Monday, May 27, 2013

Behind the Candelabra


Something hit me in Behind the Candelabra. It was during a scene of little importance, just a few men walking into a room and looking around. This wasn’t an epiphany, as I’ve discussed it many times before, but during the scene, I was reminded that Steven Soderbergh knows what to do.

He knows precisely what to do with his camera while a few men walk into a room and look around. He knows what to do when one of his characters is binging hard on cocaine. He knows what film stock to use, or what digital camera to shoot with. He knows what filter to apply, what composition to implore, what audio track to highlight. He knows when to tell his story straight, or jump around playfully. Above all, Steven Soderbergh knows how to make a film. He’s a master craftsman whose work in the medium has forever changed it. Which makes it all the sadder that we’re now forced to bid him farewell.

Behind the Candelabra is Soderbergh’s glitzy and stylish take on the last decade of Liberace’s life. In 1977, Liberace (Michael Douglas) was at the height of his lasting fame, churning out two gigs a night at a packed Las Vegas showroom. Crooning, playing piano, schmoozing with the crowd, and so on. Around this time, he met Scott Thorson (Matt Damon), an animal trainer working in the film business. Soon after meeting, Liberace invited Scott to move into his lavish Vegas mansion and live as his partner. Partner in sex, in comfort, in career – life partner in the truest sense. Liberace gently demanded all or nothing, and Scott welcomingly chose the former.

It only takes a few years for things to go wrong. Fame soon gets the best of Scott, or rather, what Liberace’s fame affords. Drugs fuel paranoia, alcohol motivates frustration, diminished sex life propels jealousy. We relish when they’re up, and lament when they’re down.

Behind the Candelabra proves to be a gently paced biopic that lives up to the massive hype HBO created through extensive marketing. According to Soderbergh, the film was deemed “too gay” by every film studio, so HBO swept in and offered produce and distribute it on television. Good enough. Behind the Candelabra is a worthy match to any narrative feature HBO has ever released. It also stands well against Soderbergh’s other fantastic pictures in his impressively prolific career.

As Liberace, Douglas conveys a festive, anguished man who loved living, but dreaded cruelty. As a man of exquisite taste and hyperbolic style, Liberace only wished his emotional life could mimic his fa├žade. It’s the best performance Douglas has given since Soderbergh’s Traffic, and will certainly be remembered as one of the finest he ever delivers. His only remaining task is to manage some variety in his (many) upcoming awards speeches.
Equally impressive (and I chose the word “equally” with confidence) is Matt Damon, who delivers a near career-best performance as the tormented Scott. Once Scott started slipping down the path I expected him to, I feared that Damon’s performance would turn into the same old song. Drugs, rage, hate, greed. That’s all here, but with a fresh spin. I’ve seen most every performance Matt Damon has given, and I’ve never seen him do what he does here. I hope his work isn’t lost next to Douglas’ flashier effort.

And, as is always the case with Soderbergh’s films, the supporting cast is fleshed out to perfection. Namely Rob Lowe, who shows up in a handful of wonderful scenes as Liberace’s longtime plastic surgeon. I read that Lowe endured two hours of daily makeup for the part. Great effort all around, because believe me, the way this guy looks will have you rolling. But remember: makeup is a great facilitator for making us believe, but acting is in the eyes. I could watch what Lowe does here all day.

But, of course, the real star of Behind the Candelabra is Steven Soderbergh himself.

Soderbergh and Douglas on set

Following the lengthy battle to get his masterful epic, Che, produced and distributed, Soderbergh promised that in five years time, he would conclude making feature films. Well, five years and seven films later, it appears he is doing just that. He says he’s done with the system. Done with the politics, the corporate structure – just done. And, as I consider him to be one of the finest talents to ever hold a movie camera, I take Soderbergh’s self-imposed retirement as a great loss. Film won’t be the same without him. (Hope: He recently signed on to produce and direct a new show for Cinemax.) But, if this is indeed the end, Behind the Candelabra is a perfectly appropriate film to conclude his career. With the light shinning bright on Soderbergh’s back, as he graciously takes a bow to the ecstatic crowd before him. A- 

14 comments:

  1. This was definitely a good film to end his career on. I enjoyed it.

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    1. Happy to hear that! Gonna head over and read your review real soon.

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  2. That was beautiful man... I'll be watching the film tomorrow and post my review later that day.

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    1. Thanks dude, glad you liked the review. Can't wait for yours.

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  3. I was really impressed with this. I expected it to be good, but it's even better than I thought. It's less flamboyant, in the sense of the entire film, than I thought it would be and there were definitely camera techniques that did make me think of some of Soderbergh's recent work as well. I agree that these are probably some of the best performances I've seen from the leading pair of men in here, perhaps being Douglas' best role since what he did in Wall Street (imo). Very solid way to end a feature film career, if he chooses to never return to it.

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    1. Glad you liked it, and you're right, it was less flamboyant than I initially thought. Definitely not "too gay" as major movie studios suggested.

      This may very well be Douglas' best work since Wall Street. It's a tough call. He was just so damn good.

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  4. I enjoyed reading your review more than watching the movie. I thought it will be bolder, more interesting, that the issues presented here will be explore in depth. Instead it was pretty ordinary biopic, at least for me. I loved Rob Lowe's performance, his character is worthy of his own movie.

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    1. Ah, bummer. But we like what we like, I suppose. I actually thought much of it was extremely bold, Damon's performance particularly. But I agree, Dr. Startz should get his own movie. Dude ended up killing himself and everything. Biopics love that sense of dread.

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    2. Yep, plus the fact he was an alcoholic and he had his own theories on medicine would really made an edgy/awesome movie. I wrote the review for this one, I'd love for you to read it!

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    3. I read it earlier and just commented! Lowe was the man, I need to rewatch it for him alone.

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  5. Glad to hear it's a nice bow for Soderbergh. Your review has made me more excited to see it. Can't wait!

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    1. I really loved it. Hope you enjoy it!

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  6. Just watched this, a great final effort on the part of Soderbergh and his collaborators. Although I've never cared for Michael Douglas, or anyone from that family besides Kirk honestly, what a performance, he truly becomes Liberace. Damon did a great job, shades of his performances in the Ocean's films came through for me. It's great to see Soderbergh working with such great colors too, I found Haywire and Side Effects to be too muted, somewhat evocative of GFE but I've always been partial to Soderbergh's work popping out at you like in Ocean's, The Informant! and Traffic. Sorry to ramble haha, it's just that he will be missed, what a master of the craft, truly a resume and a visual sense that all young filmmakers should aspire for.

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    1. (sigh) He really will be missed. Very sad at the thought that this is his last film. Glad you dug Douglas' work, even though you're not that big of a fan of his. And yeah, this film just looked amazing, didn't it?

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