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 His concern for Liberace’s ailing poodle leads to a job offer, and soon Scott’s dreams of becoming a vet have been replaced by the reality of living privately as Lee’s boyfriend and publicly as his PA.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

February 28, 2013

Arbitrage

A Golden Globe nominated Richard Gere plays a high-flying Wall Street magnate  juggling crises financial, emotional, and ominously legal in screenwriter  Nicholas Jarecki’s feature debut.

Photography By Myles Aronowitz

Robert Miller (Gere) is the CEO and founder of investment firm Miller  Capital. He’s about to sell his company to the fabulously wealthy James Mayfield  (Graydon Carter), but needs the deal to happen urgently before the $400 million  hole in his accounts, hidden by his pliable auditor, is discovered. His personal  life, juggling his wife Ellen (Susan Sarandon) and his mistress Julie (Laetitia  Casta), is stressful enough. But between trying to stave off his wife’s  suspicions, visit his mistress’s new art exhibition to avoid her hysteria, and  finagle the forensic accountants, Miller finds himself asleep at the wheel,  literally. He enlists the help of an old lieutenant’s son, Jimmy (Nate Parker),  to cover up his deadly accident, but it seems certain either his  daughter/business partner Brooke (Britt Marling) or embittered NYPD homicide  detective Bryer (Tim Roth) will unravel Miller’s lies.

Richard Gere is a puzzling actor. He’s occasionally self-satisfied but can  generate audience sympathy out of thin air in films like Red Corner and The Jackal, but, as the necessity of doing so  in films like those indicates, he just can’t seem to recognise good scripts.  Gere does have some barnstorming rants here, and he’s brilliant at saying  abrasive things and then instantly apologising; as if the stress Miller is under  causes his social filters to malfunction. But Gere alone cannot carry a film  dripping cliché. His mistress Julie is the most irritating, high-maintenance,  art gallery owning French stereotype imaginable. It is simply impossible to care  about her, when you want to slap Miller for carrying on with her given how great  his privileged life is. And this is the script’s fault as Casta excelled as  Bardot in 2010’s Gainsbourg.

The slowly tightening legal vice  around Jimmy as he tries to stonewall his way out of admitting any involvement  with Miller’s situation is compelling, but not nearly as tense as that in Side Effects. Jarecki also nicely heightens  the suspense of Miller trying to meet the elusive Mr Mayfield to settle the  buyout of his firm in person like men. But this film doesn’t really shed a light  on high finance like Margin Call (or  even Wall Street 2’s central speech)  did. There’s nothing wrong with melodrama, Dickens and Ibsen are melodramatic;  what’s unforgivable is turgid melodrama. And, when Sarandon finally comes into  her own near the end, her grandstanding reveals that, for all Marling’s gameness  in showing how Brooke’s suspicions of her father’s honesty cause her to unravel,  this is melodrama about a tycoon masquerading as biting social commentary.

Jarecki was dropped from directing his 2008 adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis’ The Informers. This proves his  competence directing, but his script offers many individual gems without overall  impact.

2.5/5

October 6, 2010

Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps

‘Is Greed Good?’ is the new more reflective mantra of Michael Douglas’ corporate monster Gordon Gekko who returns after 23 years for a sequel dissecting the Great Recession.

I’ve previously dubbed Wall Street the film that summed up the 1980s. Its sequel aspires to sum up what the hell just happened to the global economy and largely achieves it. The film opens with an amusing prologue in which Gekko is released from prison in 2001 before fast-forwarding to Wall Street during the early summer of 2008. A flashy dizzying climb up the skyscrapers of NYC after young trader Jacob (Shia LaBeouf) parks his motorbike is reminiscent of David Fincher at his most expansive and signals that Oliver Stone has got his directorial mojo working again. The early scenes of this film, especially a Federal Reserve emergency meeting, are wonderfully crisp and while it doesn’t fulfil that early promise this is undoubtedly Stone’s best film since Nixon. The sense that he’s rejuvenated by revisiting one of his greatest achievements is heightened by his use of David Byrne & Brian Eno, down to reprising at the end Wall Street‘s closing credits song ‘This Must Be The Place (Naive Melody)’ by Byrne’s band Talking Heads. Nostalgia also delivers an unexpected and great cameo, although on reflection it seems to reverse the message of Wall Street.

Jacob is our new Bud Fox. He receives an unexpected bonus-cheque from his mentor, Frank Langella in a wonderfully desperate performance, but fails to see the writing on the wall – Langella knows that his venerable investment bank is about to go under as a result of exposure to risky financial instruments that he didn’t really understand. This Lehman Brothers style collapse is connived at by his banking nemesis Bretton James, a wonderfully callous Josh Brolin, and leaves Jacob out for revenge. He is aided in his quest to hold Bretton accountable for the damage caused by his financial manoeuvrings by his prospective father-in-law Gekko. Gekko has returned to the limelight with his book ‘Is Greed Good?’ and has a history with Bretton. He would only have got a year for the insider trading Bud Fox implicated him in but Bretton sold him out on securities fraud and so he got sent down for eight years. This strand of the story is the film’s strong point with Gekko as prophet of doom, delivering a barnstorming lecture dissecting the credit crunch before it happens that is a devastating critique of modern high finance.

The emotional arc of Jacob becoming corrupted as he starts to work for Bretton even as he tries to get his fiancé Winnie Gekko (Carey Mulligan) to reconcile with her father, who she maintains cannot be trusted, is weaker. This is not the fault of Mulligan, who has one crackling scene of recriminations with Douglas over the death of her brother, but the over-extended screenplay. Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps is far too long and too cluttered compared to the straightforward morality play of the original. Stone maintains the importance of working at a real job producing tangible results, espoused by Martin Sheen in the original and here applied to Susan Sarandon as Jacob’s deluded mother – stung by the implosion of a real-estate bubble in Florida. Things all work out a bit too neatly here, but if a real job is defined by producing tangible results then Stone has produced an interesting companion piece that is well worth seeing.

3/5

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