitsu.

And then a few hours later, when someone asks you what you did that afternoon, you'll struggle to come up with an answer.

*I'm not kidding.  There's a digital cloak that gets cartoonishly swirled around people and stage rigs multiple times.  It's egregious and awful.

Title: Now You See Me
Director: Louis Leterrier
Starring: Jesse Eisenberg, Mark Ruffalo, Woody Harrelson, Dave Franco, Isla Fischer, Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, Melanie Laurent
Year Of Release: 2013
Viewing Method: Theatrical - Regal Fenway

June 19, 2013

Grab Your Bejeweled Fur Coat For A BEHIND THE CANDELABRA Live-Tweet

"You have an eye for new and refreshing dick."
I played the piano from the age of five until I was seventeen.  I started with a small Casio keyboard and eventually moved up to a real piano years later when my younger sister started to play.  I mostly worked with the same teacher, a lovely woman named Martha who was exceedingly sweet with me despite the fact that I always wanted to play every song twice as fast as it was written - at the Christmas recital I would whip through "The 12 Days Of Christmas" in about three and a half minutes.  Even then I was a little punk rocker.

I eventually stopped playing because when I switched teachers in high school I discovered that, while Martha had taught me to play scales and songs and read notes on the page, she hadn't actually taught me any kind of musical theory.  I didn't understand the mathematical relationship between the notes, the nature of harmonies and why some chords work while others do not.  I had essentially been learning by sheer rote memorization, and since my interests were starting to shift towards film and theater I didn't have the patience to essentially start from scratch.  But I'm eternally grateful for my musical childhood because, if nothing else, it gave me the sense of rhythm and the keen ear for melodies that eventually led me into my college a cappella group, which led to some of my very closest friendships.

Despite my long run behind the ivories, I have really no real knowledge of the great Liberace.  I know what everyone knows: he was an incredible piano talent who frequently appeared on TV and played glitzy shows in Vegas.  And somehow, despite his incredibly flamboyant style and extravagant manner of dress, the public largely never realized/wouldn't admit that he was gay.  Looking back on it now that seems almost comically absurd, but it's hardly the first time the American people have rejected the obvious reality in favor of a more comfortable narrative.  I was certainly intrigued to see Steven Soderbergh's adaptation of Scott Thorson's memoir Behind The Candelabra, especially considering the strong buzz behind Michael Douglas's performance, but I was on the fence about whether I'd write it up here.  I've generally been trying to avoid movies produced solely for television as it's really hard to judge that stuff on the same scale as something meant for a proper theatrical release.  It's a very different development process and those projects usually draw from a different talent pool both behind and in front of the camera.  Two things ultimately changed my mind: first of all, this is supposedly Steven Soderbergh's last movie.  I'm sure he'll continue to produce projects  for many years to come but he claims that he's no longer interested in directing.  I certainly hope he changes his mind, but if not that instantly lends Candelabra a little more weight.

The other compelling factor is that this movie wasn't originally conceived for HBO.  Usually those movies are developed at HBO and then they hire a big name director to come in and execute it, but this was just the opposite.  Soderbergh wanted this to be a full blown theatrical release and shopped the project at every major studio.  Despite his efforts, nobody would give him the money because they all felt the movie was "too gay."  I don't even know what that means.  The movie certainly doesn't shy away from Liberace and Thorson's sexual relationship but there's only one scene of them actively having sex and it's not terribly explicit.  There's no real money shot and there's certainly nothing worse than we saw eight years ago in Brokeback Mountain.  I'm somewhat flabbergasted that with talent the likes of Soderbergh, Damon and Douglas (not to mention the cavalcade of cameos) not one studio saw the obvious prestige potential here.  My guess is that their trepidation came from a value judgement, not in the moral sense but in the financial sense.  Talent paychecks aside, this isn't exactly a movie you can do on the cheap and I'm sure the powers that be had significant doubts that the movie would find a wide enough audience to justify that kind of investment.  Liberace isn't exactly a hit with the young people these days and a lot of the folks old enough to remember Liberace fondly would probably be squeamish at the idea of watching him get fucked by Matt Damon.  Still, it's hardly a stretch to imagine this film getting a wide release in late November and then winning ALL THE AWARDS.

Anyway, I really dug Candelabra and hope that Soderbergh eventually changes his mind about directing.  While he's sure to nurture some provocative new talents as a producer, nobody shoots like Soderbergh and I can't help feeling that his eye is one that will be sorely missed.

Take it away, live-tweets!

If you've got HBO, you can still catch Behind The Candelabra on demand.

Title: Behind The Candelabra
Director: Steven Soderbergh
Starring: Michael Douglas, Matt Damon, Rob Lowe, Scott Bakula, Dan Aykroyd, Debbie Reynolds, Nicky Katt
Year Of Release: 2013
Viewing Method: HBO HD