HIGH FLYING BIRD (2019)

February 6, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. Steven Soderbergh has won an Oscar for Best Director (TRAFFIC, 2002) and is one of the filmmakers who has enjoyed both Box Office success (the “Oceans” franchise) and critical acclaim (SEX, LIES, AND VIDEOTAPE, 1989). He has also been behind some quite creative TV projects (“The Knick”, “Godless”), as well as many technical advancements in the industry. This latest is his second consecutive film to be shot entirely with an iPhone (UNSANE, 2018). Bluntly stated, Mr. Soderbergh beats his own drum.

Oscar winner Tarell Alvin McRaney (MOONLIGHT) wrote the script and a talented cast allowed filming to be completed in only 3 weeks … a remarkably short production time for a feature film that is quite watchable and polished.  Andre Holland (also one of the film’s producers) plays Ray, a sports agent with a soul. Rarely do films portray sports agents as the smartest guy in the room, much less as one with altruistic motives. But that describes Ray – although we have our doubts at times. The film opens with Ray having a heated discussion over lunch with his newest client – hot shot rookie Erick (played by Melvyn Gregg). The NBA is in the midst of a lockout and young Erick’s top pick contract has not yet been executed … so he’s in need of funds, as is Ray and the agency he works for.

Sprinkled throughout, and serving as a framing device, are talking head shots of actual NBA players Reggie Jackson, Karl Anthony Towns and Donovan Mitchell discussing the challenges of being a rookie. Their insight and perspective adds an element of reality to the tone of the film. Zazie Beetz (DEADPOOL 2) co-stars as Sam, Ray’s assistant who constantly reminds him, “I don’t work for you anymore”, despite her exceptionally strategic maneuvering of others. Also appearing are the always interesting Bill Duke as Spencer, who runs a camp for up and coming youth players; Kyle MacLachlan as the owners’ lead negotiator; Sonja Sohn as the Players Union Rep; and Zachary Quinto as Ray’s boss.

Ray’s work behind the scenes is misinterpreted by many, but his focus is on getting the two sides to negotiate so the strike can end. During this process, the film makes an interesting statement about who owns the players’ image. Is it the league, the players’ association, or the player himself? It’s a legal and philosophical question that again crosses the line into real life. There is also a comical bit that takes aim at the business side of the league regarding selling sneakers and inspiring rap lyrics.

Reminiscent of other Soderbergh films, there is an emphasis on heavy dialogue and creative camera work, as well as some life lessons offered up along the way. “You care all the way or you don’t care at all” is a philosophy preached by Spence, and clearly leading by example is an important element to the key characters. Toss in the music of Richie Havens, and it’s quite obvious this isn’t the typical inspirational, feel-good sports movie.

available on Netflix February 8

watch the trailer:

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LOGAN LUCKY (2017)

August 17, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. When we think of public figures retiring, we typically accept that athletes, politicians and entertainers will no longer be honing their craft or grinding in their profession. Perhaps they will write their memoirs, or even dodge TMZ completely by spending their days fishing or playing golf. When Oscar winning film director Steven Soderbergh announced he was “retiring” from making movies after his 2013 SIDE EFFECTS, he simply transitioned to television (excellence in “The Knick”). Most of us assumed it was only a matter of time until he returned to the medium that made him famous. This “retirement” lasted less than 4 years.

When a line in the film describes it as “Ocean’s 7-11”, we can assume this is Mr. Soderbergh admitting that his “Ocean’s” trilogy was the inspiration for this comedy-satire heist film focusing on a well-planned crime by a team of siblings, rednecks and convicts. Channing Tatum, Adam Driver and Riley Keough star as the Logan clan – Jimmy, Clyde, and Mellie, respectively. With NASCAR as the target, the Logans are joined by the Bangs: Sam (Brian Gleeson), Fish (Jack Quaid), and Joe (a scene-stealing bleached blonde Daniel Craig).

Joining in the unconventional Hicksville fun are Katie Holmes and David Denman as Jimmy’s ex-wife and her new husband, a recently shorn Sebastian Stan as a race car driver, Seth MacFarlane as an obnoxiously rich blow-hard, Katherine Waterston in a too-brief role as a traveling medic, Hilary Swank as a determined FBI Agent, and Dwight Yoakum as a prison warden who rarely admits a problem. Also playing a key role is the music of John Denver … a move that teeters between tribute and punchline.

The set up and characters lend themselves to more laughter than we actually experience. There are more awkward moments than hilarious ones. As examples, brother Clyde’s (Driver) artificial hand is the center of focus on a few occasions, as are Joe Bang’s (Craig) expertise in science, and the small town West Virginia addiction to child beauty pageants. Their racetrack robbery plan is both ingenious and preposterous, which is also a fitting description of the film.

A writing credit goes to “Rebecca Blunt”, which in keeping with Soderbergh’s tradition, is a pseudonym (or nom de plume) for an unnamed writer (likely Soderbergh himself). The film mostly succeeds in delivering the opposite of the traditional Ocean’s slickness, and it’s entertaining to watch Channing Tatum and Daniel Craig (the credits list him as “introducing Daniel Craig) having such a good time on screen. While it doesn’t deliver the laughs of FREE FIRE or TALLADEGA NIGHTS, it is nice to have Soderbergh back where he belongs. Rather than an instant classic, it’s more likely to be remembered for Soderbergh’s attempt to change the movie distribution channels … Google can provide the details if you are interested.

watch the trailer:

 

 


BEHIND THE CANDLEABRA (2013)

June 3, 2013

candelabra1 Greetings again from the darkness. According to director Steven Soderbergh, this is his farewell to film. He is taking his eye and camera and will concentrate on specialty projects … at least until he figures out that movie directors make more money (yes, I’m skeptical). This one has been “in the works” for years and is based on Scott Thorson’s autobiography.

If you don’t recognize the name Scott Thorson, you surely recognize his opponent in his 1982 palimony suit … Liberace. The story recounts how a 17 year old Scott fell under the spell of Mr Showmanship, and didn’t leave until 1982, when he was forced out. To understand what occurred during those years requires an understanding of the times. The gay culture had not worked its way into mainstream America. Despite his over-the-top flamboyance (on and off stage), candelabra2Liberace’s fans refused to believe he was gay … or more accurately, refused to even entertain the idea.  This “secret” was protected by Liberace and his professional camp.

Although their actual ages are way out of whack for the story, Matt Damon and Michael Douglas are both exceptional as Scott and Liberace, respectively. Much of this story focuses on Scott, but Douglas’ performance is what makes this work. He walks the fine line between predator and protector, lover and louse. When he tells a young Scott that he wants to be his “Brother, Father, Lover, Best Friend”, we are nauseated as viewers, while Scott is captivated.

candelabra3 Supporting work comes from Dan Akyroyd as Seymour Heller, Liberace’s fixer and handler; an exceptional Rob Lowe as plastic surgeon Dr. Startz; Scott Bakula as one of Scott’s first and the one who introduces him to LL; Paul Reiser; Nicky Katt; and Debbie Reynolds … yes THAT Debbie Reynolds (Singin’ in the Rain) … who plays Liberace’s controlling and creepy mother.

Scott Thorson is really not a very interesting character, though there is no doubt that he and Liberace were exceptionally close for almost six years. The movies have shown us many “kept” women over the years, so it’s a twist to see a studly young man in the role. The slow spiral into drug addiction and paranoia is not fun to watch, and rather than follow Scott, the movie ends with Liberace’s passing due to complications from AIDS. Since then, Mr. Thorson testified against gangster Eddie Nash in the Wonderland murders, and was placed in the Federal Witness Protection program. Of course, his taste of fame would not allow him liberaceto live a quiet life and he has since been shot and arrested … even giving interviews from the Reno jail just one month before the premiere of this movie.  Only recently was his bail posted by the fine folks at Nevada’s The Moonlite Bunny Ranch. (yes, really)

Definitely worth watching thanks to the Michael Douglas performance, but also as a reminder of just how much innocence society has lost in the last thirty years. Soderbergh says that no studio would distribute the film because it was “too gay”. Maybe we haven’t progressed so much after all. Luckily HBO picked it up, though that prevents Douglas from being an Oscar contender. Brace yourself for the “creep factor”. Liberace (that’s the real one, pictured left) even tried to legally adopt Scott … a move that eclipses the wildness of even his costumes, pianos and cars.

**NOTE: Robin Williams was originally cast as Liberace

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you were a fan of Liberace OR you want to see just how far society has advanced in 30 years

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you have no intention of allowing for the possibility that Liberace was in a relationship (other than professional) with Scott Thorson

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fp3wAyRf15c


TMI: LIBERACE bio coming soon

March 12, 2013

March 12, 2013

TMI: Today’s Movie Info

 

liberaceDirector Steven Soderbergh is putting the finishing touches on Behind the Candelabra, an HBO film based on the story of Liberace and his partner of 6 years, Scott Thorson.  The film airs May 26 and stars Michael Douglas (yes, that’s him in the Entertainment Weekly cover photo) as the flamboyant performer known for his extravagant costumes.  Matt Damon will play Thorson.  In typical Hollywood fashion, Mr. Douglas is older now than Liberace was when he died in 1987.  Thorson was a teenager when he first met Liberace, and 24 when he filed his 1982 lawsuit.  While Matt Damon is a young looking 42, very few would confuse him for a twenty-something.  Debbie Reynolds, who once appeared on Liberace’s TV show, will play his mother.  No trailer is available yet.


SIDE EFFECTS (2013)

February 11, 2013

side Greetings again from the darkness. Director Steven Soderbergh says this is it. His final film. At age 50, he says he is walking away from making movies. Over the years, he has provided some good and some not so good, but never has he bored us. Movie lovers will always be grateful to him for his 1989 Sex, Lies and Videotape, which single-handedly brought the spotlight back to indie film. While I am quite skeptical of his retirement claim, it’s noteworthy because the absence of one of today’s true auteur’s would be a loss for the art of cinema.

As for this “last” film, it begins as Hitchcock-esque, but concludes as more like Basic Instinct or Dressed to Kill. Put simply, the first half is mesmerizing while the second half devolves into a trashy pulp thrille … which, depending on your tastes, may or may not be a negative.

side2 The first half brought to mind the term pharmacological thriller. It seems as though Soderbergh and frequent writing collaborator Scott Z Burns (Contagion, The Informant!) are making a statement about our current societal trend of seeking answers, and even cures, through medication … despite the risky side effects. We meet Emily and Martin Taylor (Rooney Mara and Channing Tatum) as he is released from prison (insider trading) and she is falling back into her depressive ways. She is soon enough being treated by Dr. Jonathan Banks (Jude Law), a doctor who seems typical in his belief that finding the right pill cures most ills.

Since this is a suspense thriller filled with numerous twists and double, even triple-crossings, it’s impossible to go too deep into what happens without spoilers … something I won’t do here. What can be said is the pharmacological thriller shifts into legal drama and finally a who-done-what kind of conclusion. The solving of the mystery comes courtesy of another oft-used Hitchcock theme: the wronged man seeking vindication.

side3 Rooney Mara and Jude Law are both excellent here and to whatever extent the story works for you, they deserve the credit along with Soderbergh. Ms. Mara was outstanding in the American version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and Mr. Law continues his transition from lame rom-com’s to quality dramatic actor. The same shouldn’t be said for Catherine Zeta-Jones, who plays Dr Victoria Seibert, Emily’s first psychiatrist. Every scene she shares and every line she speaks just screams “look at me”, not a desired quality for a supporting role.

Support work is provided by Polly Draper, Mamie Gummer (Meryl Streep’s daughter), Vinessa Shaw, Peter Friedman, Laila Robins, and Ann Dowd. Soderbergh does not disappoint from a technical aspect. His odd camera angles and unique shots are quite impressive and effective in sustaining the mood, even as the story spirals towards far-fetched. If it’s truly his swan song, it seems appropriate that we see both the highs and lows of director Soderbergh. Here’s hoping he returns very soon to the medium where his impact is needed.  If not, the side effects aren’t pretty.

**NOTE: If you look quick, there is an advertising poster featuring Julia Roberts. (Ms. Roberts is a Soderbergh favorite from films such as Erin Brokovich)

**NOTE: Soderbergh does have a TV project set to air later this year.  Behind the Candelabra is the story of Liberace starring Michael Douglas and Matt Damon

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you believe it’s Steven Soderbergh’s final movie OR you enjoy a pulpy thriller

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you prefer psycho-thrillesr that avoid the slide towards trash-pulp

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cEQDMFveSbQ

 


HAYWIRE

January 17, 2012

 Greetings again from the darkness. Caught an early screening of this one and my quick description is that it’s a mash-up of The Bourne Identity, Salt, and the original “Mod Squad” (it has a kind of retro feel). In other words, it’s a fun ride featuring stunning fight scenes filmed with an artistry that only director Steven Soderbergh can achieve.

Newcomer Gina Carano stars as Mallory Kane, an independent contractor … the type who handles dirty work for governments and the powerful people who must keep their hands somewhat clean. She gets double-crossed on a Barcelona job and becomes the target herself while in Dublin. So this lethal weapon goes on a globe-trotting mission of revenge and messes up people and hotel rooms in the process. If you think a woman can’t carry action scenes, then you don’t realize Ms. Carano is an MMA fighter. She is the real deal. Her physical skills are on full display and leave little doubt as to her deadly talent.

 Since this is a Soderbergh film, you know the cast is well-stocked. We get Michael Douglas, Antonio Banderas and Ewan McGregor all at their smarmy best. Additionally we see Michael Fassbender, Channing Tatum and Bill Paxton (as Mallory’s father). Trust me when I say not all of these character fare so well in their showdowns with Mallory. Though the script from Lem Dobbs is pretty basic, Soderbergh’s way of telling the story is compelling enough to keep us interested between Carano’s fights.

The color palette alternates between the brown/gold Soderbergh used for Traffic, and the blue/gray from his “Ocean’s” franchise. The jazzy score from David Holmes is a wonderful compliment to the wide variety of scenes and locations, and the tongue-in-cheek humor is expert enough to keep you smiling through the all too serious business chats. A perfect example of the wry humor is that the movie begins and ends with the same one syllable word (begins with an “S”).

Soderbergh is one of the few directors who refuses to get pigeon-holed into making a certain type of movie. Never short on style or visual flair, he touches many genres and here proves he can twist the action-thriller in a new, fun to watch direction. If you kick back and go for the ride, Haywire will show you a great time.

a note of trivia: Gina Carano is the daughter of former Dallas Cowboys quarterback Glenn Carano

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are a fan of Salt and the “Bourne” movies OR you want to see a woman totally capable of kicking ass

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are going to take it too seriously and expect a dose of heavy-handed Soderbergh filmmaking (he seems to actually have fun with this one)

watch the trailer:


CONTAGION

September 10, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. Fellow germophobes beware: the first few minutes of this movie will have you reaching for disinfectant and a surgical mask. Just remember – it’s only a movie. The scary part is that we have already experienced much of the terror that the film presents. We have seen first hand the effects of Swine Flu and Asian Bird Flu. We understand the fear of uncertainty and helplessness. It’s important to note that a virus is a living element capable of mutating and spreading … it looks for a way to get stronger and survive.

 The movie goes for the gut punch in the first few minutes. We see Gwyneth Paltrow returning home to hubby Matt Damon after an overseas business trip. We immediately know she is sick, but we aren’t sure of the source … though the film provides many source possibilities. Simultaneously we are shown numerous people with the Paltrow symptoms all over the world, and quickly understand that these are related and the “monster” is spreading quickly.

 Cut to Dr. Cheeve (Laurence Fishbourne) and his team at CDC. He partners with Dr. Orantes (Marion Cotillard) of the World Health Organization and Dr. Mears (Kate Winslet) from the Epidemic Intelligence Services. We are left to fill in the blanks on how these organizations work together to study and interpret the source and danger of an outbreak.

 The true heroes of science are those in the labs. Here we have Dr. Hextall (Jennifer Ehle, from The King’s Speech) and Dr. Sussman (Elliott Gould). We understand that these are highly talented people with the very specific skills needed to save the planet.

From a movie making perspective, the film is technically fine. The camera work and acting are all excellent. Director Steven Soderbergh is a superstar director and well-respected. Writer Scott Z Burns has quite an impressive resume. The cast is as deep and spectacular as any you will see this year. Then why am I in such a funk about this film? It disappoints me to say that the film plays like a disjointed mess. We get bits and pieces of numerous stories throughout, but never do we really connect with a single character. Matt Damon and Lawrence Fishbourne have the most screen time, but neither are accessible or give us any reason to believe we know them … only their desperation. Jude Law plays a super-blogger who teeters between exposing governmental conspiracies and his own insider trading for personal gain. There are subplots with Marion Cotillard, Jennifer Ehle and Laurence Fishbourne that all could have been intriguing, but we get the glossy outline version, rather than an actual story.

 The film focuses not on the personal side of the outbreak, but rather the process of damage control, scientific research and lab work for a vaccine. But we only get scattered bits of any of this. Same with the political side. We see a “world” teleconference with the CDC and leaders from many countries, but never an explanation on why they are all looking to the U.S. for a miracle cure. It would have been fascinating to see how or if the experts from Japan, China, India and the U.S. work together in times of a global epidemic. Instead, we get thoughtful poses from Mr. Fishbourne. What a waste.

Despite the potential for greatness, this film is neither thrilling or dramatic or informative. Mostly I wondered how much time the endless stream of movie stars actually spent on set. It appears Mr. Soderbergh now enjoys hanging with an all-star cast more than really making a statement with a movie. Additionally, I found the quasi-Techno soundtrack to be distracting and annoying. There are numerous virus outbreak movies that are superior to this one.

Whether you see this movie or not … remember to wash your hands!

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you want to play “spot the movie star” OR world epidemic movies are your guilty pleasure

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you believe a thriller should be thrilling OR you agree that an endless checklist of partial subplots can be annoying

watch the trailer: