Behind the Candelabra
Remember when Wilco got a ton of press for having been dropped from their record label, Reprise, just as they were about to release the album that went on to be their most critically acclaimed and popular work, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot? It was a story often repeated at the time as a shorthand demonstration of how sorry and dysfunctional the music industry had become. How could one of the country’s best, most innovative and respected bands get dropped as a reward for making their finest synthesis of experimental leanings and classic Americana pop song craft? The story became symbolic of how skewed the priorities had gotten within the music industry which increasingly focused on short term profits from lowest common denominator garbage.
Well, I happen to think that Behind the Candelabra has become the filmic equivalent of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. Every story about the film leading up to its release had to mention how no Hollywood studio would make the movie even though it was to star two of the most famous (Michael Douglas) and bankable (Matt Damon) stars working today and directed by one of the most successful and esteemed filmmakers (Soderbergh). Bankable stars; a respected, dependable filmmaker; a juicy, ridiculous story—what’s not to like? Apparently enough that only HBO would agree to make it, effectively killing the film’s chances of a theatrical release and giving one of the best, most entertaining movies of the year over to television.Continue Reading
Billy Elliot stands out as a musical, a family drama and fiercely insightful look into the sacrificial toll on striking coal miners in Northern England in 1984. Stephen Daldry's direction alternately charms and punches with equal power until you are pulling at your own hair as Billy dances out his frustration through the run down back alleys, over cobble streets and finally into a brick wall furiously, fruitlessly and against all odds.
Billy is the youngest son of a widowed coal miner with an older brother not long in the mines himself, and an invalid grandmother. Coming from the tough and tumble Elliots, eleven year old Billy is naturally enrolled in boxing at school but somehow finds himself drawn to the girls' ballet lessons. Their teacher, the no nonsense Mrs. Wilkinson, sees potential in Billy and encourages his newfound passion and determination not knowing that Billy has kept it a secret from his family. All the while the coal miners' strike puts constant pressure on the Elliots, backing them into financial and emotional corners. When Mrs. Wilkinson procures Billy an audition at the Royal School of Ballet Billy must battle his family for the chance to be something different. Not only from what they know but what they themselves are fighting for.Continue Reading
Once again, Darren Aronofsky has stunned us with another story about a person trying to make it to the top. I will admit that Requiem for a Dream is still my favorite, but his touch is evident in this film and in The Wrestler. One might not consider Requiem for a Dream to be a movie about achieving greatness, but it certainly is. The mother, the son, his girlfriend, and their mutual friend, are all trying to get back in touch with the person they were in their prime. They aren’t necessarily about age or youth, but the time when the characters were most fulfilled. The Wrester tackles the same thing, where a washed up wrestling star tries to prepare for a chance to get back in the ring. Black Swan is the story of a soft-spoken, prudish ballerina who attempts to get to the top without using sexual favors; choosing to focus on perfection and grace. The present prima ballerina of her company, Beth Macintyre (Winona Ryder), is being pushed out of the limelight and a fresh face is being scouted for their winter performance of Swan Lake. Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) is hoping to be that fresh face. Her mother (Barbara Hershey) is an overbearing, retired ballerina who has been pushing her daughter to be the best and sheltering her naivety in an unsettling way. She gets the part and is overjoyed at the news of playing the Swan Queen. However, Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel), the director, worries that she won't be able to lose her inhibitions in time to pull off both sides of the role.
Swan Lake and the fantasy tale of The Black Swan both have a lot of history in the world of ballet. Aronofsky's film merges the two in order to create an emphasis on one character being both the hero and the villain, or more or less, her own enemy. When Nina begins to rehearse for the part, a spunky new dancer named Lily (Mila Kunis) comes to the company. While her form leaves much to be desired, her sensuality sparks interest in Thomas. The main reason her dancing is so alluring to him is because Nina's is so reserved. He believes that she dances the White Swan perfectly, but when it comes to the dance of the evil Black Swan, she fails to seduce. Nina becomes obsessed with Lily and sees her as a direct threat, not only in terms of the leading role, but also in terms of their director's affection.Continue Reading
Blast of Silence
If Albert Camus had made a film noir, it would have been very much like Allen Baron’s little-seen 1961 feature Blast of Silence. This low-budget jewel, which enjoyed a critical renaissance after a 1990 screening at the Munich Film Festival, is less a thriller than it is an existential exploration. In many ways, it anticipated Martin Scorsese’s equally dark New York drama Taxi Driver by a decade.
Writer-director Baron had originally cast Peter Falk as hit man Frankie Bono, but wound up playing the part himself after Falk took his career-making role in Murder Inc. Resembling a less feral George C. Scott, Baron is extremely effective as the solitary, dead-eyed assassin, who arrives in New York City at Christmastime to eliminate a troublesome small-time mobster. After a chance meeting, the lonely, embittered killer is drawn to a girl from his past (Molly McCarthy). But he still has a contract to fulfill, and his world begins to unravel as he stalks his prey.Continue Reading
From the opening sounds of sad circus music flowing into disco, you feel you are in for something unique. As the camera tracks across a street into a bustling nightclub, introducing us to a large array of characters in one take, you know you are in for one hell of a spectacle...
Boogie Nights is an epic tail about life in the swinging seventies through the lens of the porno industry of Southern California. It explores the transition of the business into the 1980s, where film was switched out for video, and the roof caved in for many. But it’s not simply a story of the sex trade—it’s about family. Although somewhat warped, the group of porn stars connect together as if they were brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers.Continue Reading
At age 22, Britain's "most violent criminal" Charles Bronson (nÃ© Michael Peterson, who initially took the name for his short-lived boxing career and then had it legally changed; here played by Tom Hardy) began serving a 7-year sentence for armed robbery. The year was 1974, less than 2 years after Stanley Kubrick pulled his movie Clockwork Orange from the theaters due to death threats. With the exception of just over 4 months, Bronson has spent the last 35 years as a ward of the state, all but 4 of them in solitary confinement. This extended sentence has to do with his seeming love of violence for violence's sake, something like the performance art of an evil Andy Kaufman. As such, he's a child of Alex de Large, or an Agent Orange -- that is, one whose real life lends itself to Kubrick's satire. Or, at least, that's how Bronson's director Refn takes it (some of Bronson's victims tend to approach his nature a little less abstractly). Therefore, Refn gives us Clockwork Orange's malevolent juxtapositions of barbarity and high-toned culture, gravitas and cornball pop tunes, with a comic book color palette and told through the wide-angled, symmetrical perspective of a demented narrator in clown makeup. Not exactly original, but like Cape Fear was to Hitchcock, livelier than most other films that don't steal from only one source.Continue Reading
Your high school English teacher always said everybody had a story in them. The Italian director Gillo Pontecorvo was a filmmaker who only had one story, a story of revolution that he attempted to tell in as many ways as possible. As a Jew trying to survive in Italy during the Second World War, Pontecorvo became a Marxist. Going into hiding, he organized Partisans to fight the fascist government and also wrote for the Communist Party’s underground newspaper. His early exposure and involvement in radical leftist politics led to his adoption of Frantz Fanon’s anti-colonial theories, ideas that he would subsequently develop in his magnum opus Battle of Algiers (1965) and later in Burn!
Battle of Algiers ideological ambiguity angered many conservative viewers and critics upon its release only three years after the French loss of the Algerian War. At the time the French right wing terrorist group OAS (the villains of Fred Zinneman’s Day of the Jackal) was still active and had attempted to assassinate the French president Charles de Gaulle three years before for his role in the decay of the French empire. Battle of Algiers was banned in France for five years, ostensibly for showing the atrocities committed by the French armed forces and the Algerian insurgents’ National Liberation Front with the same objective remove. The events portrayed in the film were carefully researched to accurately represent similar occurrences from 1954-1960. In contrast, Pontecorvo’s next film had only a tenuous connection to any factual incidences. The protagonist, William Walker, played by Marlon Brando, is very loosely based on the 19th century American rogue adventurer of the same name who while under contract from the Nicaraguan government to put down a rebellion ended up declaring himself President of Nicaragua. His story is told in Alex Cox’s brilliant film, Walker, finally available from Criterion, starring Ed Harris with a score composed by Joe Strummer.Continue Reading
We’ve all seen movies that circulate around addiction, whether it be substance abuse or recreational activities. The success of their messages can either scare the pants off an audience, urging them to never go down that path, or pull recovering addicts into a reminiscing spell. But Candy is somewhat different. Directed by Neil Armfield and co-written by the novel’s author, Luke Davies, it is a story more about the addiction of being loved and its consequences than of substance abuse.
Heath Ledger plays Dan, a sensitive, almost puppy-like poet who is addicted to heroin. Candy, played by Abbie Cornish, is an artist who falls madly in love with Dan and all of his habits, including the drug. Together they think they’ve found a bliss and complacency unlike anything they’ve ever experienced that would be the envy of any romantic, as well as a "secret glue" holding their world together. Though this euphoria is aided by the opiate, the real drug they fall under the influence of is their infatuation with one another.Continue Reading
2005 was my favorite recent year for American films. We had Batman Begins, Brokeback Mountain, and a re-release of Louis Malle’s Elevator to the Gallows from 1958. (That technically shouldn’t count but it’s such a cool movie I have to include it.) As much as I liked those films, though, Capote was the one that made the biggest impression on me. It’s got a fearless Academy Award winning performance from Philip Seymour Hoffman as Truman Capote and it’s both a fascinating true crime story and a keenly observed morality play.
Capote traces the genesis of Truman Capote’s masterpiece "non-fiction novel," In Cold Blood, from the shockingly violent mass murder in a small Kansas town that was its subject to Capote’s ascendance as one of the most revered authors of his time. What transpires in between is a disturbing account of an artist manipulating the source of his inspiration - his death row muse, if you will - into providing him with the necessary materials to make an undisputed literary work of art. In Cold Blood is one of the most important books of the 20th century, not only for its brilliantly paced tragic story but also for its resolute humanization of its despised protagonists. But it’s not left wing agitprop; it’s a chilling glimpse into the depths of darkness. What director Bennett Miller does with his film is to posit that Truman Capote crossed an ethical line by getting in the middle of his story and that, for all of the success it brought him, it sowed the seeds of his later ruination.Continue Reading
Catch Me if You Can
Catch Me if You Can is the true story of Frank Abagnale Jr. (DiCaprio) who, by the tender age of seventeen, cut over $2.5 million dollars worth of fraudulent checks and was one of the FBI’s most wanted. Frank travels the globe, taking on such identities as a Pan Am pilot, a doctor, and an attorney. Always on his tail is fraud expert Agent Carl Hanratty (Hanks) from the Bureau.
Although a story of a con man on the run from the law, the way this story is told, it comes across more like a fairy tale about the impetuousness of youth. Steven Spielberg’s direction is flawless in maintaining this tone throughout, telling a “crime story” that is amazingly playful. John Williams’ hip retro score and the great momentum of Michael Kahn’s editing add to this happy-go-lucky sort of attitude. The vibrant color palette, fantastic sixties costume and production design, and Janusz Kaminski’s cinematography, all contribute to make up this wonderful “true story of a real fake.”Continue Reading