Behind the Candelabra by Steven Soderbergh

Behind the Candelabra by Steven Soderbergh

Scott Thorson (played by Matt Damon), a young gay man raised in foster homes, is introduced to flamboyant entertainment giant Liberace (played by Michael Douglas) and quickly finds himself in a romantic relationship with the legendary pianist.

Michael Douglas is well-known for playing two types of roles: the victimized man in peril or the man of immense power. Douglas’ portrayal of Liberace embodies both these aspects. He is a powerful man in love with another man but ultimately a victim to his own public image. One can argue the story is about a love triangle between the real Liberace, Scott Thorson and the public Liberace. The segment where Liberace and Scott visit a plastic surgeon played by Rob Lowe was genuinely creepy.  Douglas disappears into the role, showing the inner, outer, darker and lighter sides of Liberace. Liberace can be added along with his long list of great roles; this is Oscar worthy.

As the audience avatar, Matt Damon’s Scott Thorson guides how the audience feels about Liberace. Matt Damon is a good straight man to Douglas, his performance is overshadowed but that seems to be part of the plan. It’s fun to watch them bickering and arguing like a married couple multiple times in a hot tub.

I can see how Behind the Candelabra was considered ‘too gay’ to be a studio feature.The film actually does not have a gay agenda on it’s hands. The kissing or sex scenes were not handled in a vengeful gay protest film type fashion. No, Steven Soderbergh rises above that by  concentrating on the central love story between Scott and Liberace and finds the most interesting drama therein. We are shown the reasons why they’re in love with each other and those human reasons are relatable, gay or not. I rooted for their relationship.

This is the way to do a biopic. Often biopics are uninteresting because they can’t focus onto a theme or settle on a fixed view of its subject to create a message. Not everybody’s life story is fit to be made into a film. This particular segment of Liberace’s life was more friendly to film adaptation because it was so inherently dramatic. Credit must also be given to the writers and Steven Soderbergh, who manage to suss out the drama out of the real life facts, find a firm view that sums up Liberace as a person and extrapolates a thematic message about love. The tone is well balanced; it has both serious and funny moments but it never takes itself too seriously.

As said before in my Side Effects review, I sincerely hope Steven Soderbergh doesn’t stop making movies. This is  my favorite of his films. He’s onto something.

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Haywire by Steven Soderbergh

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Ip Man: The Final Fight by Herman Yau

Ip Man: The Final Fight by Herman Yau

Ip Man: The Final Fight chronicles the later life of Wing Chun Grandmaster Ip Man.

The most interesting aspect between Herman Yau-Anthony Wong collaborations is that their partnership had its roots in Hong Kong Category III horror. Ebola Syndrome is still one of the most disgusting movies I have ever seen and been guiltily entertained by. Forget Outbreak or Contagion, Ebola Syndrome was a far more disturbing movie about a viral outbreak. Forget Hannibal Lecter, Anthony Wong truly played a disturbing sociopath in that movie. The point is: they’re not afraid to delve into the gritty, the ugly and the disgusting.

Set against the big commercial movie cog machine and the Ip Man franchise, the majority of Yau-Wong penchant for grittiness is diluted and only some of it remains in Ip Man: The Final Fight. It is that essence of the grittier and the uglier sides of Ip Man that makes out for the more interesting parts in Ip Man: The Final Fight, but it’s also the film’s major weakness because it never treads far enough from familiar territory.

What the film ends up being more like tonally is a combination of the Wilson Yip-Donnie Yen Ip Man films and Bruce Lee My Brother, where it is loosely glossing over the details of the grandmaster’s life and dramatically punching up the action so it can allow for fight scenes, but also providing a retro-gaze of Hong Kong accompanied with a celebrity guest-list cameos.

For example, it’s been said that Ip Man sported an opium habit. The concept is telegraphed but never truly explored. Another example is Hong Kong actor Liu Kai Chi gives a cameo as Ip Man’s friend who is suffering from poverty. They start what might be a potentially interesting storyline but it never finishes itself. Much of the film is like that.

There are about several subplots running through the story and they all end up as separate vignettes that do not rise above the sum of it’s parts. For a biopic drama, that’s a problem because it does not provide an unified narrative goal. This is not an editing issue. The story was based on Ip Chun’s stories of his father and it is as if seemed like the screenwriter noted them down as told and the director literally shot them that way. So I attribute this issue to lazy writing. The retroactive voice-over device ends up killing a lot of the drama. The scene will be happening and the voice-over will cut in summing up the rest of the scene in past tense. It keeps glossing over by stating what happened instead of letting the audience experience what’s happening in the now.

Anthony Wong is very natural as Ip Man. He looks most like the real-life version of Ip Man and actually adopts a Foshan accent. He breathes many colors into the role and the scenes with Ip Man and his students is the heart of the film. Anthony Wong is pretty much the best thing about this movie and his performance alone is the price of admission.

Eric Tsang has a great supporting role as a Crane style master who befriends Ip Man. There is a self-referential joke where Tsang says being a ‘clan master’ (獎門人) is difficult, a reference to his famous television gameshow, that was self-serving and unnecessary. Tsang and Wong share an awesome fight together. Not a lot of people remember that Eric Tsang started out as a stuntman; the fight looks very authentic. They were really smashing their forearms together. Eric Tsang is a badass.

Something I noticed about the cinematography was there were way too many crane shots in this film. There’s a scene that ends on a connective moment between two characters and then it cuts to a crane shot backing away presenting a view of the entire rooftop set. I have a theory about this. In Hong Kong, booking a crane from a production house is a planned expense and usually you would require more crew members or more time to set up a crane shot. Production houses in the Mainland will give crews an entire film equipment package in their deals, which includes cranes and jibs. With the cheap labor and higher amount of crew members, a crane shot can be set up much faster in the Mainland. As a recent occurrence, a lot of Chinese productions lead by Hong Kong directors have recently been very crane shot-heavy. Hong Kong directors, this needs to stop. You have to remember to pull back every once and a while.

Just as a small footnote, I really hated the Bruce Lee cameo. Playing Bruce Lee in a film is by no means an easy feat but the actor they chose was abysmally awful. He made Bruce Lee look like a rich asshole sellout. It was not fun, nor did it work as a pop culture reference.

Overall, I enjoyed this film, but I do not think it works completely as a standalone piece. It seems to fit as the final piece to this whole line of Ip Man films. In a way, I can’t help it because they’ve made so many movies about Ip Man in such a short time.

With every film, I see a little more of who this man was, what his legacy was and it had me thinking about even what being a good teacher means. I still think The Grandmaster is the best Ip Man film. They really don’t need to make any more Ip Man movies. And if they do (and I think they are because I saw a poster for an Ip Man 3 with Donnie Yen), please do the story with Bruce Lee and get him right.

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The Grandmaster by Wong Kar Wai

Woody Allen: A Documentary by Robert B. Weide

Woody Allen: A Documentary by Robert B. Weide

If you ever owned a DVD of a Woody Allen movie, you will know that there are never any special features. There is probably no budget for a behind-the-scenes documentary crew following him around on his film shoots, heck, Woody Allen has said he does not even like the concept of special features. He even burns the deleted scenes after the film is completed.

Up till now, the only way to truly learn about Woody Allen’s process was through books. I own Conversations with Woody Allen by Eric Lax (who’s in the film as his biographer) and Woody Allen on Woody Allen: In Conversation with Stig Bjorkman, which both are all fine reads and great insights into Allen’s creative process. I knew most of his stories: his workman-like approach, his approach to casting, , .

The structure of the documentary is tailor-made to its subject and it really fits. It chronicles Allen’s life from his career transitions beginning from a young joke writer to stand-up comedian to a filmmaker. Much of Allen’s frequent collaborators and family are interviewed, including his sister, actors, co-writers, casting director and producers. Each film that he’s made is covered more or less but much more emphasis is placed on his creative phases: his early funny films, the transition with Annie Hall and the Diane Keaton era, the Mia Farrow era, Match Point and now the current European city phase. The behind-the-scenes section on the set of You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger where you see Allen rehearsing a scene with Naomi Watts and Josh Brolin in an argument scene was a real treat. Also, my top five favorite Woody films are all covered (Crimes and Misdemeanors, Stardust Memories, Everybody Says I Love You, Deconstructing Harry and Midnight in Paris), so I am a happy camper.

I had a dumb dream once where I met Wong Kar Wai and he took off his infamous sunglasses, looked me straight into the eye and spoke to me. I woke up realizing I saw Wong Kar Wai’s eyes in person and felt like I knew something deeper about him because I was in his presence.

That’s how this documentary made me feel. Despite that my previous knowledge, I didn’t know anything about Woody Allen in terms of a human being. The documentary offers that close proximity as we basically hang out with Woody Allen for 3 hours. We take a trip with Allen around New York visiting various locations like his cutting room, his old elementary school (which he hates), the jazz club (where he plays the clarinet every Monday) and the local cinema he used to frequent (inspired the idea for Purple Rose of Cairo) and we see the space of his own world and can visualize where the genesis of his ideas come from. One major highlight is when we’re in Allen’s actual home where he shows you his typewriter and takes out his notes for story ideas and reads out a few of them.

It’s an absorbing experience as we gain great insight into Allen as a human being and an artist. It totally makes up for the lack of special features for every Woody Allen DVD. A highly recommended experience for fellow Woody Allen fans.

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The Iron Lady by Phyllida Lloyd

Honestly, Meryl Streep can play a cockroach and win a Best Actress

Like I’ve said before in my entry for My Week with Marilyn, it is not possible to make a biopic about Marilyn Monroe without talking how beautiful she is and what a problem that was for her. Nor is it possible to make a Bruce Lee biopic without having any fighting in it. In that mentality, it is not possible to make a Margaret Thatcher biopic without it being about politics. This film attempts to defy that logic.

The story is structured from the mental state of the old Margaret Thatcher, who’s dealing with dementia over the lost of her late husband Denis. As things happen in the present, we flashback to the younger Margaret Thatcher, chronicling her journey from a young girl to being Prime Minister.

I do not understand what this framing device accomplishes. Is this about how Margaret Thatcher remembers her own life? No, she’s dealing with dementia. Is it her being senile the deal she had to do with the devil? No. She’s the first female British Prime Minister. Why is that not interesting enough in itself?

The parts with how she battled the work unions and the Falkland Island wars were really engaging me but there were only shown as excerpts in the film. Now I will have to revert to Wikipedia to learn more about that part of history.

Is there anything to say about Meryl Streep’s performance that has not been said? It’s a total physical transformation and she deserved the Best Actress award. That’s really all I have to say about it. Is the film worth watching solely for her performance alone? Only if you want to be part of the social discussion.

At it’s heart, The Iron Lady is a film about grief, loneliness and the loss of a loved one. I was moved by the relationship between Margaret and Denis Thatcher (played by Jim Broadbent). She found someone that truly loved her for who she was (he tells her this as he proposes, one of my favorite scenes in the movie) and it was heartbreaking to see her senile and alone without him. I felt sad for her when the film ended.

On that level, the film accomplished its goal. But why did that story about grief have to be Margaret Thatcher’s story? I still find there are many other more interesting goals to do with her life story. Personally, I would have liked to see the chronicle of her political career as the central story instead.