Monthly Archives: June 2013

Behind the Candelabra

Behind the Candelabra film posterSynopsis

By Steven ‘Sex Lies and Videotape’ Soderbergh.  About the pianist Liberace (Michael Douglas) and his homosexual relationship with Scott Thorson (Matt Damon).  Based on Thorson’s book about his affair and the jealousies that led to their acrimonious split.  Thorson had started out as an animal trainer for movies.  It shows Liberace getting Thorson to undergo surgery to emulate his own ordeal.  It shows Liberace at his piano performances and his death from Aids.


Hollywood studios would not touch this film so it was premiered at the Cannes film festival, presumably because it’s too explicit in the way it deals with homosexuality.  The big surprise for mainstream cinema is that Matt Damon and Michael Douglas have played mainstream machos (imagine Redford or Eastwood playing a pair of queens!) and here they are not only camping it up but showing the two men in an honest and direct way, though one might still offer the caveat that they might feel easier playing queens rather than ordinary people in such a relationship, after all, quite a few actors have played camp.  Liberace’s stage performance makes Elton John look sedate, I’m reminded more of Andy Warhol (like him Liberace was a Catholic).  It’s amazing that Liberace’s blue rinse audience appear to have been ignorant about his sexuality.

The film follows their daily life in what Liberace called “palatial kitsch”. His candour over his affluent tasteless slum does not diminish one’s visceral revulsion against its tackiness and spiritual desolation, where is the zebra skin couch?  Again, one thinks of the pathos of this spiritual squalor as in Sunset Boulevard.  Liberace’s keyboard talent does not extend to his awful taste in pictures or furniture.  Now of course, many affluent people in the rich world emulate Liberace in the horrors of plastic surgery and manipulation, and sexual callousness in what we call oxymoronically “celebrity culture”.

Douglas as Liberace shows us the nuanced human being under the twitching camp mask that’s sometime reptilian and sometime easily wounded.  The bedroom scenes are a scary mix of insecurity and paranoid jealousy.  We should have expected it, but it is a shock when we learn that those Elvis-in-a-light-socket wigs covered baldness.  In mainstream films we always know we’re in rich decadence when we see bathers drinking champagne in a marble jacuzzi, and so here.  Debbie Reynolds plays Liberace’s Austrian mother, she is so unrecognizable that I thought it might be Meryl Streep doing another elderly lady impersonation.  The various businessmen and lawyers are shysters in mutton chop whiskers and flared trousers, and they all look like wretched scavengers.  Great Performances.

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Posted by on June 14, 2013 in At the cinema, Film Reviews


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After Earth

After Earth film posterSynopsis

Will Smith is a general living on a distant planet.  His son is played by his real son Jaden, and his wife by Sophie Okenedo.  Smith and his son journey to another planet and a storm sends them to a future Earth where they crash land.  Smith is crippled so Jaden has to go on foot to retrieve a beacon 100 kilometres away.  On the way he battles creatures and the weather…


We are told that future Earth is inimical to human life and in the case of this film that extends to a decent scriptwriter.  This is a stolid catastrophe of a film in which we see Will and son trying to bond as they are marooned on an Earth which understandably wants rid of them.  Jaden Smith looks like a sulky victim of boot camp bullying.  You wish that his foes would get him and put him out of his misery, these being oversized baboons, a venomous worm, and a potato-and-matches monster but none of them oblige.  This film is made by Mike Shyamalan who specializes in idiotic egregiousness and he offers it here.  On the alien world Will Smith is a military cadet (like in Avatar even the most lavishly funded sci-fi films can’t get away from American GIs and the crude predictables).  Smith has a beautiful wife and this makes me think of Illustrated Man by Ray Bradbury.  That film is a collection of four short stories: the Smith family are like Rod Steiger and Claire Bloom in their futurist home.  Jaden Smith’s journey made me think of the Venusian rain story from Illustrated Man and it should have been a versatile development of that but sadly isn’t.  Indeed if this film could be shortened into one of Illustrated Man’s or Twilight Zone’s story collections it would be less awful but we see too much of Will Smith looking as if he is suffering from constipation.  Smith has done some comedy S.F. and I Robot but he has no inspiration.  The film looks good, the opening scenes on the distant planet are quite spectacular.  The organic interior of the space buildings are like hi-tech Habitat fittings but in spite of this have a certain originality.  Most of the film is a father and son Iron Man work out and they get bogged down in a turgid plot.  Awful.

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Posted by on June 14, 2013 in At the cinema, Film Reviews


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Mud film posterSynopsis

About two teenage boys Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) who meet a loner on an island in the Mississippi.  They are befriended by Mud (Mathew McConaughey) who is wanted for a killing in Texas.  Mud’s girlfriend Juniper (Reese Witherspoon) is persecuted by Mud’s pursuers led by Joe Don Baker. Tom (Sam Shepard) is a former marine who lives in a cabin across the river from Mud.  Michael Shannon plays Neckbone’s uncle.  Ellis’s parents are heading for a broken marriage.  One of the boys meets a girl who lets him down and he feels that Juniper lets him and Mud down in the end.  At great risk Mud helps Ellis when he’s bitten by a cottonmouth snake.  There is a shoot out at the end…


The obvious influence here is Huckleberry Finn and there are similarities to other films such as Whistle Down the Wind or even The Iron Man: impressionable boys meet a mysterious stranger who goes from a Christ figure, to a Judas, and then to a more human level.  This is about growing up and redemption.  Mud earns the boys’ affection and respect after initial wariness.  He is an ultimately steadier emotional presence than Juniper’s or the girlfriend or Ellis’ father, indeed he becomes substitute parent.  Ellis’ mother is strong but embattled by the domesticity which contrasts with Mud’s frontier glamour.  Mud comes to represent the pioneering values of constancy and reliability as opposed to the seeming fickleness of women.  He is seen as a loner who can provide salvation, the avenging angel.  In the film’s patient description of hard survival I often thought of Hemingways’ Old Man and the Sea.  There are vivid scenes in Mud: Mud’s boat is stuck in the branches of a tree.  Mud and the boys pull it out of the tree in a mini version of Fitzcarraldo where a steamboat is dragged through the jungle. Neckbone’s uncle (Michael Shannon) goes oyster hunting in the river bed, he wears Ned Kelly iron protection gear.  If the film slowed down at this point I would swear it was directed by Terence Mallick but it gets into more conventionally violent mode.  The shoot-out between Mud and the vigilantes at the end spoils the film.  For most of the story, the film is a rite of passage for the boys in the dreamy landscape of the Mississippi, more visually impressive than the pretentious fuss of Beasts of the Southern Wild but at the end it becomes predictable.  I’m often mystified by what appears to be an American addictive reverence for gun violence sanctified by the Second Amendment.  Why is the false resolution by shoot-out given such a special place?  For most of the film, Sam Shepard is like an Emersonian poet who you expect to repudiate his military past, but then he becomes an enthusiastic killer.  If you were to personify this film you could say it looks at the stars, holds a smoking gun in one hand, and drags its feet in the muck.  It would be an excellent film but for the gunfight,


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Posted by on June 8, 2013 in At the cinema, Film Reviews


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The Great Gatsby

TheGreat Gatsby film posterSynopsis

Baz Luhrmann’s film about Gatsby, the mysterious millionaire who got his fortune from associating with gangster “Wolfshine”.  Toby Maguire plays Nick Carraway who hero worships Gatsby.  Joel Edgerton plays Tom the husband of Daisy played by Carey Mulligan.  Gatsby and Daisy love each other and he wants to take her from her husband who has a mistress living in the poor part of town.  Does Daisy or Gatsby kill her in their speeding car?  The husband of the killed mistress wants revenge by shooting Gatsby…


Gatsby has been filmed several times.  As you would expect, Luhrmann’s film is good on sumptuous spectacle but turns a tin ear and glass eye on Fitzgerald’s glories.  I read Gatsby a long time ago so we must stick to Luhrmann’s Gatsby purely as a film.  The parties are uninventive ad crass, more like disco, no Satyricon scenes here.  You won’t find any insights into decadence or wealth.  The poet Charles Tomlinson once said that a trick of the wealthy was to pretend to be the like the rest of us as in “Do you think I’m made of money?”.  There is no such unctuous hypocrisy from Gatsby, we learn that his secretiveness is founded on the banal need for criminal self concealment.  In spite of the glamour and wealth Gatsby only comes alive to us when we learn about his First World War history and his love for Daisy, otherwise he is Citizen Kane or Howard Hughes as we wonder how he will impress his cronies.  He has done the the Ernest Hemingway exploits and trophies them in his sumptuous Xanadu.  Di Caprio does a good job of showing us that Gatsby is more than just a pleasure palace impresario, he shows weakened defences.  He gets furious (with Daisy’s husband) and he is menacing when seen with his gangster associates.

When he woos Daisy he poses as her gauche suitor, as if his wealth has endowed him with a kind of numinosity like the etiolated hero of de Huysmenn’s A Rebours.  My big problem with Di Caprio’s Gatsby is the accent, as a boy he lived in the Dakota badlands in poverty and now he speaks like the southern grandee he played in Django. Does he do this in the book?  In the film it sounds incongruous.  Gatsby started his millionaire career by aping his supposed wealthy benefactor and Toby Maguire as Nick Carraway acts like Charles Ryder in Brideshead Revisited or Matt Damon in Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr Ripley as he idolizes the Jude Law character.  Such people seem like creeps, scavenging from the wealthy as they live vicariously the wealthy life but haven’t the gumption to do it themselves.  Carey Mulligan as Daisy is, for me, too girl next door to be a magnetic presence.

Gatsby is more significant for what it is now in 2013 rather than being a plausible interpretation of Fitzgerald. It’s about celebrity and its transience and about our contemporary obsession with re-inventing the past.  Gatsby thinks he can summon the past and make it live again.  His wealth gives him the illusion of artistic control over his life and others.  Gatsby is set in 1922, the era of prohibition and ragtime.  The anachronistic 21st century pop music the film uses should be irritating but actually enhances Luhrmann’s extravaganza, excess and spiritual sickness are the same in whatever era the film turns it’s glare on 2013 financial venality and wealth worship.  Gatsby ends with the grieving husband shooting Gatsby in his swimming pool.  The swimming pool has been a symbol of wealth alienation: through Burt Lancaster’s The Swimmer to all those poolside murders.  Think of Sunset Boulevard and its faded delusionary film stars.

In films about the rich it seems customary to include a moralizing leitmotif.  In Citizen Kane we are referred to the symbol of lost happiness in the child’s sled, named “Rosebud”.  In Gatsby it’s either Gatsby reaching out to a distant green light across the river or the all-seeing eyes on the advertising billboard for spectacles.  This says that wealth can free you from consequences but not from your conscience.  Entertaining.   .

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Posted by on June 8, 2013 in At the cinema, Film Reviews


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The Tempest

Thr Tempest film posterSynopsis

Starring Helen Mirren as Prospera, the female Prospero.  It’s the Shakespearean play about Prospera’s revenge on all the people who have wronged her.  They are cast onto her island. Prospera wants her dukedom back from Alonso, Antonio and Sebastian.  The spirit, Ariel helps.  Miranda, Prospera’s daughter, is betrothed to Ferdinand son of Alonso.  Two seaman Trinculo and Stephano meet Caliban, the momster who saves Prospera.  They plot to overthrow the kingdom of the island.  Justice is done, Prospera will return to Milan and all is well.


In this interpretation the male Prospero becomes the female Prospera but it’s not as if the text can support that!  The male Prospero is unaccountable and controlling and this does not fit well with Prospera who is a supposedly wise mother to Miranda.  I suppose the comparatively trivial fact that a woman would not have ruled a 16th century Milanese dukedom can be put aside but the text needs more for Prospera to work on.  Still it’s a novel idea and Helen Mirren does it with aplomb.  I’m not partial to her voice (sounds as if her jaws are wired together).  Prospera’s relationship with Ariel is a sort of wary equality occasionally imbalanced by the debt that Ariel isn’t allowed to forget.  Ben Wishaw plays Ariel as a special effects wizard, occasional star man and scary harpy.  It’s a sort of rueful parental relationship.  Her daughter, Miranda, is hardly the innocent novice of the play., in this production she looks like she’s competing with Ariel for ‘Androgyne of the Month’.  Caliban is unprepared to accept either Prospera’s benevolent condescension or her hostility that comes from wounded vanity.  He is not so much a noble savage gone wrong, more a sort of hominid performance artist hybrid.  Antonio and Sebastian are suitably weasely.  The pompous Gonzalo is a Polonius clone though Tom Conti tries to make him more likeable.  David Strathairn as Alonso is.  Trinculo and Stephano, played by Russell Brand and Alfred Molina, only have to gurn like failed stand up comedians, and we get irritated with them long before the long suffering Caliban does.

The island itself is unprepossessing  like an Aegean hideaway made of bleak volcanic rock.  At times, it’s like watching Lost in fancy dress, and Prospera is in danger of looking like an eco- tourism guide who specializes in light shows.  Speaking of which, the film’s astrological performance is more inventively spectacular than any attempted visual analogy of an Elizabethan court Masque would be.

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Posted by on June 2, 2013 in At the cinema, Film Reviews


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Prospero’s Books

Prospero's books DVDReview

Peter Greenaway’s interpretation of The Tempest.  The title comes from the central motif of the film: the wealth of the knowledge contained in the books is the real key to power.  It’s a Renaissance pantechnicon impressarioed by Prospero’s vindictive id.  Gielgud’s Prospero aspires to be a scholar disinterestedly pursuing knowledge for its own sake but the books are a gateway to an unleashed imagination which can work for either evil or good.  Greenaway’s film is set in a panoptic pleasure dome elaborating its artifice for the purposes of cruel manipulation.  He stylizes the acting within the sets as if he’s trying out tones of voice and body posture.  The effect is a masque moving in real time and we are spectators at this baroque court of historical and surreal pastiche.  The superimposed voices and silent acting are mimes echoing into each other.  In The Tempest there is off-stage conspiracy and this then quickens the tempo, as if Prospero’s theatrical manipulation suffers the outrage of a competing vision hence his anger with Caliban.  In Prospero’s Books Caliban mimes as if he’s the dark side of Prospero but his vitality defies the stilted postures of all the other characters so for me he is the most sympathetic character.  Ariel is all Palestrina castrati and fake cherubs.  This emphasizes the decadence of magic used for caprice and personal power rather than for enhancement of life.  Prospero’s progress through his Neronic court over parquet floors is accompanied by the metronomic music of Philip Glass.  Miranda is just another spoilt and gilded menagerie exhibit.  The Milanese  courtiers wear grossly exaggerated Rembrandt clothes and this enhances the artificiality of their life-denying corruption stranded in Prospero’s Renaissance prison; they are clowns awaiting his vengeance.  Prospero has shown  himself to be little better because his revenge is aesthetic and cruelly elaborate, as if to emphasize Nietzshe’s point that art and cruelty serve each other.  Not only Trinculo and Stephano but all characters are stilted or dumbly statuesque in comparison with Caliban’s graceful dancing.  Amazingly original.


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