Powder Blue
Image // R // $35.98 // May 26, 2009
Review by Adam Tyner | posted May 17, 2009
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Whitaker! Dial the Wayback Machine to 2006, and courtesy of The Last King of Scotland, he's on his way to taking home an Academy Award for Best Actor. Now flash-forward a few years: Whitaker's diving headfirst into a supporting role in a direct-to-video Magnolia knockoff where he's chasing down a tranny for a Jansport fat-packed with fifty grand. See, his character -- you can call him Charlie -- is suicidal, and...maybe it's because he used to be a man of the cloth and all, but Chuck can't pull the trigger himself. He putters around Los Angeles in his wood-paneled station wagon trying to find someone who'll take a $50K fanny pack to do the job for him. Hispanic tranny...? Swing and a miss. How 'bout Qwerty (Eddie Redmayne), the dweeby guy who's taken over his father's mortuary and is up to that little ridge just under his nose in debt? He could use the cash, and he's used to the whole dead body thing anyway, right? Nope. Sorry, Charlie.

So, while Chuck's off drowning his sorrows in a diner with an all-smiles Lisa Kudrow, Qwerty's skulking around La-la-land looking for a girlfriend. Turns out embalming and puppeteering haven't really been doing the trick, and Qwerty blacked out while chatting up a quirky-cute gal during a round of speed dating. Oops! Well, it's Hollywood (literally!), so it'll all work out in the end. Here comes Rose Johnny (Jessica Biel), a stripper with a bedridden vegetable for a son. Oh! And Patrick Swayze slathers on a bunch of eyeliner and an unbuttoned top to play her skeevy boss. Anyway, Rose is also being chased around by Jack (Ray Liotta), an ex-con fresh out of the klink after 25 years. Jack's scored a payday from his old boss (Kris Kristofferson in a pointless cameo), and tucked inside that suitcase full o' cash is Rose's name and address. Is she his next hit? A really young old girlfriend? Oh, you'll just have to trudge through a hundred minutes and change of intertwining stories about lonely people desperate for a human connection to find out.

Powder Blue is... I dunno, Babel if Alejandro González Iñárritu had gotten whacked in the head over and over again with a cricket mallet. With puppeteering and trannies taking center stage, it leans on quirk as a crutch but slops around kneedeep in melodrama anyway. Its tin-eared dialogue sounds like a VCR manual translated back into English. "Doctors help people! You are not a doctor! You can't help anybody! You're fucking shit!" It hinges on the same people-in-desperate-need-of-hope intertwining coincidences as Crash, Babel, 21 Grams, and seventy or eighty other indie flicks you could rattle off if you'd stop for a sec to mull it over. Down to its gritty, deliberately rough-hewn visual style, Powder Blue seems like it's trying to waddle around in their wake rather than hammering out any sort of a voice of its own. Powder Blue is even more desperate to connect to the audience than its characters are to bond with each other, but as much as it claws its way towards that brass ring, it stays out of arm's reach, reeking of failure all the way. Pretty much every plot point and character motivation to tumble down the pike is either grabbed straight off the shelf (coke-snorting stripper with a heart of gold; the former priest with a crisis of faith; the magic of Christmas!) or illogical and overbearing. Um, but Jessica Biel does get topless, and after Closer, I Know Who Killed Me, and Sin City, she's one of the first name actresses to play a stripper who actually...y'know, strips. Too bad she doesn't have the same knack for picking scripts as some people. Pretentious, hopelessly and shamelessly derivative, ineptly written...no. Just...no. Skip It.

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Don't waltz in expecting something glossy and polished; Powder Blue's hyperstylized visuals don't exactly sparkle in high-def, but that's kind of the point. Alternating between a couple of different film stocks, Powder Blue frequently boasts an intensely gritty, grainy texture, and detail rarely ranks much higher than okay. A handful of scenes -- particularly some of the shots in the strip club -- are so soft and lacking in detail that they'd be tough to distinguish from a standard definition DVD. Black levels are anemic, and that leaves quite a few scenes looking flat and lifeless. Other stretches, such as the moments in the hospital, swap out that stock in favor of something with a tighter grain structure and meatier contrast. Powder Blue uses color and contrast to visually distinguish each of the storylines that gradually intertwine, drenching some stretches in gold, others in blue or green, and a few are desaturated altogether. Its palette is cast in a more lush and vibrant light as the film draws to a close. Powder Blue is encoded at an unusually low bitrate for the format; even with a lossless soundtrack in tow, the AVC encode on this single layer Blu-ray disc barely breaks the 14 gig mark. I couldn't spot any sputters or stutters in the compression, though, and the scope image isn't marred by any specks or visible wear in the source either.

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Powder Blue sports a fairly lively 16-bit DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack. The surround channels are brimming with atmosphere: cars whizzing by in the background, the clinking of silverware, cracks of thunder, and the din of a sprawling metropolis teeming with ten million warm bodies. Its score comes through particularly well, belting out the bulk of the action in the lower frequencies -- the thundering kick drum in the strip club and resounding waves of bass -- along with a tight snap to the snare. Dialogue is consistently rendered cleanly and clearly throughout as well. It's nothing all that incendiary or anything, no, but this lossless soundtrack complements the kinda low-key material well enough.

A traditional Dolby Digital 5.1 track has also been included alongside subtitles in English (SDH) and Spanish.

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The standard-def featurette "Shooting Blue: The Making of Powder Blue" (17 min.) runs through lining up the cast, breezing through each of the flick's characters, Jessica Biel hammering out her acrobatic stripping, and shaping the look of the film, particularly once its final moments roll around. It's a decent making-of piece, and I especially dig the way its storyboards transform into the live-action shots.

The only other particularly noteworthy extra is a solid commentary track with co-writer-slash-director Timothy Linh Bui and producer Tracee Stanley. Its indie-filmmaking-in-the-trenches bent makes for a pretty compelling listen, and though it is heavy on backpatting all around, the two of 'em do a decent job running through how they worked around the tight schedule and even tighter budget. A few scattered notes that stand out are trying (and failing) to cast an actual tranny, that Jessica Biel really is snorting fake coke in front of the camera, Ray Liotta mistaking origami for some sort of sushi technique, sneaking in a very ambitious tracking shot just under the wire, and happy accidents with lens ghosting and band-aids. Although Bui makes nods to quite a few deleted scenes, none of that footage has been piled on anywhere in here.

A still gallery piles on twenty shots -- some high-res, others not so much -- and a standard definition trailer rounds out the extras.

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The Final Word
Couple Magnolia and Crash, jab in a few syringes full of thalidomide, and Powder Blue is the flipper baby that squirts out nine months later. One of the most aggressively bad spins on the intertwining-troubled-lives sub-subgenre that's gotten to be so inescapable in the indie set over the past few years, the only thing that's even a little bit noteworthy about Powder Blue is that Jessica Biel plays a stripper who ::gasp!:: actually strips. If that's the one and only selling point for you, the smart money says you're better off hitting up mrskin.com or something, downloading the money shot, and moving on with your life. Skip It.

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