Film review – Behind the Candelabra (2013)

25 July 2013
Behind the Candelabra: Liberace (Michael Douglas) and Scott Thorson (Matt Damon)

Liberace (Michael Douglas) and Scott Thorson (Matt Damon)

Liberace was a larger-than-life pianist and entertainer whose love of excess and flamboyance was legendary. Steven Soderbergh’s attempt to capture the essence of the great showman begins towards the end of Liberace’s career in 1977 when he began an affair with Scott Thorson, whose 1988 memoir is the film’s principle source material. By focusing on the final decade of Liberace’s life through the eyes of a close companion, Soderbergh avoids any pretence of presenting a definitive portrait of the man. Instead we see Liberace the way Scott saw him – as a lover, a showman and as an aging man reflecting on his life and career, and starting to become vulnerable. More importantly we see what Scott loved about him and what Scott hated about him. The result is far more complex and engaging than traditional biopic approaches. However, Soderbergh’s real masterstroke is how well he takes the audience on the journey of initially finding Liberace’s world absurd and comedic, to ultimately feeling empathy for him.

Matt Damon portrays Scott as a curious mix of worldliness and naivety. He is introduced working as a dog wrangling assistant on a film set suggesting both an earthiness and an awareness of how the entertainment industry manufactures illusion. And yet, he is dazzled by Liberace’s mystique and personae, not noticing the evidence around him that he is not the first young man to be taken in by Liberace and unlikely to be the last. Scott is also clearly comfortable with his sexual preference for men and yet defensively claims to be bisexual (despite all evidence) and is astonished when told that the vast majority of Liberace’s mostly elderly fan base has no idea that their matinee idol is gay. Possessing both boyish charms and whimsy with the sexual desires of a grown man, Scott is an ideal conquest for Liberace who wants to be his ‘father, brother, lover and best friend’.

Liberace’s mystique and the impression he has on Scott is suggested when the audience shares the way Scott first sees in him concert. As Scott first enters the room where Liberace is performing, Liberace is just a shimmering figure in the background on the stage, his music filling the room. Every edit takes the camera closer and closer to Liberace until we finally see the man being played beautifully by Michael Douglas. And then Soderbergh and Douglas treat the audience to the Liberace experience of his astonishing piano skills, showmanship and banter with the audience. Intercut with shots of Scott’s delighted face, the sequence successfully communicates how seeing Liberace in concert is a transcendent experience for Scott.

When Scott visits Liberace in his changing room crosscutting medium close-ups are then used to convey a different set of expressions passing between the two men. Just as Peggy Cummins was instructed by Gun Crazy (1950) director Joseph H Lewis to look at her co-star like she was a dog on heat, Damon and Douglas appear to have received similar direction from Soderbergh. The sexually charged glances the pair exchange are just the beginning of an intense onscreen chemistry that both performers work with exceptionally well throughout the film to convey Scott and Liberace’s tumultuous relationship.

For a large portion of the film, Soderbergh keeps the audience feeling unsettled about the nature of the arrangement Liberace has with Scott. The beginning of the relationship is highly dubious with Scott staying the night under the pretence of convenience and then waking to discover Liberace being sexual with him. There are plenty of other episodes that raise doubts about the balance of power between the two men. Scott was both Liberace’s employee – later being incorporated into his performances – and his lover. Liberace wanted to adopt Scott as his son despite their sexual relationship and later in the film Scott struggles to explain why this was not a problem for him, suggesting that he never stopped to think about the situation either. Most alarming is Scott getting plastic surgery to look more like Liberace, evoking the actions of James Stewart’s obsessive lover character in Vertigo (Alfred Hitchcock, 1958). Liberace is controlling and predatory, yet Scott is also framed as complicit and willing. Often this dynamic is played for laughs, which Soderbergh seems to do deliberately to make the audience feel uncomfortable.

The inevitable deterioration of the relationship is heavily signposted by the earlier scenes with Liberace’s former disgruntled lover/protégée Billy Leatherwood (played by Cheyenne Jackson and based on Vince Cardell), not to mention the overt reoccurring motif of Liberace’s home being full of dog shit from the many dogs he owns – the same dogs that first gave Liberace the excuse he needed to invite Scott to his home. As the pair, and by default the audience, start to examine the nature of their unconventional relationship, the black humour that stemmed from the grotesque materialism of Liberace’s world transforms into something more serious, which is when the film becomes most compelling.

Sexual conservatism and denial of human rights to same sex couples is brought into the discussion by the fact that despite living like a married couple, the pair are never legally or publically recognised as such, with Liberace always hiding his sexuality and Scott maintaining that he is bisexual. An addiction narrative is also introduced into the film where Scott’s addiction to dieting pills (supplied by the equally terrifying and hilarious Dr Jack Startz played by Rob Lowe) is contrasted to what could be interpreted as sex addiction for Liberace.

Most engaging is how the film represents the agonies of aging and later illness, and what that meant for Liberace. While his opulence and vanity are initially played for comedic effect, later scenes reveal how much appearance and showmanship meant to Liberace. His glamorous exterior and persona is exposed to be a lavish form of protection for a vulnerable man. Soderbergh takes the audience past the point of sniggering at Liberace’s excessive materialism to appreciate why appearance was so important to him.

The ability with which Soderbergh takes the film from uncomfortable comedy to a point of sincerity and poignancy is masterful. Certainly, without the journey from mocking to understanding that Soderbergh takes the audience on throughout the film, the end sequence would not have worked. However, in the context of what has come before it, Behind the Candelabra concludes in an extraordinarily touching and heartfelt way. It also provides a fitting resolution to a clearly difficult relationship that involved a complicated and larger-than-life person, and somebody who went from being star struck to somebody very bitter and hurt. Most satisfyingly, the films ends suggesting that beneath the glamour, excessiveness, cynicism, materialism, addiction and pain, there was a love story between two people who in their own way made each other happy and gave each other comfort for a period of time.

Thomas Caldwell, 2013

Film review – Margaret (2011)

14 June 2012
Margaret: Lisa Cohen (Anna Paquin)

Lisa Cohen (Anna Paquin)

Gerard Manley Hopkins’s 1880 poem ‘Spring and Fall’ is addressed to a young child named Márgarét who is experiencing the overwhelming grief that comes with first encountering death and decay in nature. The poet acknowledges Márgarét’s intense emotions, but comments that with time her response to death will be more tempered even though she will become more aware of her own mortality. It’s a poem about the emotional state of an adolescent and a fitting title for a film where the behaviour of a 17-year-old is frequently used to comment on the actions of a young country in the aftermath of a horrific act of terrorism.

Due to lengthy problems in post-production, Margaret was filmed in 2005 and only released in 2011 and yet its post-9/11 politics are still relevant even if they have lost some of their edge ten years later. The end result is a late-but-better-than-never second feature directed by Kenneth Lonergan, arriving over a decade after You Can Count on Me in 2000. Margaret is a drama with nods towards melodrama, although its commentary on the nature of performance and its political subtext make for an unconventional end product. The dialogue is on the brink of being stylised, the tone is on the brink of being comedy and the film style is on the brink of being self-aware. The result is an unnerving film set in a recognisable version of our world but ever so slightly off-kilter.

The ‘Margaret’ of the film is Lisa Cohen, played by Anna Paquin who had a similar role as a supporting character in Spike Lee’s 25th Hour (2002), another New York set drama filled with post-9/11commentary. After witnessing a very traumatic bus accident, which she was indirectly responsible for and resulted in the death of an innocent woman, Lisa goes through a roller coaster of emotions. First she goes through shock, then concern for Maretti the bus driver (Mark Ruffalo) and then outrage that he isn’t feeling as bad about it as she is. Lisa is then determined to see Maretti punished displaying the same amount of outrage she displays during a series of political debates with classmates, where she aggressively condemns terrorism and supports the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in the simplest terms.

Lisa is initially like Lady MacBeth; symbolically trying to remove her guilt by washing away the blood splattered on her. She goes on the offensive and purges herself of any thoughts that she may have been culpable by focusing so obsessively on seeing Maretti somehow suffer for his involvement. She is like the country she lives in: self-assured, complex, externally confident to a degree that intimidates, but hiding a deep uncertainty that manifests in destructive ways. She seeks to place blame for a tragic situation where direct blame is difficult to assign, and by becoming increasingly driven by anger and a desire for revenge she loses a lot of the good will and understanding other characters and the audience had given her.

Macbeth is not the only Shakespearian play that Margaret evokes as in the scene following Lisa’s declaration, ‘I would just like somebody to take responsibility for what happened’ is a scene where her English class discuss King Lear. Her teacher John Andrew Van Tassel (Matthew Broderick) is analysing the famous line ‘As flies to wanton boys, are we to the gods / They kill us for their sport’ and is determined the class appreciate the traditional interpretation of this line as commenting on the cruel indifference of the universe. This interpretation certainly suits Margaret since it is about a horrible occurrence that has no meaning. However, during the scene a student challenges this reading with an argument that is concerned with the degree in which King Lear is a constructed text filled with such lines designed to draw attention to itself as making a philosophical comment. In this way Margaret is then acknowledging itself as an overtly constructed text designed to deliver social and moral commentary. This self awareness not only re-enforces the extent in which the film reflects post 9-11 issues, but it also taps into another key theme about the nature of performance and fictionalising reality.

Margaret is filled with lines of dialogue about film, theatre and opera with many of the characters, including Lisa, expressing a dislike of such narrative based art forms for being removed from reality. Lisa’s mother Joan (J Smith-Cameron) is an acclaimed stage actor and we see her perform her opening scene twice in exactly the same way despite having arrived at the theatre in very different emotional states. While these small details comment on the artificiality of stories told in cinema and on stage, they don’t undermine the film as they instead critique the way Lisa turns herself into a character in a melodrama. Through the way Lisa places herself in the centre of the drama of the dead woman, Margaret explores the appropriation of grief by individuals and how it can be so self-serving. At its best it is adolescent and self-indulgent while at its worst it is used to justify behaviour and actions that are not usually so justifiable.

Margaret seems to cynically suggest that in the end all issues simply come down to money and politics, with ethics rarely having much to do with it. Sex and love also plays a large part in life, but the way Lisa’s sexual encounters are represented in the film suggests that even sex and love are a blip during the journey that don’t have much meaning in the long run. On the other hand, the final scene during a performance of Jacques Offenbach’s opera The Tales of Hoffmann presents a glimmer of hope and a strong case that narrative art – like cinema – still has the power to transcend reality and emotionally connect with people when everything else feels muted by cynicism and resignation.

Thomas Caldwell, 2012

Film review – The Adjustment Bureau (2011)

14 March 2011
The Adjustment Bureau: David Norris (Matt Damon) and Elise Sallas (Emily Blunt)

David Norris (Matt Damon) and Elise Sallas (Emily Blunt)

Young, charismatic and confident, Congressman David Norris (Matt Damon) seems predestined for political glory. When he by chance meets aspiring ballet dancer Elise Sallas (Emily Blunt) it is love at first sight. The problem is that David was not pre-destined to be with Elise so a group of mysterious beings, who covertly manipulate the evolution of the human race, must intervene to keep him away from her.

For the past three decades the philosophical science-fiction novels and short stories of Philip K. Dick have been a source of inspiration for filmmakers. While The Adjustment Bureau falls short of other Dick adaptations, such as Blade Runner and Total Recall, it does raise some fascinating questions about the nature of free will.

Although The Adjustment Bureau ultimately doesn’t explore its intriguing science-fiction/thriller scenario to the extent of similarly themed films such as The Truman Show and The Matrix, it operates far more successfully as a romance. There is a genuine sense of attraction and chemistry between Damon and Blunt, and the immense opposition that they face to be together very effectively becomes the driving force of the film.

Originally appeared in The Big Issue, No. 375, 2011

© Thomas Caldwell, 2011

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Film review – True Grit (2010)

24 January 2011
True Grit: Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) and Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld)

Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) and Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld)

In the version of the Wild West that is depicted in this 2010 adaptation of Charles Portis’s 1968 novel, human life is cheap and more often than not it is used as a commodity. When the smart, assertive and independent 14-year-old Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) teams up on a manhunt with Deputy US Marshal Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges), neither speak about justice in the legal sense. Hunting down the man who murdered her father is a personal act of revenge for Mattie while for Rooster it’s a commercial transaction. The pompous Texas Ranger LaBoeuf (Matt Damon), who is tracking the same murderer, does seem motivated by a desire to see justice properly handed down but he’s out of his jurisdiction. True Grit is a classic chase story with a trio of characters who under normal situations would not choose each other for travel companions. In a moment of frustration Rooster sums up their attitudes towards each other best when he declares them to be “a foolish old man … a harpy in trousers and a nincompoop”.

Usually when directors/writers Joel and Ethan Coen make a film that belongs to a distinct genre the results are very reflexive and stylised. In particular, Coen Brothers films that adhere to popular Classical Hollywood genres; such as film noir (Blood Simple, Fargo), gangster (Miller’s Crossing) and screwball comedy (The Hudsucker Proxy, Intolerable Cruelty); are both affectionate homages and subversively self-aware. What makes True Grit such a unique Coen Brothers film is how conventional it is in the way it conforms so closely to a traditional western. True Grit falls at the less noble end of the western tradition, since it is vengeance rather than justice that is the motivation for order being restored through violence. The characters and situations are represented as they are with no overt political commentary. Casual brutal treatment of Native Americans is the norm and the difference between an outlaw and a lawman is often little more than a badge.

True Grit: Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) and LaBoeuf (Matt Damon)

Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) and LaBoeuf (Matt Damon)

However, there is nothing wrong at all about the Coen Brothers going old school especially when the results are this strong. True Grit is a compelling and engaging story that is told effectively and confidently.  The use of browns, oranges and dirty whites in the costumes and sets give the film the appearance of an old black-and-white film that has been tinted with a brown wash. The use of early morning light at the start of the film and then the emphasis on dusk and night shots towards the end create a wonderful sense of passing time, for both the film’s narrative and Rooster, who represents a dying breed.

Portis’s novel has been adapted before in the 1969 film directed by Henry Hathaway, which is probably most notably known for being the film that won John Wayne his Best Actor Academy Award for his role as Rooster. Despite that award, it was not a great performance by Wayne who was a far better actor when under the direction of John Ford in classics such as Stagecoach, The Searchers and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. In this 2010 version Jeff Bridges is much more adapt at portraying the mixture of comedic absurdity, menace and ruthlessness that makes Rooster such an intriguing character. He’s a drunk and a windbag but also quick to act and unafraid to use violence as soon as he sees it is necessary.

True Grit: Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges)

Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges)

Matt Damon is infinitely better than Glen Campbell when he played LaBoeuf, with Damon’s version of the character being far more of a well meaning but frequently irritating buffoon. Newcomer Hailee Steinfeld as Mattie Ross is especially strong in the 2010 film and a lot less masculinised in appearance than Kim Darby was in the 1969 version. While Darby did give a great performance, having her looking so overtly boyish did undermine the idea that Mattie could be tough, independent and intelligent while also being a young girl. In fact, the only things really missing from the Coen’s version of True Grit are a young Dennis Hopper and a young Robert Duvall in key supporting roles. Otherwise, this 2010 adaptation is the superior film.

With the exception of the strange arrival of a doctor who appears resembling a bear mounted on horseback, True Grit is one of the Coen Brothers’s least Coenesque films. Nevertheless, it maintains their command of film style and storytelling. After the intricacies of A Serious Man, Burn After Reading and No Country for Old Men there is something very pleasing with this straightforward and generically respectful film of revenge and strange allegiances in the American Old West.

© Thomas Caldwell, 2011

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Film review – Green Zone (2010)

10 March 2010

Roy Miller (Matt Damon)

After making the final two thirds of the outstanding international thriller/action Bourne franchise together, director Paul Greengrass and actor Matt Damon have teamed up again for Green Zone. Set in the early days of the 2003 Iraq War, Damon plays US Army Chief Warrant Officer Roy Miller who is deployed in Baghdad to find the Weapons of Mass Destruction that the allies gave as their reason to invade Iraq. After repeatedly coming up empty-handed Miller starts to question the reliability of the military intelligence his team is being fed. What unfolds plays out like a conspiracy thriller where the audience already know what Miller does not – there are no WMDs in Iraq but there are many powerful interests invested in the belief that there are.

Clark Poundstone (Greg Kinnear) and Roy Miller (Matt Damon)

Of all the previous films made about the 2003 Iraq War, Green Zone has the most in common with Nick Broomfield’s Battle for Haditha (2007). Both films use handheld cameras to create a cinéma vérité style of cinematography that makes what is on-screen appear to be raw footage filmed by a cameraperson who was on the ground and amid the action. Both films are also critical of the American involvement in Iraq, however, Green Zone doesn’t demonise all the Americans and instead champions righteous characters such as Miller and CIA man Martin Brown (Brendan Glesson) who come up against self-serving characters such as Defence Intelligence agent Clark Poundstone (Greg Kinnear).

Likewise, the Iraqi characters are not just viewed as the enemy or as victims and the character of Freddy (Khalid Abdalla from The Kite Runner) is used very effectively to represent the everyday people of Baghdad who want an end to the violence and oppression in their country. None of the characters in Green Zone are particularly complex in their own right but together they represent a broad range of view-points that situates Green Zone neatly between Brian De Palma’s overly didactic Redacted (2007) and Kathryn Bigelow’s apolitical The Hurt Locker (2008).

However, the main appeal of Green Zone is Greengrass’s approach to filming action, which he developed covering global conflicts for television. Instead of blocking the action for the camera frame, Greengrass allows the action to unfold while the camera must simply keep up. The result is a camera that is constantly moving, which increases during the really adrenin-pumping scenes to reach an exhilarating crescendo in the film’s climatic gunfight/chase sequence. Unlike the rapid editing of composed shots in the films of directors such as Michael Bay, with Greengrass you never feel as if you are missing any of the important details about what is going on within all the chaos on screen.

Green Zone continues Greengrass and Damon’s collaboration on making action films for the ‘thinking person’. This time they are also using the action genre to set the record straight by reminding audiences that despite the rhetoric that has since come out, the rationale behind invading Iraq was based on highly dubious information that Iraq was stockpiling WMDs.

© Thomas Caldwell, 2010

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Film review – Invictus (2009)

23 January 2010
Invictus: Nelson Mandela (Morgan Freeman)

Nelson Mandela (Morgan Freeman)

William Ernest Henley’s poem “Invictus”, written in 1875, is said to have been a powerful source of inspiration for Nelson Mandela during the 27 years he was kept a prisoner in Apartheid South Africa. Mandela was released from prison in 1990 and four years later became South Africa’s president after helping to end Apartheid and introduce democratic elections. Director Clint Eastwood’s film Invictus portrays Mandela as a man of great intelligence, compassion and fairness. Mandela was all too aware that great tensions still existed in South Africa and that the only way for his nation to heal was through forgiveness but also for the people to develop a sense of unity. Mandela seized upon the opportunity provided by South Africa hosting the 1995 Rugby World Cup to make the national South African rugby team, the Springboks, a source of inspiration for all South Africans, black and white. Invictus portrays the PR campaign and series of rugby matches that resulted.

Adapted from the book Playing the Enemy: Nelson Mandela and the Game that Made a Nation, by journalist John Carlin, Invictus is an examination of the relationship between sport and politics. Invictus never gets too much deeper than establishing this connection in its precise historical context but it does convincingly demonstrate the incredible importance and significance a sports game can have to a nation. During the scenes depicting the cup you very quickly find yourself cheering on the Springbok’s knowing how profound the outcome of the matches will be.

François Pienaar (Matt Damon)

Working with Eastwood for the third time after Unforgiven and Million Dollar Baby, Morgan Freeman gives one of his best performances to date as Nelson Mandela. Freeman beautifully captures Mandela’s charisma, confidence and genuine enthusiasm for both rugby and reconciliation. Matt Damon is also convincing as the South African sporting hero François Pienaar the Springbok team captain. However, many of the best moments in Invictus occur during the scenes depicting Mandela’s security team who are a combination of Mandela’s personal guards and ex-Apartheid Special Branch men. The initially tense dynamic between the security men functions as a microcosm for black and white relations within South Africa, creating an enjoyable subplot throughout the film.

Invictus begins as a political biopic, ends as a sports film and is entertaining throughout.  Eastwood is one of the most reliable and assured directors working today and like most of his films Invictus combines his disciplined approach to filmmaking with his calm desire to not rush proceedings in order to allow the story to leisurely unfold. There is nothing particularly remarkable about Invictus but it suitably delivers plenty of emotive moments that are hard to not be swept away by and the final rugby game is suitably exhilarating.

© Thomas Caldwell, 2010

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Film review – The Informant! (2009)

3 December 2009

Mark Whitacre (Matt Damon)

The Informant! opens with a distinctively retro feel: the font used in the titles; the soft focus, slightly over lit and orange toned cinematography; the overblown spy film music by legendary film and stage composer Marvin Hamlisch and the close-ups on old-school recording devices all evoke Francis Ford Coppola’s 1974 surveillance classic The Conversation. It then comes as somewhat of a surprise to learn that The Informant! is set during the early to mid 1990s. Not only does this retro style remind us of how much has changed since the still fairly recent digital revolution but it also creates a slightly over-the-top paranoid mood, which was a characteristic of Cold War themed 1970s cinema. This mood then contrasts beautifully with the very droll, borderline ridiculous, based-on-a-true-story narrative about a corporate whistle blower who worked with the FBI to expose his company’s price-fixing practices.

The whistle-blower is Mark Whitacre and he is played brilliantly by Matt Damon. Whitacre is a truly bizarre character who on the surface seems like an endearingly simple and naive company man but is also somebody with very ambiguous motives. Damon’s voiceovers throughout the film cue the audience into Whitacre’s thought process and very quickly it becomes clear that he has an incredibly active mind that is always going off on strange tangents. Whitacre may be nodding his head in agreement during an important meeting but in his mind he is musing over the way polar bears try to hide themselves. The results are frequently funny but there is a sense throughout The Informant! that something is just not right with Whitacre. Indeed, later in the film it becomes apparent that he is a completely unreliable narrator who not only constantly deceives the audience and the other characters, but also himself.

After presumably finishing up with the Ocean’s Eleven films in 2007, Steven Soderbergh made the two-part Che film in 2008 and now The Girlfriend Experience and The Informant! in 2009. The price of being so prolific is that inevitably the quality of the films does suffer. While The Informant! is an improvement on the single-idea experimental film The Girlfriend Experience it doesn’t feel as polished and tight as it could have been. It’s still an inventive film with an excellent performance by Damon and Hamlisch’s glorious over-the-top score is a real treat. Nevertheless, this strange and off-kilter corporate espionage satire never quite feels as fulfilling as it could have been.

© Thomas Caldwell, 2009

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