Talking Movies

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 His concern for Liberace’s ailing poodle leads to a job offer, and soon Scott’s dreams of becoming a vet have been replaced by the reality of living privately as Lee’s boyfriend and publicly as his PA.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

December 6, 2011

Top 7 Joel Schumacher Movies

It’s easy to make fun of the director of Batman & Robin, and God knows I’ve done it myself, but I’ve always had a soft spot for Joel Schumacher. He doesn’t have a distinct visual style or trademark thematic concerns so he’ll never be acclaimed as an auteur, but as a journeyman director he reclaims the original meaning of that word as he’s a skilled practitioner of his craft whose name usually guarantees solid entertainment.

(7) The Phantom of the Opera
This was the last Schumacher film that did decent box-office, despite lukewarm reviews, and it’s a solid adaptation. Hilariously the then unknown cast has become retrospectively impressive as the disfigured Phantom Gerard Butler tries to win the ingénue singer Emmy Rossum away from the foppish Patrick Wilson. Lloyd Webber’s music is the star, but Schumacher stages the numbers well, especially in the underground lair.

(6) St Elmo’s Fire
Schumacher co-wrote and directed the definitive Brat Pack movie. Emilio Estevez, Rob Lowe, Andrew McCarthy, Demi Moore, Ally Sheedy, and Judd Nelson, all give some of their best 1980s performances in a film about college graduates with great expectations struggling to live up to the promises of Reaganomics by self-actualising (and, pace Judd, becoming Republicans) while being buffeted by the unpredictable desires of their own hearts.

(5) The Lost Boys
Schumacher coaxed a star-making performance from Kiefer Sutherland as the villain while creating an influential version of vampires: forget Anne Rice’s philosophical angst, these are eternally teenage bad boys, bloodily partying to rock music. The great Edward Hermann’s dignity is hilariously abused by the kids who suspect he’s a vampire master. Jason Patric’s hero is anaemic opposite Kiefer, but there Anne Rice’s Louis/Lestat template is observed.

(4) Tigerland
Schumacher ‘discovered’ Colin Farrell by directing him in this incendiary first lead performance as rebellious Texan Bozz, causing discontent at a training camp for Vietnam. Part of Schumacher’s atonement for Batman & Robin, this was a defiant move to truly gritty drama, even down to the rough shooting style, and it worked – Farrell’s charisma making a fairly archetypal arc about the assumption of responsibility seem emotive and fresh.

(3) Flatliners
“Today’s a good day to die…” Schumacher’s second film with Kiefer confirmed his striking ability to foster young talent (Julia Roberts, Hope Davis and Oliver Platt) who would quickly go on to even bigger things. Medical students experiment with stopping their hearts to allow brief excursions into the afterlife, only to find they’ve unexpectedly brought back their own worst demons. Schumacher creates creeping dread with numerous nail-biting sequences.

(2) Phone Booth
Schumacher’s second film with Farrell deployed considerable visual flair, not least in its extensive split-screens, to make its titular fixed location properly cinematic. Farrell’s sleazy arrogant agent is reduced to a gibbering wreck while pinned down by Kiefer’s insidious, and verbally taunting, sniper. Part glorious high concept executed well, and part cheeky reversal of Kiefer’s 24 comeback, this was Schumacher announcing his return to the glossy mainstream.

(1) The Client
The pre-eminent John Grisham adaptation is powered by Susan Sarandon’s charm and doggedness, the latter so underpinned by integrity that even antagonist Tommy Lee Jones eventually respects it. Sarandon may have won an Oscar for Dead Man Walking but (along with Thelma & Louise) this is the film for which she’ll be fondly remembered. Schumacher also drew a great performance from Brad Renfro as her young client, and mixed nicely orchestrated suspense with a wonderfully warm humanity.

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