9/17/13: Behind the Candelabra, Somebody Up There Likes Me, World War Z, The Smurfs: The Legend of Smurfy Hollow, Greetings From Tim Buckley, The Bling Ring

Behind the Candelabra (NR, 2013, HBO)
“Behind the Candelabra’s” biggest problem is perhaps the biggest problem a production like “Behind the Candelabra” can have: We don’t know how much, if any of it, is really true. Is that a problem for you? Is the prospect of Matt Damon initially portraying a 17-year-old — Scott Thorson, whose book of the same name, and its disputed honesty, provides the narrative on which “Candelabra” is tightly based — a problem for you? These are the issues that nag at the enjoyment of “Candelabra,” which purports to document a strange, exciting and ultimately volcanic period in which famed musician Liberace (Michael Douglas) courted Thorson as a friend, assistant, lover and/or son. What? Yeah. As a document of history, “Candelabra” is the word of one man against another man who cannot respond, and thus — unfair or not, we’ll never likely know — it’s dubious. How much that matters, in the face of how sophisticatedly uncaged “Candelabra” is as theater, is up to you. But purely as drama, “Candelabra” is a wild good time, embarking with shaky wheels and careening into an affair that finds its two participants emotionally ravaged going in and sends them through a whole different wringer on the way out the other side. Regardless of the veracity of the story told, the fire of those reenacting it here — most visibly Douglas as he basks in and owns Liberace’s opulence, but more significantly Damon as he gradually roars to life as the only person capable of reducing the whole spectacle to ash — is hard to deny.
Extra: Making-of feature.

Somebody Up There Likes Me (NR, 2013, Tribeca Film)
At two points in “Somebody Up There Likes Me,” Sal (Nick Offerman) — dishwasher, ice cream magnate, nosy neighbor and the closest Max (Keith Poulson) can seemingly get to both a constant and a best friend — remarks how “it’s funny that we all sorta think we’re not gonna die.” And when you hear it the second time, it’s akin to turning a crossword puzzle upside down and reading the answers that were in front of you the whole time. “SUTLM” is a comedy about Max, who isn’t any one thing so much as he isn’t much of everything. He’s a lackadaisical waiter, a limp ex-husband, a middling friend and a pretty damp character in general around which to build a comedy. When “SUTLM” pushes forward with its story without prodding Max the same way, it’s enough to make one wonder if something’s up or if this is all there is to yet another slacker comedy about a whole lot of not much. Turns out, rather cleverly, that it’s both. Mileage will vary as to when (and possibly if) the message lurking inside fully avails itself, but “SUTLM” has a point, and that point is biding its time in plain sight nearly the whole time. That alone may not redeem Max’s story in the eyes of those who came here to laugh — “SUTLM” is amusing, but dryly more than hysterically so — nor is it the kind of epiphanic “ah ha!” moment that will inspire legions of viewers to re-plot the trajectories of their lives. But the clever way “SUTLM” sneaks up on its audience may inspire just a little bit of amused introspection, and that, in the face so, so many coming-of-age stories that expend so much more effort and come away completely empty, is no trivial trick. Jess Weixler and Stephanie Hunt also star.
Extras: Writer/director/Offerman commentary, writer/director/Offerman Q&A, Offerman interview.

World War Z (PG-13/NR, 2013, Paramount)
Fifteen, 10 or maybe even five years ago, “World War Z” would have dropped jaws and blown minds. But the zombie revival happened, followed by the zombie oversaturation, various parodies of zombie fever and a chronic case of zombie fatigue. That’s where we sit as “WWZ” arrives, and when yet another opening clip montage blames the outbreak on our environmental neglect before the outbreak even breaks out, our dread is reserved for the potential onslaught of tired grandstanding instead of hungry undead. Those fears, thankfully, never materialize. But that doesn’t mean “WWZ” doesn’t have problems — or more specifically, a dearth of solutions — on its plate. Those scenes from “WWZ’s” trailers, of insane masses of zombies taking over a jetliner and coagulating into Voltron-esque masses of inhumanity the size of city blocks, are as visually awesome in their extended form here as the brief glimpses suggested. When the fight scales down to tunnels and abandoned hospital wings, it does so smartly. In flashes, the film even flirts with levels of crazy (David Morse) and humane (Daniella Kertesz) that could have taken it somewhere special with more time. Mostly, though, “WWZ” feels like the polished but unremarkable final draft of the countless grimier but more exciting first drafts that preceded it. Remember the first time you saw a lumbering zombie break into a terrifying full sprint, or the first time you saw a mass of zombies that filled the screen for miles? Remember the first time a movie basically blamed you for the hell you’re watching? “WWZ” arrives way too late to capture firsts like that. And when it rides a dubious wing and prayer to a half-measured conclusion that feels like a setup for an even tardier sequel, it’s hard to discern what, if anything, people will say about it a few years and several hundred more zombie movies from now. Brad Pitt stars.
Extras: Unrated cut with seven extra minutes, two behind-the-scenes features.

The Smurfs: The Legend of Smurfy Hollow (G, 2013, Sony Pictures)
It’s easy to forget, based on the reputation-tarnishing personality of the two semi-live action movies, just how effortlessly delightful “The Smurfs” is when it’s allowed to just be a cartoon. Here, albeit with some curious qualities of its own, is a reminder. As the pun makes clear, “The Legend of Smurfy Hollow” is a Smurf-ified retelling of “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” Whether it’s timed to capitalize on Halloween, the new “Sleepy Hollow” television show or both isn’t clear, and one can only speculate (perhaps cynically as well) why nearly all the packaging makes “Hollow” look like a computer-animated special when the CG stuff is a wrapper for the traditional cartoon that comprises the heart of the story. No matter. Borrowed lore and calculated marketing theories aside, “Hollow” is a simple treat and, despite being a new production with expensive voices (Fred Armisen, Alan Cumming, Hank Azaria), an immensely welcome throwback to everything that made “The Smurfs” so pleasant before New York City and live humans barged into the frame. Hollywood loves a good reboot, so can someone in Hollywood please scrap whatever plans there may be for a third live-action “Smurfs” movie and replace them with something that looks like this instead? No extras — a bummer considering the main feature is only 22 minutes long, but not a deal-breaker given the $5 price tag.

Greetings From Tim Buckley (NR, 2013, Tribeca Film)
By brute force alone, Penn Badgley comes alive as late singer Jeff Buckley and nearly (maybe successfully) saves a movie that, namesake aside, is really about him when it’s about anything at all. “Greetings From Tim Buckley” sets itself in 1991, before Jeff had ever performed before a live audience, to say nothing of matching and eclipsing his late father’s fame. When a group in Brooklyn endeavors to stage a Tim Buckley tribute show, they reel in Jeff for a live debut that’s poetic in all ways except one: Jeff barely knew the man, much less understood or connected to him on a level even his fans achieved. So how to reconcile those feelings with the excitement of not only stepping into Tim’s shoes and on stage, but also meeting the woman (Imogen Poots) who immediately becomes his new muse? Clumsily and often languidly, it seems. The blame for what happens in “Buckley’s” second act and beyond falls neither on Poots nor especially Badgley, who flings himself into the role and, when the opportunity arises, puts an thrilling charge into what could have been the same old scenes in record stores and on trains. But “Buckley” spends too much time fumbling around looking for its emotional center (and emerging with the obvious) to provide many of those opportunities. The joy of watching “Buckley” should come in watching the younger Buckley find the voice that made him so revered (and, now, so missed) as an artist. There’s some of that here, but it’s no match for the volume of father issues that feel disconnected enough to have originated from any old movie about any old musician.
Extra: Cast/director Interview.

The Bling Ring (R, 2013, Lions Gate)
If the aliens invade and declare the human race unfit for saving, it very well could be because the UFO they rode in on had “Spring Breakers” and “The Bling Ring” as its in-flight entertainment. Of the two, the shockingly listless “Ring” reigns easily as the bigger offender, because its source material — the true story of seven floundering high schoolers (Emma Watson, Israel Broussard and Katie Chang, among others) who, between 2008 and 2009, burgled Hollywood A-listers’ homes to the collective tune of more than $3 million — should at least be an ironically comic layup if not an engrossing straightforward one. But more troubling than any dramatized teenage crime ring is how drearily empty “Ring” feels as it spins a purposeless wheel of music montages, faux-edgy drug binges, Facebook selfie flipbooks and pretty much every other telltale ingredient of adolescent fiction that purports to chew on the cutting edge but forgot to pack its teeth. At no point does any real storytelling emerge — perhaps because, beyond the novelty of a bunch of self-absorbed kids knocking over their self-absorbed idols’ homes, there’s nothing worth talking about here. Only during the home stretch, when “Ring” frames comeuppance as a life lesson in much the same way a teenager might lecture her grandparents about the meaning of life and hard work, does it elicit a reaction. Sadly, it’s merely gratitude — first at the chance to laugh at such a sorry attempt at spinning the morality bottle, and secondly because the closing credits closely follow to quickly put this sorry show out of its perceived misery.
Extras: Behind-the-scenes features.