Thursday, May 30, 2013

Capsule Reviews #1

Directed by Steve Soderbergh
Written by Richard LaGravenese

A fine, fine two-hander character piece. Douglas inhabits a figure too often reduced to camp caricature by playing two characters simultaneously: life-of-the-party entertainer Liberace and the vulnerable yet cruel human being Lee -- with both characters being equally real versions of the same man. Damon demonstrates (once again) that he's one of the best American actors of his generation, successfully portraying a character so young and stupid he makes you forget all the superspies, math geniuses, and mature fathers he's played for the past 15 years. Soderbergh peerlessly uses color in the way Orson Welles used black-and-white. Smart, sympathetic writing from LaGravenese proves that biopic screenplays don't have to be experimental to be great. Genuinely affecting, particularly in the later scenes. Special credit should be given to the makeup department, led by Kate Biscoe, who astonishingly make Michael Douglas into Liberace, Matt Damon into Michael Douglas as Liberace, Rob Lowe into the single worst person in Beverly Hills, and, in the end, one character into a dying, heartbreaking mess. One shot to single out: towards the beginning, in a moment lasting only a few seconds, one woman (an extra) joins in on the Vegas "boogie woogie" singalong, and in her face one can see all the enjoyment and escape that Liberace shows provided to generations of grateful audience members.

Incidentally, the fact that this couldn't get made by a Hollywood studio because it was "too gay" is so disappointing, and here's hoping that HBO keeps making films like this instead of their living wax museum "political" films.

Directed by J.J. Abrams
Written by Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzmann, & Damon Lindelof

Mild spoilers

Intermittently entertaining, but mostly dull. Iconic characters, chic settings, and some fun performances (mostly Quinto and Pegg) keep it watchable, as opposed to a slog, but lacks anything transcendent. The climax is so abrupt as to seem almost like a parody. The film literally stops in the middle to have Spock call Old Spock to ask for some advice in an utterly pointless scene that tells us literally nothing about either character, nor anything else going on the film. It boggles the mind to consider that people had to wake up, take a shower, drive to set and film that scene, time they could have spent, I don't know, playing with their kids, or reading a book. For all the mystique and hype, "John Harrison" never seemed any more motivated in the actual film than he did in the trailers, and Cumberbatch is unable to makes his character's desire for revenge feel like more than boilerplate movie villainy. Interesting ideas like the allegorical treatment of extrajudicial killings are tossed aside in favor of the "character" arc of Chris Pine's Kirk, something that was effectively taken care of in the last film and reeks of how-to-write-a-succesful-screenplay-book "advice." In a universe populated by starships full of multiracial, mixed-sex, multi-species crews, why continuously focus on the white frat boy who has a hard time growing up? What happened to the commanding, intellectual Kennedyesque man-of-action-and-hard-decisions seen in the original series?

SUGGESTED DOUBLE FEATURE: Forbidden Planet (1956). This kind of film done right, with a equal mix of gee-whiz wonder, grab-your-seat thrills, and speculative science fiction consideration (Monsters from the Id!). More amazement with Robby the Robot than in all 133 minutes of STID.


Directed and Written by Gus Van Sant

This film is deserving of much more than a capsule review. Unfortunately, it's still a little beyond me at the moment. So instead, here's a few unorganized thoughts. Using nonprofessional actors was entirely the right idea, as they give off an ineffable quality of realness that is entirely keeping with Van Sant's desired aesthetic. Even the "realest" of professional actors are still performing heightened and modified versions of reality, providing a kind of distance that this film entirely avoids, breaking down all barriers between viewer and subject. Van Sant's camera moves with an intense empathy that most films avoid, as it can be all too uncomfortable. But Van Sant embraces the discomfort, the long pauses between actions, taking his time in showing the small tasks that make up most of a day, with a tone that's pitched perfectly between looseness and deliberateness, illustrating that there is much less distinction between the two than we think. In this film, just as in its spiritual predecessor Elephant, both the mundanity of most of the action and the sensationalistic aspects are deepened by the other -- with the little things being seen in a life-and-death context and the "bigger things" seen in relation to the life that they interrupt and destroy. The kind of film that I'm just glad exists, out there to be discovered and seen and felt.

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