“Behind The Candelabra” you can find only pain…

I seem to remember certain Steven Soderbergh announcing that “Side Effects” was going to be his last directorial effort. I also seem to recall, how much I loved “Side Effects” and quietly wished he would change his mind. Well then, for once my prayers have been answered (or maybe I just missed the memo), as he apparently changed his mind and directed “Behind the Candelabra” – a ‘kinda/sorta’ biopic about Liberace – a living proof it was possible to cross-breed humans with glitter (not Gary…).

Well, Mr Soderbergh, you have broken your own word and thus you are not much of a gentleman, I must say. Nevertheless, I am certainly glad you came back to your senses and I shall try and ignore your promises that this time you’re done for good.

Clearly, Soderbergh’s attempts at parting with cinema resemble the way I usually eat Pringles. I would usually pop the lid, get a handful and savour the delicious crisps before deciding to save the rest for later. Well, maybe one more… Ok, that one is definitely going to be last… Perhaps one for the road… And minutes later I would wake up to a sudden realization I find it difficult to squeeze my big fat sausage fingers down the devilishly narrow tube in order to fish out what are now the surviving remnants of my Pringle binge. So, if this is how Soderbergh is going to play out his retirement, we can be safe, because he’ll be back in no time with yet another fantastic film.

behind-the-candelabra-poster01_3203

It turns out it has been Soderbergh’s fleeting dream to direct a film about Liberace’s life since as far as 13 years ago, when he casually pitched this idea to Michael Douglas whilst filming “Traffic”. Fast forward until now and there we are: HBO dished out the funds and Liberace – the human Christmas tree – is now gleefully parading on the big screens… in the UK. The US has seen it on HBO, which we don’t have here in the rainy British Dominion, but that’s not a problem.

The reason “Behind the Candelabra” is not your usual biopic is quite simple: the film covers only the last decade of Liberace’s (Michael Douglas) life and even that would be a bit excessive, because the major arc of this film is the violent and bumpy relationship with Liberace and his much younger lover Scott Thorson (Matt Damon), while everything else seems to be sidelined. We meet the two in 1977 when young animal trainer Scott meets Bob Black (mildly camouflaged Scott Bakula) – a producer – in a gay club and the latter introduces him to Liberace after one of his sparkling and glamorous shows. The two quickly develop chemistry and not long thereafter, Scott moves in with Lee(berace) for good. We are then allowed to dip our toes in the decadent lives of Vegas performing artists and by the end of the film we are fully submerged in the sex, drugs, abuse and everything Hollywood is notorious for. By the way, not knowing who Liberace was (apart from the general knowledge of pop-culture, for anything else I was simply too young to remember) I am puzzled at how long he has managed to keep his gay nature a secret. Probably all the credit should go to his agent, Seymour Heller (Dan Aykroyd), because compared to Liberace, even Elton John looks macho.

Anyway, the film meanders through the ups and downs of Scott’s relationship with Liberace, who with each minute of the story becomes more and more possessive and very quickly reveals his dark and toxic side that would eventually bring the nature of their relationship from lover-to-lover to overlord-to-slave. In an amazing display of superb acting I got to see that Liberace surely had more than one face – a gentle lover, a caring guardian, an obsessive tyrant, and vindictive asshole; all encased in a body of a piano virtuoso dressed in sparkles.

 

Continuing on the subject of acting in “Behind the Candelabra”, I have got to give a hand to the whole ensemble for wonderful performances, especially Michael Douglas and Matt Damon who so convincingly embodied the two protagonists in the gayest possible way – and that’s a compliment, I’ll have you know. Also Dan Aykroyd, Scott Bakula and super-tanned long-haired Rob Lowe (who portrayed Liberace’s plastic surgeon) deserve to be commended for their efforts, as they have all contributed to the powerful picture the film creates.

Other than that, I think “Behind the candelabra” gives us a very important opportunity to peek behind the curtains and see that the same people we’d normally see in full drag, make-up and all, are made of flesh and blood as well, contrary to what certain religious circles would like us to think. All the gay stuff aside (and there’s a lot of it), “Behind the Candelabra” is a very solid drama that takes on a subject of toxic relationships, sacrifices, submission and undisputed dominance. As seen through Scott’s eyes, I saw that what these people had is no different to what you’d see in far too many so-called ‘normal’ relationships. We all know at least one couple with similar issues to the ones shown in this film, where one party would assume full control over the other by slowly tightening the leash around their neck.

This is how Liberace is portrayed in this film – not as a glamorous little icon in make-up behind a piano, but as a vengeful bully who would strip his partner off of any humanity and free will and make him his little boy toy, a doll to be dressed and played with. Sadly, very little is said in terms of explaining how Liberace became a domestic monster, but it doesn’t belittle the film as a whole – it is rather a trade-off for the narrow scope of the film.

In any way, the reason I think Soderbergh has done a fantastic job in “Behind the candelabra” has to do with the fact that underneath the gay coating there’s a real tragedy there. When all is said and done, nobody cares whether two guys are kissing on the screen, because Soderbergh wants us to see past the gender, right where the general problem lies. In the end, “Behind the candelabra” is a story about a sad pathetic lonely little man who was incapable of developing a healthy relationship due to some deep-seated unresolved issues. Words and actions cannot be undone, therefore by looking at Liberace’s choices and the price he paid in the end, we should be reminded to love and respect the people we share our lives with before it’s too late. After all, you can never step in the same river twice…

“Side effects” – One part suspense, one part Jude Law and a pinch of Hitch…

It’s with a deep sense of regret I’m writing these words, because – unless he changes his mind – Steven Soderbergh is not going to direct any more movies, and if “Side effects” were supposed to be his last words, then so be it. At least he went down with his pride left intact… mostly.

It’s rare these days to enjoy a good detective story – thrilling and suspenseful. It seems that the Hitchcockian way has been completely abandoned in favor of cheap plots, dubious character development, violence, jump scares and pointless twists. That’s right. Ever since M. Night Shyamalan came along, a good story has no longer been needed to achieve a good commercial result. One needed only a revolting twist at the end. Therefore, many thrillers would become reliant on them to the point of forgetting about the structure of the plot, because it was all going to be OK when the twist is revealed. Not cool at all, I might say.

side-effects-final-poster

Therefore, I welcomed “Side effects” with arms wide open. In short, the newest and last big screen picture signed by Steve Soderbergh pays due homage to Hitchcockian traditions. We are introduced to a trio of characters: Emily Taylor (Rooney Mara, who – post Lisbeth Salander – looks shockingly attractive), who struggles with depression while waiting for her incarcerated husband Martin (Channing Tatum) to come back home and help get their lives back together, and Dr Jonathan Banks (Jude Law) – Emily’s psychiatrist. We meet Emily when she’s about to get her hubbie back from prison and just as they’re attempting to resume their married life and get back on track, Emily’s long suppressed depression finally manifests itself in a form of suicidal tendencies. Following a failed attempt at her own life she ends up in a hospital where she meets Dr Banks, who offers her counselling to treat her now rather obvious and severe depression. It quickly becomes apparent that Emily’s case is like none other as she doesn’t respond well to any medication or treatment, so – in the throes of desperation and following Emily’s suggestion – Banks prescribes her a totally new anti-depressive that’s just been released on the market. And it quickly turns out that this new drug – Ablixa – has very severe side effects.

This is the point from which the story takes flight into a downward spiral wherein Dr Banks needs to risk everything (his wife, his stepson, his practice, his reputation and his life) in order to solve the mystery of Ablixa, understand and cure Emily and save himself from becoming a victim to whomever is pulling the strings.

Now, I have to say that I thoroughly enjoyed “Side effects”. That was exactly what I needed and I think it was a good way for Soderbergh to part ways with the big screen cinema. The story was well-crafted and carefully paced, so that the detective aspect of the plot was actually very engaging. I think that the very Hitchcockian archetype of ‘the wrong man’ was perfectly exploited here and Jude Law did his job very well.

 

However, I wouldn’t be myself if I failed to point out that Jude Law’s character and the whole story as a result (he is after all the pivotal pawn in this mysterious game of chess) would have been far more engaging if it hadn’t been for Vinessa Shaw – the actress portraying Banks’ wife – Deirdre. I mean, you can’t really find a more lifeless piece of wood of an actress than that, which makes the whole movie suffer across the board whenever she is around. I think, what we were supposed to see was how the doctor’s life slowly falls apart as he becomes more and more involved with the mystery of Ablixa, but instead we witnessed a wife so appallingly annoying and whiny that I literally cheered for her leaving the screen once and for all. I secretly hoped for her being hit by a bus or something, because she was simply a spanner thrown in the gears of a perfectly running suspenseful story.

Now that I finally got that off my chest, I can only congratulate both Jude Law and Rooney Mara on their very convincing work. I am not entirely sure what to say about the very cold and calculated performance of Catherine Zeta-Jones as the distant and enigmatic Dr Siebert, and that’s because something tells me that she was just playing herself there. But why should I bother? It fitted the story perfectly, so all is fine with the world again.

“Side effects” ended up a very good thriller with a detective slant and a well-fitting ending that did not overshadow the rest of the plot with its twisty-ness held at acceptable levels. I think Soderbergh did a very fine job here (again with a helping hand from Scott Z. Burns – author of “Contagion”, who wrote the script) by presenting us with a film that touches on a very important subject in these recent times – namely our reliance on pharmaceuticals. The movie exemplifies our inner fears and phobias that we sometimes associate with modern medicine. I think everybody knows at least one person who would identify themselves with the sentiments that “Side effects” brings up. It’s almost every day I hear about how big pharmaceutical companies are plotting conspiracies to get us all killed or worse – zombiefied by their secretively addictive medicines, and how the only thing that counts for them is monetary profit, or how they have no respect for us – their customers.

I think Soderbergh’s “Side effects” touch on these problems in a very subtle way by using our own fears to fuel the story, thus making it even more compelling. And to my vivacious satisfaction, the film ends up straying away from making any political pseudo-scientific nonsense statements on the matter, which saved Soderbergh from looking like a semi-educated judgmental fundamentalist conspiracy theorist, which I hope he’s not.

In the end, I have to say that I hope Soderbergh changes his mind. Fair enough, “Side effects” is a very good way to leave the scene on a good note, but still I secretly hope he would come back and give me another ride like this one. All things considered, I think “Side effects” was a very good movie and I’m sure as hell that if The Great Alfred was still alive, he’d gladly direct it himself – and with a similar net result. Maybe he’d give Jude Law’s character to a woman, but other than that, “Side effects” by Hitchcock would look more or less the same.