Friday, 14 June 2013

Behind The Candelabra (15)

There was a bit of a 'do' over at the old National Media Museum recently, in which the great and good of the local press and blogger community (and us) were invited over to see the revamped facilities, a couple of exhibitions, and see a film.

Typically, life got in the way, and the residents of Popcorn Towers had to send apologies. But never ones to hold a grudge, the good people at the Museum said not to worry, just pop over and see a film another time and we'll show you around.

Because they're nice like that.

Which makes the news that the museum may have to close because of funding problems all the more galling. Not only will Bradford - and the rest of the UK - lose a major attraction, an important cultural landmark and the home of a very successful film festival, but good people who's love of their job shines through on a daily basis will be made redundant.

Now, despite all the evidence, I remain confident... optimistic... hopeful... pretty sure that even Cameron's not a big enough douche bag to see three (York Railway Museum and Manchester's Museum Of Science And Industry are also under threat) cultural institutions go to the wall. This is the man who has championed gay marriage - he wants to be remembered for the good stuff, not for all the elitist, privileged and moneyed crap we will remember him for...

But still, if we've learnt one thing in the past few years it's that you can't trust the Tories, and if you're banking on the Lib Dems being the voice of reason you're going to be left bitter and resentful. And Labour are still waiting to formulate a policy. Not on the museums, just any policy...

So, we're left with people power. Be a love and pop over here and sign the petition those nice people at 38 Degrees have set up. At least then you'll know you did your bit, which is all we can ask. And then this weekend, pop over to the National Media Museum. It's ace. And the food in the revamped cafe is lovely. Staff are great too.

Right, lecture over, time for a film...

I'd been looking forward to Behind The Candelabra since seeing the trailer - it just looked big, flash, extravagant and hugely flamboyant. Which is what you want when you're doing the story of Liberace, one of the biggest stars in history.

The story is less about Liberace, however, and more about Scott Thorson, the young animal trainer living with foster parents who gets picked up in a bar one night and before you know it is the apple of Liberace's eye.

And it's important to remember from whose perspective the story is being told. It'll come up again later...

The first thing you have to say about Behind The Candelabra is that Michael Douglas is amazing as Liberace (I was going to say Douglas nailed Liberace, but there may be legal implications...). He's got the walk, he's got the talk, and bugger me if he hasn't only learnt how to play the piano. Clearly not a man to waste time when he should be resting up recovering from cancer.

The second thing you have to say about BTC is that Matt Damon is also amazing as Scott Thorson. A lesser actor might have been overwhelmed by the prospect of going head-to-head with Douglas in full fur coat mode, but Damon holds his own and then some.

Both are clearly pulling out all the stops, and have a very clear idea of who their character is and where he's heading.

Which is more than can be said for director Steven Soderbergh. Now, I know he's got a chequered CV (for every Erin Brockovich there's a The Girlfriend Experience). Granted he may have known what it was he was doing, but it would be nice if occasionally he let the audience in on the plan. This is one of his films where he seems happy to step back, adopting a more voyeuristic approach which unfortunately gives the film something of a detached air. That's not necessarily a negative, but it did leave me struggling to engage with the film more, which I wanted to do given how strong the two leads were.

And then there's the odd choice of shots for no reason - in particular the blurred plane bit as Scott heads home for a family funeral. Utterly pointless, serving only to make you sit up in your seat wondering if someone has just switched films on you.

And the ending still has me wondering if that was an idea that was joked about but they forgot to take it out.

And you could take a lot out of BTC. As a TV movie (as it is in the States) with ad breaks it'll be fine, but in a small cinema (the Cubby Broccoli, you should go see a film there) it's just too damn long. I'm sure Liberace would get a kick out of being described as too long, but on this occasion it's not a good thing.

The one thing Soderbergh gets spot on is the period feel of the film. Starting off in 1977 and moving through to the mid-80s, the film actually feels like it was shot at the time and has aged over the years, giving it that slightly faded, grainy quality. Which works well.

Doesn't sit so smoothly alongside the starkly-lit scenes depicting Scott's periods of cocaine abuse. Again, nothing wrong with the scenes, it just feels like it was an idea for another film, which distracts from the piece as a whole.

I also wanted more of Liberace's nasty side. He was clearly a man you didn't cross, but Douglas does so well painting him as the camp lover of life that when it's time to turn on the snarl it's not quite vicious enough.

Oh and did we need the plastic surgery shots? Really? They're not that graphic on ER...

One final negative - the film ends up having the feel of a bit of a hatchet job by Scott. It's based on his book, it's his story, and he's clearly never forgiven Liberace for what went down because the moment when Scott is asked to respect the memory of the famously vain Vegas star is there, on the screen, for all to see. And that felt wrong.

We'd already seen how cruel and manipulative 'Lee' (as his friends called him) could be, was that enough? Did we need to have Scott kicking him one more time? Maybe they were staying faithful to the book, maybe Soderbergh decided it needed adding in (Bzzzz, wrong answer), but it shifted the tone of the whole film.

All that said, it's not a bad film. The first half is big on the laughs, and Douglas and Damon are clearly having a blast acting together. And what could have been cheap, tawdry sex scenes are handled with intelligent finess (which, rather unfortunately, just serves to put the wonky moments more in the spotlight).

Rob Lowe, as plastic surgeon Dr Jack Startz, is brilliant, infusing his part with an alien quality befitting of a man who's had so much work done he probably can't remember what he used to look like. And Dan Ackroyd is in it. Looking slightly puzzled as Liberace's lawyer, but it's nice to see him on the screen again.

This film raises more questions than it answers, though, and some of the more peripheral characters are left there - half-formed, but providing no reason as to why they were in Liberace's life in the first place. When playing for laughs, they're fine, but the switch to the darker tone as the relationship starts to break down is so sharp and sudden you can almost hear wheels screeching.

Still, a film worth seeing if only for Douglas and Damon. And Lowe. And if Douglas doesn't get an Oscar for this, I'll eat Snowy's hat. (OK, she doesn't have a hat. Bandana then.)

So go see it. Ideally at the National Media Museum before some Tory halfwit does something stupid...

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