Cinema Review: Behind the Candelabra

behindthecandelabra
DIR: Steven Soderbergh  WRI: Richard LaGravenese • PRO: Susan Ekins, Gregory Jacobs, Michael Polairey • DOP: Steven Soderbergh • ED: Steven Soderbergh • DES: Howard Cummings • Cast: Matt Damon, Michael Douglas, Rob Lowe, Dan Aykroyd

Behind the Candelabra shines a glittering spotlight on the tempestuous relationship between Liberace, the famed pianist, and his younger lover, Scott Thorson.

 

A hazy opening shot sharpens to reveal young Scott (Matt Damon) frequenting a Los Angeles gay bar in 1977.  Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love” plays on the soundtrack.  Scott meets Bob Black (Scott Bakula), who introduces Scott to Liberace after they attend a concert of his in Las Vegas.  Scott’s attention to Liberace’s favourite poodle, the blind and deaf Baby Boy, endears him to the piano maestro, and their relationship develops.

 

Behind the Candelabra is an entertaining showbiz biopic genre piece distinguished by its gay romance.  The film makes clear that Liberace and his manager, Seymour Heller (Dan Aykroyd), promoted an image of Liberace as heterosexual.  When we first see Liberace’s camp antics on stage, Bob tells Scott that nobody in the audience thinks Liberace is gay.  It’s hard to believe there was a time when such high camp passed for straight.  Soderbergh’s film looks behind the façade to present a look at the “real” Liberace.

 

Drawing on Thorson’s memoir, Richard LaGravenese (The Fisher King, P.S. I Love You) provides an engaging script that features Liberace recounting to Scott stories of his childhood, his relationship with his mother and how he developed his stagecraft.  The film charts Scott’s relationship with Liberace from 1977 through to Liberace’s death in 1987.  Scott acts as friend, lover, son and husband, caring and listening to the older man, accepting his lavish gifts, before becoming increasingly jealous and feeling trapped before the relationship breaks down.  Liberace decides at one point to adopt Scott as his son, though they maintain their sexual relationship.  It’s an odd plea for recognition of gay marriage, with Scott declaring that they were married during negotiations for settlement after their break-up.  All this may seem melodramatic and serious, but it’s frequently funny and generally entertaining.

 

Michael Douglas contributes a fabulous performance.  His turn as Liberace benefits greatly from excellent make-up and glitzy costumes, and he works wonders with his voice and mannerisms, relishing in witty one-liners.  Both Douglas and Damon undergo physical transformations.  Scott’s requires him to appear like a younger Liberace, while AIDS ravages the great entertainer.  Damon’s understated turn complements Douglas’ flashy histrionics.  While Douglas takes the spotlight for much of the film, Damon comes into his own in the latter stages.

 

Rob Lowe almost steals the show playing Dr. Jack Startz, who provides advice on the surgery and Scott with dieting drugs.  Frequent glances to his wineglass break up his otherwise vacant stare, which makes him seem such an unreliable surgeon.  Lowe also benefits from make-up, topped off with a high camp wig.

 

The detail in the sets and costumes is excellent.  Soderbergh adds some nice visual touches too, such as a flashback filmed in black-and-white when Liberace recounts his encounter in hospital with a messenger from God after the Kennedy assassination that converted him, as he tells Scott, to becoming a devout Catholic (who happens to enjoy visiting sex shops and wants to fuck his boyfriend for a change).

 

The title, also drawn from Thorson’s memoir, suggests that the film is getting behind Liberace’s kitsch persona, exploring and revealing the details of a gay romance of a celebrated entertainer.  While the costumes and sets provide delightful visuals, the script provides funny lines and the performances entertain, Soderbergh’s work still rings hollow.  It fails to transcend the conventions of the showbiz biopic.  Tackling the loneliness of celebrity is hardly new, and taking a gay romance at its centre is not enough to make it groundbreaking or important.  The showy performances of Douglas and Damon, despite tenderness in their scenes together, always feels like their acting.  The film suffers badly by contrast to the naturalism of recent gay romances such as those seen in Weekend (2011, Andrew Haigh).

 

Soderbergh presents a complex shot that reveals the film’s weakness.  Liberace dallies with members of the Young Americans, a dancing troupe now performing at his show.  It’s just before his performance at the 54th Oscars, where On Golden Pond was in competition.  Liberace commends Jane Fonda for abandoning her protests and political campaigns and for making a sweet film with her father.  He advises his young audience that stars should seek only to entertain.  All this take place in the background.  In the foreground, Scott drinks, worried about his relationship.  Soderbergh focuses on their emotional and relationship difficulties.  Taking Liberace’s advice, he avoids any political context, protest or political campaigns, in the late 1970s marked by such events as Harvey Milk’s assassination.

 

Soderbergh had problems with financing the film.  Eventually, HBO came on board.  Hence, Behind the Candelabra will not screen theatrically in the USA and will not be eligible for Oscars.  The gay romance Soderbergh chose to explore is that of a very rich entertainer and his lover, played by Hollywood stars.  For all its entertainment value, Soderbergh’s stylish effort functions as a fine example of ostentation:  a pretentious, if glamorous, display.

John Moran

15A (see IFCO website for details)

118 mins
Behind the Candelabra is released on 7th June 2013

Behind the Candelabra – Official Website

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Cannes Diary 4 – Days 7-8

candelabra-main

 Behind the Candelabra

David Neary embraces American-English, misses out on three-hours of lesbian sex and gets ripped off by Ma Nolan.

Tuesday was another beautifully sunny day in Cannes, the perfect excuse to hide from the sun in a dark room and watch things flicker on the screen that were less bright and frightening. I had missed Steven Soderbergh’s Behind the Candelabra, that morning, and as seems to be daily routine now everyone was talking about how great it was and its chances for the Palme d’Or. Michael Douglas, for the time being, is seen as a shoe-in for Best Actor.

Still disappointed from the film the previous night, I opted not to head into the Grande Bellezza press conference, despite my love of Sorrentino. After downing another liquid thunder-coffee at the espresso bar, I got in line (American journalists are rubbing off on me, the word ‘queued’ has started to look strange to me) for Claire Denis’ latest Les Salauds (The Bastards). There I got talking to Polish film critic Michal Oleszczyk, who sported a gloriously nerdy T-shirt with ‘Pauline Kael’ written on it in the font of an ’80s rock band logo. Cannes truly is the Mecca of film geekdom.

Controversially not in the main competition (where there are no female directors this year), Les Salauds may have a strong shot at winning Un Certain Regard. With the most vaguely plotted first 20 minutes imaginable, Denis’s film is a neo-noir that doesn’t introduce its characters, and leaves you collecting information a frustrating few beats behind the protagonist. Not a very enjoyable watch (and with some horrific sexual violence – a bit much before lunch), it all comes together for a quite startling final 10 minutes that make this a truly memorable film. Whether or not it was deserving of a spot in the main competition, it was certainly many leagues above the likes of Jimmy P.

I had planned to catch A Castle in Italy, but word was it is the weakest film in competition this year (worse than Jimmy P. and Wara No Tate), so I passed in order to catch up on writing and get some food for a change. Caught for time with another film fast approaching, I had to make the tourists’ Sophie’s Choice of grabbing food in McDonalds or Subway. I chose the latter, but I didn’t feel good about it.

Back at the Salle Debussy, I managed to squeeze my way into the press screening of Grigris, a French/Chadian coproduction, showing in the main competition. It’s perhaps the most unoriginal story imaginable; a performer in desperate need of money gets involved in illegal activities, decides to rob from his criminal bosses and has to go on the run. It’s nothing you haven’t seen before – except for Grigris himself. Playing a fictionalised interpretation of himself, dancer Soulémane Démé is a performer like no other. With an unexplained disability meaning his left leg is withered down to a slender stalk, Grigris is a human rubber band, able to bend himself in unimaginable ways as he gesticulates his flailing form with incredible skill on the dance floor. Démé’s physical performance is what makes the film work, in addition to some solid nighttime cinematography and an unexpectedly feminist ending.

Jaws was playing at the cinema on the beach, but I decided to call it a day then. Waiting for my train, an unexpected (and unwarranted) blitzkrieg of fireworks erupted over Cannes, deafening everyone for miles around. No doubt they cut into the enjoyment of Jaws a little.

The next morning I woke bright and early for another 8.30am screening. At this stage of the festival it had become embarrassingly clear that despite my expectations of drowning in movies at the festival, my batting average was only two a day. Today was going to be different, I thought, as I grabbed a petit déjeuner of a croissant and a bag of Haribo crocodiles and waited for my train.

Seated in the Grand Théâtre Lumière there was a huge amount of excitement in the air for Nicolas Winding Refn’s Only God Forgives, his follow-up to Drive. There had been rumours slamming around Cannes the previous days that a gaggle of Danish press had seen a preview and been heartily unimpressed. Now was our chance to finally find out.

Well, yeah, they were right. Even more visually stylish than Drive, Only God Forgives also has less plot, character or purpose. A convoluted revenge tale set in Bangkok, Ryan Gosling stars as Ryan Gosling playing Ryan Gosling, a drug dealer who comes up against an unstoppable and vicious police chief who allowed Gosling’s brother to be killed in custody. Very little happens, and very little is said, other than Kristin Scott Thomas talking at length about her sons’ genitalia. It may be gorgeous to look at, but it’s very little else. As the credits rolled, rapturous applause and blistering boos rose into the air and collided like at the battle of the bands in Scott Pilgrim.

It was straight out of that into a rescreening of Behind the Candelabra for me. Soderbergh’s purposed final film is a superbly judged if straightforward drama anchored by excellent performances from Michael Douglas and Matt Damon. It’s Rob Lowe who steals the show however in his brief appearances. American audiences with HBO can enjoy it almost straight away, as it airs on Sunday night. At the cost of new Game of Thrones, however. Surely that’s too great a price to pay…

My closest shave of Cannes 2013 thus far came shortly after as I was hanging around the American Pavilion, chatting to some staff there about how disappointing we all felt Only God Forgives had been. ‘I thought the music was great at least,’ conceded one woman of Cliff Martinez’s score, to which I agreed, but added that it sounded like leftover tracks from Drive. We moved onto another topic altogether, but only just in time, as Cliff Martinez walked into the pavilion and straight through our conversation. Being a critic at Cannes can be very dangerous sometimes. You never know who is listening, or lurking around the next corner.

My third film of the day was to be Wakolda, showing in Un Certain Regard. Seemingly a rather pretty but standard Argentinian period piece, about a family opening a hotel in 1960, it takes a turn for the disturbing when their first guest turns out to be Josef Mengele, the real-life Auschwitz physician, and he takes a creepy interest in the family’s youngest daughter and her mother’s in-utero twins. A little slow moving, it is still a solid drama with some terrific imagery, most notably a doll factory where perfect blonde plastic girls are lined up on shelves while mangled and burned defected dolls lie crumpled in a heap on the floor.

Absent for a few days, the rains came back a vengeance, bringing with them the familiar sights of dampened tuxes and umbrella salesmen all down the promenade. With time to spare to grab some food,  I checked out the Armenian kebab joint everyone had been telling me about, and was not left disappointed. If there’s anything you miss while at Cannes, it’s eating remotely healthily.

Hiking back to the Palais in the rain, I shared a knowing, damp look with Michael Cera as his entourage umbrella’d him through the town. When I got back to Salle Debussy, I realised I had made an enormous error of judgement. The three-hour La Vie d’Adèle (Blue Is the Warmest Colour) was having its press screening and with the rain and its length I had assumed there would be little demand or queue for it. I could not have been more wrong. Apparently people really like their three-hour lesbian sex dramas.

Who knew?

Rejected from my second film of the festival, I had no choice but to join some friends for drinks in a local Irish pub, the unfortunately named Ma Nolan’s, where pints were a preposterous €6.70. If it can happen at Cannes, it can happen anywhere.

No, wait, scrap that! You’d never pay €6.70 for a pint at the Galway Film Fleadh. That’s some serious bullshit right there!

Still to come, Alexander Payne, Jim Jarmusch and Roman Polanski all have new films to show, and now that everyone and their mother is hailing La Vie d’Adèle as the first true masterpiece of the festival, I suppose I’ll have to block off some time to catch that now too.

It’s all fun and games until somebody misses a film.

 

Check out David Neary’s previous diary entries:

Cannes Diary: Days 4-6
David Neary dons his debs tux, fumes at French teens and survives on the Cannes diet and nap regime.

Cannes Diary: Days 2-3
David Neary eavesdrops on the Danish, gets berated by a Mexican, shares a boat with Metallica and hangs out with three of a decade’s worth of celebrity crushes. It’s tough in Cannes…

Cannes Diary: Day 1
David Neary brushes shoulders with the stars and an umbrella salesman at Cannes.

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Cinema Review: Side Effects

DIR: Steven Soderbergh  WRI: Scott Z. Burns  PRO: Scott Z. Burns, Gregory Jacobs, Lorenzo di Bonaventura  DOP: Steven Soderbergh  ED: Steven Soderbergh   DES: Howard Cummings  CAST: Jude Law, Rooney Mara, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Channing Tatum

It’s a big day for Emily Taylor (Mara). Her young husband Martin (Tatum) is being released from jail after serving four years for insider trading, and it should be a chance for the young couple to start all over all again, and maybe recapture the glamorous lifestyle they had. But then Emily drives her car into a wall – and it doesn’t look like an accident.

At hospital, the on-call psychiatrist Jonathan Banks (Law) believes she’s not suicidal, but she does become his patient – and the search for a drug that will help lift her ‘fog’ of depression begins. Things improve, but then it goes sideways; she begins to sleepwalk, loses her sense of time, and then there’s another possible suicide attempt. Nothing’s working, so after consulting Emily’s former therapist Victoria Sibert (Zeta-Jones), Law cautiously prescribes ablixa, a new ‘wonder’ drug he’s acting as a consultant for.

At this stage, the fim takes one of its many turns and things aren’t all they seem as Soderbergh skilfully lays out his revelatory drama. An incident results in Emily being shipped off for court-ordered psychiatric care, but then a question mark forms over Dr. Banks and his actions. Was what happened a terrible side effect of ablixa, the drug he prescribed? Is someone else to blame here?

Mud sticks though, and now Banks becomes front page news. There’s a medical enquiry, and he quickly begins to lose everything: patients, the consultancy, and then his practice. His psychiatrist his sessions with Emily have to continue though, and he becomes suspicious about her. Some of the things she said don’t add up, and the stock prices for a rival to ablixa have soared in the wake of this scandal; can the two things be related?

Then Banks receives some compromising photographs in the mail, and a story from his past comes back to haunt him. His wife Dee (Vinessa Shaw) leaves him, taking their son, and Banks realizes that he’s being set up, and there’s nothing he can do about it – except work with his patient, Emily, to find out what’s going on…

Apparently Soderbergh’s last movie before his retirement, Side Effects is a low-scale thriller that again marks another tight collaboration between him and writer Scott Z. Burns (they worked on Contagion and The Informant! too). Soderbergh – again working as his own cinematographer and editor under assumed names – keeps the tension up, and though there are some good performances from Rooney and especially Law, there’s a distinct lacks of thrills and danger.

 

Whether there’s the suggestion of a huge medical industry conspiracy or not, you still expect Law to get into some real trouble, be in real danger – but here it’s more garden variety career and family ruination. When you start with a bloody stabbing and get into lies and deception you expect more of a drama spiral, but never the less it’s a solid piece of modern filmmaking. No matter what, make sure you check out the great ablixa ‘website’: www.tryablixa.com

James Bartlett

15A (see IFCO website for details)

105mins
Side Effects is released on 8th March 2013

Side Effects – Official Website

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QGe2ZE0prGg

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Cinema Review: Magic Mike

cheeky

 

DIR: Steven Soderbergh • WRI: Reid Carolin • PRO: Reid Carolin, Gregory Jacobs, Channing Tatum, Nick Wechsler • DOP: Steven Soderbergh • ED: Steven Soderbergh •  Cast: Channing Tatum, Alex Pettyfer, Olivia Munn

By day, Mike (Channing Tatum) is busy at one of his many jobs; construction worker, auto-parts dealer, furniture designer. But by night, he transforms into Magic Mike, the star of Dallas’ (Matthew McConaughey) all-male stripper show in Tampa Bay, where he performs alongside a bevy of muscular studs (Joe Manganiello, Matt Bomer, Kevin Nash and Adam Rodriguez) to a throng of screaming, dollar-throwing females of all ages. One day Mike bumps into The Kid (Alex Pettyfer) and through a string of coincidences, ends up shoving him on stage when one of their crew falls ill, and wouldn’t you know it, The Kid looks good in his underwear.

And so begins an Obi-Wan/Luke relationship, with Mike taking The Kid under his wing to show him the highs (and inevitable lows) of the world of male stripping. Straight off the bat, this is not a male version of Showgirls. Directed by Oscar-winner Steven Soderbergh (Traffic, Ocean’s Eleven) and based in part on Tatum’s own experiences as a stripper, there are two ways to enjoy this movie; (1) As an excuse to enjoy all of the well-toned flesh on stage. There is A LOT of it, and it has to be sad that the dance sequences are pretty impressive. Or (2) An argument could be made that this film is an essay in modern-day male bonding, or in the relatively recent invention of ‘Bromance’, or the reacquisition of male sexuality, or whatever reasons uptight straight males have to give in order to go see a fun movie that just happens to have guys shaking their butts in ass-less chaps.

Tatum brings his usual puppy-dog charm and carries the film well, Pettyfer continues to have one of the most punchable faces in modern cinema, but that serves him well for this particular role, and the rest of the supporting cast are fine, with a standout being McConaughey, who brings the same sleazy sexuality and inherent threat level he presented in Killer Joe, but dialled way down to a less homicidal, but more entertaining level here.

If there are any faults, it’s that considering the movie’s primary fan base will be women, the women in the movie are very poorly represented. There are only two worthy of note; one (Olivia Munn) being a bisexual wingman for Mike, and the other (Cody Horn) is supposed to be Mike’s romantic interest/soul salvation, but is such a constantly moaning harpy that it’s hard to ever warm to her. Also, as inevitable and supposedly necessary as the ‘If you have too much sex, alcohol and drugs, there’s going to be a downside’ arc is, the fallout scenes with hollow sex with strangers, hangovers and overdoses are still a total bummer and drag down the whole fun, frivolous vibe the film had going until that point.

But aside from these gripes, Magic Mike is still an easy to enjoy movie, with Soderbergh bringing some of his distinctive camera work and editing to make what could have been a trashy night out into a visually interesting, well told story about oiled up guys who don’t like wearing clothes.

Rory Cashin

Rated 16 (see IFCO website for details)
110m 10s

Magic Mike is released on 13th July 2012

Magic Mike – Official Website

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Cinema Review: Haywire

thems' fightin' words

DIR: Steven Soderbergh  WRI: Lem Dobbs  PRO: Gregory Jacobs, Alan Moloney, Michael Polaire,Tucker Tooley  DOP: Peter Andrews  ED: Peter Andrews  DES: Howard Cummings  Cast: Gina Carano, Michael Fassbender, Ewan Mc Gregor, Channing Tatum, Michael Douglas, Bill Paxton, Michael Angarano, Antonio Banderas

Director Steven Soderbergh has averaged a film a year since his acclaimed 1989 debut Sex, Lies & Videotape, an incredible work rate by modern filmmaking standards especially for one who frequently works within the political vagaries fof the studio system. A slippery stylist, Soderbergh’s films hop from genre to genre with creative restlessness appearing to be his defining characteristic whether filming glossy,  expensive star laden confections such as the Oceans series or experimenting with digital video and unknown actors on low budget conceits such as Bubble or The Girlfriend Experience.

With Haywire – his 23rd full length feature – he takes another stylistic left turn this being an independently financed, relatively low budget B-movie style action film of which a large portion was filmed in Dublin back in 2010. Mixed martial arts star Gina Carano portrays Mallory Kane, a covert operative for hire who performs certain ‘tasks’ for shady global organizations such as rescuing a Chinese journalist held hostage in Barcelona  which is the first instance in the film that we witness Carano’s and Mallory’s athleticism and asskicking skills as she fights her way out of a corner.

After a successful mission, Mallory is then dispatched by her handler Kenneth (Ewan Mc Gregor) to Dublin. Her mission is to assassinate an Iranian ambassador with the help of a suave British operative portrayed by Michael Fassbender but things go awry and she soon finds herself doublecrossed and left for dead. On the run, she flees back to the States where she devises a plan to exact revenge on those who’ve betrayed her.

The  generic plot of Haywire could have been lifted from any ‘international’ action thriller stretching back from 1960’s to the present day. In fact, one could easily imagine Lee Marvin, Charles Bronson or James Coburn or on the lower end of the scale Jean Claude Van Damme or Steven Seagal inhabiting Carano’s role in decades past.

What makes Haywire stand out from the pack? Well probably the only thing for this reviewer were the fight scenes which crackle with realism, vigour and fluidity meaning there is none of the fast editing/shakycam technique that has become the signature style of Hollywood action films since the success of the Bourne franchise. Obviously the fact that Carano is quite a formidable physical presence in her own right  adds to the believability of these expertly choreographed confrontations and we get a sense of the sweat, the struggle and pain of close combat in Soderbergh’s long takes.

The film makes light use of  a fairly heavyweight cast: Michael Douglas and Antonio Banderas  in particular come and go, act in a couple fo scenes and then leave without making much of an impression. Of course, Carano is the star here and Soderbergh is subverting a male dominated genre so maybe the point is to make these iconic actors subservient so that their mere presence doesnt detract or overwhelm the female lead. Fassbender makes the strongest impression but then he does get to take on Carano in a violent hotel room one on one.

So as a showcase for Carano’s natural abilities, sultry good looks and relaxed screen presence, the film is enjoyable but outside of the action, the film feels rather lethargic, which is only exacerbated by the rather flat dialogue and understated David Holmes score. It feels like a detached exercise rather than a project which the director was passionate about, a chance for him to develop his skillset in another genre and while there is certainly nothing wrong with a stripped down action film too often Haywire feels diffuse and perfunctory.

Derek Mc Donnell

Rated 15A (see IFCO website for details)
Haywire is released on 20th January 2012

Haywire – Official Website

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lU_v6Wl3tBw

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Cinema Review: Contagion

don't touch me I'm matt-damon

DIR: Steven Soderbergh • WRI: Scott Z. Burns • PRO: Gregory Jacobs, Michael Shamberg, Stacey Sher • DOP: Steven Soderbergh • ED: Stephen Mirrione • DES: Howard Cummings • CAST: Matt Damon, Laurence Fishburne, Jude Law, Jennifer Ehle, Marion Cotillard, Kate Winslet, Gwyneth Paltrow

Premiered at the recent Venice Film Festival, there’s a huge amount of buzz around Contagion
– so much so that the US release date was brought forward to the weekend of 9/11, a time when people are remembering a terrifying event that affected – and killed – thousands of people.

This marketing tactic might be a lucky coincidence, but either way, does Contagion – a story about the fictional MEV-1 virus that wreaks havoc across the world – live up to the hype? It certainly starts at a breakneck pace with scary scenes that’ll ensure you wash your hands more often and stop touching your face (you do it about 3,000 times a day).

Contagion actually begins with the sound of a cough. It’s Day 2, and in a Chicago airport Beth Emhoff (Paltrow) is calling her lover. She’s been away on business in Hong Kong and is now going home to her husband and kids. Within a day she’s having seizures, and soon after she’s on the slab. They buzzsaw her skull open, check out her brain, and the Medical Examiner says those classic words: ‘Call everyone’.

Her son dies right afterwards too, leaving somehow-immune husband Mitch (Damon) and his daughter Jory (Anna Jacoby-Heron) separated by a temporary quarantine and unwilling first witnesses to the fury of an unknown and deadly virus.

Others are falling like flies in London and Hong Kong, and soon the hunt is on to find what’s killing everyone. At the Center for Disease Control in Atlanta, head honcho Dr. Ellis Cheever (Fishburne) is trying to stay in control as Homeland Security starts getting twitchy, and Dr. Erin Mears (Kate Winslet) is beginning to organize what the mounting numbers of sick and dying are going to need.

As the virus slowly infects the planet, World Health Organization doctor Leonara Orantes (Cotillard) is trying to find Patient Zero: who they were and where they were infected on Day 1, while back in Atlanta in the CDC lab, Dr. Ally Hextall (Ehle) is trying to isolate the virus and find a vaccine.

Out on the streets in San Francisco is Alan Krumwiede (Jude Law, sporting a ridiculous pair of gappy front teeth and showcasing an Australian or possibly South African accent), a blogger and conspiracy theorist who believes the Government and chemical companies are all in cahoots, and that there might be another antidote. He fuels the fire of panic, and soon State borders are closing and the National Guard are on the streets… yet still the death toll rises.

Director Soderbergh brings his slick, crowd-pleasing Ocean’s 11 skills to bear here, setting up a cracking premise quickly and laying the path for a story that promises to have everything; an unseen enemy, a hopeless situation, a cast of heroes fighting for their fellow humans (even if it means their own sacrifice) and a race against time.

We’re in classic disaster movie territory, yet Contagion falls short of the mark because it fails to give anything emotional for the audience to connect too. Sure, people are dying by the truck load – including cast members – but with so many of them in so many places, there’s never enough time to get to know them.

With barely any idea of what’s at stake for them – and what decisions they might make as a result – it’s hard to care that much. Also, sometimes it’s so long before you come back to a character that you’ve not only almost forgotten about them, but didn’t see how they reacted to the escalating disaster: they weren’t frozen in amber, were they?

In attempting to raise the level of tension and make this a film that appeals to everyone across the world – infectious diseases are no respecter of boundaries or oceans – it actually distances the audience, seeming too often to be more of an extreme environmentalist video about ‘what might happen one day.’

The chronic lack of action – it’s all about boardrooms – is a problem too, and at times the film really drags. That’s not a good thing when there’s a parasitic time bomb exploding, soldiers on the streets and people looting and killing – the bubble around the cast needed to be broken.

The much-trumpeted desire to be scientifically accurate but not boring (screenwriter Scott Z. Burns and Soderbergh worked for several weeks with Dr. Ian Lipkin, a scientist renowned for his work on SARS and the West Nile Virus) is something the film accomplishes well, but sadly it isn’t enough to compensate, and instead ends up diverting the human focus even more.

Finally, it stretched credulity beyond the borders of belief when, throughout the film, Matt Damon’s family home always seemed to have electricity, his daughter her mobile phone, and Jude Law his website. In the US at least, hot weather regularly causes power cuts, and everyone knows how often their internet access crashes or their mobiles suddenly cut out, yet in the midst of disaster the Emhoff lights were blazing. Really? With society in chaos and disarray?

It was just another thing that made Contagion far less thrilling – and believable – than it clearly meant to be (and probably really is), so overall it’s an entertaining but forgettable diversion, one that – I admit – did have me shifting in my seat every time someone in the cinema coughed…

James Bartlett

Rated 12A (see IFCO website for details)
Contagion is released on 21st October 2011

Contagion – Official Website

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The Girlfriend Experience

The Girlfriend Expeerience

DIR: Steven Soderbergh • WRI: David Levien, Brian Koppelman • PRO: Mark Cuban, Gregory Jacobs, Todd Wagner • DOP: Steven Soderbergh • ED: Steven Soderbergh • DES: Carlos Moore • CAST: Sasha Grey, Chris Santos, Philip Eytan

Fans of porn star Sasha Grey will unwrap a cinematic plaid pajamas set this Christmas when the consensual, dead-eyed exploitation they will have grown accustomed to is rendered with an off-putting humanising dimension in Steven Soderbergh’s new stylish New York piece about high class prostitution. After the epic feel of Che, this short, low-budget, high-definition film, shot over a few weeks with a mostly non-professional cast, is a sharp and admirable stylistic turn for the director.

Chelsea, a beautiful young Manhattanite, lives in an expensive apartment with her boyfriend, a fitness instructor, and simulates the girlfriend experience with regular, high-earning clients. It is set rigidly in a time that doesn’t feel distant enough to have any real significance that works here, days before Obama’s election, and her clients talk obsessively about their potentially threatened fortunes. The story unfolds through a chronologically fractured narrative as we see her being interviewed by a journalist, played by New York magazine’s Mark Jacobson, and sampled by a reviewer, played with exceptional creepiness by film critic Glen Kenny who calously slates her in his web review. (Spot the dig here, anyone?) Perhaps The Hills might have forever ruined this fly-on-the-wall naturalistic style of dialogue, but it is hard not to feel cheated when you are watching prosaic, designer humans chomping mutely on salads, occassionally adding ‘ommm… so, ya.’ Exceptionally well cast, highly stylised and conceptually potent, the film feels like it got lost along its way to being something really special.

The chilly, observant style is as hard to read as its lead character’s facial expressions. The film shows this thoroughly unlikeable character sleeping with even more unlikeable hedge fund managers (who mostly just want the missionary position and a chat) so that she can buy lots of unecessary designer stuff, and then it incoherently depicts her as romantic and fragile figure in the last few minutes and doeasn’t quite pull it off. Viewers will probably emerge unsure of what the writers and the director actually wanted to express about the extremely emotive issue, as it fails to depict the up-sides or down-sides of her experience in an unproblematic way. Jumping from almost crass metaphorical simplicity to unredemptive opacity, the film broaches huge questions that it is simply not sopisticated enough to answer. What seems to have happened here, as so often happens in art, as a reaction to mainstream public discourse on the subject of prostitution, is that in an attempt to be non-judgemental and morally complex, the artist does a great disservice to the many real prostitutes who have found their experiences to be more damaging, dehumanising and dangerous than, and utterly incomparable to, most forms of self-comodification.

Angela Nagle
(See
biog here)

Rated 16 (see IFCO website for details)
The Girlfriend Experience is released on 4 Dec 2009

The Girlfriend Experience – Official Website

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The Informant!

The Informant

DIR: Steven Soderbergh • WRI: Scott Z. Burns • PRO: Howard Braunstein, Kurt Eichenwald, Jennifer Fox, Gregory Jacobs, Michael Jaffe • DOP: Steven Soderbergh • ED: Stephen Mirrione • DES: Doug J. Meerdink • CAST: Matt Damon, Melanie Lynskey, Scott Bakula, Joel McHale

If you can forgive Steven Soderbergh the money-grubbing silliness that is Ocean’s Eleven (and counting); then one can only admire his list of achievements in American mainstream cinema. He seems to consciously move from one project to the next embracing their differences without feeling the need to stamp an auteurial brand on them. From Sex, Lies, and Videotape (made when he was 26) through films such as Erin Brockovich, the underrated The Limey and Traffic, to his adventurous, if flawed Che biopic, Soderbergh has consistently proved himself to be one of the most interesting (and prolific) directors around.

This time, Soderbergh returns to our screens with The Informant!, adapted from Kurt Eichenwald’s 2000 novel of the same name (minus the exclamation mark!) The film tells the true story of whistle-blower Mark Whitacre, a high-flying executive for ADM, the major agri-business corporation in the American Midwest, and one of the largest companies in the world, commanding a billion-dollar-a-year market. From 1992–1995, Whitacre worked undercover for the FBI providing inside information on his employer’s illegal tactics of worldwide price-fixing, which at one point was bringing in $2.5 million in profits in a month.

As the film develops, Whitacre reveals himself to be more than a mere informer as his schizoid storytelling begets a twisted web of intrigue. His initial reasoning for doing what he’s doing is that he wants ‘to do the right thing.’ It’s apparent soon enough that Whitacre’s understanding of ‘right’ is gymnastically flexible.
The film is billed as a comedy thriller, and there are certain funny moments, but The Informant! relies for its success on the ‘I can’t believe he’s doing that’ moments, as Whitacre digs himself deeper and deeper in duplicity as he seems to pursue his own agenda.

Matt Damon puts in a tremendous performance here (his best since 1999’s The Talented Mr. Ripley) as the complex main character, portraying all of Whitacre’s eccentricities without playing them for laughs or slipping into farce. Damon holds the whole thing together with skill and is only really upstaged by FBI agent Brian Shepard’s hair (brilliantly played by Scott Bakula’s hair). The stylish well-paced narrative is backed by a storming jazzy soundtrack, courtesy of Marvin Hamlisch, which matches the twists and turns of this engrossing story. The Informant! is an enjoyable romp made all the more entertaining by the fact that it’s true. Who ever thought corporate America could be so much fun?

Steven Galvin
(See biog here)

Rated 15a (see IFCO website for details)
The Informant!
is released 20th Nov 2009

The Informant! – Official Website

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