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 – 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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Film review – The Girlfriend Experience (2009)

20 September 2009
Chelsea (Sasha Grey)

Chelsea (Sasha Grey)

The Girlfriend Experience is typical of the type of low budget and almost experimental films that director Steven Soderbergh often likes to make between his bigger projects, such as Traffic, Erin Brockovich and the Ocean’s Eleven films. Focusing on Chelsea, a high-class escort who is trying to enhance her profile, The Girlfriend Experience is a film about transactions and commodities. Chelsea’s supportive personal trainer boyfriend is also trying to get more clients and as the film is set during the 2008 presidential elections, Chelsea’s various clients talk incessantly about the economic downturn.

The Girlfriend Experience relies heavily on improvised dialogue, which doesn’t always work as there are too many scenes where all the actors do is talk over the top of each other. The non-lineal narrative and lack of exposition also mean that it takes a while to figure out exactly what is going on and Soderbergh frustratingly overuses the technique of creating a sense of alienation and detachment by filming so many scenes as static wide shots. Nevertheless, The Girlfriend Experience is an overall interesting piece from Soderbergh and as Chelsea, pornography star Sasha Grey makes a curious feature film debut.

Originally appeared in The Big Issue, No. 337, 2009

© Thomas Caldwell, 2009

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MIFF 2009 reviews – Che (2009), Paper Soldiers (2008), Chocolate (2008)

2 August 2009

Reviews of film screening during the 2009 Melbourne International Film Festival.

Che (Steven Soderbergh, 2008) ✭✭✭✭
Paper Soldiers (Bumazhnyy soldat, Aleksei German Ml., 2008) ✭✭✭✭
Chocolate (Prachya Pinkaew, 2008) ✭✭✩


Ernesto 'Che' Guevara (Benicio Del Toro)

Ernesto 'Che' Guevara (Benicio Del Toro)

Based on the actual memoirs of Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara, Steven Soderbergh’s Che: Part One depicts the role that the famous revolutionary played in overthrowing the USA-friendly Cuban dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista in 1956, while Che: Part Two depicts Guevara’s failed attempt to start a similar revolution in Bolivia in 1966. The two films are very much separate entities with Part One functioning as Che’s climb to glory while Part Two depicts his gradual downfall. As the asthmatic, Argentinean doctor who would later become a revolutionary icon, Benicio Del Toro is incredibly impressive as Che. Together with Soderbergh, he depicts Che as a dignified, intelligent and compassionate man who truly believed that the only way to achieve human rights for South American people was through the combination of a popular uprising and armed struggle. Part One is the stronger of the two films as it better establishes the link between Guevara’s actions and his politics by inter-cutting between the guerilla warfare in the Cuban forests and Guevara’s 1964 address to the United Nations. Part Two initially struggles to maintain the same level of interest although its final half hour is incredibly captivating. Both films are beautifully shot and have a similar pacing to The Thin Red Line where a lot of attention is placed on preparations and the slow build-up to actual conflict. The battle sequences are stunningly depicted in their blunt simplicity. You get the immediate impression of being right in the middle of a conflict and then the film, almost coldly, cuts the scene to move onto something else, making the violence one aspect of a larger story rather than having it as the film’s main attraction.

Paper Soldiers

It is 1961 and in a remote stretch of land in Kazakhstan, the preparations to launch the first human into space are underway. Dr. Daniel Pokrovsky is in charge of the wellbeing of the cosmonauts and he is increasingly concerned about their safety as well as suffering from his own health concerns. He is also torn romantically between his wife in Moscow and a young girl in Kazakhstan. Paper Soldiers may at first glance sound like a Russian The Right Stuff but its poetic mix of history, political discourse, philosophical discussion and human drama make it far closer in tone to the films of Andrei Tarkovsky with a slight nod to Federico Fellini as well. The fluid camera drifts over the colour-drained action to capture the strange mix of characters and objects that fill the frame. Characters talking off screen suddenly walk into a close-up shot and then move into the background, by which time the focus has switched to another element that has appeared in the shot from either the background or off camera. The ambient background sounds, perfectly balanced cinematography, and thematic mix of the personal and the political make Paper Soldiers a very beautiful and meditative film that is played out against a dreamlike, mist-filled landscape.


It is somewhat difficult to believe that Prachya Pinkaew,  the director of the breathtaking Muay Thai martial-arts film Ong-bak, is also responsible for this very dodgy film about a girl whose autism somehow gives her special fighting skills. That is not to say that Chocolate is not an enjoyable film because despite the horrible scripting and acting, there are a lot of laughs to be had – both of the intentional and unintentional variety. In terms of the intentional laughs, many of the fight sequences in Chocolate are a highly enjoyable combination of impressive choreography with some genuinely funny visual humour. Having said that, there are also some very lazy and contrived sequences too. The unintentional laughs come at the expenses of a villain who does things like shoot himself in the foot to appear tough and the ridiculous portrayal of autism.  If the film wasn’t so absurd then it may have been offensive.

© Thomas Caldwell, 2009

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MIFF 2009 reviews – Thirst (2009), Like You Know It All (2009), The Girlfriend Experience (2009)

26 July 2009

Reviews of film screening during the 2009 Melbourne International Film Festival.

Thirst (Bakjwi, Park Chan-wook, 2009) ✭✭✭✭
Like You Know It All (Jal aljido mothamyeonseo, Hong Sang-soo, 2009) ✭✭✭✩
The Girlfriend Experience (Steven Soderbergh, 2009) ✭✭✭


Tae-joo (Kim Ok-vin) and Sang-hyun (Song Kang-ho)

Tae-joo (Kim Ok-vin) and Sang-hyun (Song Kang-ho)

South Korean director, and festival favourite, Park Chan-wook (Old Boy, Lady Vengeance) can always be relied upon to provide a film that is unique, daring and challenges all sorts of conventions, and his stylish horror/comedy/romance Thirst certainly does all that. After dying during a medical experiment to develop a vaccine for a deadly virus, the Priest Sang-hyun (Song Kang-ho from The Host) is resurrected as a vampire when some unidentifiable blood is transfused into him. Having lived a moral life up until now, Sang-hyun not only has a blood lust awakened within, but a lust of the more conventional kind for Tae-joo (Kim Ok-vin), the unhappy wife of a childhood friend. The sex/violence metaphor is nothing original, particularly in a vampire film, but with its amplified sucking and squelching sounds and sheer audacity, academics will be lining up to discuss Thirst’s brazen use of the abject and its approach to bodily horror. As weird and gruesome as Thirst gets, it is also very playful and Park demonstrates his great ability in creating moments of visual comedy. However, the most distinguishing element of Thirst is its love story component and as the forbidden lovers, Song and Kim generate an incredible amount of chemistry. They perform one of the most intense and erotic sex scenes ever captured on film and their movements together throughout the space of this film is akin to dancing. Their violence towards one another is tender and their tenderness for each other is violent. At first glance Thirst draws many parallels with The Fly and Let the Right One In but its true reference point are the films of Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire.

Like You Know It All

Audiences who caught Night and Day at MIFF last year will have an idea of what to expect from South Korean director Hong Sang-soo, whose easy-going and naturalistic approach to filmmaking results in enjoyable and leisurely paced films. Like You Know It All follows an up-and-coming art house film director. He is the guest of a film festival during which he delivers a seminar to a group of critical students and later discovers that his old mentor is now married to a woman he once proposed to. Through various low-key drunken evenings and awkward social encounters Hong depicts that various insecurities, insincerities, fawning, soliciting and rivalries take place under the guise of polite conversations. Like You Know It All is pleasantly entertaining, frequently funny and very understated. While dialogue and situations from later in the film mirror events from earlier, the film still feels as if it was developed in an almost stream of consciousness style with little interest in creating an overall sense of cohesion. It’s an enjoyable film but if you, for example, left five minutes before it ended so as not to miss the start of another screening, you probably won’t care about the lack of closure.

The Girlfriend Experience

Typical of the type of low budget and almost experimental films that director Steven Soderbergh often likes to make between his bigger projects, The Girlfriend Experience is a film about transactions and commodities. Starring pornography star Sasha Grey in her feature film debut, The Girlfriend Experience is an interesting curiosity piece but it is hampered by an initially confusing narrative and an over use of alienating cinematography techniques such as shooting scenes in wide shot with the characters in the background.

(Read Cinema Autopsy’s full review of The Girlfriend Experience)

© Thomas Caldwell, 2009

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Film review – The Good Thief (2002)

5 August 2003

Director Neil Jordan’s (The Crying Game, Interview with the Vampire) latest film is a remake of the 1955 French classic Bob le Flambeur about a struggling career gambler who returns to his previous occupation as a mastermind thief. With its slick camera work, eccentric characters and suitably tense moments, The Good Thief is akin to light hearted heist films such as the remake of Ocean’s Eleven, with occasional darker moments.

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Film review – Solaris (2002)

18 March 2003

With Solaris the diverse and talented director Steven Soderbergh (Traffic, Out of Sight) has commendably tackled the philosophical potential of the science fiction genre. George Clooney plays a psychiatrist who must question his understanding of reality after being sent to a space station to discover what has happened to the crew, only to find that his dead wife has inexplicably materialised from his memories of her.

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