Behind the Candelabra by Steven Soderbergh

Behind the Candelabra by Steven Soderbergh

Scott Thorson (played by Matt Damon), a young gay man raised in foster homes, is introduced to flamboyant entertainment giant Liberace (played by Michael Douglas) and quickly finds himself in a romantic relationship with the legendary pianist.

Michael Douglas is well-known for playing two types of roles: the victimized man in peril or the man of immense power. Douglas’ portrayal of Liberace embodies both these aspects. He is a powerful man in love with another man but ultimately a victim to his own public image. One can argue the story is about a love triangle between the real Liberace, Scott Thorson and the public Liberace. The segment where Liberace and Scott visit a plastic surgeon played by Rob Lowe was genuinely creepy.  Douglas disappears into the role, showing the inner, outer, darker and lighter sides of Liberace. Liberace can be added along with his long list of great roles; this is Oscar worthy.

As the audience avatar, Matt Damon’s Scott Thorson guides how the audience feels about Liberace. Matt Damon is a good straight man to Douglas, his performance is overshadowed but that seems to be part of the plan. It’s fun to watch them bickering and arguing like a married couple multiple times in a hot tub.

I can see how Behind the Candelabra was considered ‘too gay’ to be a studio feature.The film actually does not have a gay agenda on it’s hands. The kissing or sex scenes were not handled in a vengeful gay protest film type fashion. No, Steven Soderbergh rises above that by  concentrating on the central love story between Scott and Liberace and finds the most interesting drama therein. We are shown the reasons why they’re in love with each other and those human reasons are relatable, gay or not. I rooted for their relationship.

This is the way to do a biopic. Often biopics are uninteresting because they can’t focus onto a theme or settle on a fixed view of its subject to create a message. Not everybody’s life story is fit to be made into a film. This particular segment of Liberace’s life was more friendly to film adaptation because it was so inherently dramatic. Credit must also be given to the writers and Steven Soderbergh, who manage to suss out the drama out of the real life facts, find a firm view that sums up Liberace as a person and extrapolates a thematic message about love. The tone is well balanced; it has both serious and funny moments but it never takes itself too seriously.

As said before in my Side Effects review, I sincerely hope Steven Soderbergh doesn’t stop making movies. This is  my favorite of his films. He’s onto something.

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Side Effects by Steven Soderbergh

Side Effects by Steven Soderbergh

Side Effects is the new thriller from Steven Soderbergh about a young woman’s (played by Ronney Mara) world being turned around when a drug prescribed by her psychiatrist (played by Jude Law) has unexpected side effects.

Similar to Lian Johnson’s Looper last year, Side Effects is a film that continually mutates its genome and plays its surprises based off the audience’s familiarized expectations of genre convention. I did not know anything about the film going in. In its first act, I thought it was a serious issue-tainment film about the modern practice of prescription medicine. To the end of the first third, it shifted into a new place. By the mid-point, I just stopped trying to guess where it was going to go and decided to just enjoy the ride. I was on the edge of my seat and did not have any grasp of what was to come. Where it ends up is insane and it will divide audiences but I much rather credit the ride more than the final destination.

Rooney Mara plays the pain of depression in a very realistic fashion. At times, it felt like watching a documentary. That’s how real she played it. This performance could have easily fit into a serious drama about having depression if they chose to continue with the first third of the issue-tainment portion.

Jude Law has the heaviest task to do because he balances a lot of the film as it goes through its many tonal shifts. As the psychiatrist character, he is the most reliable character the audience can trust and there is a lot less wiggle room for his character to suddenly change along with the genre shifting or plot twists. He manages them well and does a good job anchoring the film as it gets crazier in the third act.

I haven’t seen Chicago but Catherine Zeta-Jones’ acting in the past has always been distracting to me because she’s constantly preening for the camera. She is too aware of the camera positions and constantly adjusts how much to tilt her head, dilate her pupils or purse her lips for each shot (she’s doing up in the poster! See above). It’s like she’s constantly posing for still-based fashion photography slideshow instead of performing for a time-based forward-motion medium. It doesn’t help the story move forward if you’re constantly asking the audience to ogle over you. Yes, you are pretty, I get it. Kudos to you! I know I am ranting now, but that’s how frustrated it made me.

That aside, she is also playing up a campiness that seems tonally incongruent to the other performances in the film. It’s in her tongue-in-cheek delivery of the dialogue. She’s the odd one out of the entire cast and threatens the overall quality of the movie. Fortunately her part is a supporting one and she manages through the film on wafer thin ice.

Steven Soderbergh says this is his last film. Not that I really ever believe it when any director/celebrity/athlete say they’re retiring anyways. Side Effects is a decent way to go out but I certainly hope this isn’t his last film.

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Haywire by Steven Soderbergh

Haywire by Steven Soderbergh

Haywire Movie Poster

Gina Carano holds her own as the lead and actually is the most interesting thing about the film. Along with how the fights are filmed, she brings much gravitas to the film. You never doubt her fighting ability for a second. And most importantly, we feel the pain of these fights. Even given that  she’s probably padded underneath her clothes and is pulling the punches, the force of the hits look real. Often, she is being knocked against objects, which cannot be faked. I’m all for more martial arts films filmed in this way.

Much of the film’s style takes from the Ocean’s 11 movies: the jazzy, snappy music plays along as people go inside and outside of buildings, scoping out an environment and hatching up plans. There is something very cinematic about seeing something being assembled (i.e. like a sniper rifle being assembled or a team of thieves hatching a plan for a heist). And there is nothing Steven Soderbergh likes more than filming people opening and closing briefcases or car trunks, picking up bags and moving along to some other place with a plan to do something.

I believe this Ocean’s 11 heist film style works against the film. It brings too much lightness, which is antithetical to the reality of the world that it is set in. And also the reality of what the fight scenes are bringing to the table. There is a really subtle moment where Gina Carano, escaping from capture, trips over and hurts herself. It’s a small moment that brings a lot of reality, A) she’s not invincible B) she makes mistakes. But all that ultimately is unbalanced because those other heist-like scenes are filmed too slick. It takes away the tension and the pain, and you feel that she will get away with it with the finger-snapping soundtrack playing in the background.

Oddly, all the thespians are sidetracked because they’re not really given anything interesting to do. The film seems to slow down when it’s just the actors as there is no real scenery-chewing to be done. I wish they would replace one or two of these actors with other real-life mixed martial artists so she would have someone challenging to fight with in the film. Like in Ong Bak (or what I call Look What Tony Jaa Can Do!), as many henchmen Tony Jaa took down, they still build up the end fight with another martial artist (the one on steroids, for those keeping track).

Though being a massive martial arts fan, I really look forward to seeing more of Gina Carano. If they ever make a live-action Wonder Woman movie, she would be the ideal choice. Heck, at one point in the movie, they even called her Wonder Woman.

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