Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Behind the Candelabra

By Sati. Tuesday, May 28, 2013 , , , , , , , , , , ,
I'm not the biggest Steven Soderbergh's fan but I'll hand it to the guy - he has his own style. I enjoyed quite a lot of his movies, with Solaris sitting firmly in my top 20 of all time for a decade now. When Soderbergh announced his retirement plans and that Behind the Candelabra will be his last movie I did feel that cinema is losing something. His films are quite unique, elegant, subtle and interesting.

But as I watched Side Effects and now HBO's produced movie based on the love affair between Liberace and Scott Thorson, I kept thinking that Soderbergh really can use a break. The truth is that he hasn't made truly great movie, at least for me, in years. His recent movies aren't terrible but they are utterly forgettable. So imagine my surprise when, deprived of new Game of Thrones episode last Sunday night, I sat down to watch much hyped Behind the Candelabra only to discover it is just as forgettable as Soderbergh's recent movies. If not more so.
The film tells the story of famous pianist and showman Liberace (Michael Douglas) and his relationship with much younger Scott Thorson (Matt Damon). We see Liberace perform on stage, audiences adoring him, him meeting Scott and proposing that Scott stays by his side as "his companion". Scott agrees and Liberace slowly starts controlling his life without Thorson putting much of a fight. There are smiles, joys, screams, tears and glitter. Unfortunately, the film itself is quite lifeless.

I may not always love Soderbergh's movies but I always thought he is the guy who can put an interesting spin on a genre - Solaris is not a typical science fiction film, Haywire puts a woman in the centre of kick ass scenes and shows her defeating bigger guys and Magic Mike is much too intelligent for a movie about male strippers. Yet Behind the Candelabra is nothing but formulaic biopic with cheesy ending on top of stale 2 hours.
While it is great that the movie doesn't take sides, despite being based on Thorson's book, at times I almost wish it did. Things get creepy here. Intensely creepy. For example - after talking in jacuzzi Scott and Liberace put on their robes. Then Scott is staring through the window. Liberace approaches him, startling him and telling him that they can share a bed and he won't touch him.

And then the next scene is Scott awaking, seeing Liberace with a smile on his face while he is giving Scott a hand job...Now, I can understand how someone with Scott's issues - he was raised in various foster homes, never really had a place in his life - could cling on to someone who reaches out. But that scene was just creepy. And I don't feel like Scott's personality, nature and needs nor Matt Damon's performance gave the audience enough to be left with more than one question - why the hell doesn't he run away?
Because the characters aren't well established it's really hard to care or even begin to understand all of that when it comes to their actions. Scott meets Liberace, he gives him money and gifts and Scott is prepared to do everything in return. To be completely honest neither of these two guys came off as likable to me, or even that interesting.

Based on that movie Liberace comes off as typical aging star obsessed with youth and appearance, afraid of loneliness. He actually seduced a teenager - as Scott was only seventeen when they met and Liberace was 40 years his senior. But age issue is not something I want to get into here, because it is not for me to decide where the line lies. Scott comes off as someone who is either so bland he doesn't care about his own identity or someone more cold than Liberace (who dispensed of his lovers when he grew tired of them, simply moving on to someone younger) - there was no passion in anything he did. He kept telling Liberace he was bisexual, it seemed that he was ashamed of his sexuality. Either it was supposed to be that or Damon just failed. He tried but neither does he carry this performance well nor does Soderbergh manage to direct him well enough.
Another huge problem was the cosmetic surgery issue. After some time Liberace actually asks his plastic surgeon to do surgeries on Scott to make him...look more like young Liberace. Scott is present in the room at the time of request and he just sits there. He doesn't protest, he doesn't do anything. Just sits there. It was beyond ridiculous.

I'm sure that is what actually happened as Thorson himself wrote the book the film is based on. But the movie didn't sell it to me. It didn't convince me. I didn't feel for Scott because I didn't have much reason to. Should I even feel for Scott? The goal of this movie remains unknown for me. Was it just about telling the story? If so, why this story?
My disenchantment with the movie grew the more I read about the actual people behind the story. Scott Thorson was actually a witness in Eddie Nash's trial - Nash and John Holmes, the porn actor and their criminal activities could make for far better movie than this (I have not seen Wonderland, which is apparently based on Holmes's life). Hell, the characters in Boogie Nights were based on these two.

And what about Dr Jack Startz? That's a fascinating character. Rob Lowe's caricature look and eerie way of playing him was actually the most memorable part of the movie for me. Lowe was creepy, but creepy in a good way, not like that scene I mentioned before. Creepy in "let's explore that darkness" kind of way.
I'd much rather see a movie about Startz. He was a famous plastic surgeon, but he was sloppy and unethical. He injected liquid silicone into his patients' faces. He botched many surgeries, silicone migrated, disfiguring the people he operated on. This is like straight from horror stories. The film left a bit of information about his incompetence - after Liberace's face lift he couldn't close his eyes completely.

While I did enjoy the effort of everyone involved, the film just lacked courage. The story is bold but the movie is not. It doesn't explore the issues that are presented here - the weird father/son/lover dynamics between two central figures, the question of one's identity, the pursuit of youth. It doesn't create characters interesting enough to make you think about those issues after seeing the film.
While the actors do a good job I can't say I was exactly in awe about anyone here. Damon didn't show anything that you wouldn't see in any other love-gone-bad-let's-do-drugs flick, Douglas was reduced to caricature through most of the movie and didn't really get to show much heart and charisma and Lowe...well, there was very little of him here.

The cinematography was very good. I really liked how the shots were composed, especially when Scott's life was falling apart. The details were all very fascinating and you definitely felt as if you were right there, in extravagant house in the 70's. Shame the movie itself was so ordinary and uninspired.
Apparently major theatrical studios didn't want to produce the movie because it was "too gay". To be completely honest, while it was odd seeing sex scenes here - because of the age difference between characters and actors - I don't think the film is more graphic than recent famous movies about homosexuals. But then it hit me - all of those big movies about gay people - Brokeback Mountain, A Single Man, The Hours - are about people rejecting who they are. Here, though Liberace is hiding the fact he is gay, he never rejects it. Is Hollywood only comfortable with self-loathing gays?

I really enjoy HBO movies, but this one is one of the most forgettable out of those that I've seen. It's not as amazing as Grey Gardens, it doesn't have a single performance that comes close to Al Pacino in You Don't Know Jack, it's not as memorable as Temple Gardin and not as amazing in every way as Mildred Pierce. Soderbergh was supposed to go with a bang but all he gets from me is an unimpressed shrug.

Behind the Candelabra 
(2013, 118 min)
Plot: Based on the autobiographical novel, the tempestuous 6-year relationship between Liberace and his (much younger) lover, Scott Thorson, is recounted.
Director: Steven Soderbergh
Writers: Richard LaGravenese (screenplay), Alex Thorleifson (book)
Stars: Matt Damon, Michael Douglas, Rob Lowe

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27 comments:

  1. Very nice and thorough review. I have no real desire to see this and one reason is because of what you mentioned. I don't think Soderber has made a really good film in sometime either. And judging by the tone of the early press, this thing seemed really gimmicky to me from the start. I appreciate your honest take on it. I know this movie is going to get a ton of love and it will be interesting to see the different views on it.

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    1. Thank you! Yeah, I still appreciate his elegant style, but his recent movies weren't anything special. I think it's always worth seeing for the actors and performances but I think he really needs a break, it just seems he lost passion for film making and it's pretty evident in his recent films.

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    2. I haven't seen too many of his movies but the ones I have seen were all very forgettable. I tried watching this one but it was too creepy.

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  2. I just saw the film today and I love it. I thought it was fabulous and I actually felt the film's ending made sense as it was true to who Liberace was. It might seem cheesy but if you're going to go, go out in style.

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    1. For me it was just like the ending to every single biopic movie out there. And it was quite rushed, further impoverishing Scott's character.

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  3. Great review Sati! Y'know, I'm not the biggest Steven Soderbergh's fan either, but I respect him for the things you mentioned here, that he's brave to do something outside the box and turn a genre upside down. I'm not familiar w/ the subject matter but I'm curious to see how Douglas and Damon pull off these roles. That whole surgery thing is so weird, I mean he didn't mind to have facial surgeries to look like his lover? But then again, who knows what goes on inside famous people's heads, especially the eccentric ones like Liberace.

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    1. Thank you! They were very good in their roles, very believable but the script should have been much stronger. The real Thorson said something about Liberace giving him so much and he wanted to repay him in every way he could but in the movie the surgery thing was just odd.

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  4. I'll catch this eventually. Glad to see you weren't as enthralled with it as I've heard a few others are. Still intriguing because it's got that cast.

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    1. Yeah, I was really hoping to like it a lot, but overall I found it to be very forgettable. And I usually watch HBO movies more than once, but this one will not be one of them.

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  5. Great review Sati. I completely agree on your take of Soderbergh. He hasn't made a memorable film since the outstanding Solaris. I find that Soderbergh is a bit overrated to be honest. Can't say I'm overly enthusiastic about this one either. The idea of Douglas giving Damon a hand job, is not my idea of entertainment. I will get around to this some day but I've got other things higher on my list.

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    1. Thank you! Glad you are the fellow fan of Solaris, we are not a big group! :)

      I was quite shocked, the scene was really creepy. I'm fine with sex scenes like that but the relationship between the two characters was just so unhealthy it was scary at times.

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  6. I can't really see anyone being too concerned with Soderbergh 'quitting' movies (he'll be back). I've not been too impressed with anything he's done in ages, it's all very middle of the road.

    I don;t know if and when this'll be coming to the UK, but I still wouldn't mind checking it out. I think it got quite a good reception at Cannes. Not that that means a huge amount!

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    1. Exactly, same here. To be honest what I will miss about his movies are the soundtracks, I don't think I've listen to soundtracks of any other movies as much as Solaris, Out of Sighs, Ocean's trilogy tracks combined.

      Yeah it got pretty good reviews, but it's really nothing groundbreaking.

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  7. I'll definitely watch this one because it looks outside of the box. I'm thrilled to see Douglas and Damon, as well as Lowe. Hopefully I will like it but who knows.

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    1. It's actually pretty standard movie, but parts of it are so far-out people actually call it camp.

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  8. Although I liked this one more than you, I'm really happy we agree on Lowe's performance. I read an interview with Lowe and he basically said that Soderbergh let him push it as far as he wanted to. Fantastic results.

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    1. He was amazing in this one. I really wish he had more scenes.

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  9. After reading different reactions, I've no idea how to approach this film. I can't wait to check it out for myself, but I'll try to keep my expectations down.

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    1. I think this will help a lot, I was expecting so much and I was disappointed.

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  10. Great review Sati. I kinda liked the film but I totally understand what you are saying regarding the audience's entry point into the characters and their lives. It seems to be making a set of assumptions about how much the audience knows about the principle characters.

    Rob Lowe was certainly memorable as was a totally unrecognizable Debbie Reynolds as his mum. I had no idea until I saw the credits roll.

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    1. Thank you! Yeah I felt that the movie wasn't exactly clear on what it wanted to accomplish. It showed as mixed viewpoints never really making the case for any of the characters for us to root for.

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  11. Excellent review, Sati. I think I enjoyed it more than you did, but I agree the movie lacked passion. The characters weren't delved into nearly enough. The biggest problem for me was the editing. Scenes were all over the place. There was very little transition from one moment to the next. One second they are talking about seeing other people and in the next scene they are arguing about being faithful. One minute they are happy and the next they are breaking up. I felt there were so much detail and context left out. It's a shame because it had the potential to be a decent biopic but felt short aside from all the glitz and glamour.

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    1. Thank you! I completely agree, there was definitely a problem with the lack of transition moments here. We moved from one detailed scene to another, the film just wasn't flowing smoothly.

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  12. I wish I could unsee that Douglas, Damon "Somebody's awake!" scene. Lowe was the best part of this film. I did not realize Thorson was only 17 when this creepiness started.

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    1. Yep. I wish the same thing for myself :)

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  13. The cast and the director got me intrigued even if I'm not interested in Liberace. However, you've definitely made me think twice about rushing to see this. If this is to be Soderbergh's swansong I'd love it to work but he hasn't made a really great film for a while. Such a shame - I love his early work.

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    1. Exactly, I feel like his recent movies were rushed. I think they would be much better if he slowed down a little, it's a bit like with Woody Allen - had they made movies less frequently maybe they would focus more on them and the quality would be better.

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