Whatever the hell that is supposed to mean…HBO’s Behind the Candelabra

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I debated whether or not even to review HBO’s latest event biopic Steven Soderbergh’s Behind the Candelabra. I haven’t felt this ambivalent about a film since 2010′s goth-ballet-thriller-mess Black Swan…and, to this day, I still don’t know how I feel about that one.

I will admit that I was transfixed by this peek into the gilded cage in which Liberace lived, loved, and controlled all those around him. Michael Douglas is a marvel. I forgot I was watching him, though I don’t know that I ever truly believed I was watching Liberace.

At times, I was transfixed the way one might be driving past a car accident on the highway.

As a kid, Liberace gave me the heebie jeebies. Not because of his mincing, sequined, over-baked stage persona (who cares!) but because he seemed so inauthentic and full of campy self-loathing. Well, the film nails that vibe, and offers a portrait (much like HBO’s recent Phil Spector) of a celebrity who created a carnival about himself to escape the reality of his own personal demons.

Most of the supporting players are great – Rob Lowe as a plastic-faced Faustian cosmetic surgeon, Scott Bakula as a sad-sack Liberace-groupie of some sort, Dan Aykroyd as Liberace’s oily manager/love life hit man, and even Matt Damon as Farrah-haired paramour Scott Thorson.

As the film careens to its sloppy final act, Damon struggles to find his footing in those jilted years that prompted Thorson to write the book upon which this movie is based; however, Damon does create a compelling, sad, and appropriately skeezy portrait of Thorson’s early years with “Lee” (Liberace’s nickname).

The weak link in the cast is Debbie Reynolds as Liberace’s mother. Like most of Reynolds’ recent performances, she seems to be phoning it in from 60s-era Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In with her cartoon-y Slav-esque accent and Mrs. Doubtfire/Jimmy Durante fake proboscis.

What bothered me about the film? That part is tricky. I may be over-thinking, but why make this film? If we needed a film about Liberace (and I’m still not sure we did), why base it on a dubious tell-all (now out-of-print) written by a drug-addled, oft-jailed ex-lover? Are the filmmakers giving us the inside view of a talented man (Liberace) who, due to the circumstances of his era/audience/success, was chronically incapable of living an authentic, open, loving life? Or are they inadvertently inciting a bit of a “gay panic” playing winky/wink/nudge/nudge “dress-up” in the sweaty, paranoid era when Studio 54, Mr. Roper, Reaganomics, and the AIDS crisis collided?

Not sure. Is this film worth seeing? I think so. But, as I am prone to do, I worry about its interpretation out-of-context.

And, yes, I had a similar worry about the interpretation of the satirically violent Hunger Games with its atonally giddy Harry Potter-esque marketing campaign. So maybe I am just a worrier. As Liberace espouses late in the film, “Too much of a good thing…is wonderful.”

Whatever the hell that is supposed to mean…

Yes, I cried in a Star Trek movie: Star Trek Into Darkness

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Yes, I cried in a Star Trek movie. First time for everything.

I’m not exactly a Trekkie – before this J.J. Abrams-led reinvention of “Wagon Train in Space,” the only entry in the canon I truly loved was Star Trek IV (or as I always call it in our house: “the one with the whales”).

Like the recent craftily re-engineered James Bond (thank you, Daniel Craig and Judi Dench) and Batman (yup, you are ok by me, Christopher Nolan) franchises, 2009′s Star Trek and this new sequel Star Trek Into Darkness mine and refine the source material as if the filmmakers are re-staging one of Shakespeare’s famous “problem plays” to appeal to modern sensibilities.

Notably, Chris Pine as Captain Kirk and Zachary Quinto as Mister Spock eliminate the pork from their hammy forebears’ performances (William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy respectively) while keeping the trademarked tics (goony alpha male swagger and goonier pointy ears also respectively). What both do so smartly (and what brought me to tears at a significant twist in the film’s final act) is give these iconic characters vulnerability and flawed humanity. No offense Mr. Priceline Negotiator Shatner, but I will take Pine’s wounded-little-boy-compensating-for-his-deep-seated-insecurity-by-affecting-a-swaggering-prick persona over, well, your swaggering-prick-persona any day of the week.

The film wisely stocks its other iconic roles with a bevy of gifted character actors: Karl Urban (my personal favorite as the crusty, twinkle-eyed, metaphor-spewing Dr. Bones), Zoe Saldana, Anton Yelchin, Simon Pegg, John Cho, Peter Weller, and the always phenomenal Bruce Greenwood. The ensemble work in these films is feisty, zippy, and fun and should be used as a case study in acting schools everywhere: how to engage your audience and create a credibly warm ensemble dynamic in the midst of rampant CGI, deafening explosions, tilt-a-whirl camera angles, and spoof-worthy use of lighting flares.

I will close on this point. Bar none the canniest thing Abrams does (similar to the casting of Guy Pearce and Ben Kingsley in that other summer tent pole, a little movie called Iron Man 3) is select Sherlock‘s and War Horse‘s Benedict Cumberbatch (what a name!) as the film’s main big bad. He is a marvel, commanding every minute of screen time with his handsome yet slightly space alien visage and basso profondo voice. He almost seems bored with EVERYONE around him and, given his sociopathic mission in the film, that works swimmingly. With his nuanced menace, he joins the ranks of Heath Ledger’s Joker, Tom Hiddleston’s Loki, and Javier Bardem’s Silva in the rogue’s gallery of perfect post-modern, post-millennial popcorn film villains.

Whimsy, one-liners, breath-taking action sequences: Iron Man 3

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Summer movie season 2013 has launched with a bang (and clang) of endearingly smart-aleck-y Robert Downey, Jr. encased in his (now) trademark Iron Man armor.

Iron Man 3 is a genetically engineered hit from the Mouse House of Ideas, those wunderkinds at Marvel/Disney.

It is a smart, fun, glib theme park ride of a movie with absolutely no shame about entertaining eager-to-be-pleased moviegoers across the land/globe. And it is a worthy follow-up to last summer’s crackerjack Avengers.

After the bloated, dumb, and incomprehensible Iron Man 2 (a monumental letdown from the first film), this “threequel” is a fine, if at times derivative, return to form.

All the principals sparkle, from Downey, Jr. (of course) to Gwyneth Paltrow and Don Cheadle and Jon Favreau. The script revels in its rat-a-tat dialogue, like some postmodern hybrid of The Thin Man, The Front Page, and TV’s Big Bang Theory. Paltrow and Downey make a delightful couple, which is saying something, since otherwise I always find Paltrow as interesting as drying paint.

But what really makes this one sing is the addition of three great Brit/Aussie thespians Ben Kingsley, Guy Pearce, and Rebecca Hall…who show their American counterparts how it’s done. Bringing Masterpiece Theatre gravitas and Goon Show cheek to the party, these three inject the proceedings with a lovely zip. I don’t want to spoil the third act twist, but Kingsley has great fun with a role that veers wildly from spooky to silly, somehow channeling Gregory Peck, Osama Bin Laden, Russell Brand, and Sacha Baron Cohen. Yup, you read that sentence correctly.

And the ever-wonderful Pearce gives us a real actor’s take on the same megalomaniacal schtick Sam Rockwell ran into the ground in the last film, but convincingly and compellingly … and with much better hair.

Whether director/screenwriter Shane Black intended Iron Man 3 to be a bit of a polemic on the self-perpetuating circus industry that the self-proclaimed “War on Terror” has become, the film has a very interesting take on the power and money to be had by keeping all of us living in fear…of everything. Unlike Christopher Nolan’s somber, somber, somber take on a similar theme in last summer’s Dark Knight Rises, Black sneaks said message into his popcorn-chomping audience’s brains through whimsy, one-liners, and breath-taking action sequences. Well done!