Review: Behind the Candelabra (2013)

Director: Steven Soderbergh

****

If you’ve ever watched footage of a Liberace concert, you’d be astonished how anyone couldn’t guess he was gay. Yet, his affectations and the excesses of his lifestyle endeared him to a largely older audience who saw (or at least chose to see) a nice guy who hadn’t yet met the right girl. Early on in Behind The Candelabra, Bob Black (Scott Bakula) and his friend/date Scott Thorson (Matt Damon) go to see Liberace (Michael Douglas) perform in Las Vegas. As he surveys the dazzling stage, Thorson declares Liberace’s act to be ‘the gayest thing he’s ever seen’. Black nods at the greying crowd sat in front of them and notes, “They don’t have any idea that he’s gay.” For a performer to be gay in the late 1970s would have been career suicide, so Liberace cannily hid it in plain sight.

Much as Liberace covered up his homosexuality publicly with bling, Steven Soderbergh’s Behind The Candelabra does much the same thing with its structure. It’s obviously a biopic, but there’s more than enough glitter and glass to make you forget that fact. Based on Thorson’s memoirs of his six year relationship with Liberace, it sticks to some well-worn tropes but also manages to shed a different light on someone most people might have thought they had figured out. Behind that candelabrum and under the jewel-encrusted furs lay a man driven by a need to distance himself from an impoverished past. It sounds like literature, but then Jay Gatsby never had surgically-enhanced, drug-addicted male lovers.

Michael Douglas’ take on Liberace walks a fine line between the lonely and the creepy. Liberace hires Thorson, sets him up with a house and fancy cars. However, he then attempts to reconstruct Thorson’s face to make them look alike, and initiates proceedings to adopt him. Despite this plainly odd behaviour, Douglas blends enough of the showman in Liberace into his private self to create a portrait that is both selfish and seductive. Damon enters Liberace’s life with wide-eyed wonder and attempts to escape under a cloud and a Botoxed frown. Both are incredibly magnetic. Meanwhile, the glazed-over stare of Rob Lowe steals every scene he’s in as perma-high plastic surgeon Dr. Startz. He’s the standout in a supporting cast that is given relatively little to work with (Dan Akroyd as Liberace’s manager Seymour Heller suffers particularly in that regard).

Despite a theatrical release on this side of the pond, Behind The Candelabra was made for TV by HBO. This is because, as Soderbergh puts it, the story was ‘too gay’ for any big studio. Screenwriter Richard LaGravanese doesn’t shy away from what might be construed as ‘too gay’ for the mainstream. Liberace was camp as Christmas, and so is the film. That said, LaGravanese and Soderbergh do take a few liberties; Damon is much older than Thorson was when he began his relationship with Liberace. However, as frank as the film can be, we’re not dealing with the darkness of something like John Maybury’s Love Is The Devil. Truth be told, the most shocking thing is how such an extraordinary life can still fit a biopic template. There are the initial highs, the midpoint conflicts, the third act lows and attempts at redemption towards the end. Soderbergh’s films often feel like his own unique take on an established genre, but this biopic is perhaps the one film on his CV where his influence is felt the least. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing; it just means the story takes precedence over any Soderbergh subversions. It’s a made-for-TV true story, but one with terrific performances and dazzling camerawork and sets worthy of Władziu Valentino Liberace himself.

Review: Spring Breakers (2013)

Director: Harmony Korine

**

Anyone can be critical (Look who’s talking!), but satire is difficult. It is an art form in itself, requiring the artist to walk on the fence looking in on their subject without ever succumbing to it. In his work Harmony Korine attempts satire, but can fall into the trap of immersing himself in the subject to the point that satire goes out the window. That satire is then replaced by wallowing bordering on empathy; amongst Korine’s work, Gummo is a notably repugnant example of this. Spring Breakers is a similar dive into the depths of human weakness. Compared to Gummo, it’s more stylish and accessible, but when your characters flit between unlikeable and dim, what’s style worth?

Spring Breakers intends to be a pastiche of/commentary on the hedonism of that one week when college students of all shapes and sizes (usually the shape is slim-to-curvy and the size is 2 or lower) migrate southwards to party. The opening scene is a slo-mo glide over said hedonism accompanied by hip-hop beats, with booze and breasts flying everywhere. If you’re a college freshman, this is where you want to be.

Hoping to venture south are Candy (Vanessa Hudgens), Brit (Ashley Benson) and Cotty (Rachel Korine, the director’s wife), but they’re in college with no disposable income. Thus they opt to rob a diner and get away scot-free, natch. They then round up their Jesus-freak pal Faith (Selena Gomez) and make for Florida faster than a retiree on smack. The first half of the movie sees our heroines (for lack of a better word) get caught up in this drink-and-drug-fuelled mayhem, whilst occasionally giving Faith a pep talk when Jiminy Cricket tugs on her heartstrings. It’s chaotic, but they’re clearly all having fun. Drink in the atmos and the sex-drenched air, folks; as our central foursome often intone, spring break forever, bitches! However, once they’ve reached those highs, the trip back to earth ends with a loud, realism-tinged thud.

Busted by the cops at a drugged-up party, the gals are arraigned, but are bailed out by a silver-toothed, dreadlocked sleazebag named Alien. This louche lounge lizard is the warped creation of James Franco, who manages to make this drug-dealing creep seem somehow charming. It’s unlikely to get him awards attention, but he deserves it. Then again, it’s not hard to be charming next to the four female leads. Hudgens, Korine and Benson are all uncouth attitude-spouters. Gomez at least gets an identifiable character; her worried wilting wallflower spouts genuine concerns, though she does try to join in. Even if these girls aren’t likeable (There’s only so much whining one can take, after all), it’s not for lack of trying on the parts of the actresses. They certainly convey the hedonistic energy Korine wants for his film, and it should help Hudgens and Gomez break free from any tween typecasting.

Alien takes the girls under his wing with the intention of recruiting them into his ‘business’. They are enticed; Alien seems to share their predilection for money excitement and the oeuvre of Britney Spears (An armed ambush set to Spears’ ‘Everytime’ is one of the most singularly odd scenes of the year). A feud between Alien and rival drug dealer Archie (Gucci Mane) keeps the plot going in between the neon-lit chicanery on hot Florida nights. The second half of the film is primarily girls in balaclavas, guns, sex and drugs. Did Snoop Lion write this, or has the target of Korine’s parody moved to rap lyrics? Earlier in the film Alien claims “This is the American Dream, y’all!” (He says ‘y’all’ a lot.) Sadly, that one sentence is arguably as profound or political as Spring Breakers gets.

There can be no doubting Korine’s talent as a director. From Gummo to Julien Donkey-Boy to this, he leapfrogs between visual and shooting styles with wild abandon. He’s not one to draw attention to stylistic tics; there is not Korine-esque playbook for other young guns to aspire to. Korine’s primary concern is establishing a sense of place and a definite atmosphere, and with Spring Breakers he succeeds admirably. Between the shots of purple-pink sunsets and toned bodies, you can almost smell the sea air and tanning oil (Alien keeps ample supplies of various varieties, or so he says). However, as in some other entries on Korine’s CV, the medium outshines the message, if indeed there is a message at all. Spring break is vapid and empty, you say? Any entry in the Girls Gone Wild series would tell us that. Spring Breakers is ultimately another of Korine’s full-bodied  pointless immersions in sordidness. Hmm, maybe there is such a thing as ‘Korine-esque’ after all.