Trailer: “Get On Up”

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Some things in this world are inevitable and such is the fact that at some point in time, someone somewhere would put together a film about the life and career of James Brown. And here it is: directed by Tate Taylor (known for “The Help”) and starring Chadwick Boseman, Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer, “Get on up” is going to bring the colourful life of the godfather of soul to the big screen.

Now, it might be my inner cynicism surfacing here, but unless this film wows me in some way (preferably with the acting, because it’s a biopic, so the story is pretty much self-explanatory), I have a strong feeling that “Get on up” is going to go down in history as this year’s “The Butler”, i.e. a shameful Oscar-baity empty shell of a film… But don’t quote me on that. Nevertheless, it might be worth a poke.

“Get on up” opens world-wide on the 1st of August 2014.

 

“Behind The Candelabra” you can find only pain…

I seem to remember certain Steven Soderbergh announcing that “Side Effects” was going to be his last directorial effort. I also seem to recall, how much I loved “Side Effects” and quietly wished he would change his mind. Well then, for once my prayers have been answered (or maybe I just missed the memo), as he apparently changed his mind and directed “Behind the Candelabra” – a ‘kinda/sorta’ biopic about Liberace – a living proof it was possible to cross-breed humans with glitter (not Gary…).

Well, Mr Soderbergh, you have broken your own word and thus you are not much of a gentleman, I must say. Nevertheless, I am certainly glad you came back to your senses and I shall try and ignore your promises that this time you’re done for good.

Clearly, Soderbergh’s attempts at parting with cinema resemble the way I usually eat Pringles. I would usually pop the lid, get a handful and savour the delicious crisps before deciding to save the rest for later. Well, maybe one more… Ok, that one is definitely going to be last… Perhaps one for the road… And minutes later I would wake up to a sudden realization I find it difficult to squeeze my big fat sausage fingers down the devilishly narrow tube in order to fish out what are now the surviving remnants of my Pringle binge. So, if this is how Soderbergh is going to play out his retirement, we can be safe, because he’ll be back in no time with yet another fantastic film.

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It turns out it has been Soderbergh’s fleeting dream to direct a film about Liberace’s life since as far as 13 years ago, when he casually pitched this idea to Michael Douglas whilst filming “Traffic”. Fast forward until now and there we are: HBO dished out the funds and Liberace – the human Christmas tree – is now gleefully parading on the big screens… in the UK. The US has seen it on HBO, which we don’t have here in the rainy British Dominion, but that’s not a problem.

The reason “Behind the Candelabra” is not your usual biopic is quite simple: the film covers only the last decade of Liberace’s (Michael Douglas) life and even that would be a bit excessive, because the major arc of this film is the violent and bumpy relationship with Liberace and his much younger lover Scott Thorson (Matt Damon), while everything else seems to be sidelined. We meet the two in 1977 when young animal trainer Scott meets Bob Black (mildly camouflaged Scott Bakula) – a producer – in a gay club and the latter introduces him to Liberace after one of his sparkling and glamorous shows. The two quickly develop chemistry and not long thereafter, Scott moves in with Lee(berace) for good. We are then allowed to dip our toes in the decadent lives of Vegas performing artists and by the end of the film we are fully submerged in the sex, drugs, abuse and everything Hollywood is notorious for. By the way, not knowing who Liberace was (apart from the general knowledge of pop-culture, for anything else I was simply too young to remember) I am puzzled at how long he has managed to keep his gay nature a secret. Probably all the credit should go to his agent, Seymour Heller (Dan Aykroyd), because compared to Liberace, even Elton John looks macho.

Anyway, the film meanders through the ups and downs of Scott’s relationship with Liberace, who with each minute of the story becomes more and more possessive and very quickly reveals his dark and toxic side that would eventually bring the nature of their relationship from lover-to-lover to overlord-to-slave. In an amazing display of superb acting I got to see that Liberace surely had more than one face – a gentle lover, a caring guardian, an obsessive tyrant, and vindictive asshole; all encased in a body of a piano virtuoso dressed in sparkles.

 

Continuing on the subject of acting in “Behind the Candelabra”, I have got to give a hand to the whole ensemble for wonderful performances, especially Michael Douglas and Matt Damon who so convincingly embodied the two protagonists in the gayest possible way – and that’s a compliment, I’ll have you know. Also Dan Aykroyd, Scott Bakula and super-tanned long-haired Rob Lowe (who portrayed Liberace’s plastic surgeon) deserve to be commended for their efforts, as they have all contributed to the powerful picture the film creates.

Other than that, I think “Behind the candelabra” gives us a very important opportunity to peek behind the curtains and see that the same people we’d normally see in full drag, make-up and all, are made of flesh and blood as well, contrary to what certain religious circles would like us to think. All the gay stuff aside (and there’s a lot of it), “Behind the Candelabra” is a very solid drama that takes on a subject of toxic relationships, sacrifices, submission and undisputed dominance. As seen through Scott’s eyes, I saw that what these people had is no different to what you’d see in far too many so-called ‘normal’ relationships. We all know at least one couple with similar issues to the ones shown in this film, where one party would assume full control over the other by slowly tightening the leash around their neck.

This is how Liberace is portrayed in this film – not as a glamorous little icon in make-up behind a piano, but as a vengeful bully who would strip his partner off of any humanity and free will and make him his little boy toy, a doll to be dressed and played with. Sadly, very little is said in terms of explaining how Liberace became a domestic monster, but it doesn’t belittle the film as a whole – it is rather a trade-off for the narrow scope of the film.

In any way, the reason I think Soderbergh has done a fantastic job in “Behind the candelabra” has to do with the fact that underneath the gay coating there’s a real tragedy there. When all is said and done, nobody cares whether two guys are kissing on the screen, because Soderbergh wants us to see past the gender, right where the general problem lies. In the end, “Behind the candelabra” is a story about a sad pathetic lonely little man who was incapable of developing a healthy relationship due to some deep-seated unresolved issues. Words and actions cannot be undone, therefore by looking at Liberace’s choices and the price he paid in the end, we should be reminded to love and respect the people we share our lives with before it’s too late. After all, you can never step in the same river twice…

“The Iceman” – A peek behind the mask of stone…

It’s amazing what a man is capable of in order to find his way in this vicious world. While I can certainly agree that it might come across as ludicrous to begin with such words in this case, but it is undeniable at this point that Richard Kuklinski’s life cannot be easily pigeon-holed. For those of you who are unable to identify Kuklinski at all, I think one can summarize his persona as one of the most successful and notorious murderers of the 20th century. Note here I refrained from labelling Kuklinski as a serial killer, because he might have been many things, but a serial killer he was definitely not, and “The Iceman” by a young director Ariel Vromen has made a wonderful job of making it clear.

I was never exactly sure what it was that somehow drew my curiosity towards serial killers and, more importantly, their minds. I should also add that it wasn’t the the sensational aspect of their grisly deeds that I find the most interesting, but I think it is fascinating to try and understand how a killer thinks and what it is that compels him to do his ‘work’. Therefore, I have been aware of Richard Kuklinski’s story for quite a while now (if you’re up for it, you can watch the HBO documentaries on Youtube wherein Kuklinski himself would divulge most intimate details about his life as a mob hitman) and hence I found the news of the story of his life being adapted for a film all the more enticing. After all, biopics are most often reserved for portraying lives of people who are interesting in a more conventional way.

“The Iceman” lets us have a closer look at how Richard Kuklinski (Michael Shannon) became what he became, how he led his perfect double life, how he rose through the ranks and gained notoriety and how the house of cards he so meticulously built finally crumbled down. Quite fortunately, we do not have to follow Kuklinski’s life from cradle to grave (which is the cardinal sin of oh-so-many biographical pieces in my humble opinion), but instead we meet Kuklinski during his first date with Deborah (Winona Ryder) – the soon-to-be woman of his life. From that point onwards, we follow him up until his arrest in 1986. It would seem that his relationship with Deborah and his two daughters (the film makers didn’t include his third child in the picture for some weird reason) constitutes the very spine of the whole story, and understandably so, because they were the only people in the whole world that mattered to him after all.

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Kuklinski wasn’t your regular average Joe and he certainly didn’t belong in the ‘privileged’ crowd. A son of an abusive Pole and an obsessively religious Irish mother (who actually believed that sparing the rod spoils the child) didn’t get the smoothest start into adulthood. With only elementary education his employment prospects looked particularly grim, so it did not take him long to work for the local kingpin Roy Demeo (Ray Liotta). What started out as a menial job in pirating pornography, quickly turned into something more, as Demeo immediately noticed Kuklinski’s ruthless stone-cold character and put it to good use. Mind you that Kuklinski wasn’t somebody who would say ‘no’ – he wanted to ensure his family’s well-being at all cost. Porn-pirate to enforcer, enforcer to hitman… Snowballing towards his inevitable end…

Now, as I already mentioned, “The Iceman” is definitely not a regular biopic and shouldn’t be really perceived as such. It doesn’t retain the bog standard story arc, in which you’d normally expect the character to rise and fall, only to rise again in the uplifting fashion, but “The Iceman’s” arc is almost perfectly parabolic instead that ends on a moralistic note, so that we don’t get any crazy idea that the film would glorify Kuklinski’s life in any way. I think it is rather clear from the get-go that “The Iceman” is not supposed to build Kuklinski a monument, but it tries to peek behind the curtain and expose him a little more. I mean, he was undeniably a monster, but the film does manage to show that every monster would have a story to tell and behind the claws and razor-sharp teeth there’s flesh and blood.

And this is where the fantastic Michael Shannon comes into the frame. You should understand that at this point – after what I’ve seen – I could write sonnets about his portrayal of The Iceman and thanks to him, “The Iceman” has landed in my ‘top 3’ for this year so far. Indubitably, Shannon’s demeanour plays very well into his acting and he has managed to explore Kuklinski’s persona and empower it with minimalistic, cold and calculated acting. I just loved how Shannon’s character was only deceptively shallow and carved in stone and upon closer imagination was bursting with life and emotions hidden from the light of day. By the way, did you know that Kuklinski’s nickname ”The Iceman” did not originate from his cold and lifeless demeanour? Initially, the media coined this term, because Kuklinski used to freeze the bodies of his victims in order to confuse the forensic investigators. The fact he kept everything close to his chest and never showed emotions played into his creepy image quite incidentally, but in the end – extremely precisely.

 

Michael Shannon has succeeded in creating a multi-faceted three-dimensional character that exudes mystery and in itself was a riddle to solve by the viewer. His performance has made it impossible to further pigeon-hole Kuklinski together with Ed Gein, Ted Bundy and Jeffrey Dahmer. Oh, no… he was a different kind of monster. A closer look at Shannon’s character allows the viewer to speculate on what Kuklinski was really hiding behind that mask of his. Between the idiosyncratic mannerisms, nefarious nerve twitches, brutally revealing flashbacks, disrespect to death, bottled-up rage, violent temper, unbelievable affection to his family, and the zealous devotion to concealing his true life of murderer for hire Shannon’s Kuklinski emerges as much more than just a hitman that claimed hundreds of human lives. The film does not allow the viewer to feel sorry for Kuklinski, but strips him off any supernatural qualities – after all, he was a man… Not a monster, not an incarnation of Satan, but a man who made a choice in his life and paid the price for it in the end. More importantly, Kuklinski was a man shaped by his past, but who also tried (and failed) to circumnavigate his inevitable doom.

When all is said and done, “The Iceman” is pretty much a one man show and I do not mean it in a negative sense. The story was maybe a bit erratic at times, but in the grand scheme of things, it was not pivotal to the film as a whole. I would even go as far as to say the story was only auxiliary to bring to the light the intricacies of Kuklinski’s character – and on that level it was simply perfect, thanks to Shannon’s powerhouse performance and Ryder’s very solid second violins. I don’t really think I could call “The Iceman” an anatomy of evil, or something equally pompous, but it does put a notorious character like Richard Kuklinski in a slightly different light that undeniably helps in understanding where monsters come from and how they hide in plain sight. Let’s not forget there are hundreds if not thousands of demons wandering the streets at any given moment and spotting them is not the easiest of tasks – after all they are masters of mimicry…

Almost Three Hours of Snoring – “Lincoln”

In my quest to get acquainted with this year’s Oscar-nominated features, I eventually got round to seeing “Lincoln”. Under different circumstances I would most likely refuse to review this film or even comment on it, but the fact it’s generally considered the most powerful contender for this year’s Academy Awards forces me to speak up. It won’t be long, I hope. I just have to stand up and say the following:

With all due respect Mr Spielberg, your latest feat is simply horrible.

There, I said it. I realize it sounds almost sacrilegious in the current climate with Spielberg being praised and Daniel Day-Lewis scoring all the gongs for his portrayal of The Great Abe Lincoln, but let’s face it – “Lincoln” as a whole is just boring. And by the way, for those of you who think that whatever Spielberg puts together is pure gold, it’s not necessarily true. “Indiana Jones and the kingdom of the crystal skull”, “Jurassic Park 2” and “A.I.” particularly spring to mind when ‘Spielbergian’ duds are in question. Well, maybe it’s a bit much to compare “Lincoln” to these three <coughs> achievements, because technically speaking, it’s well put together by wonderful actors, well shot and executed. It lacks a lot, though, too much I’d say.

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In fact, I’d say that Day-Lewis once again proves he’s a force of nature when it comes to immersing in the character and I will be saddened deeply if he doesn’t get the Oscar hat-trick this year. His methodical and professional portrayal of Abe is by far the only thing that carries the film. Having Tommy Lee Jones as a fantastic sidekick doesn’t exactly hurt, and if it wasn’t for this dynamic duo, I wouldn’t care about “Lincoln” at all. This way, I care only a little, because I firmly believe that one man – even a powerhouse like Day-Lewis – won’t make a masterpiece out of this otherwise mediocre film.

So, for those of you who are not aware, “Lincoln” basically focuses on the last six months of Lincoln’s life where he brought about one of the most important pieces of legislation in US history – the abolition of slavery, ended The American Civil War and met his untimely demise by assassination. It would seem to be a perfect film material because of the sheer gravity of events to be portrayed combined with almost legendary status of the main characters involved. Yes, of course – on paper. What came out of it was an excruciatingly long and boring history lesson. I don’t know, maybe the American audience would appreciate it more due to having a hopefully more emotional bond with their own history. For me however, it’s a lot of talking with no drama, with the occasional patriotic note. Nothing really happens in the film and I couldn’t care about anything that transpired on screen. The allegedly fantastic material for a story – breaking the shackles of oppression – was laid out with no emotion, with too many characters, and in the end “Lincoln” descended into a second-rate courtroom drama. Quite frankly, the only thought I remember was rocking around my brain as I was watching “Lincoln” was ‘wow, Day-Lewis really brought it again’. And even after a while it got a bit stale because, honestly, there’s a limit to how many times one man can say ‘wow’.

Mr Spielberg, you should have known better. You should have known that “Lincoln” doesn’t have enough oomph to make me sit on the edge of my seat. What am I thinking; it doesn’t have enough power to keep my eyes on the screen for that long. It’s boring and uneventful and in a nutshell, it comes across as attempted hagiography with a touch of self-indulgence that should not have even been there in the first place. While I do get the need to pay due homage to one of the most important figures in American history, attempting it in this quasi-religious way is most certainly not the way to go. As a result, I was shown a one-dimensional story where mighty and stalwart (and flat as comic-book characters) paladins re-enact a piece of history that – while important to remember – turns out to be simply mundane and monotonous. And adding the patriotic tune to the symphony doesn’t always help.