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Archive for the ‘Directed by Steven Soderbrgh’ Category

Behind The Candelabra

16 Sep

Behind the Candelabra – directed by Steve Soderbergh. Backstage Drama. 117 minutes Color 2013.
★★★★
The Story: A young man is taken up by a renown entertainer and they becomes live-in lovers.
~
Liberace?

Lots of sauce but no fish.

I never cottoned to him. He appeared in our family dining room in the days of early television and I didn’t like what he was up to in any of its aspects. All I saw was greed. As a personality he was a lisping phony. His purpose was to seduce, ingratiate, reassure. His voice was a slow syrup dripping out of an ornamentalized pot. As a pianist he was a vulgar contortionist.

I never experienced him in his glory days in Vegas or on TV later. If he was around, I skirted him. I don’t like men to effeminize themselves. It means their feminine side is lost to them.

Lost in competition with their mother, maybe. A way of holding off their mother’s intrusiveness. Debbie Reynolds plays the mother here, and I didn’t recognize her. Who is that wonderful old actress they’ve got for that part? I asked myself, then read the credits.

The young man is played by Matt Damon whom it is impossible not to like, and whom we see gulled by the sequined manner of Liberace, who seduces him with a kindness so lavish it can only mean nothing. But he is taken in. I will not list the ramifications. But I will say that his playing of Scott Hanson is another notch in a belt Damon wears, notched by now it scarcely holds up his britches. Which is just fine, since he has a beautiful ass, and a willingness to use it and a unique talent to adapt to his material modestly.

Michael Douglas is another matter. He does not really go for it. He plays some of Liberace’s traits, but he does not play the bitch queen behind the emu feathers and the nastiness burning at the center of all those candles. It’s a performance you have to take on faith, which is not hard to do after a time, since it is exactly on pitch in so many ways.

The whole movie is a masterpiece of production, costuming, and makeup. These play a big part in Douglas’s arc, since he goes from middle-aged to face-lifted ageless to cadaver. It is very well written and directed. It is less a portrait of Liberace himself, about whom everything was obvious to a ten year old boy in his dining room, so much as it is about the love of the young man for him. People like Liberace don’t need to be loved. They just need to hand the word Love around like a canapé for popular consumption.

 

 

The Informant

06 Aug

The Informant –­– directed by Steven Soderbergh. Big Business Biodrama. A corporate whistle-blower works with the FBI and into a hornet’s nest of surprises. 108 minutes Color 2009.

★★★★

Am I crazy or is this character Matt Damon plays crazy? And, if crazy, how can I ask myself to invest in his story as one in which a drama of personal choice is embedded. If he’s nuts he can’t choose. Fix, lies, and audio-tape don’t work with a nut as protagonist.

Sold to us a comedy, this a Good Humor man selling us the same bill of goods as the criminals in it. The fault lies in the length of the piece, which has a wonderful screenplay, but which offers us at the last twenty minutes a string of daft surprises, as though everyone involved suffered the obsession as the main character and simply couldn’t stop. “This stuff really happened. It is so good, no one could make it up.” Yes, but you have to apply the same rigors of story-telling as if you had made it up. Your responsibility is to entertainment not to journalism.

Mark Whitacre is a fabulist from the start. That is to say he tells himself a story about himself, and then tells it to everyone else around, and he is so whitebread, everyone believes it, particularly himself. For instance, he seems to believe that once he overthrows the company-heads for price-fixing that he will be put in charge of the company himself.

Everyone rolls their eyes at this daffy dream, but no one comes outright to say he is dumb to think this and, moreover, to install it as the basis of his operations as a white-hat do-gooder. This is big-business. No one is going to put him in charge for turning them in. Doesn’t he get it?

What Matt Damon brings to the part is his willingness to wear a lot of padding over his buffed frame, to wear a mustache the shape of a fart, and to engage his head with a bald wig that renders him virtually unrecognizable. But he also plays the part with a naiveté that fuels Whitacre’s acts and keeps us as the audience on the sympathy-with-the-character side of the fence. Damon keeps us fooled. Just as Whitacre keeps fooling himself, and with the same means: innocent fairy tales.

It may sound like faint praise to call Damon the most useful actor in films today, but it is meant as real praise. For he takes on all sorts of non-leading-man, character roles, as here when, at the peak of his masculinity and looks at age 32, he embarks on this impersonation. An actor of perhaps fatal likeablity, because of Damon, we stay for the outcome of Whitacre’s life long after we have lost patience with it. Damon tends to play his characters as men of marked reserve, and, because the script doesn’t offer it, we never get inside Whitacre, although we get a lot of outside. If Whitacre is bi-polar, we never see it here, perhaps because being bi-polar is just another Whitacre fable. Here Whitacre is just a crafty fool. It would be interesting to see Damon play a character of high temperament. It would be interesting if Damon one day gave us poles.

The film is beautifully shot, directed, written, and beautifully scored by Marvin Hamlisch.

 

Side Effects

06 Mar

Side Effects ­– directed by Steven Soderbergh. Suspense. A psychiatrist prescribes a new drug to a suffering young woman, and the results are as prescribed, alas. 106 minutes Color 2013.

★★★★

Side Effects, a right properly titled piece, falls into the category of Hitchcock suspense, by which I mean that it is arranged around a falsely accused man.

In Hitchcock’s many versions of this situation, To Catch A Thief, North By Northwest, Saboteur, I Confess, The Man Who Knew Too Much, The Birds, Strangers On A Train, Rebecca, The Wrong Man, and so forth, something allows us to get behind the falsely accused character. This is not always solved by casting, but it is always enforced by Hitchcock’s treatment of the character. After all, these characters were not always played by Jimmy Stewart. Hitchcock’s usual strategy is to have the character thus falsely accused start the first act by evincing a really good sense of humor and be limber in his life. The humor may disappear with the tension of the story, but it has given us him as a human enjoying his life, and thus we don’t want him to lose it.

In the case of Side Effects, we have in Jude Law no Jimmy Stewart. He is a good actor but a cold one and seemingly empty. I don’t really care whether he lives or dies. And our chance to identify with him is crowded out by the fact that as written his character is not humorous but a workaholic. He is not enough fun for us to take to our hearts in such a tale.

Why a non-America actor is playing this part anyhow is a bafflement. His being from The British Empire adds nothing to the role. It would be a good part for Tom Hanks in his late thirties, and a perfect one for Adrian Brody and Robert Downey Junior right now – and for any number of other American actors, including black ones, presently in their thirties or early forties.

So the film fails to engage on a personal level, and we are left with a cunning story, beautifully told by the director and cinemaphotographer and editor. We go to a movie to see them, too, of course, and they do not disappoint, but they are not the one’s we need to identify with.

The story involves a troubled young woman sorely depressed upon the release from prison of her husband, well-played by Channing Tatum. Catharine Zeta-Jones is excellent as her former shrink. And Rooney Mara plays the young woman herself. She is taken to a therapist after an attempt at self-injury. The therapist is played by Jude Law.

The story held my attention from beginning to end, and I enjoyed and accepted its modulations into and out of peril. That is what suspense films are for, aren’t they? But I feared nothing for its hero, which is not what suspense films are for.

 
 
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