Behind the Candelabra Movie Review 0 91

Just when we think eclectic director Steven Soderbergh has made his last film before making good on his promise of retirement – this year’s Side Effects looked be his final bow at one point – he goes and releases another. This time it’s Behind the Candelabra, an entertaining, insightful and multi-faceted look at the unique life of Liberace (played by Michael Douglas), arguably the most flamboyant entertainer of all time.
There’s always a danger with biopics, especially those about famous musicians, that it focuses on their entire life and follows a set-path of ups and downs that while often pleasing for die hard fans can sometimes feel like they’re only skimming the surface and never really giving us a true sense of what makes the person at the centre of the story tick. Not so with Behind the Candelabra.
Instead of taking a lifelong sweeping approach to the story, Soderbergh and screenwriter Richard LaGravenese (Water for Elephants, The Bridges of Madison County) focuses on a very specific period of Liberace’s life in which he had a secret affair with Scott Thorson (played by Matt Damon), upon whose memoirs the film is based. This allows the film to paint an intimate portrait of a man and the sort of relationship not very often shown on the big-screen, at least not this candidly.
Amid the flamboyance and extravagance, both in the what of Liberace’s life and how it’s presented in that inimitable Soderbergh style, there’s a tender story at the heart of it. The reason that works is largely down to believable performances, with actors really going all out in potentially parodist roles to ground them in reality. Casting Douglas as the ostentatious Liberace is a stroke of genius and as him he gives one of the finest performances of the year thus far, disappearing into the role completely. At first it might seem like a surface impression, when you initially hear the voice and see the way he carries himself, but before long it settles into a rounded and utterly convincing portrayal.
While you ultimately walk away thinking of Douglas’ performance, Damon also does an excellent job in the difficult role of Scott, a man dazzled by Liberace and his way of life, unable to resist becoming a permanent part of it. There’s also great supporting turns from the likes of Scott Bakula, Dan Aykroyd as Liberace’s greedy manager and particularly Rob Lowe who is almost unrecognisable as his go-to plastic surgeon, doing a lot with a very limited role and providing for one of the film’s most entertaining scenes in which he’s asked to perform surgery on Scott.
Soderbergh pitches this biopic just right by getting under the skin of the incomparable showman, allowing us an often scandalous view behind the curtain – or behind the candelabra as the title states – without delving into clichéd biopic territory. It’s also a bit of cautionary tale about obsession and control, showing how such things can threaten to get in the way of a meaningful relationship, but it never once feels heavy-handed or preachy. This is a fun and welcoming film as much as it is an emotional one, mixing humour and drama to great effect. It’s played exceptionally well by both its lead and supporting actors who help make this a film that’s entertaining, surprising and moving in equal measure.

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I'm a freelance film reviewer and blogger with over 10 years of experience writing for various different reputable online and print publications. In addition to my running, editing and writing for Thoughts On Film, I am also the film critic for The National, the newspaper that supports an independent Scotland, covering the weekly film releases, film festivals and film-related features. I have a passion for all types of cinema, and have a particular love for foreign language film, especially South Korean and Japanese cinema. Favourite films include The Big Lebowski, Pulp Fiction and 2001: A Space Odyssey.

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Movie Review: Home Again 0 537

This review was previously published at The National.

Despite an obviously talented leading lady in Reese Witherspoon and a family pedigree behind the camera in making this sort of rom-com flutter sweetly off the screen, Home Again struggles to finds its way out of cloying cliché and narrative contrivance.

This is the directorial debut of Hallie Myers-Shyer, daughter of genre stalwart Nancy Meyers (The Holiday, What Women Want). It focuses on the life of Alice Kinney (Witherspoon), a single mum who has just turned 40 and tries her best to raise her two daughters Isabel (Lola Flanery) and Rosie (Eden Grace Redfield) in Los Angeles with her job as an interior decorator.

Freshly separated from her British music mogul husband Austen (Michael Sheen), she embarks on a drunken birthday night celebration that leads to her meeting a trio of 20-something lads – Harry (Pico Alexander), George (Jon Rudnitsky) and Teddy (Nat Wolff) – who are trying their best to break into the Hollywood movie business.

The young men improbably end up staying in Alice’s guest house while they work on finishing the script for their first film. Before long they become an integral part of her life, from Alice embarking on a romantic relationship with Harry to George helping out Isabel with her school play. To quote the title of the director’s mother’s 2009 film – it’s complicated.

Except the film mistakes the kind of enjoyably frothy complexity exemplified by the best of the genre for skin-clawing convolution that renders much of the romantic and comedically-tinged drama of Alice’s life lacking in authenticity. Not that it needs the ring of truth that comes with, say, a Ken Loach picture but you need to be able to invest and believe in these characters’ lives as presented.

The approach to gender and generational relationships is simplistic which, of course, is nothing new to a genre that, at least in its Hollywoodized state, so often throws up films meant to be taken as easy-going fluff. But it’s particularly frustrating here when it squanders the potential thrown up with the initial concept of a woman trying to find herself again once she’s out of a stale relationship by entering into one with a much younger man.

It strangely seems far more interested in the plight of the three young men working as three cogs of one creative machine – director/producer, writer and actor – to get ahead in the movie business.  But even then it smacks of implausibility, like a cheap rom-com version of the bromance found in Entourage but without any of the snarky wit or Hollywood satire. Despite decent chemistry between a likeable assembled cast, Home Again is a tough pill to swallow as it rings false through and through.

3.5 out of 10

Movie Review: Goodbye Christopher Robin 0 562

This review was previously published at The National.

The world of celebrated children’s author A. A. Milne and the creation of his beloved Winnie the Pooh stories are chronicled in this frightfully polite biopic from director Simon Curtis (My Week with Marilyn) that flirts with dipping its toes into darker waters but steadfastly clings to safe tropes and always with its top button firmly fastened.

We start off in 1941 where we find an ageing Milne (Domhnall Gleeson in questionable make-up and greyed hair) and his wife Daphne (Margot Robbie) living on their secluded East Sussex farm. They receive a telegram informing them that their son, C.R. Milne, is missing presumed dead after heading off to fight in World War Two.

We then jump back in time to Milne on the front lines of the First World War. He returns from the fighting a changed man; suffering from PTSD (popped balloons evoking sudden gunfire et al.), becoming increasingly sick of just making people laugh with his West End plays and the general hustle-bustle that comes with big city life.

He convinces his reluctant wife to move to the country for some peace and quiet and where his infant son, Christopher Robin (played by Will Tilston at the younger age, Alex Lawther as he gets older), can go on the childhood adventures he deserves with the support of loving nanny Olive (Kelly Macdonald).

Settling into the kind of serene life he craves, he is inspired to create Winnie the Pooh and the rest of his soon-to-be-beloved friends inspired by the stuffed animals with which his young son has become so enamoured. Unfortunately for Christopher – referred to by everyone as “Billy Moon” – his father uses his real name in the stories, turning him into one of the most famous boys in the nation.

Despite the obvious attraction of it exploring the world famous Pooh stories, it’s a film much more interested in the effect it has on a fractured family clinging on to peacefulness, not least the unwanted attention thrust upon a young boy who simply isn’t equipped to handle it and how his parents carry on oblivious.

If anything it takes a curiously bleak outlook on what these stories mean to the world once they’ve been put out there, conveying a somewhat confusing message for a film that ultimately wants us to celebrate these stories as immortally cherished tales; that the Winnie the Pooh embraced immediately by the public and has now stood the test of time for almost a century is in some way missing the point of what it truly means to the author and a son who, inadvertently or not, was used as a tool of innocence to sell the idea of an idyllic childhood in Milne’s Hundred Acre Wood.

It’s bolstered by almost uniformly moving performances; Gleeson plays Milne with a kind of damaged empathy that makes you feel like you get to know the author beyond the public persona. Macdonald is oftentimes heart-breaking as Christopher’s devoted caregiver and Tilston walks away with the film as the adorably sweet-natured young Christopher. It’s only with Robbie that the film makes a misstep; she’s miscast as Milne’s wife and never stepping out of the shadow of cold motherly cliché.

In spite of its darker leanings, the film remains too buttoned up to properly wrestle with those themes in any sort of lasting way, far too polite to ever dive head first into the murky waters into which the drama intermittently peers.

Wrapped in Ben Smithard’s handsomely old-fashioned cinematography and soaked in Carter Burwell’s perpetually swelling score, it’s an aesthetically and emotionally appealing but nevertheless fairly vanilla period biopic best suited to being enjoyed on a rainy Sunday afternoon with tea and biscuits.

6.5 out of 10

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