Behind the Candelabra (2013)

Stephen Soderbergh is the ultimate one-for-me-one-for-them director, but it’s still unbelievable that the final film before his (first) announced retirement was going to be a made-for-TV biopic. Seemingly fed up with the indignity of begging for funding for proper movies and the general corralling of proven auteurs to the limbo of Prestige Television, Soderbergh announced that he was bowing out of the game entirely. That “retirement” didn’t last long. If anything, he’s more prolific than ever now, having found a way to pump out a steady stream of heady low-fi genre experiments powered by smartphone cameras & celebrity actors’ goodwill. As always with Soderbergh’s career, there’s something slyly cheeky about the suggestion that he might’ve retired on a made-for-TV biopic, though; it’s as if the choice of project and the timing of the announcement were themselves a statement on the current state of the movie industry. Of course, that doesn’t mean he phoned in his work on Behind the Candelabra; it’s just as crowd-pleasing & devilishly self-amused as any of his other, better-funded films.

It helps that Behind the Candelabra isn’t so much a birth-to-death biopic as it is a chronicle of one specific, fucked-up romance that typified Liberace’s love life. Recent glammed-up biopics of outrageously costumed musicians (think Rocketman, Stardust, and Bohemian Rhapsody) have strained themselves limp trying to emphasize the Rock Star Magic of their subjects while sticking to the exact lifeless formula that Walk Hard parodied over a decade ago. Behind the Candelabra instead takes that alluring glam persona for granted, plainly presenting Liberace’s glittery hair pieces, disco-ball pianos, and on-stage limo arrivals without any stylistic embellishment behind the camera. The most the movie goes out of its way to underline the majesty of those Vegas showroom performances is in including the wide-eyed audience who ate it up with childlike wonder. It’s a glittery presentation that still mesmerizes even in its fictionalized recreations, and by the time Liberace declares “Too much of a good thing is wonderful!” at the emotional climax it’s a tough point to argue against. Of course, those performances are only a small portion of runtime, as the title invites us to witness a much uglier performance behind those glimmering stage curtains.

Beyond the curdled vintage camp, the fabulous sequin capes, and the plastic surgery gore (!!!), the film is most worthwhile for its two central performances. Michael Douglas gets to return to the sexual menace of his erotic thriller era as an already-famous, ferociously horny Liberace in his middle age years. Meanwhile, Matt Damon goes full Dirk Diggler himbo as the pianist’s naïve teenage (ha!) boyfriend, who’s taken on more as a house pet than as an equal. Once the novelty of daily champagne bubble baths with his glamorous idol wears off, Liberace’s lover starts to question just how much personal freedom he’s given up to live a lonely life of wealth. The over-decorated mansion they share is populated only by a disapproving staff who act more as prison wardens than friendly faces. The relationship rapidly declines once Liberace pressures his young ward/fucktoy to get plastic surgery to look more like his biological son (or a Dick Tracy villain, depending on your perspective); it’s an eerie undercurrent of body horror that crescendos when Damon shouts “He took my face!” in horrified acceptance of how much of himself he’s given up to accommodate the Glam God who runs his ever-shrinking world. It’s a pain that stings even worse when he realizes that he’ll eventually age out of his usefulness to the much older man, and there’s a replacement waiting in the wings to start the cycle all over again.

For the most part, Behind the Candelabra doesn’t do much to test the boundaries of the TV Movie as an artform. Soderbergh skips the pageantry of an opening credits sequence, occasionally goes meta with trips to movie sets & the Oscars, and concludes the somewhat dour drama with a show-stopping musical number, but for the most part he’s pretty well-behaved. If Behind the Candelabra is to be contextualized as a Soderbergh Experiment the way most of his movies are, it’s merely in the fact that he made a TV Movie at all. Maybe the idea of being stuck in television productions for the rest of his career was enough to make him want to retire (or at least take a break from the press), but the results are mostly as sharp & slyly playful as most of the one-for-them pictures he makes for the big screen. The performances, the costume & set design, and the jarring mix of high/low, dour/camp sensibilities are all wonderfully realized, and I’ve seen plenty of much better funded, Oscar-winning biopics about glamorous musicians do much worse with their glut than what’s accomplished here.

-Brandon Ledet

The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999)

Brian Raftery’s film criticism book Best. Movie. Year. Ever.: How 1999 Blew Up the Big Screen has had many pop culture pundits gazing twenty years back to 1999 as a creative pinnacle of modern cinema. Frankly, I don’t fully buy the claim that the year was anything special, as many of the examples cited as phenomenal releases that year – Being John Malkovich, Magnolia, Eyes Wide Shut, Election, Audition, etc. – were not immediately hits upon release and took years to gain cultural traction as significant works. Every movie year is practically the same; most movies are bad, but a lot of them are great, and it takes time to sift though the deluge to single out the gems. I’m sure in twenty years’ time, with enough breathing room to reflect back and grow into nostalgia for the modern era, someone could compile a long enough list of standouts to contend that 2019 was the best movie year ever. Or 2017. Or 2003. Or any other year. Still, even if I don’t fully buy Raftery’s thesis the way other pop culture nerds have seemed to, the mental exercise of singling out a particular year for collective re-examination has been fun, and it’s thankfully lifted the profiles of smaller, niche films that still haven’t gotten their full due as great works. I’ve seen this play out with movies I personally love in genres that aren’t always critically respected – especially femme high school cruelty comedies like But I’m a Cheerleader!, Jawbreaker, Cruel Intentions, and Drop Dead Gorgeous. I’ve also been pushed outside my own comfort zone to check out excellent titles I’ve overlooked, like The Talented Mr. Ripley.

I was thirteen years old when The Talented Mr. Ripley was first released, and I did not understand its appeal from the scattered snippets of it I caught at the time whatsoever, other than that it was a thriller made for grown-ups. In fact, I’ve often mixed the film up with the innocuous-looking The Thomas Crown Affair remake of the same year, likely because they both involve con artists named Tom doing sexy European crimes among high-society snobs. I do get it now, though. Despite being generally suspicious of the “[Year X] was a better Movie Year than [Year Y] or [Year Z]” mode of criticism, I’m happy this celebration of 1999 cinema has boosted The Talented Mr. Ripley’s profile, as it’s the exact kind of “movies made for adults” that people bemoan have disappeared from the big screen in recent years (at least in terms of major studio Hollywood productions). Story-wise, it’s no less sleazy than lowly genre films like Single White Female or Fatal Attraction, but it’s dressed up with enough handsome costuming, cinematography, and in-their-prime movie stars to convince you of its intellectual value as a night out at the Theatre. Plus, it’s got something going for it that too few Hollywood productions can boast now, in the 90s, or otherwise: it’s gay. Not undertone/subtext/implied gay either; this is a menacing thriller about handsome young men who love each other to death in an explicitly gay context, leaving no wiggle room for any other interpretation. Of course, because it’s Hollywood, there’s unfortunately no explicit gay sex onscreen, but you must take your minor victories where you can find them. If only I had clued into the seedy, sordid, sexual menace of the film’s surface pleasures as a teen instead of passing it over as a boring drama for boring adults; it might have been a decades-long favorite instead of a late discovery.

Matt Damon stars as the titular Tom Ripley, a piano tuner turned con artist who grifts his way into the upper class of the jazzy, closeted days of the 1950s. After costuming as a Princeton alumnus at a swanky NYC cocktail party, Ripley is hired to retrieve a millionaire’s spoiled-brat son, Dickie (Jude Law), back from his permanent vacation in coastal Italy. Dickie has been living it up on his father’s dime, all the while fucking any & every willing participant who crosses his path – including a socially compatible fiancé (Gwyneth Paltrow), a village full of naïve working class women, and also possibly a string of closeted boytoys from his college days (most notably including Phillip Seymour Hoffman as a grotesque frat-boy ogre). At one point he even vows to fuck an icebox, the hedonist, simply because he loves cold beer. If there’s any major fault in The Talented Mr. Ripley, it’s that the who’s-fucking-who dynamics at play remain a little ambiguous, as there is somehow no onscreen sex in this incredibly horny movie. It’s all kept behind closed doors, mirroring the hush-hush extramarital sexuality of its temporal setting. Ripley himself, a supposedly dishonest con artist who elbows his way into a wealth class where he doesn’t “belong,” is the only character who is clear & direct about his intentions with Dickie, romantic or otherwise. He confesses, “I’ve gotten to like everything about the way you live. It’s one big love affair!” It’s difficult to give him too much credit for the virtue of that honesty, however, since the means by which he attempts to claim Dickie’s lifestyle & sexual charisma for himself quickly escalates from simple grifts to a complex web of lies – one with an exponential body count. Ripley is blatantly honest about being a liar, a forger, and an impersonator by trade, but he doesn’t quite let on how violent he’s willing to get to protect the believability of those lies once they inevitably spin out of control.

Thematically, there isn’t much going on in The Talented Mr. Ripley that you couldn’t find in plenty of other wealth-class thrillers. The way Dickie plays with other people’s lives like a spoiled brat with a shiny new toy and the incestuous in-circle politics wherein the ultra-rich all know each other (which is often the downfall of Ripley’s schemes) are common tropes in this setting. The unspoken cruising & spark of homosexual lust in a closeted past is of a rarer breed in pop culture media, but not totally unique either. If nothing else, Patricia Highsmith, who wrote this movie’s source material novel, also covered that territory in her work that eventually became Carol (and both adaptations feature Cate Blanchett!). Beneath its handsome, prestigey surface The Talented Mr. Ripley is essentially a genre film – a horny European-set crime thriller of a very particular type. Like with all great genre films, the exceptional achievements it manages to pull off are rooted in minor details & aesthetic choices, not in story or character dynamics. Seeing these particular young movie stars at their sexiest (Hoffman excluded) in gorgeous wealth-class locales is perhaps the most astonishing detail of all, as this is the kind of genre film that’s now relegated to small-budget indies & foreign pictures like Double Lover, The Duke of Burgundy, or Piercing in the 2010s. The other exciting quirks & details of the picture (like Dickie wielding “You can be quite boring” as the ultimate insult or Tom bludgeoning wealthy brats with tools of their own class – like boat ores & Grecian statues) can’t compete with that kind of bygone-era appeal. I can’t match the general enthusiasm for 1999 as the Best Movie Year Ever, but I was at the right age then (as many of the Millennial & Gen-X critics writing this stuff were) to have enough nostalgia for the era to make The Talented Mr. Ripley an incredibly sumptuous example of its genre. Well, that, and the gay stuff.

-Brandon Ledet

The Martian (2015)

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I don’t know if it’s just a mood I’m in or a reflection of the kind of studio films that get released this time of year, but The Martian is the third in-the-theater experience I’ve had in a row where I enjoyed what I was watching without ever being super impressed. Black Mass was a serviceable 70s gangster pastiche made entertaining by a long list of great performances from incredible actors putting in above average work. Sicario was a decent war (on drugs) film that survived mostly on the strength of its intense action sequences & striking cinematography. Going for the hat trick, The Martian was pretty good, but nothing out of the ordinary in terms of structure or narrative in the context of hard sci-fi cinema. In this case, what saves the movie from genre-related tedium is a depiction of believable people (read: nerds) engaging in practical problem solving in an impractical scenario: rescuing an astronaut/botanist who’s been stranded on Mars with limited resources for survival. The movie loses a good bit of steam when it gets mired in NASA politics & the logistics of making physical contact with the MIA astro-botanist, but for the most part the recognizable humanity in its extraordinary extraterrestrial situation makes for an interesting watch.

Matt Damon is asked to hold down a lot of the film’s weight as the titular astro-botanist Mark Watney, who might as well be considered a ghost as well as a Martian, as he has been assumed dead by his colleagues (with good reason). I almost hate to say it, but it’s the found footage aspects of his early post-abandonment screentime that holds most of the film’s charms. Despite facing almost certain death in The Martian‘s first act, Watney logically explains the details of exactly how/why he’s fucked as well as the practical day-to-day details other films would usually skip over, such as the bathroom situation in a Martian space lab. Speaking of the scatological, there’s a surprising amount of poop in this film. You could even say that poop saves the day, which is certainly more interesting than whatever control room shenanigans solve the conflict in Apollo 13 or other similar fare. Besides his poop-related resourcefulness, Watney has an entertaining sense of humor that distinguishes him from typical space rescue heroes, exemplified in lines like “Mars will come to fear my botany skills,” “Fuck you, Mars,” “I’m going to have to science the shit out of this”, and constant tirades against his captain’s love of disco that remind me of the iconic “No more fucking ABBA!” line in The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.

The problem with The Martian, if there is one, is that every other actor in the film is completely wasted. Heavyweights Jessica Chastain & Michael Peña are given essentially nothing to do. Kristen Wiig is mostly present to look skeptical. Jeff Daniels is a run-of-the-mill business dick. And so on. Only Donald Glover’s performance stand out among the supporting cast, but not in a good way. Glover’s king nerd is distractingly awful in his attempts to outnerd his nerdy colleagues, providing the film’s sole representation of uncrecognizable human behavior. Glover is an island of falsehood in a film that generally feels believable. If I could ask director Ridley Scott one question about The Martian it would be what the hell was he thinking allowing Glover to embarrass himself/everyone else with that performance. It’s spectacularly awful.

Speaking of Ridley Scott, The Martian often feels as if it were a direct response to the backlash against more fanciful sci-fi like Scott’s own Prometheus & Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar. If that’s the case, my lack of unbridled enthusiasm for the film may be a simple matter of taste. I loved Prometheus. Loved it. Also, Interstellar was my favorite movie last year. The practical problem solving & believably nerdy behavior of The Martian is likely to win over those two films’ naysayers, though, and believe me, they are in no short supply. A lot of people are really going to like this movie, but it lost me a little in the second half once the logical, step-by-step rescue process had larger political implications that extended beyond Watney’s immediate needs, such as growing crops & performing self-surgery. I know it makes me a cinematic philistine, but if The Martian had stuck to its found footage format or introduced some kind of The Angry Red Planet-esque space monsters to its believably human/nerdy aesthetic, I’d probably be singing its praises right now. Instead, I simply think it’s pretty good. Not Prometheus good, but pretty good.

-Brandon Ledet