Behind the Candelabra

If, as the man himself has declared is the case, Steven Soderbergh retires from feature film making, Behind the Candelabra is certainly a fitting farewell. Soderbergh’s frustration with the industry is well documented and this film epitomises the struggles that filmmakers such as Soderbergh face in trying to bring their vision to the screen. Whilst Behind the Candelabra has secured a cinematic release in Australia, the Academy Award-winning Soderbergh was forced to turn to cable television giant HBO to ensure the project saw the light of day when the Hollywood studios deemed the film ‘too gay’ for American film audiences. Subsequently, the film screened on HBO in America rather than in cinemas, which is a shame. Fortunately, despite the continued refusal by politicians to heed public sentiment and embrace gay marriage with suitable legislation, Australia is obviously regarded as a much more enlightened audience and the film has secured a release in mainstream multiplexes.

The story covers a particular period in the life of flamboyant entertainer Liberace (Michael Douglas), specifically his 6-year relationship with animal wrangler Scott Thorson (Matt Damon). It seems almost impossible to believe that, despite his outrageous costumes and effeminate mannerisms, Liberace maintained a public persona as heterosexual and successfully sued those who dared suggest otherwise. This film explores Liberace’s life away from the spotlight and presents him as a man whose talent and wealth have failed to produce the contentment that he craves. When Thorson comes into his life, Liberace is smitten and the two embark on a love affair that ultimately proves a rollercoaster ride for all involved.

Having been raised in foster homes, the much younger Thorson is initially swept away by the wealth, excess and decadence of Liberace’s lifestyle but eventually begins to find it suffocating. Having submitted himself to extreme makeovers and even plastic surgery at the behest of his lover, Thorson eventually rebels and soon finds himself on the outer when Liberace acquires a new lover. Douglas is fabulous as Liberace, presenting the gifted piano player as someone who, despite seemingly having it all, is very unhappy with many aspects of his life. His penchant for younger men is an attempt to boost his own self-confidence – which seems abundant on the surface but is severely lacking away from the spotlight – and ward off the inevitability of aging.

Behind the Candelabra

As hard as it may seem to believe given the luxurious lifestyle that Liberace enjoyed – which was hard earned with a gruelling work schedule – and the way he treated many of the people who came into his life, you can’t help but feel sorry for him at times in his futile, and often misguided, attempts to find the love and happiness that he craved. Like so many true life narratives, there is no happy ending to be found as Liberace ultimately succumbs to an AIDS-related illness, one of several high profile celebrities to fall victim to HIV during this period.

Whilst Douglas is the standout in the lead role, he is well supported by Damon as the naïve Thorson and Dan Aykroyd as Liberace’s greedy manager Seymour Heller. Meanwhile, Rob Lowe is hilarious as plastic surgeon Jack Startz and it is great to see Scott Bakula back on the big screen as Bob Black, the man responsible for bringing Thorson and Liberace together. Debbie Reynolds plays Liberace’s somewhat strange mother Frances, with Paul Reiser in a small role as the lawyer engaged by Thorson to sue Liberace for palimony, a course of action that produces a result far short of the millions he is seeking.

Set almost entirely in Liberace’s lavish mansion, Behind the Candelabra looks great and Soderbergh has done a terrific job in capturing the lifestyle that Liberace enjoyed, along with the vanity and self-doubt that somehow coexisted to drive him to the pinnacle of success. The concert scenes do provide some insight into why Liberace enjoyed such popularity with audiences, but it is his life out of the spotlight on which Soderbergh has elected to focus, to excellent effect. It is so disappointing that a filmmaker as talented as Soderbergh (whose extensive body of work includes the likes of Traffic, Erin Brockovich, Contagion and Magic Mike) feels the need to move away from making movies into other areas of artistic endeavour, which includes television projects, because the industry desperately needs those who push the envelope and challenge the established conventions of the Hollywood production and business model.

Only God Forgives

Given the amount of press that has been generated about how Only God Forgives has been received at various film festivals around the world, it is difficult to see what the fuss is about. Reportedly booed by audience members in Cannes before taking out the top gong at the Sydney Film Festival, I’m not sure that either response is entirely appropriate, although the latter is probably closer to the mark. The much anticipated follow-up to Drive by Nicolas Winding Refn, Only God Forgives is short on dialogue and full of unlikeable, amoral characters, yet is still a somewhat engaging viewing experience. Several critics have attacked the film because of excessive violence, but the number of people killed in this film pales into insignificance when compared to the likes of Man of Steel or any of the ubiquitous action films that Hollywood churns out incessantly.

In what is a very simple, and simplistic, story, Ryan Gosling plays Julian, an American living in Thailand out to avenge the murder of his brother Billy (Tom Burke). Given that Billy’s death was, in itself, a payback for his killing of a 16-year-old girl, Julian initially has little inclination to seek any kind of retribution. However, the arrival of his foul-mouthed gangster mother Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas) hell bent on revenge forces him into a course of action that ultimately triggers a tragic series of events for almost everybody involved. Gosling literally says next to nothing throughout the entire film, spending most of his screen time staring wordlessly into the ether as murder and mayhem is unleashed around him. It is very hard to connect with Julian or understand the things he does, such as allowing himself to be verbally abused by Crystal simply because – as he explains to girlfriend Mai (Yayaying Rhatha Phongam) – she is his mother.

Gosling

Chang, meanwhile, is a policeman who divides his time between looking after his young daughter, singing in cafes and enacting violent retribution on any wrongdoers who cross his path. Chang (Vithaya Pangsringarm) shows no favours and uses a variety of different techniques to inflict harm upon pretty much everyone. Chang literally cuts a swathe through the various reprobates who inhabit the seedy world of violence, drugs and prostitution in which our characters are entrenched. With the possible exception of Julian, it could be said that everybody gets what they deserve, so it is hard to feel sorry for those who fall vicitim to Chang’s vengeance.

The film looks fabulous, the neon glow of Thailand’s streetscapes and back alleys is mesmerising and creates atmosphere in spades, even romanticising, to some extent, the seedy world in which we find ourselves. In fact, there is a real tranquillity in many of the scenes that serves as a stark contrast to the bursts of violence. Likewise, the soundscape is exceptional, in large part compensating for the lack of dialogue. If nothing else, Refn has made something that looks and sounds beautiful, which is more than can be said for a lot of other filmmakers. All the performances are understated and, despite the considerable moral ambiguity which all of the characters possess, it is Crystal who comes across as most heinous of all. It really seems as though the excessive vulgarity of this character was created purely to shock. Scott Thomas does seem to relish the opportunity to play so much against type but when Crystal refers to Mai as Julian’s ‘cum dumpster’, you can’t help but feel that all involved are trying a bit too hard to outrage the audience. Overall though, the film has plenty of merit and there is no doubt that Refn is a skilled filmmaker, as anybody who has seen Drive and his earlier works (Valhalla Rising, Bronson, Pusher) can attest.

Only God Forgives

The title of the film is interesting in that it suggests, as is played out within the narrative, that there is no place for forgiveness other than that afforded by god. Everybody must pay a price for their sins with Chang serving as judge, jury and executioner. Despite making every effort to avoid becoming ensnared in this vicious circle of punishment and payback, Julian’s unwillingness to stand up to his mother is what ultimately puts him on a collision course with Chang. Not Refn’s best work, or Gosling’s for that matter, but a good film in many respects and certainly not worthy of the brouhaha that has accompanied its release.

Pacific Rim

Mexican-born Director Guillermo del Toro grew up watching Japanese monster movies in his home country and his love of these films is very much evident in his latest cinematic offering, the special effects spectacular that is Pacific Rim. After making his Hollywood debut in 1997 with science-fiction creature feature Mimic, del Toro followed up with the orphanage-set horror The Devil’s Backbone (2001) and the less than inspired vampire sequel Blade 2 in 2002 before being handed the reins of the comic book adaptation Hellboy (2004) which, whilst not a blockbuster by any means, attracted a strong cult following. With his next project, del Toro changed tack to create what most people regard as his masterpiece, the Spanish language fantasy drama Pan’s Labyrinth (2006). Two years later came the Hellboy sequel and since that time, del Toro has been linked to a myriad projects as Director, including The Hobbit (for which he wrote the screenplay) and has served as a producer on films as diverse as Kung Fu Panda 2, Rise of the Guardians and Mama. However, it is the monster mash-fest of Pacific Rim that sees del Toro back behind the camera again for the first time in five years.

Pacific Rim 2

In Pacific Rim, the world is under attack from giant creatures known as Kaiju, who emerge from the bottom of the ocean to attack coastal cities. As a result, a special weapon has been devised in an effort to stop them in their tracks. Jaegers are enormous robots controlled by two pilots simultaneously who are connected via a ‘neural bridge’. With the Kaiju seemingly unstoppable, Jaeger program leader Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba) turns to a former pilot and a rookie looking to avenge the death of her family to save the planet. There is actually more to this movie than the trailer would have us believe as it is not just an endless series of brutal battles between the Kaiju and the Jaegers, although they certainly do take up a large portion of the running time and are very well constructed.

The problem is that, whilst there is an effort to provide insight into the characters and their motivations and relationships, too many clichés and stereotypes abound, from the Golden Gate Bridge being destroyed (again) to the geeky, bickering scientists or the Russian pilots who look, and sound, just like somebody doing an impression of Dolph Lundgren. Furthermore, with the exception of Rinko Kinuchi as Mako, the acting is wooden and Charlie Hunnam fails to bring much gravitas to the lead role of Raleigh Beckett, a skilled pilot who is haunted by the death of his brother in a Jaeger mission years earlier. Kinuchi, whose performance in Babel (2006) for another Mexican filmmaker in Alejandro Gonzalez was so good, is really strong once again. Perhaps most impressive of all though is Mana Ashida as the young Mako in one of the most moving moments in the film.

Pacific Rim

There are romantic overtones in the relationship between Raleigh and Mako and, whilst there are various attempts to inject humour into the chaos, particularly in the rivalry between Newton (Charlie Day) and Gottlieb (Burn Gorman), it is the appearance of Ron Perlman late in the piece that brings genuine mirth. Perlman, who starred for del Toro in the Hellboy films and features alongside Hunnam on TV’s Sons of Anarchy, is a delight as Hannibal Chau, leaving you wishing that he had played a bigger part.

Overall though, despite its flaws, Pacific Rim is entertaining enough and will no doubt prove to be del Toro’s biggest hit to date. The action sequences are effective without being excessive and the story moves along at a reasonable clip, with only a few stumbles to accommodate the to-be-expected macho posturing from the various alpha male characters that are such a staple in a movie of this ilk.

The Lone Ranger

I was astounded by the new filmic version of The Lone Ranger. Astounded that Director Gore Verbinski and Disney Studios could do such a terrible job bringing this character to the big screen that is. How this ultimately developed into such an overblown mess is anybody’s guess, but very little about this film reflects the tone of the original television series and it is difficult to understand what went wrong. There is no doubt that Verbinski has tried to recapture the elements that made his Pirates of the Caribbean so successful, no doubt under considerable pressure from the studio to do so, but this film falters in so many areas that it is not surprising to discover that box office numbers are far below what was anticipated.

Verbinski has tried to transform what is essentially a fairly typical western narrative about revenge, justice and retribution – the cornerstones of any cowboy story – into a stunt and special effects extravaganza, sacrificing narrative, characterisation and logic along the way. Whilst many of the typical western tropes are present – the damsel in distress, the whore with a heart of gold, the black hat/white hat tradition to distinguish the good guys from the bad guys – an overabundance of action sequences prevent the audience from really getting to know or care about any of the characters.

Armie Hammer (The Social Network) stars as the initially naïve and inept John Reid, who adopts the persona of The Lone Ranger to avenge the death of his brother Dan (James Badge Dale), who is killed by notorious outlaw Butch Cavendish (William Fichtner). Joined by Native American outcast Tonto (Johnny Depp) in his bid to bring Cavendish to justice, the pair find themselves embroiled in a series of stoushes that become more outlandish as their mission progresses. With Reid a somewhat reluctant hero and Tonto presented as a fool, it is unlikely that these two would ever achieve their objective. In fact, it is really disappointing to see Depp stoop to mockery of Native American culture in his portrayal of Tonto. There has obviously been an attempt to place Tonto at the front and centre of the narrative, rather than simply being a solemn sidekick which, in itself is commendable, but the way this character has been constructed is as nothing more than a clueless, bumbling buffoon.

Lone Ranger

Almost all attempts at humour fall flat and it is really difficult to work out at whom the film is targeted. The moments of violence render it unsuitable for young children, yet the simplistic dialogue, crazy action and downright silly moments (such as a horse up a tree for example) seem to suggest that it is, in fact, a younger audience that they are trying to secure. I would certainly like to think that most adults would find this to be a somewhat insipid film experience. The cast is strong with the likes of Helena Bonham Carter, Tom Wilkinson and Barry Pepper also featuring, so much of the blame for this mess must lie with Verbinksi, whose back catalogue is littered with misfires such as Mousehunt, The Mexican and the uninspired American remake of The Ring. He certainly did the western thing much better in the animated Rango, which also featured Depp.

There is no doubt that The Lone Ranger is great fodder as a film character, which makes it all the more frustrating that this attempt has been botched so badly. The success of Westerns as a Hollywood staple has always been due to their simplicity. In this instance, the filmmakers seem have to lost sight of this fact and, as a result, we have been presented with a film that tries to be all things at once and fails miserably.

Help Beyond Blue

Mr C is taking part in the Bridge to Brisbane 10 kilometre fun run in Brisbane on September 1. I am also hoping to raise some money for Beyond Blue: The National Depression Initiative along the way to help them in their continued efforts to raise awareness and assist people suffering from depression and anxiety.

If you would like to assist me in my efforts to help Beyond Blue and the work they do, please click on the link below to make a contribution.

https://b2b2013.everydayhero.com/au/misterc-69

I cannot promise any record times, but I can assure you that I will be making every effort to get the best result possible and every dollar raised for Beyond Blue reduces my race time by 1 second, so the more support I get the faster I look.

If you would like more information about Beyond Blue, click the link below to go to their website.

http://www.beyondblue.org.au/

Much Ado About Nothing

A great many people regard Joss Whedon a genius and it is not hard to understand why this writer/director/producer has acquired a cult following. Yes, for the most part the stuff Whedon creates is different, but it is also very, very good. Whether it is for television or cinema screens, Whedon delivers consistently, even if the studio suits don’t always get it. Following the enormous success of the ground breaking Buffy the Vampire Slayer television series (and the spin-off Angel), Whedon has followed up with two more excellent, but criminally under-appreciated series’ for the small screen in Firefly and Dollhouse. His first foray into motion pictures as a Director came via Serenity, a continuation of the Firefly universe on the back of fanatical support for the show that was seemingly at odds with the views of the clueless network executives who canned it after just one season.

Following Serenity, Whedon wrote and produced the ingenious horror flick The Cabin in the Woods before returning to the director’s chair for The Avengers, the most anticipated, and ultimately, most successful superhero movie in many a year. With The Avengers, Whedon showed that for superhero movies to work, you can’t take the premise seriously and he used humour to great effect to construct a movie in which the silliness is celebrated at the expense of the earnestness that plagues so many other films of this type (Zack Snyder please take note).

Despite, or perhaps because of, the success of The Avengers, Whedon has changed tack considerably for his current release, a contemporary version of William Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing. Far removed from the $200 million spend on his comic book epic, Much Ado About Nothing was shot on location in Whedon’s house on a miniscule budget. With an ensemble cast who do a terrific job with a story that, like so much of Shakespeare’s work, is both bonkers and brilliant, this black and white rendering is an absolute treat. Of course, those who refuse to embrace Shakespeare will no doubt resist this film, but there is so much to like that it’s hard to care about anybody silly enough to bypass what is a cinematic rarity – a genuine laugh-out-loud comedy.

Much Ado

The story opens with Don Pedro (Reed Diamond), having returned from a victorious campaign against his rebellious brother Don John (Sean Maher), arriving at the home of his friend Leonato (Clark Gregg). Accompanying Don Pedro are Benedick (Alexis Denisof) and Claudio (Fran Kranz), who falls instantly in love with Leonato’s daughter Hero (Jillian Morgese). Benedick, meanwhile, finds himself embroiled in a series of verbal stoushes with Leonato’s niece Beatrice (Amy Acker). A wedding for Claudio and Hero is hastily arranged, only to have the ceremony jeopardised by trickery at the hands of Don John and his allies Conrade (Riki Lindhome) and Borachio (Spencer Treat Clark). Meanwhile, with moves also afoot to bring Benedick and Beatrice together, a series of comic events play out as both of the budding relationships are required to withstand a series of setbacks if they are to prevail.

Denisof and Acker are hilarious as the bickering Benedick and Beatrice and their love-hate relationship is the highlight of the film. Whilst both characters possess a cocky, self-assured public persona that results in their incessant squabbling, it is self-doubt and insecurity that ultimately threatens to stand in the way of them embracing their love for each other. Whilst there are a few bum notes, such as the somewhat staid performances from Kanz and Morgese, the sheer hilarity of it all overwhelms any shortcomings. Gregg is fine as the eager-to-please but seriously compromised Leonato, while Whedon regular Nathan Fillion (Firefly, Serenity and TV’s Castle) is gold as the bumbling, clueless Detective Dogberry.

Fillion

Whedon has done a terrific job in bringing the story to the screen but, make no mistake; this film doesn’t possess any of the blockbuster staples in the Hollywood tradition. There are no a-listers in the cast, no CGI, no explosions, no sex, drugs or violence. Furthermore, it is presented in black and white and the dialogue, for the most part, remains true to Shakespeare’s original tome. However, it is not what the film lacks that matters, because few films are this much fun, demonstrating once again the sheer quality and timelessness of Shakespeare’s writing.

Recommended Reads

Just because I can, I thought I would list my top ten favourite books. They are not in any particular order and such lists are always subject to change as new gems are discovered and devoured. Whilst individual taste and preferences for particular styles will always be an influence whenever somebody puts together a list like this, I am of the belief that a good book is a good book regardless of genre, style, author, setting, subject matter or when it was written.

1. American Psycho – Bret Easton Ellis
2. L. A. Confidential – James Ellroy
3. The Corrections – Jonathan Frantzen
4. Bonfire of the Vanities – Tom Wolfe
5. Shantaram – Gregory David Roberts
6. Catch 22 – Joseph Heller
7. Confederacy of Dunces – John Kennedy O’Toole
8. Girl With the Dragon Tattoo – Stieg Larson
9. Norwegian Wood – Haruki Murakami
10. Let the Right One In – John Ajvide Lindqvist

It was very difficult to create a definitive list of ten because there are so many great books. I have only just touched the surface with this list, but all the books listed are fantastic and anybody who hasn’t read them yet should do so immediately to restore their cultural credibility.

Whilst this list is a personal opinion only, my superior intellect and infinite wisdom makes it hard for anybody to refute any of these choices. However, I welcome the deluded ramblings of those who beg to differ, so please feel free to comment and/or offer your own suggestions.