Talking Movies

November 22, 2020

Miscellaneous Movie Musings: Part XXXVII

As the title suggests, so forth.

The late Spielberg and the late Hitchcock

Having recently, finally, watched The Post, just because it was on prime-time Film4 twice inside a week, I regard my scepticism towards it as having been fully justified. A movie about the wrong newspaper and the wrong heroic actors who were all not breaking a huge story, and featuring an intolerably annoying lead performance even for Meryl Streep, it’s only value was it that it set me to thinking about the late Hitchcock and the late Spielberg. It is no secret that Spielberg found it so hard to get financing for his ponderous Lincoln that it looked like it might end up like Steven Soderbergh’s Behind the Candelabra – a cable TV movie in America, given a small art-house release in Europe. Such an outcome would have been a shocking fall from grace from a man who made his name being a crowd-pleaser par excellence.  But the truth is that Spielberg has entered a phase of decline in that regard. Since nuking the fridge in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull Spielberg has struggled to find an audience. His 2010s output (The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn, War Horse, LincolnBridge of Spies, The BFG, The Post, Ready Player One) has been prolific, but desperately uneven when it comes to connecting with an intended blockbuster audience, and the more niche trilogy of Constitutional Amendment films plagued by dull writing. The technical mastery is still there, but, like the late Hitchcock (Marnie, Torn Curtain, Topaz, Frenzy, Family Plot), it is in service of poor to middling scripts – so that outre camera moves stand out more and more than they would have in previous decades where the entire films were good, not just certain sequences or conceits standing out like oases in a desert. The fact that Spielberg’s next film is an unnecessary remake of West Side Story worked over by his Munich and Lincoln writer Tony Kusher does not inspire confidence that Spielberg can pull out of this slump, and that’s before you realise the star is … Ansel Elgort.

Yippee Ki Yay Memoriser!

A Die Hard Christmas jumper having just arrived in the mail I found myself wondering the other day whatever happened to its director John McTiernan. Lawsuits. Indictments. Jail. His Wyoming ranch being liquidated. And not a film made since 2003’s Basic. In fact, it’s kind of remarkable that McTiernan only made 11 films in his 18 active years, (allegedly he is making sci-fi blockbuster Tau Ceti Four with Uma Thurman, but I will believe that when I see it), but those films include both impeccable classics and unwatchable disasters. How can someone capable of Predator, Die Hard, The Hunt for Red October and Die Hard with a Vengeance have ended up battling studio incompetence and his own poor choices to have come away carrying the bag for Last Action Hero, The 13th Warrior, Rollerball and Basic? McTiernan has given some extensive and revealing interviews explaining how things went sideways so often, and he seems to have had a lot of bad luck. But one thing he said leapt out: while studying at the AFI a crazed teacher insisted on him memorising movies – shot for shot. On the grounds that a concert pianist would commit piano concertos to memory, and when asked to improvise a cadenza would have those to draw on, so a film director should have a set of classics in his cerebellum to creatively rework when needed. And so McTiernan said he had memorised every shot in A Clockwork Orange, among others. Which leads to one to think about his films in terms of such classicism. I can easily believe that it is possible to memorise every shot in Die Hard, with especial relish for the many delightful focus-pulls, but Rollerball?… Can the decline of McTiernan’s artistic clout in the editing room be directly seen in the betrayal of the principle of memorable shots rather than hyper-cut gibberish?

June 8, 2013

Behind the Candelabra

Steven Soderbergh’s final ‘final’ film as a movie director is a fitting send-off for one of the most interesting talents of the past quarter century.

Behind-the-candelabra

Young Hollywood animal-handler Scott Thorson (Matt Damon) picks up Bob Black (Scott Bakula) in a gay bar in 1977 to the strains of Donna Summer, but soon finds himself in another world entirely – a Las Vegas Liberace concert, where he’s invited backstage to meet Bob’s former lover; whose friends call him ‘Lee’ (Michael Douglas). His concern for Liberace’s ailing poodle leads to a job offer, and soon Scott’s dreams of becoming a vet have been replaced by the reality of living privately as Lee’s boyfriend and publicly as his PA. But as power-tripping plastic surgery and mountains of cocaine warp their relationship in the 1980s Scott is in danger of being replaced by a younger model, just as an increasingly libidinous Liberace needs his guidance more than ever if he’s not to commit career suicide falling out of the closet.

Soderbergh combines here the intimacy of his early work, with the tinted stylishness of his middle period, and the long takes of his latter days. This is in service to the best script that Richard LaGravanese has penned in decades, which drips caustic putdowns; including a spectacular phone insult by Liberace’s domineering manager Seymour Heller (Dan Aykroyd). Michael Douglas had some great scenes in Wall Street 2, but this is best sustained performance he’s given in 13 years. Damon is inescapably too old for the role and so distorts the historical reality of the relationship’s beginning, but he is remarkably without vanity in donning his fake nose from Ocean’s 13 again as Scott is literally moulded by Lee. Damon’s character arc though loses momentum as it descends into cliché and a padded finale that sacrifices momentum to a completist instinct.

Soderbergh is commendably nasty in showing the ‘vanity gone mad to unconvincing effect’ horrors of plastic surgery in practice on both of the lead characters. And that’s before we get to Rob Lowe’s hysterically funny plastic surgeon Dr Starz whose eyes don’t seem to quite fully open anymore after a facelift, and who seems barely conscious at times as he pushes the pills of his ‘California diet’ to his equally blissed-out patients. The make-up effects for Lee, Scott and Starz are jaw-droppingly good, especially a stunning reveal at the close, and complement the dazzling costumes and interior bling of Liberace’s Vegas decadence. But at times Soderbergh’s film resembles such superficial glitter without any explicated substance, especially in Lee’s apparently devoted relationship to his Polish mother Frances (Debbie Reynolds) who passed on her devout Catholicism to him; which he somehow retains.

Did Liberace’s showmanship obscure and eventually destroy his musicianship, like Eugene O’Neill Senior sacrificing his talent for money, so that Soderbergh’s swansong is an allegorical warning for contemporary Hollywood?

4/5

Blog at WordPress.com.